Category Archives: Adversity

A Soundtrack for Change

I got to thinking about change recently. I was concerned that it might be a little bit of a trite topic to discuss. There has already been an incredible amount written about change and I was concerned about what I might be able to add. Be that as it may, I still kept coming back around to it. I guess if there is already so much written about change then it won’t hurt if I decide to write a little more about it.

I did a quick search (gosh, things like this have become so simple thanks to Google) and found that there have been no less than one hundred and four songs written that have “change” in their title. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I did a quick scan and did not see “The Times They are a Changin’” by Bob Dylan. How could they leave that one out? I did however see “Things Have Changed” by Dylan. I have never actually heard that one. Guess I will have to head to YouTube after this to check that one out.

There were some interesting song titles in this list, as well as some rather unexpected artists, at least to my way of thinking. There were no less than eleven songs with just the word “Change” as a title, and another eight with just the word “Changes” as the title. The late David Bowie’s “Changes” was the only one out of these groups that I really recognized.

I thought about looking up all the songs that had change as part of their lyrics, but I decided that I really didn’t need to go to that level. There are a lot of songs written where change plays a major role. I haven’t even tried to approach all that has been written in the business world with respect to change. When I thought about it I decided it would be better to use music as the allegory instead of referring to all the business management change books. That way we can all have a song run through our collective heads whenever I try to make a point.

Besides, song writers are so much more “lyrical” in how they write.

What I got from looking back at all the changes that I have been through was that change in and of itself was usually neither good nor bad. It was whatever I expected it to be. Think about that. Change is usually what we make of it, not something inherently good or bad. It is probably impossible not to look at a change without some sort of concern. After all by its very definition change means that we will be doing something different than we have been doing.

Change: verb (used with object), changed, changing.
To make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone

I think we have all been in roles where doing something different might have been preferable to continuing to do what we had been doing. There would be two ways to affect this type of change: Change what we had been doing in the role we have, or change the role we have.

About this time I have Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Would Do You Good” running through my head.

The idea here is that when we want to make a change we expect that change to improve things. We see what may be wrong with the current role or process we are in and we act to try and improve it. We expect it to get better and it invariably does, at least to our way of thinking. We either change the role we are in to improve it, or we change roles we have been in to a hopefully improved role.

My idea of expectations of outcomes is very similar to what the economist in me knows as “Expectancy Theory”. Expectancy Theory states that an individual will behave or act in a certain way because they are motivated to select a specific behavior over other behaviors due to what they expect the result of that selected behavior will be. Basically stated this theory explains peoples behaviors based on the rewards they expect to receive.

This is why sales people who are only commissioned on orders (volume) really won’t care much about the margin (profitability) on those orders. If you want to modify that behavior then you will need to add a profitability / margin factor to the sales compensation plan.

What I am saying about expectations of outcomes is that if you expect the outcome of change to be good, your behavior will be such that usually the desired good outcome can and will be realized. My point here is that how we approach things, including change, is a significant determining factor in the outcome of that change.

Brandon Flowers, the lead singer for the band “The Killers” has a solo project song out called “I Can Change” that has suddenly popped into my head.

On the other hand, many times we must go through a change that was not the result of our own action or decision. Someone else has made a decision or taken an action that has caused a change in our environment. Sometimes we don’t get to choose to change. Sometimes we just have to deal with it.

It may not be relevant how well we think we have been doing or the goals that we have achieved. We may or may not have been consulted regarding the change. Regardless of any contributing factors we will occasionally find ourselves reacting to a change stimulus instead of acting on one.

I am going back a little ways here, but I now find myself humming “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. I started hearing “Victim of Change” by Judas Priest, but I never really was a metal head and again that one doesn’t go along with my premise regarding expectations for success in change.

In many instances our normal reaction to an imposed change is to fight it. We want to see a justification or reason for it. It may not have been decided with any input from us. At that point in time it doesn’t matter.

