Category Archives: Achievement

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.

The Illusion of Choice

I find it rather interesting that I read a many different articles and books from many different sources, that become the genesis of many of my own articles. This fact isn’t really that interesting, unless you consider it interesting that I read things that consist of more than one hundred and forty characters, require a certain amount grammar and literacy capability, and don’t use emojis to convey how the author feels about the topic they are covering. What is probably a little more interesting is that I like to write about business, sales and leadership, and that I rarely find the inspiration for my articles in literary sources that are purporting to be specifically about business, sales and leadership. I seem to find my thought applications from other sources that resonate at a little more elemental and hopefully timeless level.

Such is the case today.

By and large I have found most business articles to be somewhat bland and derivative of other previously written sources. They are also somewhat ephemeral and short lived. There was “The One Minute Manager” and then “The Fifty-Nine Second Employee”. Really. They all seem to be related to the idea of “get rich” or “get successful” quick sort of scheme. After all, if someone actually wrote the definitive text for how to successfully run a business or organization and get rich and successful quick, what would all the other authors have to write about?

Some of my preferred sources can go back hundreds or even thousands of years. I think I have mentioned “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, “The Prince” by Machiavelli, “The Book of Five Rings” by Musashi and the “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” by Gracion on multiple occasions. Fortunately, my inspiration today was not from these sources, although, come to think of it some of what Sun Tzu said could apply…. I’ll leave it to those that have read both sources to comment.

Today my ideas sprung from a few words by the man who was the coach of the team that lost, yes lost, the last national collegiate championship game for American football this year. For those of you that missed it, it was on TV. I bet you can find it on YouTube. Clemson scored on the last play of the game to defeat Alabama. (I make sure to define it as American football, as I do have friends in the rest of the world where “football” is something entirely different. It is what we in the states would call “soccer”. I don’t know why.)

You would think that there would be far more to learn from the Clemson coach, the winner of the championship, than from the Alabama coach, the man whose team lost it. After all, it was an upset. Alabama was favored and was supposed to win, and it fact, almost did. There may be much to learn from the Clemson coach, but those lessons may not apply to business, sales and leadership as well as what the leader of the Alabama team had to say. At least for me in this instance.

Coach Nick Saban, of the University of Alabama has enjoyed sustained success in his field, the likes of which has probably not been seen in decades. He is successful. He has already won a total of five national championships (across 2 different schools) and is annually expected to be a contender for the next championship playoff. He is the example and standard of what every other coach, school and leader wants to be and do.

But he still lost, last year.

When he was asked what he is going to change, and how much he was going to do different next year in order to win the championship, he responded with what can best be described as an old school response.

He said that he understood all the new offenses, defenses, systems and processes that are out there, but that he was not going to overhaul a system just because he had lost in this year’s championship game. He came in second out of three hundred and seventy-five schools, which when thought of in that way, wasn’t really too bad. Yes, the loss hurt, but there are literally hundreds of other schools and coaches that would have wanted to be there in his place. He understood what it took to get there, and he also understood what it would take to get back next year.

It was at this point that he made the comments that resonated so strongly with me. He discussed that having learned what it took to be successful, he learned that there are no short cuts. He referred to it as “the illusion of choice”. He said that so many people want to make the easy decision, or take the supposed easier road to success. A new process, or a new system were the quick cure. He said this was an illusion. If you wanted to be successful (in his profession) there really were no choices.

It required the recruiting of the best talent available. Alabama’s recruiting classes of new freshmen out of high school are routinely viewed as some of the best in the country. Think about the fact that every three to four years, he (like every other college football coach) has close to one hundred percent turnover of his team. But every year he contends for a championship.

It requires a work ethic that is second to none on his part, and it has to be transferred and translated to the rest of his staff and the players on the team. There can be no illusion that talent is enough. It takes hard work and dedication. There is a base line process and preparation that needs to be adhered to.

