Category Archives: Analysis

Good, Fast, Cheap and the Future

I was casting around for a topic to write about. I had several candidates. Whenever I get an idea I write down the basics of it in my notebook. This happens to be a real notebook, with paper pages and a bound cover. Not a computer. I very rarely type at a moment’s notice, but I sure can pick up a pen and scribble with the best of them.

In any event what finally tipped the scales toward this topic was the NCAA selection committee’s decisions on who gets to play in March Madness (who gets to go dancing as they say) and who doesn’t. It wasn’t so much the actual selections that got my attention, as it was all the hype and fury that goes into the prognostications associated with filling out the tournament brackets and predicting the winners, losers and future match-ups.

It seems that what comes next is of more than passing interest to some people.

Being in a technology-based industry, in an increasingly technology-based world, I have been doing some reading as to what comes next in technology as well. It may seem like a stretch to compare filling out your NCAA March Madness bracket to predicting what comes next in technology industries and business sectors, but there you have it.

I have read and seen many methods used for predicting the next steps in our technological future. Some are internally focused (business focused). Some are externally focused (customer focused). I saw some that were citing universal constants and the laws of physics as the driving factors. Anything that equates physics to business always intrigues me.

But as I thought through all of the hype and hoopla surrounding predicting the future, as I stared somewhat forlornly at my unfilled NCAA bracket, I realized that while I had absolutely no idea beyond what I saw on ESPN regarding who’s who in college basketball, I had been in business and the technology industry for a while, so maybe if I relied on that instead of what others said I should rely on, I might be able to make some sense of what was coming.

Despite every pundit’s proclivity to try and make things seem complicated, I have found business to come down to, and be reasonably explained by the holy trinity, as it were, of business: Good, Fast, Cheap. I think these are the factors that affect and in effect, can be used to predict the future.

Simply put, they are: Good, or quality. Fast or speed of acquisition or delivery. And Cheap, how much you are willing to pay.

Now I agree that there are other influences, such as governmental regulation, and social and environmental consciousness, and even marketing and advertising, but I think Good, Fast, Cheap dominate the decision and prediction landscape. I’ll look at a couple of disparate industries to see if these ideas hold true.

The auto industry is always one of my favorite industries to look at. It has changed from a labor intensive “we’ll tell you what kind of car you’re going to buy”, to an automated, highly competitive customer driven, “We’ll tell you what kind of car you’re going to make if you want our business” industry. That’s what makes it fun to look at.

It is well known that there are market segments within both the automotive industry and its customer base. These tiers are based on car size and pricing levels. Smaller economy cars, all the way up to larger, more luxurious cars. This is because not everyone has the same level of “Cheap” or price. However, there are various sub-markets that do seem to behave similarly based on this factor.

Fast, for the most part, is going to be a given for cars. Dealerships abound, and interestingly enough seem to occur in close proximity to each other. This means that you can go in, compare products relatively easily, and select and drive home with your purchase. You can’t get much faster than immediate gratification.

That leaves Good, or quality as to what I would expect the primary differentiator to be, at least for now within the automotive industry. This is where things can get interesting. If you can’t spend any more money than you can afford for a car, and you can’t get it any faster than now, the perceived quality of the car will be one of the major, if not deciding factor on what you buy.

Yes, I know design and style, etc. are going to come into play. Have you noticed how similar in appearance cars within the same market segment look. If you don’t think so, look again.

It is interesting (at least to me) that the New York Times noted that General Motors first offered a Three-Year bumper to bumper warranty in 1989. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/17/style/consumer-s-world-for-1989-new-cars-and-warranties-come-in-all-lengths.html

Now such warranties can extend to six-years and in some instances 10-years, and I would suggest that they are viewed as a competitive advantage / disadvantage capability.

Now Elon Musk and Tesla have created a very high quality, electric car, and they are challenging some of the status quo in the industry. And the industry is reacting, as all competitors work to bring out competitive electric models as quickly as possible. But again, I would position that the economics of quality will be the driving factor of what the future holds for the automotive industry.

Now I’d like to look at the technology industries. I’ll focus somewhat on communications and networking, but I think much of the topic will be applicable across most technology industries.

Good, or Quality used to be the driving force in communications. Reliability, redundancy, etc. were the required thresholds to cross. But they cost money and they took time. People learned that they could get “Good Enough” for a whole lot less than what they paid for Good. I have referred to this as the race to the bottom. How low a quality for how low a price was acceptable. It turns out in retrospect, pretty low.

It seems now that there are generations of people who have never known high quality communications, or anything other than disposable platforms and devices, so they have no baseline to compare to. To them Good Enough is all they have ever had, so it is acceptable. So that leaves Fast and / or Cheap as the driving forces for the networking future. Maybe.

I also think that Cheap has also run its course in communications. Who here remembers when communications providers would “give” you a mobile phone as part of your service agreement? They don’t do that anymore. In fact, it seems that they have now established an upper boundary for what people will pay for a phone, in addition to their service contract. That limit seems to have been explored by Apple and its iPhone X at around One Thousand Dollars. https://www.theverge.com/2018/8/21/17763322/iphone-x-galaxy-note-9-smartphone-pricing-2018

That brings us to Fast, or speed of availability. It has been approximately Ten years since the last generation of wireless capability (4G) went into trial and delivery to the market. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4G 5G is now just hitting the market as well, but probably won’t see ubiquitous coverage for another year or two. The speed we are talking about here is measured in years, if not decades.

The last major evolution / revolution in non-wireless communications, be it the analog to digital, digital to Internet Protocol, or the advent of cable providers entering the non-TV communications market, has also been years if not decades in the past.

So where does that leave us? The Good (quality) of communications has already been taken down. Can it go lower? Maybe, maybe not. The Cheap of communications has already been taken down, hit the floor, and started to bounce back up. This is obviously in response to the communications providers desire to continue to make money and stay in business. The Fast of communications has never been that fast to begin with.

I think it is going to be a combination of “Good” and “Cheap”. Quality is already low. However, if we are to believe the new applications and uses of communications, quality will probably have to come back up. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I want my self-driving car operating on the quality of networks that we have come to accept as “Good Enough”. Either that or the definition of Good Enough is going to have to be revised upwards, drastically.

Basically, this means that people will be expecting more, but probably will not be willing to pay more for it. The past technology iterations will have already taught them this behavior.

Cheap, as I said has already hit the bottom and seems to be coming back up. But not everyone will want or need the “luxury” service. Many will want, or only be able to afford the “Economy” service. I think you will see in far more granularity than is available now, a tiering, or set of communication strata put in place, very similar to what we see with the automotive industry: Luxury models to Economy models.

