Category Archives: Accountability

Working From Home……and Dilbert

Let’s get one thing clear up front. I don’t like working from home. I don’t even particularly care for the idea of working from home. There are many who think that it is the absolute best idea since sliced bread, but I am not one of those. Yet it seems that situations and events have conspired in such a way that I now find myself working from home. However, it is pretty clear to me that when I take all things into account, that working at home is the best alternative for me right now. I’ll talk about the things that I have learned that I need to do to be as effective as possible in working from home.

I guess I may just be a creature of habit, but I have always “gone” to work. You know. Got up. Cleaned up. Went to the office. Just like I had “gone” to school. I didn’t “go to school” at home. I went to the then appropriate institution of learning.

This was back in a time before technology enabled “working from home”. In fact, it was not uncommon for people to have to relocate to different cities if their responsibilities changed, and they found themselves with a job in another location. This was what is now referred to as “the dark ages”….

Back then teams were not virtual. People actually had to be in the same place in order to work together. True synergies were achieved because everyone was in the same room when a meeting occurred. It was a time when process was not as dominant as it is now. Individual knowledge, experience and judgement were sought after to create the most effective team dynamic. It was all about finding the best and most efficient way to achieve the desired goal.

But I have digressed in my remembrances of those bygone times.

Times have changed. Companies now get merged and purchased with significantly increased regularity. The pendulum of workplace office arrangements has swung from the highly structured shared office environments of the 1950’s (where everybody had an assigned workspace within the shared space) to the cube farms (where everyone had there own individual work space and everyone measured their progress by cube square footage and wall height) of the 1980’s and 1990’s, to the current iteration of the 1950’s model where no one has an assigned work space, but they all work together in the shared environment, and you have to put everything away in your locker at the end of the day.

The last time I had to have a locker to put my things away in at the end of the day was when I was back in school.

Against this backdrop of office moves, business consolidation and “new and improved” office environments, should you find yourself with a pretty lengthy commute to get to a new office location, with the new shared dynamic seating environment, you might choose to give working at home a try. When I did this a few weeks ago I found out a few things that I needed to do to help with my effectiveness, even though I was no longer in my preferred working environment.

I also recalled several Dilbert ® cartoons by Scott Adams. I like to follow him because he appears to be scarily prescient when it comes to most interesting work topics. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he has been addressing the work at home topic for over thirty years. Talk about being ahead of your time.

As I mentioned earlier, part of going to work was the process of getting ready for work. The getting up and cleaning up. I am an early to the office person. Since I have worked with several groups internationally in the past, I got it the habit of coming into the office early in order to facilitate communications with them. If I didn’t have calls or meetings scheduled early, I used the early quiet time to get a jump on the requirements of the day.

I also liked the idea that for the most part, my working time and my personal time had two fairly specific delineators; namely the commute to and from the office. There was a defined “starting time” when I got to the office, and a defined “ending time” when I left the office. Obviously, there were situations where calls, meetings and work would and could cross these thresholds, but for the most part, there was a beginning and an end to the work day.

When working at home the “start” and “stop” lines seem to begin to blur. There is no longer is any appreciable commute to the office. You can get up and walk into the home office and just start working. When working at home it is easy to say that I’ll go through the preparatory activities later. The idea is that you could just get up and go into the “office” without any preparation. This didn’t work for me. I found that the “ritual” of getting up and preparing to work helped me get into the proper frame of mind to do the work I needed to do. Needless to say, Dilbert recognized this activity as well.

As a side note, the above comic strip is from 1995.

I also found that I worked and concentrated best in a professional environment. That meant no turning on of the television to see what was on the news. No turning on of the stereo to create background music. These are distractions that do not normally exist within the business environment, and if you are going to extend the business environment to the work at home structure, they shouldn’t exist there either.

And again, Dilbert has addressed this very issue:

And again, this comic is from 1995.

Finally, despite all the assurances to the contrary, access to the corporate network, which is required in order to work from home to be viable, can be somewhat challenging. There are usually specific secure remote access applications that must be present and mastered in order to access the network. The issue usually arises in the form of needing access to the secure corporate network in order to request support in order to get access to the secure corporate network. There have definitely been improvements made in this area, but as I have noted, it can still be somewhat challenging.

Usually what happens here is that a trip must be made to the new office where access to the corporate network is available, in order to contact the Information technology group that is responsible for simplifying remote access to the secure network. This then ends up creating other issues since the remote access issue can no longer be replicated because you are no longer using remote access when requesting support.