Many have heard me discuss my aversion to the perceived over-utilization of process that seems to be plaguing businesses today. Yet here I am praising it. Here process is used to prepare the team. They have practiced and been trained on how each individual need to prepare, perform and act as part of the greater team. A process is not used during the game or against the competition. If so the competition would quickly adapt and defeat it. There is a game-plan, but not a game process.

He assembled the best staff possible, that he vested with the authority to get things done and that he held accountable for those various aspects of the team (Offense, Defense, Special Teams, etc.) he had assigned. However he only held himself responsible for the outcome. He never blamed anyone else. It was his responsibility.

It was this litany of decidedly unglamorous basics that he pointed out were responsible for getting him and his teams (multiple, different teams) to arguably the acme of his profession. He pointed out and reiterated that there really was not choice if you wanted to be successful. It took talent, it took outworking the competition, it took everybody’s commitment and buy-in for the team succeed. There were no “get rich” or “get successful” quick schemes.

That didn’t mean that he wouldn’t change and adapt. He is also recognized as one of the best leaders at innovating and modifying his game plans when his team’s talent, or the competition called for it. He has noted that the basics of the game have not changed, but how you apply them can vary greatly in each situation.

As I noted, by design his team membership turns over every four years. He also turns over his leadership (coaching) staff with significant regularity. His assistant coaches are in high demand to become the leaders at competing college programs because of their success and what they have learned. No less than seventeen of his assistants have gone on to lead their own programs.

It looks like the players are not the only ones that are mentored, taught and become leaders.

Sun Tzu, from almost twenty-five hundred years ago, also talks about talent selection, training and preparation as immutable keys to an organization’s success. He is also quick to point out that flexibility and the ability to adapt to new and different situations, and to be able to take advantage of them while either in or on the field are also the keys to success.

It looks like the idea of putting well trained teams in the field and letting their leaders lead them is in fact an idea that has been around for over two millennia. It sounds to me like Nick Saban may be right when he says that if you want to be successful, and enjoy a sustained success, it really is an illusion of choice. While a new process or system may come into vogue, success is really built on the basics of talent, hard work, and planning, and then letting your leaders lead, and not relying on the illusion that some other process or system can be a substitute for one of those basic building blocks of success.

Where are the Future Leaders Going to Come From?

It used to be that leaders in business emerged from the organization and moved to the forefront by having a better idea. Or having a compelling vision. Or solving a significant problem. Or dealing with a difficult situation. Or a combination of several of these traits. They moved to the front and led by changing things for the better. But that does not seem to be the case anymore. In these days of process driven organizations, it appears that leaders are selected according to their ability to follow or implement the existing process. It appears that the leaders of the future are not being recognized as the one who can do things the best or most innovative way, but rather the ones that are the best at doing things the current way.

In the past most leaders did not always follow a preset process. Sometimes it’s hard to follow a process when you are out front leading. Leaders would have a flash of insight, or belief in a new idea and risk doing something that was outside the then status quo to achieve it. They would recognize that whatever was currently being done was not going to generate a new result or get the organization to new ground. They were looking for a solution and didn’t mind defining a new way to get there. If they deemed it necessary, they would take a new path.

It was then up to those that would follow them, to try to emulate that success. Followers would then try to create a process to follow that would enable them to hopefully achieve the same result. They would follow in the leader’s footsteps, and hopefully codify each step so that everyone else would be able to understand and follow. They would try to minimize any of the potential risks that the leader had taken in order to succeed.

As the new process evolved, each step was assigned to a specific individual or team to complete. No one ended up owning the entire process, or even the final result. They owned steps. There would be hand-offs at each step. In time the process would become an ingrained smooth running feature of the organization.

This would be good, until such time as something changed. It could be anything, a customer preference, a competitor’s strategy or product, the market or economic environment, but the ripple effect within the process would be significant. Because now the process must change, and based on its codification, structure, and stakeholders, it is now being asked to change itself.