It is at that point in time where I again believe in the expectation of outcomes having a significant contribution to how successfully an imposed change will be dealt with. Resistance and unhappiness will lead to a difficult and unpleasant change. Acceptance and alignment will almost always lead to a much more palatable transition.

That doesn’t mean give up. Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” wrote many times of when it was proper to engage in battle, and when it was not. Many times his objective was that it was just as important to “not lose” as it was to “win”. If he recognized that he could not win, he would not engage in battle, and therefore would not lose. When it comes to battling change, it is almost impossible not to lose.

Now I can’t seem to get REO Speedwagon’s “Roll With the Changes” out of my head. There is a really great keyboard solo in that one. I actually saw them perform it live in concert once, back when I was in college. By the way, this one was not on the “change” song list that I looked up either.

By accepting that sometimes we will have to change, whether we want to or not, we can identify a key to making a successful change. The positive approach that we can choose to take when making that change is one of the determining factors in how successful we will be in making the required change. Leaders need to infuse their teams with the ability to react and adapt to change, instead of resisting it.

Sometimes we get to choose to make a change. Sometimes we are told we have to make a change. Either way, how we decide to make that change is up to us and that will be a significant contributing factor to our success in changing.

Flying Fourth Class

Please take note of the following comment as it is one that I would never have thought that even I would ever say. Starting off like that ought to get your attention. I have been told by those that know me that they are continually surprised by what I say. I have also been told that I have a tendency to go ahead and say what others were thinking but decided not to say. These events seem to occur when the buffer between my brain and mouth is either overloaded, or I have decided to just not engage it. As you might guess on occasion I have gotten in trouble for what I have said.

So, with that kind of a build-up, here goes:

I sure miss the good old days when I could fly coach.

For those of you who are not fully versed in the class warfare that is occurring daily in our skies, let me try to elaborate. I will focus my comments primarily on international flights since it appears that it is on these flights where the new “under-class” has appeared.

At the very top, the acme, the apex of the travel class hierarchy is “First Class”. They usually sit at the very front of the plane. They get on first. They have no baggage limitation rules. Flight attendants throw rose petals in the aisles in front of them as they walk to their seats. They get the good booze, and as much of it as they want, without ever having to ask.

It is a mythical place where they get to sit, as they are a mythical people who can afford the exorbitant prices required to sit there. People who sit in first class normally carry a scepter when they get on the plane. They wear capes and cloaks that are lined with real fur. If one is ever caught wearing faux-fur they are immediately removed. It took a special dispensation to allow the pilot of the plane to be able to walk through first class to get to the flight deck so that he could in fact fly the plane.

The next class of traveler in the pantheon of sky people is “Business Class”. This title is a misnomer. Very few if any “business people” can actually afford to sit in business class. Business class is only slightly less expensive than first class. I believe this slight price reduction is because that in business class you do not get the complimentary manicure and pedicure that is normally associated with first class.

Business class is usually populated by only the captains of industry. The CEOs, the movers, the shakers, the people whose corporate jets are either down for maintenance, or don’t have the flight range capability to actually fly the required ten to twelve hours needed to cross major oceans on international flights. People in business class normally have perfect teeth, expensive clothes and great tans.

The business class seat in principle is very similar to the first class seat in that it has the capability to be fully reclined into a bed where the weary traveler can sleep away the duration of the flight. The primary difference is that it is not in the very front of the plane, and it is separated from first class by a curtain. This curtain is a metaphorical iron curtain as there is normally a guard stationed there (in the guise of a flight attendant) to keep any would be social climbers from trying to use the first class toilet.

I still don’t know what the first class toilet looks like. I have heard rumors that in addition to an actual commode it also has a bidet, and one of those attendants that hands you rags, towels, and mints.

