Towards Trouble

When I was a kid it seemed that I was the only kid that got in trouble. My parents used to say that it got to the point that if there was a problem they would just come find me because it saved them time and energy in the long run. As I got older I learned that this was only the case in my house. My brother and my sister seemed to have been graced with the capabilities to either totally avoid getting in trouble, or if implicated they always seemed to have a plausible story as to why it was actually my fault and not theirs. This could possibly have been because most of the time it might actually have been my fault, but that was just details.

The point of all this is that when we are younger we usually learn to deal with trouble as it comes to us. When we found ourselves in a situation where we might have been considered to have potentially been involved in something that could have been construed by the unenlightened as possibly a source of pending trouble we did the only things we then knew how to do; We either ignored it and hoped it would go away or denied our involvement and hoped it would go away.

Does this method of dealing with trouble sound familiar in business?

Since this is the way most kids learn to deal with trouble from a young age, and for the most part unless you are one of the select few who actually had to confront trouble, either your own or somebody else’s, this method might have worked occasionally. What I later learned was that the only time this method of dealing with trouble worked was when my parents decided it was more trouble to confront me about the trouble than the original trouble was worth, so they just ignored it. I didn’t realize it then but my parents must have been kids once too.

I think this learned childhood behavior may be the basis for the methodology that most managers today use for dealing with the issues that arise during the course of conducting business. In business we no longer have trouble. We have issues. Issues are the adult business equivalent of childhood trouble. Chances are today as an adult if someone actually comes up to you and tells you that you are in trouble, it’s probably time to find a good attorney and hope they don’t put the cuffs on too tight.

In business today it seems that either ignoring the issue and hoping it will go away or denying involvement and again hoping it will go away is the preferred issue resolution process. Those of us who grew up dealing with trouble have a tendency to look on at this business process now with wonder. Then we start moving toward the source of the issue.

What I learned was that if I waited for the childhood trouble to come to me, (and it seemed that it inevitably would) I would have to deal with it on somebody else’s (usually my parents) terms. I would be playing defense. I would be explaining. The same goes for the business issues of today. If you are trying to ignore the issue or deny involvement in it you are playing defense. Not much progress is to be made in business from a defensive position. In this process the issue manages you, not you solving the issue. If you want to make progress with an issue, either solving or resolving it, you have to confront it and move toward it.

Business, and I guess several other aspects of daily life today, seems to have evolved to a point where having problems confront the business instead of the business confronting the problems is now the acceptable norm. It may be a subtle or even semantic difference, but in can mean a great deal. If you are not confronting the issues you are coping with them. Instead of removing or solving the issue, you are modifying your behavior or process in response to the issue. This is usually not the optimal solution to an issue.

I have stated in the past that businesses provide their customers value by taking the customers’ issues (sometimes these are issues that the customer may not have even been aware that they had), internalizing them within the business, and presenting the customer with a solution. If done properly this process will result in the customer giving the business money.

Again the key here is taking the customer’s issue, internalizing it, and solving it. The ingrained ignoring and denying response to issues won’t work here as it doesn’t provide any value. This means that if you want to provide value to your customer, or your business, when you see an issue you need to move towards it.

Despite several other managers’ most fervent belief that if left alone most issues will just somehow sort themselves out, the only way to solve an issue is to acknowledge and confront it, and to apply work and effort to its resolution. The only way to do that is to become fully engaged in the issue. It may be that the ignore and deny managers do such a good job of ignoring and denying the issue that they do not see the work and effort being done by those who are engaged in solving the issue, and hence when it is solved it just goes to reinforce their position of ignoring and denying.

No one likes to have trouble. I didn’t particularly enjoy it as a kid, and I am not real fond of its issue equivalent in business. As a kid I seemed to have developed a sense of when trouble was coming, and what I would need to do to deal with it when it came. This sense usually occurred right after I did something that could get me in trouble. I also learned to recognize the actions of other kids that could get me in trouble and what I would need to do in those instances as well.

