Automatic Default Setting

I have a friend Leif, who lives up in Wisconsin. He used to live in Texas and moved BACK to Wisconsin of his own volition. This fact in itself should provide some insight into the type of individual that Leif is. Be that as it may, I still consider him a friend. We stay in touch via electronic means. I keep track of him in some small way because Leif loves to post on Facebook. He posts a lot more than I do. Sometimes he posts things that I wish I had posted. I don’t post much on Facebook. Many times he posts things that I am proud to say that I had no input into, no contact with and would not have posted even if I did. It could be said that Leif swings at just about every electronic pitch. When you do that there are going to be a lot of whiffs and foul balls, but on occasion you will make good contact and knock one a long ways. Leif recently posted a Facebook link to a Youtube video about a speech given by David Foster Wallace at the 2005 commencement at Kenyon College called “This is Water”.

This was one of Leif’s home run posts.

I have a tendency to look at the interconnected nature of things and how information that may be applicable in one realm is actually also applicable in another. This may provide some insight into what type of an individual I am. The realm that I usually end up trying to apply this interconnected information to is the business environment. Sometimes I see the hyperbole and Monty Python-esque absurdity of what is going on. I know I am dating myself here, but sometimes there just is no other theater of the absurd that can fit the reality of business like the Pythons with their “Minister of Funny Walks” and “Lumberjack Song”. Sometimes I get what I hope is a real flash of insight into something that may be useful in actually continuing to navigate the difficult business waters. I am hoping that David Foster Wallace, via Leif might have provided me a flash, along with a little absurdity, that I will try to apply to our business world and pass along here.

Mr. Waters in his speech discussed the fact many times in life we will find ourselves on what he called our Automatic Default Setting. He described the automatic default setting as the way we deal with things when we are not consciously thinking. This idea struck a chord with me. The idea that we have an automatic setting in how we deal with the world around us seemed to me to be pretty applicable to how we deal with the business environment as well.

The idea of automatic default setting was used primarily in addressing the mundane such as driving in traffic or standing in line. The net of this approach was that it leads to viewing people in these instances as obstacles slowing you down and being in the way. Is this beginning to sound familiar to anyone’s work environment?

I am going to pause here a moment and note that in business I have found that occasionally…okay, more than occasionally, in fact pretty often this automatic default setting is so accurate that it is painful. What I found particularly interesting and applicable is that Mr. Wallace did not dispute this in life either. What he looked at and brought forward was that people have the ability to be aware of their default settings and instead of perceiving the world through them; they can choose to instead to be aware of them. This will affect how you think. This is always a good thing.

Now this sort of discussion of self awareness is usually reserved for some sort of existential high-brow literary artifice. That is not going to happen here, mainly because I don’t think I know how to act high-brow. People who know me can probably corroborate this statement. One of the points that Mr. Wallace did make was that being aware of your automatic default setting and choosing not to operate at that setting takes effort. It takes a will and a willingness to not to just go along without thinking. You have to be able to consider possibilities that are outside the standard way that you think. However, if someone asks or tells you to think outside the box, you can probably be reasonably assured that they are operating on their standard default setting.

It is my experience that there may be some people who may not be able to operate on any setting other than automatic default even if they wanted to. I am not trying to invalidate Mr. Wallace’s supposition here. I’m just saying.

With this rejection of the automatic default setting, we may need to revisit our beliefs that the Sales teams are a bunch of over promising, money driven, lying swine. We need to realize that they may not in fact be lying all the time but probably only when they are talking. We need to reject the setting that all finance and accounting team members are slow moving, detail oriented, conservative, money driven sloths. We need to understand that we only see them in the business environment and that at outside of the office they may not be entirely conservative, particularly when it comes to decisions regarding their footwear and whether or not they get the oil in their cars changed before, after or exactly on the recommended mileage.

All joking aside, I found David Foster Wallace’s approach to being more aware of the everyday items and thoughts that we take for granted, that we utilize our automatic default settings on, to be scarily accurate. It takes effort and will to think of each event, person and process as a potentially new experience that should not be treated to the same default setting response. If we ever wonder why we, our business or our company seem to continually be asked to solve the same problem multiple times, it could be because everyone has their default settings on and we provide the same responses to what we perceive as the same stimuli.

