Service Economy

I attended a seminar the other day from a group that was offering a new service to businesses and business professionals. I admit that my attendance was more at the urging of a friend who played upon our friendship to get me to go than any specific desire on my part to attend a seminar of this sort. I don’t usually go to these things. I usually prefer root canals to seminars. However the lure of a “free” lunch in exchange for having to listen to the speakers, and the fact that I was reminded by my friend that I had agreed to go a couple weeks earlier was enough to swing the deal.

I should have known. I think most of you can guess where this is going.

I’ll start with the lunch. It was your typical buffet set up. Not too bad. Most of us understand the idea of getting in line and taking our turns walking by the assorted warming trays and selecting the ingredients for our meals. That is most of us with the possible exception of those that are prompt enough to get in the front of the line.

Why is it that the people in the front of a line need any kind or urging to actually do what they got to the front of the line to do in the first place? I guess they just wanted to be at the front of the line. They didn’t actually want to be first to get their food, sit down and eat. Didn’t they realize that by slowing the line down at the onset that the follow on effect would be that every subsequent function, including the after lunch speakers, would also be delayed.

Wait a minute. In hind sight that might not have been such a bad thing.

Come on, people. I was here for a lunch and some enthralling discourse, not to stand in line wondering why those in the front weren’t holding up (pun intended) their end of the bargain and getting a move on. Step up and take control of the situation. We are supposed to be business leaders.

After almost ten minutes of standing around, a slight nudge and a direct suggestion (Why don’t we get started with lunch?) by some obnoxious loud mouth (I couldn’t say who. Really…) somewhere back in the line, lunch got started. It is here that I should have reinforced one of the rules I had learned at previous buffet lunches.

If you have to ask someone what the contents of a buffet lunch warming tray are, if it is not readily apparent just by looking at it, you probably shouldn’t put it on your plate and try to eat it.

As I said it had been a while since I had been to one of these things, and I was hungry. After all we had been standing in line almost tem minutes. The response to my tray contents question did not include the words “poison” or any other items related to “inedible”, so I gave it a go. It did not go well. I ended up eating the rice, vegetable medley and a roll, all of which were easily identifiable at the outset. I had to go back and get butter for the roll. I have my standards when it comes to breads.

My friend (the one who insisted that I go to this thing) informed me that he was a vegetarian so it seemed that he was able to avoid my food selection miscue. His lunch plate contained no mystery ingredients. It seems these events are scheduled monthly and he has attended them in the past. If he had been a true friend he would have suggested my conversion to the vegetarian life style before lunch.

So it was on top of the delicious, nutritious and filling repast that we then embarked on the actual reason for the meeting. We were going to listen to a couple of people tell us about a new service that they had put together. I could hardly wait. It was going to be good.

Now I always try to simplify things. It just makes it easier for me. If it is simple I can rapidly come to the determination if I think it is useful or has value. It took me a while listening to them talk and rereading the handout to figure out what their service was.

They were offering a service where they would read the management trends and directions books on the management book (I really didn’t know there was such a thing) best seller list and provide the subscriber of their service a synopsis of each one. Really.

The netted out value was that you still had to read (their synopses), you just didn’t have to read as much.

I had to give them points for creativity and trying to figure out a way to monetize their love of books and reading. I enjoy books and reading too. But there are some books that even I have a hard time reading.

“Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce is probably at the top of that list. It’s over six hundred pages long. It took him several years to write the base story and then more than a decade to obscure it in a variety of dialects, images and allusions as to render it almost unreadable. I am not the only one that feels this way about this book. You can look it up. It took a few weeks of dedicated effort for me to get through it, and then when I was done I had to additionally read one of those literary analyses books about it just so I could understand what it was that I had actually read.

The rest of the books on my personal “Hard to Read” list are comprised almost entirely of business management books. Their titles are basically interchangeable and don’t really seem to matter. They are usually on the list because of their content, not their style.

It is George Bernard Shaw who is usually attributed as the author of the phrase:

“Those who can’t do, teach”

I would be so bold as to extend this with the corollary:

“Those who can’t teach, write”

If these business management book writers were so good at business management, why aren’t they captaining businesses themselves and being successful implementing their own ideas? But I digress.

My point here is have we really reached a point in a service based economy where we need a service to read books for us and provide us with their views of the salient or important topics of each book?

