Okay friends and neighbors. It is time to look up. Cast your eyes skyward for I will be climbing way up on my soap box, my high horse, and anything else that I can orate from. It is time for me to emulate Don Quixote and joust one of my windmill like pet peeves: Preparation.

This is a topic that has been rattling around in my head for a while. I just didn’t quite know how to go about approaching it. I liken it to the general malaise that I feel has been permeating the business environment for several years. It is the feeling that not quite good enough is now good enough.

Let me provide an example.

There once was a time where it was unacceptable to have any issue whatsoever with your phone. This was a time before cellular service and mobile phones. The phone company was held to the absolute highest standards of reliability and quality of service. If you had a dropped call or a quality problem, it was addressed. You were paying for the best network and by golly you were supposed to get the best network.

Fast forward to the current mobile communications networked world. We have all experienced and have even come to expect dropped calls and garbled communications. It comes with the wireless territory. If you wanted the old network desk set reliability you would have called from a desk phone, or your home phone, or a pay phone. (As an aside, when was the last time anyone has seen a pay phone? They are gone.) Now as these wireless type technologies and capabilities are applied to our business and home communications networks in the name of cost reduction, we are now experiencing the same types of dropped calls, garbled communications and generally lower quality of phone service.

Business communications service and performance levels that would have gotten IT executives fired in the past are now the accepted norm. Money has obviously been saved, but not quite good enough is now good enough. In fact it is the norm.

So what has all this rant about networks and such have to do with preparation? Good question.

The idea of preparation was brought home to me the other day. Some of you may know that I am something of a would-be musician. I have told many people that the only thing keeping me from being a good musician is talent, or actually the lack of it.

Ron White, a very funny Texas comedian said “You can’t fix stupid.” I have definitely found this to be the case. Hard workers are great. Smart people are at a premium. The Steve Gobeli corollary to this statement is “You can’t learn talent.” I can learn all sorts of musical theory, styles and songs, but I will not be as good as those that were born with the musical gift.

But here I have truly digressed.

I was called the other day and asked if I would substitute for a regular band member who would be unable to play the gig. I was flattered and of course said yes. This was about six days before the gig.

I then started my preparations.

I got a copy of the set list so I would know what songs to play. I added about twenty minutes to my practice time to better familiarize myself with them. Things were going well.

On the day of the gig I left ninety minutes early because I knew that it would take me at least thirty minutes to get to the venue. I also knew that it would take another thirty to forty five minutes to load my equipment in and get it set up and ready to play. (In my world “roadies” are mythical beings. I have to haul my own amps and instruments.) I could then spend ten to fifteen minutes loosening up, relaxing and getting ready to play. At the appointed time I would be prepared, relaxed and ready to go.

It was interesting that the other guys in the band showed up about the same time I did. They did the same things. When it came time to start they were also ready.

We played for two hours. It was a blast. Even my wife said we sounded good. Strong praise indeed.

In business, for the most part, we know when our meetings are scheduled, what our roles in them will be and what the agenda is. When you think about it, it is a little bit like a musicians gig. The only difference is that in the new world where not quite good enough is now good enough if musicians performed their gigs like many business people are performing in their meetings, they would never be called back to play again.

Since meetings have evolved to where they are no longer really meetings, but more than likely conference calls, I can’t seem to remember when one actually started on time. People are late dialing in, switching phones because the one they are on is not working, hushing barking dogs, quieting crying children amongst other distractions, to the point where just getting the meeting started becomes a significant obstacle to overcome.

I am not saying that everyone needs to “practice” their parts in the meeting. What I am saying is that everyone should know what the meeting is about, have read the agenda and prepared for the role in it. If they are going to present charts, they should have located them on their computer, opened the presentation and been prepared to present them, instead of making everyone else wait while they perform these tasks.

In short, everyone needs to be prepared.

I have talked to other people in the office who have told me of the detailed preparations that they go through when they are getting ready for a game of golf or a ride on their motorcycle, or what they must go through in order to properly clean and wax their black corvette in the Texas heat.

I couldn’t make that last one up. He actually has a black plastic car in a place where the temperature regularly exceeds one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. According to him it requires all sorts of special cleaners and waxes because of the abundant (and hot) Texas sun.