Under a process driven structure, only the current leader can have the end to end insight to change the process. Since each specific piece of the process is usually owned by a specific individual or group, any other type of change would require all the pieces of the process to come together to implement any change. And since the process was originally created to remove variation and risk from the organization, there will usually be a fair amount of self-induced risk avoiding resistance to change. Something that was put in place to reduce unwanted change must now somehow become a catalyst for its own change, and must continue to do so into the future.

Performance now is based on how well each individual or group performs their individual step in the process. This might not be the most conducive environment to developing leadership.

I think this might be what Henry Ford had in mind when he created the first automotive production line that was capable of producing Model T’s in any color…as long as it was black.

He was a leader in this area. It was great as long as he could dictate what the market wanted or would get. When others caught on and started to provide customers with options and variety, he too had to change and follow.

The point here is that those that were part of the production line process were not asked to get together and change the process. There was an acknowledged leader and owner, and he made the call. Now he got to do that because he owned the company and it was his name on the car, but I think you get my point.

Leaders see a big picture and have final responsibility. Today’s process driven organizational structures drive dis-aggregated pictures and responsibility for only specific steps in the acknowledged process that is supposed to generate the final result.

In essence, today’s organizations are not asking leaders, or future leaders to be focused on the overall car that is metaphorically being produced, but rather just the few pieces, screws and bolts that they are responsible for in the production process. They are responsible only to perform their specific work product.

It is possible that this organizational structure has also given rise to the requirement for a Quality group. There have been too many instances everyone was performing their assigned task in the process, and yet a low-quality car was being produced. Defects and recalls soon became almost the norm for the process.

A great deal has already been written about the millennial generation. Some of it even by me. There is no doubt that they have already joined the workforce in large numbers. It has been well documented that they are the products of the current social and political environments. Their effects in these realms are already being felt to significant levels.

While there is obviously variation across individuals within any group, “Mainstream media has drawn a picture of Millennials as lazy, narcissistic and entitled selfie-lovers.” (http://luckyattitude.co.uk/millennial-characteristics/# ). And while this may be interesting from a media point of view, there are a few other characteristics of millennials that this article provides which could open a few eyes and possibly answer a few leadership questions.

Millennials are also categorized here as “Impatient, Entrepreneurial, and technologically the most savvy generation to come along”. They are viewed as the children of the entrepreneurial generation and to date have been credited with creating twice as many new businesses worldwide as the baby boomers did.

So, what does that mean for the future of business leadership?

For me it means that businesses are going to have to walk a fine line, as well as possibly have to draw a new line when it comes to process and business leadership. The new generation may in fact feel entitled, but they are also well educated and impatient. If they cannot lead, or at least quickly change the process that has evolved there is a very good chance that they will leave and look for other opportunities, possibly their own start-up where they can utilize their own ideas.

Process oriented business structures have evolved to reduce business risks and variation. In doing this they also slow down the response time and ability of an organization to change and react to new conditions and markets. As the business organization continues to evolve, these somewhat change resistant process environments will be populated by more and more impatient millennials that will feel entitled to change things for the better as they see fit, and will be increasingly more frustrated with the systems built in resistance.

This change resistant, process oriented organizational structure, when coupled with impatience, risk receptivity and the willingness to go their own way for fulfillment of the millennials could in fact be the perfect storm for future leadership within business organizations. It is usually the best and the brightest that get frustrated first.

They want to believe in and be involved in a merit based system, not a seniority based one. They will want to change and move as opposed to evolve. They will not be as patient as previous generations because of their feeling of entitlement. In short they will be up against a business system that currently represents just about everything that they don’t want.

Both will have to change. Millennials will have to experience first hand how organizations work and change. As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Just because they will feel entitled does mean the will be entitled. This could be an unpleasant lesson.