The result of this interaction with the Information Technology support group is then the closure of the trouble ticket reporting the remote access issue, since the issue seems to have rectified itself by your coming into the office.

And you guessed it. Dilbert has also recognized this as an issue facing many today.

I have found that the best way for me to work at home is to make sure that I am preparing for and acting as though I am going to work in the standard office environment. Waking, preparing, dressing, etc., as though I were going into a standard business office helps me make sure that I am in the “work” mind set, as opposed to the “home” mind set. This of course is referring back to the time when home and work were indeed two separate entities.

Working at home does present its own set of unique challenges. It is almost too easy to fall into a new set of behaviors that may not be as conducive to creating a good work environment as many expected. While it is convenient, for me it doesn’t match the energy of the collocated team. I understand the value of the virtual team, but for me, it is hard to measure what was given up in exchange for what is hoped to be gained by the new.

Maybe it will just take some more time for me to get used to it.

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.

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?

Getting Angry

I was recently asked why I was such an angry person. This question caught me off guard and surprised me greatly as I had never thought of myself as an angry person. Others may have, but not me. Before answering, I asked why it is that they thought I was so angry. They responded by saying that they thought I had become angry during the last project review we were in. I said they were incorrect, I did not get angry during the last project review. I had quickly and directly responded to what was unacceptable performance as reported in the review. I explained that I am not generally an angry person, but that I can get very direct, both with myself and with others, and will challenge unacceptable behaviors when commitments are not honored, and responsibilities are avoided.

I also said that one should not confuse the immediate and direct challenge to unacceptable performance, with anger.

I have mentioned before that my preferred method of leading is to focus on, and address the achievement aspect of performance. I tend to look at what has been done well and what has gone right, far more so than what has gone wrong or needs to be improved. But that doesn’t mean that failure to deliver on commitments, or objectives can be excused or ignored. And depending on the reasons for that failure to deliver, occasionally they must be dealt with directly.

I have found this to be the case more and more often in the matrix structured, process driven organizations of today. This is the structure where members of the “virtual” team actually report up through separate organizations, and where authority and accountability lines can have a tendency to blur. In this type of structure, it is not uncommon to find that it is felt that the process is the responsible entity for the project’s performance, and not the people that operate within it.

It is true that sometimes events occur that can make it exceedingly difficult if not impossible to honor our commitments. It happens. However, that does not remove the responsibility. Even with mitigating circumstances, the responsibility to try and deliver on agreed commitments, to the then best of an individual’s capabilities continues to exist. And most of the time I think everyone tries to operate in this manner.

However, occasionally, such as the afore mentioned project review, that was not the case.

When you are told that someone did not honor their agreed upon commitment because “they were busy”, that is an excuse, not an acceptable reason.

We are all busy.

I mentioned this this to the person who thought I was angry.

I also mentioned that I did a little further exploration during the project review before truly engaging on the failure to deliver on such a direct level. Were there unexpected issues or circumstances that arose? Were there other activities that got reprioritized, and if so why were this project’s commitments the ones that were deprioritized? In short, why did this happen?

If there had been reasonable responses to those questions, it would have resulted in the creation of a mitigation and response plan to try and recover from the missed commitment. There wasn’t. They just said they were busy.

Sometimes a direct and focused response to unacceptable performance can be perceived as anger, since it seems to occur less and less these days. The idea of individual deliverable ownership can have a tendency to fade in a large process driven project. If the process is the preferred methodology, and something is not achieved, how do you directly address the process? You don’t. You address those that are responsible for executing the process.

Anger in general has no place in the professional environment. When commitments are not honored and there are no acceptable or mitigating reasons, an immediate and direct response to that level of performance can be called for, not anger on a personal level. It is in short one of the best methods to communicate that the performance and the excuse are not acceptable.

The fact that it was so memorable by the participants in this case was because it has become such a rare approach to performance. As I said leading from an achievement focus usually provides the required drive to achieve the desired goals. The fact that the response in question was such a departure from the norm is what made it so memorable.

My litmus test for if the reason presented for missing a deliverable acceptable is very simple: Would it be acceptable to senior management?

It has been my experience that some of the best leaders are also some of the busiest people. The demands on their time and the breadth of the decision responsibilities require a continued focus on the objective and the components and deliverables that will be required to achieve them. Will telling them that you were too busy to get something done be acceptable?

The short answer to that question is “No”.