This brings us to the next set of seats; Coach Class. Instead of the four seats across that you have in first class, and the six seats across that you have in business class (all of which recline fully flat into beds) you now have nine seats across in coach class. These are the normal airline seats that we are all familiar with. They have been fully padded and engineered to be as physically uncomfortable as is possible, without actually being charged with some sort of cruelty crime. Coach seats don’t recline so much as they lean back, a little.

Coach class is nominally populated by mere mortals: People who are either trying to get somewhere, or get home after having been somewhere. Occasionally you will see newlyweds in coach. You can readily identify them as the will be the only ones smiling as they take their seats in coach. He will also be the only man that will help a woman put her carry-on bag in the overhead bin.

Nothing is complimentary in coach. You must buy your own booze and snacks and the flight attendants will only grudgingly give you a choice of inedible chicken or unappetizing pasta for your mandated meal. Digestive medications are premium priced and extra in coach. The experienced coach traveler brings their own snacks and drinks with them on board the plane.

This brings us to the new under-class in air travel: “Economy Coach Class”. Yes, it is true. Enterprising airlines have created a new lower class of coach. A while ago I would not have thought that it could be possible, but just as physicist Steven Hawking was able to create a unified theory of black holes and string theory, airline theoreticians were able to conceive of a passenger class that was lower than coach. Once thought of, it was only a matter of time before its practicality was empirically tested.

Instead of the nine seats across that are present in coach class, economy coach class has ten seats across the plane. Yes, it is true, ten seats. How can they do that you may ask? The simple answer is that they made the seats narrower, since it was impossible to make the aisles narrower and still have the drink cart pass through. Now for the average person whose shoulders are narrower than their hips this may not be too much of an issue. However there are some of us whose shoulders are in fact wider than their hips. We are the people who are now learning to sit forward in a chair from the waist down and sideways in it from the waist up.

Think about trying to hold that position, let alone sleep in that position for any number of hours.

Not only did the make the seats narrower, they also did away with all of that excess knee room that members of the coach class basked in. By arranging the rows so that your knees actually touch the seat in front of you, airlines achieved the twin goals of adding more rows (and hence more paying customers per flight) to the plane as well as taking your mind off the fact that unlike coach seats that “lean” back, your economy coach seat is now best described as “tilting” back, just a little bit. It can only tilt back just a little bit because the person sitting behind you also has their knees firmly pressed against the back of your seat. There is not much choice other than to sit straight up in economy coach.

It wasn’t too long ago that business travel, and travel in general might have been considered interesting and borderline enjoyable. As companies continue to work at finding ways to reduce costs, airlines have continued to work at ways to increase the revenues and margins that they are losing as businesses cut their travel related costs. The result is economy coach class: The underworld in the traveler class hierarchy. The class where the only difference between passengers and luggage is that it appears that luggage is handled in a more human and professional manner.

With that being said, I will now wedge myself into my ten across narrowed seat, turn my torso sideways so as to not invade my seat neighbor’s space, tilt my seat back the maximum seven and one half degrees from vertical and attempt to sleep in close proximity to at least two hundred and fifty others for the next ten hours.

Gosh, I love to travel.

Kung Fu and the Laws of Change

It seems that I do have a tendency to talk about change in business, a lot. I think one of the main reasons for this is that some of my initial leadership roles involved being charged with either changing and transforming some underperforming organizations, or shutting them down. No one likes or wants to shut an organization down. It doesn’t matter that it was not your leadership that caused the performance issue. Shutting down an organization is an event that will stay with you for a while.

This is what has led me to coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s First Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

No matter how many businesses you grow, expand and improve in your career, shut down just one business because you could not get it to change in order for it to survive and you will always and forever be known as a “hatchet man”.

A hatchet man is a person who is recognized in the organization as someone who causes people either voluntarily or involuntarily to leave the company. They lay off. They fire. They close. When they walk into a room or meeting, all conversation momentarily stops. Other people keep track of them and never turn their backs on them. Once given the label, it is almost impossible to shake it.