Organizations will have to change in that as the millennials become an ever greater proportion of their work-forces, they will have to take steps to retain their frustrated best and brightest. If they don’t they risk having to compete with those organizations that have solved the millennial-organizational conundrum, or even the millennial-led entrepreneurial start-up. Competition for the best resources will drive them this way.

Either way, it does not seem that the organizational structures and processes that have so successfully moved business forward to this point, will be sufficient to continue to move business forward from this point. It will be interesting to see not only where, but how the next generation of leaders comes about.

Products and Markets

Good sales people only need a couple of things to be very successful: the right products and the right markets. The corollary here is that even with these things, bad sales people will not be successful. That’s why they are referred to as bad sales people. The question then arises: How can you tell if you have bad sales people, or the wrong products, or are in the wrong market? This is a set of questions that senior management must always answer every time a sales target is missed.

I’ll deal with the sales person discussion first.

Sales people are invariably success and compensation driven. They are also usually in a leveraged compensation type of role. That means that the level of their total compensation is directly associated with the amount of sales that they generate. Sales people are essentially risking part of their compensation, and betting on themselves in that they will be able to not only achieve their sales goals but also exceed them in order to maximize their compensation. Think about that for a minute.

People in marketing don’t take this risk and have their total compensation directly linked to the number or the success of the parking programs and campaigns that they create. People in research and development don’t take this risk and have their compensation directly linked to the number of products, the time it takes to develop products or the customer or market applicability of the products they develop. Accountants don’t take this risk and have their compensation directly linked to the quantity of numbers they crunch or the time it takes them to crunch them.

They may be indirectly linked in the form of management reviews, ratings, and bonuses, but for the most there is not the quid pro quo defined “if you do this, we will pay you that” sort of compensation relationship that you find in sales.

What this usually means is that when viewed over reasonable time frames, sales people are either successful (achieving or exceeding their sales targets and getting paid lots of money, receiving both recognition and rewards as compensation) or they don’t get to be sales people for very long. They can’t afford to be bad sales people because they won’t make enough to survive. They usually either thrive, or don’t survive.

So despite what every investment prospectus may say to the contrary (past performance is no indication or guarantee of future success), if the sales people have been successful in the past, and they are still sales people, it is a pretty good indication that they can be expected to continue to be good sales people.

What is interesting is that despite this knowledge, most management will immediately examine and possibly blame the sales team should each new sales objective not be met. I think that this is because it is the easiest approach. After all, we all know that sales can’t really be that difficult, and that sales also comes with a two drink minimum for the cover charge.

What I’m going to briefly look at here, is what do you do when you have a proven sales force, but you aren’t achieving the market success that you are looking for. That means that you need to be looking at your products and your markets.

Let’s look at the next easiest factor to review, the market.

For this analysis I am going to pick something that we can all probably agree is a good product, that being energy efficiency. It can be an actual product that reduces energy consumption. It can be a service that results in reduced energy consumption. In this analysis it is a hypothetical product that has a definable value in the amount of energy consumption that it reduces.

So in what market would this energy efficiency product do well?

That market would not be, as one might erroneously think, the market where the most energy is consumed, and hence the greatest savings could be generated. If that were the case all products of this type would be very successful in North America and the US specifically since it is one of the biggest consumers of energy in the world. While there continues to be a growing interest in energy conservation, the success of energy conservation products in the US has not been commensurate with the energy consumption market opportunity. In fact, energy consumption has increased over the period of time, not decreased. This is due to the relatively low cost per unit of energy in the US.

The greatest market opportunity would more correctly be identified as the market where there is the highest cost per unit of energy consumption.

Going a little further with the market size versus unit cost example, the average cost of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity in the US is approximately $0.10. The cost of the same kWh of electricity in Brazil is approximately $0.165, or almost 65% more expensive. That means the value of the energy savings per dollar spent on the energy conservation product will be 65% greater in Brazil than it will be in the US.