There is a fine line that should not be crossed in instances such as this. The focus needs to be on the performance, deliverable or objective, and not directly on the individual. Direct responses to performance issues cannot and should not become personal attacks.

In our now process driven, performance interdependent business world, any individual failure to deliver has a far broader affect that on just the specific individual in question. Knock-on delays and other dependent deliverables will also suffer. Everyone’s performance can and will suffer to some extent.

As we become more “PC” (which in this instance means “Process Correct”) in the business world, we tend to attribute both the successes and failures in business to the process and not the people. Performance issues become obfuscated as process issues. And as a result, we have a tendency to try and address the process instead of the performance within the process.

In the past direct and immediate feedback, both positive and negative was viewed as a cornerstone of a strong performing team. It is now difficult to single out an individual’s performance, either positively or negatively without the interaction being construed as either lavish praise, or anger. Neither of which are particularly conducive to positive team alignment or performance.

We all can be and should be sensitive to a certain extent about the feedback we receive. It should help and serve to drive us forward. We also need to understand that it is our own individual behaviors and performance that serve as the baseline for whatever feedback we receive. We also need to understand that while the feedback may be specific to an individual, it must be focused on specific performance items and cannot be construed as being personal in the way it is delivered.

Anger is a personal thing. It doesn’t belong in the professional environment. We are all human and sometimes it is hard not to get angry. Still we must try to maintain our focus. The focus must always be on the performance of the individual, and not the individual themselves. When dealing with performance we must stay at the professional level and not the personal one.

Shorter Meetings

I’ve been trying something new lately when it comes to meetings. I started by looking at the number of meetings I attend. I don’t think I am too far outside the norm by saying, I seem to attend a significant number of meetings. I think I have said this before. We may have hit the point where we seem to establish our credibility and measure our value contribution by the number of meeting we attend. We have now associated attending meetings with making progress.

I then started looking at what actual portion of the meeting was I actually engaged in or contributing to. I am sure there are those that would question my engagement or contribution to any meeting I attend or participate in.

The point here however, is that I found that there were specific portions or times during meetings where the topic being discussed was germane to me and I needed to be fully engaged and participative. The rest of the time, maybe not quite so much.

When I looked further at this relative “down” time I would experience in a meeting, I found that a significant portion of it was associated with what I will call “related” meeting topics, not the specific meeting topics. I’ll give an example.

I was in a project review meeting where the objective was to detail the status of the project. An issue was identified. This is a good thing. But it quickly caused the meeting to go off the rails. Instead of identifying the issue, and assigning those responsible to work out a resolution, those responsible for working out a resolution proceeded to try and work out their solution – during the review, with everyone else waiting to contribute their portions of the review.

The issue was important. But more so specifically to a subset of all those in attendance. The rest of the meeting attendees (myself included) time was less than efficiently spent listening to the attempted resolution of a topic that may not have been completely defined, or fully germane to their areas of focus.

In other words. We sat there on the call.

The meeting dragged on. Another issue was identified which created another attempt at an on-line resolution.

The meeting ran out of time so that those at the end of the agenda had to curtail their reports.

The meeting ran over the allotted time.

Parkinson’s Law was reaffirmed.

For those of you that are not familiar with Parkinson’s Law, according to Google, it is as follows:

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. A proverb coined by the twentieth-century British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, known as Parkinson’s Law. It points out that people usually take all the time allotted (and frequently more) to accomplish any task.”
https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=BhmlW5GQIsvzzgLem5qABg&q=work+expands+to+fill+time&oq=work+expands+&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l2.1768.4291..6750…0.0..0.86.947.13……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i131j0i10.QQZmraKUhpQ

It seems that it may have its roots in science (Physics actually, and as we all know I am extremely fond of Physics).

”This law is likely derived from ideal gas law, whereby a gas expands to fit the volume allotted.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

And as we all know, if it is science, it must be true.

As with any scientific theory, several corollaries have been created as a result.

“The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

Other corollaries include Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

All of this got me to thinking. And, as we also all know, this can be a dangerous situation for not only me, but all those involved or effected. It seems to me that meetings have taken on a status where it’s okay to ramble and take extra time, because invariably we make excuses for, or accept this kind of meeting behavior. The end result is that the meeting does achieve is goal, but it takes far more time than anyone is comfortable spending, and no one feels a sense of accomplishment when it is done.

My answer to this issue was pretty simple.
I made my meetings shorter.

