Category Archives: Accountability

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 organizations 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 five 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.

Responsibility and Execution

As we move up through management it is our expectation that our responsibilities will increase. We have demonstrated that we can not only handle the responsibilities of our current assignments, but that we can actually handle more. There is also a second axis that is applied along with the responsibility axis when it comes time for personal analysis: the execution axis. Being able to handle increased responsibility, but not being able to execute those responsibilities at an equally high level, or being able to execute at a high level, but not being able to handle the increased responsibilities, will provide you the opportunity to remain where you are and address those aspects of your performance that need work. It is only when both Responsibility and Execution are present at high levels that you get to move on.

I talked last time about Adversity and how my son has dealt with and overcame his Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis a year ago. Now I’m going to look at how he has done it, and what I have learned from watching him.

Most of us get to grow into our responsibilities and learn how to properly execute on them. Admittedly, some are faster learners than others. My son didn’t get the benefit of a learning curve. He didn’t get to grow into his Diabetic responsibilities. One day he is a normal eighteen year old, finishing his last year in high school. The next he is a Type 1 Diabetic, with a daily set of responsibilities, the execution of which affect both his quality of life, as well as his life expectancy.

Talk about having to grow into your responsibilities and learning to execute fast.

Prior to his diagnosis, Diabetes was sort of an abstract concept to me. I knew about it. I even knew a few people that lived with it. When it became real in a personal way, I too had to learn about it.

In business, few of us get to start at the top, with all the responsibilities and the requirement for continuous high quality execution. I suppose there are a few, particularly in privately held organizations, but I think even these have a sort of apprenticeship that comes from being “in the family” and growing up with the transition to be expected.

For most of us we start at relatively junior levels, learn, grow and prove ourselves over time. Situations, environments and even a certain amount of luck come into play. You may be highly skilled but in a mature to stagnant organization or industry that provides a relatively limited number of advancement opportunities. On the other hand, you may be in a growing industry where the opportunities are plentiful.

Good performance and learning the desired behaviors and execution can provide the opportunity for increased responsibility. This increased responsibility is usually built on, or an expansion of the previous role’s responsibilities. This means that you at least usually have a pretty good idea of how to execute on a portion of your new responsibilities.

This is the usual progression. In a new role, build on what you know and have already learned, and leverage it for the new responsibilities and execution of them. If you show the desire, willingness and ability to do this within reasonable time frames and expectations, then future expanded responsibility roles can be available.

Jesse Owens, the four-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Germany, said:

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”

I think it is safe to say that those games were not his first competition. He trained for a long time. There is no question that he worked hard. He learned and worked his way up through many smaller, and then increasing larger competitions, before achieving his most notable success.

I don’t think there are any smaller competitions, or learning opportunities for my son, or other Diabetics for that matter. One day you are fine. The next you have Diabetes and now are responsible for potentially life altering decisions, usually multiple times a day. There is no previous assignment to lean on or utilize as a jumping off point for your new role in life. It truly is a sink or swim moment.

If you provide your body too much insulin, it can result in Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

“Low blood sugar levels can cause a variety of problems within your central nervous system. Early symptoms include weakness, lightheadedness, and dizziness. … Severe low blood sugar is sometimes called insulin shock. Untreated, it can be very dangerous, resulting in seizures, loss of consciousness, or death” https://www.healthline.com/health/low-blood-sugar-effects-on-body

If you don’t provide your body with enough insulin, it can result in Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).

“Hyperglycemia is a defining characteristic of diabetes—when the blood glucose level is too high because the body isn’t properly using or doesn’t make the hormone insulin….You get glucose from the foods you eat. Carbohydrates, such as fruit, milk, potatoes, bread, and rice, are the biggest source of glucose in a typical diet….If you have type 1 diabetes, it is important to recognize and treat hyperglycemia because if left untreated it can lead to ketoacidosis. This happens because without glucose, the body’s cells must use ketones (toxic acids) as a source of energy. Ketoacidosis develops when ketones build up in the blood. It can become serious and lead to diabetic coma or even death.”

In business if we do not live up to and execute on our responsibilities, we may end up having some of them taken away from us. If my son provided too much or too little insulin as part of his responsibilities, he could die.

Talk about a negatively reinforced incentive plan.

Normally incentive plans are structured to inspire better performance. To strive. To achieve. We focus on the upside and the opportunity.

His incentive plan has no upside. He will always have Diabetes, regardless of how well he manages it. Or at least he will have it if and until ever a cure is found. On the downside, as I just noted, failure to either execute or accept this responsibility, has a significantly more impactful, and detrimental result.

I have commented on the fact that matrix organizations can have a separation of responsibility, accountability and authority. Accountability and authority reside with the person that is answerable to the task in question. Responsibility resides with the person that must actually accomplish the task. A very simple example of this structure would be when Captain Kirk on Star Trek decides on a course for the Enterprise to take (the accountable authority), and then assigns plotting, navigation and implementation of the course to the navigator (usually Mr. Zulu – the responsible party).

I am not sure of who the appropriate parties would be in this example with Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or any of the other spin-offs. I don’t think I ever really watched them.

In dealing with his Diabetes, my son is responsible, accountable and the authority. He decides what he eats. He tests his blood glucose levels. He decides on and administers the appropriate amount of insulin.

There is no question. He has the responsibility, and must execute at a high level, for the rest of his life. He started in the role, and will remain with it.

Fortunately, he has accepted the responsibility. He doesn’t complain about others with less, or different responsibilities. He knows what he has to do, and isn’t shying away from it. It comes with his new role in life.

He is also executing, continuously at a very high level. His blood tests and doctor’s visits all indicate he has his disease well under control. He is healthy and continues to thrive, much like any other nineteen year old without diabetes. He doesn’t use it as an excuse, or ask for any special treatment (although he is entitled to under the American Disabilities Act).

He just works hard at the tasks he has in front of him and adds the responsibility and execution of his diabetic requirements to his daily agenda.

He has accepted these new responsibilities (even though he definitely did not ask for them), and he is executing on them to the best of his ability. I think his best has far exceeded our hopes and expectations. I am confident that he has learned how to cope with this and any potential future increases in responsibility, and that he will execute on them with the same focus and high levels that he has handled these.

I am immensely proud of the way he has handled it. I don’t know if I could do as well at his age, or any age for that matter.

I continue to watch and learn from him.

When Metrics Fail

It has long been known in business that you should “Inspect what you expect”. This basically means that if you want to achieve a certain goal, or engender a specific behavior, you need to establish metrics associated with that objective. Then you need to monitor and measure the progress toward that objective.

After all, it has also been known in business that “Data is your friend”. The idea of gathering unbiased information regarding the progress toward the business goals and objectives has also been acknowledged as a path to success.

So, if you have the metrics, and you have the data, everything should be great, right?

Not so fast.

In these days of quantifiable objectives and unbiased measurements, with customer service taking an ever-higher pedestal in the pantheon of business goals, why is it that service satisfaction seems to be taking a nose dive instead of soaring to new heights?

I think the answer is simple, and it directly relates to the first item above: Inspect what you expect. Unless businesses are very careful when they set their goals and objectives, they will incite an employee behavior to manage to the metrics, instead of the business objectives. To illustrate this behavior and resulting customer satisfaction failure, I will regale you with my own personal travails though the metrics mess.