Now I think we have had this in the past. There was a set of “books” called CliffsNotes. They could be purchased at just about any bookstore (this is in a dark historical period before Amazon and eReaders, where books were actually composed of paper). These short booklets contained the summaries and salient explanations of many different literary works. In today’s vernacular they would probably be known as Lite Books along the same lines as Lite Beer. All the literary enjoyment, but much less reading.

They were primarily purchased by students that were too lazy to actually read the entire book they were assigned to read, yet still had to pass a test on the book in their English class.

In reality I am not so sure how I actually feel about this new service in our serviced based business society. I am strongly in favor of reading and enjoy a broad spectrum of topics and genres. However I am not particularly in favor of reading management self help books as they all strike me as being somewhat derivative of the previous generations of these instructional books and the authors haven’t quite learned yet how to compensate for this shortcoming with incremental entertainment value.

Yet further on the other hand (since we can’t have three hands) is the fact that the service actually reduces the amount of reading that one would have to do if one actually desired of such management instructional input. This would result in less time actually wasted on reading these books.

I guess the bottom line is that the value of this service depends on the value that each person ascribes to management self help books. If you are a devotee of them, then here is a way to increase the number of them that you become aware of with the same reading effort as a synopsis is shorter than the actual book. If you are not, then it is just a shorter version of something you wouldn’t have read anyway.

Either way, I think next time I’ll make my friend buy me lunch.


I didn’t know if I should write about ambivalence or not. I didn’t seem to feel too strongly about it one way or the other.

Ambivalence seems to be creeping into almost every aspect of our professional world. I can this tell by the number of times that I hear comments along the lines of “It is what it is…” or “We are where we are…” We seemed to have stopped learning, risking and striving. Instead of making things happen, we are now following a process and waiting for them to happen. What’s worse is that it seems to be a malaise borne trend that is increasingly difficult to counteract.

I don’t know if I can truly draw the analogy between the rise of the process driven organization and the perceived rise in ambivalence in the organization, but it does strike me as potentially more than coincidence.

Before the rise of the process, it was incumbent on the leader to drive the business machine. Creativity, anticipation and a drive to achieve the goal were the keys to their success. Mistakes were obviously made, but so was considerable progress. When looking at Jobs, Gates and others, they chose to break new ground, not follow a process. It was because of their new approaches to goal setting and problem solving that they were successful, not in spite of it.

There seemed to be no question as to what needed to be done and how to do it. They were going to get it done regardless of the adversity and it was going to be done their way. They were the ones that were Accountable, Responsible, Consulted and Informed. (That’s a reference to the ever more popular RACI matrix, where depending on the process being followed, there can be separate entities established for each of those topics.)

I think ambivalence comes from a loss of commitment, and the loss of commitment comes from the loss of ownership. It seems more and more that people no longer own the problem and solution relationship. They don’t even own the process of arriving at the solution. They are only required to follow a proscribed set of steps associated with the process that has been developed to enable the team to reach the solution.

When this happens it becomes that much easier to say “It is what it is.” It becomes sort of the modern mantra for saying “I was doing what I was supposed to do, so it is not my fault.” It is the acceptance of saying even though I was doing my job; I’m not responsible for the results.

I have written (ranted?) in the past that not quite good enough is now the acceptable standard. I am beginning to believe that the process based organization may also be at least partially at fault here as well. We seem to have shifted the focus away from actually getting things done and now focus more on the way things are done.

This behavior results in the rewarding of those that conform and administer the desired process the best as opposed to those that can creatively solve problems by taking ownership and driving the issue to resolution. And if you are only going to be recognized for how well you can follow a process as opposed to what you can actually conceive, do and solve, what sort of commitment are you going to have?

I suppose there are those that can in fact be fully committed to a process but I think the majority prefer to commit to a goal. This is where that inspiration and commitment thing comes back into play. I believe that people get inspired and committed to goals, not the process.

In May of 1961, then President John F. Kennedy set this memorable goal:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

He did not commit to the process of launching rockets. He did not commit to the process of training the best astronauts. He understood that while these processes would be a key to the Space Program*, he also knew that they would inspire neither the participants nor the public (who were in this instance the stakeholders that were being asked to pay for the expensive project.) He committed to the strategic goal of the Space program: namely getting to the moon.