There are approximately five times as many kWh per capita consumed in the US as there are in Brazil, making the US by far the bigger market opportunity, but the value per unit savings in Brazil make it the more attractive market (at least initially) for energy savings products. When it comes time to create a business case where money is being spent in order to reduce future expenditures (save money in the future), greater savings will always equate to a better business case.

In short, it will be more difficult (currently, from a financial business case point of view) to sell energy conservation products in the US than it will be to do so in Brazil. From this point of view, the better market would be Brazil.

At a very coarse and high level this is the type of market analysis that needs to occur for all types of products when preparing to enter markets, as well as when going back and analyzing why a market objective may not have been met. It answers the question is the market the right fit for the product. It also clearly points out that one size will not actually fit all.

In looking at the final scenario, we will assume that the again we have a competent sales force and in this case have identified a market that we wish to address. Again there will need to be almost the same product versus market analysis done in order to identify if there is a proper fit.

If we use the same energy conservation product example from above, we see that while the US is a massive energy consumer the relatively low cost per unit of energy versus the rest of the world makes it a relatively poor market for energy conservation products. In other words, energy conservation products do not do as well in the US because US energy consumers (both corporations and individuals) can afford to not conserve (as much) due to the low costs per unit of energy used.

This would mean that for a global energy conservation product to be successful in the US market it would have to attack the market from some direction other that specifically based on the value of the energy saved. It would have to take the more difficult road of trying to quantify the value other “soft” benefits associated with the product.

These types of soft benefits could include but not be limited to: Attractive designs (Apple is a master at this), incremental functionalities (can the energy conservation product do other things besides save energy – a smart phone analogy), social responsibility (casting the product in the “greater good” social category versus solely in a corporate fiduciary role), and corporate leadership (the business case may not be great now, but in the future when energy costs are expected to increase it will be, and then you will be ahead of the curve). I am sure there are many others.

As noted these are soft benefits in that it is difficult if not impossible to define their value. That is not to say they don’t have value. They do. It is just difficult to quantify. However, price is always readily definable. And it is always difficult to sell a product with a definable price, but not a commensurately definable value.

If you find sales people capable of selling a product with a definable price, but not a commensurately definable value, you should do all you can to keep them.

Management will invariably first look at the sales teams when sales objectives are not met. A significant reason for this is the difficulty in looking at, or worse, trying to change markets or products. I do think in most instances it is the specifics associated with the markets and the products that will need to be addressed when sales targets are missed, as opposed to replacing sales people.

I have found that most of the time issues arise with obtaining sales goals because of the desire to sell a specific product into the wrong market, or the desire to sell the wrong product into the desired market. If the product is not readily modifiable, other more receptive markets need to be identified. If the market is the target, then the product needs to be modifiable to meet the specific needs of that market.

The sales force is indeed important, but it has always been about products and markets.

Millennials

If you have anything to do with electronic communications or media, you have probably heard about or possibly have already have seen the video by Simon Sinek on millennials in the workplace. It is very good. If you haven’t seen it, you can see it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU.

There seems to be an ever increasing amount written, or in this case videoed in business about the most recent generation to enter the work force, millennials, and how businesses must change and adapt to deal with them. With this in mind it seems that I should be no different and add my input into the conversation. However, I do think I may have a different take on the situation.

Before we go too much further, let’s do a little generational definition work. There are at the current time predominantly three generations working today: Baby Boomers – who are defined as those who were born after the mid-1940s and prior to the early 1960s (the youngest of whom are now in their mid-fifties and approaching the end of their working period), Generation X – who are defined as those born after the early 1960s and into the mid-1970s (the youngest of whom are now well into their forties and are entering their prime working period), and Millennials – There are no precise dates for when this group starts or ends, but most demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and ending birth years ranging from the mid-1990s to early 2000s.

The oldest millennials are now reaching their thirties and have been in the work force for some time, while the youngest are either preparing to enter or have just entered the workforce.

