All posts by Steve

More Lessons Learned Starting a Business

A while ago I wrote about starting my own small business. It’s a really small business. Just me in the garage evenings and occasionally on the weekend. It’s now about eight weeks in and it might be a good time to go through some of the simple lessons that I have learned and, in some cases, relearned during this process. I have to admit that many things I knew, learned before and even suspected, still hold true.

The first thing that was reinforced was the decision as to whether or not this was to be a real business, or what I would call a “hobby”. The baseline for this decision is how Cash Flow is treated. A hobby is something where you are aware of your expenses, but do not fully track them, as the difference between personal and business expenses can be somewhat blurry. In a hobby you know you are spending the money, but you’re not so worried about it as it has an entertainment value as opposed to a baseline for profitability.

For the business, I chose the tactic of keeping all receipts and tracking them (and revenues) via a spreadsheet. I set aside my initial cash investment for equipment (saws, sanders, grinders, etc.), as well as the initial payments for the raw materials that I would need to make the product. I viewed this as my Class “A” funding, to use entrepreneurial lingo. I didn’t want to have to go back to my investor (me) and explain to myself how my initial business case was flawed, if I in fact ran out of cash.

Fortunately, actually not fortunately, it was according to plan – orders did start to come in quickly.

Now came the balancing act of trying to grow. That meant ramping up production, which in this case meant making a couple more game boards than I actually needed each week, in order to build a little inventory. It is October, and the gift giving season will be here soon. It does take some time to build the products, and I am planning on a continued sales ramp through the end of the quarter. I would like to have some products on hand to turn into revenue as quickly as possible.

I don’t however have the ready cash, as part of my plan, to be able to just start producing fully in anticipation of such demand. Such is the balancing associated with cash flow. How much can you spend and how quickly can you get it back.

Another topic was quality. As I continue to produce the boards, I get better at it. I not only get better, I also get faster. I have gained confidence. I began to think I had it figured out. It took one inferior product produced to bring me back down to reality.

I am my own best, or in this case worst critic when it comes to what I produce. If it is not good enough for me, then it doesn’t get sold or shipped to a customer. Those resources, time and materials spent on making that inferior product were wasted. I will not get them back. It brought home the cost of quality, or in this case non-quality very quickly.

Speaking of manufacturing, as I mentioned I continue to learn how to manufacture better and faster. The old adage “practice makes perfect” does have some application here. I have gotten faster and more accurate at the measurement and cutting aspects of the process. I have learned that it is faster and easier to cut, and recut a straight line, than it is to try and sand a straight line. I have refined, changed and in some cased reduced the amount of raw materials required to manufacture. As might be expected it has had a beneficial effect on my bottom line.

As an aside, I have also learned that as soon as you bend what was once a straight piece of metal, it will never be straight again, no matter how long or hard you work at straightening it. Just a tip for those who may also decide to try and work with metals.

The value of having some inventory, as opposed to only starting to build when an order came in has shown its value. I have already mentioned the balancing act between tying up a lot of cash in inventory versus having it available for other expenditures. But it turns out that customers are actually pleased when they get their desired product faster than when it is promised to them. I recently had my first return customer (he originally bought a small board, and he came back to buy a large one). He mentioned that it was both product quality and the fast shipment that brought him back.

Imagine that.

Next comes looking for opportunities to expand both the market for the existing products and looking for new types of products to create. As I said, I am making metal game boards (and game pieces) for Chess, Checkers, Go, Pente and the like games. They seem to be pretty well accepted, at least initially by my go to market channels (in this case on-line purchasing sites eBay and Etsy).

The questions are:

Are there other board games that may be readily adapted to a metal platform?

And

Are there other channels to market for the existing and potentially new metal boards?

I am currently working on a potential backgammon board as a product platform expansion. Backgammon is an older and widely played game. I will not make many boards to start as it will be a much more involved manufacturing process (involving much more difficult angle cuts as opposed to the current right angles I use now). It may actually require outsourcing to a machine or cutting shop, at least initially to get it done. I will see how this goes.

As to expanding channels to market, on-line still appears the way to go for now. It continues to provide the broadest market coverage, while still providing the lowest investment associated with merchant systems and the like. I will continue to look at other artisan and mercantile type sites to see what it may cost to put my products up on those sites. That way I will be able (hopefully) to continue to expand the number of people who can see and purchase my products.

I have looked into attending trade and other types of craft shows, as another channel to market. These may be viable channels in the future, but I am not so sure right now. Almost all of these events require a registration fee of some type. Applying this fee against the margin I get from each product sale tells me how many boards I must sell during the course of the show (usually two days over a weekend) in order to just break even. It also means that I would have to probably invest a little more heavily in inventory as customers who attend these shows normally like to go home with the products that they buy at these shows. Not having available product to deliver would probably limit sales success here.

Most importantly, the weather is still nice, and I would like to golf at least once on the weekends as I continue to work at my chosen career during the week. Once the weather changes and it begins to get a little colder and a little less desirable to play golf, I will probably revisit the trade and craft show decision.

Did I mention that priorities are a must when starting your own business?

Finally, I come to marketing. I have the website up. It can be viewed at https://metalgames.biz/. I have the purchase and merchant systems working on Etsy at https://www.etsy.com/shop/MetalGames?ref=seller-platform-mcnav. I have started to get customer reviews (all positive so far) and am making sure that they are visible on both sites.

The next step was to create a site and presence on Facebook. It seems to be the granddaddy of all social networks at this point. Again, this is a relatively simple process. Facebook has all the required information to quickly lead you through how to set up a page for a business. Mine can be viewed at fb.me/MetalEnterprises. It seems that “Metal Games” was already taken by someone. Such is life.

I am looking into other media sites such as pinterest. I was actually just out there looking and trying to quickly understand their process and methodologies for getting “pins” out there. I will see if I can get that social media capability up and working in the next day or so.

Several things are similar for a one-person garage shop and a ten-thousand-person multi-national company. Knowing where your cash is and how quickly you can get back what you have spent dictates what your cash flow is. Profitability is great and will ultimately dictate longer term success, but cash flow is what allows you to keep the doors open. Product quality is a premium. “Good Enough” is not anywhere near good enough. Set your personal thresholds high and do not compromise. It matters. Continuing to seek out new customers and being as responsive as is possible to those you find will always be the keystone for business success.

And, as is the case for me at Metal Games (as in most of the work I do) have fun.

Budgets and Quotas

It seems to me that too many times I have heard the words “budget” and “quota” used interchangeably. I don’t know why, but this really concerns me. Perhaps I am over reacting. It doesn’t seem to bother others. At least if it does, they aren’t showing it. Perhaps it is just my recent dealing with budget-oriented groups that are acting like quota-oriented groups that is making me more sensitive to this phenomenon. In any event, I’ll do a little comparing and contrasting of budgets and quotas and see what the rest of you think.

First, let’s put a couple of definitions out there. It is always good for everyone to start from the same baseline. First off, do not Google “budget”. You will get far more than you ever wanted to know about some care rental company. But, as you might guess, let’s start with:

Budget

Budgeting for a business is a process of expressing a detailed quantification of resource requirements (capital, material or people) that are expected for given time period in future. Budgeting can be done for any person, business, government or anything that makes and spends money. Restricting in this definition to financial results for business firms we can explain budgeting as process of preparing a detailed statement of financial results that are expected in the future period of time.

https://www.mbaskool.com/business-concepts/finance-accounting-economics-terms/8632-budgeting.html

As you can see it primarily deals with the amount of money (or resources) needed or available for a purpose in a future period of time. This means it is a definition of how much you can spend on, or the expense for something. Let’s keep this “spending” idea in mind when we talk further about budgets.

Now we will move on to quotas. Hopefully this one will be a little more straight forward.

Quota

Sales Quota is the sales goal or figure set for a product line, company division or sales representative. It helps the managers to define and stimulate sales effort. Sales quota is the minimum sales goal for a set time span. Sales Quota can be individual, or group based e.g. for a business unit or a team.

https://www.mbaskool.com/business-concepts/marketing-and-strategy-terms/1919-sales-quota.html

Again, we have a financial goal for a future or set amount of time. Only this time it is focused on sales (orders and revenue) as income to the business, not the expenses of the business.