Instead of having a one-hour review, once a week on Wednesdays, I scheduled two – one half hour reviews on Tuesday and Friday. I didn’t reduce the agendas or topics either. We covered everything in each meeting.

You might ask how this is possible? The answer is really very simple.

I became ruthless in cutting non-specific meeting discussions off.

If the meeting is a review, then it was a read-out, or reporting delivery only. If an issue was identified, it was immediately taken off-line, with an action item and an owner identified and would be resolved so that it could be read out and reported during the next half-hour call.

No exceptions.

It took a couple of meetings for the team to understand and get the rhythm of the approach, but the results have been very apparent. The project is moving faster. Ownership of issues and their resolution is much clearer. Progress is accelerated.

Just to review: we are spending the same total amount of time in meetings on the project reviews, but we are making more, and faster progress toward our objectives.

Looking back at Horstman’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law, meaning if work expands to fill available time, that it should also contract to fit available time. Parkinson’s Law would mean if we schedule a one hour review we will conduct the meeting in such a way as to fill the full hour (and then some). Horstman’s Corollary would say that if we reduce the available time from one hour to a half-hour, we should be able to get the work done in that interval as well.

They both seem to be correct.

The issue is changing what were full hour meeting behaviors to the now necessary half-hour meeting behaviors. That means:

Ruthlessly staying on topic.
If it is a read-out meeting, read out only. Issues need to be taken off line, resolved and then read out at the next read-out meeting. If it is an issue resolution meeting, resolve the identified issue only. Don’t read out. Don’t work on other, related issues.

Cutting them off.
Many times, presenters do not know how to end their presentations. Sideline discussions, anecdotes, stories and all other manner of communications needs to be curtailed. Then move on.

Action Items.
Just because non-germane topics come up does not mean that they are not important topics. Clearly note them. Assign an owner and a time for resolution – and move on. Do not allow the group to lose focus on the topic at hand. This will keep everyone engaged.

Own it.
If it is your meeting, then it is your responsibility not to waste everyone else’s time. Stay on topic. Cut them off if necessary. Assign the action items. Publish the meeting minutes.

I didn’t set out to prove what are widely regarded as accurate, if not tongue-in-cheek axioms regarding how time is spent in business. I actually set out to see if I could start to reduce the amount of “down” time I was spending in meetings in general.

I am reasonably well convinced that the reason we have so much multi-tasking during meetings is due to the length and engagement requirements we now seem to expect in our meetings. We know the meeting will be longer than we want. We know that we will really only need to be fully engaged and aware for a relatively small percentage of the time that the meeting is conducted.

We know we will be bored the rest of the time.

The alternatives are to either multi-task, or to reduce the total time of the meeting in order to reduce the down time. Multi-tasking is the meeting attendee approach to solving their individual wasted meeting time issue. Reducing the actual meeting time is the meeting owner approach to solving everyone’s wasted meeting time issue.

Conducting shorter meetings will take significantly more effort on behalf of the meeting owner, and by extension some of the attendees, but I have found that you can actually get more done in the meeting by taking this approach. And I think that everyone in the meeting appreciates that, since that is supposed to be the objective of the meeting in the first place.

Process Purpose

With the continued increase of the process-oriented approach to all facets of business, a new phrase has found its way into almost every business conversation and lexicon: “How do we fix the process?”. Immediately upon hearing this, it is not uncommon for multiple teams to set up multiple cross functional calls, across multiple geographies and time zones to discuss the problems. Multiple issues will be defined with the process, and multiple action items will be assigned.

We are no longer fixing business problems or issues. We are fixing processes. Much of the generated activity and churn associated with fixing the process might be avoided with the simple act of stepping back and first correctly understanding what the purpose of the process is.

Many times, we all take it for granted that the process is there to help employees perform their required tasks. We associate processes with making things go faster. Making tasks easier to complete. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, however, maybe not. I’ll provide a few generic examples.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was relatively new to business, I remember there used to be a very special place where companies, business units, groups, teams, etc., kept a very special resource known as supplies. Supplies usually consisted of the little things that made it easier for employees to do their jobs, such as pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, staplers, tape and tape dispensers, highlighters and the like. When people needed these supplies, they would go find the person that had the key to the supply location, get access to it and select the supplies that they needed to continue efficiently performing their job.