Since the advent of mobile phones, I think it is safe to say that just about every business person has had a business mobile phone. Across this mobile communications time-scape I have had the bad fortune to break exactly one of my business phones, to the point of requiring a replacement phone.

Personally, I think this is a pretty good record. I know of several of my colleagues across this period that are well into double digits on the number of phones they have broken and replaced.

In any event once broken, I then started the process of trying to get a replacement phone.

As with most organizations, there was a corporate “Help” line available to call should there be a connectivity issue. I called it. They answered right away. I asked my questions regarding where to go to start the replacement phone process. They directed me to the appropriate organizational web site.

Up to this point, this has been a really good service experience.

Time passed and I then accessed the replacement program and filled out the then required information and submitted it. I got an error message. It didn’t tell me what was wrong with my phone replacement application, only that it was wrong. I searched the rest of the page and found a help number (different from the first help number) and called.

They took my information and opened a trouble ticket, and told me they would get back to me.

Fifteen minutes later I received an email providing another URL directing me to another tool for phone replacements, and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

Time passed and I then went to the new location, filled out another form and requested a replacement phone. Now I received a different error message, but again, no information on how to resolve the error. I again searched the rest of the page and found a help number (different from the first help number, and the second help number) and called.

They too took my information and opened a trouble ticket, and told me they would get back to me.

Another short time later I received another email providing the URL of the original Help line directing me to talk with them since they were actually in mid-conversion of the on-line business phone procurement tool and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

As you might guess, my opinion of the quality of the service experience was eroding quickly.

Time continued to pass and I then re-called the original Help number and informed them of the circular cycle I had just been through, and again asked for their help. They said that they would look into it and then opened yet another trouble ticket.

Again as you might guess, I soon received another email confirming that there was indeed a conversion going on within the systems and that I would have to wait until it was over to order a replacement telephone, and that since they could not do anything else, they had closed my trouble ticket.

Now, I will get to the resolution of this phone replacement story in a little bit, but I am using it here to illustrate the issue that metrics can create. It was quite obvious that the metric that mattered most to the “Help” entities was how quickly they closed the trouble ticket once it was opened.

This metric mattered so much in their requirement set that it was all they focused on. I had opened multiple trouble tickets for the exact same issue, with multiple entities, some of them multiple times. They had closed every one of the tickets that I had opened quickly and efficiently.

And after all that time and effort, I still didn’t have a replacement phone. They had not solved my problem. Their metrics probably looked great. Their customer satisfaction, at least in my particular instance was close to non-existent.

Someone had obviously associated rapid closure of trouble tickets with increased customer satisfaction. In light of this correlation, they created a set of objectives and accompanying metrics around this topic. Goals were set. And associated behaviors were adjusted to this new arrangement. The tickets were indeed closed quickly.

And it was obvious that they learned that “usually” closing a trouble ticket quickly resulted in increased customer satisfaction. Closing multiple trouble tickets for the same issue quickly, but not solving the underlying issue resulted in the exact opposite. I was not anywhere close to satisfied.

By the way, I could not make this story up. This actually did happen to me some time back. It is kind of humorous in retrospect, however at the time I was not especially amused.

Getting back the resolution about how I eventually got a replacement phone, when everyone thought that they had done their job, yet there was no method for me to get a phone.

Most companies when they think they have done a good job like to issue customer surveys, just to make sure that they have done a good job. This sort of customer feedback looks good when it comes time to report on the group’s performance at the end of the year.

They sent me a customer satisfaction survey.

They asked that since all my tickets were closed so quickly if I was nearly as delighted as they thought I should be.

I told them “no”, and graded them “Zero” out of five on every metric, and submitted it. I in effect told them they stunk.

I like to think that once my survey hit their inbox with such low scores, that something akin to the “red button” was hit (along the lines of the one in the movie “Ghostbusters” – the first one, not the sequel) where the alarm rings and everyone comes running.

Within a couple of hours of sending it in, I received a call from the help group manager. He asked if he could set up a call to understand what my issues were. I agreed, but only if he brought in the other two help groups I had unsuccessfully interfaced with as well. He said he would.

Believe it or not, weeks had passed since I started the process of trying to replace my phone. What should have been a relatively simple exercise had now stretched out to the point where I was have a conference call with more than a dozen people who were trying to understand how I could be so wrong about the quality of their support services.

During the call I did agree with all of them that they had indeed closed all the trouble tickets I had opened quite promptly. I commended them for this obviously herculean effort.

I then informed them that the objective here was for me to get a new mobile phone, not to get my trouble tickets closed so quickly. I wouldn’t have minded that they were closed so quickly, if I had in fact achieved my objective, which was to get a new phone. And at this point, as of this conference call, I still didn’t have one.

There was what I could only have described as stunned silence on the call.

The actual final solution to the issue was to have the director responsible for the company phone services, who was on the call trying to understand what went wrong with the process, to personally order a phone for me. He did, and I received it two days later.

I think I should have called him directly in the first place.

Aligning goals and the accompanying metrics can be a tricky business. Leaders need to understand that just because all of the so-called metrics have been met, doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well in the business. Metrics tend to replace the actual business goals and objectives, since it is the metrics that people usually get measured against.

Understanding the metric alignment with the organizational objectives will be crucial in avoiding those instances where the metrics indicate one thing, while reality demonstrates something entirely different. It is always good to remember that having data is good, but that metrics, if not properly understood, can fail.

Not Making Decisions

I think we have all probably had the opportunity to work either for, or with people who when presented with a decision-making opportunity would actively avoid making the requisite decision. This is an interesting phenomenon in business, and one that seems to be far more common than anyone might expect. We all have been indoctrinated (well, obviously not all, the subjects of this article seem to have avoided this indoctrination) from early ages that leaders advance in business because the make good decisions. They are right far more often than they are wrong. They seize the moment. They are proactive, not reactive. They are the masters of their own fate. Why then does it seem that there so many managers around in what should be positions of what should be leadership, if they actively avoid making a decision when the time comes to make one?

I had been contemplating this decision-avoidance management style for a while, when I saw a Facebook posting that pushed me over the edge into writing about it.

Yes, Facebook.

I mean, after all, if you see it on Facebook, it has to be true, right? Twelve thousand Russian internet trolls can’t be wrong, can they? But I digress….

The following is the post I saw (It was actually re-posted by a friend of mine. Below is the actual URL):

(https://www.facebook.com/REALfarmacyCOM/?hc_ref=ARTa6SNGQ99wX_NW_jDp2bf-MzzSqL-Lr1SXCVjnWX09uq0fonu7AiT5_p8DhES1MLM)

It was originally a much larger post, in what was obviously an effort to assure attention, not to mention veracity, by being that much larger than anything else on the screen at that time.

It is also in my opinion, patently wrong.

It has been my experience that the decision avoidance approach to management must be a viable approach to business, especially for those with what is referred to as “bad judgement” (or judgment challenged, if you prefer) based on the number of managers who seem to avoid making decisions. Many have survived and even flourished in business without being decisive. More on this in a moment.

