C.O.T.S.

It has long been known that just about everyone thinks that they can build a better mouse trap. Indeed, several in fact have. That is where innovation comes from. By building something better than what currently exists, a competitive advantage is created. It is usually a short-lived advantage as there are many others that are always also trying to innovate as well, who will either copy, or actually improve on the new design.

Add to this, the question of whether you should actually make your own better mouse trap, or buy someone else’s better mouse trap, and you have the makings for a reasonably spirited discussion. Remember, not everyone is in the same mouse trap business. So, do you invest in developing your own, or do you just go out and buy somebody else’s, already complete? However, when it comes to your own business systems, processes and tools, the decision should be very simple.

Unless you are in the tool and system business, never, ever, ever make your own tools and systems.

The tools and systems within an organization usually fall under the purview of the Information Technologies (IT) group (or some derivative thereof). The IT group can be staffed with some of the finest and brightest people in the organization. But everyone must remember, that unless you are in the IT services, tools and application development business, that is not the business that the organization as a whole is in. IT is then not directly associated with the products and services that the company positions as best in class and sell to its customers. It doesn’t develop them. It doesn’t sell them.

If IT based tools and systems are not the organization’s prime business, then investing in their custom development should never make sense. IT should then be treated as an administrative expense that is required to be spent in order for the organization to maximally leverage the available technology in the pursuit of its business goals, not a tools and systems development organization.

With this definition and positioning of IT in mind, I’ll now delve into the issues that almost every organization now faces when it comes to leveraging available technologies and how to be more efficient at it.

Over (a long) time I have had the opportunity to witness several different businesses and organizations try to utilize their product development capabilities to develop what has come to be known a “Multi-Tool Product”. This is a product that is supposed to do everything. It is designed to be all things to all customers. Instead of buying four different devices to serve four different purposes, you can buy one device to do all four.

And every time I have witnessed this type of product development attempt, I have witnessed what can best be described as failure, and worst described as abject failure.

There are two primary reasons for this type of Development failure:
1. The time and expense associated with this type of development is always, always much longer, much more complicated and much more expensive than ever budgeted or even imagined.
2. The functionality of the multi-tool product is never, ever good enough, nor delivers enough value to unseat the individual discrete products that it is competing against.

I like to tell the story of attending a multi-tool product development review some many years ago. The review was opened by the product manager stating that it had been eight weeks since our last formal review, and that unfortunately due to unforeseen development complexities, product availability had slipped twelve weeks in that time.

I commented that since it seemed that we were now falling behind faster than time was passing, that the only logical thing to do was cease development now so as to fall no further behind.

I was never invited back to another one of those product reviews.

The product however, was never completed nor released. It was quietly shelved many months, and millions of dollars later.

As to multi-tool product functionality. It may be time for another Gobeli Postulate on Product Development. It goes:

1. A product that is purported to be able to do everything, will do nothing very well.

Individually developed products are each optimized for value and performance. They are targeted at being the “best in class”. Multi-tool products by their very structures cannot match this. Each individual capability in a multi-tool product must carry the product cost and functionality overhead of every other capability in the multi-tool product.

This is equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife example. It may have a knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors, but none of those attributes are as good in comparison to a separate standalone knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors. And you must pay the added expense of the housing and overhead that is required to combine them all into one device. Invariably the four different best of breed items can be bought for less than the single, less functionally capable multi-tool product.

Okay, so what has all this got to do with IT?

Part of the average IT group’s responsibility is to create / select tools that will enhance the systems and automation of the business organization, their customers. It must be remembered that IT is a support group. They exist to provide functionality to the business.

This is contrary to some IT departments I have witnessed who appeared to believe the business existed in order to fund them.

Most internal (not out-sourced) IT tools groups think that they can create tools, capabilities and applications that are far better than what can be purchased in the market. They believe this due to their increased knowledge and proximity to their very business specific support needs. It is their focus to create tools and systems that deliver ever greater functionality and capability to an ever-greater number of people.

In short, they believe they can create better Multi-tools.

This is not always the case, but I think we can all probably remember instances where a perfectly functional and eminently usable tool was replaced in the name of “integration” by a tool that had greater integration with other systems, but lower functionality than the tool it replaced.

So here is where we get to the Title of this article: C.O.T.S. – Commercial Off The Shelf.

“Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, without the need to commission custom-made, … solutions … Although COTS products can be used out of the box, in practice the COTS product must be configured to achieve the needs of the business and integrated to existing organizational systems.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_off-the-shelf

Please take note of the word “configured” in the above definition. It does not say “customized”. IT provided tools and systems should be configurable to handle multiple applications across different business groups. They should not be customized into different discrete tools to address each group.

There are organizations in existence whose business model is to create tools for other companies and organizations. In order for them to grow and flourish they must create best in breed tools for their specific applications. They cannot create all the tools. Only those types of tools that they are experts in.

That means that in order to get a full suite of tools to address all the business needs of the organization that the IT group serves, they will need to deal with multiple tool supplying organizations.

IT is usually a technology oriented group. External tool providing companies will usually provide tools much faster, better, cheaper and with greater functionality than anything that an internal tools group could create. However, working and negotiating with external businesses is not very technical in nature, which is somewhat out of alignment with the desired direction of most IT Tools groups.

They want to create and develop. Not negotiate and buy.

Many companies have created their competitive advantage by developing their own “better mouse trap”. This self-reliant development mentality can easily bleed over into the IT group when it comes to the tools and systems. Senior management can also be receptive to the IT tool and system development siren song, since that is how they were able to achieve success as a business.

However, management needs to remember that regardless of what they may think, or be told by IT, their business systems and tools needs are probably not so unique as to require custom tool development, but more likely just need the proper configuration of a C.O.T.S., best in breed, already available tool or system. This solution direction will invariably lead to simpler and faster implementations, as well as a lower cost of ownership and sustainment across the commercial life time of the tool.

IT will almost always be the owner of the make / buy analysis when it comes to tools. Building your own multi-tools will almost always be a slower, more expensive and lower functionality alternative to buying C.O.T.S., regardless of what the IT tool development group may want or think. Especially if your business is not the tool and system business.

Responsibility and Execution

As we move up through management it is our expectation that our responsibilities will increase. We have demonstrated that we can not only handle the responsibilities of our current assignments, but that we can actually handle more. There is also a second axis that is applied along with the responsibility axis when it comes time for personal analysis: the execution axis. Being able to handle increased responsibility, but not being able to execute those responsibilities at an equally high level, or being able to execute at a high level, but not being able to handle the increased responsibilities, will provide you the opportunity to remain where you are and address those aspects of your performance that need work. It is only when both Responsibility and Execution are present at high levels that you get to move on.

I talked last time about Adversity and how my son has dealt with and overcame his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis a year ago. Now I’m going to look at how he has done it, and what I have learned from watching him.

Most of us get to grow into our responsibilities and learn how to properly execute on them. Admittedly, some are faster learners than others. My son didn’t get the benefit of a learning curve. He didn’t get to grow into his Diabetic responsibilities. One day he is a normal eighteen year old, finishing his last year in high school. The next he is a Type 1 Diabetic, with a daily set of responsibilities, the execution of which affect both his quality of life, as well as his life expectancy.

Talk about having to grow into your responsibilities and learning to execute fast.

Prior to his diagnosis, Diabetes was sort of an abstract concept to me. I knew about it. I even knew a few people that lived with it. When it became real in a personal way, I too had to learn about it.

In business, few of us get to start at the top, with all the responsibilities and the requirement for continuous high quality execution. I suppose there are a few, particularly in privately held organizations, but I think even these have a sort of apprenticeship that comes from being “in the family” and growing up with the transition to be expected.

