Category Archives: Alternatives

Disposable Business

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a family sat despondently in their family room. They didn’t know what to do. Their color television had for some reason stopped working. Since they had never felt the need to communicate with each other while the TV had worked, they were now horribly out of practice. What to do? Things looked bleak. It was time for action.

Now here is where things get really weird. The eldest male of the family, the nominal head of the family unit (I say nominal head as this was only a fictional title. He actually reported to his mate, the most powerful woman in the universe) stood up, put the non-functioning television in the family’s means of conveyance (re: minivan) and took it to a place that was known as the repair shop.

Yes, he actually took the TV in to be repaired.

I can actually remember back to a time when this would not have been a fictional story. The reporting structure of the family is non-fiction. Every male, nominal head of a family does in fact report to their respective specific most powerful woman in the universe. The rest of this story is border line science fiction. Today when something breaks we don’t seem to fix it. We don’t even seem to be inclined to try and fix it. We just throw it away and go get another, newer one.

What used to seem to be a society based on the utilization of durable goods seems to have evolved to society based on the purchase of disposable goods. We don’t seem to want to fix anything anymore. When something breaks our first inclination is to get a new one. If that is not eminently feasible, the next step is to call someone to have them fix it. It has become the societal norm these days.

Now let’s go to go to different galaxy that is not so far away. We still have a disposable versus a repairable product mindset, but now we will be talking about businesses, not products. In this galaxy there is a business that has been performing well for many years, making products that have been well received and are well thought of by their customers. I was going to say that they made high quality, repairable televisions, but that would have been just a little excessive in my opinion.

Let’s say something now happens to this business. For whatever reason it is now no longer performing as well as it did. Its products are no longer well received nor are they well thought of by their customers. For lack of a better description, this business can now be considered broken.

Are broken businesses as disposable as broken products? How does a business actually break anyway? In a broken product, it is usually a component that fails and brings down the entire product. What happens when the components of the business are all still operating as they did when the business was not broken?

We were a culture that used to fix our own cars, change our own oil, fix our own flat tires, do our own home maintenance and improvement work. Now we just get a new replacement or call someone to come fix it. How does this culture translate to our new business models? What do we do when the current business model doesn’t work anymore?

I am fond of quoting Albert Einstein. I think he is universally recognized as a pretty bright guy, with the theory of relativity and all that. One of my favorite quotes of his, and I have used it before is:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.”

I have met a few leaders that could actually change the way they think. There have not been many, but there have been a few. Most of the time a manager learns a way to do something successfully gets rewarded for that approach and spends the rest of their career replicating that solution set. They continue to think the same way. They just try to apply the same methodology in different situations.

Think of the old phrase:

“When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

In effect, they were once successful as a managerial hammer, and seem to have dedicated the rest of their managerial life to finding another perfect business problem nail.

Businesses are not disposable, and can invariably be repaired. Repairing a business changes it. It takes a different mindset. You can’t just call someone to come fix it. You can’t call a plumber or electrician to come fix it for you. You have to understand the plumbing and wiring of the business yourself. You have to get back to the mindset of changing your own oil and fixing your own flat tires.

Sorry for the poor metaphors, but I think you get my point.

Part of the solution may be to get a good plumber or electrician on your team, and to listen to them when they give you their recommendations and opinions.

I think this is the essence of learning to change the way you think. Sometimes you are the proper hammer for the current nail. Sometimes someone else is the proper hammer. The key is not being locked into a specific method or process of solving problems, and being able to recognize when things have changed and some different thinking is required.

A broken business is made up of many “working” people. I think that despite the trends to the contrary, they are not disposable. If they are performing poorly it is usually not because they want to perform poorly but rather they have been given poor leadership and are focusing on the wrong issues (re: nails). Disposing of them and getting new people will not fix that problem.

Remember, the thinking of those that got the business into its current state will usually not be sufficient to get it out of that state. The way the business is being managed, or those that are managing have to change. It is difficult for a leader to recognize that they must change. I think it is almost impossible for a manager to recognize that they must change.