As time passed and costs and cash flows continued to draw greater and greater attention from the company’s financial community, it was decided that this anachronistic way of providing employees supplies was not in the company’s best interest. It may have been efficient for the employee, but not for the company. Seemingly random and untracked amounts of money were being spent on supplies, and then these supplies would just sit idle (reference to the utility of money and cash flow) somewhere, waiting for someone to come by and use them. And then there was no specific process or methodology to be able to track who was actually using these supplies.

Unaccounted for money and expense was sitting in supply cabinets everywhere.

The result was that associated support teams and their supply budgets were reduced. And usually in their place a new process was created where individual employees would then have to access the on-line purchasing systems themselves where they could then order their required supplies.

Now admittedly the preceding topic has created an exacerbated issue in that it does require a change in employee behaviors. In the past, an employee would wait until their pen ran out of ink, or they used their last piece of paper before going to the supply location and getting more. Now they had to take into account the added time and complication of gaining access to the supply ordering system, and the delay associated with the supply provider delivering the desired supplies, and the internal delivery system to get desired supplies from the loading dock to their office.

What used to be a simple walk to the supply location to get any required supplies, had now become a multi-day, multi-system, multi-approval ordering process.

Now a days, if you need supplies, you had better plan ahead. Or you can just run by the office supply store yourself, and buy your own supplies. Either way, the corporate goal of the new office supplies process has been achieved: the amount of money the company spends on supplies has been reduced.

The point I am making here is that the supply ordering process was not implemented to make it easier to order supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount spent on supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount of money the company has tied up in supplies, sitting in some supply cabinet, waiting for someone to come by and get them.

The same can now be said just about any process that involves the expenditure of company funds. Travel approval policies are not there to make it easier for people to travel. Hiring processes are not there to make it easier to hire people. These processes are not put in place not to make it easier, or faster to perform these functions. They are in place for corporate tracking and control.

Just because they take extra time and require multiple approvals does not mean they are broken processes. In many instances it means that they are working as planned.

On the other side of the coin, we can look at those processes that are associated with the provision of the product or service that the company sells in its selected markets.

Sales people inherently understand that the relatively cheaper a product is versus its competition, the easier it is to sell and the greater the probability for a successful sale. Companies that vest too much uncontrolled authority in the sales arm have a tendency to experience lower margins and profitability, as sales tries to press for lower prices.

As proof of this point, would you be willing to go to the gas station across the street to buy their gasoline if it was five cents a gallon cheaper? How about two cents a gallon? There is always a point where convenience and timing can outweigh price differential, but in today’s cost intensive world price always plays a key role in everyone’s purchase decisions.

Sales and pricing processes are then normally put in place to enable business management to have greater influence on pricing in an effort to achieve desired profit levels. These are not processes designed to make it easier to create quotes and provide lower prices. These are processes designed to put checks and balances in place that protect the company’s profitability.

If you are a sales person attempting to compete for a customer’s order, they are an impediment and hindrance to your potential success. They are a broken process that is making it more difficult for you to obtain the order.

They are also probably the result of someone (or multiple someone’s) demonstrating bad judgement. Somewhere, sometime, someone probably knew that a price that was supplied to a customer was probably not in the best interest of the company as a whole, but did it anyway in order to get an order. The individual goal was achieved, but the corporate profitability suffered.

I have said many times that process is implemented as a substitute for judgement. In this case, bad judgement.

Sales people inherently know that the company must be profitable, if it is to continue in business. Margins must be at sufficient levels to meet the numerous business objectives such as paying for expenses, investing in new product development, paying sales commissions and providing a reasonable return to its investors.

Unfortunately, most sales incentive plans are focused solely on obtaining a top line order level. This is the objective that drives sales people to try and drive prices down, thereby making it easier for them to sell. It is also contrary to business objectives listed above.

In this situation there would be two key aspects of the business structure creating friction. The physics definition of friction is:

“… the resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another.” https://www.livescience.com/37161-what-is-friction.html

One trying to move price down, and one trying to increase prices. Process or not, this is inefficient for the company and creates waste.

Instead of creating a process to govern a function that generates corporate friction, which I would liken to the “stick” approach to problem resolution, (removing independent thought and decision making capability from those closest to the customer) I would suggest that It might be better to implement incentives that encourage the desired behaviors, or the “carrot” approach.

What might happen if the company offered the incentive of increased commissions to sales with higher margins, and at the same time offered the deterrent of significantly reduced commissions on sales with lower margins?