For most of us we start at relatively junior levels, learn, grow and prove ourselves over time. Situations, environments and even a certain amount of luck come into play. You may be highly skilled but in a mature to stagnant organization or industry that provides a relatively limited number of advancement opportunities. On the other hand, you may be in a growing industry where the opportunities are plentiful.

Good performance and learning the desired behaviors and execution can provide the opportunity for increased responsibility. This increased responsibility is usually built on, or an expansion of the previous role’s responsibilities. This means that you at least usually have a pretty good idea of how to execute on a portion of your new responsibilities.

This is the usual progression. In a new role, build on what you know and have already learned, and leverage it for the new responsibilities and execution of them. If you show the desire, willingness and ability to do this within reasonable time frames and expectations, then future expanded responsibility roles can be available.

Jesse Owens, the four-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Germany, said:

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”

I think it is safe to say that those games were not his first competition. He trained for a long time. There is no question that he worked hard. He learned and worked his way up through many smaller, and then increasing larger competitions, before achieving his most notable success.

I don’t think there are any smaller competitions, or learning opportunities for my son, or other Diabetics for that matter. One day you are fine. The next you have Diabetes and now are responsible for potentially life altering decisions, usually multiple times a day. There is no previous assignment to lean on or utilize as a jumping off point for your new role in life. It truly is a sink or swim moment.

If you provide your body too much insulin, it can result in Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

“Low blood sugar levels can cause a variety of problems within your central nervous system. Early symptoms include weakness, lightheadedness, and dizziness. … Severe low blood sugar is sometimes called insulin shock. Untreated, it can be very dangerous, resulting in seizures, loss of consciousness, or death” https://www.healthline.com/health/low-blood-sugar-effects-on-body

If you don’t provide your body with enough insulin, it can result in Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).

“Hyperglycemia is a defining characteristic of diabetes—when the blood glucose level is too high because the body isn’t properly using or doesn’t make the hormone insulin….You get glucose from the foods you eat. Carbohydrates, such as fruit, milk, potatoes, bread, and rice, are the biggest source of glucose in a typical diet….If you have type 1 diabetes, it is important to recognize and treat hyperglycemia because if left untreated it can lead to ketoacidosis. This happens because without glucose, the body’s cells must use ketones (toxic acids) as a source of energy. Ketoacidosis develops when ketones build up in the blood. It can become serious and lead to diabetic coma or even death.”

In business if we do not live up to and execute on our responsibilities, we may end up having some of them taken away from us. If my son provided too much or too little insulin as part of his responsibilities, he could die.

Talk about a negatively reinforced incentive plan.

Normally incentive plans are structured to inspire better performance. To strive. To achieve. We focus on the upside and the opportunity.

His incentive plan has no upside. He will always have Diabetes, regardless of how well he manages it. Or at least he will have it if and until ever a cure is found. On the downside, as I just noted, failure to either execute or accept this responsibility, has a significantly more impactful, and detrimental result.

I have commented on the fact that matrix organizations can have a separation of responsibility, accountability and authority. Accountability and authority reside with the person that is answerable to the task in question. Responsibility resides with the person that must actually accomplish the task. A very simple example of this structure would be when Captain Kirk on Star Trek decides on a course for the Enterprise to take (the accountable authority), and then assigns plotting, navigation and implementation of the course to the navigator (usually Mr. Zulu – the responsible party).

I am not sure of who the appropriate parties would be in this example with Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or any of the other spin-offs. I don’t think I ever really watched them.

In dealing with his Diabetes, my son is responsible, accountable and the authority. He decides what he eats. He tests his blood glucose levels. He decides on and administers the appropriate amount of insulin.

There is no question. He has the responsibility, and must execute at a high level, for the rest of his life. He started in the role, and will remain with it.

Fortunately, he has accepted the responsibility. He doesn’t complain about others with less, or different responsibilities. He knows what he has to do, and isn’t shying away from it. It comes with his new role in life.

He is also executing, continuously at a very high level. His blood tests and doctor’s visits all indicate he has his disease well under control. He is healthy and continues to thrive, much like any other nineteen year old without diabetes. He doesn’t use it as an excuse, or ask for any special treatment (although he is entitled to under the American Disabilities Act).

He just works hard at the tasks he has in front of him and adds the responsibility and execution of his diabetic requirements to his daily agenda.

He has accepted these new responsibilities (even though he definitely did not ask for them), and he is executing on them to the best of his ability. I think his best has far exceeded our hopes and expectations. I am confident that he has learned how to cope with this and any potential future increases in responsibility, and that he will execute on them with the same focus and high levels that he has handled these.

I am immensely proud of the way he has handled it. I don’t know if I could do as well at his age, or any age for that matter.

I continue to watch and learn from him.

Adversity

There are very few among us who get to go through their professional careers without having to deal with some sort of adversity. I think this is pretty much a given. To be trite to the point that it almost pains me to type it, it is how we deal with this adversity that separates the truly top end from the rest of us. Sometimes dealing with this adversity has the added benefit of providing us with something called perspective.

This one is already becoming difficult for me. I think you will understand when I get into why in a little while.

When we think of adversity we normally can think about things such as difficult market conditions. Especially if you are associated with any sort of equipment or infrastructure sales in today’s capital constricted markets. Adversity can take the form of a difficult boss. I like to think about the pointy-haired fellow in the Dilbert comics by Scott Adams. Adversity can take the form of a difficult assignment, or the requirement to find your next assignment or even the next job. Obviously, adversity comes in many forms.

To one extent or another I think we have all been there. All of these examples (and many others) constitute difficult environments and situations to either find yourself in, or experience. They require a certain amount of fortitude and focus to get through. But that is just the point. They are situations to get through. With work, focus, effort and the proper attitude they can be traversed.

I think that deep down we all understand that, even when we find ourselves in those uncomfortable places. We should focus on the resolution, and finding our way to it. It is only when we take our eyes, and minds off of this goal that we run the risk of a longer-term failure as opposed to a shorter-term set-back. Still, I think we have all seen it happen.

I might get into mind-sets and methods of dealing with this type of adversity at another time as well.

I’m going to talk about a different type of adversity.

One year ago, today, my eighteen year old son was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes.

Now we are talking adversity.

Admittedly it is not as much as many face and endure, but it also has added a great deal of perspective for me when it comes to talking about and dealing with things in the professional world.

Most of the time I talk about issues, topics and observations in the first person, and what I have done, either correctly or incorrectly in dealing with them. However, this is one where I can’t. It didn’t happen to me. It happened to him. For whatever reason, his pancreas stopped creating insulin. Mine still does. His doesn’t.

I like to think of myself as a leader. Someone who solves problems. But this was one issue that I couldn’t find a resolution for.

“Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Usually, the body’s own immune system — which normally fights harmful bacteria and viruses — mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing (islet, or islets of Langerhans) cells in the pancreas.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-1-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20353011

Every time we eat our bodies break down the consumed food into components that are used to sustain our bodies. One of the key ones, as noted above, is sugar to produce energy. Diabetes inhibits this process.

A little more than a year ago, we noticed that our son was losing weight, was getting lethargic and was drinking a ton of water. I credit my wife with spotting the symptoms first. At this point he was almost six feet tall, and weighed close to one hundred and twenty-five pounds. We got him into the doctor, and then we got the diagnosis.

After two nights in the emergency room on an insulin drip to get his blood-sugar down to an acceptable number, he was discharged and set out to deal with the adversity of being a diabetic – for the rest of his life.

This was not a temporary set-back. This is forever, for him. I had broken bones, dealt with various sicknesses, had bad bosses, and looked for new jobs, and all other sorts of set-backs. I think as I said, deep down I knew these adversities would pass.

He was dealing with his first real adversity, and it wasn’t going to pass.

