Category Archives: Achievement

More Lessons Learned Starting a Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine that.

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

The questions are:

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budgets and Quotas

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

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

Budget

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

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

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

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

Quota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a master stroke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everybody likes to achieve their quotas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Careers and Gigs

A new year has started and that has got me thinking again. Always a dangerous pastime for me. I watched my dad go through his career. He was and still is a scientist. One of those guys who actually conceptualized and then created things. A PhD in physics. He worked at Bell Labs and got put on permanent loan to the United States federal government for research. Later in life he went on and did some other interesting stuff. He created some forecasting capabilities to predict price movements in the commodities markets. Most recently he started to lose some of his hearing, so he created a new type of hearing aid (which he and my mom sell), and from that technology he is working on the creation of true High-Fidelity ear-buds for listening to music.

That to me was, and still is an amazing career. He will be eighty-nine next month. He is still having fun. I hear it in his voice when I talk to him.

I bring this up because I believe for the most part, that the age of the career in business as we have known it, is just about over. Most people in the workforce, and certainly those that are just entering the workforce are probably not going to be able to enjoy what has in the past been described as a career. Like everything else, the definition, and expectation of a career is changing.

It used to be that a career was built on what you learned and then how you applied it to the next opportunity or situation. You learned, you internalized, you synthesized, and you applied it elsewhere. You built, and you grew. There was an investment in you and you were vested in them.

I’m going to change gears here a little bit and talk about music, one of my other advocations. I like to play in some of the Jazz bands located around here. It has been a long road to get there. I had to learn, practice and apply what I had learned in order to get to the capability to play with some of the musicians in the area. Even then I feel as though I am barely able to keep up. I enjoy that challenge.

However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of demand for Jazz bands. There is some, but it is a decidedly niche type of audience. What this means is that the opportunities to play for people, particularly people who specifically like and appreciate Jazz are somewhat limited. The opportunity to be a “house band” or have steady employment as a Jazz musician is pretty limited.

The opportunities to play for an audience are usually referred to as “gigs”. Dictionary.com defines “gig” as:

gig
[gig]Slang.
noun
a single professional engagement, usually of short duration, as of jazz or rock musicians.
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gig

So, as a Jazz musician, you are usually always looking for the next opportunity to play, or gig. Even if you currently have one, you are looking for the next one because you know that in a reasonably short period your current gig will be over, and you will need to find the next one.

I think you can see where I am going with this. Dictionary.com also defines “gig” in the following way:

gig
[gig]Slang.
noun
any job, especially one of short or uncertain duration
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gig

I looked back over my career and realized that I have had the opportunity to work for no less than eight major corporations. Some of the moves and changes were of my own volition. Some of the changes were due to corporate mergers and acquisitions. Some were due to corporate downsizings and changes in strategic direction.

The point I make here is that my dad worked for basically one company (Bell Labs, even while on loan to the Federal Government) for the vast majority of his career. I have considered myself nominally stably employed for the majority of my career, but even so I have worked for eight companies. I think that going forward that corporate tenures are going to continue to become shorter and shorter, either through the individual’s own volition, or the company’s.

In short, it would seem to me that business employment is going to take on many of the characteristics associated with gigs. Opportunities are going to be shorter term as both the employee and the employer begin to expect and react to the gig environment. It does not appear that there will be the longer-term commitment or investment by either the company or the employee going forward.

In other words, don’t expect a career. It will be a job. And as time goes by, it will probably be best described as a gig. You sign up, work and then sign off.

A side benefit to the company with the new gig business structure will be the corporation’s ability to better control their labor costs. Due to the fluidity and replaceability of labor associated with the gig structure, annual, merit, seniority and cost of living raises will probably become things of the past. Instead of increasing someone’s pay to perform the same gig, it will be cheaper to just hire someone else to do the work.