The reason I bring up this generation definition and demographic information is to set something of a baseline when discussing all the generalizations that are being made. We all like to sort things into groups as it makes it easier for us to model and respond to group behaviors as they affect the business performance. Although individual traits can vary widely across a demographic, I will try to adhere to those demographic traits that seem to be widely accepted as baselines.

As an aside, I have often said that demographics can be broken down into only two groups of people in the world: Those that like to divide people into two groups and those that don’t. But I digress….

In Sinek’s video discussion he points out many of the generational characteristics of the millennials. He also states several times that it is not their fault that the millennials believe and behave as they do. They are the products of their parents, schools, societies and times. They were taught that they as individuals matter and that their opinions and output count regardless of accuracy or being correct. They were the generation that got “participation trophies” in competitions when they did not win. They now enter the business world at the standard entry level positions and expect the same sort of attention and acclimation that have received throughout their past regardless of their performance.

In short, their baby boomer and generation-x parents gave them unrealistic expectations of how the business world would work, and now so much is being written (and videoed) about how the business world is going to have to change and adapt to these somewhat unrealistic expectations.

Really?

It is quite possible that perhaps I missed the same sort of business workplace demographic analysis associated with expectations of the baby boomers (who still make up the largest demographic in the workplace) or generation-x as they entered the workplace. I suppose it was just expected that they would have to adapt to the environment they had if they expected to be successful.

I think it is safe to say that everyone wants to matter, and have an effect on the business or organization that they work for. I think most people want to feel and be fulfilled by the work that they do. This has been a standard for all new hires from all generations. I don’t think that the millennial generation is the first generation that expected and felt entitled to these roles without first proving themselves.

What is interesting to me is that it seems that the millennial generation is the first generation that business is actually contemplating changing its order of things in order to better accommodate these expectations. At least there is a significant amount being written about how business should, may, possibly change in order to better accommodate the coming millennial workforce generation.

As a brief example, in the past the workforce migrated from the cities to the suburbs to better accommodate their home and lifestyle choices. They did this knowing they would have to commute to work. Over time some businesses migrated out of the city centers to better accommodate their work forces (and truth be told, to reduce the costs associated with expensive urban center floor space). This migration occurred across decades.

There is now a widespread belief that millennials are a key factor in the new gentrification of many urban areas, and as a result some businesses and organizations are contemplating migrating back to the same urban centers that they left. This is being contemplated in order to better accommodate and attract a portion of the workforce who by all measurements are the most junior and currently least productive components.

To be fair I think that there are several other factors that are also coming into play when we look at some of the changes that organizations are both contemplating and implementing. It is possible that some of these changes have been instigated as a result of the millennial influx into the workforce, and some of them may have already been in process and are just attributed to the millennials based on the timing of the change and the generational influx into the workforce.

The millennial generation is the first generation in the workforce that grew up in the connected world. They are video games, personal computers, and cellular phones. They are immediate feedback and immediate gratification. They have seen the rise of virtual offices and have watched their parents work from home. I have a couple of kids that are millennials and I watch them and I learn from them and their friends.

They are also, as Simon Sinek said in his now famous video, a generation that has come by this feeling of entitlement naturally. Their baby boomer and generation-x parents were determined that their millennials would not fail. Sometimes this was accomplished through the efforts of the children. Many times it was through the efforts of the parents to reduce the obstacles and lower the bar to assure clearance.

The result is an expectation of success, or at the very least accommodation of their expectations regardless of the effort expended. They have been told how good they are for so long that they believe it. They have been given trophies for playing regardless of whether they have won or not, to the point where they believe their participation is valuable in and of itself.

I think that there needs to be recognized that there is a symbiotic need between the millennial generation workforce and the business organizations of today. Millennials will need to work to survive and organizations will need millennials in their workforce to pursue and grow their markets. If organizations make drastic changes solely to accommodate millennials they risk alienating the current majority of their workforce who are not millennials. If millennials do not learn and rapidly come to grips with the idea that there may not be participation trophies and progress can be based on competitive merit, they too will face a very bumpy acclimatization to business.

