Being Young

I think we are all young to a certain extent. I don’t think it matters how old we are. Although we all equate numerical age with being young, we shouldn’t. Being young is something else. We all start youths and as we gain experience we also seem to start to lose our ability to be young. I think in many instances we do not see these changes in ourselves. I do not think that those that we continue to work with see these changes either, since they too are gaining experience right along with us. I think the loss of being young is a little more insidious than that. When we are young we don’t know what we can’t do, and as a result we are able to do the things that others can’t because they “know better”.

In case you are missing the connection here I am not saying there is a direct connection between your age and being young. I don’t think there is. I think being young in business resides in your head.

I watched a great rant by the comedian Craig Ferguson on the “Deification of Youth” or otherwise titled “Why Everything Sucks”. You can find it here: Aside from being very funny he does touch on some of the issues and sources of our obsession with youth. I think they apply equally to business.

Notice again that I am not connecting “Youth” with being “Young”.

We tend to associate being young with the physical attributes of youth and age. As Craig Ferguson points out there are also experiential and state of mind attributes associated with being young. Unfortunately we all seem to focus on the youth aspect of being young. We assume you have to be a youth in order to be young. Hence again according to Craig we seem to be focusing our resources on retaining our youth instead of what I would call being young.

I tell people that I have grown older, but that I have not grown up. My wife does not seem to be entirely happy about my lack of growing up.

I absolutely agree with the preconception that we need young people in business. Young people have energy. They don’t seem to slow down. They have places to be and things to do. They walk fast. They get there early and stay till they are done, not till any specific time. They look at goals as something to be attained and exceeded, not something to be measured against. The young believe that they are responsible for their own attainments, or failures, and act accordingly.

I remember few if any incidents in my youth where I looked for a consensus on just about anything I did. In some instances I might have been better off doing so, but in the long run it was probably those failures that taught me the most.

Young people take on challenges because they have no idea what they are getting into, or if they do they don’t know any better about saying no. When we were young we did not know what we could do, or conversely what we couldn’t do. There were always plenty of people who were ready to tell us what we couldn’t do. There are many of those people still around in business now. When we remain young we retain this don’t know that I can’t do it approach even though we may have gained some of the experience that tells us it may be difficult if not impossible.

Young people ask direct questions and give direct answers. There was an old television show hosted by Art Linkletter called “Kids Say the Darnedest Things”. It consisted of kids (in this case really young people) answering some simple and seemingly innocuous questions and everyone listening to what they said. The kids answered directly without first wondering if they should answer at all, if they would look foolish for their answer, or if they would get the answer wrong. They just answered. I can’t help but believe that approach might help improve business.

Direct questions are usually the simplest ones to ask. Why? How much? What do you do? We seem to have evolved to a point where direct questions are associated with being rude. The young ask direct questions without the consideration of if it is rude or not. It shouldn’t be construed as a question of etiquette. It is merely a request for a desired piece of information.

Young people understand that they can be wrong. They think they know everything (especially my children) but I think deep down they know that they don’t. That doesn’t stop them though. That’s why they went to school. To learn some things that they didn’t know that will help them later. That learning process usually involves getting a few things wrong. They don’t want to be wrong, but they know it happens and hopefully they will learn from it.

The active ingredient here for this aspect of being young is learning. Sometimes it is mandatory and we are forced to go to school and learn something whether we want to or not. On the other hand as we gain and gather experience we should recognize how much we have yet to learn and no so much rely on how much we believe we already know. When we have decided that we either have learned enough, or know enough is when we begin to not be young.

Too often it seems we have a tendency to get defensive in our business posture as a result of feeling that we must defend what we have already achieved or accomplished instead of remembering the risks and behaviors that enabled those accomplishments to occur. We understand the new challenge but may not as fully commit to or embrace it. We are now more conservative in our approach. We feel that we have something to lose and not so much to gain. We are no longer young, and we are acting like it.

I do not wish to sound too utopian in my views. I understand the realities of life and business. At least I hope I do. My objective is to remember my approach to things as a youth and combine it with the knowledge and experience I have gained since then. I may have a little better idea of some of the things that I can do, but I think there are probably vast expanses of things that I can’t do that need exploring, if for no other reason than to prove that there are parts of it that can actually be done.