This fact has led me to coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s Second Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

A “Change Agent” is someone who when faced with the option, will almost always do whatever it takes so as to not be labeled a hatchet man.

When faced with the down side prospect of being labeled a hatchet man as opposed to the upside opportunity of changing a poorly performing business into a more profitable one, I think it is easy to see why I usually chose to be a change agent. It really isn’t so bad once you understand some if the realities associated with being a change agent. You need to understand that even though you are avoiding the down side of shutting down a business there are still many obstacles that will need to be overcome.

This is what has led me to coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s Third Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

No matter how necessary the change is that you are leading, no matter how much it will improve profitability, efficiency or customer satisfaction, there will be people who will feel that they have something to lose as a result of the change, and they will resist the change at every opportunity.

Everybody understands in some esoteric way that change must occur. They just don’t want it to happen to them. They want someone else to have to change. They may already have plans and strategies that conflict with your change. They may have organizations that are dependent on the change not happening. (I am sure that there were buggy whip product or service or maintenance groups that were not happy with the change in corporate direction when the automobile came about). They in short have a vested interest in the status quo.

The point is that they will take the short sighted approach and fight change. The fact that the alternative would eventually be the emergence of a hatchet man on the situation does not seem to matter. That will be then and this is now.

In my rather arcane way this change resistant conflict has reminded me of an episode of the old television show Kung Fu that I saw as a kid. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it had David Carradine as a Kung Fu master monk wandering around the old west looking for his brother. That was the extent of the show’s entire plot. There would be a requisite martial arts action sequence and there would also be a requisite eastern philosophy lesson in each episode. As a kid I loved it.

I am sure that it must have had some influence on me and my resulting studies of martial arts and readings of eastern philosophies. Although I have been talking about conflict and resistance to change, I am going to use one of the show’s eastern philosophy lessons here.

The lesson that I am going to refer to dealt with attackers and defenders. The following is a paraphrase of the lesson. Please read it with something of an Asian accent in your mind to get the full value and effect since that is the way the Kung Fu master sounded when he intoned it to the then monk – student David Carradine:

Attackers must win to be considered a success. Defenders need only survive to be considered a success.

The question that must first be answered when making sense of this quote is to understand if you are the attacker or the defender. The answer is that as a change agent you are a little of both. You are attacking the current status quo that you are wanting to change, and defending your proposed change plan. However when you look at the bigger picture, change agents are attacking and those that are resisting the change are defending.

With this in mind, and knowing that you must “win” the change related contention points in order to implement change, I will now coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s Fourth Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

Before engaging in a change management battle, get the data. Get all the data. The data will be your friend. It is much more difficult for people to argue with and resist numbers than it is to argue with and resist opinion.

Now a certain amount of attribution for this law needs to be given to Robert McNamara. He was one of the first automotive industry “whiz kids” and a member of President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet in the 1960’s. He was a great proponent of data acquisition and analysis. He was called a “whiz kid” because he seemed to be right quite often. This is probably because he had acquired the data and analyzed it better than everyone else at the time. Go figure.

Now if you have acquired the data and properly analyzed it, this will force those that are resisting your change to rely on something other than data for their resistance. They will call in other topics and non sequiturs as reasons for their resistance and defenses for their positions. These reasons and defenses can be quite vociferous and colorful, but data usually wins. They will resist the change with an appeal to the “greater good” argument for the company. They will counter with their own incremental improvement. They will talk about the non-monetary effects of the change.

In general there will be great keening, rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth.

As an aside, I once had a group try to argue that there were more hours in a man year in one country as opposed to another as one of the reasons to resist the pending change. Desperation when it comes to resisting change knows no limits.

In the final analysis, if you have followed these simple laws for effecting change you should be successful. The one note of caution to post here is to understand when you are dealing with a business that does not want to change. Sometimes despite what may be some of your best work, the decision to change will just not get made.