The speed of change has increased. What once took decades can no longer be expected to take decades. However, business still requires a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. What makes sense to the majority of the business at large in general makes sense for the business. Business and organizational change based on millennial matriculation into the workforce should be expected as their demographic increases over time.

On the other hand, I await the next wave of business articles and documentation on how the millennials are going to have to change and adjust their habits and expectations in order to participate, let alone succeed in the organizations that they enter. I don’t think that business can be expected to change to the level to wholly meet the expectations that millennials have. There will need to be some sort of middle ground established so that neither the business nor the millennial will be overly disappointed or disillusioned in what they get.

Ambivalence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over Leading

The hockey season is almost upon us. For me this is good news since I am not so much of a baseball or football fan. I am aware of how the baseball playoffs are shaping up and how the football season has opened for the various teams, but I know who has been injured, signed, traded and is skating for my favorite hockey team, and their competition. I am not so sure that this is a good indication of the kind of person I am.

This fact in and of itself doesn’t really mean very much. Probably most everyone has a favorite team or sport. It’s just that not everyone’s favorite team and sport are as cool as hockey with its speed, creativity, physicality and game flow. But I am digressing a little here.

Being a hockey nerd means that I read a lot of articles not just about my favorite hockey team specifically, but about the sport in general. When you are the most popular sport in the world, except for football (both professional and college), basketball (both professional and college), baseball and soccer, sometimes it is hard to find the sport’s coverage in the media. It’s usually right next to the fencing, lacrosse and jai alai coverage. Believe it or not there was a global hockey tournament in progress for the last couple of weeks. The best players in the game were playing for their respective countries in the World Cup of Hockey.

When football does this (that’s “soccer” for those of us in North America) and holds its “World Cup”, entire nations have been known to stop, declare a national work holiday so that people can watch their team’s games.

You haven’t heard of it or seen it on television? I think that’s probably because it may only have been broadcast on something called “The Hockey Network” (or some such thing) and most cable suppliers don’t supply channels that require four (or more) digits on the set top box to access. The satellite providers asked NASA for the extra capability at the very far end of the broadcast spectrum to supply it, but were denied because they didn’t want the broadcasts to interfere with the wireless garage door openers. You get the idea. It’s not what you might call a high demand channel.

Since it was so difficult to follow on television I ended up reading an article about the state of the tournament specifically and the state of hockey in general, and as is usually the case it got me thinking. The article pointed out that the general state of hockey was pretty good but that the coaches were affecting the direction of hockey in that they seemed intent on implementing systems where no individual players were able to fully utilize their talents and capabilities. They had been coached into a defensive hockey process where the team system was designed to keep the other team from scoring and superseded the ability of the individual players to fully utilize all of their skills and capabilities to score.

Now wait a minute. We have a team sport where the coaches are limiting the ability of superstars to dominate a game in favor of a process oriented team based system that they feel gives their respective teams a greater probability of success, i.e. winning the game. Isn’t that the goal (pardon the hockey pun. If it had been a soccer pun it would have been “Isn’t that the Gooooaaaallllll”), to win? What could be wrong with that?

The article in question addressed the issue from the player’s point of view with the idea being where would the next Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr come from. They were transcendent scoring talents that defied systems and defined their positions. Would they have been able to become such dominant forces in the game if they had been limited by the systems and processes of today?

The general consensus was that by implementing processes and systems into hockey, coaches had reduced the ability of individuals to excel (and score ala Gretzky, Orr, and others) and as such had reduced the attraction and beauty of the game. They were in essence trying to remove the creativity and risk from the game.

