Standing Out

I need to again give attribution to my Austrian friend. He made a comment about standing out in the crowd that rolled around in my head for a while and resulted in the following.

Standing out does not necessarily mean that you are outstanding. It will be wise to remember this. Write it on the inside of your notebook. Possibly even tattoo it on the palm of your hand in the spot where you once wrote your crib notes for tests in school. You will need to continually remind yourself of this fact as you go through your business career. That being said, while being outstanding is always nice, there is really only one way to make progress in the leadership ranks, and that is to stand out.

Standing out requires you to separate yourself from the rest of the office herd. This in itself is something of a risk. It is easy to stay quiet and do as you are told. This is also the way to be part of the crowd. The crowd is safe. If you really want to be safe you can stop reading here, and get up and go close your door, and lock it. You could also possibly put a desk or cabinet in front of it for further safety. This will assure that your door cannot be opened, from either side.

Also notice how I phrased it that you needed to stand out from the crowd and not necessarily be outstanding in the crowd. Being outstanding is always a good way to stand out, but not everyone is or even can be outstanding. As an example, let’s look at a few of the most significant military leaders for the United States in the twentieth century.

General George Patton commanded the US forces in the European theater during World War II. He graduated forty sixth out of one hundred three from the West Point Military Academy. He obviously was not outstanding at school. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander (and future president of the US) similarly graduated in the middle of his class at West Point. Similarly not outstanding at school. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the most recent of the leaders being discussed and commander of the Desert Storm operation in the 1990’s, is the only one who graduated in the top ten percent of his class at West Point.

My point here is that only one out of arguable three of the most famous military leaders of our recent times was even remotely regarded as being outstanding during their formative years in their chosen profession. To further this point (I really don’t know how I got started on this military bent other than it brings forward historical figures that we should all be familiar with), General George Custer (yes, that one of Little Big Horn fame) graduated last in his class at West Point. Yes, Last. I bring this up because it should also be noted that at the age of twenty three Custer became the youngest general in the Union army during the Civil War and was regarded as one of the Union’s bravest and best leaders. Go figure.

With all that being said, how does one stand out in business? How does one become recognized as a leader? There are many different and various paths that can be taken in order to stand out, but I think they were in general reduced down to variations of the following three by my Austrian friend; be brilliant, be vocal, or be a pain in the ass. My addition to his analysis is that it may not be just any one of these paths that can lead to success. In some instances it may require someone to be a brilliant, vocal pain in the ass.

I would like to think of myself as nominally the brilliant leader of my family’s household, but I am pretty sure that my wife just considers me to be more of just a vocal pain in the ass.

Of the four leaders previously noted, only one, Schwarzkopf was considered to be brilliant. He was outstanding at West Point and was someone who was widely considered to be very intelligent and his class rank reflected that. But here as in business (as apparently in the military) brilliance will not be enough. There were plenty of cadets who graduated ahead of both Patton and Eisenhower who were probably likewise considered to be brilliant, but for some reason did not reach the heights that Patton and Eisenhower did.

This means that it is probably not just the brilliance that is important, but more so the application of that knowledge. You would assume that all the graduates from West Point accumulated roughly the same type and level of knowledge from that intnstitution, but it was not always the “brilliant” ones that advanced. Brilliance seems to be able to provide an edge or an advantage but in and of itself probably will not carry the day. I find this point to be somewhat heartening since I did not graduate at the top of my class nor can I claim to be particularly brilliant either.

That must mean that it is the being vocal, and / or the being a pain in the ass that will have a major effect on standing out and success. When you think about it, it only makes sense. Being vocal, or the being a pain in the ass means you are communicating, and it is the communicating of your ideas, positions or solutions that will enable you to stand out.

Please don’t get me wrong. I think being smart is better than not being smart. No one likes a vocal idiot, and an ignorant pain in the ass has all the attributes that Darwin’s theory of evolution would indicate nature would select against.

Custer performed the worst at West Point, but also achieved the general’s rank far faster than any of the others we are discussing. He is also probably best remembered for his reported folly in taking a contingent of approximately 500 soldiers into battle against a force close to 2,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by Chief Sitting Bull. However before that event, during the Civil War, Custer was acknowledged as a military strategist, tactician and leader who clearly proposed his goals and then would lead every one of his campaigns from the front of his column, and achieve his objective. He may have had many failings, some of which obviously may have led to his demise, but it seems that it was his ability to set and communicate his objectives (be vocal) to both his men and his superiors, and then to lead (successfully) from the front (taking the risk himself) that made him stand out from so many of the others in the military at that time.