Now admittedly there are other definitions for both budget and quota, but these are also for utilizations of the terms for applications far outside the normal business usage. When you start discussing immigration, college acceptance and items such as those the line can become somewhat murkier. However, we will not go there, or anywhere near there today.

So here we have what I consider the crux of the issue. Budgets are associated with expenses for a set period of time and quotas are associated with sales for a period of time. This seems like a pretty simple set of definitions and differences. So why are people using them interchangeably?

I think some of my confusion may stem from the observation regarding “which side of the fence” people are speaking from. The example I will use here involves the government and everybody’s favorite topic, taxes.

For the longest time taxes were just that, taxes. Taxes were the amount that citizens paid the government. Taxes went up. Taxes went down. Periodically there was an attempt at tax reform when things go too complicated and it appeared that special interest groups were getting away with too much. By and large we all paid taxes.

But somewhere along the line this changed. From the government’s point of view (their side of the fence) taxes started to be referred to as “revenue”. Since taxes were, in the truest definition, the income that the government received, it did not seem like such a stretch or leap to go there. Soon the statement was no longer that the government was going to raise taxes (which was sure to irritate all citizens), they were going to raise revenue.

This is a much more palatable statement. Raising revenue. Everybody wants to raise revenue. Why should the government be any different? They should want to raise revenue too. The only slight difference might be that there is not another government around competing for our tax dollars. They can just vote themselves more revenue.

What doesn’t change is that from the citizen’s point of view, taxes are always an expense. Something that is paid. So, while it sounds more acceptable to raise government revenues, we need to remember that it is always raising the citizen’s expense.

This same governmental evolution occurred (in the US) when the Department of War thought it best to change its name to the Department of Defense, but that might be a discussion for a later date.

In business it appears that a similar evolution is occurring. In the past those organizations that had to live and work within budgets were called “cost centers”. They were associated with costs and expenditures. As such they were occasionally subject to reductions as most companies seemed to think that reducing costs was always a good idea.

It only goes to assume that these cost centers started to realize that the business’s expense budget was their revenue. This quantity was how much money was going to come into their piece of the business.

This was a master stroke.

No one ever wants to cut a revenue. They will cut, hack, chop and slash budgets all day long, but they will steadfastly refuse to cut a revenue.

I also think that some of the issue stems from business’s drive to remove as much overhead, or indirect cost from the business as is possible. There are essentially two way to do this. One is to actually reduce the number of resources associated with these indirect functions. The other is to try and translate these indirect cost functions into direct cost functions.

Below is a refresher on the difference between direct and indirect costs:

“The essential difference between direct costs and indirect costs is that only direct costs can be traced to specific cost objects.

A cost object is something for which a cost is compiled, such as a product, service, customer, project, or activity. These costs are usually only classified as direct or indirect costs if they are for production activities, not for administrative activities (which are considered period costs).

Examples of direct costs are direct labor, direct materials, commissions, piece rate wages, and manufacturing supplies. Examples of indirect costs are production supervision salaries, quality control costs, insurance, and depreciation.

Direct costs tend to be variable costs, while indirect costs are more likely to be either fixed costs or period costs.”

https://www.accountingtools.com/articles/the-difference-between-direct-costs-and-indirect-costs.html

The idea here is that when everything is associated with direct costs, everything is now directly associated with the sale and the generation of revenue. When that happens, almost all of those cost justifications for those groups now get aligned with sales and more importantly sales quotas. Now all budgets for those groups are supposedly aligned with sales, which in turn are aligned with, you guessed it, quotas.

And everybody likes to achieve their quotas.

In this way what were once cost centers have now aligned themselves with the sales function. Likewise, budgets which were once limits that were not to be exceeded became quotas that were to be achieved. This is a subtle but important difference.

Beating a budget meant that you came in with an expense that was lower than the budget. Success was reducing expenses below the targeted level. Efficiency and cost reduction were key targets. In short, the costs associated with the process were separated from the sales and prices associated with the process.

By now aligning everything with the sales and revenue process, costs now in effect do become quotas.

If sales do not achieve its quota, well then obviously costs will not be affected as they have a set cost quota. As long as they are on target for their quota of costs, they are achieving their goal, regardless of what the overall profitability of the process appears to be. This engenders a strange situation.

These cost groups are now of the opinion that as long as there is cost “quota” left to spend, they have the right to continue to spend it, regardless of sales performance. It in effect becomes the sales function’s responsibility to bring sales back into alignment with the sales quotas, instead of the cost function’s responsibility to bring cost “quotas” back into alignment with the sales function’s performance.

Costs “quotas” are really nothing more than verbal sophistry.

As business continues to look for ways to improve, some of the age-old axioms still do apply. Its always a good thing to achieve or exceed sales quotas. Cost budgets are an upper limit. It is always a good thing to “come in under budget” and return unused budgets back to the business in the form of bottom line profits. And, if you hear someone claiming that they are on target to achieve their cost quota, either they are not trying hard enough, or their cost “quota” needs to be reduced.

When to Say When

Blog 395 – When to Say When

Nobody likes to admit defeat. Nobody enters into a deal expecting to lose. Nobody starts a project that they don’t expect to complete. But sometimes, unexpected stuff happens. Partners don’t live up to commitments. Suppliers can’t supply. Developers forget how to develop or run into unexpected issues. It happens. The question that is now faced is, when do you say “enough” and cut the loss?

First and foremost, this is a time for a “business” decision. Pride and emotion should not come into play. Multiple issues and disciplines need to be reviewed. Prioritizations need to be made and weighted values need to be assigned. There will always be multiple stakeholders in the decision that will believe that their specific issue should take precedence and be the basis for the decision. There will also be those who are probably best ignored in the greater scheme of things. I’ll try to sort through some of the various topics and inputs that should go into this decision.

The first input is one of the most critical inputs of all: Time. No one immediately finds themselves in a failure situation. It is usually the compounding of many items over time that causes the “Ah Hah” moment where the issue manifests. It must be understood that “All errors are Additive”. Two wrongs do in fact not make a right. It is usually a series of small errors or issues that add and multiply to create the failure state.

If you are interested, there is a Harvard University paper on error propagation that can provide you the mathematical foundations of this idea at http://ipl.physics.harvard.edu/wp-uploads/2013/03/PS3_Error_Propagation_sp13.pdf.

The business equivalent here is that there are usually many disassociated errors across time that add up to what can be viewed as a non-recoverable situation. Always correlate all error or issue reports, then review how long the failure condition really existed before it was noticed.

The second is based on the business nature of the issue: Is it an External – Customer Related Issue, or is it Internal to the Business itself? If it is a customer related issue, then the loss of business, both current and future should be the deciding factor. If the customer is committed and dependent on the product, good or service at question, then there probably is no alternative than to continue to commit resources (money, people, components) until either a resolution or work-around is achieved. Here the pain of the customer must outweigh the pain to the business. Effectively, the plug cannot be pulled.

If the customer has recognized the issue and has taken steps to mitigate their exposure, or made other plans based on expected non-compliance, move quickly to achieve an appropriate solution (give them their money back, substitute other products or solutions, etc.,) and move on quickly. The same would apply if the effect on the customer’s business can likewise be minimized.

Understand that engineers will always say that with a little more time and budget they should be able to find a solution. Developers will always say with a little more time and budget they should be able to get the solution working as desired. All will point to the amount that has already been spent and how with just a little more it should be possible to recoup it.

Personally, I have yet to see this work. This argument usually results in an incrementalistic approach that ends up costing more people, time, money, with little more in the way of deliverable results to show for it. One thing to remember here is that if you have hit the point where you have to examine the business case for continuing on along a certain path, then you have probably already passed the point when it was appropriate to stop doing whatever you were doing.

Internal programs, projects and developments are far easier to analyze. The question will always be: Is it strategic to the future of the business? And of course, the answer to this question from those responsible for the topic in question will always be “yes”. Just remember that strategic topics and programs usually encompass years on the timescale and similarly large values on the funding scale. A good rule of thumb is: If multiple years have not already passed by the time you are examining the “Stop / Continue” decision, then it is probably not a strategic topic that is being discussed.