As a parent, and the nominal leader in our house (Make no mistakes here. I like to think of myself as the leader, someone who solves issues, however my wife is the “boss”. I refer to her as “The most powerful woman in the universe”. At least in my universe.) this was something that I could not fix or resolve. I had to recalibrate how I dealt with this since it was by no means going to be temporary.

But I am a reasonably experienced individual. I’ve been around. I’ve gone through a lot.

My son was just eighteen. He was finishing his senior year of high school. He was already accepted into a good university. This was supposed to be a great time in someone’s life. The rites of passage. The beginning of the transition to adulthood. The last of the truly carefree times in life.

I don’t quite know what he thought, but I thought it was unfair.

I watched for any telltale signs on how he was taking this. He had gone from being able to eat, drink and do anything, like any other teenager, to having to be totally aware of what he was eating, drinking and doing, in order to maintain a healthy blood-sugar level.

What I watched as time passed, both astounded me, and made me proud.

It astounded me in that I didn’t see any changes in my kid. I was angry at the randomness and injustice of this, but he wasn’t. He was the same laid-back and happy guy that I have always known. He was facing adversity and not letting it change who he was, and is.

I was proud in that when I asked him about it, he was philosophical about it, and it seemed to be way beyond his years to me. He said he decided he wasn’t going to change because he now had diabetes. He would still eat, drink and do what he wanted, but he would now just add monitoring his blood sugar to the process.

I was proud of him in the way he was dealing with it. He said that at first, he was angry, but then he realized that being angry wasn’t going to change his situation. It was something that happened. He realized he couldn’t change it. So, he had quickly come to terms with it. And besides, he really wasn’t the angry type.

I was still angry. I probably still am, to some extent, even a year later.

Here was an eighteen year old who had never faced any adversity to speak of, let alone adversity of this type, basically schooling me on how to handle it. Here I was, someone who had gone through the highs and lows of business, the lay-offs and the promotions, pretty much all of it, and I was learning from him a perspective that in retrospect I probably should have had, to one level or another from the beginning.

He is now nineteen years old, and has finished his first year of college. He is still a diabetic, but he has put the weight back on and is now a healthy, but slender six feet tall and one hundred and sixty pounds. It is still an adversity that he has to face that will never go away, unless a cure is one day found.

We have tried to automate and simplify his regimens with the addition of Constant Glucose Monitors (CGM) and Insulin Pumps that are attached to him so that he no longer has to prick his finger to test his blood, nor use a syringe to inject the required doses of insulin.

Adversity comes in many forms. I don’t want to try and equate the adversity that occurs in business with real adversity. I learned this through watching someone I really cared for come to grips with and deal with the adversity that he faced. I also saw that although I thought what he faced was great, there were those that faced even greater adversities, many of which might not be able to be dealt with, and in many instances despite all efforts might have to be accepted on an even more painful level.

I was going to end this with some nice quote about adversity. None of them felt right, when looking at the adversity that is faced in business when compared to my son. I think this has to do with my perspective that has been gained relative to adversity. I’ll go in a little bit different, but not entirely unrelated direction here. Charles Swindoll said:

“Life is 10% what happens, and 90% how you react to it.”

If that’s the case I think my son is going to do pretty well in business, as well as in life. And I think I have learned a lot about how to deal with adversity from him.

When Metrics Fail

It has long been known in business that you should “Inspect what you expect”. This basically means that if you want to achieve a certain goal, or engender a specific behavior, you need to establish metrics associated with that objective. Then you need to monitor and measure the progress toward that objective.

After all, it has also been known in business that “Data is your friend”. The idea of gathering unbiased information regarding the progress toward the business goals and objectives has also been acknowledged as a path to success.

So, if you have the metrics, and you have the data, everything should be great, right?

Not so fast.

In these days of quantifiable objectives and unbiased measurements, with customer service taking an ever-higher pedestal in the pantheon of business goals, why is it that service satisfaction seems to be taking a nose dive instead of soaring to new heights?

I think the answer is simple, and it directly relates to the first item above: Inspect what you expect. Unless businesses are very careful when they set their goals and objectives, they will incite an employee behavior to manage to the metrics, instead of the business objectives. To illustrate this behavior and resulting customer satisfaction failure, I will regale you with my own personal travails though the metrics mess.

Since the advent of mobile phones, I think it is safe to say that just about every business person has had a business mobile phone. Across this mobile communications time-scape I have had the bad fortune to break exactly one of my business phones, to the point of requiring a replacement phone.

Personally, I think this is a pretty good record. I know of several of my colleagues across this period that are well into double digits on the number of phones they have broken and replaced.

In any event once broken, I then started the process of trying to get a replacement phone.

As with most organizations, there was a corporate “Help” line available to call should there be a connectivity issue. I called it. They answered right away. I asked my questions regarding where to go to start the replacement phone process. They directed me to the appropriate organizational web site.

Up to this point, this has been a really good service experience.

Time passed and I then accessed the replacement program and filled out the then required information and submitted it. I got an error message. It didn’t tell me what was wrong with my phone replacement application, only that it was wrong. I searched the rest of the page and found a help number (different from the first help number) and called.

They took my information and opened a trouble ticket, and told me they would get back to me.

Fifteen minutes later I received an email providing another URL directing me to another tool for phone replacements, and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

Time passed and I then went to the new location, filled out another form and requested a replacement phone. Now I received a different error message, but again, no information on how to resolve the error. I again searched the rest of the page and found a help number (different from the first help number, and the second help number) and called.

They too took my information and opened a trouble ticket, and told me they would get back to me.

Another short time later I received another email providing the URL of the original Help line directing me to talk with them since they were actually in mid-conversion of the on-line business phone procurement tool and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

As you might guess, my opinion of the quality of the service experience was eroding quickly.

Time continued to pass and I then re-called the original Help number and informed them of the circular cycle I had just been through, and again asked for their help. They said that they would look into it and then opened yet another trouble ticket.

Again as you might guess, I soon received another email confirming that there was indeed a conversion going on within the systems and that I would have to wait until it was over to order a replacement telephone, and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

Now, I will get to the resolution of this phone replacement story in a little bit, but I am using it here to illustrate the issue that metrics can create. It was quite obvious that the metric that mattered most to the “Help” entities was how quickly they closed the trouble ticket once it was opened.

This metric mattered so much in their requirement set that it was all they focused on. I had opened multiple trouble tickets for the exact same issue, with multiple entities, some of them multiple times. They had closed every one of the tickets that I had opened quickly and efficiently.

And after all that time and effort, I still didn’t have a replacement phone. They had not solved my problem. Their metrics probably looked great. Their customer satisfaction, at least in my particular instance was close to non-existent.

Someone had obviously associated rapid closure of trouble tickets with increased customer satisfaction. In light of this correlation, they created a set of objectives and accompanying metrics around this topic. Goals were set. And associated behaviors were adjusted to this new arrangement. The tickets were indeed closed quickly.

And it was obvious that they learned that “usually” closing a trouble ticket quickly resulted in increased customer satisfaction. Closing multiple trouble tickets for the same issue quickly, but not solving the underlying issue resulted in the exact opposite. I was not anywhere close to satisfied.

By the way, I could not make this story up. This actually did happen to me some time back. It is kind of humorous in retrospect, however at the time I was not especially amused.

Getting back the resolution about how I eventually got a replacement phone, when everyone thought that they had done their job, yet there was no method for me to get a phone.

Most companies when they think they have done a good job like to issue customer surveys, just to make sure that they have done a good job. This sort of customer feedback looks good when it comes time to report on the group’s performance at the end of the year.

They sent me a customer satisfaction survey.

They asked that since all my tickets were closed so quickly if I was nearly as delighted as they thought I should be.

I told them “no”, and graded them “Zero” out of five on every metric, and submitted it. I in effect told them they stunk.

I like to think that once my survey hit their inbox with such low scores, that something akin to the “red button” was hit (along the lines of the one in the movie “Ghostbusters” – the first one, not the sequel) where the alarm rings and everyone comes running.