The issue will be that how do you create communications networks able to deliver Luxury to Economy levels, that are priced at levels that are already ingrained in the user’s market segment? That would mean that the capability to deliver Luxury would have to be built, but the ability to deliver Cheap, where desired or required would have to be available.

I think the technology to be able to deliver this type of capability is in development now. I don’t think the “Cheap” capability of the service providers being able to make money on that type of technology-based capability has quite been worked out yet. It will cost the providers a lot of money to build this capability. This will probably engender a price that their end user customers are probably not willing to spend. That and it will probably a fair amount of time before the technologies are truly available. I think we have an economically induced wait in order to see what’s next, at least in communications.

Time Cards

Time cards have been a symbol of manufacturing productive efficiency for years. I think we have all seen images of production and manufacturing associates dutifully standing in line to “punch in” at their appointed shift on the time clock. It seemed to be a marvelous mechanism to maintain, measure and direct those resources associated with production, in the most efficient manner. It is where the phrase “on the clock” originated. You came in and they started paying you when you “clocked in” and they stopped paying you when you “clocked out”. It was efficient.

By the way, the “Time Clock” that has become so universal when talking about clocking in and clocking out, first made its appearance on the business scene in the late nineteenth century.

” An early and influential time clock, sometimes described as the first, was invented on November 20, 1888, by Willard Le Grand Bundy, a jeweler in Auburn, New York. His patent of 1890 speaks of mechanical time recorders for workers in terms that suggest that earlier recorders already existed, but Bundy’s had various improvements; for example, each worker had his own key. A year later his brother, Harlow Bundy, organized the Bundy Manufacturing Company, and began mass-producing time clocks.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_clock

There then arose the dichotomy in business where there were those that were “paid by the hour” (those on the clock), or waged employees, and those that were paid a set amount per period of time, or salaried employees. Waged employees were referred to as Non-Exempt and Salaried employees were referred to as Exempt. These definitions were laid down in 1938 by the Fair Labor Standards Act.  https://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/exempt-employee.asp

Below is a brief comparison of the differences between the two:

So, why am I talking about one hundred and thirty year old inventions (Time Clocks) and eighty year old employee definitions (Fair Labor Standards Act)?

The reason is pretty simple. As the production and standardization processes that have been used in manufacturing have found their ways into the other disciplines and aspects of business, so has the cost tracking and charging of those resources responsible for doing the manufacturing.

We are now asking our exempt employees to fill out time cards associated with the work they are doing. This in and of itself is probably not a bad thing, however it engenders a new and different behavior in the exempt employee. It is this new “Time Card” behavior in exempt employees that can a detrimental effect on the business.

For lack of a better definition, exempt employees are paid by the “job” as opposed to by the “hour”. If an exempt employee must work late hours and weekends to complete their assignment, they do not get paid any more. They do however get the satisfaction of knowing the completed their task, regardless of how long it took them.

The idea of having exempt / salaried employees track their time, was to better associate costs directly with specific projects or activities. This association gave rise to the exempt employees who could directly associate their activities with specific items or revenue producing functions, and those that could not associate their work with specific items. Those that could be directly associated with specific products, projects and functions were called “Direct” labor, and those that could not be directly associated were called “Indirect” labor.

“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).

The concept is critical when determining the cost of a specific product or activity, since direct costs are always used to compile the cost of something, while indirect costs may not be assigned to such a cost analysis. It can be too difficult to derive a cost-effective methodology for the assignment of indirect costs; the result is that many of these costs are considered part of corporate overhead or production overhead, which will exist even if a specific product is not created or an activity does not occur.” https://www.accountingtools.com/articles/the-difference-between-direct-costs-and-indirect-costs.html

The following as a good way to think about this. I promise I will get to my point about Time Cards and why this is important soon.

So, all of this work associated with slicing and dicing the time that salaried employees spend on their various activities is being done to understand what portion of their work can be directly associated with a cost object (Direct) and what portion cannot (Indirect). Why is this important anyway? It’s pretty simple.

All businesses want to reduce, minimize and otherwise exit overhead or indirect costs from the business equation.

Every business has the objective of reducing indirect costs, otherwise known as “Overhead”. As noted, these are the costs that cannot be directly associated with revenue production.

So, when Exempt, salaried employees are asked to fill out time cards, and they have multiple options, both “Direct” and “Indirect” to associate their time with, which are they going to choose? Knowing the corporate desire to minimize, reduce and exit Indirect and overhead costs from the business, they will naturally migrate their time charging to “Direct” functions and charges.

On the surface this might seem like a wonderful way for companies to reduce overhead, and in some instances, it will work. However, if you have the financial responsibility for one of these cost objects, you will want to be able to closely monitor the number of people and the amount they can charge to your cost object. This monitoring, or policing activity and capability again creates an incremental overhead.

It is essentially a transference of the overhead responsibility from the labor pool owner (of salaried, exempt employees), to the Cost Object owner.

Labor pool owners are always going to try and minimize the amount of their labor that is not directly associated with a revenue producing cost object. They will want to show the preponderance of their time, as reported by time cards, as being directly associated with a revenue producing function. Engineering groups, development groups, support groups and just about every other group will begin to display this behavior once time cards are utilized in this fashion.

The fear for them is that if they show too much time spent on overhead functions, they will be subject to a cost reduction activity in an effort to reduce overhead.

The results of this “Time Card” behavior are manifold:

  • With the pressure to be associated with, and charge to only Direct costs, the direct costs associated with specific cost objects can become inflated by excessive charging. Since direct costs are “above the line” in accounting and margin terms, this could result in inflated and non-competitive prices.
  • There will now be a somewhat adversarial relationship in place between those groups wanting to charge directly to cost objects, and those groups that are responsible for maintaining those cost object budgets, and the corporate inefficiencies and friction that this creates. There is also the non-productive time that will be spent challenging, changing and rectifying those charges as they come in.
  • There is non-productive time, effort and cost for increasingly capable corporate tools to maintain, monitor and control this type of charging effort. How do you control who should and should not charge to a cost object?

Time cards, like process can be a good thing. But like process, they should not be viewed as a replacement for judgement. When you move costs associated with time cards from indirect labor to direct labor, it may solve a corporate desire to reduce perceived overhead and indirect labor expenses, but it also creates several new issues and expenses associated with monitoring and controlling those charges. Due to how costs are accounted for in direct versus overhead items, it can also change both the cost profiles, margins and ultimately pricing profiles in the market.