There will always be those that want to continue whatever program, project or development that is being reviewed. These will be the people and groups that have budget and resources stemming from the program. There will always be those that will want the program to be stopped. They will be the people and groups with competing programs that want the budget and resources. These groups can also almost always be immediately discounted as input into the decision.

The internal stop / continue decision must be taken out of the hands of the technical groups (engineering, research and development, etc.,) and put in the hands of the financial and business management teams. How much more will it realistically take to complete? How much revenue or cost reduction will be foregone if not completed? How much longer will it take? What is the project’s trajectory? Will it take a restart / rewrite, or is it truly a defensible incremental piece of work (be very careful here)? It is here that the money should talk, not the desires or beliefs.

Occasionally a business may find itself at the mercy of another business group or supplier as the cause of the program, project or product delay. Instead of a stop / continue decision, you will be faced with a “wait / continue” decision. This means instead of stopping permanently and moving all resources to other projects, the decision is now do you stop temporarily, move resources to other projects and await the outcome of the delaying party, or do you continue with your piece of the project and just hope the offending party will be able to catch up?

Almost every time when presented with this decision, those associated with the project in question will want to continue on and hope the other group or supplier catches up. From their own budgeting and staff assignment point of view, this is the best and simplest solution for them. They will always try to justify this decision by stating that it will be more expensive to stop, reassign the resources, then reassemble them and restart the project at a later date.

Most of the time, since they are the technical resources associated with generating the costs associated with this decision, their assertion is not questioned.

This is a mistake.

Always question, quantify and justify costs to both stop and restart a project. Stopping should usually be nothing more than the cessation of charging to the project. Starting may require some re-familiarization with the project but should not entail significant time. What this means is that from a business and financial point of view, it will almost always be less expensive, and better for the business, to pause all efforts on a third party delayed program or development than it is to continue to work while the third party is delayed.

It may add complexity to those groups whose budgets are now in somewhat of disarray due to the pause and inability to keep charging, but it is better for the business overall.

The only potential mitigating circumstance is how long the third-party delay is forecasted to be. If it is on the order of days to a few weeks (less than four as an arbitrary limit) than continuing may be the right solution based on future resource availability. If it is on the level of a month or more, the decision starting point should be biased toward stopping the costs and investments until such time as the third party has caught up.

So, summarizing the decision tree associated with when to say when on failing or delayed programs, projects and developments:

If the customer business is dependent on the commitment, then whatever it takes to complete is required. Not only current customer business, but potentially all future customer business is dependent on competing the deliverable.

If the customer business is not dependent on the commitment, then the business case for stopping, substituting or finding a work around should be examined. Only the current customer business is dependent on completing the deliverable.

For internal programs and developments, the question of how strategic the program or development is will be key. We all know that nothing ever fully goes according to plan. For those strategic topics, requiring large budgets and long time-lines this is even more evident. Those that are truly strategic it may be best to continue to push on through, but with significant monitoring to make sure further issues and delays do not continue to show up, causing incremental failure.

For those non-strategic programs and developments, it should be a financial / business case decision based on the cost to complete versus the foregone revenues or cost reductions associated with a successful completion. Question all inputs and let the numbers fall where they may.

Finally, when the decision to wait or continue when a contributing entity is the cause of a delay, it is almost always a financially better decision to reassign resources and wait for the third party to complete their work than it is to continue to work in the expectation that they will catch up. It may be more complex and disruptive to those entities assigned to the program, but it will be better for the business.

Finally, understand that any time you ask for the inputs on the decision from the groups that are directly involved with the program in question, they will almost always declare that the program should continue at current funding and spending levels. While this may be beneficial and easier for them, it is the least financially viable approach to the decision in question. Always question inputs and justifications from all parties. Remember, when it comes to money, either internally to the business, or externally from the customer, there will be those that want it, and those that want to spend it.

Starting Something

I have been blogging for a while (has it really been 10+ years?) about business and sales and the situations that arise in both. It’s been fun. I figured it was time to actually listen to some of the things I was saying and put them back into practice, again. As time passes and our work evolves it is easy to leave some of those things that we learned and enjoyed behind. To wit, a couple of weeks ago I opened my own little sole proprietorship business. I’ll spend a little time talking about it, what I learned, and what I relearned in the process.

First off, for those wondering, I didn’t quit my “day job”. I still enjoy it and need it to pay the bills, or more importantly pay for the medical insurance that helps pay for my son’s insulin for his Type 1 Diabetes. In case you were not aware, the price of insulin has increased one thousand percent in the last fifteen years. Yes, that means that insulin now costs ten times what it did then. But it’s actually cheaper now to make. Make of that what you will.

Without insurance it would be a significant financial hardship in addition the other problems it presents for him going forward.

In any event, I am still in the technology and services industry. I find that even though we can and probably should apply many of the things we learned before, to today’s issues, our new processes, outsourcings and corporate structures may make it a little more cumbersome to do so. We seem to have less and less capability to provide input into our own business decisions and directions in today’s process driven business environment. This is part of the reason I have taken on this additional endeavor.

The first order of business (if you pardon the blatant pun) was to get all the state licenses, company names and banking accounts set up. This is the equivalent of starting your company, putting your sign out on the door, and setting up the place where you get, and send your money. It needs to be separate from your personal finances. It would have been easier to just use the accounts we had, but if you are going to do it, do it right. It also makes it easier to keep score on how well, or poorly you are doing.

The business I chose was probably at the other end of the business spectrum from technology equipment and services. I wanted a full separation of functions. There can’t and shouldn’t be any conflicts of interest. This is strictly an after-hours business. I’m making game-boards and games out of various metals in my garage. I don’t think I can get much further afield than that from my day job.

Setting priorities and remembering whose clock you are on at any given time is a requirement. You cannot cheat those who are paying you when you are on their time, and you cannot cheat yourself when you are on your own time.

Like any good Product Line Manager, I had done my market research in looking at what types of similar products were out there (you truly can get just about anything from China, or eBay for that matter). I also looked at the relative prices to make sure that I could actually make a profit at the then going rates for competitive products (another business case). Finally, I looked at the various types of suppliers that I would need, both local and on the internet, for my piece parts. Thank goodness for Home Depot.

The next was acquiring the raw materials I would need to create the goods I would sell, as well as the equipment I would need to make and finish the products. These would be my sunk costs. Regardless of my success or failure, I will not get my money back from these expenses, unless I earn it back.

This brought up the first set of business cases. Do I go for the high-end expensive equipment that could make the work easier and help generate a higher quality product, or do I go a little less expensive, take a little more time, and rely more on my skills to save money, at least initially? I didn’t choose either end of the spectrum of equipment but did tend to go toward the less expensive brands and platforms to start.

I felt that these would get me started and reduce both my capital risk as well as my breakeven point for the business.

Then came the learning process. Just because I thought I had a good idea and a plan didn’t mean that I had it all figured out. As I started producing products the learning curve kicked in. I learned which components were better than others. I learned which manufacturing techniques worked best for me. After a few tries, I started to produce some products that I thought were of an acceptable quality level.

Now that I had products that I was happy with, it was time to see if customers would be interested in them as well. There were essentially two discrete paths to market for the products I was creating: Face to Face (F2F) at business and craft trade shows, and over the internet on the various electronic market places that were available. To start I selected the internet / electronic marketplace approach.

I made this selection for a couple of reasons: The start-up cost of this approach was minimal (basically the cost of creating a product listing on existing market place web sites), the charges were directly proportional to the amount you actually sold, there was a predisposed customer set that used them, and the mercantile systems (Credit card, charging, collection, payment) were already in place. The two I started with were eBay and Etsy. Both well known and respected

Trade shows require an investment / entry fee up front, regardless of whether or not you make any sales, as well as the investment of real-time attendance at the show in order to make any sales. I did not feel I could make these overhead investments at this point in time for the business I had chosen. They would also require some sort of Point of Sale (POS) system in order to conduct business with credit cards, the now preferred way for most to do business. I have signed up with one (Square, mainly again because the upfront investment was minimal, and the expense would only grow as my sales grew), but am still not fully operational yet.