Peter Drucker is a famous business management leader, consultant and writer in the twentieth century. He said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”     (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/451403-whenever-you-see-a-successful-business-someone-once-made-a)

On the surface, this is correct, but only as far as it goes. Making decisions is good really only when you make the right decisions. Being courageous and wrong in your decision making is probably a good way to end your employment. Drucker probably should have said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made the correct courageous decision.

The difference is small, but crucial.

Almost every business will try to tell you that they value risk takers and encourage their teams to take risks, and that risks are good, and we should all risk, and so on and so forth.

What the business is really saying is that they want you to take risks, as long as you are correct, and the risk works out. What I have observed is that while companies say that by taking risks and being wrong, there can and will be a learning experience, the usual item that is learned by the risk taker is that they shouldn’t have been wrong. This conclusion is invariably arrived at later, normally in the process of looking for their next opportunity.

This would then lead us to the slight modification of the Facebook post, so that it would read in the following way:

Be decisive.
Right or wrong,
make a good decision.
The road of life
is paved with
Flat Squirrels
Who made a
Bad Decision

This revision of course begs the question:

Who wants to be a flat squirrel?

We now understand how the decision avoidance approach to management has come about. The up-side to making multiple good business decisions is that you may get the opportunity to make more, larger and more important business decisions. The down side is that if you make one bad decision, there is the potential to become a flat squirrel that will not be given the opportunity to make any further business decisions in the future. This sort of risk-return associated with business decisions results in driving many to avoid making decisions.

So, with this in mind, how do managers who won’t make a decision appear to become leaders?

The answer is the same with all questions of this type: Very carefully.

When presented with a decision-making opportunity, instead of making a choice, most managers will opt for pseudo-decision-making activities that will give the appearance of taking action, but will not directly subject them to the decision making risk. Examples of these activities can be:

Socialization, where the decision options, criteria and possible outcomes are presented to multiple other entities. This can result in opinions and responses with suggested options, or even just general feedback that can be used to diffuse the decision source and responsibility.

Discussion, where a meeting is called where the decision options are discussed and presumably the best option will be chosen. This process can actually take multiple meetings, depending on the amount of research that may be called for. Again, the result here is the diffusion of the responsibility for the decision. It is no longer a single manager, but now a team or group decision.

Escalation, where a decision avoiding manager can escalate the decision, either directly or indirectly, to a more senior level where it can then be made. This usually happens when a decision / risk averse manager reports to a decision inclined supervisor. In this situation, this kind of decision behavior may actually be encouraged.

And delaying, where the decision is put off or postponed long enough for the required decision option to become self-evident enough that there is relatively little risk in finally selecting it.

There may be many other behaviors and responses that can be observed by decision avoiding managers, but I think these are probably the most prevalent.

So, what does this all mean? Is decision avoidance an acceptable management style?

I think the answer is yes, and no. It has proven to be a workable strategy for many either risk averse, or judgement challenged, people. The proof lies in how many of these decision avoiders exist in management. But I think it is by nature a strategy of limited potential. If the goal is a middle management low risk and lower reward position and career, then it can probably be a workable approach. However, I think regardless of your preferences or career position there will always come a time when a decision will need to be made.

It may be small, or it may be large, but there always comes a time in business that will call for an answer. Those with decision making experience (analytical skills, judgement, etc.) will have an advantage. Those that don’t, won’t.

These instances are definitive examples of what is known as “The Peter Principle”. The Peter Principle stems from:

“Observation that in an hierarchy people tend to rise to “their level of incompetence.” Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less-effective because good performance in one job does not guarantee similar performance in another. Named after the Canadian researcher Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1910-90) who popularized this observation in his 1969 book ‘The Peter Principle.’”
(http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/Peter-principle.html)

The Peter Principle would lead us to believe that eventually a decision averse manager will find themselves in a position that will require the ability to make good decisions. After all, as Peter Drucker noted, business will eventually come down to making a courageous (read: correct) decision. Unless they have been keeping this ability in reserve, or well hidden, they will have then reached their upper limit on their management mobility.

It would appear that the successful method of applying a decision avoiding management strategy is to not desire or aspire to a role of such a level of responsibility that it requires a number of high visibility decisions to be made.

I don’t know of many business managers that knowing opted for the decision avoidance approach to business. I do know of some (I think we all do) who may have drifted into this business approach. It would seem to me to be a seductive, but probably slippery slope that could lead managers in this direction. The avoidance of issues instead of the difficulty of dealing with them can be attractive. If the opportunity and capability to do this was made available, there would of course be some who would take advantage of it. Matrixed organizations and well rooted processes for dealing with all manner of issues that will ultimately require a decision of some sort to resolve, may actually begin to drive this type of behavior.

It is at times like these that I hear the lyrics to the Rush song “Free Will” off of their 1980 released “Permanent Waves” album.

Yes, I listen to and appreciate Rush. I also applaud their finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

The passage that comes to mind is:

“….You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice….”

(https://www.rush.com/songs/freewill/)

Wow, Facebook (Decisions), Peter Drucker (Decisions), Laurence Peter (The Peter Principle) and Rush (Decisions) all in one business article.

The RACI Matrix

As the Project oriented view of the business world continues to flourish in the business organization, we have seen the rise in importance of something called the “RACI Matrix”. Sometimes it is pronounced “RAY-see”, and sometimes it is pronounced “RACK-ee”, depending on whether or not the hard or soft pronunciation of the letter “C” is chosen. I think that I have heard the second, hard “C” pronunciation more lately, as it appears that no one wants to be associated with anything that could potentially be considered racy in the working environment.

In the apparently now outdated but venerable “General Manager” model, there was no question of where the responsibility and accountability for getting things done resided. Leaders led their teams and the buck stopped there. They were responsible and held their teams accountable. However, as this management structure appears to continue to wither away, the matrixed and project based organization model with the RACI Matrix have proportionately grown in both their application and need, as a way to keep track of these new project oriented and structured roles and responsibilities.

As usual, first a little definition work:

RACI is an acronym that stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. A RACI chart is a matrix of all the activities or decision making authorities undertaken in an organization set against all the people or roles. (https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=91SdWu7FI8Kz5gKHsoTYDQ&q=raci+chart&oq=raci+&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l10.1435.3243.0.8245.5.5.0.0.0.0.198.609.0j4.4.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..1.4.606…0i131k1.0.-TcIxdozKYA)

The most important aspect (I believe) here is the potential organizational division of Responsibility and Accountability. When a Matrix organizational structure is employed, there is the potential for people to be held responsible for a deliverable, but they may not have anyone who directly reports to them that is assigned to the deliverable. In situations such as this, there is the need for some sort of tracking and governing document. Hence the RACI Matrix.

Now a little more definition work:

responsible
re·spon·si·ble
adjective

  • having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role.

synonyms: in charge of, in control of, at the helm of, accountable for, liable for

  • being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it.

synonyms: accountable, answerable, to blame, guilty, culpable, blameworthy, at fault, in the wrong

  • (of a job or position) involving important duties, independent decision-making, or control over others.

synonyms: important, powerful, executive
(https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=8ZudWur9G4_n_Qbj55eQBg&q=responsible&oq=responsi&gs_l=psy-ab.1.1.0l10.2660.8341.0.11364.12.10.1.0.0.0.241.1165.0j4j2.6.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..5.7.1177…0i131k1j0i10k1.0.Er0EPShawI0)

Okay….but I’m not so sure I am comfortable with having the word Accountable used in the definition of Responsible. After all, according the RACI Matrix these two items, Responsible and Accountable are supposed to be separate.

accountable
ac·count·a·ble
adjective

  • (of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.