*A little information on the difference between Programs, Projects and Processes. It may be a little arcane, but please bear with me as it will help with the example, as well as with better understanding the ambivalence in business today.

The definition of a program is usually that it is the sum of a related group of projects. The Space Program included a number of contributing Projects and sub-projects. Building the rocket was a project; however that project was further broken down into sub-projects such as the building of the command module, the building of the booster engine, etc.

The definition of a project is usually that it is a unique endeavor with a beginning and an end undertaken to achieve a goal. The building of a command module was a unique endeavor as it was the section of the rocket that would house the astronauts and control the flight. It contributed to the overall space program.

The definition of a process is usually that of a repetitive collection of interrelated tasks aimed at achieving a certain goal. The building of the command module was the project. The way that they built it was the process. I am not so sure that there were that many repetitive interrelated tasks associated with building these command modules as they were all essentially hand, but I think you get the illustration. Actually upon reconsideration when you start thinking about all the construction, installation and testing functions involved with the assembly of the command module there may have been ample room for many processes.

In a more business and organizational example, Steve Jobs set goals for his organization regarding what computing and personal devices should look like and be capable of in the nascent electronics markets. Bill Gates set goals for his organization regarding what operating systems should contain and how they should perform in the new software markets. Kennedy set goals for NASA (and the country) in what has become known as the space race. There was a total organizational commitment to the goals set by these respective leaders.

No one looked around and told Kennedy we are where we are, or it is what it is, when faced with the competitive successes of Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin at that time.

I think that as the Space Program progressed it should have taught us that as our goals advance, the projects and more importantly the processes must also be redefined on an ongoing basis. Just as the Gemini Program gave way to the Apollo Program which in turn gave way to the Space Shuttle Program, there was a continual refresh of the supporting projects and processes.

Allegiance and commitment are always made to the goal, not the process. I think ambivalence starts to creep into our structures when the new goals are only incremented from the old and the objective becomes more process oriented and less goal focused. I also absolutely believe that process will continue to be a key to the success of almost all future endeavors, both business and national. It is the way we retain what we have learned from past goals and apply it to the future goal to avoid making the previously encountered mistakes.

My issue is that when the following of a process gets so rigorous and is so focused on avoiding past mistakes that we are no longer making any new mistakes we begin to become process bound. When that happens we are arguably no longer making progress or owning the goal. We are instead focused on the process, and we become somewhat ambivalent to the goal.

I am pretty sure I know how I feel about that.

The Sound of Silence

I have talked about speaking up in business several times. Conversely I have also cited the American humorist Will Rogers on several occasions for his immortal line “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Unfortunately while I may cite Will Rogers, I rarely follow his advice as I have created issues far more often by speaking up than I have by remaining quiet. You would think I would learn. I think those of you who know me are not surprised that I haven’t.

I’ll paraphrase another American comedian Ron Wood, and say that while I may have the right to remain silent, I rarely seem to have the ability to remain silent. But I’ll continue to work on it.

In business for the greater part we are all knowledge workers. That means that we provide and deliver our value to the organization in the form of our abilities to recognize and process information in the pursuit of the organization’s goals. Equally important is what is done with the information once it has been processed. Having information and not communicating it in an organization is almost as useless as not having the information at all. What good is having a solution if you don’t communicate it? So, our value is not just the knowledge we have but also our desire and ability to communicate to and with others.

Not everyone thinks, or processes information the same way. This is actually a very good thing for all involved.

Unless you are my wife. It seems to significantly frustrate her that I think so differently from her. She doesn’t understand how I can be so wrong so often when it comes to communicating with her. I guess I will continue to work on that too.

A healthy organization should have a healthy diversity of input from the team members. There should be an ongoing dialog on almost all topics as new issues are worked and old ones revisited for potential improvements. As the speed of business continues to increase and the time and distance associated with business decrease, it is probably safe to say that the conditions that were in place when a decision was made have changed.

The point here is that an ongoing dialog on a wide range of topics is important to the health and success of any team. Argument and examination by their very nature end up generating stronger solutions through addressing potential weaknesses to proposed solutions. But how far can or should a leader allow this dialog to go? When does continued discussion actually start to become dissension in the ranks?