Changing gears just a little here, we come to Albert Einstein who said something along these same lines. Einstein said:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Is it possible that we seem to do the same things over and over again because we have our default settings on and don’t bother to take the effort to consider the possibilities associated with something new? We have already seen it, or something like it and it is just easier to revert to our default setting, respond and move on. I don’t know if Mr. Einstein and Mr. Wallace would appreciate me correlating their works, but like I said, I do have a tendency to look at things inter-connectedly.

I have already taken the opportunity to put Mr. Wallace’s ideas into practice. We have all had business issues that seemed to have a circular nature to them. Group A was dependent on Group B for an answer. Group B was waiting on Group C for input. Group C could not get the information it needed from Group A. I am sure we have all been in more than our share of these types of solution merry-go-rounds. They seem to becoming more the norm than the exception. They can go on for weeks. By taking the step back and not accepting that these issues were the norm and by relooking at the “standard responses” we were able to break the cycle and start making progress toward a solution. We took the process off of autopilot, required something other than the default setting response, and started to make progress.

I don’t know if Leif will ever be able to provide another post that will resonate with me the way “This is Water” did. After all, the previous several hundred did not. Just since I started work on this topic he has already posted two more items regarding opportunities and drinking. It is interesting in that both of these later posts seem to have several “Likes” whereas “This is Water” did not get that sort of appreciation. Maybe some of these people need to change their automatic default settings too.

Thanks Leif. I thought “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace was excellent.

Doing the Job

My approach to business has always been that you take the business responsibilities that you are given and that you do the best by them and for them that you can. I can say this unabashedly and with some amount of pride. Sometimes you are given big jobs, and sometimes they can seem relatively small. There have been times when I may have questioned the relative value of some of the aspects of the assignment. This feeling usually stems from the apparent increasing focus and effort associated with the process and format of the reporting of the job verses the effort and focus on what is actually getting done. Regardless of what you are asked to do (within the boundaries of legality and conscience of course) and what you may think the relative value is, in business it has been my understanding that you have the responsibility to complete the assignment you are given.

My question now is: When did this change, and why didn’t somebody tell me?

I try not to be a complainer even though I seem to be sounding (at least to myself) more and more Andy Rooney-esque on some of my topics and in some of my approaches to business. I hope Andy Rooney will forgive me for the comparison. I don’t purport to have either the quality or talent that I feel he had. What I hope I do see, and hope perhaps others may see as well is some sort of fleeting similarity of the common sense approach to the issues and topics that I choose to write about.

What I am discussing here is the idea of why it sometimes seems that can’t we get people to do their jobs, regardless of what their jobs are, in business. Having a job, any job, is not a right or an entitlement. It is a privilege. With the possible exception of our elected officials and representatives (who don’t appear to be answerable for their performance to anyone other than themselves – great gig if you can get it), we must all work at our jobs, and if we hope to continue to work and even advance we must meet certain levels of expected performance. This is a fact of life. We all report to people who have the responsibility to sit in judgment of our performance. Individual contributors report to managers. Presidents report to chief executives. Chief executives report to boards of directors. And ultimately boards of directors are accountable to the stock holders. There is a responsibility chain.

I am not going to delve into any esoteric examination of generational work ethics (Baby Boomers verses Generation X verses Generation Y). I am not going to address cultural differences associated with the relatively capitalistic verses the relatively socialistic environments and economies that businesses must deal with. These may be contributing factors, but I think the underlying issue is that we have allowed our business compass to drift from leadership to management, to the point where we now accept management as a substitute for leadership. We seem to be more willing to manage problems instead of doing what may be necessary, or even called for to deal with them and to solve them.

I have been on conference calls (I have probably been on too many conference calls) in the past where if the topic of the call is boiled down to the basics, the net purpose of the call is to figure out how to get certain people or teams to do their assigned tasks or jobs. These types of conference calls seem to have been occurring with greater and greater frequency over time. Perhaps there is a relationship between the seeming increase in conference calls and the apparent decrease in task completion responsibility. I’ll have to think more about that one, but I digress. My point here is that we actually had multiple people on a call trying to figure out how to get specific groups to perform the tasks that they had been assigned.