“government must be accountable to its citizens”
synonyms: responsible, liable, answerable; to blame

  • explicable; understandable.

“the delayed introduction of characters’ names is accountable, if we consider that names have a low priority”
synonyms: explicable, explainable; understandable, comprehensible
(https://www.google.com/search?ei=_ZudWvG1MsGO5wLIm7GACA&q=accountable&oq=account&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0i67k1l4j0i131k1j0i67k1j0j0i131k1j0l2.122902.124228.0.127937.7.5.0.2.2.0.209.523.0j2j1.3.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..2.5.558…0i131i46k1j46i131k1.0.wz1wZ7U8_QE)

Alright. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the difference between Responsible and Accountable. I guess a little more research is still required.

The accountable person is the individual who is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision. This includes “yes” or “no” authority and veto power. Only one accountable person can be assigned to an action.

The responsible person is the individual(s) who actually complete the task. The responsible person is responsible for action/implementation. Responsibility can be shared. The degree of responsibility is determined by the individual with the “accountability.” (https://resources.workfront.com/project-management-blog/accountability-vs-responsibility-in-project-management)

Now I think we are getting somewhere.

The Accountable person is the one who must see to it that something gets done.
The Responsible person is the one who must actually do it.

The basic difference between responsibility and accountability is that the former is assumed whereas the latter is imposed. While responsibility is understood as an obligation to perform a particular task, accountability denotes answerability, for the completion of the task assigned by the senior. (https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-responsibility-and-accountability.html)

That seemed like an awful lot of work just to determine what the definitions are for a couple of the columns in the project work and responsibility matrix.

I don’t think I am going to bother going through the Consulted and Informed portion of the RACI Matrix. I think those terms are a little bit more self-explanatory and have less direct effect on the outcome of any discussion or project.

What I am getting at here is that as business moves to more of a matrix oriented business structure where the lines of responsibility, accountability and authority no longer remain within a single business organizational structure, a set of rules was needed to be put in place to define and govern these new cross organizational roles and relationships.

All this incremental work, definition and process was put in place in the interest of increasing speed and efficiency, reducing costs and assuring improved project implementation.

To be fair, what has really occurred is the codification of the inherent rules associated with the general management model so that they can be applied in the matrix structure.  In the GM model the leader was accountable and assigned responsibility to the various members of his team in order to get things done. It is when the solid reporting lines become dotted, that the rule book had to be created so that all can now operate appropriately.

This again assumes that an organizational discipline driven structure is more efficient than an organizational interest driven one.

When an organization is aligned along business disciplines (Project Management, Marketing, Operations, etc.) instead of aligning along business interests (specific products, specific global regions, etc.) companies are relying on the hopefully increased specific disciplinary economies of scale to outweigh the lost economies of scale associated with the specific business product or region interests.

In short many companies now believe that having a shared cadre of say, Project Managers, that every business unit within the organization can access and use, is more efficient than each business unit having their own dedicated group of Project Managers. For smaller organizations this might be the case as having a shared group would obviously reduce the opportunity for “down” time where a PM may not have a project to manage or be fully utilized.

However, for larger organizations, it would seem that having dedicated PMs, with their increased specific product, or region specific, etc. knowledge within the specific business interest might be a more efficient model, with less documentation and process overhead needed to govern the inter-group relationships. It would almost seem to be a foregone conclusion that any time you must create a process, with a rule book and a division of responsibilities matrix, just to conduct existing business within a new business structure, there might be an opportunity for confusion and a reduction in speed.

There can be real benefits derived for the organization from the matrix model. I think it requires a real understanding of what capabilities can be centralized and homogenized, and which might ought to remain within the specific business interest’s organization. I think this is a decision pendulum that will continue to swing one way and then the other as market, and management conditions continue to change.

Either way, it’s always a good idea to understand who is responsible, and who is accountable, as well as the other items in a RACI Matrix, because now a days it’s quite possible that the people who are identified with these responsibilities (and accountabilities) are no longer in the same organization.

The Nimble Process

I have read that there have been many claimed sightings of the nimble process in business these days. they usually occur in small out of the way places, and by possibly dubious sources. When the reports of these sightings first come in they are usually confused and somewhat contradictory. Sometimes the questionable sighting is just attributed to the reliability of the witness claiming to have seen it. Whenever there is an examination of the data associated with the sighting, the results are invariable inconclusive. The hunt for conclusive evidence goes on.

In short, confirming the existence of the nimble process may have become the business equivalent of trying to confirm the existence of Big Foot, the Yeti, or the Loch Ness Monster. There are plenty of people who have claimed to have seen them, but there just isn’t that much reliable evidence around to actually confirm their existence.

If we are going to look for, and discuss the nimble process, we need to start with some simple definitions. Where else but the dictionary can you go to get really good definitions:

Nimble [nim-buhl] Adjective: quick and light in movement; moving with ease; agile; active; rapid http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nimble

Process [pros-es; especially British proh-ses] Noun: a systematic series of actions directed to some end: a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/process?s=t

As can quickly surmise, a nimble process is what is known in many circles as an oxymoron.

Oxymoron [ok-si-mawr-on, -mohr-] Noun: a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness”, “jumbo shrimp” or “to make haste slowly.”. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/oxymoron?s=ts
(I threw in the jumbo shrimp one myself, mainly because a really like it for illustrative purposes. The other two were actually in the definition.)

The primary difference between a nimble process and other oxymorons is that there are verifiable instances of the other oxymorons existing in the real world. You can in fact go to the local grocery store or food market and purchase jumbo shrimp. They are in the bin next to the merely “large shrimp”. The search for the nimble process however, continues to go on.

As noted in their definitions, nimbleness is defined as quick and light in movement, and process is defined as a systematic series of actions, and operation…in a definite manner. Businesses yearn to be able to operate with quick and light movements in a definite manner. This is the big foot / yeti / Loch Ness monster that almost every organization is searching for. The ability to define almost every conceivable option in a process, and the ability to execute on any one of them almost immediately.

Personally, I think there is a greater probability of big foot calling and holding a news conference for the purpose of confirming its own existence.

Process is the defining of specific steps and alternatives. I have written in the past about the fact that process is designed to help generate repeatable results by removing judgement as a variable in the business process. Since almost everyone in business has different types and levels of judgement, it has been identified as a variable that can somewhat be controlled by process. If you define the process steps, you inherently reduce the need for judgement. If all your steps and alternatives are thus defined, what is the use in being nimble in the execution of them?

As more and more process is implemented into the business environment the supposed need for the ability to adapt to new opportunities, or issues, should also be reduced. If this was indeed the case there would be no need for being nimble at all. You would merely continue to increment in new steps to the process until every alternative would be covered.