Now in business I use this experience in recognizing issues (trouble) to prepare for them as well as to how resolve them. I have learned to move towards trouble in order to deal with it and resolve it on terms that are most beneficial to the business instead of ignoring or denying it until a point where the business must react. Acting on an identified or anticipated issue is always preferable to and more optimal than reacting to a known or expected issue that has eventually presented itself.

Even a kid knows that.

Six Months Out

I was watching TV the other day, which in itself is not too interesting or inspiring. I find it actually kind of numbing as I am not too much into the police procedural shows that seem to be constipating the multiplicity of channels that are now available. However, I did see a new commercial that got me to thinking. It was by an electronics manufacturing company (which I won’t name here) that I had heard of in the past, but who I had never seen advertize on TV before. Their concept was interesting and their catchphrase was different. They were urging people to be “five years out”.

The focus of the ad was on innovators who created products and inventions that were ahead of their time. I didn’t quite catch the connection between Nicola Tesla (and others) and a modern day electronics manufacturer, but I guess that is what literary license is all about. It was however far more interesting and entertaining than the prime time video pabulum that was sandwiched around it.

What it did convey to me was that thought leaders depicted in the ad were thinking far ahead of the standard process. While being “five years out” might be a little excessive for a business leader (I am hard pressed to recall what our five year strategy was five years ago, but I am pretty sure it is not what we are doing now) I don’t think that it is excessive for a business leader to be “six months out”.

Six months out is that uncomfortable gray area between what we are doing right now in this quarter to make our numbers and what we are expecting to be going a year from now. It is the area between the immediate and tactical, and the long term and strategic. It is the area that a successful business leader can either see or anticipate what will need to be done today to align with the goals of the next year.

As we approach the end of another third quarter we should all begin preparing for the annual planning process. This is the process where we set the goals and objectives for the business for the next year. We also usually try and set a three year strategic plan for which the next year is the first year in the three year plan. We seem to do this every year without referring to either of the previous two years’ strategic plans. This in essence means that you are setting an annual plan and hoping that the sum of your last three annual plans is at least in the direction you need to move the business.

Profiling is something that American Civil Liberties Union quite accurately points out is an unacceptable policy for those with authority. However it is a necessary part of any planning process. Having a sales order target for the year is a good thing; however closing all of those orders in the last week of December will leave little time for the business to translate them into revenue, and beyond that into cash, which will be needed to pay all the sales commissions.

A business leader needs to be able to profile the timing of events across the planning period in order to anticipate the needs of the business. In the planning process an annual goal has been set. Instead of trying to plan and profile an entire year I have found that it is easier to break the year into two, six month sections. I can more readily visualize and anticipate what I will need and where I will need to be six months from now based on where I am and the trajectory that I have today.

Failing to take a six month out approach to profiling a business’ year usually results in what is commonly referred to as a “hockey stick”. This is where a business sets three quarters worth of relatively modest objectives and growth only to run head first into a significant and usually unattainable spike in desired performance in the fourth quarter.

I think we have all either been party to, or victims of the dreaded “year end push”.

Nothing happens immediately in business, unless you unexpectedly announce bad financial performance. Then your stock price immediately drops. Aside from that type of event, it takes time to affect change. Adjusting staff size either up or down to meet business needs takes time. Adjusting production capabilities to meet demand also takes time. Increasing sales doesn’t just occur because it is in a plan. Suspected new customers need to be identified, then qualified into prospects, have their issues addressed and their solutions proposed, contracts agreed and then closed.

That’s a sales order. There is then the time associated with the process to deliver on the contract and turn that order into revenue. Then there is the time it takes to get paid and turn the revenue into cash.

While “five years out” is a great concept for a commercial, it is a difficult idea to run a business on. It’s too far out. However a good business leader should have the ability to be at least “six months out” in order to connect the tactical activities of today to the strategic objectives of tomorrow. Being six months out enables to the business leader to anticipate and avoid many of the business issues and pitfalls that seem to plague the standard business manager.

