We have all heard it said that necessity is the mother of invention. It is also said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That is probably enough on the trite homilies for now. I want to look here at the latest events in the news on the macro-level and relate them to our businesses on a more individual level. It seems that one company created (invented) some industry leading applications for their product, and another company apparently copied these applications for their competing products. In the ensuing legal battle the inventors of the capabilities won a judgment against the imitators. All of the articles and documentation that I have read regarding this legal decision seems to be capable of being summed up in a single line:

The decision was good for the inventor, bad for the imitator, worse for the consumer.

The idea here is that the inventor won so they are happy (and richer due to the awards associated with the judgment), the imitator is unhappy due to the penalties they must pay (and the fact that their products may not be able to utilize the desirable applications going forward), and the consumer’s will be worse off in the market because they will have fewer choices for products with these desirable applications, and they may be faced with higher product prices.

I don’t think this is bad. I think this is commerce. I also think that the company that was imitating its competitor is now faced with the necessity of changing and creating its own new innovations and products if they wish to continue forward in their chosen markets. This isn’t bad, this is good. The process will obviously be painful and could probably have been avoided with timely business decisions when they were necessary.

In the macro-level consumers will also benefit from the reduction in imitation and the increase in new products and innovation in that by necessity if the imitating company wants to stay in the market, they will have to invent and create new applications and new ways to bring them to market. Will they be better? Hopefully, but they will certainly be different because they have to be. They can no longer comfortably continue to do things the way they have been doing them.

We are seeing here on the very high level is how an entire company is being forced out of its comfort zone, where it imitates what another company has been doing. We can telescope this type of event down to just about any level of almost any organization. What I am getting at here is that creative companies focus on and want to protect their creativity up and down their management levels, not just at the corporate level. Profitable companies focus on and protect their profitability. These ideas seem to permeate the corporate fabrics of these types of companies. You can’t copy that. You have to decide to do it yourself.

Now there are several directions that we can go here. Is there a uniformity of goals in these focused and successful organizations? I think the answer is obviously yes. Is there an alignment of incentives associated with attaining these goals? I would say that as well. Is there a necessity of performance? Yes there is. I Think this is where we, like the previously mentioned imitating company can all learn. There is a focus on and culture for doing what is necessary, when it is necessary to maintain the corporate focus and achieve the corporate goals. These decisions and actions may not be pleasant or welcome at the time, but they are recognized as a necessity of the business.

On our own business levels, we are constantly faced with competition that as a response to our capabilities must change the way they conduct their business. This is the reality of the business environment. There usually is not a legal decree involved that makes them do this. This is being done out of necessity. No one wants to be second best. (This may not be entirely true. Those that are actually third best or lower strive to be second best, but this is normally only as a step toward being the best.) If nothing changes, there will be no way to improve.

We rarely get presented with the stark necessity of change the way that the imitating company did. We always find that it is easier to imitate what we have been doing in the past than it is to change and do something else. Our creativity or profitability rarely comes to an abrupt halt. It usually declines in such a way that can be easily explained or rationalized for some period of time. Even then it can be bandaged or milked for a while longer. Eventually however, necessity will arrive and with it the requirement to act.

What we have seen here in a generalized form is that those companies that have recognized what is necessary to their ongoing success (be it innovation, profitability, service, etc.), and pursue it with an ongoing focus are usually the most successful. Their approach is not to imitate others, or to imitate their own past success, but to recognize what is necessary today and to make the appropriate business decisions and to take the appropriate actions. Those companies that do not recognize what is necessary on an ongoing basis and continue to try and live off their own past (or other company’s) successes are eventually confronted with the very abrupt, somewhat expensive and usually painful realization of the new necessities that they are facing.

It seems to me that this is an excellent case for continuing to make the daily difficult decisions on what is best for your business while the decisions are still yours to make. Don’t allow a “wrong decision” or worse, a “no decision / no action” to be made because it is easier or perceived to be more palatable at the time.  Avoiding the current necessity or delaying it will not make it any easier or less unpleasant either now or in the future. As we saw in the news, waiting to go your own way can result in facing a much more public, painful and expensive set of new business criteria than you might have ever considered.


Projecting is not what they do in the movie theater. Well, it actually is, but that is not the type of projecting I want to talk about here. What I want to discuss here is the idea of projecting yourself into the position of someone else. By putting yourself in the position of your business associate, customer or boss you can try and gain some insights into what factors are important to them, how they might respond to you, and what you can do to be prepared for those eventualities. By anticipating what the people you are doing business will want or how they will react, you can be prepared for future business actions.

It is also a key to the art of thinking ahead.