This is what appears to be the business goal of what happening today.

Processes grow ever bigger and more complex as people strive for that process that can be applied to every situation. Instead of focusing on solutions, focus has shifted to how the process will need to be incremented or modified so that it will generate an acceptable solution.

Nimble is normally associated with the ability to perform the most of complex movements with speed and grace. It is the ability to change and adjust spontaneously to changing issues and inputs. It is moving lightly and actively as opposed to moving passively in a prescribed manner. It is in effect the basic opposite of process.

The only way to make a process more nimble and agile, especially when it comes to issues and events that have no current response defined within the process, is to reduce the intensity of the process.

As processes become more detailed and refined they become more rigid. The more prescribed actions and directions that are contained in a process, the less agile and nimble it becomes. The more judgement that is taken out of the hands of those implementing the process the more fixed and ingrained it becomes.

Judgement, or the lack of it, is an excellent indicator of both an individual’s and organizations ability to adapt and adjust to changes in its environment. It is indicative of the search for the nimble process in that as organizations implement more processes in an effort to remove performance variations, the environment that they must operate in continues to become more variable and to change at a faster rate.

Process, via its fixed step connotation as it is implemented, reduces an organizations ability to adapt to its variable and changing environment.

Still, the search goes on.

There are an ever-growing number of television shows dedicated to the search for finding proof positive regarding bigfoot. There is the show “Finding Bigfoot”. There is “Mountain Monsters”. Heck, even the guy who used to show us how to survive in the wilderness for a week or two with nothing but a multi-tool and some dental floss has given up his show “Survivor” and is now out there looking for bigfoot.

It appears that shows about finding what has to this point proven to be unfindable are entertaining and are generating an ever-increasing following.

Like-wise it appears that there continues to be an ever-increasing drive to create the ever more nimble process by draining the requirements for judgement and flexibility from those who most need, and must utilize those attributes. What really worries me is that there are so many who are comfortable with this ceding of their judgement to the process.

As long as it is easier, and now safer, to follow the steps in a process instead of thinking, using judgement, and possibly being wrong, business risks the continued petrification (a long-term process) of their processes. If business continues to drive judgement out of its staff’s lexicon in favor of process and predictability, then business will continue to become very predictable in its inability to demonstrate any nimbleness or agility.

It’s time to change the meaning of the word “process”. Process, as it is used in business today, is used as a noun describing a fixed methodology for performing actions. It appears that if true nimbleness is desired, many of the prescribed actions need to be removed from the current “by rote” methodology, and process will need to adopt one of its other dictionary definitions:

Process verb: to integrate sensory information received so that an action or response is generated: the brain processes visual images relayed from the retina.
to subject to examination or analysis: computers process data https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/process

The idea here is to take the input associated with the situation and generate a proper response, not follow a preconceived fixed in place response associated with a “process”. Instead of having people merely follow a prescribed set of responses in a process, businesses need to require their people to be smart, examine and analyze the information and input available, process it, and then act in accordance with their resulting judgements and less rigid business guidelines, not prescriptions.

I think therein lies the direction to the nimble process.

Instead of trying to create a process that takes every possible business and market permutation into account, businesses need to scale back the rigor associated with their processes, and require more of their team members. I don’t think that thinking is a lost art in business, yet. The more people that think and exercise judgement the faster a business can respond to new threats and opportunities.

Processes need to become a little more general, and a little less specific for nimbleness to take hold. The more complex the process is, invariably the slower it is to change, be changed and react to new and different circumstances.

There may in fact be a variation in performance as a result of the reduction in the prescribed steps in a process. As I said, not everybody’s judgement is the same. However, if there is as much variation and change in the market (see just about every article ever written about the status and stability of every market, for confirmation of this idea) as noted, then the increased ability to adapt to and deal with this change should in general generate more positive variations than negative ones.

And after all, isn’t positive performance the objective of any process?

Forecasts

Forecast meetings are interesting animals. They are basically meetings where you compare what you think the numbers are going to be, with what you want the numbers to be. Over time I have had the opportunity to attend many different types of forecast meetings. Sales, Revenue, Cost, Delivery, all types of forecast meetings. I have found that there are basically two types of forces competing for supremacy at a forecast meeting: The volumetric force, which is the force working to drive the numbers toward what they are wanted to be, and the accuracy force, which is the force driving the numbers toward what they have a higher probability of being.

The volumetric force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are either meeting or exceeding the business plans for that particular aspect of the business, regardless of whether they are or not. This means that for example, if it is a sales forecast in question, the desire is to see the annual sales target for business to be divided by twelve (coincidentally the number of months in a year) and to see the sales forecast incremented upwards by one twelfth the annual sales target each month, which is coincidentally the usual frequency of the sales forecasting meeting.

The accuracy force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are relatively reliable, and have a relatively high probability of actually becoming reality. An example here would be if the average interval between order and revenue was six weeks, and the orders target was achieved with eight weeks remaining in the quarter, there is a reasonably high expectation that the revenue forecast should also be reliably achieved.

Sometimes these forces work in concert. This is where the volume of the forecast and the accuracy of the forecast are both close to, or ahead of the desired targets. This can mean that sales are above target, or costs are below target, or both. This is also where there is a very high probability of the business sales or cost performance coming in at or very close to the forecasted numbers.

In business vernacular, times when the volume and the accuracy of the forecasts are both on target are usually known as “rarefied air”. They don’t align this way very often. When they do it seems to be a foregone conclusion that either the volume or accuracy targets for the next forecast will be changed significantly.

Once the volume and accuracy targets for the forecast have been modified to the point where one or both of the variables are now in question, the business process can now be considered back in normal state equilibrium, or more accurately in the normal state of disequilibrium.

One of the primary topics of forecasts are the numbers. It is usually a good rule of thumb that if there is anything but numbers in a forecast meeting, then somebody is trying to distract somebody else’s attention from the numbers. Given the opportunity, there is a reasonably high probability that those responsible for presenting the forecast will try to add in extraneous information of some type, if their forecasted numbers do not meet or exceed their assigned targets.

Both a strength and a weakness of the forecasting process is the periodicity with which it occurs. Regular forecasts enable the business to prepare for and adapt to the forecasted changes and values that are projected. If forecasting meetings are held too often, there is not enough time for new events to occur and the forecast to change. This results in wasted effort and repeated information.

On the other hand, if they are held too infrequently, it can mean that events have occurred during the forecast interval that must now be responded to in a far shorter time. It can also mean that the results of the last forecasting meeting can be forgotten or obscured. This can result in a loss of directionality as to how the forecast is either progressing or regressing. One of the main benefits of the forecasting process is to get an understanding of which direction the specific piece of the business is moving.

This results in the potential need for at least some incremental information to be included in the forecast. Again, think numbers. The most useful of which is the comparison of the current forecast to the desired target numbers. That provides a snapshot of what the predicted versus the desired performance will be. The next useful piece of information will be the comparison of the last forecast to the current forecast. This information provides a directionality to the snapshot. Is the forecast getting better, worse or staying the same with respect to the targets?