In the past it was sometimes viewed as a sign of instability if there were too many different positions and companies on one’s resume. I think that will obviously change. In fact, I think in the future having multiple assignments, or gigs, with various companies will be seen as a strength. If you don’t have enough, varied assignments with different companies, employers will wonder why.

Employees should no longer look to or expect to matriculate upwards into management, in a single company. As the horizon continues to shorten, each gig will be viewed as just a step in an overall body of work. (Very similarly to each album is an increment to the musician’s bodies of work.) If you don’t change your direction and content often enough you will run the risk of being type-cast or worse, thought of as lacking in aggression or creativity.

As companies continue the drive toward being process driven, the gig will continue to be defined and refined into smaller and smaller, discrete functions. The only way to get broader experience will be to have multiple, different gigs. The best way to get that will be to go to different companies.

This could have a disillusioning effect on those that are coming into the workforce with expectations that may be unaligned with the current corporate directions and trends. Simon Sinek, the British-American author on business and organizations, had a very interesting video discussion where he addresses the millennial in the workplace topic.

In it he discusses how he believes that organizations are going to have to change and adapt to this new millennial force in the workforce. I think he is partially correct in that there is a mismatch between the millennial generation’s expectations and the direction that business is moving. As business moves to contractor / gig / low-cost labor model, the new employees are going to have less and less of an opportunity to have an effect on the corporation. This is the direction that companies appear to be moving, of their own volition. There is a drive for this inter-changeability.

Just as when a musician becomes unhappy with the band he may be in and leaves, the ability to replace them with another musician becomes paramount. So it will be in business. The process will define your gig. The way to move forward will be to have multiple gigs. The way to get multiple gigs will be to move from organization to organization.

As with any new organizational or employment structure, there will be ways for people to prosper. Just as good musicians are always in demand for bands and gigs, so will competent and capable employees be in demand. It will however change the dynamic between employees and employers in the extreme. Employees will be more and more apt to leave at any time. Employers will more and more structure employment around gig concepts and temporary assignments. When the assignment is up, it will be incumbent on the employee to find something else, either internally or externally to the company.

Just as all musicians, even those with a current gig, are always looking for the next gig, employees will also have to start preparing for their next gig, even when they have one. Times are changing. Cycle times are getting shorter, and so are the horizons that companies are willing to invest in research and development, new products, new markets and employees. The returns will need to be seen almost immediately or they will move on to something, or someone else quickly.

Just as a musician likes to have his next gig lined up even before he is done playing the current one, I think in the coming environment it will be almost a necessity to line up your next business gig before the one you are on is over. No one likes to be waiting on, or without a gig.

Adversity

There are very few among us who get to go through their professional careers without having to deal with some sort of adversity. I think this is pretty much a given. To be trite to the point that it almost pains me to type it, it is how we deal with this adversity that separates the truly top end from the rest of us. Sometimes dealing with this adversity has the added benefit of providing us with something called perspective.

This one is already becoming difficult for me. I think you will understand when I get into why in a little while.

When we think of adversity we normally can think about things such as difficult market conditions. Especially if you are associated with any sort of equipment or infrastructure sales in today’s capital constricted markets. Adversity can take the form of a difficult boss. I like to think about the pointy-haired fellow in the Dilbert comics by Scott Adams. Adversity can take the form of a difficult assignment, or the requirement to find your next assignment or even the next job. Obviously, adversity comes in many forms.

To one extent or another I think we have all been there. All of these examples (and many others) constitute difficult environments and situations to either find yourself in, or experience. They require a certain amount of fortitude and focus to get through. But that is just the point. They are situations to get through. With work, focus, effort and the proper attitude they can be traversed.

I think that deep down we all understand that, even when we find ourselves in those uncomfortable places. We should focus on the resolution, and finding our way to it. It is only when we take our eyes, and minds off of this goal that we run the risk of a longer-term failure as opposed to a shorter-term set-back. Still, I think we have all seen it happen.

I might get into mind-sets and methods of dealing with this type of adversity at another time as well.