Time cards in the salaried or exempt employee environment can and will change behaviors. Labor resource groups will increase their focus on having cost objects to charge to as opposed to understanding that there is to be expected a certain amount of slack time that they will have. Instead of the labor resource pool manager managing this slack level, time cards in essence transfer this issue to the cost object owners to try and control and manage.

Time cards for salaried and exempt employees can provide a better level of visibility into how time is spent and what employees are working on. It does however carry with it what is known as “The Observer Effect”.

I always try to sneak a little physics into any discussion.

“Observer effect (physics) In physics, the observer effect is the theory that simply observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.”    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics)

As long as business is aware of how behaviors are changed, and what may need to be done to compensate for these changes, there can be value in them. However, without those considerations they can create an entire new set of issues for a business to deal with, and may result in little to no efficiency gains.

The Overton Window

I am going to bet that not many people have heard of the “Overton Window”. There can be many reasons for this. One is that it is a relatively new concept. Another may be that is usually used in conjunction with the prevailing political debate. Finally, it was generated in a “Think Tank” type environment and those types of terms do not usually migrate out into the greater population. Be that as it may, I think it is a very interesting term in that to me it is just as applicable to business (and probably many more environments that I have not considered) as it appears to be to politics.

First, a little history and definition as to what the Overton Window is and how I came about looking into it.

I first came across the term “Overton Window” while reading one of the plethora of political analyses purporting to explain what is currently occurring in American politics. It discussed how various individuals were responsible for shifting what was, and what wasn’t politically acceptable to discuss. As I wish to discuss business and not politics I won’t name any of the individuals but suffice it to say there are not as many people as you might think that are capable of or are shifting what is acceptable in the current political discourse. The majority of them are usually just credited with screaming about one thing or another, depending on which side of any given issue they happen to reside.

So, since the Overton Window was mentioned, and I didn’t know what it was, so I then went and searched the term on the web. The following is the simplest description that I could come up with:

“The Overton window is the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse, also known as the window of discourse. The term refers to Joseph P. Overton, who claimed that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within the window, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. According to Overton’s description, his window includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

So, basically the Overton Window is the range of ideas that are “acceptable” to talk about at any given time. That doesn’t mean that they are the correct ideas. It only means that they are politically correct, or ideas that can be talked about without significant fear of a negative response.

We have all seen examples of what the possibly best solution to any specific problem may be, only to find out that the prevailing political climate renders this solution politically unacceptable. It also notes that this window can shift depending on a variety of factors. Ideas that may be in the window at one time, or for one administration, may not be in it at another time or for another administration.

“Overton described a spectrum from “more free” to “less free” with regard to government intervention, oriented vertically on an axis, to avoid comparison with the left-right political spectrum. As the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable. Political commentator Joshua Treviño postulated that the degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly:
• Unthinkable
• Radical
• Acceptable
• Sensible
• Popular
• Policy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

The Overton Window (with Trevino’s degrees of acceptance) is usually depicted as follows:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

As I have noted before, reading about something like this always gets me to thinking, which as I have also noted before can be a dangerous thing for me to do. It got me to thinking about why so many organizations talk so incessantly about the need for change, but then react with an immune system like resistance response to those proposals that can in fact generate real change.

It got me to thinking that the Overton Window is a limiting factor in that according to its precepts, only those changes that fall within the relatively modest window can or will be acceptable. True or significant change would probably place that policy outside of the Overton Window, which would mean that it is politically unacceptable for consideration.

This would explain why only minor or incremental types of changes seem to find their way into the corporate (or political) application. Too great a change, regardless of its potential necessity or benefit would find itself outside the range of acceptable change for the then business (or political) administration.

The only way to compensate for the smaller than necessary amplitude of change is to increase the frequency of change. I think that the idea of many, smaller changes being more acceptable than fewer, larger changes is what has given rise to the now industry standard vernacular of business such as:

“The rate of change is not going to slow down anytime soon. If anything, competition in most industries will probably speed up even more in the next few decades.” – John Kotter
http://www.ideachampions.com/weblogs/archives/2011/04/1_it_is_not_the.shtml

On the other hand, and probably a little less known or accepted we have:

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
– Woodrow Wilson https://toprightpartners.com/insights/20-transformational-quotes-on-change-management/

I’ll let you guess who’s proposed changes were within the Overton Window and whose changes were probably outside of it.

I think what Overton recognized about politics is probably reasonably applicable to business as well. All organizations have a political aspect to them. This is the personal and interpersonal side of things. Stakeholders have committed to a then acceptable and approved course of action. Significant change or movement away from that direction could cause a perceived loss face or position.

So, how can this change limiting window be moved or enlarged?

In politics, the answer is relatively simple: Elect someone else. If those in office refuse to accept that a new direction is needed because of whatever commitments and ties they have to the current direction (or whichever special interest group), replace them with someone new who’s views more closely align with the new direction or change that is desired.

Okay, so what do you do in business to expand an organization’s ability to change, since you can’t readily elect new business leaders?

Therein lies the issue. Organizations are not elected. They are put in place from the top down. CEO’s are selected in a closed environment by Boards of Directors. The CEO’s then surround themselves with executives that will support and enable their programs. This type of directional change then cascades in one form or another throughout the organization. On the other end of the organizational spectrum, managers likewise look for team members who will also support and enable their objectives and assignments.

With this sort of top-down approach to organizational structures it would appear that in order to affect a desired or needed change of any significant magnitude, you would have to make a change at least one to two levels above the desired change location in order to affect the Overton Window that is limiting the desired change. Normally, as a matter of course, changes of this type, or at this level do not occur easily in a business organization, unless the entire system, and its performance are under a great deal of stress, and by then, many times it is too late.

I think the concept of the Overton Window does a very good job of explaining why organizations talk so much about the need for change but seem significantly limited as to the size, type and amount of change that they can actually affect. As long as the existent organizational team and structure remain in place, change of any real magnitude will be very difficult when the topics and paths lie outside the window of acceptable discourse for the existing team.

While it may be desirable and sought after that change be made from “the bottom up”, this type of change can only really occur when the bottom of the structure, or in the political sense, the voter makes the change by electing someone else, and the management structure (those elected) listens to and responds to the mandate. In a business organization the mandate comes down from the executives, not up from the employees.

Change in any environment is difficult. I think the concept of the Overton Window goes a long way toward explaining why so many organizations say they want to or need to change but fail to make any significant or meaningful changes. It is usually not until the situation reaches a point where it becomes incumbent to replace specific organizational or business leaders with others, who may have a different window as to what is now the new and acceptable discourse on what and how to change.