These are just examples of how we prepare for events and activities (my substitute gig included) outside the office that we assign appropriate importance to. We know what it takes to play well in front of an audience, or get the paste wax shine on our car. We also know what it takes to be prepared for, and contribute to a meeting. We know when they start and what we are supposed to do.

Just like the audience lets the band know if they prepared for and performed appropriately, we need to start holding ourselves (and each other for that matter) to the same levels of preparation and performance in business. Not quite good enough in music is definitely not good enough. It sounds terrible.

But we seem to be willing to say that not quite good enough is good enough in business. We let it slide that the meeting started late, or that the slides weren’t ready or the attendees couldn’t respond to or answer the questions.

In most instances it’s not a question of talent. As I said, you can’t teach talent. For the most part I find most people in the professional environment to be very talented. I think it’s more of a question of preparation and the pride of performance in the public realm, or meeting as the case may be. In the new world of not quite good enough being good enough, it seems that it is okay to not be quite prepared enough for a meeting.

I find it to be frustrating, but then I guess I’m the kind of person that goes through the eight hours of preparation to play music and get paid only slightly more than minimum wage per hour for the “two hours of work”. I also invariably show up for meetings on time.


I saw an article in a local newspaper today, and as usual it got me to thinking. The article was about a high school that would not allow its National Honor Society members to wear their honor society sashes during their graduation commencement ceremonies. The school district decided that it did not want those graduating students who were not part of the honor society to feel excluded or lessened for not having been an honor society member.

Think about that for a moment.

Kids that excelled were not allowed to be recognized for excelling because of the way it might make those that did not excel feel.

Now I am sure that there are many twists and turns in this story that we have not been a part too. It is my understanding that the National Honor Society is viewed in some schools as more of a “club” due to its non-school requirements and activities. Even so, if only part of this story is true, what would happen in business if business was forced to behave in such a manner with those who excel?

Now before I delve too deeply into this topic from a business point of view, there probably are a few things that we need to remember. I think it is best for us all to remember that each and every business only wants the best, the brightest, the most gifted on their team. They have all implemented interview and selection criteria to make sure that no average person darkens their halls. They spare no expense in their never ending hunt for only the best talent.

Once each business has assembled their own veritable “Avengers” (the first one, where they save the world, not the second one where I’m not sure what they actually did…) slate of employees, they then require that each manager force fit them into a bell shaped distribution curve for their individual performance so that individual ratings and raises can be allocated appropriately.

Wait a minute. In some strange way that actually does sound a little like the high school in question.

Let’s get back to the topic and talk about recognition in business for a little bit. It is, or at least should be an integral part of any employee compensation or retention program. The problem is: How do you recognize those that have excelled without potentially demoralizing or alienating those that may not have done as well. I think that this can be an interesting question on several levels.

The first level is to make sure it is an organizationally acceptable practice to publically recognize individuals. All cultures have a tendency to impose their view of things on the world. I think in the US we are somewhat competitive, understand and accept the concept of individual recognition in a team oriented organization. There are other countries with similar views of things, as well as some that tend to take a little more “team” view of things as opposed to individual performance. Many of us look at it as a reason to work and strive that much harder in order to reap those individual gains.

This is particularly prevalent in many of the sales organizations. Sales incentives, sales rewards, sales trips and recognition are all part of the package. Many sales people, in addition to the compensation, see the opportunity to be recognized for excelling in front of their peers as one of the primary driving incentives for their work.

For the most part, this is how sales recognition works. There is a focus on achievement and those that excelled. There is minimal concern about the feelings of those that did not. All sales people are at the sales meetings. They all know if they achieved or not. If they did not attain the required threshold they had no expectation of being recognized in front of their peers. Their expectations were set long before the recognition was provided.

The advantage of sales in this sort of situation is that it is a very quantitative objective. You get the numbers or you don’t. If you get them, wear a nice suit when you walk on stage in front of your peers. If you don’t, try to sit toward the back in audience and remember it is bad form to make snide comments about those on stage.