With all that being said about Custer, it is also always a good idea to have much better information than he did when it comes to understanding any potential opposition that may be standing between you to your stated goals.

I guess you are considered vocal when your opinions, beliefs and actions are in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it would seem that the equivalent definition of a pain in the ass would be when your opinions, beliefs and actions are not in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it seems to me that I may have made a career out of being a pain in the ass (and not just according to my wife).

This does not mean that you should avoid being considered a pain in the ass. Most leaders that I know search out those people who have a considered different opinion from their own. As a leader I already have an opinion. I hope that it is considered and well thought out (however my wife usually doesn’t think so). I need other, different opinions to help me ascertain whether my opinion is the best one or if there are better ones out there. I can only do this when those other opinions are communicated to me.

Whether or not those communicated opinions come from people that agree with me (the vocal ones) or those that don’t (the pains in the ass), I have to figure out which are generated by the brilliant and which are not so much. Either way it is those that take a stand and put forth an opinion that get noticed. And of those it is usually the ones that have put in the effort, time and thought to intelligently support their opinion that truly stand out.

Now the last question left to resolve will be:
If I have an opinion that is different from my wife’s by logic it means that she has a different opinion from me. Does that make me a pain in her ass, or is she a pain in mine? I guess it depends on who is nominally in charge at our house.

Ouch. I think I may have to rethink that last little bit.

Complexity and Incompetence

Thank goodness for Spell Checker. I wasn’t paying full attention to what I was doing here when I started writing and initially misspelled “incompetence”. Talk about the potential for poetic justice on an article title like that.

 I have to give attribution for this topic to one of my friends in Austria. He was talking the other day and one of the things he said really resonated with me. So many times it seems that we like to think of our work as complex. Part of this business complexity definition desire may be based in how we may want to equate our self worth with the accomplishing of the difficult or complex, and part of it may be related to the positioning of an explanation if the goal is not attained. Either way, in reality we need to accept and address the fact that business is really not that complex.

 So much of business is built on the basics. Set a goal and then follow through. Create something of value for your customers. Say what you will do and then do what you have said. Treat the business’s money as if it were your own. Tell the truth. Ask questions. Read. Learn from your mistakes. The list can go on, but the components of the list are all equally simple and axiomatic.

 Those last few on the above list were proudly stolen from a wall chart that I saw regarding the basic rules for conduct in a kindergarten classroom – really. There were many others on the list that I thought were equally good an applicable (don’t hit, don’t hit back, etc.), but I didn’t want to go overboard here.

 I think you get my point. Many of the precepts that we have learned regarding basic human interaction (dating all the way back to kindergarten) form the foundation for conducting business. I have noted in the past that at its most basic business is about the interactions between people. Business is not done organization to organization. It is done person to person. It’s really not that hard. This brings me back to what my friend said. He said (and although I am quoting, I am also paraphrasing):

 “Claiming “complexity” as a reason for a business issue or performance is either the defining of a basic level of incompetence or the providing of an excuse for non-performance”

 I think he put it very well.

 The only piece that I might add would be to address our innate desire to make what we do seem important. On a base level it is difficult to equate doing something that is simple with doing something that is complex. We all want to succeed at the difficult or complex because we feel it has more value than succeeding at the simple. However in business, as with almost everything else, it is not the case.

 More specifically it is the ability to do something simple, and not to just do it (as the famous footwear commercial says) but the ability to do it very well, that makes it important. It seems all too often we juxtapose the goal of just getting something done with the goal of getting something done well, and then claim that the complexity was the cause for the performance difference.

 Complexity can neither be a reason nor an excuse for business performance. At the levels which business leaders must operate, there really can’t be that much room for complexity. Financially speaking, business leaders are not being asked to understand differential equations or Fourier analysis techniques. It is the simple concepts of Profit and Loss that we need to know. Are customers satisfied or not, and why? Are commitments met? It is the simple that needs to be our focus.