Low Hanging Fruit

There are many “executive speak” phrases that seem to dot the business vernacular landscape. I have talked about this before. Many of these phrases seem to have evolved due to the desire of managers to fill a void in a conversation by saying something without actually providing any valuable information. I liken these phrases in business communications as the nutritional equivalent of Pop Tarts to food. There are probably some calories for sustenance in there somewhere, and as a change of pace they are sweet and acceptable on occasion, but if you make a steady diet of them, it is probably bad for your health.

With that in mind, I can’t seem to help myself but to go after the one executive speak phrase that seems to continue to grow in popularity, never ceases to amaze me, and all the while driving me crazy at the same time. Am I the only one that must fight the urge to speak up and call people out when they hear the phrase “Low Hanging Fruit”?

I Googled the phrase, just to see if it was really there as well as to provide a relatively equal basis to start this discussion from. I don’t know what I really expected, but it definitely was not the relatively large number of hits that Google delivered. I guess it is even more ubiquitous that I suspected. I selected Dictionary.com as my initial source, since I seem to go to them quite often for just these types of definitions. They said:

low-hanging fruit
noun
1. the fruit that grows low on a tree and is therefore easy to reach
2. a course of action that can be undertaken quickly and easily as part of a wider range of changes or solutions to a problem first pick the low-hanging fruit
3. a suitable company to buy as a straightforward investment opportunity
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/low-hanging-fruit

Now, I get the first definition. There really can’t be any argument about it. It is logical and follows directly from the phrase. Its fruit and it is low to the ground. Got it. It is the second and to some extent the third definitions that I take issue with.

It is at times like this that I feel compelled to step up on any available soap box, set my feet approximately shoulder width apart for good balance and announce to all who might listen, what I like to call “Gobeli’s First Law of Low Hanging Fruit”. In this case, it goes like this:

“There is no such thing as low hanging fruit when it comes to business courses of action, or investment opportunities. Anybody who says there is, is trying to sell you something.”

It doesn’t seem to matter what the discussion is about, or which business discipline is being mentioned. Everybody seems to want to use the term “low hanging fruit”. At the risk of sounding like I am propellering off on some sort of a rant, I need to start out by saying, I just don’t get it.

The instances where I have witnessed the phrase low hanging fruit being used are relatively succinct: During a presentation. When implementing something new such as a new program, project or product. When describing in a new recovery plan because the last program, project or product failed to enable the attainment of the then described low hanging fruit.

The basic idea that is trying to be conveyed is that whatever is being attempted, is going to get off to a fast start because there are quickly and easily obtainable results, as definition number two above would indicate, that are available. This phrase is designed to get management agreement and approval for whatever is being discussed.

It also sounds good and seems to indicate that this should be a “Oh my gosh, how did I miss that!” kind of moment.

It implies that the person uttering the phrase either knows that much more or is that much smarter than everyone else associated with the then current discussion. It hints at that person having either mysteriously or miraculously unlocked some sort hidden business or universal truth or secret that will enable them to make the difficult, challenging, or here to fore unsuccessful, easily attainable and wildly successful in the future.

I will be the first to say that just because I have never witnessed a miracle does not mean that they do not happen. I will say however, that I have heard “we will first grab the low hanging fruit” exponentially more often than I have ever seen such fruit actually grabbed. This leads me to Gobeli’s Second Law of Low Hanging Fruit:

“There is no such thing as Low Hanging Fruit. There are a lot of very bright people around. If there ever was anything even resembling low hanging fruit, one of these very bright people has probably already been there and grabbed it.”

Most people who truly recognize the existence of low hanging fruit keep their mouths shut and just go get it. Once they get it they will then take a bow, and then usually indicate how much more difficult it will be to get any further fruit, thereby keeping management’s expectations somewhat in check for future fruit attainment forecasts.

They don’t go and broadcast or publish the existence and location of low hanging fruit. It is not up for debate or discussion. It is like “Dark Matter”. There is a lot of somewhat esoteric evidence (that only physicists seem to be able to understand) that it probably exists, but nobody (including said physicists) has actually found some and examined it. If low hanging fruit ever did exist, it was an immediate challenge and all out race to get it first. Once obtained, it is gone. If it continues to exist while remaining only slightly out of reach and requiring only a little more time or investment needed to obtain it, it was probably not low hanging fruit in the first place.

As I noted Low Hanging Fruit is a term that is usually used to try to convince someone to do something. My personal experience is that when the term has been used, it was usually used to try and convince someone to do the wrong thing. This leads me to Gobeli’s Third Law of Low Hanging Fruit:

“Low Hanging Fruit is a term that is used to make something look easy. Nothing in business is that easy. It takes a lot of smart people working hard, together to be successful in business.”

Everyone wants an easy answer. We have all been inured to it by our thirteen second soundbite television environment. Simple answers may sound simple, when in fact they are surprisingly complex and difficult to implement.

I understand that on occasion I can sound something like a skeptic. The good thing about being a skeptic is that it is relatively hard to be disappointed. I also like to remember the old adage: “If it sounds to good to be true, then it probably is.” This doesn’t seem to stop us from wanting low hanging fruit to be true, though.

There are inevitably other competing ideas and directions vying for management attention and blessing. Several of them also probably have their here to fore unidentified low hanging fruit out there just waiting to be grabbed as well. All that they need is the time, money and management blessing that is currently being sought.

To me, low hanging fruit is a myth. It will always take time, money, effort, determination and possibly even a little luck (as defined by the phrase “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” – the Roman philosopher Seneca) for any initiative to be successful. The idea that success in business can be had as simply as wondering over and picking all the fruit off a tree that is within arm’s reach is not something that I have ever seen occur.

The theory of the Black Swan (just because you have never seen something does not mean it doesn’t exist. Swans were only thought to be white until black ones were actually discovered) suggests that such improbable events can occur. However, in all the world, up to this point, only one species of black swan has ever been discovered. And it does prove that there are indeed exceptions to just about every rule.

On the other hand, I have heard that we will be grabbing the low hanging fruit twice already today.

The only story regarding low hanging fruit that I think truly applies comes from the Bible, of all places. It involves a serpent, the first woman and low hanging fruit. It doesn’t seem that that one turned out very well either.

It doesn’t seem to stop us though, from looking for that supposedly easy win.