Adding much information beyond the targets and the previous forecast can cause the information in the forecast to become somewhat garbled or confusing. I have seen forecasts where the information was compared to multiple previous forecasts, or the forecast from the same period a year earlier. This one I am not sure I understand, unless you are looking for some sort of a longer-range piece of information regarding how things have changed, or not, over a year.

To me the salient point is always to know how things are progressing towards this year’s targets. Knowing what last year’s forecast was for the same time period can be a little bit like knowing what the weather was forecasted to be for the same day, a year ago. It might be interesting to know, but it has little to do with whether or not you will need an umbrella or not tomorrow.

The purpose of forecasts is to alert you to the state of the business with as much lead warning as is possible. Do those presenting the forecast indicate that things are getting better? Are they getting worse? It takes time for changes to produce the desired effects in a business. The more time that you have to make them, the greater the effect that they can have. Does the forecast indicate that any changes are required at all?

This is where the volumetric forecasting force can work against the business. As stated, this force is the desire to forecast increasing performance, that is at or near the desired targets. But what happens if either the market conditions, or business performance are such that the actual forecast is indicating that the numbers are moving away from the desired targets?

If you actually forecast this type of event, the known decline of performance and missing of a target, you are inviting what is known as “management assistance”. This type of assistance usually comes in the form of even more forecasting meetings where the opportunity to explain what is going on is made available, that is until the forecasts improve in line with desired results.

So, what happens?

A general rule of thumb is that once a forecast is created, it cannot get worse. They can either improve, or stay the same, but having a forecast that is moving away from the target will cause much consternation. As we all know, business is a continually changing environment and set of events. Very little in business can or should stay the same. Accurate forecasts should reflect the constantly changing environment.

If you see a forecast, of any type, that is not changing with time, then you know it is getting worse.

The advantage to this situation is that management is not being directly told that things are getting worse, so they have plausible deniability to their senior management, and the business performers are not having to spend incremental time explaining what has occurred, and what they are doing to correct it. They can just get on with correcting the performance and trying to improve the forecast.

However, this approach will only work for a while. Eventually even management will have to recognize that they are being shown the same information over a prolonged period of time and they will be forced to question it. Once this type of questioning on the relative believability of the forecast begins, there is little that can be done to stop it. This is where plausible deniability ends.

As process has continued to expand its role within business, forecasting has also become the forecasting process. This usually means that instead of just having the person or team closest to, or responsible for the specific set of numbers for that specific period enter them into the forecast, they must now put them on a form where they are then routed to many other people and teams who are either only tangentially or wholly unrelated to the numbers, can then approve them before they are actually entered into what will become the forecast.

Forecasting is a critical aspect of a successful business. The ability to accurately predict present and future performance enables business groups and disciplines to take the most effective actions to benefit the business. Understanding how forecasts are put together, and being able to accurately interpret the numbers they contain are key capabilities for the business leader to learn.

It is also critical for the business leader to be able to interpret the information that the forecast contains that may not be specifically numeric in nature.

Joining Them

For those of you that don’t directly know me, I can have a tendency to cause problems. I like to think of myself as a knowledge worker. That means that I tend to make my living utilizing my brain power as opposed to my muscle power. That also means that when people ask me questions, I (sometimes mistakenly) think that they are asking me to use the sum total of that brain power, experiences, training, and cognitive capabilities to provide what I think is the best response to their queries.

Many times, however, it seems that people who ask me questions are not actually looking for my response. They are looking for their response. They may already have an answer that they like, they just want me to agree with it. Sometimes I do. Many times, I don’t.

My wife, who also happens to be a very smart lady has learned that when she asks me something, the probability is asymptotically close to zero that I will provide her the response that she is looking for. Her solution to this situation has been to stop asking me questions or for my opinions all together. She now just goes ahead and does whatever it was she had already decided was best in the first place.

Sometimes I find out about it later. Many times, I don’t. I am told we are both happier with this arrangement.

In the past, this approach to business has stood me in good stead. I think it was pretty much this way for everyone. If your judgement was good, and you were right more often then you were wrong, you progressed forward. However, as times have changed in business, this approach to answering questions, or taking on assignments, has now led to me sometimes being viewed as something of a rebel in the process driven world.

As I said, initially this classification didn’t bother me, as such. I actually looked upon it with a certain sense of pride. I think part of it was that business and organizational process was still somewhat in its relative infancy as a methodology for management, and part of it was that for the most part I could still get things done. I would examine a problem, create a solution and chart a course for implementing it.

We had a business structure that was built on a Risk – Reward basis. If you had a better way of doing things and had the belief in it such that you put it out in front of the team and defended it, there was a real probability that you might get the opportunity to actually do it.

As the old saying goes: Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.

If you were right, and you implemented a solution that did improve things, you got the opportunity to continue on your trajectory. On the other hand, if you were wrong, or for whatever reason were unable to implement your solution, it was usually some time before you got another chance to do something new.

As the inexorable tide of process continues to rise within organizations, this approach to career trajectories appears to be a thing of the past. There is less and less room for rebels within a process driven system. There is less and less opportunity, and just as importantly capability, to effect change as the purview of process has continued to grow.

I had been thinking about this dichotomy for a while.

All sorts of quotes and thoughts have come to mind.

Japanese literature has many books about the tragic heroes throughout its history. Those that chose to stay true to their ideals and suffered defeat and paid the ultimate price for doing so. Many are now revered in Japanese society for what they did. Despite knowing that they were fighting a battle that they could not win, they chose to continue to fight.

I respect that. But it is not lost on me that they didn’t win. And they got killed.

If you are interested in reading any of this stuff, there are several books that I would recommend: The Nobility of Failure – Tragic heroes in the history of Japan, by Ivan Morris, Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, and Liam Hearn’s fully fictional Tales of the Otori series are all good.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is an excellent quote from Sam Rayburn. For those of you that don’t know him, he was a U.S. Representative from the 4th District in Texas. He was also the longest serving Speaker of the House in history, serving in that role for seventeen years between 1940 and 1961.

He also has a modern tollway named after him here in the Dallas area. You have to pay if you want to drive on it.

He said: “If you want to get along, you have to go along”.

Spoken like a true politician. I am not so sure if that is a really good way to proceed either, although there do seem to be many today in business that appear to subscribe to it.

I recently came across a quote by Marie Lu, who is a contemporary author of several series of young adult books. I haven’t read any of her books yet, as it is readily apparent that I am somewhat beyond young adulthood at this point. The quote struck such a chord with me that I will probably have to go out and read at least some of her books to see if they can live up to the expectations that this quote has set for me.

She said: “If you want to rebel, rebel from inside the system. That’s much more powerful than rebelling outside the system.”

Corporate organizational and process structures have now become so ingrained from a business and operations standpoint, that it is almost impossible for an individual to step outside of them and be perceived as offering anything constructive or beneficial to the business. Notice that I said almost. People such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and the late Steven Jobs at Apple all have stood as individual rebels who stepped outside the then corporate norm with great success.

It should also be noted that in order to achieve their ultimate goals that they had to stand so far outside the then corporate norm as to have to create their own new corporations and models. There were precious few if any companies that would have accepted their radical approaches to the business issues that they took on.

They didn’t seem to accept the then standard process. They believed in their own judgement.