Instead of creating a process that can become an obstacle to the desired event (getting office supplies, or generating competitive customer offers and proposals…) which must be dealt with, or in some instances overcome, why not reexamine the event (and judgement point) that is driving the creation of the proposed process? Aligning individual, business unit and corporate goals, with appropriate incentives and deterrents for specific behaviors could be a much more efficient way of dealing with the issue.

With this approach in mind, it might be found that much of the effort that may be currently spent on “fixing the process” can be refocused on solving the underlying business issue and need. This is because, as has just been demonstrated, just because a process is not helping the individual be more effective and efficient at doing their job, does not mean that it is a broken process.

The “Hail Mary” Career Strategy

I was riffing through the Yahoo! Finance page the other day and saw what I thought might be an interesting article: “The Real World Is Increasingly Rough For 30-Year-Old Americans”, by Katie Krzaczek. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-real-world-is-increasingly-rough-for-30-year-old-americans_us_5b574ae2e4b0fd5c73c947fe
So, I clicked on it, hoping it was not the obligatory “click-bait” that we have all come to love. To my surprise it wasn’t. But it did send me to “The Huffington Post” page. Before I went any further, I did a little research on just who the Huffington Post is. I didn’t want to be responsible for furthering some Russian troll’s agenda.

It turns out that Wikipedia has this to say about the Huffington Post:

“HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post and sometimes abbreviated HuffPo) is a liberal American news and opinion website and blog that has localized and international editions.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HuffPost

With that out of the way, and despite the fact that am probably far from being considered either a thirty-year-old, or a liberal, I read on.

The article dealt with the idea that despite the fact that all the available empirical evidence that that should logically lead to a different conclusion, this age group demographic was by and large positive about their earning potential.

The article cited the available data that the current percentage of thirty-year-olds earning more than their parents was at an all-time low: approximately fifty percent as opposed to almost ninety percent fifty years ago. It brought up these additional facts:

“Bloomberg recently used Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data to highlight how today’s young people “are weighed down by student debt and stagnant wages”, and

“Axios published several charts to show how more of today’s 30-year-olds are living with their parents, paying higher college tuition, taking on significant debt, and buying fewer homes than 30-year-olds four decades ago.”

In short it was painting a pretty bleak picture for what has been termed Generation Y, but was noting that they were still positive about their earnings prospects. In fact, it pointed out that more than half the people in this demographic expected to be millionaires.

Now, perhaps with inflation a million dollars neither goes as far, nor is as difficult to obtain as when I was in this age group, but even so, this seemed pretty amazing to me. What was even more amazing to me was the way they thought that they would get there.

Ethan Wolff-Mann and Melody Hamm of Yahoo Finance noted in the article:

“I’m not exactly sure where all of this positive sentiment is coming from… I’m not sure whether the stagnant wages are contributing to this or anything like that. I do think … people [are] just hoping that something comes along that they walk into luck.”

“… some young people “think they can become influencers or they can sort of get a following, perhaps have a YouTube channel, perhaps be on Instagram and get $5,000 to pose with a bag or a beauty product.”

“Unfortunately, the power of social media, and the “Hail Mary shot” it presents …. works for only a fraction of those hoping to get rich quick.”

Oh, my goodness…

This approach strikes me as betting your future on winning the lottery, or the Readers Digest Sweepstakes, or some such equivalent opportunity. Yes, it is true that someone usually wins, but as noted above, it is usually a small fraction of those that are playing. However, planning on being “lucky” does not strike me as either a good or intelligent strategy for making money, or prospering in business.

If you don’t believe me, just walk into any casino on the planet. When inside, look around. Notice all the nice employees, luxurious prizes, and very nice crystal, wood and marble appointments. Then look at all the people in there gambling. Understand that those are the people paying for all those nice things in that casino. Yes, there may be a very small percentage of them that actually win and are held up as examples to all the rest, but by and large, the vast majority of people that enter a casino leave it with less money than when they entered it. That’s how casinos stay in business and pay for all the nice appointments.

It seems that many may now have the opinion that you no longer have to work hard and excel at something to be successful. Perhaps it is the constant bombardment from the media depicting reality “stars” who seem to only excel at being famous as opposed to being talented, that is influencing this generation as to what success is. Perhaps it is the commercials only showing the Publishers Clearing House winners, and not the millions who don’t win.

Rightly or wrongly I have learned to associate success with hard work. Yes, there has to be some innate ability, but it is the drive and hard work to make something of that ability that leads to success. It seems that too often we attribute success to “luck”. Perhaps that is why so many now are relying on this Hail Mary approach to success. They just expect to get lucky.