Einstein said: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” While I am absolutely nobody to question a mind like that, I think that hoping for tomorrow will not be the appropriate approach to business.

I think I would more agree with Benjamin Franklin, who said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

White Boards

There have been a lot of great inventions that I have tried to take advantage over time. A great example of invention progression is the evolution from cassette tapes to audio CDs to MP3 players. It used to be an effort to take your music with you on a trip. Now without a second thought I can bring it along in my smart phone, stick in my ear buds and try to ignore the large guy next to me who is staking claim to take half of my seat in addition to his on the plane while he snores and drools on my shoulder. In business the advent of voicemail, email and PCs has had the beneficial effect of removing both time and distance from the business environment. While I have had cause in the past to point out how these advancements may have been abused or used in ways that they were not intended, they have by and large been beneficial to business. What I want to discuss now is an invention that in my opinion has far outstripped any of them in its importance to business, at least for me – the whiteboard.

The whiteboard is the product of its own technological evolution. It appears to have started out in the open air conference areas of Egypt a few thousand years ago as a granite slab, a hammer and a chisel. During the meeting when you wanted to write something down you chiseled it into the granite. This worked great until you filled up the slab. Erasing was problematic, so you just went and got another slab. This had a tendency to slow ancient Egyptian business meetings down.

Millennia passed and the granite slab was eventually replaced by a sheet of black slate. The writing substrate was still rock based; but it was much more easily erasable and you were much more efficient in that you didn’t need as much of it. The hammer and chisel were likewise replaced by white chalk. This new technology worked so well that blackboards and chalk were placed in almost every school room in the world. These blackboards were heavy, expensive and caused students to try and suck up to teachers by offering to rid the erasers of excess chalk dust outside during recess. Then came colored chalk. While this improved artistic license it did not improve the bottom line.

Black slate boards then gave way to pressed particle boards and chipboards with some sort of sprayed on green, semi-erasable covering. The green boards did not seem to erase quite as cleanly as slate boards, and they still used chalk but the boards were not nearly as heavy and expensive. The expensive, heavy slate chalkboards were then recycled into heavy expensive slate roof shingles which were then used for the roofs of expensive houses. There may be some moral to that story but I can’t quite figure it out. Green boards not only appeared in schools they also started appearing in conference rooms.

Business executives were still not happy in that most of them had a difficult time translating the ideas and information that were expressed with light colored chalk on a dark colored board into ideas and information that they would write as dark colored ink on a white sheet of paper. This light to dark thing seemed to cause a great deal of consternation in the management ranks. The solution to this problem was either to change all business over to using dark paper and pens that wrote in white ink so that the ideas and information would not have to suffer through this color inversion conversion, or create a white surface board for people to write on in the first place. I still believe that we would all be writing on black or green paper with white ink if they had been able to figure out how to mimeograph and photocopy on to dark paper.

The first whiteboards were actually sheets of steel with a white porcelain coating. It was found that the porcelain was so non-porous that it would not absorb any of the ink used to write on it. This allowed it to be erased perfectly clean. Because steel and porcelain were again found to be too heavy and too expensive and probably too efficient, new old substrates such as particleboard and chip board were quickly substituted for the steel sheet and other white, more porous coatings were substituted for porcelain. The fact that these new coatings would partially absorb permanent ink which in time would eventually render them useless seems to have been lost on everyone. These are the ubiquitous whiteboards that we have today.

I am a huge fan of the whiteboard. I have not one, but two of them in my office. I would have more if I could but the corporate facilities drones have told me that would be showy, presumptuous and far above what they consider my current station in the organization. I have thought about scavenging another white board from some other empty office or conference room but my “To Do” list has not yet exceeded its current two whiteboard limit, and I am not that desperate.