However, many of us may not have had the absolute vision or solution on the scale that these rebels did. We may see what is wrong within the organization that we currently find ourselves in. We may see what needs to change in order to improve the business or opportunity that we are in. We face a conundrum. We know the structure or process in question is not optimal. We also know that if we rebel against it, from outside of it, the inertia of the process will more than likely continue in its present direction.

Do we stand by what we believe is correct and rebel (figuratively of course) from outside the process, or do we join the process with the hope and plan on changing it from within?

There are several people who seem to have been credited with the phrase “If you can’t beat them, then join them”. I saw various attributions which included Jim Henson (I don’t seem to remember any Muppet saying this), and Mort Sahl (a comedian from the 1960’s), but both Bartleby.com and the Yale Book of Quotes attribute the quote to Senator James E. Watson of Indiana, with its first appearance in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in February of 1932.

It seems that Marie Lu has put a new spin on a much older idea. The new spin is that Joining the system or the process does not necessarily mean the acquiescence and submission to those principles that it once did. But rather, the only way to now generate effective change for a business process or a system is now from within it.

Again, for those of you who know me, you probably understand how it pains me to say this.

External rebels within a defined business structure and process are probably going to go the way of the previously mentioned Japanese tragic heroes who may have been fighting a good and just battle in the face of insurmountable odds. While they might have been right, they didn’t achieve their goals. They didn’t survive either.

Those that went along in order to get along didn’t achieve their goals either. They may have survived but I’m not sure that really is a preferred existence.

I think the process driven structures of business today are now in such a state that the only way to effect meaningful change to them, is to do so from within them. External influence on a process has a decreasingly small effect on them. That means that you will have to join them. That doesn’t mean total acquiesce and allegiance to them. It just means that going forward in today’s business world, it appears that one of the only ways to change a flawed business process will be from within the process itself.

Meeting Volume vs. Meeting Value

I think I may have telegraphed this week’s topic with that title.

It is no secret that I have been looking at the topics of Process, Meetings and Virtual Offices and the effects that the changing norms for each of these topics have had on each other. As more process is driven into the business organization, the requirement to have more meetings as a part of the review process increases. As people who were once in the office now work from a virtual office instead of the brick and mortar organizational location, they attend more and more meetings “virtually”. Meetings are now really little more than what would once have been described as very large and elaborate conference calls. Against this new backdrop I can’t help but wonder if what was once a vital aspect of corporate culture and progress has become little more than an opportunity to answer emails and texts while partially listening to someone talk on the phone.

I think process has a place in business. It should provide guidelines and directions as to what potential next steps need to be taken in a given situation. This is probably particularly important in those disciplines that deal with crisis situations (such as critical system failures, etc.) or those that deal with repetitive situations where uniformity of approach, response and output are desirable.

I am sure that there are probably others, but for now a think that a little process guideline setting can go a very long way.

I have written in the past that process is invariably input into an organization as a replacement for judgement. The human brain, when properly applied, is a spectacular difference engine. It is capable of correlating seemingly unrelated inputs and creating leaps of faith and imagination that no process could ever hope to replicate. This is what “judgement” is.

And yet we continue to put more structures in place with the purpose of curtailing this capability. We continue to input more process into business as a replacement for judgement, and then react by trying to input even more process when it comes the time for good judgement, and there is none available.

One of the hallmarks of process is the requirement that there must be review meetings to make sure that the process is being followed. Otherwise, how could anyone be sure that the process even existed, let alone was being followed. These are events where everyone associated with the process attends, mainly it seems because the process indicates that everyone associated with the process should attend every process review.

Process review meetings are usually pretty large affairs. As we have increased the application of process to business, we have also increased both the number of meetings, particularly process reviews, and the number of attendees at those meetings.

Virtual Office arrangements have also contributed to the ever-expanding meeting numbers and sizes.

Back in the olden times, when people actually all went to a specific place to work together, it was usually somewhat apparent what everyone was doing and how busy they were. You could see them. You could see what they were doing. Even if you weren’t talking to, or directly interfacing with them you were at least peripherally aware of what was going on.

But now with the proliferation of Virtual Office arrangements, no one can be really sure what any of “those people” who are not in the office are actually doing. This phenomenon is also not lost on the people who are in the virtual office. So, what do the people in the virtual office do?

They attend more meetings.

There can be no doubt regarding someone’s work status when they are always in meetings. There is no question as to what they are doing if their calendar shows that they are attending a meeting.

Meetings have now evolved into a vehicle that allows the once “invisible” virtual office worker to not only be more visible, but to be more visible to many, many people. Since meetings have devolved from face to face events where you could see who you were talking to, to expansive conference calls where just the slides appear in front of you on your personal computer screen, and are addressed by a voice on the telephone, they seem to have grown in size.

That doesn’t mean that they are any more popular, or more useful. They are just more easily attended.

In a face to face meeting, it is readily apparent to everyone else in the meeting is doing. You can look over and see. Are they paying attention? Are they engaged? Are they making eye contact? Are they asking questions? What, if anything are they getting out of the meeting?

This is no longer the case.

We now have an ever-increasing slate of meeting attendees, most of which are no longer even in the same building as the meeting host. We have an increasing number of meetings, attended by an increasing number of people, for an increasing number of reasons. Just because we now have more people at these meetings doesn’t mean they are paying attention. Chances are more than pretty good that they are not.

The only thing that seems to be decreasing when it comes to meetings is the actual interaction that goes on during the meeting.

Since there is usually no one in the room with any particular presenter during a particular meeting, they are no longer presenting “to” anyone. They are presenting “at” them. And since there is no longer any direct ownership associated with the reception of the presented information, there seems to be fewer and fewer questions associated with what has been presented.

Meetings, events that were originally created to enable the two-way exchange of information, seem to have been reduced in importance and capability by the very technology that was designed to further enable the meeting’s reach.

I think that this has been an ongoing phenomenon for a while. I, like I am sure many of you, looked to see who is in virtual attendance at the meetings I attend. I then noted the number of questions that are asked. The number of specific items that are addressed. The number of dates that are selected or identified. The number of action items that have been taken, or given as the case may be. The deliverables that are to be expected. And the number of people who speak.

It seems that the actual number of any of the above listed events occurring during a meeting is going down. Meetings no longer seem to be events where discussion occurs. The give and take dynamic seems to have been lost as meetings have become more process driven and virtually attended. Meetings now seem to be designated times where slides are presented, and the most important aspect of the meeting is to make sure that it ends on time in accordance with the process that is being followed.

Meeting attendance seems to have evolved into some sort of barometer associated with individual activity levels and importance, where actual participation in the meeting, the value added in attending a meeting, has continued to decline.

Meetings used to be recognized as having a specific purpose. Meetings used to be designated as a face to face event. It took people out of their specific environments and put them in a meeting. While they were in the meeting they were not busy or distracted with other activities or demands on their time. There was a goal associated with the meeting.

As we have continued to implement more and more process into the business system we have generated more meetings to track our progress against the process. As we have virtualized our offices, so have we virtualized our meeting attendance. What was once a designated time to exchange ideas and leave with a goal achieved has evolved to a time to call and review charts on-line.