However, that may not be the case in other locations or business disciplines. How do you recognize the best accountant? I mean really, how do you recognize them? Do they add their numbers that much better? This is where the recognition ideal starts to run into trouble. Just like the Russian judge in the ice skating competition that seems to have preordained the winners regardless of their performance, when you introduce a human factor or “judgment” into the recognition algorithm you open it up for perceived issues and abuse.

When a recognition program moves away from a quantitative approach to valuation, it begins to move away from rewarding for what is actually getting done and starts to enter the realm of rewarding for how things are getting done. How things are said becomes more important than the content that is contained in the communication.

There is in essence now a question of who gets to go up on stage in front of their peers. Some accountants may feel slighted because they actually added more numbers correctly than the accountant that was selected to be recognized. Others may feel slighted because they were associated with subtraction functions and everybody knows that only the addition guys get all the recognition.

It is in an instance such as this that a recognition program can in fact become a disincentive to those that are not recognized. If there is something other than a pure performance based criteria there will always be the suspicion that the Russian judge had preselected the winner.

Another issue associated with recognition can be culture. In some cultures individuals like to be recognized for the contribution, but they may not want to be recognized publically in front of their peers for their contributions. Some cultures prefer a more individual based one-on-one recognition. A direct word from the leader or a personalized congratulatory note on a job well done can be preferred to taking a bow in front of one’s peers.

This again is a good way to avoid the perceived snub or demoralizing effect associated with those not receiving the recognition. A simple acknowledgement or a small token of appreciation from the business leadership without all the pomp and circumstance (that’s a high school graduation reference in case you missed it) can readily serve as way to recognize those that have excelled.

It’s no secret that recognition is an important aspect of business and team morale and satisfaction. If there are going to be public recognition programs they need to be as quantitative in nature as possible. If all participants are aware of the recognition criteria thresholds, then there usually cannot be any issues generated by those that are not recognized.

Regardless of how unbiased or expert management may feel it is, when any sort of “judgment” is injected into the recognition process there will be a segment of the business or team that will feel someone else may have been unfairly selected. This can result in a set of responses and behaviors that are contrary to the desired culture of inciting achievement.

In looking at recognition based rewards for those disciplines where it is possible to implement quantitative thresholds, a public recognition programs as part of the rewards function could be preferable. Everybody knows how they have done with respect to their objectives and there should be no hard feelings for those that know they did not perform as well as others.

For those disciplines where it may be difficult to solely gage performance quantitatively, it may be preferable to look at more individual based methods of recognition. Those that are selected for recognition can receive it directly and those that are not will not feel excluded or lessened for not receiving similar recognition.

Very much like the high school students at the graduation ceremony who won’t be feeling bad because there will not be the public differentiation between them and the National Honor Society graduates who were not allowed to wear their honor society sashes with their cap and gowns at the graduation ceremony.

Immediate Feedback

I was driving along the other day and recognized that I had changed my behavior. I’m a guy so this is indeed a significant moment of self awareness. I don’t think anyone else noticed this change in my behavior but me, but it was a change none the less. I have one of those cars that have a little indicator on the dashboard that tells me when I am being economical in my driving habits. Some cars have very cool indicators such as leaves. The more leaves that are visible, the more economical you are being. Mine doesn’t do that. It says “ECO” or it doesn’t say anything. On or off. That’s all you get. But it is immediate, and that is what I wanted to talk about.

In the past I never got the sort of immediate feedback from my car that encouraged me to be economical. The only feedback that I got was a delayed, periodical feedback when I needed to refill my car with gas. I would stand there filling up (because full service gas stations like the one I used to work for when I was a kid are things of the past) and watch the price wheels whirl around gyroscopically fast due to the immense centripetal forces acting on them. I would try to think back to how long ago that it was that I previously filled up, and wonder what else I could be doing to lengthen the interval and hence become more economical and save some money.

What my car told me was that most of the time I was being pretty economical. I sort of got in the habit of checking both my speed and my economy rating as I drove. I found that when I became frustrated with slow movers who insisted on remaining in the left lane while traffic whizzed by them on the right, people who were obviously lost and needed to get off the road, find a parking lot and call someone to get directions, or anybody who was ignorant enough to be texting while driving, and did all I could to rapidly get around and away from them, my little “ECO” light went off.

This is not the change in behavior that I was talking about.