I will continue to prepare and will eventually go to some of these F2F shows for a couple of reasons. One is to get the direct feedback from dealing directly with a customer. The other will be to test this channel to market for profitability. Could I actually sell enough at one of these shows where the profit (not the revenue) generated would cover the upfront costs of entry, and time spent and again provide profitability?

In addition, I needed to create a web site where I could both tell my story and display my products. This blog has been and is hosted by GoDaddy. I have written in the past regarding the quality of their service and support. Please look up “A Great Service Story” (March 7, 2019) for my views on them. I used them to create https://metalgames.biz/. They had some great tools to aid in the rapid set-up of the site.

Again, I held off on creating the commercial system for taking orders directly from my website due to the upfront costs associated with setting it up. Instead I opted for links from each product page to my Etsy site (https://www.etsy.com/shop/MetalGames?ref=ss_profile ) where I could take advantage of the existing commercial system. There may come a time where I do set up the Point-Of-Sale system on the web site, but for right now, I felt managing the business’ cash-flow was a little more important.

So, there we go. I’m now in business. https://metalgames.biz/ and https://www.etsy.com/shop/MetalGames?ref=ss_profile are both live and believe it or not doing business. It may be primarily for personal enjoyment, but that doesn’t mean I will not take it seriously. To date I have received two orders from eBay and four orders from Etsy. I don’t think that is too bad for having been up and operational for approximately three weeks.

This has brought up the next several issues associated with Inventory and Fulfillment when it comes to getting the product into the customer’s hands in a timely, efficient and economic manner. With such a small number of orders one would think that this would not be a significant issue, but it actually is. In fact it is a bigger issue than I had expected.

Marketing and Advertising will also be interesting topics for discussion.

All costs affect margins and profitability. Being a small business means that you cannot take advantage of any volume-based efficiencies, for either the components associated with production, or the costs associated with shipment and delivery.

I will go into these topics (and others) and what I learned about them some other time.

The bottom line is, that it is fun. Even though I am making games, I don’t want to treat it as a game. If it is going to be a business, even a very small one, it deserves the attention and respect that is required to make it successful. I’ll keep you all posted as this evolves.

Models

Automation has been a catch word in business for a long time. It has been and continues to be viewed as one of the best ways for businesses to go faster and to save money. I can remember when “office automation” was the automation or application that was the driving force for business. Now it seems to be words like “robots” or “self-driving / healing / whatever” or “artificial intelligence” and the like are the automation applications de rigueur. With this in mind I’m going to talk about models. Not the kind that walk down the fashion runways and seem to dominate all forms of social media (for reasons that I still can’t quite fathom), but the kind of models that can continue to help simplify and speed up business, in the face of an ever more complex environment.

I first learned about the value of models in the Economics courses that I took in college. It was put forth that the best way to learn about the various specific market forces was to create simplified models of the complex real environment. Once the various specific forces were understood, more and more complex models could be created where the primary and secondary interactions between these forces could be estimated or observed. Regardless of how complex you tried to make the model, it was always simpler than the real environment. It was also shown that a relatively simple model could provide a very accurate representation of the system and environment as a whole.

This drove the idea that you could create a model that could very closely approximate the real world. In this way you could get a very good answer to your economic question, without the significant over-head complexity, time, effort, etc., of trying to account for every possible detail. The most recent utilization of models for the representation of a complex system that I have seen are the various models that meteorologists use for weather prediction.

What I haven’t seen in quite some time is the use of models in business.

We are all aware to the “Fast, Good, Cheap – pick two” scenario of business. With continued focus on quality and costs, I get the feeling that “Fast” is paying the price (if you pardon the pun) in the equation. If you don’t believe me, just ask, or watch how long it takes to get a quote or price for any sort of technology product that you are either selling or buying.

I like to joke about “Gobeli’s Laws of Business” in positing how things should be. Sometimes it gets me in trouble. Sometimes it gets me ignored. Occasionally however, sometimes someone listens. This is similar to my wife’s reactions to my “Gobeli’s Laws of Domestic and Marital Tranquility”, except for the occasionally having someone listen part.  

My position for business is this, if it takes more than a business day – that’s eight hours, not twenty-four hours, to either create or receive a quote, it’s taking too long. You will find yourself at a competitive disadvantage. You had better find a way to speed up your quotation and pricing process. Because, while coming in second in a multi-contestant race is admirable, it is usually only the winner that gets the customer’s order.

As technology continues to be one of the primary drivers of product, business and market evolution, the ability to configure this new technology into usable customer platforms and applications continues to grow in demand as well. Again, if you don’t believe me, just look at the number of engineers that are involved in both the quotation and evaluation processes for any technology-oriented businesses. Engineers seem to be taking on a bigger and broader roles in the commercial process.

Needless to say, this concerns me.

In addition to the “Good, Fast, Cheap” product output trade-offs, there are also a couple of other business trade-offs to be aware of. They are the “People, Time, Money” input or resource trade-offs, and the “Sales, Finance, Engineering” internal business forces trade-offs. Strangely enough they all seem to be interrelated and roughly align as well.

“Cheap”, “Money” and the driving force “Finance” are obviously all related. This is a pretty simple one. “Fast”, “Time” and the driving force “Sales” are also related. Since sales is indeed a competition (for the customer’s order) getting there ahead of the competition can be seen as an advantage. That leaves “Good”, “People” and driving force “Engineering” as the third relationship. That also seems to make sense as it is the engineers that are concerned with the accuracy and “correctness” of how the technology fits together.

Now a days it seems that you cannot get a project started, a bid created, or a proposal reviewed without direct engineering involvement. This direction has the effect of creating a business bottleneck based on the number of engineers you have available for any activity at any point in time. It also limits the options available to business leaders.

In the “pick two out of three” business trade-offs listed above, if you have always chosen the “Good”, “People” and “Engineering” business force (for “correctness”) then you can only choose between “Speed” and “Money” (read profitability) as your second choice. While going fast is nice, making money is not negotiable. Without it you won’t be in business long. Hence “Money” is usually chosen over “Speed” in these trade-offs.

This is my long-winded, round about way of getting to the topic of models. Current mathematic and modeling techniques can be used to predict the location of a single electron (the sub-atomic, negatively charged particle – you didn’t think I would ignore physics entirely for this article, did you?), with respect to a single proton (the sub-atomic positively charge particle) at any point in time. With this kind of modeling capability and technology available, getting a price, or creating a quotation should be as simple as creating a few salient entries into the appropriate model.

Remember the Economics analogy. Models can be created as complexly, or as simply as desired. Also remember the goal of a quotation or pricing model: to create a price for a good or service, not to specifically engineer and configure that good or service. Up to now most businesses believe that the good or service must be engineered (and costed) in order to create a price (with acceptable / appropriate margin) for the customer.

Also remember that by and large customers do not care what it costs the business to deliver the desired good or service. As an example, I don’t think many people care what it costs an automobile manufacturer to create the car they purchase. They just want to know what the price is in relationship to the features and capabilities of the car.

Price modeling versus cost engineering can and would significantly speed up the quotation and pricing process for businesses and their customers. It would enable the customer to ask for several “what if…” prices and configurations. It would make things easier and faster for the organizations responsible for providing the price. It would simplify the process.

So, why isn’t this the usual case? Why does it seem that everything must manually pass through engineering, in some way, before it can be approved or released?

I think the answers are relatively simple, but the solutions are not. Change of this type, moving from an ingrained engineering process to the utilization of models for customer prices and quotations involves not only change, but the relinquishing of control at such a level as to cause some discomfort to the overall organization. No group knowingly gives up control of a process, even if it is for the betterment of the overall organization.

On a related issue, models are always an approximation of reality. There will always be small variances present between what the model generates, and what the engineer will manually create. This will always generate a certain amount of uncertainty, and no one wants or likes that.

Engineers will always argue that their manual engineering is always more accurate than a model’s price prediction. In some instance this may in fact be true. But one of the issues with manual engineering is that no two engineers do it the same way. If they did it would be much more easily modeled. So, despite arguments to the contrary, even manual engineering injects inconsistency into the pricing equation as well.

This is why most changes must be driven from the top down, as opposed to the much talked about, and often desired bottom up approach. Creating a modeled approach to engineering and pricing goods and services to customers will need to be driven from outside of the group that is currently responsible for performing these functions. Remember, that given their choice, an engineer will always search for a way to engineer a solution, regardless of the commercial ramifications of that approach.