I think being young in business is about remembering and channeling the energy, excitement and approach we had to proving something when we started out. It’s more about having somewhere to go instead of looking back at where you have been. It’s about continuing to learn new skills and capabilities instead of relying on those that you already have. It is retaining the realization that it still is about the destination and not so much about the path or process that is supposed to get you there.

It is remembering that it is not so much about youth but more about retaining our approach to things in our youth. I think that is the essence and key to being young.

Measuring and Reporting

Management styles seem to go in and out of style. We have one that works moderately well, and then we go looking for one that is purported to work better. It didn’t used to be like this. For the longest time business structures seemed to follow the same structures that we had in our militaries. We even used a military naming nomenclature when we described them: The General Management Model.

Now I am sure we have all heard the jokes about the efficiency of the Military, and how “Military Intelligence” is an oxymoron, but it seems to be an organizational model that has literally stood the test of time. Please do not make the mistake in assuming that I disrespect the Military. On the contrary I have the greatest respect for those that serve in the military. They have chosen to put themselves at risk for our benefit.

I thank them for their service.

Can you imagine what would happen if the Military experimented with a Matrix Management organizational model? Having a conference call in the middle of an engagement to determine what the response to the hostilities should be doesn’t strike me as the most effective way to deal with that situation. The phrase “shoot, move, communicate” leaps to mind as the preferred active response.

However business has never seemed to be constrained in such an organizational way. There are many organizations that have dabbled with if not fully implemented non-general management types of organizational structures in their efforts to find more effective ways for dealing with their various engagements. Has it worked? I would say that the results are mixed. In some instances possibly yes and in others, not so much. I think that it clearly goes to show that there is an individual / human aspect to leadership that directly interacts with and affects the success of the chosen organizational structure. Good leaders can make any organizational structure better, while managers can slow down the progress of any organization.

What these other organizational models have also done is that they have created the need for an entirely new business structure almost entirely dedicated to measuring and reporting on the various separate business elements.

The creating of this measuring and reporting structure has both good points, and some not so good points. Within a non-general management oriented organization no one person has the full authority over any specific engagement. In the military this would be the equivalent to having an organization responsible for guns and another organization responsible for bullets. While you may come up with the best guns and the best bullets, if they don’t work together you may be in for some surprise issues when it comes to engagement time.

So how do you solve this problem in such an organization? You measure each group’s performance and publicize or report on it.

It has long been proven that the best way to get someone to fulfill their responsibilities is to report on and publicize their performance. This is true with respect to the investigative reports that we see on television that expose improper behaviors in our politicians and businesses, and it is also true with respect to the internal workings and responsibilities within a business organization. Shining a light on bad behavior is one of the best ways to get that behavior to stop just as shining a light on good behavior is an excellent way to continue to propagate that type of behavior.

The problem with this sort of structure is that those people who are doing all of this measuring and reporting are not directly contributing to the performance and progress of the business. They are making sure that someone else is directly contributing to the performance and progress of the business. No matter how you want to look at it, there is a fundamental difference. Measurers and reporters are what are known as Overhead Expense in an organization.

In a distributed (verses centralized) organizational structure no one controls the end to end view and performance of the business or the organization. For a business to be maximally efficient someone needs to have this decision making authority and responsibility. In the non-general management organization no one has that final decision making role and since it seems that everyone must be fully informed, everyone must be measured and reported on by everyone else. It is possible that the evolution of this process results in more people measuring and reporting on what needs to be done than there are actually doing what needs to be done.

This can be seen as a business proof of the old adage: Too much of a good thing can be bad.

This sort of measuring and reporting appear to take a more central role in the organization when there is a division between responsibility to get something done and the authority to get something done. In the military there is a very clear responsibility – authority line of command. Orders and responsibilities are cascaded down and the objectives are usually reasonably clear. One officer does not go outside of his organization and tell another officer or his organization what they must do unless there is a direct reporting line between them. In this way compliance with the objective is a given.