The business environment has been relatively unstable for some time now. This has driven a focus on seemingly shorter and shorter term deliverables and objectives. As the focus has become shorter the number of controllable forces that can affect the desired outcomes associated with the business has gotten smaller, and in most instances has become more internally oriented to the business. In short we have a tendency to think and act more and more on our immediate needs, drivers and goals, and less on those needs of the customers, the others we deal with and the future.

We cannot afford to be only present day demand / response driven in how we conduct business. We need to remember that each activity is a link in the business chain. It was driven by the previous business activities, but more importantly it will drive other different future business activities. When we focus on only what we want, and are concerned with only what we need and how we will react, we are looking at only one half of the business equation.

Our business activities do not occur in isolation. We are working with customers and responding to the requests and requirements of other business groups. We have to project ourselves into the other half of the business activity. By taking this next step and anticipating how those we are conducting our business with will react, we can adjust our current activity to generate the future response that we desire.

I admit that this is a pretty basic concept, but it seems to be one that we are paying less attention to as we look at today’s meeting calendar, or try to worry about this month’s or this quarter’s numbers. When the headquarters staff teams are looking for forecasts, the first inclination is to get them some numbers (whatever numbers are handy at the time) and get them off your to-do list so that you can get back to actually conducting business. The problems that occur next month or next quarter because of the hasty forecast or early customer sales recognition are to be worried about next month or next quarter. Hence we seem to be always explaining the present and not planning on the future.

When you start looking at why people are interacting or conducting business with you in the manner that they are, it should change the way you interact and respond to them. Instead of just providing a number in a forecast, add a trend and an explanation of the trend. I think that’s what I would like to see when people provide me a forecast, so wouldn’t others want the same type of information? By providing that extra anticipated piece of information you have already provided the answer to the next question.

Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” always noted that the good battles to fight were the ones you had already won, before you fought them. He also stated that by anticipating and preparing for the future conditions, the best battles were the ones that were won without ever having to fight them at all.

The same should be the case for business. By taking a minute and trying to understand why the business request or the customer interaction is in its current form, projecting yourself into the requestors or customers position and anticipating what the next or future interaction will be, you can start managing the future and not just the present. “Good” issues are those that you have ready solutions to. The best issues are those that you never had to deal with because you were able to anticipate them and avoid them all together.

The Uniform

I guess I may be somewhat “old school” when it comes to what I wear to the office. I can’t seem to get past the idea that the office is where I work and practice my profession. I still think of the office as the place of business and I feel like I perform better when I have my business uniform and game face on. I can remember back when that meant that you wore business attire to the place of business. I am in no way advocating that we all revert to wearing suits and ties as our business uniforms to the office, but I do think we need to rethink what we do wear to the office.

I think the only way to approach this topic is to be a little bit tongue in cheek, and attempt to inject a little humor into the discussion about it. I don’t want to sound or be judgmental. Different people have different tastes in attire. I am sure there must have been many good reasons for some of the outfits that are now to be seen in the office. However I do believe that as business professionals, working for the most part in office environments where customers can and do have a tendency to visit, that we should try to be attired at least as professionally as the average department store sales associate.

I understand the idea of casual attire and how being more comfortable may improve productivity and employee satisfaction, and I to some extent I agree with these concepts. I think the key attribute to remember here is that it is not just “casual attire”; it is “Business casual attire”. You are not at home, or shopping, or running errands, or even working in the yard. You are in a place of business, your business.

It is in the spirit of this approach that I will try to give a few examples and suggestions regarding some of the office attire I have been witness to, and some possible suggestions:

  • Tee shirts. I have never seen anyone working in a department store wearing a tee shirt. People who work at gas stations and McDonald restaurants do not wear tee shirts to work.  Unless you are a professional body builder, or report to Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” I can’t see that a tee shirt of any color, regardless of how clean and well ironed it is or how funny the comment stenciled across the front and/or back of it is, would be acceptable attire in the office. I take that back. I guess a tee shirt would be acceptable if they are worn underneath your professional office attire shirt. I think a pretty good rule of thumb here is that if it doesn’t have a collar, don’t wear it to the office.

  • Men’s Sandals. Let’s face a fact here guys. At the admitted risk of sounding somewhat sexist, most men do not have especially attractive feet. Particularly when they are hanging out the bottom of a long pair of pants. Now I have seen some men who have either been told, or perhaps have the self awareness regarding the attractiveness of their feet that have covered them up with socks when they decide to wear their sandals to the office. Really? Long pants, socks and sandals? I understand that sandals are comfortable. I have a pair or two myself. If comfort is the key, you need to go out and buy a comfortable pair of adult shoes. A reasonable rule here is that open toed foot attire is generally neither a professional nor a good idea for men in the office.

  • Baseball Caps. Yes, baseball caps. Unless you are a professional baseball player, or Larry the Cable Guy, you should probably not wear a baseball cap to your office. With today’s new hair styles it doesn’t seem to really matter if you are having a bad hair day or not, so there is no reason to cover it up with a baseball cap.