Within a couple of hours of sending it in, I received a call from the help group manager. He asked if he could set up a call to understand what my issues were. I agreed, but only if he brought in the other two help groups I had unsuccessfully interfaced with as well. He said he would.

Believe it or not, weeks had passed since I started the process of trying to replace my phone. What should have been a relatively simple exercise had now stretched out to the point where I was have a conference call with more than a dozen people who were trying to understand how I could be so wrong about the quality of their support services.

During the call I did agree with all of them that they had indeed closed all the trouble tickets I had opened quite promptly. I commended them for this obviously herculean effort.

I then informed them that the objective here was for me to get a new mobile phone, not to get my trouble tickets closed so quickly. I wouldn’t have minded that they were closed so quickly, if I had in fact achieved my objective, which was to get a new phone. And at this point, as of this conference call, I still didn’t have one.

There was what I could only have described as stunned silence on the call.

The actual final solution to the issue was to have the director responsible for the company phone services, who was on the call trying to understand what went wrong with the process, to personally order a phone for me. He did, and I received it two days later.

I think I should have called him directly in the first place.

Aligning goals and the accompanying metrics can be a tricky business. Leaders need to understand that just because all of the so-called metrics have been met, doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well in the business. Metrics tend to replace the actual business goals and objectives, since it is the metrics that people usually get measured against.

Understanding the metric alignment with the organizational objectives will be crucial in avoiding those instances where the metrics indicate one thing, while reality demonstrates something entirely different. It is always good to remember that having data is good, but that metrics, if not properly understood, can fail.

Globalization and Regionalization

I have had the opportunity to work for several different organizations in both global roles and regional roles. They are as diverse in their approaches to business as they are different in their drivers. As Captain Obvious might say “Well, duh”. However, I thought I might spend a little time looking at why they are so different. What factors contribute to what appears to be an ongoing, never ending conflict of business imperatives between the global business and the regional business unit.

Global businesses are driven to try and do everything only once. That means they try to create single products that can be sold and implemented in multiple regions. The same would also be true of their services. Global businesses try to create single business processes and business structures. They then try to make the regional business units fit this ideal as closely as possible.

This is all based on the global business’ desire to minimize costs and associated overheads.

If you can do things only once, you don’t have to put multiple products, or redundant business support infrastructures in place. This keeps your costs down.

It is also a very internally focused approach to doing business. As we have all seen, when your internal drivers outpace your customer focus, you are probably in for some difficult times in the very near future as your competition outplays you in the customer environment.

Regional business units are usually put in place to deal with a specific (regional) customer set. This can usually be due to language, regulatory, cultural, or any number of other factors associated with and specific to that region. By their very nature, and the limited customer set that the regional organization focuses on, they are primarily externally focused. They want products and services that have been specifically modified and adapted to their specific customers’ desires.

As we have all seen, when your customer focus overwhelms your internal cost concerns you are also probably in for some difficult times as your costs and support issues drive your profitability down.

I think herein lies the root of the “push-me, pull-you” issue between global and regional organizations. Global organizations want minimal diversification of their products, services and processes in order to keep the associated costs at a minimum, while regional organizations want multiple, specific customer and cultural variations that directly relate to their specific customers.

So, what can be done?

Sometimes one of the regions emerges as the “lead” region for the organization. Again, usually, but not always the lead region is the region where the global organization is located. This is the region where the provided product or service gets the most traction, or generates the most revenue. This “lead region” has a tendency to create a resonant “do loop”.

The lead region provides its input to the global organization as to the customer specific variations that they need or want, and the global organization responds to them first since they are generating the most return for the organization’s investment expense. Since the global organization wants to minimize the total number of variations that they must support, the other regions are usually left to try and adapt to the lead region requirements.

Customers within in the dominant region get their requests responded to first and hence maintain their lead position by then making the purchase decision, where the other regions’ and their customer specific requests are forced to wait, if they receive their requests at all. Since there is always competition in every region, those customers within the secondary regions tend to remain smaller since their product and service requests are not met as well or as quickly as those of customers in the dominant region. The secondary region customers have a tendency to utilize other suppliers if they wish to have their needs met on a level that more closely meets their needs.

This phenomenon is equally applicable to both the customer product (external and customer requirements) and business process (internal and cost directives) associated with both the regional and global organizations.

While Darwin was a champion of the survival of the fittest, that is little consolation to the secondary region within a global organization, when it is simultaneously told to grow, but cannot get the regional specific needs of their customers, or business processes quickly or adequately addressed.

As an example, there are few things more ubiquitous in the business world today than the laptop or personal computer. Everybody has one. And size matters. But not how you might at first suspect. In the business world, the smaller the laptop computer an executive has, the more important they are. The really important people do not carry a laptop at all. They have someone who carries it for them.

But I digress….

Instead of making country specific laptops and computers, vendors make a generic computer with country specific plugs and charger cords, since very few countries enjoy using the same wall outlets or power structures. They have a global product with specific regional, or country adapters. It works great.

Unless you take your laptop to another country. Then you need another adapter.

What I’m getting at here is that even something as ubiquitous as the laptop needs to be adapted to almost every region and country. And when a laptop that was designed for one region is taken into a different region, it needs another adapter.

I think that sort of implies that almost every other product, service or process will probably need the same type of adaptation treatment for each of its targeted regions.

On the other side of this argument, it can be said that not every country has a market opportunity sufficient to support its own specific product or process set. It is in these types of instances that again as Captain Obvious would again say “well, duh”. Hence, relatively similar countries get grouped into regions where similar market characteristics can be addressed.

This doesn’t mean that they are all the same. Just similar. We all know the basic beak-downs, North America, Latin / South America, Europe, etc. Within these regions we might see some further specification such as Caribbean or Southern Cone in the Latin American region, or Benelux and Scandinavia in Europe.

So why all this grouping and sub-grouping of regions and their respective organizations? Partly to reduce redundancy and overlap of cost structures, but also to more clearly enable what should be that bastion of business, the business case.

By accreting organizations upwards, (hopefully) business cases can be made for the appropriate level of diversification / specification of the products, services and processes to specifically service that region. Or at least one would hope that this is the case.

Again, the problem here will be that the business cases of the lead region / country will almost always be stronger than even those of the secondary regions. So, what can be done?

The solution will lie with the business focus.

If the business focus is on cost containment, increased profitability and process unification, the needs and desires of the regions will be deprioritized in favor of global approaches and processes in the name of cost containment and simplification. This will normally be the case with both “cash cow” and lower margin businesses. Businesses associated with older technology products as well as businesses associated with services will usually try to drive to this one size / one process fits all reduced investment and increased earnings optimal state.

In this case, the desires and needs of the lead region will probably drive the directions and processes of the entire global business.

If the business focus is on revenue growth, that means specific customer requests and requirements must be responded to in order to obtain the desired customer commitments. This means the specific needs of each region will need to be addressed within the global organization plan. Prioritizations regarding which customer demands are responded to first will still be made, but there will be an extensive set of delivery plans to make sure as many specific regional requests as possible are met within the desired time frames.

The net result of globalization versus regionalization is that neither organization will ever be entirely happy. Regional business units will never get all that they want in the way of customized products, services and processes that are adapted to their specific needs. Global businesses will never be able to get their one size fits all cost utopia. There will always be a spectrum along which these items will lie.

The more internal the focus of the topic or the business, the more globalized the approach. This seems to particularly be the direction for anything associated with internal organizational systems and processes.

Businesses associated with older technology will probably also find themselves with less R&D funding available for region specific developments, as that funding will probably be utilized on newer products.

Services businesses, which normally also operate on a lower margin business case will also probably find themselves trying to regionally find a way to adapt as closely the one size fits all approach of the global structure as possible.