 It is interesting (at least to me) that I have had cause to cite Albert Einstein on several occasions in the past. Einstein is primarily associated with the development in physics of the theory of relativity, and other higher contributions to scientific thought. I seem to find myself applying him regularly to business as well. Maybe that is the definition of a truly smart person (Einstein, not me); they can be applied equally well to multiple fields.

 Einstein said (and this is a direct quote):

 “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

 Remember, Einstein reduced the entire theory of relativity to a single, simple equation:   E = Mc²

 The inference here is that if the theory of relativity can be expressed so simply, there should not be much in business that should either be considered or expressed to be complex.

 Perhaps that is where the complexity issue lies in business. Business currently seems to embrace and value complexity. It seems that some people in business either can’t or won’t expend the effort required to understand issues well enough to make them simple. Linking this back to my friend it would appear that those who can’t get a good enough understanding of the topic are incompetent, and those that won’t get a good enough understanding of the topic are looking to use it as an excuse for their non-performance.

 I think the issue is becoming more and more pervasive in business as we have created entirely new sets of business vernacular to assist in complex explanations of simple topics and issues. For example, now instead of having a “strength”, we now have a “core competency”. The definition of competency (according to Websters) is adequacy. Instead of being strong we are now merely adequate? If it is not core, it must be peripheral. Is there even such a thing in business as “peripheral competencies”, and if so, why would you even have them?

 I have digressed, but only in such a manner as to illustrate that we need to understand and accept that the only complexity that leaders have in business is the complexity that they themselves create, accept and impute to the business.

 This sounds somewhat trite even to my own ear as I think it over. And I am sure that there will be many who will think that this is an over simplification of many of the issues facing businesses today. I am also sure that there can be several seemingly complex examples of issues that they will proudly point to and describe as too complex for simple descriptions and solutions.

 But I think I am going to leave the challenge out there anyway.

 I’ll would look to Einstein (since he seems to be generally recognized as a pretty smart role model) and respond by saying that if they can’t describe the problem in more simple terms then they probably don’t understand it well enough yet. I think my friend was on to something in that if people say that they can’t understand it well enough to make the complex problem simpler then it may be time to question their competency to do the work. If they won’t understand it well enough to make it simple, then it actually does sound like they are making excuses for their non-performance of the desired tasks, which would also entail a leadership intervention and action.

 Complexity is something we choose to have in business. We seem to have built up almost a myth around it when it comes to business. We have created new words and methods to make the simple sound, look and even be more complex, and I think business is suffering for it. If we started to look at complexity as a lack of understanding of the issue, an excuse, or even incompetence, I think that we would see things become much simpler, very quickly.

Stop Using Best Practices

Businesses, like just about everything else, are always looking for the best way to do things. Businesses also like predictability. They like to know what the response or result will be to any specific action that may be taken. It is because of these drives and desires that when something is dubbed a “Best Practice” all businesses seem to flock towards it. While on the surface this has all the appearances of a good thing, in reality I think it has a tendency to hold businesses back.

I think the idea of “Best Practices” is a business construct created by consultants to position themselves as invaluable to the progress and evolution of business. In other words, it was created so someone could get paid for it. This would be similar to a music critic who tried to position Justin Bieber as invaluable to the progress and evolution of music. I guess you truly have to be a “Belieber” to buy into either of them. I also do not know of any music critic that would propose such a thing, and still be allowed to retain their music critic membership card, or music critic certification, or music critic secret decoder ring or whatever it is that allows them to be accepted as some sort of music critic. Even so, there are people who are actually “Beliebers”, and there are also businesses that buy into the idea of best practices.

Personally I am a Jazz and Alternative Rock kind of guy. I guess this musical preference may also indicate why I am more attracted to the more original and less formulaic ways of doing things.

I am concerned that when someone claims that they have developed a “Best Practice” that they are inferentially removing the possibility that there may be some other different or better way of doing things. After all, what can be better than a best practice? An even better than best practice? A new and improved best practice? This also brings up the question to me of: who gets to declare something a “Best Practice”? How do they know that their “best practice” is better than anything else, including those methods that may not have even been tried yet? My view is that they don’t.

I seem to have gotten off into musical allegories here, so I guess I will try and continue in that vein. Just because John Phillip Souza may have developed what some music critics now consider to be the very best practice when it comes to the genre of music that is known as “Marches” does not mean that he has developed a best practice for music, or marching bands for that matter. In fact as I sit here the idea of people who march to the beat of a different drummer continues to work its way into my consciousness. To take this idea even a step further, I think I remember watching a college football game on television last year where at half time the band actually played a heavy metal song by the band Metallica, instead of a Souza march. As I recall it got quite an ovation from the crowd.