I keep an ongoing list and record of the issues, topics, ideas, customers, etc. that I must address on my white boards. This way whenever I have the opportunity to look up I can reassure myself that I have prioritized what needs to get done, and which topic is next to be addressed. As issues are solved they are erased, sort of, since today’s whiteboard coating are now semi-absorbent, and as new items come up I can add them in.

To the casual observer coming into my office, my white boards are impressive. They are covered with cryptic topics and diagrams, all of which are color coded in association with whichever of my multitude of dry erase pens was functional enough to leave a legible image on the whiteboard at the last eureka moment in time where I identified a topic or requirement that I would need to note in order for it to be prioritized and addressed. Some of the topics have been there for a while, meaning they are either immutable / unsolvable issues, or are of such a low priority that I never seem to be able to get around to fixing them. Some are as recent as my last ad-hoc discussion on issues facing the business this week.

I have commented in the past that it is well documented that work expands to fill available time (Parkinson’s Law, C. Northcote Parkinson). Likewise I have had people comment that it appears the number of issues and the size of the writing on my whiteboard seems to increase in proportion to the available room for topics on the whiteboard. The more I think about this the more I am inclined to review it. If this is indeed an accurate white board corollary to Parkinson’s Law, I have an empirical test that I think I will try.

Instead of adding another white board to the brace of them that I currently have, I may actually remove one of them. If the whiteboard corollary to Parkinson’s Law is correct and issues expand to fill available space on a white board, then by removing a whiteboard I should reduce the number of issues I have to deal with. If I take this to the logical extreme and remove both white boards, I should hit the point of optimal performance. Since I will have no white board space where I can write down and capture the issues that I need to deal with, I should therefore have no issues deal with.

Maybe I won’t try that one after all.

What I have found is that I do some of my best work when I am animated. I think many others do too. It is difficult to be animated and to continuously produce quality work when you are sedentarily sitting at a desk and staring at a screen. When I work and even as I write this article, I periodically feel the urge to get up and move around if for no other reason than to become active. Having a whiteboard around allows me to capture topics and ideas during these active times.

Several millennia from now when the future equivalent of today’s Egyptologists are excavating the ruins of my office they too will be trying to decipher the hieroglyphic remnants of the messages that remain on the whiteboards. The difference will be that where we had only one layer of carvings on granite to try and understand the topics and priorities of the ancient Egypt
ians, they will have innumerable partially erased layers of permanent ink on semi-porous whiteboards to try and piece through with us. These future archeologists may also wonder why we created these multistory mausoleums that we inhabit today, where the crypts on each floor were so densely packed. They may also wonder why the walls in each crypt didn’t extend all the way up to the ceiling and we put the whiteboards on the inside of each crypt; when the ancient Egyptians only created the pyramids with walls of stone for their hieroglyphics.

Some might say that we have come a long way.

Eschew Obfuscation

The topic for this post was suggested to me by a good friend over in Europe, Codrin. I don’t know why I hadn’t leveraged his input for my own continuous improvement in the past. He indicated that there was a synergy of our ideas where I could take advantage of some low hanging fruit and get some quick wins. Since he considered himself a stakeholder and influencer in my blogging process he thought I should outsource some of my ideation process whereby a consensus for topic creation could be leveraged. This could in turn create a new best practice and benchmark for future cross functional team blog topic empowerment.

Goodness, this could be worse than even I suspected.

This is going to be something of an interesting analysis as far as topics goes. Some of you may look at that introduction and say that there is nothing wrong with it. The rest of you will probably have had the needle on your Business Jargon Overdose meter pegged at the “red line”, and quite possibly could have broken the meter all together. Whenever I find myself in a business jargon overdose state I find that the best cure for me is to go listen to music (usually either alternative rock or jazz, depending on my frustration level) until my fists unclench. As this condition seems to be occurring with ever greater regularity I seem to have acquired a significant music library.

