The Past

A lot of people may think that I live in the past because of all the references that I make to it. I read business books that are hundreds of years old because I have decided that almost all new business books and articles are a recycled version of the classics with some modern jargon thrown in to make it seem fresh and contemporary. I compare present generational norms and business performance to the past because they are good benchmarks and yardsticks for what has been done as compared to what is now being done. Those comparisons do not always favor the past generations or business performance. I am eminently aware of the past because without knowledge of the past how would we know what direction we are going? I am definitely aware of the past but I definitely don’t live in the past.

It’s time to get a little esoteric, but why not? George Santayana, the twentieth century philosopher, poet and essayist wrote is his book “The Life of Reason”, (1905):

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Many think that Winston Churchill was the author of the famous quote “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, but he was in fact paraphrasing Santayana. This is just a small literary nugget for your historical learning pleasure.

The key point here is that the retention of what we have learned is the key to progress. This would logically mean that the future is built upon the past. Go figure. It takes a visionary to be able to interpret what was and extrapolate to what’s next. Just as Sony took the leap from portable transistor radios to portable cassette players (the then ubiquitous, and now all but forgotten Sony Walkman – ranked as one of the top TWO technical inventions of the last fifty years), Steve Jobs and Apple took the next leap along the same path with the now ubiquitous iPod (which ranks number THREE behind the Walkman). Contrary to popular belief these products did not materialize out of thin air. They had their roots in the past.

Conversely, there is the ubiquitous financial caveat contained in every investment prospectus that I have ever read, that states very clearly:

“Past results are not a guarantee of future performance”

In business as in sports we always keep score. That is how you tell who is successful and who is not. A very good example of this is the batting averages of baseball players. While the player’s batting average is not a guarantee of the performance of any individual at bat, it does give an indication about what you might expect from that player over time. There are always hitting streaks and slumps that must be factored in, but in general past results are a reasonable predictor, not guarantee, of each player’s future batting performance.

This fact may also be demonstrated in the Walkman – iPod comparison as well. The Walkman was indeed a game changer in the market, but not anymore. The iPod has supplanted it – but it was not until after twenty years had passed where the Walkman was dominant that the iPod was introduced, and even then it took a few years.

The same concept would logically be analogous to business. Understanding past business performance allows you to understand what worked well and what didn’t. Just like knowing individual batting averages or team won-loss records may give you an insight into how they may do for the rest of the season (although no guarantee), in business we like to know who has been profitable, how profitable they have been and how long they have been profitable. It doesn’t mean that they will continue to perform the same way that they have done successfully in the past, and it doesn’t mean that they will have to change everything if they were not successfully done in the past, but it is a good indicator (not a guarantee). There are hopefully always ways to do good things better and ways to improve on failures without starting changing everything and in effect starting anew, or returning to the “infancy” that Santayana mentions. There is that retention of the past thing again.

Staying with my esoteric bent I am going to go a little further into the past. Heraclitus, the fifth century B.C. Greek philosopher said:

“Nothing endures but change.”

This statement has been quoted and paraphrased by everyone from Plato to Diogenes to the latest business management books de jour . We like to all say that the only constant is change. The concept comes from three thousand years in the past, but still seems reasonably applicable today.

However, staying focused on your past is like trying to drive a car forward by looking in the rearview mirror. I don’t know who said this one, and it didn’t seem to be so valuable a quote to spend the time looking it up. Even so, it is reasonably accurate. But you do need to have some idea of where you have been if you are to successfully get to where you want to go. The past is where you were, the present is where you are and the future is always a goal.

So enough already with the philosophy and esoteric. What has this got to do with business?

The past is no guarantor of the future, and we know things are going to change. Knowing the past allows us to understand what the business has done right and what it needs to improve. Even the most disruptive of market forces take time to take effect. Walkmans replacing radios, iPods in turn replacing Walkmans, CDs replacing LPs, digital replacing analog technologies or even automobiles replacing horses for transportation did not happen overnight.

It takes people who understand the past and the trends and directions that it has imparted on the present to make sense of and deal with the present. It is the visionary who understands the past and the trajectory that it has put us on, that can take the next leap and either extend or modify this trajectory as is called for in business to realize the future. The past is useful in that it tells us where we have been in comparison to where we are. It is also a necessity if we are to recognize what we must change and what we should retain to get to the future. You can’t live in the past but you need to be aware of and understand the past if you are to make it to the future.


What is the first question that gets asked when something goes wrong? This should be an easy one for everybody. The first question that is asked after something goes wrong, or not according to plan is: Who is to blame? It seems to be built into our DNA that we look for someone to blame. This process has evolved into an art form in recent times. It is now even the subject for tongue in cheek commercials, which in my book means blaming someone else for our own performance (good or bad) is now part of our social, and business fabric.