Utilizing a price modeling approach to generating customer prices and quotations will re-inject “Speed” back into the business output and business resource trade-off equations with a minimal effect on the accuracy and quality of the price generated. With speed, comes a competitive advantage that should be translated into more orders, without incurring incremental costs or reduction in quality.

And isn’t that what automation is supposed to be all about?

They Don’t Have to Buy

Sales is a very interesting profession. It may not require a specific type of person, but I think it requires a specific type of mind-set. It has been shown that people more readily buy from people that they trust. You have to fully believe in and be committed to what you are selling in order to gain that customer trust. You must be the first to be convinced of what you are selling, before you have any kind of a chance of convincing a customer. If not, you have a tendency to come off as an archetypal used-car salesperson, and no one seems to trust them.

There was some research done some time ago that showed that there actually was a “smell of fear” that could occur. When scared the body does emit chemicals that that can be sensed by others. (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/3545435/The-smell-of-fear-is-real-claim-scientists.html)

I think that there probably also exists a “smell of insincerity”. Just as it may be possible to sense fear in others, it is probably also possible to sense insincerity in others. And for a sales person, insincerity is probably the worst thing for a customer to sense. There is that trust thing again.

That means that the first person that a sales person must convince of the benefit of the product or service that they are selling is themselves.

Having been in sales I can vouch for the fact that it is difficult enough to sell anything in the face of competition, let alone sell a product that you are not fully convinced of or believe in. And if you don’t fully believe in what you are selling, you will come across as insincere. And as I said, like fear customers can sense insincerity.

So, why am I going into all this discussion regarding sincerity and trust, and whether or not a sales person has convinced themselves that they believe in the benefit of the product or service that they are selling? There are a couple of reasons. The first is as I said good sales people are convinced of the benefit of their product or service. This is a good thing.

The second is that just because the salesperson is convinced of the benefit of the product or service they are selling, does not mean that the customer will be convinced of the value.

First, let’s do a few definitions. Today’s source will be the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Definition of benefit: Something that produces good or helpful results or effects or that promotes well-being (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/benefit)

Definition of value: The monetary worth of something (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/value)

So, while the first step in a successful sales process is convincing the sales person (or sales team) of the benefit of a product or service, the second step is convincing the customer that the benefit of the product or service is at least worth the cost required to obtain it. That would mean that the monetary worth of the benefit is greater than the amount that they are paying for it. This is the value.

Too many times I have heard and seen sales people who have been convinced of the benefit, and who have communicated this benefit to the customer, believe that their job is then done. This point in the sales process is usually denoted by when the salesperson utters the phrase:

“They have got to buy.”

This phrase is usually accompanied by qualifiers along the lines of:

“The customer’s competition is doing…” or

“The market is moving or responding…” or

“The technology is ready…”

These are all non-commercial, or non-value related reasons as to why a customer should make a positive buying decision. Let me illustrate with an example:

Let’s say you are looking to buy a new car. You have your own set of reasons for wanting a new car. Perhaps your old car is worn out. Perhaps you have decided you now need a sedan instead of a coupe. What would your response be if you heard the following when you went to the car dealership:

“All of your neighbors are buying exotic sports cars.”

“The car market is moving toward and responding to exotic sports cars.”
“The technology associated with exotic sports cars is the best and highest available.”

I’m guessing that unless you were going to the dealership with a specific interest in buying an exotic sports car, it really wouldn’t mean that much to you, and depending on the approach and ferocity of the sales person, it might actually dissuade you from buying anything from that dealership.

Yet it is an approach that many marketing people and teams create for their goods and services, and it is belief that many sales people and teams seem to adopt.

The point I am making is that no customer has to do anything. Just like the car buyer in the example above doesn’t “have” to buy a car. (My guess is that they used a perfectly viable car to get to the dealership in the first place.) Most customers are looking for something that they deem, using their specific product priorities, to be better than what they currently have.

However, the “better” or the benefit of the new product or service buying decision is still only half of the Cost – Benefit equation, which results in value. Just as exotic sports cars may be able to go twice as fast as other cars, there may be question regarding their value if they cost ten times as much as those other cars.

There will be a market segment that is interested in going twice as fast as everyone else. These will be the customers that will look at the twice as fast for ten times as much value equation and find it acceptable. But just because this segment sees the value does not mean that the rest of the car buying market will as well. That is why there seem to be so few high-speed exotic sports cars on the road.

It is very risky to extrapolate market niche applications into market wide acceptance.

With most products, it is usually technology and its evolution, that drives new products into the market. The idea that the new technology can create greater benefits can be a significant market force. But just like the new car replacement question, new technology must replace and supplant the existing technology in the market.

This means that there (usually) already exists a viable product and technology in the market. The new technology must create a greater benefit at a price point that makes sense for the customer, or they will not make the positive new buying decision.

This is not the case for “new” product-technologies with no existing capability or analog. Examples of this would be items such as Ford’s Model T (replacing the horse), Sony’s Walkman (possibly replacing the boom box – now there is an old phrase), Apple’s iPod (replacing the Walkman), or more recently Cellular Phones (replacing radio phones). These are products that created new markets, but once created they followed the technology evolution path with a good example being the iPod’s displacement of the Walkman as a personal music listening platform.

Much has been written about this technology evolution-replacement-benefit relationship. Roy Amara was an American researcher, scientist, futurist and president of the Institute for the Future best known for coining Amara’s law on the effect of technology. He coined what has become known as Amara’s Law. It goes:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Amara)

This law has become known as the basis for what has been called the “hype cycle”, as coined by the Gartner Group, to represent the maturity, adoption, and social application of specific technologies. The hype cycle provides a graphical and conceptual presentation of the maturity of emerging technologies…. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle) It is depicted as follows:

Circling back around to sales people and their selling of products, it would seem that they are the first group to go through the Hype Cycle since they are the first group that must be “sold” on the product or service before it hits the market. They are the first to see the benefits and experience inflated expectations. But since they are selling instead of buying, that is all they can truly define as they do not initially have good information on the relative costs and values of purchase in the customer value equation.

Unless it is a new market defining product, all defined benefits are “relative”. That means that the existing product in the market already has established a baseline of customer benefits. Each new iteration or generation of the product (hopefully) brings incremental benefits. The value equation for each customer is the balancing of the incremental benefits of the new product versus the incremental cost of obtaining it.

Sometimes the value of the benefit outweighs its cost and buying occurs. Sometimes it does not. Regardless, it is a very rare instance where a customer “has” to buy a product.

With this in mind, I would suggest that most buying decisions can probably be delayed by all customers for an extended period without their experiencing much if any deterioration in their market position. In today’s economically uncertain business environment, I would not be surprised if significant purchases of any kind are delayed, even if only for a little while. This may be due to the realization by customers that in today’s environment they do not have to buy every iteration of new technology to remain competitive.

I suspect that I too will probably be delaying on my desire to buy a new car in the near future as well, mainly because right now I don’t have to buy one.

Moving

Moving, or changing offices by and large, is usually not very much fun. In business it entails gathering up all your stuff, putting it into standard moving boxes, which are not much more than over-sized, glorified shoe boxes, and going somewhere else. It can be in the same building or across the country. You are essentially out of commission from the time you start putting your stuff into the boxes, until the time that you have taken it out and reconnected to the network. It adds stress to an already crowded calendar.

Long ago, when I first joined the corporate world, I read that on average you moved or changed offices every two to three years. I actually tried to look up this article to properly cite it, but, alas I couldn’t find it. Perhaps it has passed from fact, to just something that everyone knows.

You either changed roles, or business units, or assignments, or were promoted, or any number of other events that resulted in you having a new place to sit while doing your job. This was back in the days when you came into the office to work. Everybody came to the office to work. Working at home wasn’t so much of an option then.

The idea back then was to generate synergy in an organization by having groups of similarly focused individuals sit together and regularly interact in the expectation that they would be more efficient, creative and powerful as a group then they would be as discrete individuals. It seemed to work, at least back then.