We all need to understand that we may not be acting with all the data that those who must make the final change decisions have. There can be other plans. There can be other strategies that you may not be party to. On the other hand, they may just like the way things are done now.

You need to takes these pieces of information into account when trying to be a change agent as opposed to a hatchet man. It is also a good idea to remember that doing nothing can eventually be an invitation for a visit by those that swing not a hatchet but an ax.

When in the Rough…..

I like to
play golf, but I am not a good golfer. I like to watch golf on TV hoping that I
might learn something that might help me. Mostly what I learn is that the guys
who play golf on TV are so much better than me that I would have to be a much
better golfer just to be able to figure out what I could learn from them.

I was
watching the end of the year golf tournament from California and I actually did
pick up something that I think is useful. Usually the only announcer that even
remotely interests me is David Feherty, who is responsible for such great golf witticisms
as “…That ball landed as softly as a butterfly with sore feet.”, but I digress.
The announcer today was talking about one of the great golfers playing who “had
all the shots”, but was trying them in all the wrong places.

That is to
say the golfer had the capability to hit the ball 240 yards on the fly over the
water to the green on a par five in two shots, but probably shouldn’t try to do
that from a downhill lie, in the rough, behind a tree. Sure enough, when he
tried the increased difficulty shot, he didn’t execute it, and compounded his
problem. He went from trying to make an eagle, to struggling (and eventually
failing) to make par.

The comment
that caught my attention was that with the talent that the golfer possessed,
and being so capable of executing a standard shot so spectacularly, was not to
try and execute a spectacular and risky shot from a difficult position (in the
rough, behind a tree) but rather to execute a good shot to put the ball back
into a standard situation (the fairway) and then executing spectacularly from
there.

Even for a
relative hacker like me, this meant working on “course management”.

There will
always be difficulties encountered in golf. There is always a risk – reward associated
with how you deal with them. However, difficult situations are just that,
difficult to deal with. It is always possible to make a bad situation worse.
Sometimes it is better to take your short term medicine, put the ball back in
play where you have a chance of “executing spectacularly” from a easier, more
familiar situation and making par.

So, even with
all of the golf allegories, we can look at “course management” when it comes to
running our businesses. The idea here is that in many cases you may find yourself
or your business in a difficult position, where the best course of action may
not be to immediately “go for the green” and try to immediately recover the
situation. The correct course of action may in fact be to take you and your
business out of the difficulty and to put yourself back into a “normal” or “standard”
situation where it may be much easier, and therefore much more probable to execute
the “spectacular shot” and achieve success.

Recovery
sometimes is best made as a two step process. The first step is to get out of
your difficulties and back into a standard position. The second step is then to
use all the talent available to you to execute that step to success.

On the other
hand, when I am out on the golf course, I find it incredibly hard to remember
these types of lessons. I seem to just want to hit the ball…hard. Maybe that is why I am not such a good golfer.

When the Going Gets Tough – Communicate


There will always be tough times in business. It is the cycle of things. As leaders we should be working to minimize and avoid them, but sometimes they can’t be avoided. When things get tough, our natural tendency is to keep quiet, keep our head down and work harder. That is not the right response for the business leader facing tough times.

 

When times get tough the business leader needs to go on the communications offensive. You must communicate your issues and your plans to improve the situation, and the progress against those plans to the senior leadership team. It is best not to wait for them to ask. If there are issues and you wait for management to ask you, or worse yet tell you what to do, it will compromise your ability to lead your team.

 

On the other side of things, your team will also recognize when there are issues with the business. You will need to communicate openly and often with them to make sure that they are aware of all aspects of the situation and what their respective roles in it will be going forward. If your team is left with a blank page (no information) the story that they will write will not be the one you want.

 

While open and significant communication may not correct the issues that are driving the hard times, it will significantly contribute to making sure that they do not get worse. People can and will understand that tough times occur. Knowing what is happening and what their roles in it going forward are key aspects of creating and implementing the solution to tough times.