If we happen to fall off a ladder, we blame the ladder manufacturer for not putting a warning label of some sort on the ladder that clearly states that ladders are in fact dangerous pieces of equipment and that the scaling of them should not be attempted by the uncoordinated, clumsy or stupid. Going even further, the epitome of this blaming cultural art form has to be the getting burned by spilling hot coffee in our laps and then blaming the provider of the hot coffee for providing coffee that is too hot. The fact that “spilling” the coffee was involved seems to have been left out of this picture.

I have digressed, but I think you get the picture. Since childhood we have been conditioned to create excuses or blame others for our behaviors. “The dog ate my homework” has moved into our cultural lexicon, as a method of blaming an unexpected external event for not having an assignment completed. “The sun was in my eyes” likewise has evolved into a catch-all method of blaming external factors for not being able to perform an expected function. The bottom line here is that we like to blame other people, issues, factors and things for when we fail to meet expectations. The fact that the dog may have been around for years or that the sun has been around since well before the dawn of man and is a known source of glare, both of which could have and should have been taken into account during preparations, is conveniently not mentioned.

All of this evolution and history of the culture and art of passing the blame for our inability to achieve our objectives or to succeed in completing our tasks brings us to business. I think we have all been around people who are never at fault for missing their goals. They are artful. They are glib. They are eloquent. But they are not leaders. They usually elicit looks from their peers that are normally reserved for politicians, used car salesmen and poorly trained puppies that may have tried their best but just couldn’t seem to go on the paper.

The simple fact is that sometimes in business things do not go the way we hoped, expected or planned. It can be for reasons that are outside of our control or within our control. It doesn’t matter. For whatever reason the job didn’t get done. It happens. I will now impart to you the best phrase to use when creating excuses and placing blame when this type of situation occurs:

“It was my responsibility.”

Stand up. Look in the mirror and recognize the person responsible. Regardless of what happened you shouldn’t get to blame anyone else. Leaders understand this.

It may not have been their fault that the objective was not achieved, but it was their responsibility to achieve the objective.

Other leaders recognize this. It is the leader’s responsibility to put the team in a position to succeed. That means they need to provide the appropriate resources (time, money, people, there really are no other resources than these) to get the job done. If the team doesn’t succeed you cannot blame the team. It is the leader’s responsibility to put the team in a position to succeed.

It is the leader’s responsibility to put the right people on the team. If the right people are not on the team it is not the team’s fault. The team will do the best that it can with the people that are selected for it. It is the leader’s responsibility to foresee the potential issues and roadblocks to the team’s success. It is not the team’s fault that the unexpected occurred. The team is in place at the direction of the leader. A leader needs to be prepared with alternative and back-up plans in case the unexpected does unexpectedly occur.

In business as with falling off a ladder, we seem all too prepared to place the blame for any missed achievements on others. We are all too willing to place the blame elsewhere for our own lack of performance. We also seem to be all too willing to allow others to exhibit the same blame shifting behavior. The blaming art form has given rise to a new activity and the creation of a new word to deal with the blame generation process:

“Blamestorming”: The Oxford Dictionary defines blamestorming as: Group discussion regarding the assigning of responsibility for a failure or mistake. The Urban Dictionary defines it as: Sitting around in a group, discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and identifying a scapegoat. Check out:–BLAMESTORMING

No team is mistake free when it comes to the execution of their responsibilities. No team achieves one hundred percent of their objectives one hundred percent of the time. No team should be blamed for this fact. Just as the leader should acknowledge and attribute all team successes to the team, the leader should NOT blame the team for any failures associated with the team’s performance. Just as the leader receives their credit for the team’s performance from the fact that they enabled the team to be successful, so should they take responsibility for not enabling the team’s success.

Blame is a funny thing to me. I think it openly diminishes the one doing the blaming. However it also seems to unavoidably diminish the one being blamed. Once the accusation is made or the blame assigned, at least some of the stigma associated with that event will remain, regardless if the accusation or blame is proved to be unfounded. That to me is a lose – lose proposition. There is no benefit to be gained by anyone by trying to assign blame anywhere.

The leader that stands up and takes responsibility, and does not look to attribute blame to anyone else, will again be the leader that is looked up to by their team and will be respected by their peers. Just as the leader receives some of the credit even though they attribute the success to the performance of their team, they will also not receive all the blame by taking responsibility for the issues associated with the missed achievements by the team.

I know it goes against just about everything we have seen and been taught to this point of our lives, and it also seems to go against what is now accepted as the cultural norm but when it comes to issues in business I just can’t see the value in someone uttering the professional equivalent of “The dog ate my presentation” or “the fluorescent lights were in my eyes” when not taking responsibility for their performance.