I’m going to talk about a different type of adversity.

One year ago, today, my eighteen year old son was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes.

Now we are talking adversity.

Admittedly it is not as much as many face and endure, but it also has added a great deal of perspective for me when it comes to talking about and dealing with things in the professional world.

Most of the time I talk about issues, topics and observations in the first person, and what I have done, either correctly or incorrectly in dealing with them. However, this is one where I can’t. It didn’t happen to me. It happened to him. For whatever reason, his pancreas stopped creating insulin. Mine still does. His doesn’t.

I like to think of myself as a leader. Someone who solves problems. But this was one issue that I couldn’t find a resolution for.

“Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Usually, the body’s own immune system — which normally fights harmful bacteria and viruses — mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing (islet, or islets of Langerhans) cells in the pancreas.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-1-diabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20353011

Every time we eat our bodies break down the consumed food into components that are used to sustain our bodies. One of the key ones, as noted above, is sugar to produce energy. Diabetes inhibits this process.

A little more than a year ago, we noticed that our son was losing weight, was getting lethargic and was drinking a ton of water. I credit my wife with spotting the symptoms first. At this point he was almost six feet tall, and weighed close to one hundred and twenty-five pounds. We got him into the doctor, and then we got the diagnosis.

After two nights in the emergency room on an insulin drip to get his blood-sugar down to an acceptable number, he was discharged and set out to deal with the adversity of being a diabetic – for the rest of his life.

This was not a temporary set-back. This is forever, for him. I had broken bones, dealt with various sicknesses, had bad bosses, and looked for new jobs, and all other sorts of set-backs. I think as I said, deep down I knew these adversities would pass.

He was dealing with his first real adversity, and it wasn’t going to pass.

As a parent, and the nominal leader in our house (Make no mistakes here. I like to think of myself as the leader, someone who solves issues, however my wife is the “boss”. I refer to her as “The most powerful woman in the universe”. At least in my universe.) this was something that I could not fix or resolve. I had to recalibrate how I dealt with this since it was by no means going to be temporary.

But I am a reasonably experienced individual. I’ve been around. I’ve gone through a lot.

My son was just eighteen. He was finishing his senior year of high school. He was already accepted into a good university. This was supposed to be a great time in someone’s life. The rites of passage. The beginning of the transition to adulthood. The last of the truly carefree times in life.

I don’t quite know what he thought, but I thought it was unfair.

I watched for any telltale signs on how he was taking this. He had gone from being able to eat, drink and do anything, like any other teenager, to having to be totally aware of what he was eating, drinking and doing, in order to maintain a healthy blood-sugar level.

What I watched as time passed, both astounded me, and made me proud.

It astounded me in that I didn’t see any changes in my kid. I was angry at the randomness and injustice of this, but he wasn’t. He was the same laid-back and happy guy that I have always known. He was facing adversity and not letting it change who he was, and is.

I was proud in that when I asked him about it, he was philosophical about it, and it seemed to be way beyond his years to me. He said he decided he wasn’t going to change because he now had diabetes. He would still eat, drink and do what he wanted, but he would now just add monitoring his blood sugar to the process.

I was proud of him in the way he was dealing with it. He said that at first, he was angry, but then he realized that being angry wasn’t going to change his situation. It was something that happened. He realized he couldn’t change it. So, he had quickly come to terms with it. And besides, he really wasn’t the angry type.

I was still angry. I probably still am, to some extent, even a year later.

Here was an eighteen year old who had never faced any adversity to speak of, let alone adversity of this type, basically schooling me on how to handle it. Here I was, someone who had gone through the highs and lows of business, the lay-offs and the promotions, pretty much all of it, and I was learning from him a perspective that in retrospect I probably should have had, to one level or another from the beginning.

He is now nineteen years old, and has finished his first year of college. He is still a diabetic, but he has put the weight back on and is now a healthy, but slender six feet tall and one hundred and sixty pounds. It is still an adversity that he has to face that will never go away, unless a cure is one day found.