It will probably be only those high growth or high margin businesses that will enjoy the opportunity to access full customer responsive regionalization. This will normally be because they are the only types of products (and services) that can afford the investments that regionalization requires.

This further supports the golden rule of business: Those regions that deliver the gold, get to make the global rules.

Meeting Invitations

Let’s get one thing straight up front: I am not proposing to be any sort of Ann Landers when it comes to any sort of business conduct advice. I call ‘em as I see ‘em, and I try to base it on my personal experiences. And I am definitely not a Miss Manners when it comes to saying or doing the proper things according to some unwritten business protocol. I like to quote the Texas Comedian Ron White when it comes to describing myself: “I have the right to remain silent. Unfortunately, I seldom have the ability to remain silent.” However, today I may tread on the toes of the Mms. Landers and Manners, when I visit today’s topic, meeting invitations.

I think by this point it should be well known that I am not a particular fan of meetings. Any meetings. I believe that the current business climate has far too many meetings. And all of these meetings are invariably too long. I think that this meeting proliferation is a byproduct of the matrix organizational structures that are now the base-line organizational structure for so many businesses. I also believe that having meetings is an activity that sometimes confused with actual business progress.

Sometimes it appears that we are spending more time in meetings (actually not meetings, but what were once described as “conference calls”) making sure that everyone is aware of and aligned with the latest information and associated directions, than actually progressing in that chosen direction. These are calls where we go over what we have already gone over, with the possible exception of those pieces of the puzzle that may have changed or been incremented in, since the last time they were reviewed, if you know what I mean.

It appears that business has created something of a “meeting culture” where every meeting can hold significant importance and therefore anyone with what could be considered having even a tangential connection to the topic at hand should attend.

This brings me to today’s soap box.

If someone is invited to a meeting, that said meeting’s ownership does not automatically become partially theirs by the simple act of agreeing to attend that meeting. Meeting attendees should not presuppose the right to then invite any others to that meeting, just because they have accepted the meeting invitation.

This brings me to Rule One of meeting behavior:

“If you are not the meeting organizer, do not invite anyone else to the meeting without the express consent of the meeting organizer.”

If you have been invited to a meeting, good for you. If you truly believe that someone else should also attend due either to their topical knowledge, being a stakeholder in the issue to be covered, or just for comedic relief, you should reach out to the meeting organizer before forwarding that meeting’s invitation. There may have been an actual, viable reason that particular person was not invited to the meeting. On the other hand, they may have been genuinely overlooked and should attend.

The point is that you will not know for sure unless you ask first. It won’t take much time, and it may avoid future issues associated with the meeting.

On the other side of this forwarded meeting topic, if you are the recipient of a forwarded meeting invitation, there are two additional rules that you may want to follow. The first is:

“Ask the original meeting organizer if it appropriate for you to attend the meeting.”

After all, you were not directly invited by the meeting organizer. It would be a courteous thing to do to assure that your invitation and attendance is appropriate or desired. The second is:

“Do not feel that by having a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting you are appropriately empowered to forward it and invite still other people to the meeting.”

This is not a “more the merrier” sort of situation. This is how what were to be short and concise meetings become bloated, run long and lose much of their desired functionality. Again, if you have received a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting, when you are checking with the meeting organizer to see if it is appropriate for you to attend the meeting, you can then bring up the topic of additional potential meeting attendees.

Perhaps the meeting culture within business has progressed to the point where what we once viewed as a yes/no decision associated with attending a potentially germane meeting as a part of our position, has evolved to a position where it is now incumbent to attend all meetings that may somehow be related to our respective roles, as being now part of the greater defined job responsibility. Where it was once that we were relieved to not be invited to any specific meeting since it was then perceived that meetings got in the way of getting your job done, it appears that many are now genuinely disappointed if they are not on the initial meeting attendee list since it is now perceived that attending meetings is now a significant part of the job.

As you may have guessed by now, I have been involved (several times actually) in situations where I have scheduled a small meeting on a concise topic, only to have the meeting attendance balloon beyond normal recognition and the topics diffuse themselves to the point where progress is almost impossible. Now, I know that I don’t call many meetings, and that the ones that I do call are purposely kept short with a limited invitee list in order to drive both proper meeting behavior, and so as not to impinge on people’s limited availability of time.

I am beginning to believe that it is for these reasons that people seem to want to invite other people to my meetings.

Is it possible that there is some sort of cache associated with attending my meetings? Does their rarity and truncated length make them that much more desirable to attend? Do people get the same sort of satisfaction from attending one of my relatively few, short meetings, that would get if they were to get a reservation or access to one of those “in” bars or restaurants that it seems only the beautiful people get to attend.

There are no paparazzi skulking around my meetings ready to take pictures of the elite few that I have been invited to attend.

I am reasonably adept at calling and setting up meetings, as I am sure so many others are. If I had wanted other, or additional attendees to the meeting, I would have invited them myself. It really isn’t that hard to do.

So why does this happen?

I wish I knew. When I am invited to someone else’s meeting, the first thing that crosses my mind is not “who else should attend this meeting?”. It is more along the lines of “is this a functional meeting that I should attend, or not”. As I sit here, I am hard pressed to think of an instance where I have forwarded someone else’s meeting invitation either with or without their pre-approval.

On the other hand, I can usually count on seeing several more attendees than the number I have actually invited, at any meeting I set up.

Perhaps the greater change in the meeting culture of business is as I mentioned before: Meetings were once viewed as a necessity that usually got in the way of doing your job. As communications capabilities have blossomed, we seem all too eager to take advantage of the advanced meeting technologies available, whether we need to or not. Now what was once a necessity that got in the way is now perceived as just a necessity.

The perception seems to now be that if you are not in a large number of meetings, you are not busy. If you are not in all the meetings that could possibly impact your function, then you are not doing your job. As our abilities to meet and share information has grown, so has our desire to be a part of the meeting and sharing, whether we need to or not.

The matrix organizational structure, and the processes that must be in place to make it function effectively does require an increased amount of communication to make sure that the business can run relatively smoothly. Functional hand-offs require coordination. Coordination reduces the possibility and effect of “surprises”. These are obviously good things.

There comes a point in time where the business process and culture has become a meeting process and culture. A calendar full of meetings will then seems to be desired and aspired to, as opposed to limiting meeting attendance in favor of other functional activities. When that happens, it can seem that every available meeting has then become “open game” for whomever wishes to attend it.

You can tell that point has passed when meeting attendees start inviting other people to your meetings as a matter of course.

Not Making Decisions

I think we have all probably had the opportunity to work either for, or with people who when presented with a decision-making opportunity would actively avoid making the requisite decision. This is an interesting phenomenon in business, and one that seems to be far more common than anyone might expect. We all have been indoctrinated (well, obviously not all, the subjects of this article seem to have avoided this indoctrination) from early ages that leaders advance in business because the make good decisions. They are right far more often than they are wrong. They seize the moment. They are proactive, not reactive. They are the masters of their own fate. Why then does it seem that there so many managers around in what should be positions of what should be leadership, if they actively avoid making a decision when the time comes to make one?

I had been contemplating this decision-avoidance management style for a while, when I saw a Facebook posting that pushed me over the edge into writing about it.

Yes, Facebook.

I mean, after all, if you see it on Facebook, it has to be true, right? Twelve thousand Russian internet trolls can’t be wrong, can they? But I digress….

The following is the post I saw (It was actually re-posted by a friend of mine. Below is the actual URL):

(https://www.facebook.com/REALfarmacyCOM/?hc_ref=ARTa6SNGQ99wX_NW_jDp2bf-MzzSqL-Lr1SXCVjnWX09uq0fonu7AiT5_p8DhES1MLM)

It was originally a much larger post, in what was obviously an effort to assure attention, not to mention veracity, by being that much larger than anything else on the screen at that time.