I think a lot of this idea was based on the sports analogy where it was demonstrated that having all members of the same team, working together and running the same plays, were far more effective than if they all acted as just talented individuals and did what each thought was best. It was widely accepted that the best teams won, not necessarily those that just had the most talented athletes. However, I think it was Roy Williams, the basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, who said: “I can coach them to play better basketball. I can’t coach them to be seven feet tall.” So, talented athletes are still very desirable.

There were many positives and some negatives associated with this co-located and hence almost constant office moving phenomenon, for both the individual and the business. As I said earlier there is a disruption to your ability to execute your responsibilities while you are moving. This affects your, and those that are dependent on your productivity. At least for a while. This was and, in some instances, still is debatable based on some roles and activities that I have seen.

On the business side there is the cost. There are two basic costs associated with all this moving. The lost productivity that I have already noted, and the cost of the team and staff of resources that were constantly planning and executing these moves. Depending on the size of the business location, there had to be a small army of people available to bring boxes, and then move and transport boxes to the new location. There had to be a logistics team working with the Information technology team to make sure that connectivity and communications were available, at the appropriate time at the new office (or cube) location.

Moving was not cheap. Therefore, it was expected that the synergy that co-location generated had to be good enough to offset this cost. For the most part it seemed that it was.

Another good thing about moving was that it presented the opportunity to go through your stuff, take stock of what you needed and throw away all the rest. It was sort of a forced purging opportunity. As an aside, I have a friend who used to take pride in the thirty to forty boxes of stuff that he took with him whenever he moved. He is an engineer and believes that there will come a day when he will need some of the documents or calculations that he has created over the last decade plus for something else he may be working on.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I am sure he will be prepared. Like I said, engineer.

The periodic purging associated with a move was the opportunity to get rid of stuff, primarily paper-based communications and documentation, when it was no longer needed. I have hit the point that if I haven’t looked at something in the last year or two, then I don’t need it. I think this is probably a good rule of thumb for everyone. Also, with the increase in machine and cloud storage capabilities, a hard copy of just about anything can seem to be a little bit of overkill.

You don’t know how much it pains me to say that. But just as I have had to change with the times and move from the tactical joy reading of actual physical books to using an e-reader, I have gone to reading a screen instead of printing a document. And they said that dinosaurs couldn’t evolve.

Organizations have also done their part in trying to reduce the costs associated with moving. Initially they started limiting the number of boxes that you could have / they would move. Now as we continue to move toward more and more of an “open office” concept, where no one has a defined office, there is also the requisite limitation on the amount of stuff that you can have based on what has now become a limitation on the amount of physical storage that is available.

If you don’t have any place to put it or store it, then you are forced to get rid of it.

The result is that what used to happen every two to three years, and cost both the individual and the corporation a lot of money in employee discomfort and lost productivity, as well as the maintenance of a staff the size of a small army to assist in making these moves, are now both essentially gone. In the open office environment there is no defined office to move either from or to. Storage for the physical accoutrements of an office have been so minimized, and document retention has now been virtualized that there is no longer any significant amount that ever needs to be moved.

The office itself has also been virtualized. There are now both remote offices and home offices in addition to the open offices. It seems now that if you want to keep any “stuff” you will probably have to keep it in your home office. I tried this once. Then my wife complained about all my clutter. I told her it was what I needed to captain industry. She told me to get rid of it.

I personally think she was in cahoots with the corporate Workplace Resources group in this regard. Though, admittedly the home office does look cleaner.

But, I can’t help but wonder, if businesses saw such a value in the concept of having everybody actually physically work together, to the point that it outweighed the costs associated with making sure that they could work together, what happened to that value? Economics teaches us that there is no free lunch. The cost – benefit analysis of business is based on the same principles. There is a cost or investment for every benefit you get. 

Has someone, somewhere gone through the analysis associated with virtual / home / open offices and compared the hard, recognizable cost savings with the somewhat softer and much harder to quantify lost synergy values. In the past it was believed that the synergies outweighed the costs. Was everyone wrong for so long and now those ideas no longer hold true?

I think the answer lies in the “hard” cost and “soft” value equation that I mentioned earlier. It is easy to define how much is saved when most of the costs associated with moving offices are eliminated. It is a number. It exists in a budget. When it is reduced or cut, it can be tracked.

The same cannot be said for the values generated by having people work together in the same office as opposed to “virtually”. I think everyone believes there is a value associated with that type of working environment, but I is almost impossible to quantitatively put a hard number to that value.

You can estimate it, but that is never as good as a well-defined cost reduction. The result is that a definable cost has been reduced, and an undefinable value has also been reduced. But since the value was undefinable in the first place, the amount of reduction to it is also undefinable.

I really didn’t like moving offices all those times that I had to do it in the past. I think that we are going to dislike what we may have lost by not having to move anymore.

Conflicting Internal Forces

I have talked in the past about the three internal organizational resources required for business success, and their trade-offs and interrelationships: Time, People and Money. The idea that if you have less time than desired to achieve a goal, it will require the expenditure of more people and more money to achieve it. If you have fewer people for the goal it will require more time and money. And so on.

I am now going to talk about the driving internal functional forces that are acting upon desired organizational goals. There are again three of them and to put them at their simplest, they are Sales, Finance and Engineering. I think in order to be a little more accurate it would be better to look at the conflicting goals of each of these functions with respect to the desired goal of the organization, instead of just the function itself.

The goal of sales is to get orders. There may be additional sub-requirements placed on them, but it is almost always quota attainment, as it pertains to orders, that is the measuring stick for sales. Achieve your sales order goal as a salesperson, and you get money, fame, glory, respect and most importantly, you get to keep your job. Fail to achieve your sales order goal and you don’t get the money, fame, glory or respect. More importantly, perhaps the first time you fail you may get a pass on keeping your job, but probably not the second time.

Sales in general doesn’t really care about finance or engineering. This is primarily because they are not paid to care about them. They are paid (usually in the form of commissions) to get orders. Sales usually wants the highest quality and lowest price possible as this helps enable their sales. The greater profitability desired by finance usually means a higher price, which usually makes sales more difficult. Sales will usually align with engineering on generating the highest quality solution but diverge when the costs of such solutions are taken into account.

The goal of Finance is margin or profitability. Again, there may be other sub-requirements, but finance’s primary role is to make sure that the organization brings in more money than it spends. Finance keeps score. It’s not enough to just bring in more than you spend. Finance quantifies how much more money needs to be brought in than is spent so that the business’s ongoing and future success can be assured. Future investments and corporate overheads (as well as salespeople’s salaries and commissions, etc.) have to be paid for.

Finance is usually focused on what could be called the margin percentage versus margin value balancing act. It is desirable to have a high margin percentage and high profitability on each sale. However, having high margins with low volumes will not generate enough profit to drive the business forward. Just as a high volume of sales with low margins will not generate the desired margin value. There is a desired financial equilibrium where both margin percentages and values are maximized.

The goal of Engineering is to make sure that everything gets done right. Engineering makes sure that products and solutions are configured properly. They make sure that components and solutions are available in the desired time frames. They make sure that services are costed and allocated correctly. In short, they make sure that the organization can in fact do whatever the salespeople are trying to sell.

Engineers are also believe that they are the primary group responsible for doing the people, time, money, analysis. Engineers are not usually interested in the sales aspect, other than recognizing if there are no sales there is no need for engineers. And they are not particularly focused on finances, as margin and profitability again have little direct effect on them. They are usually focused on the accuracy of the solution and will include whatever they deem appropriate (the people, time, money resources) to that solution to make it ever more accurate.

Of the three functions, sales is probably the most difficult. Sales is competing with external entities for each order, in addition to trying to balance the internal goals associated with the financial and engineering functions. Finance and engineering are only associated with internal functions, including sales. There is no competing engineering or finance function claiming that their financial wizardry or engineering prowess is superior. When they are forced to deal with external forces, it usually only through sales.

When these internal functions, and their associated goals are in balance, an organization can operate at near its peak efficiency. Sales pushes for orders, finance makes sure the sale is profitable and engineering makes sure that the sold solution is done correctly. Life can be good.