I still want to be nowhere near these moving road hazards as they navigate through their commutes, and will expend a little extra gasoline in order to achieve this goal.

What I do want to talk about is all the other less apparent and visible times that the “ECO” light went off and gave me the immediate feedback that I might not be driving as economically as I could be. I have smoothed out my accelerations and anticipated my stops. I have become more aware when my car is being operated in an economical mode. I have changed my behavior.

Now I have been driving for a long time. I started driving when some cars that are now considered “classics” were then considered “junkers”. I have filled the tanks in the various cars that I have owned for years. Thinking back, this was the only time that I got any feedback regarding the relative economy of my driving habits, other than my mother and later in life my wife telling me to slow down. This feedback was delayed. It was feedback that was given well after the behavior had been exhibited. In fact I think most of the time that I actually got this feedback the car was off and I was standing outside of it trying to fill it up.

I can’t really think of a single instance where I would call the feedback associated with the expense of paying for yet another tank of gasoline constructive or supportive. It was usually more of the negative feeling associated with giving away some of your hard earned money for something that you were just going to burn.

Yet for years I had gone on with this post behavior, periodic feedback without really materially changing the behavior that was driving what could at best be described as negative feedback. It took something as simple and small as immediate positive behavioral reinforcement feedback in the form of a little light on my dashboard that came on when I was doing the right thing. It worked.

Now let’s metaphorically switch gears (there have been several of these automotive metaphors sprinkled in so far) and apply what I have learned to business, which is usually the subject for any of these articles.

Most people who work report to someone. If you report to someone, chances are that periodically you are either going to have a review in which you are provided feedback, or have a review in which you will provide feedback. The parallel here is that this review will be the opportunity for someone to refill your tank, or for you to refill someone else’s tank. As I pointed out above, filling the tank is not usually synonymous with having a good time or a positive event.

As trite as it may sound, I think the idea of utilizing an immediate positive behavioral dash light, the first successful driving behavior altering event (for me anyway) may be a new and better way of positively modifying or reinforcing positive employee behavior, which if I am not mistaken is one of the primary goals of employee reviews.

I have tried to maintain a closer view and review with my team since recognizing this behavioral modification key in myself. I have taken to reinforcing the desired behaviors and events with my team on a much more regular basis. Instead of dwelling on or going into greater depth on those issues that are not performing in the desired manner, I ask that they look at the opportunities where we are getting good results and pattern their actions and activities in a similar manner.

One of the keys here is not to confuse immediate feedback with micro-management. Telling people what to do, or providing infinite feedback on everything that they do will probably not assist in achieve either the desired goals or the desired behavior. It will probably just annoy everyone, yourself included.

Pick the specific desired goal. In my car’s case it was fuel economy. It didn’t try to tell me how to steer, drive, maintain or clean my car. It just told me when I was operating it in a relatively economical manner. Each business and probably each group within the business will have a primary goal, to which behaviors should be pointing.

Pick the feedback methodology. My car told me when I was doing the right thing. It rapidly became apparent to me when I was not doing the right thing because my car was no longer telling me I was doing the right thing. That fact alone made me want to change my behavior so that I continued to get the positive feedback and reinforcement. I like positive reinforcement and feedback. I think most people do. Reinforce the positive and ask how they can move that which is not positive now into the positive in the future.

Stick with it. I have had my car for a while. Thinking back I am pretty sure it has had this economy metric since it was manufactured. I am not entirely sure I recognized when I was paying attention to it, but I do know now that looking back my behavior and driving habits have changed for the better (more economical)…
…except when I find myself behind a slow-poke in the left lane, a lost soul in the city, or a texting idiot.

Some behaviors take longer than others to change, but I am still hopeful.

There will continue to be those periodic reviews where there is a prescribed format for the review. They can be annual, semi-annual, or just about as often as you want, or can stand. They will also invariably be of the “you did this right, you need more work here” type of review. The big issue for me will be that they are appreciably separated from the actual behavior that is the subject of the review.

Sort of like the filling up of the gas tank as the metric of how economically you have driven over the last period.

If you really want to make progress with the team regarding goals and behavior, you need a dashboard light that provides immediate feedback.