The Roman philosopher Seneca is attributed as being the source of the following quote on luck:

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”

But we now depict the successful as not being prepared to be anything other than famous and successful. They are no longer famous because they were successful, they were successful because they were famous.

Too often we see the successful after they have “paid their dues”. Gates, Bezos, Jobs, Buffet and the others all worked long hours and were driven to be successful. I guess watching people work hard doesn’t make for good television, although the “Jobs vs. Gates” episode of the “American Genius” series on The National Geographic channel was an outstanding depiction of what hard work looked like.

It was also condensed down into a one-hour time frame and put together thirty years after the actual events. It seems today that people want to know and see who will be kicked off the island, or out of the house, tonight.

In business there are very few opportunities for the Hail Mary approach to success. I am sure that they happen occasionally. I just have never seen one, let alone had the opportunity to participate in one. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Just that they appear to be very rare opportunities and events.

As an example, when discussing the rarity of events, for the longest time people thought that the only type of swan that existed was a white one. There was even an old proverb relating to them (“A rare bird in the land”, first attributed to the Roman satirist Juvenal.)

It was not until relatively recent times that it was found that black swans do actually exist (in western Australia). This idea of “The Highly Improbable” was then put into a theory by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, present day scholar and statistician, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nassim_Nicholas_Taleb to explain the rarity of certain events:

“The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist – a saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

Furthering the idea of the rarity of the business Hail Mary, or Black Swan event, is the continued relative drift away from critical thinking business opportunities in favor of process expansion and edification. Simply put, the business structure of today does not lend itself to many Hail Mary opportunities for success.

Instead business presents the opportunity for focused and hard work, and the potential opportunity for advancement and increased responsibility. “Potential” being the key word. In business today, many have the ability and intellect for advancement, but few have the focus and drive that Gates, Jobs, Bezos and others have demonstrated as a requisite for their levels of success.

The opportunity for success in business is still there, as shown by those that do rise to the most senior levels of leaders in it. It seems it is more the internal drive (and hard work) that separates the successful in business as opposed to them planning on being lucky.

This idea does not play as well when stacked against reality TV, or YouTube channel auteurs who are seemingly being successful at being famous – although I am sure that being famous is probably hard work as well.

What is interesting to me is the way Krzaczek ends her article on thirty-year old’s plans and methodologies for success and getting rich, in a seemingly “liberal” publication. She cites Andy Sewer, Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief, who said:

“Get real, work hard, and don’t spend money. The best way to get rich in America is not to spend money.”

That sounds like a pretty conservative, but smart approach to success to both getting rich, and being successful in business to me.

C.O.T.S.

It has long been known that just about everyone thinks that they can build a better mouse trap. Indeed, several in fact have. That is where innovation comes from. By building something better than what currently exists, a competitive advantage is created. It is usually a short-lived advantage as there are many others that are always also trying to innovate as well, who will either copy, or actually improve on the new design.

Add to this, the question of whether you should actually make your own better mouse trap, or buy someone else’s better mouse trap, and you have the makings for a reasonably spirited discussion. Remember, not everyone is in the same mouse trap business. So, do you invest in developing your own, or do you just go out and buy somebody else’s, already complete? However, when it comes to your own business systems, processes and tools, the decision should be very simple.

Unless you are in the tool and system business, never, ever, ever make your own tools and systems.

The tools and systems within an organization usually fall under the purview of the Information Technologies (IT) group (or some derivative thereof). The IT group can be staffed with some of the finest and brightest people in the organization. But everyone must remember, that unless you are in the IT services, tools and application development business, that is not the business that the organization as a whole is in. IT is then not directly associated with the products and services that the company positions as best in class and sell to its customers. It doesn’t develop them. It doesn’t sell them.

If IT based tools and systems are not the organization’s prime business, then investing in their custom development should never make sense. IT should then be treated as an administrative expense that is required to be spent in order for the organization to maximally leverage the available technology in the pursuit of its business goals, not a tools and systems development organization.

With this definition and positioning of IT in mind, I’ll now delve into the issues that almost every organization now faces when it comes to leveraging available technologies and how to be more efficient at it.

Over (a long) time I have had the opportunity to witness several different businesses and organizations try to utilize their product development capabilities to develop what has come to be known a “Multi-Tool Product”. This is a product that is supposed to do everything. It is designed to be all things to all customers. Instead of buying four different devices to serve four different purposes, you can buy one device to do all four.