We have tried to automate and simplify his regimens with the addition of Constant Glucose Monitors (CGM) and Insulin Pumps that are attached to him so that he no longer has to prick his finger to test his blood, nor use a syringe to inject the required doses of insulin.

Adversity comes in many forms. I don’t want to try and equate the adversity that occurs in business with real adversity. I learned this through watching someone I really cared for come to grips with and deal with the adversity that he faced. I also saw that although I thought what he faced was great, there were those that faced even greater adversities, many of which might not be able to be dealt with, and in many instances despite all efforts might have to be accepted on an even more painful level.

I was going to end this with some nice quote about adversity. None of them felt right, when looking at the adversity that is faced in business when compared to my son. I think this has to do with my perspective that has been gained relative to adversity. I’ll go in a little bit different, but not entirely unrelated direction here. Charles Swindoll said:

“Life is 10% what happens, and 90% how you react to it.”

If that’s the case I think my son is going to do pretty well in business, as well as in life. And I think I have learned a lot about how to deal with adversity from him.

Selling Products vs. Selling Services

In case some of you are not fully aware, products and services are different. They can be tightly integrated. They can be mutually dependent. But they are entirely different. This can cause businesses that provide and sell both products and services significant issues.

Customers usually like to have a single point of contact with their vendors and suppliers. If the customer is large enough, this point might actually be a coordination point for the vendor’s sales team, as opposed to a single sales point. This creates an issue for the vendors in that more and more in the age of increased specialization, they are they are driven by customers, and hence driving their sales teams to try and sell both products and services.

I’ll start with the easy one first: Products. Just about everyone knows what a product is. Now believe it or not, a quick Googling of the word “product” has delivered two entirely different definitions:

product; plural noun: products
1. an article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale.
2. a quantity obtained by multiplying quantities together, or from an analogous algebraic operation. https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=c7loWtCWIYT5_AaP04-ICg&q=product&oq=product&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0i131k1j0j0i131k1l3j0l5.553.1679.0.3106.7.6.0.0.0.0.178.623.0j4.4.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..3.4.621….0.Jn1vc8zzN28

All the math nerds out there need to settle down. We are going to concern ourselves with the first definition of a product.

For purposes of this discussion I am going to look at products as a tangible item of substance manufactured for sale. (In an increasingly software driven world this idea can be stretched to software in as much as software is now also generally recognized as a manufactured or refined product as well.) A product is something that is made. People can usually touch it. It physically exists. Because it is a tangible good, a value can more easily be assigned to it. If a value can be assigned to it, it can be sold.

This is one of the main reasons that products are generally viewed as being easier to sell than services. There is a physical, tangible good associated in the exchange for money. A customer gives the vendor money and in return the vendor provides the customer with a tangible good or asset that they can point to when anyone questions them about the exchange.

A good example of a product for money exchange would be the purchase of a car. You know the car you want, and you know the amount you are willing to pay. If the vendor can meet those requirements, you will make the deal. You can look at the various attributes and features associated with the car and ascribe incremental (or decremental) value to them.

Things like leather seats and nice stereo systems are quantifiable attributes to that car. Dents and scratches are detraction’s from the value of that car.

The car is a tangible good that can be examined, with its value understood and hopefully agreed on.

Now look let’s look at services.

Another quick Googling of “services” takes us to Wikipedia, another source of simple and basic definitions. Wikipedia states:

In economics, a service is a transaction in which no physical goods are transferred from the seller to the buyer. The benefits of such a service are held to be demonstrated by the buyer’s willingness to make the exchange. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_(economics)

A service transaction is one where no physical goods are exchanged. There is nothing tangible that is being bought or sold.

Now I am sure there are many that are going to jump up (and subsequently down) and say that is not true. There are people, and time, and labor and all sorts of things that are being bought when a service is purchased.

I think you are wrong.

Do not confuse what the delivery of a service is, with what the actual purchase of the service is.