Now those of you that know me understand that I am a relatively quiet and un-opinionated person. The rest of you must now understand that if any of the people that really knew me actually read that last statement while drinking anything they would now be cleaning up the results of the coughing fit that the statement induced.

Getting back to the previously mentioned conference call, I couldn’t help myself when it came to the discussion on how to get people to do their assignments. I piped up:

“Did you ask the specific individuals to perform the task?” I asked the group.

“Yes” they said. Okay, this is good.

“Did you tell them what they needed to do, and when it needed to be done?”

“Yes” they said. This is also good.

“Okay, they know what they needed to do, and when it needed to be done and they didn’t do it. How do you feel about that?”

“We are angry and frustrated.” They said.

“So what are you going to do about it?”
“We are going to escalate and have the Sr. Vice President send them an email telling them they need to do their job.”

Now wait a minute. People are acknowledging not doing their job so the solution is to escalate and see if someone else can get them to do their job? When did this shift in management responsibility happen? Leaders don’t escalate or ask others to handle their problems. Leaders take care of their own problems. I was in this deep in the conference call, so I carried on:

“Did anybody tell these people that if they did not perform the requirements of their job that they would be terminated?” I asked. There was a prolonged silence on the call.
“Well, we don’t want to threaten them. We would prefer to take this approach first.”

Wow. In a business world where the speed of change approaches that which would have been considered the stuff of science fiction in the past and the ferocity of competition rivals the descriptions of the battles contained in those science fiction novels, we are at a point where managers must ask their senior managers to take this sort of time and effort to get their people to do what they are supposed to do.

There will always be those people who would prefer to do less instead of more. Fortunately there are also those who would lead and actually do more than is expected of them. The issue here lies in what sort of message is sent to the future leaders when they see that there is no disadvantage to those who prefer to do less. I have discussed incentives in the past and have mentioned that there must always be a metaphorical “carrot and stick” associated with upside and downside performance.

I am a big proponent of carrot or positive incentives to influence people’s actions and activities. On the other hand leaders cannot shirk their responsibilities when it comes to unacceptable performance. Assignments given are meant to be fulfilled. The time to question the assignment is when it is assigned. Once that period has passed it becomes a question of execution. Failure to perform must be reviewed and understood. Once it is understood, it must be dealt with. These are the “stick” incentives. As much as I may dislike them, I understand that without them you risk the building of a business culture of entitlement and management, instead of a culture of leadership.

Learn Young

I recently read an article by Julien Smith titled “20 Things I Should Have Known at 20”. I thought it was excellent. Where was he when I was twenty? Looking back at who I was when I was twenty (in my case, at my age I require binoculars, very high power binoculars to look back at myself at the age of twenty) his list of twenty items to know reads like a litany of youthful opportunities. Some I was fortunate enough to have taken advantage of on my own. Some others, not so much.

As I read through Julien Smith’s tips I was not only entertained by how well they applied to the world in general, I was also surprised at how well they applied to the business world specifically. This got me to thinking, which as we all know is a dangerous state for me to be in. I’ll provide a few of Julien’s “tips” for twenty year olds and then follow them up with a few of my corollaries for would be leaders in the business world. Hopefully I won’t be reaching too far and Mr. Smith won’t object too much to the way I have chosen to apply his work.

1.    “The world is trying to keep you stupid. From bank fees to interest rates to miracle diets, people who are not educated are easier to get money from and easier to lead. Educate yourself as much as possible for wealth, independence, and happiness.”

I am not going to say that corporations want to keep their employees stupid. That is definitely not the case. They definitely do however want to communicate their vision, strategy and spin on the status of things. That is how they attempt to manage you. Listen to them carefully when they communicate. Understand what they are saying and almost as importantly what they are not saying. Bad news or difficult issues are almost always couched in other or less direct terms.

Educating yourself on your markets, competitors and business trends is going to be a key. Read up on what the analysts are saying, both the good reports and the bad ones. Leaders don’t put their faith in any one specific source. It is your career and you are going to be responsible for making decisions that will affect you for years to come.

2.    “Do not have faith in institutions to educate you. By the time they build the curriculum, it’s likely that the system is outdated– sometimes utterly broken. You both learn and get respect from people worth getting it from by leading and doing, not by following.”