It is also in my opinion, patently wrong.

It has been my experience that the decision avoidance approach to management must be a viable approach to business, especially for those with what is referred to as “bad judgement” (or judgment challenged, if you prefer) based on the number of managers who seem to avoid making decisions. Many have survived and even flourished in business without being decisive. More on this in a moment.

Peter Drucker is a famous business management leader, consultant and writer in the twentieth century. He said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”     (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/451403-whenever-you-see-a-successful-business-someone-once-made-a)

On the surface, this is correct, but only as far as it goes. Making decisions is good really only when you make the right decisions. Being courageous and wrong in your decision making is probably a good way to end your employment. Drucker probably should have said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made the correct courageous decision.

The difference is small, but crucial.

Almost every business will try to tell you that they value risk takers and encourage their teams to take risks, and that risks are good, and we should all risk, and so on and so forth.

What the business is really saying is that they want you to take risks, as long as you are correct, and the risk works out. What I have observed is that while companies say that by taking risks and being wrong, there can and will be a learning experience, the usual item that is learned by the risk taker is that they shouldn’t have been wrong. This conclusion is invariably arrived at later, normally in the process of looking for their next opportunity.

This would then lead us to the slight modification of the Facebook post, so that it would read in the following way:

Be decisive.
Right or wrong,
make a good decision.
The road of life
is paved with
Flat Squirrels
Who made a
Bad Decision

This revision of course begs the question:

Who wants to be a flat squirrel?

We now understand how the decision avoidance approach to management has come about. The up-side to making multiple good business decisions is that you may get the opportunity to make more, larger and more important business decisions. The down side is that if you make one bad decision, there is the potential to become a flat squirrel that will not be given the opportunity to make any further business decisions in the future. This sort of risk-return associated with business decisions results in driving many to avoid making decisions.

So, with this in mind, how do managers who won’t make a decision appear to become leaders?

The answer is the same with all questions of this type: Very carefully.

When presented with a decision-making opportunity, instead of making a choice, most managers will opt for pseudo-decision-making activities that will give the appearance of taking action, but will not directly subject them to the decision making risk. Examples of these activities can be:

Socialization, where the decision options, criteria and possible outcomes are presented to multiple other entities. This can result in opinions and responses with suggested options, or even just general feedback that can be used to diffuse the decision source and responsibility.

Discussion, where a meeting is called where the decision options are discussed and presumably the best option will be chosen. This process can actually take multiple meetings, depending on the amount of research that may be called for. Again, the result here is the diffusion of the responsibility for the decision. It is no longer a single manager, but now a team or group decision.

Escalation, where a decision avoiding manager can escalate the decision, either directly or indirectly, to a more senior level where it can then be made. This usually happens when a decision / risk averse manager reports to a decision inclined supervisor. In this situation, this kind of decision behavior may actually be encouraged.

And delaying, where the decision is put off or postponed long enough for the required decision option to become self-evident enough that there is relatively little risk in finally selecting it.

There may be many other behaviors and responses that can be observed by decision avoiding managers, but I think these are probably the most prevalent.

So, what does this all mean? Is decision avoidance an acceptable management style?

I think the answer is yes, and no. It has proven to be a workable strategy for many either risk averse, or judgement challenged, people. The proof lies in how many of these decision avoiders exist in management. But I think it is by nature a strategy of limited potential. If the goal is a middle management low risk and lower reward position and career, then it can probably be a workable approach. However, I think regardless of your preferences or career position there will always come a time when a decision will need to be made.

It may be small, or it may be large, but there always comes a time in business that will call for an answer. Those with decision making experience (analytical skills, judgement, etc.) will have an advantage. Those that don’t, won’t.

These instances are definitive examples of what is known as “The Peter Principle”. The Peter Principle stems from:

“Observation that in an hierarchy people tend to rise to “their level of incompetence.” Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less-effective because good performance in one job does not guarantee similar performance in another. Named after the Canadian researcher Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1910-90) who popularized this observation in his 1969 book ‘The Peter Principle.’”
(http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/Peter-principle.html)

The Peter Principle would lead us to believe that eventually a decision averse manager will find themselves in a position that will require the ability to make good decisions. After all, as Peter Drucker noted, business will eventually come down to making a courageous (read: correct) decision. Unless they have been keeping this ability in reserve, or well hidden, they will have then reached their upper limit on their management mobility.

It would appear that the successful method of applying a decision avoiding management strategy is to not desire or aspire to a role of such a level of responsibility that it requires a number of high visibility decisions to be made.

I don’t know of many business managers that knowing opted for the decision avoidance approach to business. I do know of some (I think we all do) who may have drifted into this business approach. It would seem to me to be a seductive, but probably slippery slope that could lead managers in this direction. The avoidance of issues instead of the difficulty of dealing with them can be attractive. If the opportunity and capability to do this was made available, there would of course be some who would take advantage of it. Matrixed organizations and well rooted processes for dealing with all manner of issues that will ultimately require a decision of some sort to resolve, may actually begin to drive this type of behavior.

It is at times like these that I hear the lyrics to the Rush song “Free Will” off of their 1980 released “Permanent Waves” album.

Yes, I listen to and appreciate Rush. I also applaud their finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

The passage that comes to mind is:

“….You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice….”

(https://www.rush.com/songs/freewill/)

Wow, Facebook (Decisions), Peter Drucker (Decisions), Laurence Peter (The Peter Principle) and Rush (Decisions) all in one business article.

Détente in the Organization

As the matrix organizational structure continues to flourish, where organizations are structured according to business disciplines and processes rule on how these organizations interact, tension is bound to build between these organizational states. Product groups will always believe that they know how best a product should be sold. Finance teams will always think that they are the only ones who will care about the profitability of a deal. Sales will always have to deal with ever more aggressive competitors, and ever more demanding customers, as they try to translate these requirements into something the product and finance groups (and others) can act on and agree with. Trust between these groups when associated with the new business process will be key to the success of the organization going forward.

So, how do you deal with the tension between these organizational groups? History has shown that détente, as practiced between the United States and the USSR during the cold war has probably found its way into the organizational environment.

Détente (a French word meaning release from tension) is the name given to a period of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that began tentatively in 1971 …https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/detente

The relaxation of strained relations or tensions https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/d%C3%A9tente

While the Soviet Union (in that manifestation) no longer exists, it would appear that Détente still has a place in the current organizational discussions, at least when it comes to discussions associated with matrix organizations and how they interact. That being in how these organizations can decrease the tensions that invariably arise when they are working with each other, sometimes at cross purposes, in the pursuit of their business objectives.

This is just a nice way of introducing the idea of how do you get disparate organizations to work together towards the overall business goals. In the perfect world these organizations would all be altruistic, focus on the business’ greater good and trust each other as they worked together according the latest management process. Unfortunately, none of us resides in a perfect world.

To continue the political allegory a little farther (to possibly foolish extremes, but since I am already in this deep…) this can result in inter-organizational relationships (as noted above) that can be best described as resembling those of the participants of the “cold war”. That being somewhat distrusting and antagonistic, but not so openly as to flare into open warfare.

Although the start of détente has been attributed to President Nixon in the 1970’s, it arguably hit its peak in the 1980’s with president Reagan. As the two world powers searched for a way to work together toward nuclear arms reductions, Reagan is credited with the immortal phrase:

“Trust, but verify”

Suzanne Massie, a writer in Russia, met with President Ronald Reagan many times between 1984 and 1987. She taught him the Russian proverb, “Доверяй, но проверяй” {Doveryai, no proveryai} (trust, but verify) advising him that “The Russians like to talk in proverbs. It would be nice of you to know a few.” The proverb was adopted as a signature phrase by Reagan, who subsequently used it frequently when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Using proverbs that the Russians could relate to may have helped relations between the two leaders.