In the distributed responsibility structure, compliance may not necessarily be a given. Issues arise when one organization is dependent on another for the completion of a task, but the second organization fails to prioritize or perform its part of the task. After all, what can be done when an organization fails to comply with the wishes or directives of another organization that is not directly in the same reporting line? You may be able to complain, but you cannot enforce compliance as may be done in the General Management model.

So what do you do to assure that disparate organizations comply?

You start measuring and reporting on them so that everyone else knows which organization in the distributed structure is not performing. This is both an offensive strategy in that it tracks progress (or lack of it) toward the objective as well as a defensive strategy in that it clearly points out if there are issues and where they are – presumably not in your or the measuring organization.

Reporting in the general management structure is used to determine the progress against a defined set of goals. It is normally self reported by the organization. Reporting in the decentralized structure not only performs these vital tasks, but also takes on the added function of identifying any potential external organizational dependencies that can be incrementing, or decrementing performance. As such it is not uncommon for each group to report not only on themselves, but on all contributing groups to make sure that their, presumably correct opinion on progress is documented. Thus they all add to the complexity and the overhead associated with the entire reporting process.

Measuring and reporting are definitely needed in business. It is how we keep score. Having each group report on so many other groups would seem to me to be an extreme. The problem is I don’t know what else you can do when one group has the responsibility to get something done, but the actual authority and ability to get it done resides somewhere else. It seems that the only thing to do is shine the light and hope for the best.

Either that or utilize an organizational structure where the authority and responsibility to get things done reside in the same place. It cuts down the need for so many reports. Like President Harry Truman said:

“The buck stops here.”

Finding Inspiration

I need to send out thanks to my friend Ulrich for the inspiration for this post. Uli is a friend that I met in Brazil on a trip sometime back. He had some really amazing electronic gizmos and gadgets that made me quite jealous. While we were talking about his electronics preferences the conversation shifted, as it often does to other topics. One of the topics we touched on was our reading preferences, and the types of books that we both drew inspiration from. I mentioned that I like to read, and prefer to read a broad range of literary genres and topics. Uli too likes to read but said he usually keeps his reading centered on business and management oriented books and materials. Those happen to be one of the specific genres that I for the most part avoid. It was interesting that we had such divergent approaches to the items that we read, and the information we applied to our business responsibilities.

As I have noted in the past, many of the items I have read seemed initially to be outside of a direct association with business and management. This isn’t by chance. I have read many management articles and books. However in doing so, from my own point of view, I started to notice many similarities to the tenets covered, and only slight variations in the applications of them. There were only so many ways to dress up the ideas of the need to be flexible, that things are going to change and how to deal with these inevitabilities.

That type of management book similarity has sent me off in a couple of different directions when it came to reading and applying what I read to business. One direction I went was into the past to see where many of these “new and improved – yet strangely similar” business strategies came from. I have covered this topic several times in the past. Remember, business, commerce, and strategy has been around almost as long as humans have been around. I have found that sometimes the best books about business are not actually about business. If I need true specific business management input or strategy I go to the four texts that I see as the basis for just about everything in business management and leadership that has been written since. They are:

The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This is a twenty five hundred year old text written by a pre-china general that never lost an engagement that is still used in military academies around the world, and in many business schools.
The Prince by Machiavelli. A sixteenth century political and strategic treatise by an Italian diplomat and political theorist.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. A text on focus, adaptation and martial arts by a seventeenth century Japanese swordsman.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian. A book of maxims for dealing with the real world written by a seventeenth century Spanish monk.

These are not the books for everyone. These are just the primary books that I turn to when I need a jumping off point for inspiration on a specific business or related issue. I continue to reread them and usually pick up something new every time I do.

I recommended them to Uli. We will see if he reads them and agrees with my assessment of them, or if he continues to buy and read the latest derivative management strategy books that are on the market. I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as he is enjoying and finding value in what he is reading.

The other direction that I go is to read just about anything but management books. This covers the literary spectrum from magazine articles to Blogs to Science Fiction novels to Classic Literature. Much of it is not directly applicable to anything associated with business and leadership, but occasionally there are some interesting aspects that present themselves. Whenever I per chance happen to make one of these unexpected business leadership synaptic connections with something that I have read I try to capture it specifically and share it here. Hence the idea of inspiration as the topic for this piece.