Not Invented Here

I had the opportunity to read an interesting article about Apple the other day. For the first time in a very long time Apple missed its top line guidance and market expectations by a little more than eight percent. In September of 2018, Apple had a market value of over a Trillion dollars, becoming the highest valued company ever. Today they are worth a little more than seven hundred Billion dollars. They lost more than four hundred Billion in market value because of this miss to expectations.

This seemed to be an overreaction to a relatively small miss to expectations, and has been directly blamed on the Apple CEO, Tim Cook. He is an excellent operations person who has continued to make Apple one of the most efficient companies in the world. https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/07/tech/apple-tim-cook/index.html

However, it seems that he is no Steve Jobs.

Apple has been a paragon of inventive and creative product and market genius. However, their then resident genius, Steve Jobs, passed away in 2011, and they have been unable to generate the next big technological thing ever since. Apple has gotten admirably more efficient under their now operations based and influenced leader, but they have not demonstrated the creative technological leadership that enabled them to get to the top. When they missed their forecast last quarter, this lack of perceived creativity was identified as the greater reason for the value decline.

I have had the good fortune to have had the opportunity to do a lot of different things in my career. Sales, Marketing, Product Management, Operations, Delivery and Customer Service to just name a few. I have never been anywhere near the stratospheric levels of Jobs or Cook, but it has been an interesting and enjoyable ride none the less. I also think that the opportunity to experience that kind of broader or varied career is going away. As companies continue their drives toward being process driven, nominally in the name of efficiency, the opportunity for people to step outside of their slotted functional lane and get that broader business experience continues to diminish. The result seems to be a pervading feeling that once you have become categorized within an organization, you cannot become anything else.

I am sure we have all felt that way at least one time or another within our respective careers. We see an opportunity, possibly to do something different, and we are judged as an improper fit for it simply because we have been performing a function that is not deemed to be an appropriate precursor to the desired role. Whether or not we may have been able to perform, or even excel in the role was secondary. It was not in our “lane” so we did not get to even try.

People within specific functions within an organization seem to have hit the point where they, as a business entity realize that since they may not be able to move outside of their assigned and expected responsibilities, that they also do not want anyone coming in from somewhere else to perform those same assignments and responsibilities. This role protectionism then becomes an ingrained and self-perpetuating attribute of the organization.

I think that this is the genesis and essence of what we have all come to refer to as the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. This is the bias that arises within organizational functions that simply states that if you have not previously been in that function, you are not an acceptable candidate for that function. The idea is that if you are not currently in a sales role, you are not qualified for any potential sales role. The same could be said for almost any other functional discipline (Marketing, Finance, Accounting, etc.) within the organization.

It is probably reasonable to say that in many instances they are a good thing. There are several disciplines that do require extensive, and specific training. I am not sure I would like someone in the admissions office of a hospital to apply for the job of neurosurgeon just because they both work at the same hospital, at least not without the proper medical training to support the application. But that is just the point. Any discipline can be learned by just about anybody, if they are given the opportunity to learn it.

I think this is the reason that it seems that companies are turning increasingly to external candidates when it comes to innovation. The existing people within an organization are already categorized, rightly or wrongly into a role. It doesn’t matter that the Sales person may have some very good ideas about how to Market a product or service due to their experience in directly interfacing the customer. They are a sales person. If a Marketing person is needed, the company will go out and get one of those.

Just as Apple was led to its present position by an inventor (Jobs), his internally sourced replacement, Cook, was not an inventor, but an operations specialist. It is also interesting to note that while Jobs was one of the people associated with the founding of Apple, he was actually sourced externally from the company when he was made the CEO in 1995. In 1985 John Scully was the CEO of Apple, and Steve Jobs was the head of the Macintosh group when he was fired. He had spent the previous ten years in roles outside of Apple.

My point with all this history and comment is that organizations create their own resistance to internal change. Ideas that are not generated within the organization are resisted. The cross pollination of people, and their ideas between organizations within a greater company is becoming more and more difficult to achieve.

The age of specialization, and the codification of it into process, continues to reinforce the internal “Not Invented Here” resistance to change and innovation. It is in essence the creation of the internal position that if one group cannot have input into, or movement into any other group, then no other group can have input or movement into the first group.

This leads to the position that in the future true change will probably have to come from outside of the organization, but from outside of the company. Since the internal resistance to movement between organizations within the company will continue to increase, the only way for an organization to change will have to come from entities that are not bound by having to deal with that internal resistance.

Getting back to Apple briefly. Apple still generated two hundred and sixty-five Billion dollars of revenue in 2018. They still have over two hundred and eighty-five Billion dollars in cash on hand. This makes Apple the equivalent of the eighteenth largest country on the planet (approximately the size of Switzerland) as measured by Gross National Product (GNP).

I don’t think Tim Cook’s job as Apple CEO is in any immediate danger with that kind of performance.

But what I do think is that if Apple wants to resume the growth and market leadership that is associated with it being an inventive and creative bellwether within the industry, they will eventually have to look outside of their organization to find that new inventive and creative leader. Their current leadership and structure are probably not conducive to enabling that sort of creative and inventive executive evolution.

This would also seem to indicate that unless organizations can find a way to overcome the continued creation of walls limiting inter-organizational movement, or the inertia associated with process codification, true change for organizations will also probably need to come from external sources as well. Meaning, it will need to be sourced to those who do not have any vesting in the current roles or processes.

In many instances Not Invented Here refers to the concept that external ideas are met with resistance by internal organizations. I think at a little deeper level it extends more to the people within organizations. The idea is ingrained that only the finance organization can generate people and ideas that are versed in and capable of benefiting the financial aspects of any issue or organization. The same goes with the other disciplines within an organization.

As an aside, I have found this to be the case almost in the extreme with lawyers, but that is possibly due to my own personal bias due to my past dealing with lawyers. Many lawyers believe only they can be versed in legal issues, while also believing every organization issue is rooted in legal topics. I once worked for a chief operating officer who said that he believed that lawyers within his organization needed to be periodically “flogged”, just so they would understand what their specific role was within the organization. While this is definitely not the approach with all lawyers, I have met many who could probably benefit from such treatment.

Generating change requires that an organization does something different. Doing something different generates risk associated with the doing, the result of which is unknown. Organizations, and processes are designed to reduce just this sort of risk. Once these types of organizational people, opinions and processes are rooted, anything idea or activity other than what is currently being done is “Not Invented Here”.

I guess what this means to me is that if people truly want to have an impact and make a change, then they will probably have to go somewhere else, regardless of where they currently are, to do it. And, if organizations want to change, they will probably have to look outside of their own structure to locate those change agents that they want or need. That will probably be because the with the way they are currently working, they are also not invented here.