I think any business that aspires to something other than their own optimal performance is limiting themselves. The idea here is that optimal performance is a moving target. As times, competition and conditions change, so will the optimal performance target. I think this will be the case, as in a different case, for each individual business. It is the differences and the different approaches to their optimal practices that generate differentiation, and competitive advantages for businesses in the market.

Best practice has a tendency to be thought of as a process, or a way of doing things. The idea being that if you do things in the best way possible, you should end up with the best possible result. Herein lays the issue with best practices for me.

Any process that is deemed to be best without first comparing and adapting it to both the existing business environment and the known and desired goals will probably not work. For me the definition of a best practice is the process that will get the business from where it currently is to the goals that it has set for itself the fastest, least expensively and the most efficient way possible. Notice how the best practice is dependent on both the starting point and the desired end state.

There are many purveyors of the best practice solution who would posit that this is not the case. They would say that the proper system is to change the business to adapt to a known process. This sounds suspiciously to me that a consultant (or the equivalent) has generated some sort of process that if rigorously followed should generate a positive result. Instead of going through the effort of adapting the “Best Practice” to the current or new business environment, it is positioned that the environment must be changed or adapted to the process.

Wait a minute. How is that again?

That to me would be the equivalent of deciding on a time signature (beat) and a chord progression in music and then stating that all successful songs will need to follow that guideline. Classical music, waltzes, polkas, pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass, etc, etc, will not all fit into this best practice guideline. It is the creativity and ingenuity of the musician who takes their knowledge of music and generates a new song that determines how successful they will be. If there truly was a best practice in music that was to be followed, all songs would sound monotonously similar.

Just as it is with the creativity and ingenuity of business leader who takes their knowledge of the components of the business and combines them in a new way that creates a new more efficient business model or (gulp) practice.

Too many times it seems that businesses want to look at their practices and processes in isolation of the goals and objectives. As a would-be musician I practice in order to maintain my current (low) level of musical proficiency, and to hopefully improve. My goal is to play as well in the Jazz band as I do when I practice. I find that each time I perform with the Jazz band, by the very nature of having others in the band who I interact with during the performance, each performance is different from how I practice.

Sometimes it is better, and sometimes I wish I was better. It is the difference between having proficiency and trying to apply a best practice. It is the performance that counts, not the practice.

Driving an adherence to the idea of implementing an existing and defined best practice will stifle the creative ability of leaders to try and evolve and create new models for the business. The constraint of trying to change and to fit the business to the defined process limits the ability of the leader to define a new way or new direction, and the business’s ability to adapt to the changes in its environment. They will be locked into trying to recreate something that may have worked in the past practice, but may not fit with the current members of the business and the performance that they are being asked to give.

In music you look for people who have capability and proficiency, and can combine their talents with others to make the music. In business I don’t think that adherence to a best practice can be a substitute for capability and proficiency, and it may in fact hinder a business’s ability to change and adapt, especially when the music changes.

From Anything to Something Specific

I really tried to take a break from putting out anything this week. The problem was that the closer I got to the end of the week the guiltier I began to feel at not writing anything. I tried to convince myself that my public would be disappointed at missing their weekly fix of my views on business and sales, and indeed I actually did get a question from a reader as to where was my post. However, the truth be told, it seems I am a creature of habit, and I am in the habit of providing my views on things, regardless of whether they are appreciated, or even requested, or not.

Oh well.

It was interesting that I wrote about golf last week, and then Tiger Woods announced his return from injury to play in this week’s tournament. This is a little bit interesting on several levels. First it is always interesting to have Tiger Woods in the field at a golf tournament. Love him or hate him he does draw interest. For me it’s a little bit more than that. Tiger Woods has always had a game plan whenever and wherever he plays. His preparation is the stuff of legend. In essence he plans his work and then works his plan. And he seems to do it better than just about anyone else. He has set the standard, whether it is on his recoveries or in standard execution.

Except this time. He acknowledged that he was not in optimal playing condition and has not prepared and practiced as he has before on previous recoveries, and that he was going to “play himself into shape”.