And every time I have witnessed this type of product development attempt, I have witnessed what can best be described as failure, and worst described as abject failure.

There are two primary reasons for this type of Development failure:
1. The time and expense associated with this type of development is always, always much longer, much more complicated and much more expensive than ever budgeted or even imagined.
2. The functionality of the multi-tool product is never, ever good enough, nor delivers enough value to unseat the individual discrete products that it is competing against.

I like to tell the story of attending a multi-tool product development review some many years ago. The review was opened by the product manager stating that it had been eight weeks since our last formal review, and that unfortunately due to unforeseen development complexities, product availability had slipped twelve weeks in that time.

I commented that since it seemed that we were now falling behind faster than time was passing, that the only logical thing to do was cease development now so as to fall no further behind.

I was never invited back to another one of those product reviews.

The product however, was never completed nor released. It was quietly shelved many months, and millions of dollars later.

As to multi-tool product functionality. It may be time for another Gobeli Postulate on Product Development. It goes:

1. A product that is purported to be able to do everything, will do nothing very well.

Individually developed products are each optimized for value and performance. They are targeted at being the “best in class”. Multi-tool products by their very structures cannot match this. Each individual capability in a multi-tool product must carry the product cost and functionality overhead of every other capability in the multi-tool product.

This is equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife example. It may have a knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors, but none of those attributes are as good in comparison to a separate standalone knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors. And you must pay the added expense of the housing and overhead that is required to combine them all into one device. Invariably the four different best of breed items can be bought for less than the single, less functionally capable multi-tool product.

Okay, so what has all this got to do with IT?

Part of the average IT group’s responsibility is to create / select tools that will enhance the systems and automation of the business organization, their customers. It must be remembered that IT is a support group. They exist to provide functionality to the business.

This is contrary to some IT departments I have witnessed who appeared to believe the business existed in order to fund them.

Most internal (not out-sourced) IT tools groups think that they can create tools, capabilities and applications that are far better than what can be purchased in the market. They believe this due to their increased knowledge and proximity to their very business specific support needs. It is their focus to create tools and systems that deliver ever greater functionality and capability to an ever-greater number of people.

In short, they believe they can create better Multi-tools.

This is not always the case, but I think we can all probably remember instances where a perfectly functional and eminently usable tool was replaced in the name of “integration” by a tool that had greater integration with other systems, but lower functionality than the tool it replaced.

So here is where we get to the Title of this article: C.O.T.S. – Commercial Off The Shelf.

“Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, without the need to commission custom-made, … solutions … Although COTS products can be used out of the box, in practice the COTS product must be configured to achieve the needs of the business and integrated to existing organizational systems.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_off-the-shelf

Please take note of the word “configured” in the above definition. It does not say “customized”. IT provided tools and systems should be configurable to handle multiple applications across different business groups. They should not be customized into different discrete tools to address each group.

There are organizations in existence whose business model is to create tools for other companies and organizations. In order for them to grow and flourish they must create best in breed tools for their specific applications. They cannot create all the tools. Only those types of tools that they are experts in.

That means that in order to get a full suite of tools to address all the business needs of the organization that the IT group serves, they will need to deal with multiple tool supplying organizations.

IT is usually a technology oriented group. External tool providing companies will usually provide tools much faster, better, cheaper and with greater functionality than anything that an internal tools group could create. However, working and negotiating with external businesses is not very technical in nature, which is somewhat out of alignment with the desired direction of most IT Tools groups.

They want to create and develop. Not negotiate and buy.

Many companies have created their competitive advantage by developing their own “better mouse trap”. This self-reliant development mentality can easily bleed over into the IT group when it comes to the tools and systems. Senior management can also be receptive to the IT tool and system development siren song, since that is how they were able to achieve success as a business.

However, management needs to remember that regardless of what they may think, or be told by IT, their business systems and tools needs are probably not so unique as to require custom tool development, but more likely just need the proper configuration of a C.O.T.S., best in breed, already available tool or system. This solution direction will invariably lead to simpler and faster implementations, as well as a lower cost of ownership and sustainment across the commercial life time of the tool.

IT will almost always be the owner of the make / buy analysis when it comes to tools. Building your own multi-tools will almost always be a slower, more expensive and lower functionality alternative to buying C.O.T.S., regardless of what the IT tool development group may want or think. Especially if your business is not the tool and system business.