Reagan used the phrase to emphasize “the extensive verification procedures that would enable both sides to monitor compliance with the treaty”, at the signing of the INF Treaty, on 8 December 1987.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust,_but_verify

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) is the abbreviated name of the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermediate-Range_Nuclear_Forces_Treaty

Now, “extensive verification procedures…” are very good if you are talking about global nuclear weapons reductions. I for one, am all in favor of it in this instance. The easing of tensions and the reduction in nuclear arms are “good things” as Martha Stewart is apt to say. The significant cost of these verifications when measured against the global good generated by the agreements and conduct of the participants would seem to be a significant value.

However, when we are talking about inter-organizational tensions in business, how do you trust but verify?

Matrix organizational structures, and their accompanying processes were put in place to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Each group was to be responsible for the application of their discipline specific expertise, and then hand off the process to the next organization. An almost production line capability was envisioned where efficiency would rule. These inter-organizational tensions were never taken into account. So, what has occurred?

As I noted earlier, each business organization associated with a process has relinquished ownership and control for all associated activities outside of their specific disciplines. This means that the product group that feels that it knows best how to make sure the product is properly sold, has no real direct responsibility or authority for the sale of its product. This obviously creates tension between the sales group and the product group.

How do they create detente out of this situation?

The answer that seems to have evolved with the “trust, but verify” aspect of the relationship. Most product group organizations have responded to the trust issue by creating a product group owned organization that is responsible for “helping” or supporting the sales group in the proper sale of the product. They bring aspects of the product group to the sales team, and provide communication from the sales team to the product group. They in essence handle the process hand-off from the product team to the sales team.

The other actual function of these sub-group organizations is to trust the sales group in the sale of the product, but also to verify that they are in fact selling the product, and selling the product properly (at appropriate margins, with accurate and deliverable functionality, etc.), in the manner the product group might prefer.

The product group (in this example) is not the only discipline to have created an inter-discipline “support” team. These inter-organization hand-off groups have a tendency to spring up at almost every inter-organization interface in the matrix business process. A structure and process that was thought of and designed to increase efficiency and reduce costs has now given way to a whole new set of incremental organizational structures designed to make sure that those “other” groups are in fact doing the job that they were envisioned and supposed to do when the matrix structure was adopted.

Inter-organizational détente has been achieved, but at what cost?

Have the efficiencies that were to be gained by going to a discipline structured matrix organization with defined processes and hand-offs been lost due to the proliferation of these inter-organizational “support” groups? Has the “Trust, but Verify” doctrine created the need for every business organization to create groups that are designed to understand and interface into every other business organization, for the purpose of verifying that the other groups are in fact doing what they are responsible for doing? Doesn’t all this seem to violate the idea of efficiency and cost reduction that drove the matrix structure in the first place.

The cold war, and détente ended when one of the powers involved started to crumble under the weight of the structure that they had imposed. In the 1980’s the Soviet leadership tried to introduce reforms that would allow their system and structure to adapt to the new realities of the fast-changing world. These new structures and adaptations did not enable the soviet system to adapt, but instead ended up further precipitating its downfall.

… In November of that year (1989), the Berlin Wall–the most visible symbol of the decades-long Cold War–was finally destroyed, just over two years after Reagan had challenged the Soviet premier in a speech at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” By 1991, the Soviet Union itself had fallen apart. The Cold War was over.  https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history

It appears that sometimes the idea of an organizational structure can be much better than the reality of it application. When the concept and reality don’t quite mesh, the first impulse seems to be to try to increment and adapt the structure to get closer to what is called for. This seems to be something of a delaying tactic for what is usually the inevitable outcome.

A structure can be imposed by management with the idea of better progress and efficiency for all. As incremental structures are added to deal with the true business environment, the entire “weight” of the organizational structure begins to be strained. Many of the expected efficiencies associated with the matrix structure organization would appear to have been lost due to the growth of the many hand-off and verification groups that have sprung up to deal with both the process, and human nature.

Détente, and trust, but verify, are excellent historical applications associated with the difficult relationship between global nuclear powers. I think when you can start seeing the parallels associated with these concepts within the difficult relationships between business organizations, that there may be some inherent challenges associated with the organizational structure. After all, the result of the application of these ideas was the verifiable dissolution of one of the global participants and the changing of their organizational model completely.

The RACI Matrix

As the Project oriented view of the business world continues to flourish in the business organization, we have seen the rise in importance of something called the “RACI Matrix”. Sometimes it is pronounced “RAY-see”, and sometimes it is pronounced “RACK-ee”, depending on whether or not the hard or soft pronunciation of the letter “C” is chosen. I think that I have heard the second, hard “C” pronunciation more lately, as it appears that no one wants to be associated with anything that could potentially be considered racy in the working environment.

In the apparently now outdated but venerable “General Manager” model, there was no question of where the responsibility and accountability for getting things done resided. Leaders led their teams and the buck stopped there. They were responsible and held their teams accountable. However, as this management structure appears to continue to wither away, the matrixed and project based organization model with the RACI Matrix have proportionately grown in both their application and need, as a way to keep track of these new project oriented and structured roles and responsibilities.

As usual, first a little definition work:

RACI is an acronym that stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. A RACI chart is a matrix of all the activities or decision making authorities undertaken in an organization set against all the people or roles. (https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=91SdWu7FI8Kz5gKHsoTYDQ&q=raci+chart&oq=raci+&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l10.1435.3243.0.8245.5.5.0.0.0.0.198.609.0j4.4.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..1.4.606…0i131k1.0.-TcIxdozKYA)

The most important aspect (I believe) here is the potential organizational division of Responsibility and Accountability. When a Matrix organizational structure is employed, there is the potential for people to be held responsible for a deliverable, but they may not have anyone who directly reports to them that is assigned to the deliverable. In situations such as this, there is the need for some sort of tracking and governing document. Hence the RACI Matrix.

Now a little more definition work:

responsible
re·spon·si·ble
adjective

  • having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role.

synonyms: in charge of, in control of, at the helm of, accountable for, liable for

  • being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it.

synonyms: accountable, answerable, to blame, guilty, culpable, blameworthy, at fault, in the wrong

  • (of a job or position) involving important duties, independent decision-making, or control over others.

synonyms: important, powerful, executive
(https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=8ZudWur9G4_n_Qbj55eQBg&q=responsible&oq=responsi&gs_l=psy-ab.1.1.0l10.2660.8341.0.11364.12.10.1.0.0.0.241.1165.0j4j2.6.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..5.7.1177…0i131k1j0i10k1.0.Er0EPShawI0)

Okay….but I’m not so sure I am comfortable with having the word Accountable used in the definition of Responsible. After all, according the RACI Matrix these two items, Responsible and Accountable are supposed to be separate.

accountable
ac·count·a·ble
adjective

  • (of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.

“government must be accountable to its citizens”
synonyms: responsible, liable, answerable; to blame

  • explicable; understandable.

“the delayed introduction of characters’ names is accountable, if we consider that names have a low priority”
synonyms: explicable, explainable; understandable, comprehensible
(https://www.google.com/search?ei=_ZudWvG1MsGO5wLIm7GACA&q=accountable&oq=account&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0i67k1l4j0i131k1j0i67k1j0j0i131k1j0l2.122902.124228.0.127937.7.5.0.2.2.0.209.523.0j2j1.3.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..2.5.558…0i131i46k1j46i131k1.0.wz1wZ7U8_QE)

Alright. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the difference between Responsible and Accountable. I guess a little more research is still required.

The accountable person is the individual who is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision. This includes “yes” or “no” authority and veto power. Only one accountable person can be assigned to an action.