  • Sneakers, running shoes, or athletic shoes. I know it must sound as though I have some sort of a foot fetish. I don’t. I believe this type of foot attire is only acceptable if you work in an environment where it can reasonably be expected that either a basketball game or a marathon race will spontaneously erupt, and as part of your job description you will be required to either play point guard on the basketball team, or be the rabbit that sets the pace for the first several laps of the race. Otherwise plan on wearing a casual dress shoes.

  • Blue jeans. Yes, they are comfortable. Yes, they are ubiquitous. No, I personally do not think they belong in the office. When you go to the dentist or the doctor’s office are they wearing blue jeans? How would you feel if you walked into the doctor or the dentist’s office and they were wearing blue jeans? When was the last time you saw a sales associate at a department store wearing blue jeans? There are some environments where jeans may be an acceptable type of attire (lab environments, maintenance, etc.) but the office environment is probably not one of them.

I don’t really know what the guidelines for office attire are, or what they should be. I have only rendered my opinion on some the items that I have seen in the past on a relatively regular basis. The idea here is that as I have said, the office is a place of business. Some behaviors and some attire that may be acceptable in other places may not be acceptable in the office. People can truly wear whatever they like to the office as long as it is within the rules as spelled out by the appropriate organization. I try to be a professional when I am in the office. I can’t help but feel that dressing a little more professionally helps to put me in that mind set as well. The only comment I can really make along this line is that when you are choosing your uniform of the day for the office, ask yourself if you have ever seen your reporting superior wearing similar types of attire. If the answer is “no” then you might want to think twice before putting it on and going into the office.

Difficult Conversations

When was the last time you held a difficult conversation? I am not talking about having an argument. Anybody can have an argument. Arguments are usually unproductive for the participants and rarely provide a beneficial value to the business. I am referring to having a civilized conversation with someone about a potentially unpleasant or difficult business topic. In the business world difficult or unpleasant conversations normally revolve around what you feel may be improper conduct, low performance or lack of goal attainment. These conversations can be positioned in a number of ways depending on who you are talking to and what the objective of the conversation is. Whether you are trying to provide guidelines as to what future performance or behaviors are acceptable and expected, informing someone that past performance or behaviors were not acceptable, or explaining to an executive that micro-management is unproductive and that they need to delegate more responsibility, a business leader must be prepared to deal with difficult performance or behavior issues, as well as being prepared to recognize and encourage the desirable ones.

I think that we would all prefer to avoid conflict or unpleasant situations. Unfortunately as business leaders we are responsible to make decisions that may be unpopular, enforce standards of performance and behavior, as well as make sure the consequences associated with behaviors and performance are enacted. If leaders fail to address issues directly with individuals and teams, or fail render appropriate consequences, they run the risk of allowing the entire business to become demoralized.

I would like to believe that positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors and outcomes would be sufficient incentive for all individuals and teams. I have however found that this is not necessarily the case in all situations. If there are positive reinforcements for good performance, there must also be difficult conversations associated with those factors and areas that need improvement. I have found a key here is to make sure to separate the behavior / conduct / performance in question from the person you are having the difficult conversation with. A negative reaction or review cannot be seen as a personal attack. Staying simple, direct and factual have always worked best for me in these situations.

On the other side of the coin I have also been associated with managers who not only did not shy away from difficult conversations, but could best be described as too aggressive and confrontational when it came to addressing a team member’s performance improvement requirements. If the team begins to feel that the negative feedback and consequences outweigh the positive reinforcements, they can again as a group begin to feel disenfranchised in the organization and their performance will also suffer.

For me difficult conversations seem to come in variations of two general approaches. The first approach is to focus on what sort of future performance state is acceptable. In this way the focus is on what is desirable going forward, whether it is a behavior, performance or goal. The person you are talking with may not have achieved, behaved or performed in the past, but you are making sure they know what is expected in the future. This approach seems to work best when there are definable or measurable standards that people must be held accountable to.

The second approach to difficult conversations is a little more tenuous, at least for me. This is the approach where you are focusing on what is unacceptable about the past state. I have had to use this approach when team members or colleagues have conducted themselves in manners that while not adversely affecting their business performance, could be seen as detrimental to the team. The idea here is that it is impossible to tell everyone what they must do for the team to operate at its highest levels. Sometimes you need to make sure that it is clear what they must not do. Instead of saying what is desirable in the future, you are saying what is undesirable about the past. 

Either way, it is important for the leader to quickly, clearly and professionally address the negative issues associated with the individual and team performance. I think we would all much prefer to only have to recognize good performance and to provide positive reinforcement. However, if we don’t have the difficult conversation when it is called for, we run the eventual risk of fewer and fewer opportunities to recognize good performance.