Many attribute this decision to the proximity of the next major golf tournament and Tiger’s pursuit of the record for the most major wins in a career. If this is truly the case then his latest move in returning to golf in a relatively unprepared state has a certain air of desperation around it and desperation in any endeavor, be it golf or business, is a cause for some amount of speculation and concern.

The same type of speculation and concern applies for businesses that are attempting a comeback from issues of their own. Businesses very seldom find themselves in any sort of difficulty as the result of a single event. Tiger hurt his back and had surgery. I am hard pressed to mention a similar type of singular event where as the result of it a business finds its ability to perform to be fully in question. Businesses don’t hurt their backs and have surgery which then require them to execute an immediate comeback plan.

The more usual reason that businesses find themselves in trouble is due to an inattention to the fundamentals of the business or the trends in the market. These types of issues tend to compound themselves over time and culminate with a “sudden” realization that there is a problem. With the realization that there is an issue comes the first reaction to desperately seek a quick solution.

I think it is fair to say that since most business issues did not result from an abrupt sort of event, quick solutions to the problem are not going to be easily implemented or particularly successful in resolving the issue. But that doesn’t seem to stop many businesses from at least trying them.

The two quickest solutions to business issues normally boil down to two simple approaches: Sell more, and Cut costs. Sometimes both solutions are attempted at the same time. Surprisingly enough, I think that these are probably the correct approaches, but that trying to apply them too quickly may only make the problems worse.

Just as many people are concerned that Tiger Woods’ trying to make a comeback from surgery so quickly might cause further injury to his back, making things worse.

There is an old saying in business: “You cannot cut your way to prosperity”. I think this is true. You may have to cut your way to survival, but you can’t cut your way to growth. With that in mind I am going to focus more on the “Sell more” aspect of businesses’ desperate responses to issues.

Too many times a business that finds itself in a recovery mode institutes a “Sell more” sales drive in order to drive incremental revenue, and hopefully incremental margin from it. Unfortunately under these types of circumstances “sell more” many times gets translated into “sell anything”. This usually results in the acquisition of many sales opportunities that do not adequately fit the proper deal profile for the business.

A proper deal profile for a business includes consistent, attainable deliverables; repeatable business products and functions that do not drain or strain business resources, pricing that enables contributory margins and profitability, and contract conditions that do not present onerous hurdles to the success of the engagement. These are the specifics associated with a healthy approach to sales.

Too often a business can get too anxious to rapidly try and recover from an issue that occurred over time. This can result in the “sell anything” approach to business in an attempt to generate revenue to help turn things around. All too often this approach results in lower margin deals and one-off opportunities that in the end not only do not add to efficiencies, but actually detract from them in the longer run. The sell anything approach is a scatter-shot pursuit of a specific solution, and as with most scatter-shot applications it results in far more “misses” than hits.

When a business is in any sort of difficulty, or is experiencing issues, incrementing in a number (large or small) of sales misses to the solution mix does not help. It only detracts from the situation, both in the resources spent ineffectively and the resulting number of sales deals that do not generate the desired or expected returns.

If it is deemed that the issue is sales or market related, and that a new sales direction or approach is required as part of the overall business recover solution, then a specific strategy and approach to new sales is called for. This will help minimize the number of extraneous or non-contributory deals that will be added to the business mix. When there are business issues, everything must be aligned and additive to the business solution. This includes the types and values of the sales opportunities that are pursued.

A business cannot allow the “Sell More” solution to become the “Sell Anything” solution. It will only  prolong the business’s recovery, or potentially even make things worse.

Will Rogers is quoted as saying “When in a hole, stop digging.” We also have the much older and unattributed quote “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” In business it would seem that the equivalent of the first quote might be “When in a hole, start selling”, with the equivalent rejoinder to the second being “Don’t just sell. Sell something specific.”

The idea of focus and discipline never goes out of style in business, even when times are tough, or recoveries are being attempted. Maintaining a focus on selling something specific and resisting the temptation of selling anything available will result in a better solution and stronger business over the longer run, and that is the focus that business needs to maintain.

Tiger Woods is a unique talent. We shall see if the departure from his proven successful preparation process pays off in his recovery attempt. It might pay off for him, but he did miss the cut in his first tournament back, and that is news in and of itself, since he so rarely fails to make the cut. Most of the time it does not pay off for a business to try for a quick recovery that departs from their specific processes either.