I think our disposable product culture has taken its toll on our ability to repair broken businesses. At the risk of sounding too trite we seem to be predisposed toward disposable businesses. We seem to have evolved a mindset that if the current compliment of people cannot achieve the desired goals that we should dispose of them and replace them (like our products) with newer models.

The problem with that thinking is that it seems to be some of the thinking that may have been responsible for getting the business into its current state, and as Einstein noted, that probably won’t be sufficient for getting it out of that state.

When Friends Resign

A friend of mine resigned a while ago, and I don’t know if I have consciously or unconsciously avoided thinking about it as a topic. Enough time has passed where I think I can look at it at least reasonably objectively.

I have often talked about the conflicted feelings that occur as a result of corporate layoffs. On the one hand there is compassion for those that seemingly through no fault of their own are tapped on the shoulder and told that they don’t have a job anymore. On the other hand there is the necessity for the company to adapt, resize and redefine itself for the new market and financial realities that it is facing. The resulting guilt, fear and uncertainty of the accompanying survivor’s syndrome for the employee’s that remain after watching their friends leave, are detrimental to both the employees and the company. Hence the evolution of the preferred corporate approach of making and implementing the changes quickly so that the focus can return to the business at hand also as quickly as possible.

But what happens when your friends leave of their own accord?

There are also many conflicted feelings that occur when a friend leaves, but I think they are slightly different. In a layoff, there was no choice. Friends are told they no longer have a job. When friends resign we all know that they made a cognitive decision. It was their choice. In the former situation there is a little “there but for the grace go I…” and a little of the afore mentioned survivors guilt. In the latter we all ask: What do they know that I don’t?

Successful business has a lot to do with good leadership and the accepted team approach to achieving the goals. Not everybody can be the leader, but everybody needs to demonstrate leadership. Not everybody will be in full agreement with the leaders, but everybody needs to align with the designated objectives. There is always a mixture of satisfaction and gratification along with frustration and dissatisfaction in all that we do in business. It is how well we are able to balance these conflicting feelings and emotions that will usually have a lot to do with our individual and team success.

The usual process is to create the team, assign the roles, define the objectives and begin their pursuit. The team members begin to mesh and friendships inevitably arise. New teams, roles and objectives will come, but the friendships that are established usually remain. These relationships evolve into our “networks” and support systems.

These are the people that we go to lunch with and who will listen to us when we have not yet fully internalized the directions and objectives that we now have.

When they decide to leave it makes us all take a moment to pause and reflect. The inevitable question that comes to mind is: Why did they decide to go when I have not? Have I missed something?

It has been my experience that career change decisions are invariably made in isolation of any friendships. Most of my friends who have made these types of changes did not tell me or consult with me before they made them. The contemplation of any career change is a personal thing and not to be taken lightly. The support or opposition of a friend to a possible change can modify both individual’s behaviors today and in the future.

Plus, once it is spoken of, even as a remote possibility, the potential career change secret is out. The sharing of a potential career change opportunity or decision could also cause issues with peers and management in any current assignment. If the potential change is not realized, the issues caused by the consideration of it would continue to remain.

In speaking after the fact to friends who have left in the past, I have found that they normally leave for basically one of two general reasons: to increase their satisfaction and gratification related to what they do, or to decrease their level of frustration or dissatisfaction related to their current roles and situations. The first reason is looking forward to something better. The second is looking back at something worse.

The increase in satisfaction can come in the form of more money, promotions, more responsibility, titles, etc. This can be seen as part of the normal progress in a career. As one matriculates up the management line, the number of available “next step” positions becomes increasingly small. Sometimes it may be viewed as necessary to step outside of the current structure to keep a career moving.

The decrease in dissatisfaction can come in the form of the desire for a more stable work environment (no prospect of layoffs) better alignment and utilization of individual talents or better alignment between work and management styles. Misalignments in strategies, cultures and management styles can contribute to and accumulate dissatisfaction to the point where an exit may be required just maintain some semblance of sanity.