After having just told you to do your research on not only your company but your competitors and the market in general, it is only fair to tell you not to place all of your faith in that information regardless of the source. Where do you think it came from? The very companies that you were researching. There are very few independent sources of information on businesses. Remember the words of every investment prospectus when it comes to information:

         Past performance is no guarantee of future success.

What companies have done in the past is only a guide to their potential future actions. Learn to take input from several sources, including your gut and instincts, triangulate it as best you can, make a decision and get going. Trust yourself. It’s said that eighty percent of life is just showing up, so show up. Once you get things moving you’ll be surprised at how easy it can be to change the course if you find you need to. Leaders don’t wait until a decision is fait accompli or made for them.

“Read as much as you can. Learn to speed read with high retention. Emerson Spartz taught me this while I was at a Summit Series event. If he reads 2-3 books a week, you can read one.”

Twitter, Facebook, texting and email are not reading. Read novels. Read books. Read articles. Read Blogs. You will be surprised at how much of what you read you retain and can apply to work and your life in general. I have observed that you are perceived by how you communicate. Content, grammar and diction may not be important in today’s immediate forms of communication, but it is crucial in business. Poorly written communications and correspondence in the business world will hold you back. You learn not only the content but also how to better communicate by reading books.

“Connect with everyone, all the time. Be genuine about it. Learn to find something you like in each person, and then speak to that thing.”

Chances are that some time in your career that you are going to have to find a new job. It is the new normal in the business world. It is more effective for a corporation to let people go in one group and hire new or different people in another group at the same time. It may be no comment on your performance or anything else other than the corporate performance. It just happens. Be ready for it.

Learn to retain friends and associates. Be out going. Go to lunch. Maintain a business card catalog and periodically reach out to people. I learned this one much later in my career than I should have. It’s not hard and it does not take much time. When the time comes, and it inevitably will, having an extensive network of contacts and relationships may be crucial to your career. Even if there does not come a time where you need to impose on them, you will be surprised by the opportunities that they can create for you.

“Don’t waste time being shy. Shyness is the belief that your emotions should be the arbitrators of your decision making process when the opposite is actually true.”

Leaders have opinions. Good leaders like team members who also have opinions. If you have a studied and knowledgeable solution to a situation or topic, share it. It is not a competition for attention. It is a desire to get the right answers and more importantly get things done. Notice the difference I have noted. Everyone has an opinion. Not everyone has a solution.

Do not allow a fear of being wrong or a shyness to keep you from providing a solution. I think that it probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If we had more solutions we would probably have fewer problems. Think about it. Good leaders will search for team members with differing opinions and solutions. Differing approaches almost always result in a stronger team solution.

It’s interesting where we can get our inspiration. I think we all have either been, or are going to be twenty years old at one time in our lives. If you ask my wife she would probably say that I still act as if I were still twenty sometimes, usually, okay, a lot. I think Julien Smith put together twenty items I wish I had known. I won’t go through the other fifteen items. You can read the rest of them at It is also interesting how things that we should know at the age of twenty are also applicable to business at just about any age in life. I guess that learning truly does never stop, especially in business. I probably should have learned that earlier too. I guess I’ll try to learn the ones I missed and apply them from now on.

Attrition: Causes and Cures

Just as every leader understands that each assignment is a step in their career, they also need to understand that the same is true for each of their team members. It is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of complacency when it comes to team members. As a leader you have spent a significant amount of time assembling the best, brightest and most skilled team possible. Your team consistently produces exemplary results. Now you notice that they are leaving, and not just a few at a time but in significant numbers. There is no question about it. You have an attrition problem. Now what?

As is usual in business if you are recognizing that you have a problem it probably already is too late. This truly applies to attrition. By the time you recognize that there are more people leaving than would be normally associated with standard career transitions, you will have almost assuredly lost more talent than you want from your team, and more importantly you will have a significant number of additional team members that are probably in one stage or another of their exit process as well. The time to worry about attrition is before it happens. I’ll talk about avoiding attrition later. The question now is what to do about an unwanted attrition issue. Once it starts attrition can and will take on a life of its own.