It is when an organization gets out of balance that we start to see significant issues. When an organization becomes too sales focused, margins and profitability can begin to slip as the quickest way to increase sales is to reduce price (this is just baseline economic theory). We saw an example of this some time ago when some stocks started being valued based on the assumptions of future sales and sales growth instead of the more standard stock and organizational valuation criteria. These stocks eventually came crashing down when it was realized that they would in fact have to start making money if they wanted to stay in business, regardless of how much they sold.

When an organization becomes too financially focused, growth, expansion and development can slow, again causing issues for the organization. Strategic opportunities can be missed because they may be deemed to either represent too much risk, or not enough return (margin) to be pursued. Being too safe from a financial point of view can be just as deadly to an organization as being too risky and focused only on sales.

With the increased global awareness and focus on the “cost of non-quality”, or more accurately the cost of not doing things right, there seems to now be an organizational drift toward becoming more engineering focused, since they are the organizational force associated with doing things right. I also think that this approach potentially has the greatest capacity for generating corporate issues in the future.

When an organization becomes engineering focused it has a tendency to lose sight of both sales and finance. With decreased input and parameter focus from sales and finance, engineering will continue to focus on accuracy and reducing the risk of an incorrectly engineered solution, almost to the point of trying to generate perfection in its solutions.

The issue here is that perfection usually comes at a very high cost.

Finance will continue to try to demand specific margin levels, while sales will want lower prices to enable the generation of orders. This is the recipe for the perfect organizational storm. Engineering generated increasing costs, finance generated desired margin levels, and sales generated reduced pricing demands to meet the market competition.

The point here is that the market, more or less, sets the market price for the organization’s goods or services. There can be some variations, sometimes based on the quality of your sales team, sometimes based on the quality of your solution, and sometimes it is based on other factors (such as the regulatory exclusion of a competitor from the market, etc.). If you raise your prices too much in response to the engineered increase in costs, sales volumes and hence margin values will decline. If you reduce margin percentages, again margin values can decline. This can become a lose-lose situation.

The organization won’t make any mistakes, but it may not generate enough business, or margins to survive for very long.

In allowing an organization to become engineering focused, you start down the road to becoming a cost-up pricing organization. This is the least market responsive type of organization. Since engineering nominally has no focus or interest in sales or margin, when an organization becomes engineering focused, it becomes almost entirely internally focused.

It is usually the position of the market that an organization that loses its focus on the customer or the market, doesn’t get to enjoy the benefits of that customer or market for very long.

Engineering in an organization is about reducing the risk associated with achieving a goal. But like everything else, this risk avoidance comes with a cost. It is not enough to tell engineering to make sure that the solution is correct. This direction invariably leads to the inclusion of all kinds of failure avoidance constructs, and their costs to be included in the solution. And since engineering can be a complex function, there are few outside of the engineering function that can understand or question it.

In the long past world of “Five Nines” of reliability, this was once the recipe for success, but in today’s “short life-cycle” disposable product world, few can afford it, and even fewer are willing to pay for it.

I mentioned earlier that engineers see themselves as the group that is responsible for solving the Time, Money, People resource equation. It is obvious that when none of these parameters are set, the solution is much easier to obtain. And without limits to these parameters, the costs of the risk-adverse solution can grow quite large. Organizations need to understand that the Time, Money, People equation requires parameters to be set. Time frames and budgets need to always be set before being handed to engineers to configure a solution.

Engineering is a key component to any solution. The functional internal conflicts between sales, finance and engineering will always come into play, and must always be balanced out. As organizations seem to continue to drift into a little more of an engineering-centric approach to customers and solutions, it should be safe to assume that left unchecked, the commercial and financial aspects of these solutions will re-emerge in the customer decision making process.

It is safe to say that you do indeed get what you pay for, but it is also safe to say that sales will have difficulty selling, and customers are probably not going to be willing to pay for an over-engineered solution of any type that does not take into account their commercial needs.

The Territorial Imperative

“The Territorial Imperative”, or more correctly, “The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry Into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations”, was written in 1966 by Robert Ardrey. It along with the “The Naked Ape”, or again more correctly “The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal” which was written in 1967 by Desmond Morris, are probably the first two books I read that were not written by Theodor Geisel, more commonly known as Doctor Seuss.

I didn’t choose to read them at that time. They were assigned to me one summer. I was getting ready to enter the fifth grade and attend a new school. I was told that they were preparatory work that needed to be completed before I could go to the new school.

I personally thought this concept sucked at the time, as summers were supposed to be school free, and here I was being required to read a couple of books.

What is interesting to me is that now, all these years later, these books and the topics that they covered are now coming back to me in the business world.

Initially both of these books were considered somewhat ground breaking in that they sought to explain the source of some human behaviors. Till then man (man as homo-sapiens the species, not man as a gender, for those of you who might have been getting ready to go full scale gender bias ballistic on me) was viewed as primarily a cognitive creature. What these books examined was the idea that man was also driven by certain instincts which also affected its behavior.

This was pretty radical and somewhat heady stuff for that time period. I’m pretty sure that as a would-be fifth grader I didn’t fully grasp a great deal of what the authors were trying to get across. I knew that it made me feel somewhat funny though. That is funny-strange, not funny-haha.

For those of you who have not read The Territorial Imperative, the following is a quick synopsis:

“It describes the evolutionarily determined instinct among humans toward territoriality and the implications of this territoriality in human meta-phenomena such as property ownership and nation building. … Ardrey posited that man originated in Africa instead of Asia, that he is driven by inherited instincts to acquire land and defend territory, and that the development of weapons was a fundamental turning point in his evolution. The Territorial Imperative further explores these ideas with a special emphasis on man’s distinct preoccupation with the concept of territory. It goes on to elucidate the role that inherited evolutionary instinct, particularly the so-called “territorial imperative”, plays in modern human society in phenomena such as property ownership and nation building.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Territorial_Imperative

More simply put Ardrey posited that one of man’s driving instincts is to own and defend territory.

With that idea in mind, now look back at every business organizational structure and office / cubicle arrangement and apply this thesis to it. It ought to be somewhat enlightening. It also ought to explain why, when we are hired on, we are given “our space”, be it a desk, or cubicle, or whatever. It is now our physical, as well as metaphorical territory. We instinctively know that we must “work” in order to defend it.

As we matriculated up through management we acquired larger physical territories (bigger cubes and eventually offices) as well as larger spans of control over others and their cubes and offices. These territories were then defended against both internal and external competitors.

But it seems that times are changing. At least when it comes to office space. Business organizations have started to move away from the concept of the business territorial imperative. Office size and location are seeming to be done away with as companies move to the “Open Office” concept.

In the open office structure, no one has any more territory that anyone else. In fact, there are no specific assigned locations of any kind. Instead of having “your” desk, cube, office, territory, it is first-come first-served in the seating arrangements. Desk, or more accurately table-space is shared. There is no distinction between levels and spaces. It is positioned as egalitarian and a better office structure for all those involved.

It seems to me that the more things change the more they stay the same. I was looking at some old pictures of office spaces in the 1950’s. It was some pretty interesting stuff. Below is one that caught my eye, primarily because it was in color. Most of the rest of them seem to be in black and white. For comparison’s sake, I didn’t want to try and compare a black and white photo to a color one. Take a look.

This is the modern office, circa 1958. That’s more than sixty years ago. It’s neat. It’s orderly. It’s “open”. What is not to like about it?

Now let’s fast forward a little more than sixty years to today. Here is a look at what is called a “Mezzanine Floor” open office design.

Except for a little better photography and perspective use, I’m not seeing a whole lot of difference, read “progress” here.

The difference is that in the 1950’s you had “your space”. You were assigned a desk. As small as it was, it was your territory. That is where you went to work. Now, you don’t. In the “open office” you can come in and sit anywhere. If you are promoted and given more responsibility, or assigned a new role, you still come in and the same rules apply. You come in and sit wherever you choose.

I don’t know how good or bad, this new (or in this case “old”) open office concept is going to be. I haven’t had the opportunity to try it out yet. But it appears that I will have this opportunity soon. I am going to be interested to see how this return to the past is going to work and how it will affect a workforce that has not been in this environment before.

Many people I know have said that they have in the past or are now currently working in such environments. I also notice that a very high percentage of them now “work at home” in a home office. This high correlation between open office environments and working at home is probably just a coincidence.