I singled out a team member from another leader’s organization during an organizational leadership meeting the other day to make sure that he was recognized for the great work he had done in supporting me and my team on a very difficult assignment. Even though I got to report the progress, I thought it was important that the person most responsible for the work received the recognition for the job well done. His senior leadership thanked me for the acknowledgement. I didn’t remember getting thanked very often for acknowledging another team’s individual member in the past. I got the subtle feeling that this sort of acknowledgement behavior may not have been the norm.

This small interchange got me to thinking again. This is always a dangerous process as I am never sure where it is going to lead me, but I thought anyway. I started remembering back in my career to try and pinpoint when and where I adopted and implemented the position that a leader should not take the credit for the successes and good performance of the team.

I can remember working for managers that did not seem to ascribe to this approach to team acknowledgement. We probably all have. It has been a while and I find myself searching my memories for how I felt about it. I would have to say my memories and feeling about it were mixed. I remember feeling proud that the work I had done was being recognized as noteworthy, but I also remember feeling at least a little bit slighted that the manager was individually receiving the accolades.

I can also remember the first time I was singled out and recognized by a leader for delivering an important work product for the organization. There was the same pride in the work, but also a little more pride associated with the specific acknowledgement.

Business is about competition. On the higher levels one business competes with another for available customers and revenue. Organizations within the business compete (and work in concert) with each of the other organizations within the business for funding and growth opportunities. To illustrate this organizational competition just take a look at the budgeting process and how the available funding and growth are allocated in the next year’s plan.

There is also competition within and amongst the various organizations on an individual level as well. There is usually a general desire by individuals within an organization to matriculate upwards in the organization to positions of greater responsibility, and compensation. This is not always the case as there are those that find a role and level that they are happy with and do not try to go farther, but in general this desire for upward progress in the organization is a given.

The competitive issue arises in that as you progress further and further up the organizational charts, the number of positions available to advance to becomes smaller and smaller. Individual contributors usually wish to become managers, who in turn want to be one of a fewer number of senior managers, who in turn want to be one of still fewer directors who in turn want to be one of even fewer vice presidents, and so on.

As an individual contributor we get the opportunity to be specifically acknowledged for the work we do. There probably isn’t anyone else doing the specific work the individual is doing so this is okay. Individuals who do good work seem to be the first ones to be recognized and promoted to the management levels. This begins and reinforces a process where the desire for individual recognition is seen as a key requirement for promotion and advancement.

The issue here is that as you are promoted and rise in the organization the amount of solution content that each individual manager adds to the delivered work product begins to change and decrease. The individual delivering a project has a great deal of input and relationship to the final work product. The director (two to three levels higher in the organization) of the individual delivering the project may be able to provide guidance and directional input on the project but probably limited to little specific content. It is still the individual that is delivering it.

I know I have, and I suspect that many others have worked for managers (a generic term to be applied to people at all relative levels of an organizational hierarchy) who never seemed to advance beyond the need for receiving that individual recognition. These are the type of individuals that seem to gladly accept the full recognition for the work delivered by the entire team. They are a team manager but they are still thinking and acting like an individual contributor.

There are and will always be instances of the type of management behavior being rewarded. It is not however a sign of leadership and at least in my experience seems to be a behavior which eventually catches up with the individual. Leaders eventually identify this type of behavior and react negatively to it.

Leaders understand that their role becomes more strategic and directional, the higher up in the organization they go. They may identify the issue, prioritize the project, and provide the funding and staf
fing to see to it that it can be completed, but they do not perform the work product themselves. They know others must do this, as they have other issues to identify, prioritize and act on. They also know that those who actually do perform the work product should be recognized when they succeed.

These are the types of leaders that are recognized by their teams as a leader to be valued because they know that they will be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. What may not be so widely known is that these are leaders are also valued by other leaders as being able to successfully assemble quality teams that identify and resolve the issues they are faced with. When a leader publicly recognizes the efforts and abilities of the individuals on the team who successfully delivered on their objectives, they are also tacitly pointing out that they as leaders put together that team and put them in the position to be successful.

Giving credit where credit is due is the sure sign of a leader. A leader knows they are in charge and ultimately responsible for the delivery and success of any project. That does not mean that they have the right to, or should assume all the credit for the delivery and success of the project. On the contrary. The leader that understands their role in the project, who focuses on and enables the success of the others on the team, and then makes sure that they are recognized and acknowledged for their success, is also usually the one that gets the most credit without ever having to ask for it.

Arguing and Negotiating

When two people are have a discussion with opposing points of view it is usually called an argument. Webster’s Dictionary (an all time favorite of mine) defines an argument as: “An argument usually arises from a disagreement between two persons, each of whom advances facts supporting his or her own point of view.” This is a great description for what goes on between two friends when they are arguing if the beer does in fact taste great or is in fact less filling. I don’t drink that particular beer so it doesn’t matter to me.