Old Technology

The phrase “old technology” should send shivers down just about everyone’s collective spine. If you have anything prior to an iPhone X you have old technology and are therefore not cool. If you have anything other than an i9 Core PC, with all the associated bells and whistles you are obviously riding jockey on a dinosaur of a computer. Golf clubs are now touting their technological advantages associated with adjustable club weighting and aerodynamics which are designed to improve everybody’s game, even though average golf handicaps have remained relatively level over the last decade.

This is all only sort of interesting until you start looking at what may best be described as “old technology” companies. Then it starts to hit much closer to home.

Companies that have been recognized as technology leaders and driving forces are now racing as fast as they can to try and out run the old technology moniker. Networking carrier giants such as Verizon and AT&T in this country as well as their foreign counterpart’s British Telecom, Deutsche Telecom and many others have all either announced or already enacted layoffs in the multi-thousands of people, each, in 2018. The same goes for big iron providers such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard. The same goes for networking equipment suppliers such as Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens and Cisco. Going further upstream, there have also been significant layoffs recorded across the entire semiconductor industry. The total number of technology and large company layoffs in 2018 is more than five hundred thousand people.
https://www.gadgetsnow.com/slideshows/18-technology-companies-that-announced-job-cuts-in-2018/photolist/65031261.cms

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/07/how-to-spot-job-layoffs-coming-even-in-a-good-economy.html

Yesterday’s technology leaders must now deal with all that old technology that they now have. Yesterday’s technology suppliers must now deal with supporting all that old technology. And they must all do it while continuing on the treadmill that brings forth the latest and greatest new technology. It appears to be an unsupportable model.

Just as 3G cellular was replaced by 4G which now faces the dawning reality of 5G, and PC cores became dual cores, which became quad cores, technology always marches on. It becomes faster. It becomes smaller. It becomes more efficient. Then it becomes a commodity.

This begs the question, can people become “old technology”? Technology companies of all types now find themselves in a race to divest themselves of their old technology as quickly as they can, in order to stay relevant in the new technology environment. With this shedding of old technology also comes the shedding of those workers and employees associated with that old technology.

As the Chinese curse states, we probably do live in interesting times. What was once the vanguard of new technology companies are furiously trying to reinvent themselves as they try to avoid becoming the old guard of old technology. What was once viewed as a competitive advantage in having technology savvy people is now becoming a burden as technology life spans and cycle times continue to become shorter and shorter.

Moore’s Law states that we should see a doubling of the number of transistors on a dense circuit board (re. processing power) every 2 years, and sure enough this has been very close to the case. The first cellular network was put into service about thirty-five years ago (1983) and today (2018) we are seeing the fifth generation of mobile communications make its appearance. If my math is correct, that equates to a new mobile network build out about every seven years. The same sort of progression in capabilities can be seen in just about every technology platform in existence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4G
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law

So, what does this all mean.

I think to start, that it means if you are tied in some way to a specific technology, any technology, you risk becoming so associated with that technology that you as an employee in turn risk becoming considered outdated and past your usefulness when that technology hits its “old technology” finish line.

Now this is not a hard and fast rule. Those radio engineers that understood the 4G cellular network are probably your best bet for resources to understand the new 5G network engineering requirements. Probably. But as the lessons learned in the previous generations of mobile communications are applied to the next generations, are all of those resources going to be required? I point you back to the list of resource shedding companies that I noted earlier.

Supporting previous generations of technology continues to decline in importance as the next thing is now the best and most important thing. And the next thing is usually more efficient than the previous one.

And just as off-shoring and automation permanently changed the employment landscape for the manufacturing industries, so it is now coming to pass for the technology industries. As the relative cost of technology comes down (its price is actually remaining relatively level as its capabilities and speed expand), so the relative cost of the people required to implement and support that technology continues to rise.

I think the technology labor market is changing. It was not so long ago that business careers spanned one or possibly two iterations of a specific technology. Now with the two to seven-year generational technology horizons, a career should anticipate covering at least five and as many as ten or more technology shifts.

Being associated with a specific technology is no longer going to be good enough. It will more and more come down to which generation of that technology you are associated with, not just the type of technology itself. As businesses come to grips with the significant costs associated with supporting any technology other than the most recent iteration, the chance to be considered “old technology” will continue to grow.

It will no longer be good enough to be considered a subject matter or technology expert, because the subject matter and the technology will continue to change, and so will its strategic importance. And, if you are too closely tied to that technology, so will your strategic importance.

Customers too are facing this new market with increased issues. As they try to stay technologically current and relevant, they too will need to redirect resources away from the support of previous generations of technology. That doesn’t mean that the technology will be removed by the customer. It just means that the resources associated with sustaining it will by necessity be reduced. These limited resources will need to be continuously redirected toward the next generation of technology.

The old generation, both the technology and the associated people will continue to exist for some time. However, the market for them will change considerably. We have already started to see this market evolution in action. The cost associated with companies supporting old technology is starting to force them to sell off their outdated or older product lines to third party companies for continued support. These are companies that are making a business out of supporting old technology.

This is however, a double-edged sword. It is true that new technology companies will no longer face the cost and resource drain of supporting their old technology products, nor have to pay their old technology people, but they will now have to compete directly with their own old technology for the customer’s order. If the old technology can continue to be supported, will it be possible for the customer to delay the new technology purchase?

Buy selling off their old technology lines to other companies, they will in effect extend the life cycle of the old technology, otherwise no one would buy them. Customers could effectively delay buying decisions until prices, applications and values are more in line with their economic means.

So, what does this mean for the half million technology and large company employees that have been shed this year?

I think it means that there are probably more to follow in the coming near future as the new (and old) technology models and markets start to take hold. New technology companies cannot support their old technology businesses and structures. Old technology companies will have to become more efficient at support in order to make their business models work. They both will continue to drive all aspects of their business that do not directly interface with the customer i.e., Sales and Installation / Operations, to lower cost labor sources as the drive to reduce costs continues to intensify.

It used to be in the technology industries, that if you were a technology subject matter expert, you were in a relatively desirable position. Now, being too closely associated with a specific technology should at best be considered a short-term advantage as that technology will invariably age out rather quickly and receive the old technology tag. Technology careers and opportunities will not so much be about the depth of knowledge one has or accumulates about a specific technology, but the capability to move to and learn the latest technology quickly, before they get classified as old technology.