The key to calming an attrition stampede is to understand on what level the issues of discontent are rooted. Is it a corporate wide issue, a business unit issue, or an individual level issue? Is it based on rumor or actual business performance? Maybe they just don’t like you anymore. Whatever it is that is causing good people to leave faster than you want, you had better find out. I said faster than you want because as I noted above, each assignment is a step in everybody’s career. It is usually not their end point destination. There will always be people transitioning on to their next career step. This is healthy for them and the organization. As with just about everything else in the world today though, too much of a good thing can be bad.

If the issue is deemed to be a corporate wide issue, it will usually be caused by either conflicting or ineffective messages being sent by the corporation’s senior most management. In times of senior management change or poor corporate performance a very clear and concise set of messages regarding strategic directions and plans needs to be openly communicated. Team members understand that change may take time and can usually be patient in order to see the results of the changes, to a point. The more specific the senior management actions and activities that can be identified that are to be taken, the more patient the team can be. However the team will need eventually to be able to see and identify progress against the actions in order to feel secure enough to remain through the period of corporate instability.

If the issue is thought to be on a business unit level, a cause will also need to be identified. Business unit attrition related causes are usually attributable to the business unit performance. If the business unit team believes that the unit has been identified as a troubled or “problem” business, they will try to anticipate senior management actions associated with improving business performance (cost reductions, travel freezes, lay-offs, etc.) and look to transition to other opportunities in other businesses or business units that are not so troubled. Again communicating a clear and concise set of actions for the business may help stem the attrition stampede, but there probably truly is no way to stop this one. People usually like to feel that they are part of a winning team, and in this case they will always look elsewhere if they feel the chances for success on their current team will be limited by the overall team perception or performance.

If the attrition is truly localized into one specific organization then it may be an individual based attrition. This is usually the result of an interpersonal or management technique conflict between the team manager and the team. If it is happening to your specific team you had better be able to look in the mirror and ask yourself the difficult questions regarding you and your relationship to the team. If your role is to try and turn around an underperforming team and you are a change agent, then you can honestly expect that some team members may not be comfortable with the new direction and choose to leave. If you are picking up a new team that has been performing well and they are choosing to leave, then you had better understand those issues quickly. Issues such as frustration or a perceived slight at being passed over in the selection of a new leader can be a generating event in the starting of an attrition wave.

The time to worry about attrition, like forest fires and tooth decay is before it happens. Attrition prevention is far more preferable than having to rapidly implement corrective actions to try and stem the outward flow of talent. Attrition also requires an honest assessment of the issues. Too many times teams will try to equivocate and split hairs as to exactly how the definition, measurement or importance of attrition is to be set. Managers may have a tendency to try and justify higher levels of attrition as acceptable in light of certain factors. They may try to differentiate between attrition of people leaving the group for other groups within the same company and those that leave the company for another company. This direction is normally taken by groups that are suffering from attrition and either cannot or do not have the ability to address the underlying attrition causing issues. Regardless of how it is positioned, attrition is still the unwanted exiting of employees from a defined group or population.

The solution to attrition prevention is very similar to the solution to attrition itself; communication. The difference is that leaders will actually communicate clearly to their teams the challenges in front of them as well as the specific actions that are being put in place and being taken to address them. Managers will usually wait until there is a recognizable attrition issue before communicating. Leaders will be proactive in acknowledging the business issues and position with the team and preparing them for the actions to be taken. In many instances the corrective actions that are outlined to the team may encompass some unpleasant but necessary business activities such as lay-offs and other cost cutting measures. By getting them out into the open early leaders can at least begin to control the realities of what needs to be done and the accompanying rumors (which are almost always worse than the actual truth) can be minimized.

Attrition is expensive in that when people leave they take all that they know and all they have learned with them. They take a proficiency that they have acquired over time that can only be replaced with a similar amount of time and experience. Attrition leaves the remaining team short staffed and over worked (two incremental issues that can add to the underlying attrition causes) while replacements are sought. Attrition reduces the efficiency of the entire team as the replacement is searched for, located, brought on board and then comes up to speed in the needs of the position. Transitions of any type, at the corporate CEO level or the individual contributor all go much smoother when they are anticipated, planned for and executed as opposed to responding to the unexpected exit associated with attrition. The time to plan for and implement an attrition strategy is well before any issues arise, and any attritions starts.