For the purposes of the remainder of this discussion I will use the terms Business Jargon and Business Slang (BS) interchangeably. Being a product of the business technology acronym generation I find myself being a little more comfortable and potentially more accurate, in referring to the latest business technology generated buzz words by the acronym “BS” rather than by their jargon related acronym counterpart.

Business, especially the high technology business used to be ruled by the use of the acronym. There were financial based acronyms such as ROI (Return on Investment) or NPV (Net Present Value) and there were technology based acronyms such as CPU and RAM and PROM and the like (I know I have dated myself through the selection of technology acronyms. As I have said many times, I am somewhat “old school” in orientation.) The point here is that these acronyms meant something. They were shortened names for actual formulas and physical devices. They represented real things and as such had a real value.

When we fast forward to the business of today we seem to have replaced our quantitative value acronyms with the much more malleable business jargon, lingo and slang of today. As such it seems that the value of our business communication has also decreased in accordance with the utilization of these BS terms. I’ll pick on a few of my favorites.

Synergy. Really? I understand the concept where the combination of multiple elements creates an end state that is greater than the sum of the individual elements. I got it. I think everyone else gets it too. However, we were all taught early on in our school careers that one plus one does not in fact equal three. To hear people talk today it seems that all we need to do to improve our business, increase our profits, reduce costs or cure baldness is combine some disparate people, jobs and functions and we will miraculously get more out of it than we put in. Not every combination creates synergy. Some things do, others don’t. As an example, I like beer and I like ice cream. I don’t think I will create synergy and get something I like even better if I combine beer and ice cream.

Wait a minute. That one might actually work.

Cross Functional. Come on. This one along with consensus, empower and transformative combine to make any written communication appear both longer and more important. Mostly just longer. It seems it is almost impossible to see only one of these words used in its literal form in any form of communication. That would be the metaphysical equivalent of hearing the sound of one hand clapping. What we now seem to end up with is: “We need to empower a cross functional team to reach consensus on our transformative plans.”

Can’t we just say that we need to get together to figure out what to do next?

Customer Centric / Focused / Voice / Satisfaction: Incredible. The last time I looked just about every business on the planet was in business to sell some sort of goods, products or services to a customer. Now the definition of whom or what a customer is can vary from business to business, but the concept of providing a customer something of value and in return the customer giving you money is the basic precept of business. Everything that the business does needs to be focused at providing the customer something and getting them to give you their money. There is a definition for people in businesses that are not directly involved with either providing the customer their desired “something” or getting the customer to give you money. These people are called “overhead”. They are also the ones most prone to using these types of customer related phrases.

Anyone who uses the phrase “customer centric” is usually not.

Paradigm Shift: I don’t even know what to say here. This one seems to be utilized along with such ideological jewels as Best Practices, Benchmarking and Continuous Improvement. Everyone from Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species (things evolve and change, to paraphrase) to Woody Allen in Annie Hall (things, like sharks keep moving forward or die, again a paraphrase) has said that things change. Things that were once done one way are now done another. This is the essence of the meaning of a “paradigm shift”. Nothing ever stays the same. We might like it to, but it won’t. If we just get used to this fact perhaps we can do away with these repetitively redundant descriptions for change.

Robert Heinlein said: “We live and learn, or we don’t live long.” I guess this applies to businesses as well.

As difficult as it may be to believe I have actually been accused of not being either politically correct or a team player. It could be because I don’t normally seek a transformative transparency in looking to create consensus. I don’t think that we probably need to incentivize employee stakeholders and influencers when we are looking at the value add of any presentation or proposal. It seems that my problem may actually be that I do not know how to fully leverage the cloud, fully take advantage of virtualization or deliver anything as a service.

On the other hand it could be that I don’t believe in utilizing the current iteration of Business Slang that is being passed as intelligent and useful business communication.

I think we need to remove the BS (Business Slang) from the business vernacular, and get back to simple ideas of making things, selling things and delivering things when we communicate with each other. It will help get things done.

In other words, let’s eschew obfuscation.