In many instances it seems to have ended up being a combination of all of the above.

There is normally also some sort of minimum differential barrier that must be overcome in order to get someone to decide to leave their current role. This could be considered the “barrier to exit” (as opposed to an economist’s barrier to entry). Most everyone will put up with some amount dissatisfaction in their current role. Most everyone will also put up with some lack of satisfaction in their current role. This can be due to the time, effort, pay level, etc. that has them vested to one level or another in their current role. Please notice that lack of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are in fact different. The lack of happiness doesn’t mean that you are unhappy. It just means that you are not happy. I think you can go a lot longer not being happy than you can go being unhappy.

But how much does it take to cause someone to go past the barrier to exit tipping point? Again it seems that there are many factors. Careers and career trajectories, corporate positions, directions and performance, and time, as well as the status of the greater employment and opportunity markets will all come into play in either lowering or raising the barrier to exit.

I think that this is probably a long winded way of saying that as individuals we will all react differently to the stimuli, both the positive and the negative associated with our positions. We all create our own barriers to exit. Sometimes there is a desire to leave, but no opportunity elsewhere. Sometimes there are opportunities elsewhere but no desire to leave. Either case could be considered a high barrier to exit situation.

I think we all either consciously or unconsciously keep track of our own barriers. It is only when someone we know has consciously overcome their barriers and resigned that causes us to pause and question. We wonder if our barriers are too high and are we missing something. We also wonder if theirs were too low and were they too rash.

I believe the answer is that anyone that makes a career decision either to stay or to go, has probably made the right decision for them. It is not good to judge your own happiness based on the happiness of someone else. It is probably equally inappropriate to judge your satisfaction with your position or career based on the position or career satisfaction of someone else. They have made a choice and are probably happy with it, just as you may or may not have made a different choice and should be happy (or at least not unhappy) with it.

Still, you can’t help but wonder.

I wish you fair winds and following seas, my friend.

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

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.

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.

We are Working In Ghost Towns

I have recently had the opportunity to visit several of our companies other corporate offices as well as several of our customers at their locations. It was during these trips that I realized how much we had in common with our customers, and what the new norm seems to be in business. It seems that we are all working in ghost towns.

I visited major corporate offices in both the East and Mid-West and was surprised by how close to the front door I could park. I just pulled in and was only a few steps from the door. Initially I put it down to the fact that I prefer to get into the office a little earlier than average. It usually gives me time to get prepared for the day’s meetings.

During the day I had the occasion to look out the windows from one of the upper floors at the parking lot, and it didn’t look any better. It was far less than half full. This got me to thinking. I started to pay a little more attention to my surroundings in the building. It was quiet. Too quiet. There wasn’t a soul around.

I started to walk down a few random aisles. Most of the cubicles and offices were dark, with no name plates on them. The only real sound was the uneven whine-hum of the air conditioning system. If a tumbleweed had blown by I would have thought I was in one of those high plains desert westerns.

It was very similar at our customer’s locations as well. There were very few cars in the parking lot and even fewer people to be seen around the building.

I can remember back to a time (not so long ago) when if you were not at the office early in the morning there was a very real chance that you might not find a parking space. I can also remember (not too fondly) having to wait my turn through multiple elevators to make my way to an office on the upper floors of a building. It was a very lively and busy time.

I understand that the Telecom-Technology markets have had a reset, and that there have been some significant staff reductions. Some poor decisions by some companies and the general business downturn have helped to create a reduced resource demand. Companies no longer have or need the staffs they once carried during the market expansion periods.

I also think that we are now starting to fall victim to the very technology we have created to help increase our productivity. As a mobile business society we had to create the capability to be productive in those times when we were not in the office. In most cases this meant when we were out on the road. We needed remote access and all the other applications that we used when we were in the office. And we got them.