Staying Relevant

It’s hard to think of really where to start here. Everyone everywhere has already talked about the ongoing, continuous change that is constantly occurring in business. Even I have written about it, and I actually do try to stay away from those ubiquitous, and somewhat trite types of topics. As they say, no good can come of that.

However, those of us that have had either the good, or bad fortune to inhabit one of those industries that are subject to the technological whims of change, have an added issue with which to cope. In an environment where the “next thing” is always perceived as the now “best thing”, how do you fight what can best be described as career inertia, and remain relevant in your organization, and to a larger extent, your industry?

Charles Holland Duell, was the commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901. Duell has become famous for, during his tenure as United States Commissioner of Patents, purportedly saying “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” However, this has been debunked as apocryphal by librarian Samuel Sass who traced the quote back to a 1981 book titled “The Book of Facts and Fallacies” by Chris Morgan and David Langford. In fact, Duell said in 1902:

“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

I bring up this often mis-cited tidbit for a couple of reasons: the first is that even more than a century ago the speed and relevance of change was already being anticipated, and the second, is that relevance seems to be in the eye of the beholder. It is not so much what you think about your relevance to various opportunities, but what others think of it.

For the most part now, Duell is thought of as an out of step, foolish curmudgeon that had the audacity to state that nothing new was ever going to be developed or patented, when in reality he foresaw that both the magnitude and rate of future changes was going to be unprecedented.

An interesting urban myth, but I have digressed.
I think I’ll look at how both time, and technology work against just about everyone in business. I think this is a position that is somewhat out of step with some of the current thinking.

There is a school of thought that says experience is a good thing. But in order to gain experience you have to have been around either a company, or an industry for a while. The up side of experience is that in order to have remained around for a while you probably had to learn a few things. The down side is that time has passed, and that you may have been pigeon-holed into a role which is defined by your experience.

Robert Heinlein is an author of many famous books and multiple great quotes. I have read most of his catalog, and I have cited him often in many of my quotes. One of his most famous, and one of my favorites is:

“Live and learn, or you don’t live long.”

This is especially true in business. If you haven’t learned from your previous experiences, you probably aren’t going to get the chance to have any experiences in the future.

But how much is that experience worth in business? By just being around for a while, chances are that you are also going to experience salary growth. Yearly reviews, pay raises and inflation are an ingrained part of the business compensation structure. The longer that you are around, usually the more you end up costing the company.

Also, in today’s organizations it is reasonably well documented that management would prefer specific subject matter experts as opposed to very broad experiential histories. Again, that means that the longer you are around, the higher the probability that you are going to be associated with a specific business, technology, and capability set.

But what happens when the baseline business or technology changes? Strategic directions change. Digital has replaced analog. Wireless has replaced wire. Optical has replaced copper. Unleaded has replaced leaded. Transistors have replaced tubes. Fuel injection has replaced carburetors. The list obviously goes on and on.

It is not uncommon for relatively more experienced, and expensive people to be associated with what was once but may no longer be viewed as strategic businesses within an organization. In instances such as this, the opportunities for advancement can dwindle, and in the longer term so can the opportunity for employment.

So, what can be done to prepare and avoid such issues? How do you stay relevant in the face of ongoing change?

My suggestion for the first step in maintaining relevance is to understand the current environment. Employment is now a cost – benefit, or value proposition. As long as it is perceived that you are delivering more value to the business than you are costing it, chances are that things will continue.

That would mean that the correlation to the idea that the longer you are around, the more you probably will be making, is that as time passes it is probably expected that you need to be generating greater value. This is usually much easier said than done. It also means that if time is passing, and you are remaining in the same role, that it becomes more and more difficult to be perceived as generating greater value.

Value is normally associated with orders, revenue, costs and earnings. Understanding your relationship with, and ability to quantify your effect on these topics will go a long way toward defining your value. The weaker your relationship with these key metrics, the more tenuous your value proposition may be viewed.

The second step is to align more with a specific business function or discipline, and not so much with a specific business unit or specific product set or technology. Accountants, Financial Managers, Sales Staff, Project Managers, etc., can usually ply their trades across different industries and business units. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to move from one industry to another. It merely reduces some of the perceived barriers that will normally be erected when someone is experienced in one industry and not another.

Next, as Heinlein said, if you are not learning, you are probably not going to be around for long. Take courses. Take training. Most companies have training programs to help increase both the depth of knowledge in specific disciplines, as well as programs to support external trainings and certifications. Use them.

If you are planning on being around for a while, it will be expected that you will have to know more in order to maintain your employment value proposition. Learn about other technologies and disciplines. Understand and become more conversant in the process and project orientation that most businesses are currently in.

Finally, it is incumbent on you to challenge both yourself and the organization by demonstrating your willingness and ability to move out of your comfort zone, or area of expertise, and take on new roles. Most of the time no one will come looking for you to take on a new role. You must step up, and out on that proverbial limb and make the first move.

Otherwise it will probably be assumed that you are content where you are, and there you will get to stay. Until something changes.

This approach requires an active awareness and participation. Businesses will normally present you with the opportunity to learn many diverse topics, disciplines and technologies. They will also usually present you with the opportunity to at least try to move into something else. It is up to you to search them out and take advantage of them. Very few companies require you to take courses to stay abreast of new trends within business. Fewer still will actively try to reposition you into new strategic product and businesses.

These are some things that you have to do.

It takes extra time. It involves extra effort. It requires your own initiative.

Otherwise you may be risking your relevance expecting the things you have been doing to be as important, and relevant, to the business in the future as they are today.

C.O.T.S.

It has long been known that just about everyone thinks that they can build a better mouse trap. Indeed, several in fact have. That is where innovation comes from. By building something better than what currently exists, a competitive advantage is created. It is usually a short-lived advantage as there are many others that are always also trying to innovate as well, who will either copy, or actually improve on the new design.

Add to this, the question of whether you should actually make your own better mouse trap, or buy someone else’s better mouse trap, and you have the makings for a reasonably spirited discussion. Remember, not everyone is in the same mouse trap business. So, do you invest in developing your own, or do you just go out and buy somebody else’s, already complete? However, when it comes to your own business systems, processes and tools, the decision should be very simple.

Unless you are in the tool and system business, never, ever, ever make your own tools and systems.

The tools and systems within an organization usually fall under the purview of the Information Technologies (IT) group (or some derivative thereof). The IT group can be staffed with some of the finest and brightest people in the organization. But everyone must remember, that unless you are in the IT services, tools and application development business, that is not the business that the organization as a whole is in. IT is then not directly associated with the products and services that the company positions as best in class and sell to its customers. It doesn’t develop them. It doesn’t sell them.