Uli on the other hand noted that the source of business inspiration for him came from business oriented literature, be it articles or books. If this works for him, then great. There seems to be a never ending supply of new management and business oriented articles and books every day for him to read. If they provide inspiration to some of their readers then there must be some value in them.

Inspiration for me is a strange element. I have very seldom had it strike me metaphorically from the blue. I normally get it by recognizing analogies, connections and parallels to seemingly unrelated events and topics. I look for stories of success or leadership in seemingly unrelated fields and then wonder how it might be applicable to business. This approach has led me to better understand the leadership secrets of Captain Kirk from the Star Trek shows and movies, as well as how Jerry Seinfeld applied himself to his craft as a writer to such a successful extent. Along a non-literary line, it has also taught me how to deal with and negotiate with my soon to be fifteen year old son when it is time for him to mow the yard. Success can be achieved from many different directions.

The point here is to start recognizing what keys your specific moments of inspiration. What are you doing, what are you reading, who are you talking to when you have your best ideas? More importantly how do you recognize them when they occur and how do you capture them? There is something about those environments that triggered the creative process. A little self analysis and cognitive association will go a long way here.

I have never been able to innovate because I have read a book on how to innovate. I have read many other books on many other topics that I cannot do, even though I have read about them. I have read about time and space travel and even though I might like to try it I don’t think I can do it just because I have read a book about it. On the other hand, I did learn about physics and differential calculus from books, but I also had a reasonably highly skilled mentor / professor to help me there. Almost all the innovations that I have been involved in have come from trying to apply something new from outside the accepted business norm, to the business norm. That and a significant amount of stubbornness in refusing to listen while everyone else patiently explained to me why my new idea would never work.

It is a significant step going from knowing where you can hope to find inspiration to actually doing something with the inspiration you found.

I also think that part of the reason that I have been able to draw business inspiration from such a diverse literary catalog stems from the fact that I genuinely like to read. I enjoy books. That may be the key to finding inspiration, at least for me, and probably others. I seem to draw my inspiration from relating the things I like to do, like reading to the other things I enjoy in business. I would think that this might be the case for others as well. Conversely, I would guess if you dislike something enough it may be a source of inspiration in how to avoid or improve it. I’ll have to think about that one a little more.

Inspiration doesn’t seem to be a well that I can just wonder over to and dip a bucket in and come out with a new idea. It is more of an understanding of how things work and how I relate to them, and putting myself in the positions where there has been a proven tendency to find inspiration, and then being aware enough to recognize it when it hits. It seems to be the doing of something, possible fully unrelated to the topic that allows you to form the new associations to the old issues.

For me anyway, that does not usually involve the reading of the latest management self help, or how to innovate book. In this case it came from talking to a friend out those books.

Intelligent Pause

I seem to discuss communications a lot. That is probably because communications are central to all aspects of business. I am going to continue in that vein here, although possibly in a direction that may not be expected. I think that it may be time for us to start practicing and working on our talking skills to each other.

The other day I was talking with a friend. It was a bit of a free form discussion. The unscripted type where you are doing one of the most dangerous things on the planet: talking and thinking at the same time. Even though it seems I have no shortage of opinions, I also try to make a concerted effort to listen as well. In this instance I actually spent a little time listening to myself, as well as my friend during our discourse. What I heard out of my own mouth concerned me.

It appears that I had gotten a little lazy when it came to talking.

I caught myself using too many “crutch” words when talking. I think, you know, it’s like, those seriously annoying words, those obvious verbal “tics” that we are all guilty of, actually. I started listening even closer to the way my friend was speaking, and he was doing it too. He had his own pet phrases and words that he liked to use as well. It seemed that when he was unsure of what he wanted to say he would fall back to one of these words or phrases to get himself started.

I got to thinking about my own use of my crutch words and phrases as well and came up with the same conclusion. When I have an idea that I want to express, the most difficult aspect for me in expressing it is the same most difficult aspect of any other endeavor, that of getting it started. I had fallen into the habit of using one of these comfort phrases or crutch words to get my speaking process going.