Depending on the commitment of the team members and the trust of the team leader, I think the simple answer here is that ongoing discussion, even regarding previously “closed” topics should never be viewed as dissension. The reason is simple.

If you silence a differing opinion on one topic, you may have unknowingly also silenced that opinion on any of several other topics. No one likes to be told to shut up. Will Rogers was talking about our own self control, not the imposed control of others. If one is told to be quiet often enough on certain topics, they may of their own volition start to extend their reticence to other unintentional topics. And since no one is right all the time, there may in fact come a time when there will be a need for the knowledge that the differing opinion represents to generate the issue solution, and it may not be forthcoming.

A healthy organization has a strong amount of dialog going on between the members themselves and between the members and the leader. As ideas are generated and alternatives considered the discourse should increase. This again points out the difficult transition that would be leaders must make: that of moving from the position of generating and defending ideas to one of encouraging and acting on the ideas of others.

Most managers attain their position because they were able to generate and defend good solutions to multiple issues. This engenders a type behavior. However once they are in a leadership role it is no longer the sole behavior that they must demonstrate. Their new role must evolve into a utilization and growth of others to generate and defend good solutions. Hence the needs for the ongoing give and take between the leader and the team members.

But what happens if the manager doesn’t change? What becomes of the team dynamic if the person who was rewarded for generating good ideas continues to insist on generating all the good ideas?

The first indication that this managerial centralization of solution ideas is occurring is when the team communication starts to become reduced. Instead of a continuous stream of new proposals and iterations on older issues, there is less and less that is put forth. If the manager is going to generate the solution anyway, why not remain silent and wait for it.

As I noted earlier, no one likes to be told to be quiet. Whether it is directly in the form of publicly shooting down the proposals, or tacitly in the form of quietly just disregarding their input, no one likes to see or feel that their intellectual work is being disregarded, or continuously superseded by someone else intellectual work. If it happens often enough, team members will have a tendency to just shut down. They may work out the issues, but they just won’t bring forth the proposals and solutions if they don’t feel they will at least be honestly analyzed for function and purpose.

They in effect go silent and just wait to be told what to do. Either that or they have a tendency to leave for other organizations.

I’ve discussed the difference between compliance and commitment in the past. Commitment comes from team members feeling that their input and ideas are valued. That doesn’t mean that their ideas must always be selected. It means that they should be discussed. Rarely is an individual’s entire proposal invalidated. There are always pieces of it that can and should be incorporated into the final solution.

As leaders, the discussion and selection process associated with functional strategies and solution implementation is delicate. Selecting and supporting the stronger aspects of the team’s work while acknowledging and remanding back the less applicable aspects for further work can be a tightrope like balance. Be too harsh a critic and risk alienating the team. Not be demanding enough and risk allowing less than optimal ideas and work into the process.

When faced with this type of conundrum it is easy to see why the default response may be to drive harder. It is also easier now to see why so many organizations seem to be getting quieter. If the manager believes that the best person to rely on is themselves, then why does there need to be a dialog.

Issue identification, goal and strategy setting, and problem resolution should not be quiet activities. They are the basis of all business progress. The noted past conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Erich Leinsdorf once said when discussing the music that he believed in friction and that without it there could be no progress.

Here was a leader (orchestra conductor) who had to lead as many as one hundred and twenty different team members (musicians), each with an instrument with a discrete voice, in the playing of some of the most complex symphonies in history. Each musician needed to play and contribute, but within the structure set by the conductor in the creation of the end product. In his time that organization was credited with some of its finest performances.

It is often thought that the conductor simply tells the musicians what to play and how to play it. Leinsdorf is credited with changing the process so that when he wanted something, he didn’t just demand it. He asked for it, and explained why he wanted it. The results and the performance reviews spoke to the success of his approach.

As business moves more and more to virtual types of office arrangements, and meetings become more like phone calls, the office continues to become a quieter and quieter environment. Managers can mistakenly interpret this phenomenon as the tacit agreement with their plans and policies. I think in most instances it is not.

I think the new office arrangements and business dynamics have only served to exacerbate some of these management tendencies. Regardless, there seems to be a large number of organizations that like in the old western movies, it can be said that things are quiet, almost too quiet. And the sound that silence makes should speak volumes as to where the ideas and solutions (as well as the future leaders) are, or in most cases are not coming from.