However, if these two individuals are no longer representing themselves in the beer argument, but are now representing their respective different companies with opposing points of view, they are no longer arguing. They are negotiating. Going back to Webster’s we find the following definition for a negotiation: “a discussion set up or intended to produce a settlement or agreement”. To me these two descriptions appear to be the two sides of the same coin. There are many reasons to have an agreement, one of which is to avoid future disagreements. Once there is a disagreement you definitely want to have a negotiation to resolve it as an argument probably won’t provide a solution.

Now we are getting somewhere. When two people disagree, they have a discussion called an argument. When two companies disagree, they send people to have a discussion called a negotiation.

One of the key points required for both arguing and negotiating is to clearly establish what each participant’s starting positions are. Who is claiming what, and who is denying what? Who says “yes” and who says “no”. Who says “up” and who says “down”. Who thinks they should be paid a lot of money and who thinks they shouldn’t have to pay any money at all. That sort of thing. This is a very important point in the process.

If the two parties find that their initial positions are similar, or even the same, then it will be difficult to have a meaningful argument, and the negotiation will consist mainly of nodding heads and the shaking of hands. This type of premature negotiation has a tendency to leave both parties vaguely unfulfilled from the negotiation process.

The next part of the process should be the justification and validation of the respective initial positions. I think this is the key part to many arguments and is critical to any negotiation, or argument for that matter. The respective positions on the topic in question need to be defined and justified. Why does each participant believe that they are correct, and why do they believe the other party is not?

In a recent discussion with my wife (it was a discussion not an argument as she does not allow me to argue with her) she put forth the position that “I should have fed the dogs”. I never feed the dogs unless I am specifically asked to feed the dogs because she always feeds the dogs and if I also fed them we would very quickly have obese Chihuahuas. Hence my position was that I do not feed the dogs unless asked to feed them. We therefore started out with very well defined positions for the ensuing discussion with our differing points of view (argument).

As you might guess this was a discussion that I was not going to win.

Fast forwarding to the end of the discussion, it was decided (by her) that either I was asked to feed the dogs and forgot, or I was asked to feed the dogs and did not hear the request. The fact that I was at work in my office in another building in another part of town when this request was made was inadmissible evidence. So I went and fed the dogs.

In business, depending on who has made the claim or demand, there may be a similar tendency to accept the same type of behavior and response when it comes to requesting positional justification prior to a negotiation. Why does on party feel that they are due a large sum of money from the other party? What specifically justifies the claim? What specifically validates the amount? In too many instances businesses seem to rush to try and deal directly with the claim, regardless how potentially outrageous it may be, before they understand the basis for the claim itself.

Please do not misunderstand me. For the most part most businesses perform and act in a reasonably appropriate and logical manner. They usually only make claims requiring a negotiation when there is a justifiable cause for such behavior. I think that part of the reason for this general behavior is that businesses are usually made up of honorable and logical people. Those types of people are prone to logical and honorable behavior.

I also think that logical people fully expect to have to be able to justify and defend any claim that they may make. If in general the first response to any claim being made is to ask for a justification of why the claim was made, then there is a certain amount of preparatory work that should be expected.

When it comes to customers, sometimes this check and balance claim expectation validation can break down. In today’s hyper-competitive world, where the customer is always right and vendors strive to be identified as “partners” instead of just “vendors”, customer service is sometimes the only differentiating factor available in the market. In this new commercial world where the speed with which you respond to a customer request or demand can be the difference between keeping that customer and losing them to the more responsive competition, jumping when the customer says jump is rapidly becoming the expectation.

In this type of environment, where “partners” are working together to achieve a mutually beneficial solution (It’s true. That’s what it now says on every sales presentation I have seen, and they wouldn’t be exaggerating, would they?) it is sometimes easy to forget to ask why partners are making any specific demand, or making the claim that they are making.

Vendors and customers ask these sorts of questions of each other. Just as good fences make for good neighbors; these good questions make for good contracts and relationships. Sometimes partners can forget or neglect to ask these questions. Those exclusions can eventually make for some significantly misplaced expectations, expenditures and possible difficulties in the partnership relationship when the necessary reset on the expected demand response occurs.

Good customer service and customer relationships require vendors to not only understand what is wanted, but why it is expected. Asking for this justification of demands and claims is not the sign of a weak partnership. It is more the sign of an engaged relationship. To blindly respond to any customer generated stimulus will create an unbalanced and unsustainable situation. In this event the desire for a partnership will devolve into more of a master and servant arrangement where one party makes demands and the other fulfills them.

Asking for the justification of expectations, demands and claims is probably the best way to validate what the other party actual desires. Are they looking for a problem to be rectified, or is it something else? Are they testing your responsiveness, or do they have a genuine need? Is there something that they actually want, or are they just seeing what they can get? It is not the sign of distrust in the partnership. It is more the sign of parity in the relationship.

Or as in the case with my wife, it was probably just my turn to feed the dogs.