A little self-analysis like this can go a long way. Having become aware of my own tendencies in this area has also made me aware of it in others. I started to not only listen to what others were saying, but how they were saying it as well. I think most of us, but not all of us have this comfort phrase tendency to some level.

The most common comfort phrases that I have picked up are (I am sure there are many others, but these are some of the most common that leap to the forefront, at least in my mind):

• “uh…”, “ah…”, “hmm…” Nothing says I don’t know what to say better than one of these words.
• “Like” – It’s like this, or like that… How can so many things be like something else? Why don’t you just tell me about it, not something that is “like” it?
• “You know” – It’s like you know, or just, you know… If I know, then you don’t need to tell me. If I don’t know, you don’t need to ask me. I think we all know what I mean here.
• “Obviously” – one of my personal favorites. If it’s so obvious, then don’t make a mockery of your audience’s intelligence by bringing it up. If it’s obvious to you it’s probably obvious to them. If it’s not, it sounds like you are talking down to them.
• “Actually” – It’s actually this, or you know actually… Let’s get this straight. I am probably going to assume whatever you are telling me is “actual” unless you tell me otherwise. There is no need to emphasize its actuality.

I mentioned that many but not all people used these speaking process kick starting phrases. I started to pay especially close attention to those people who did not have any noticeable tendency toward using favorite words or phrases. I wanted to understand what they said and how they sounded. It was very interesting.

They didn’t say anything particularly smarter or deeper that anyone else. They didn’t speak noticeably faster or slower than anyone else. They just didn’t sound as repetitive. They sounded (gulp) more intelligent. This was especially disconcerting as one of the primary groups that avoid these verbal tics is the politicians. I don’t know if we all could go on if I had to cede greater intelligence to them.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is very difficult to get ahead in business without some reasonable level of intelligence. It is a pretty good assumption that most business executives to one level or another are pretty smart. However some “sound” smarter than others. How do they do it?

They don’t use crutch words or have as many of those verbal “tics”.

Instead, they pause. And how to people sound when they periodically pause when they are speaking during a conversation? The general consensus that they sound intelligent.

Don’t believe me? We are now in the middle of what is known as the off-year primary political election cycle. This is the time of year when all of our media, news, and communications are polluted with messages from this year’s crop of ultra-sincere sounding political hacks, or their news agency supporters, trying to convince us that they are the true representatives of the people, and their opponents are in fact prevaricating, bloviating morons.

What these messages all have in common is that they are devoid of all verbal crutches. Listen not to what these people say, but to how they say it. They all sound sincere and intelligent. Regardless of the veracity or outlandishness of the claims that they are making on their own behalf, or against their opponents. Despite any semblance of anything resembling substance, they all sound believable and intelligent.

It is probably not fair to compare politicians to executives. Really. No, I mean really.

However, the executives that do not use the standard catch-phrases sound better and more believable when the talk. Instead of starting off a sentence with some favorite or comfortable word or phrase, they seem to pause instead.

I think this sort of talking activity has been well documented. The idea is to listen for your own comfort phrases and then consciously trying to eliminate them from your speaking and talking styles. The process is to pause when you are about use one of your favorite pet phrases or words, and instead of using those words, pick up with the thought you would convey after those words.

This is what I mean by the intelligent pause. You don’t have to eliminate the crutch. You just don’t verbalize it. It is there in your head, where it will probably always be, you just don’t verbalize it.

I think we all probably know people that either consciously or unconsciously do this. They are the ones that seem to be thinking before they say anything. They appear to be weighing the value of their words before they speak them. Their opinions seem to be more readily sought out or valued.

It has been a frustrating process for me as I try to re-kick the catch-phrase habit. I had not realized how ingrained they had become. But I am working on it. There are several of my friends who might comment that the best way for me to appear more intelligent would be for me to extend my own efforts at an intelligent pause out indefinitely to the point where I just shut up. Unfortunately this just won’t do. I do however suggest that we all try to listen to how we say things as mush what we are saying.

Like, you know, it obviously might actually help us communicate