We seem to be meeting more, but getting less achieved at each meeting. In many instances, it seems that instead of having a goal, the meeting is the goal. Instead of challenging each other, due to the size and impersonal nature of virtual meetings, we are presented at. If we have issues or concerns, they are probably best handled off line.

In short, we seem to now attend meetings. We no longer participate in them.

I have yet to hear anyone suggest that they are not attending enough meetings. Perhaps it is time to participate instead of attend, and expect more from meetings. Asking and being asked questions, assigning and accepting the assignment of action items, and challenging as well as being challenged need to be expected parts of all meetings.

It is going to be through these attributes that value is driven back into meetings. The meeting needs to evolve away from its current spectator – presenter arrangement, and back to its original participant structure. Meeting minutes need to be taken at every meeting and distributed. If you are not going to be a participant in the meeting, you should not attend. You can read the minutes.

Reducing the number of spectator attendees, assigning and accepting action items, and delivering meeting minutes afterwards seem to be simple requirements. But meetings should be simple. They should be to exchange ideas and challenge each other. I think that is where the basic value in them lies. Not in the number of them that you have or attend.

Don’t Do Your Job

Although we all like to think of ourselves and our careers as fully and totally unique, I think there are some experiences that we have all probably gone through, to one degree or another, that are probably somewhat similar. It is how we react and respond to these experiences that creates the differences in careers and career trajectories. As I think back on all the roles I have had in the same organizations as well as in new or different ones, I think of one thing that pretty much all of them had in common. They all had a specific job description.

They didn’t all have the same job description. Each role had a somewhat different or unique job description. It was usually that job description that helped the then hiring manager define the combination of experiences, traits and capabilities that led them to choosing me to fill that role. I think it’s probably the same for just about everyone else who doesn’t have some sort of genetic or familial tie to also trade upon in the organizational world.

I think we can all remember those first days in a new position (any new position) where the first thing you do is try to ascertain both what is expected of us and what we will be reviewed and rated on. This is only natural. We all want to do what is expected of us. We want to have objectives to work toward and be measured against. We like to know what we have to do to get ahead.

We then dig in and go on our merry way in trying to achieve or even possibly exceed our goals.

The end.

When review time comes around we are then tasked with the objective of trying to define whether we exceeded our goals in such a way as to merit an excellent “super-star” status (or some such similar ordinal ranking), or just merely a good, exceeded what was expected. Was it really an “exceed” or was it just in reality a “strong achieved”. Did the objective get achieved, or could it in reality have been done better.

It seemed what was once a defined and specific object has now turned out to be open to some interpretation, as it were.

Then there is the ever-present worry regarding whether the ratings that are being discussed are a true reflection of actual individual performance, or is it influenced by, or the result of the organization’s requirement that only certain percentages of the organizational populace can and must fall into certain ranking categories. The dreaded forced rank stacking.

This sort of ranking has been put in place to make sure that managers don’t neglect their responsibility to differentiate employee performance. Instead of having real, and sometimes difficult discussions with their individual team members, some managers have been known to give everyone a “good” rating, regardless of organizational performance.

It’s sort of like this grade inflation thing that everyone seems to be talking about in schools these days. I still don’t understand how you can do better than a 4.0 (straight “A’s”), but apparently, it is possible.

This employee ranking and review is also a good thing in that even outstanding organizations probably have some team members that could benefit in some areas by increased focus, and poorly performing organizations probably have some team members that have performed above and beyond the call.

What this has all led up to, and the point I am trying to make is that when you follow a job description and just do your job, it becomes a question of relative ratings when it comes to reviewing your performance. There is a certain amount of qualitative that inevitably seeps into the quantitative review.

Contrary to what you might think, in this age where the “process” has taken on ever increasing importance, where you would probably think that as a result the quantitative aspects of performance review would be at their strongest, the qualitative aspect of reviews has probably increased.

Think about that for a minute.

As processes continue to ever more granularly define roles, jobs, and their inputs and outputs, the ability to differentiate performance among similarly defined jobs, at least at the high level, becomes smaller. It can almost come down to interpersonal and soft skills as one of the differentiators between similar performers.

Now think back for a minute about that last statement. Have you ever seen that occur?

So, what do you do when just doing your job leaves you open to these types of performance interpretation vagaries?

Don’t just do your job.

Just doing your job is the easy thing to do. You have a job description. You were probably selected because your experiences and abilities matched that job description in such a way that there was a perceived high probability that you would be able to perform the tasks that were outlined in that job description. That was what made you uniquely qualified to fill that role. You were the chosen one.

Don’t flatter yourself.

There are a significant number of people in any organization that can perform any and each specific role in that organization. You may have been selected for that new role, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anyone else around that could do it. Chances are that there were several candidates for that role, and from them they selected you.

I have had it explained to me in a couple of ways, that I will share. The first was that in business, all candidates that make it to the interview portion of the job search are judged to have all the requisite technical and experiential capabilities for the role. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be called in to talk. All candidates enter the interview process as relative equals. It will be their soft skills demonstrated in the interview(s) that differentiate them.

Remember what I said about soft skills and reviews earlier?

The next is that if we each are truly “one in a million” as the old saying goes, and there is in fact close to eight billion people on the planet, then there are at least eight thousand people that are like each one of us.

There are a lot of people that can fulfill each and every job description.

I guess the point I am making is that the job description is the table stakes in the game. It is going to be what you do above and beyond that job description that sets you apart. Performing against only that job description, regardless of how well you feel you have, or even how well you may be able to demonstrate you have, still puts you somewhere on the “achieved” continuum when it comes review time. You are demonstrating that this is the role or job that you can do and no more.

Regardless of how well things were going, every role that I have been in had facets or areas that could be improved. Sometimes these opportunities for improvement were within my defined responsibility, but many times they were not.

This is where for leaders; the process focus must change. There must always be a bigger picture view that the leader must hold, and be able to rationalize against the more detailed and specific needs of the business. It is not enough to just do your job and fulfill a job description.

You have to recognize on the larger level what needs to be done, and then chart the way to do it. What needs to be done may not reside in your job description. It may not be within the realm of your responsibilities. It may not be immediately obvious and may take time to identify.

The issues that are causing the business issues will however become clearer for you as you perform the tasks that are expected of you. It will not be so much the identification of these business issues that will set you apart. Chances are that the issues are already very well known. It will be identifying the causes of these issues, and the resulting solution that you create (and potentially implement) that will be what sets you apart. Remember what I said earlier about how we react and respond to these issues will define careers and career trajectories?

Again, in short, it will not be doing what is expected of you via fulfilling your job description and objectives that will enable you to continue to move forward. It will be doing the unexpected. It will be questioning some of the basic business assumptions that “everybody knows are correct” and creating a new model. It will be questioning and causing issues as people are challenged by you to move out of their comfort zones.

It will be looking at old problems through the new eyes of someone coming into a new position. New employees in new positions are not yet beholding to the status quo. They have not yet become stakeholders in the existing process. It will be those who are not content to do their job that see the answers to questions, many of which may not have even been asked, and identify the new ways to move forward.

It is not how well you do what you are supposed to do that sets you apart from everyone else. It will be how well you do what you are not expected to do that will differentiate you. It will be important to don’t do just your job if you are to get ahead.