The responsible person is the individual(s) who actually complete the task. The responsible person is responsible for action/implementation. Responsibility can be shared. The degree of responsibility is determined by the individual with the “accountability.” (https://resources.workfront.com/project-management-blog/accountability-vs-responsibility-in-project-management)

Now I think we are getting somewhere.

The Accountable person is the one who must see to it that something gets done.
The Responsible person is the one who must actually do it.

The basic difference between responsibility and accountability is that the former is assumed whereas the latter is imposed. While responsibility is understood as an obligation to perform a particular task, accountability denotes answerability, for the completion of the task assigned by the senior. (https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-responsibility-and-accountability.html)

That seemed like an awful lot of work just to determine what the definitions are for a couple of the columns in the project work and responsibility matrix.

I don’t think I am going to bother going through the Consulted and Informed portion of the RACI Matrix. I think those terms are a little bit more self-explanatory and have less direct effect on the outcome of any discussion or project.

What I am getting at here is that as business moves to more of a matrix oriented business structure where the lines of responsibility, accountability and authority no longer remain within a single business organizational structure, a set of rules was needed to be put in place to define and govern these new cross organizational roles and relationships.

All this incremental work, definition and process was put in place in the interest of increasing speed and efficiency, reducing costs and assuring improved project implementation.

To be fair, what has really occurred is the codification of the inherent rules associated with the general management model so that they can be applied in the matrix structure.  In the GM model the leader was accountable and assigned responsibility to the various members of his team in order to get things done. It is when the solid reporting lines become dotted, that the rule book had to be created so that all can now operate appropriately.

This again assumes that an organizational discipline driven structure is more efficient than an organizational interest driven one.

When an organization is aligned along business disciplines (Project Management, Marketing, Operations, etc.) instead of aligning along business interests (specific products, specific global regions, etc.) companies are relying on the hopefully increased specific disciplinary economies of scale to outweigh the lost economies of scale associated with the specific business product or region interests.

In short many companies now believe that having a shared cadre of say, Project Managers, that every business unit within the organization can access and use, is more efficient than each business unit having their own dedicated group of Project Managers. For smaller organizations this might be the case as having a shared group would obviously reduce the opportunity for “down” time where a PM may not have a project to manage or be fully utilized.

However, for larger organizations, it would seem that having dedicated PMs, with their increased specific product, or region specific, etc. knowledge within the specific business interest might be a more efficient model, with less documentation and process overhead needed to govern the inter-group relationships. It would almost seem to be a foregone conclusion that any time you must create a process, with a rule book and a division of responsibilities matrix, just to conduct existing business within a new business structure, there might be an opportunity for confusion and a reduction in speed.

There can be real benefits derived for the organization from the matrix model. I think it requires a real understanding of what capabilities can be centralized and homogenized, and which might ought to remain within the specific business interest’s organization. I think this is a decision pendulum that will continue to swing one way and then the other as market, and management conditions continue to change.

Either way, it’s always a good idea to understand who is responsible, and who is accountable, as well as the other items in a RACI Matrix, because now a days it’s quite possible that the people who are identified with these responsibilities (and accountabilities) are no longer in the same organization.

Transformation

Oh, how I long for the days when all we had to worry about was change. We didn’t know or worry about what it was we were changing into. We just knew it was going to be new and different, and hence better than what we currently were. Somewhere along the way, the way we changed, changed on us. Soon we had a changing rate of change in the way we changed. Eventually it was all just considered small change.

Now a days, no one changes. Change is so last century. Change is so passé. Change has changed, yet again. Today, changing is no longer good enough.

Instead of changing, you must now transform.

I think this is now the appropriate time to understand the vast difference in the definitions of these business terms. To the dictionary:

change
CHānj/

Verb: change;
1. make or become different.
“a proposal to change the law”
2. take or use another instead of.
“she decided to change her name”

Noun: change;
1. the act or instance of making or becoming different.
“the change from a nomadic to an agricultural society”
2. coins as opposed to paper currency.
“a handful of loose change”

In case you were wondering, I think I was able to use every one of those change definitions in some way, in the first paragraph. On the other hand:

trans·form
tran(t)sˈfôrm/

Verb: transform;
1. make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.
“lasers have transformed cardiac surgery”

Mathematics Linguistics
Noun: transform;
1. the product of a transformation.
a rule for making a transformation.

(In case any of you are wondering about this mathematic definition for transform, in physics, the Lorentz transforms are coordinate transformations between two coordinate frames that move at constant velocity relative to each other. This is the kind of stuff you learn in any basic mechanics class in physics.)

There you have it.

A change is just a change, but a transformation is a thorough and dramatic change.

I’m glad I was able to clear that up. I like to leave my readers enriched for having read my posts, and this little nugget alone is probably worth the time spent reading, at least up to this point.

Below are a pair of Google based graphs of the use of the words “Change” and “Transform” over time. (I didn’t realize that Google had a function like this, but I think it is pretty neat, and will probably use it again in the future.) As you can see, the use and popularity of “Transform” has grown rapidly in recent times. I attribute this (although I have no way to directly measure it, but based on the nominal usage that of “transform” that I hear, I would believe it to be true) to the vast increase in the use of the word “Transform” in all written documents, articles, presentations, etc., etc., etc. associated with business in the last few years.

And as you can also see “Change” has been a generally more widely used term (with some recent growth – probably due to the number of people looking up and defining the difference between “Change” and “Transform”) until recently, where “Transform” appears to now be the more preferred descriptor (at least when it comes to business).

Change

Transform

One thing that can said about business: When it finds a new term that it likes, it will definitely over-use it.

Despite the similarity of the definitions, I do think that there may be some subtle differences in the connotations that each word evokes. Change, at least to me, speaks of moving from what you are, into some as yet undefined state. As I noted earlier, you may not know exactly what the change will entail, or what the end state of the change is, but you do know it will be different.

Transformation, again at least to me, speaks of moving to a little more defined end state. There is a target and a method to the change, or at least there should be. It implies that the target result of the thorough change is known and the while the required steps to get there may not be fully defined, at least the end state is.

Or at least it should be. The key is always going to be trying to convince those that you want to transform that you really do have an idea of what you want them to transform into, as well as plans for the steps to get there.

Knowing what you want to transform to, but not knowing how to get there, would seem to be only slightly better, if at all, than knowing and expecting to change, but not knowing what it is you will become.

Wow, I think I may have just propellered off into existentialism on that last discussion of change and transformation.

However, this discussion could help answer the question: When do you Transform, and when do you merely Change? I think the answer lies closer to the idea that you transform when you have an idea about what you want to become. You transform from an analog to a digital company. You transform to a cloud based solution.

It just doesn’t have the same ring, or gravitas to say you are changing to a digital company, or you are changing to a cloud based solution.

You change in response to a stimulus acting on a business. You transform in anticipation of the stimulus acting on the business.

I went and searched on the keys to changing. Aside from a lot of musical notation associated with when to use the tonic and how to change keys, most of the statements associated with change centered on two words: Courage and Fear. The courage to change and the conquering of the fear of change.

Perhaps that is the reason for the current popularity associated with Transform instead of change. People seem to need Courage to change, while I don’t nearly so associate Transformation as a courage requiring activity. People need to conquer their fear of change as a prerequisite to a successful change. Again, it would seem that the connotation of transformation does not invoke nearly as much fear in the participants.

It would seem that Transform is now the public relations equivalent of Change. More of a kinder, gentler version of change. It has all of the good aspects of change and not nearly so much of the bad. It would seem that changing (or transforming, if you prefer) “Change” to “Transform” is much along the same lines as when the United States Federal government changed (or transformed) the Department of War into the Department of Defense in 1949.

It functions much the same, but it just sounds better.

Again, perhaps because transformation implies a more directed process and end result, where change appears to be a little more undefined and open ended. And few in business like to be the one that is the first to venture into an as yet open ended and undefined future.