Really.

It is probably also a coincidence that “your” home office is a fixed location within “your” home.

The Territorial Imperative was a ground-breaking book. It submitted that man, while being a reasoning creature was also driven by certain instincts, one of which was to define its own territory. It was shown that the defining and defending of these territories was one of the basic drives, and a significant driving force in human growth and evolution.

Maybe I am reaching, but I find it interesting that the same principles could be applied, to a greater or lesser extent in organizational and office dynamics. I also find it interesting that we seem to be in the midst of a period where organizations appear to be actively removing this behavior driver.

In the past, the “trappings of office” were recognized as one of the driving forces that was a cause for people to input that extra amount of effort. You wanted the bigger office. It was a symbol of your success.

I guess on the other side of the coin, your bigger office might have been a symbol of someone else’s lack of success. In today’s age of participation trophies and ninth place ribbons, the desire may not be so much to remove the symbol of success, but to remove the symbol of the lack of success of others. I guess if everyone sits at the same sort of desk, with the same amount of space, with no predefined location, no one can feel bad, or good about their territory, or their apparent lack of it.

On the other hand, in today’s hyper-competitive business environment, reducing the office space allocated to each employee, regardless of relative organizational position, might be a pretty good way of reducing what was once thought to be a relatively expensive fixed cost.

It is interesting that the reintroduction of an office environment that was evolved away from, more than half a century ago is being viewed as a “new and improved” (to borrow from most new products advertising mantras) step forward. It will also be interesting to see how it changes office behaviors.

Will there be an increase in the flight from the office to the home office? Will there be a reduction in the commitment to the assignment and the company on a greater level since there will no longer be a defined territory associated with the office? Despite these and other potential questions, as well as the recent research that shows such open office environments are not particularly conducive to organizational productivity, (“The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration”, Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban,  Published:02 July 2018 https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239 https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239) I think we are all going to get the chance to experience the open office for ourselves. We have seen that man is an adaptable species. He lives in igloos in the arctic and grass huts in the rain-forests, and just about everywhere in between. I guess he can try working in an open office as well.

The Choice Not Made

I do not know of any person that doesn’t make mistakes, with the possible exception of my mother. And my wife. And my kids. And maybe my dad, but not according to my mother. Maybe I ought to start over.

I know I make mistakes. I try not to make many of them, but according to both my mother and my wife, I am a guy and therefore I will not be able to help myself when it comes to making mistakes. I have witnessed many others throughout my career in business who have also made mistakes. Not all of them were guys. Go figure. Some to a lesser and some to a greater degree, but errors have been made. But that is okay. Usually, in order for an error to be made, someone first had to make a decision. And business is all about making decisions.

When a decision gets made there are pretty much just two choices that can then occur. You can have been right and made the right choice, take a bow and move on, or you can have been wrong and made the wrong choice, in which case you can either blame the decision on someone else, and / or take actions to rectify the situation.

It is only in politics where you can rename a wrong choice as the “alternative correct” correct decision, based on the then alternative facts, and keep moving along. In business you have to eventually fix things and clean up the messes that wrong choices create. There are always Finance people around keeping score.

In business two characteristics seem to be prized above all others. The first, and somewhat lesser of the prized traits, is the ability to make the right choices. The ability to make correct decisions. Management likes this capability, but they only seem to like this ability to only a certain extent. That extent is usually equal to their own ability to make the right choices and decisions. Being right has a tendency to cause others who may have been wrong, some discomfort. Nobody likes to worry that they made the wrong choice and having someone around who makes the consistently right choice can occasionally be problematic.

Being right sometimes can cause you to take an opposing view to what may be desired for the business, even by management. Being right means that by comparison, someone else was wrong. And as I said, very few people enjoy being wrong.

The second and absolutely most prized characteristic in business, is the ability to be able to quickly clean up and correct the situation after someone else has made the wrong choice. I have written about these types of people before. They are called “firefighters”. And like their real-life equivalent hero counterparts, they are viewed as corporate heroes. Having someone around who can come in and quickly right a wrong choice is a highly valued resource to have.

I have actually been in meetings and training sessions where designated corporate firefighters have come in and spoken about how to go about triaging, correcting and cleaning up a situation.

While I recognize and absolutely salute those heroes that put themselves in harm’s way when it comes to firefighting, I am also a big fan of Smokey The Bear, who uttered the immortal words:

“Only you can prevent forest fires”

Fire prevention, as it relates to business has always been my goal. It is far less glamorous than flying in and putting out the fire, but it is far better for the business to avoid the fire instead of having to put it out. Looking forward and anticipating needs and issues are the best way to avoid the flare up of a firefighting situation. This topic is worthy of much more analysis and discussion, but it is not the one I want to cover here.

To this point I have talked about making right decisions and choices, and the potential pitfalls associated with them, And I have talked about making wrong decisions and choices, and the teams and activities that can be inaugurated as a response in trying to correct them. Just about any wrong decision or choice can be rectified once it is identified. Once they are identified just about any wrong decision can be corrected.

It is the interval between the decision and the start of its corrective actions that usually determines the magnitude of the issue and the magnitude of the resources that will be required to fix it. The sooner the identification the cheaper the cost to fix. This by the way, is the essence of all this increased interest in Agile and DevOps project methodologies. I’ll probably write about this sometime in the future as well. Remember, just about any wrong decision can be fixed.

Just about.

The one decision that cannot be fixed is the choice not made.

As process and the fear associated with making the wrong choice has grown, the willingness to make those sometimes difficult choices seems to have atrophied as well. One need only look at our current political situation to see this phenomenon play out on a much grander scale. In politics making a decision or making a choice makes you somewhat vulnerable. Those that don’t agree with your choice can now take an opposing position. Since the results of a political decision, much like a business decision are not visible for some time, support for the choice can weaken and changes can be made.

As a result, it is becoming easier and more acceptable to defer these needed decisions and choices to a later time. They are then the choices that don’t get made. Instead of making the right choice and moving forward or making the wrong choice and then taking steps to correct it and then again moving forward, no choice is made and no movement, forward or backward occurs.

The result is then, that nothing gets done.

I included process in the list as one of the causes of choices not being made because process by its very design does not lend itself to making decisions. Process tells you what the decision should be. Process supposedly makes the choice for you. The safe path is to now always follow the process. If the situation may call for a change in process or a different decision, it will always be easier to not make that choice.

The risk of making a wrong decision that is outside of the defined process will almost always outweigh the benefit of making the right decision. Decisions are responsible for change. Change is what drives progress.

If you are not going to make the choice, you can’t fix the problem. The right choice fixes the issue. The wrong choice lets you know what the right choice should have been, and again allows you to fix the issue. The choice not made doesn’t fix anything.

Herein lies the conundrum. Almost every organization and business without exception will categorically state that want their people to make choices and take risks. They will then systematically implement processes that reduce the opportunity to make decisions and choices, and then provide a series of rewards and punishments that result in a deterrent to taking the risks, making the decisions and choices that organization says they want them to take.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher who lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China. Sun Tzu is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, an influential work of military strategy that has affected Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu)

I have talked about Sun Tzu in the past. His book “The Art of War” was written close to 2,500 years ago and is still taught in military academies around the world today. He is renowned for amongst other things, never losing a military engagement. If he felt he was not assured of a victory, he would not commit to the engagement. He would stall and feint and execute other tactics. If these actions did not result in a more favorable position for him he would either accept a stalemate / draw, or he would withdraw.

Much of what he discussed has also been applied to business in the past as well. The difference between Sun Tzu’s approach to not engaging, and a process-based approach to not engaging, is that Sun Tzu made an active decision. He made the choice not to engage. He chose to protect his men and resources and pick a different time and place to engage when the contributing factors were more to his favor and liking.

In business (as in politics) today the incentive appears to be to not engage, even if the correct choice is available. Because if someone is correct, invariably someone else is wrong. Even if success is probable, there will always be at least a small risk present for failure. The only way to assure that you are not wrong is to not make choices. And while the choice not made may appear to be the safest one for the individual, it is probably the worst one for the organization.

There are some really great quotes on choices out there. The one I think I will leave you with is from Jim Rohn, an entrepreneur and author. He said:

“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions.”