I think that the best way to illustrate what a service purchase is, is to begin with a definition of what is actually being purchased in a service purchase transaction. I would submit that a service purchase is actually:

The purchase of the expectation of an end-state situation.
(This is actually one of my own, and hence doesn’t have a citation for locating it on the web. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist there. It just means that I thought it up. I guess someone else could have thought it up as well.)

I’ll use the car example to further this idea.

Suppose you are going to take your newly purchased car to a car wash. Are you actually purchasing the labor and use of the machinery that goes into washing and cleaning your car?

I don’t really think so. I think you are purchasing the end state expectation of a clean and shiny car to drive off in. You are not overly concerned as to whether it takes ten people to wash your car quickly by hand, or whether it can be run through an automatic car washing machine as long as the same end state expectation is met.

I think this is a key point, and adds to the complexity of a service sale. Selling a service is actually trying to sell an end state solution, or position, instead of a tangible good.

Two of the biggest issues associated with the service sales model for intangible goods are, the loss of control, and the matching and the meeting of expectations of the service purchaser.

When I was younger, I was pretty protective of my car. It was one of the biggest assets I owned. I was concerned about relinquishing control of my car to someone else, even to clean it. I went to self-wash car washes, or I did it myself in my drive way. I got a great deal of pride from cleaning it. I was of the opinion that few if any could clean my car as well as I could. I was not a good candidate to be a car wash service customer.

I don’t suspect I was too different from many others with their first cars – with the possible exception of my teenage son. His car is, and remains, filthy.

I also didn’t have as much disposable income at that time, which meant that I had other priorities than paying for a car wash. Times change but the analogy continues. Some people don’t want to purchase the service associated with a car wash. They would rather do it themselves.

The second issue associated with purchasing the service associated with a car wash is the matching and meeting of expectations.

What happens if you buy the car wash, and it comes back obviously washed, but with dirt and streaks? What about hand prints on the windows? Maybe they didn’t vacuum the inside.

They have provided the service you purchased, but they did not meet your end state expectations. The service did not become tangible (in the form of a not entirely cleaned car) until after it had been delivered. Their interpretation of what a clean car was did not match your expectation of what a clean car was.

This potential for mismatched expectations is why there are contracts and lawyers. I’ll save that discussion for another day.

In the age of increased specialization, sales teams are increasingly being asked to sell tangible goods (products) which have a pre-defined end state capability, along with intangible services based on meeting the end state expectations of the customer. No one will truly know what the end state is, or if the expectations have been met until after the service has been delivered.

When viewed from this point of view it can be seen that services can be perceived by the sales team as a higher risk proposition. Products have defined specifications and features. Their functionality is usually well defined. Customers also know this. If the product operates to these specifications, there should be no question regarding customer satisfaction.

They in effect know that they will get what they pay for, before they pay for it.

This is not the case for services. Customers can get contracts. They can get vendor assurances. They can get all kinds of management commitments. But they will not know if they got what they wanted, and expected, and paid for until after the service has been delivered.

The selling of the tangible and intangible seem to require different approaches and techniques. The tangible can be compared and relatively valued versus both the current capabilities as well as the competitively offered ones. The creativity associated with the tangible application can be a differentiator.

The intangible is a little more difficult. It requires the defining of a future end state that doesn’t currently exist. Promised savings or improved efficiencies associated with a service cannot be realized until the service has already been implemented. And the fear then is that if the expectations are not met, it is already too late.

Defining and then codifying a viable end state solution will be the key to a successful services sale. How shiny is the washed car supposed to be? Are all the windows to be washed? Are best efforts to remove stains from the carpet good enough, or are you actually committing to replacing the carpets if you cannot in fact clean them appropriately.

Being able to identify the steps and milestones required to reach that end state will be required if customer expectations are going to be met, and a successful services transaction is to be completed.

And selling that kind of intangible is pretty different than selling a product.

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?

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.