We got so good at working outside the office that it seems we have never gone back to it. It now appears that even people who live very close to their companies offices are choosing to work at home. In many instances companies are encouraging this arrangement. They are seeing the opportunity to reduce their overhead allocations for office space by having fewer people in the office. This helps the business unit’s bottom line by reducing the corporate overhead allocation for office space, but doesn’t seem to help the overall company since the office space is still there, but now it is just sitting empty and idle.

This brings me back to my topic. Our offices were once centers of activity. Teams worked, shared and collaborated face to face in the past. There was energy in the office and a general feeling of optimism. Now for both technical and economic reasons there far fewer people in the office. This seems to be the case with most offices. You walk around and there is no one there. It is quiet.

It doesn’t sound, look or feel like there is any activity or work being done in the office. If it doesn’t feel like there is a positive feeling for those of us still in the office, what can the feeling be for those who are outside the office? Those that are connected to the office through remote access technology (alone in their homes, or out on the road) surely can’t feel anymore, and in most cases are feeling much less comfortable with the progress of the business. Those that are now unemployed feel fully disconnected and are even less comfortable about it.

The office needs to be the center of our business activity. The office needs to be a place where people work and share their insights and opinions. I think we need to start getting people back into the office. We need to start by reducing the acceptability of remote and virtual office utilization. We need to encourage people who live near the office to come to the office. We need to increase both the activity and the activity level in the office.

We need to consolidate our office structures so that we do not have these vast stretches of empty, dark cubicles and offices reminding us of how good times were in the past, and how they are not so good now. We need to at least start to try and put energy and positive attitude back into the office if we are going to expect energy and positive attitude from the business in general. The only way that I am aware of getting energy and positive attitude is with people.

When the people are not there, neither is energy. The offices are relatively empty and dark without people. The convenience of virtual offices seems to me to be something of a contributing factor to the low energy and less than fully positive attitude that appears to be the norm in the office. Without people, working in the office is like working in a ghost town.

We need to start getting the people back in the office.

What Would You Do ? (Part 2)

A little while ago a friend of mine called me and asked me the following question:

“A past business associate of mine is out looking for a job and has put me down as a reference. While I know times are hard and I do want to be supportive of him, he was not in my opinion a very good employee. On one hand I don’t want to give him a bad recommendation and potentially ruin his chance at a position, but on the other hand I do not want to give a report or recommendation that is not the truth. What should I do?”

This is a situation for our current times. With so much continued upheaval in the job market, I am sure that we all know multiple numbers of people who either are, or have been looking for new positions. I am also reasonably certain that although we many know multiple people who are searching for a new job, we might not be as willing or prepared to vouch for or recommend some of them as we may be for others.

So that brings up the question: What would you do if someone put you down as a reference, and you did not feel comfortable in providing a positive recommendation?

Do you respond to the person by saying that you would not feel comfortable being a reference for them? This would inevitably lead to having to explain why you would not want to provide the reference input. It might lead to hard feelings and someone who in the future might feel they have reason or position to cause you professional issues in the future. Who can truly say they know where they will be working, or who they will be reporting to in the future?

Do you accept and provide a less than glowing reference and potential derail an employment opportunity?

Do you accept and provide a less than fully truthful positive reference?

It’s at times like this that I remember what my dad has told me in the past: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

My recommendation to my friend was that if he did not want to directly respond “no” to the request, (which would probably be the proper response) then he should not to respond at all to either the request to be a reference or the request for reference input by whomever his name had been provided to. Let his inaccessibility and silence be his comment. Normally both the reference requestor and the reference input requesting entity should get the message.

People who have something positive to say about someone are normally accessible. Those who don’t have something good to say normally aren’t accessible.

I would say this course of action is the professional equivalent of the “pocket veto”. A pocket veto is a legislative maneuver in United States federal lawmaking that allows the President to indirectly veto a bill. If the president does not want to go on the record as being against a bill, he can hold it with no response until congress adjourns. His “no response” in effect kills the bill without having to take the active measure of vetoing it.

Given the situation that my friend outlined, this was my suggestion. What would you do?