For me the topic of interest was the other side of the same coin; more along the lines of that by increasing the focus and dependence on a specific leader (the coach) and the reliance on the process or system that they implemented and not so much on the talents, creativity and capabilities of the members of the team, the possibility of failure (being scored on) may have been limited, but the opportunity for greater success (or scoring) was also greatly reduced.

In sports, as in business, talent wins. Processes and systems are something that should be used in order to enable the team’s talent to flourish, not limit their opportunities to create successes. When a leader or the systems and processes they implement become more important than the actual talent levels and individual performance of the team members, then the upside performance potential is being sacrificed in favor of avoiding any potential downside result of the risk.

It seems that in hockey, as it is with business, that the shift in focus from fully utilizing the talents of the team members to score, to only applying those talents as they fit into the process or system that the leader (in this case the coach) has implemented has been recognized as an issue. The fact that someone wrote about this phenomenon as it relates to hockey was interesting to me.

It seems to me that this phenomenon is also occurring in other sports, as well as in business in general is also interesting. By implementing systems and processes that limit the risk and are defensive in nature we seem to be limiting our abilities to make progress and “score”. We probably make fewer mistakes, but we probably also stifle our teams creativity in the process.

So what is the balance point?

There is no question that leadership is important. At the risk of sounding somewhat trite, each leader’s method of leadership is a unique mix of their specific traits and capabilities. There is a question as to if a leader would have become the leader we know if they had been products of a business process or system. Would Steven Jobs or Bill Gates have been able to create the business juggernauts that they did if they had been forced to operate within the systems of their predecessors?

To illustrate this point with these two individuals even further, since these individuals have left their roles in their respective organizations have those organizations continued to creatively prosper as they did in the past?

Tim Cook has done an admirable job at Apple since taking the CEO role in 2011. It is extremely difficult to follow a legend.

Just ask the hockey player that followed Gretzky in Edmonton when he left for Los Angeles. I don’t think anyone even remembers that player’s name.

Apple has continued to perform and perform well, but the consensus is that they have not really generated the new technology and products that they did under Jobs, and that have come to define them. It seems that they are trying to maintain and defend their current position via trying to extend the current systems and processes with new iterations of existing products. As an illustration, the iPhone 7 has recently been announced. Even the Apple Watch has been credited to Jobs as his idea.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is a little harder to discuss for a couple reasons. First, he was not the immediate replacement for Bill Gates. Steve Ballmer was. Second, he has only been in charge since 2014, so he may not have had the time to actually put his fingerprints on the company yet. However since the same 2011 time frame as Tim Cook, Microsoft has acquired Skype Technologies for networking applications (a step outside of Microsoft’s then core capabilities), entered the Personal Computer equipment market with the Microsoft Surface computer (another step outside their core) and most recently tendered a $26.2 Billion offer to buy the business networking site LinkedIn.

Now Microsoft has not scored on every one of their forays. Their move to enter the smart phone market in 2014 cost them $7.2 Billion, which they ended up have to write off completely as a loss. They are still in the market but I don’t think this is what they had in mind. You obviously win some and lose some.

Of the two companies it would appear that Microsoft has recognized that new leaders must be given the reins and allowed to take chances and put their talents, opportunities, and potential failures fully on display. I guess that only time will tell which system and process will turn out to be the most successful one.

I think I am more of a fan of “event” hockey where the final score is five to four as opposed to system hockey where the final score may be one to nothing or two to one. These guys for the most part are pretty talented athletes. (Hockey has evolved from the days of the designated “fighters”. With the speed and way the game is now played there really is no room for those “enforcers” any more. I think it a better game because of it as well.)

I think I am also a fan of event business as well. Cool products such as iPhones, iPads, and Surface Tablets came with the inherent risk of failure. Playing to win is always much more fun than playing not to lose. Especially in business. I think that the business processes and systems should enable the business (or sports) team to utilize its talent and take the intelligent risks associated taking the next leap forward, not limit them to just the smaller incremental steps associated with the last advancement.

Recognition

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

Think about that for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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