If IT based tools and systems are not the organization’s prime business, then investing in their custom development should never make sense. IT should then be treated as an administrative expense that is required to be spent in order for the organization to maximally leverage the available technology in the pursuit of its business goals, not a tools and systems development organization.

With this definition and positioning of IT in mind, I’ll now delve into the issues that almost every organization now faces when it comes to leveraging available technologies and how to be more efficient at it.

Over (a long) time I have had the opportunity to witness several different businesses and organizations try to utilize their product development capabilities to develop what has come to be known a “Multi-Tool Product”. This is a product that is supposed to do everything. It is designed to be all things to all customers. Instead of buying four different devices to serve four different purposes, you can buy one device to do all four.

And every time I have witnessed this type of product development attempt, I have witnessed what can best be described as failure, and worst described as abject failure.

There are two primary reasons for this type of Development failure:
1. The time and expense associated with this type of development is always, always much longer, much more complicated and much more expensive than ever budgeted or even imagined.
2. The functionality of the multi-tool product is never, ever good enough, nor delivers enough value to unseat the individual discrete products that it is competing against.

I like to tell the story of attending a multi-tool product development review some many years ago. The review was opened by the product manager stating that it had been eight weeks since our last formal review, and that unfortunately due to unforeseen development complexities, product availability had slipped twelve weeks in that time.

I commented that since it seemed that we were now falling behind faster than time was passing, that the only logical thing to do was cease development now so as to fall no further behind.

I was never invited back to another one of those product reviews.

The product however, was never completed nor released. It was quietly shelved many months, and millions of dollars later.

As to multi-tool product functionality. It may be time for another Gobeli Postulate on Product Development. It goes:

1. A product that is purported to be able to do everything, will do nothing very well.

Individually developed products are each optimized for value and performance. They are targeted at being the “best in class”. Multi-tool products by their very structures cannot match this. Each individual capability in a multi-tool product must carry the product cost and functionality overhead of every other capability in the multi-tool product.

This is equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife example. It may have a knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors, but none of those attributes are as good in comparison to a separate standalone knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors. And you must pay the added expense of the housing and overhead that is required to combine them all into one device. Invariably the four different best of breed items can be bought for less than the single, less functionally capable multi-tool product.

Okay, so what has all this got to do with IT?

Part of the average IT group’s responsibility is to create / select tools that will enhance the systems and automation of the business organization, their customers. It must be remembered that IT is a support group. They exist to provide functionality to the business.

This is contrary to some IT departments I have witnessed who appeared to believe the business existed in order to fund them.

Most internal (not out-sourced) IT tools groups think that they can create tools, capabilities and applications that are far better than what can be purchased in the market. They believe this due to their increased knowledge and proximity to their very business specific support needs. It is their focus to create tools and systems that deliver ever greater functionality and capability to an ever-greater number of people.

In short, they believe they can create better Multi-tools.

This is not always the case, but I think we can all probably remember instances where a perfectly functional and eminently usable tool was replaced in the name of “integration” by a tool that had greater integration with other systems, but lower functionality than the tool it replaced.

So here is where we get to the Title of this article: C.O.T.S. – Commercial Off The Shelf.

“Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, without the need to commission custom-made, … solutions … Although COTS products can be used out of the box, in practice the COTS product must be configured to achieve the needs of the business and integrated to existing organizational systems.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_off-the-shelf

Please take note of the word “configured” in the above definition. It does not say “customized”. IT provided tools and systems should be configurable to handle multiple applications across different business groups. They should not be customized into different discrete tools to address each group.

There are organizations in existence whose business model is to create tools for other companies and organizations. In order for them to grow and flourish they must create best in breed tools for their specific applications. They cannot create all the tools. Only those types of tools that they are experts in.

That means that in order to get a full suite of tools to address all the business needs of the organization that the IT group serves, they will need to deal with multiple tool supplying organizations.

IT is usually a technology oriented group. External tool providing companies will usually provide tools much faster, better, cheaper and with greater functionality than anything that an internal tools group could create. However, working and negotiating with external businesses is not very technical in nature, which is somewhat out of alignment with the desired direction of most IT Tools groups.

They want to create and develop. Not negotiate and buy.

Many companies have created their competitive advantage by developing their own “better mouse trap”. This self-reliant development mentality can easily bleed over into the IT group when it comes to the tools and systems. Senior management can also be receptive to the IT tool and system development siren song, since that is how they were able to achieve success as a business.

However, management needs to remember that regardless of what they may think, or be told by IT, their business systems and tools needs are probably not so unique as to require custom tool development, but more likely just need the proper configuration of a C.O.T.S., best in breed, already available tool or system. This solution direction will invariably lead to simpler and faster implementations, as well as a lower cost of ownership and sustainment across the commercial life time of the tool.

IT will almost always be the owner of the make / buy analysis when it comes to tools. Building your own multi-tools will almost always be a slower, more expensive and lower functionality alternative to buying C.O.T.S., regardless of what the IT tool development group may want or think. Especially if your business is not the tool and system business.

Détente in the Organization

As the matrix organizational structure continues to flourish, where organizations are structured according to business disciplines and processes rule on how these organizations interact, tension is bound to build between these organizational states. Product groups will always believe that they know how best a product should be sold. Finance teams will always think that they are the only ones who will care about the profitability of a deal. Sales will always have to deal with ever more aggressive competitors, and ever more demanding customers, as they try to translate these requirements into something the product and finance groups (and others) can act on and agree with. Trust between these groups when associated with the new business process will be key to the success of the organization going forward.

So, how do you deal with the tension between these organizational groups? History has shown that détente, as practiced between the United States and the USSR during the cold war has probably found its way into the organizational environment.

Détente (a French word meaning release from tension) is the name given to a period of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that began tentatively in 1971 …https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/detente

The relaxation of strained relations or tensions https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/d%C3%A9tente

While the Soviet Union (in that manifestation) no longer exists, it would appear that Détente still has a place in the current organizational discussions, at least when it comes to discussions associated with matrix organizations and how they interact. That being in how these organizations can decrease the tensions that invariably arise when they are working with each other, sometimes at cross purposes, in the pursuit of their business objectives.

This is just a nice way of introducing the idea of how do you get disparate organizations to work together towards the overall business goals. In the perfect world these organizations would all be altruistic, focus on the business’ greater good and trust each other as they worked together according the latest management process. Unfortunately, none of us resides in a perfect world.

To continue the political allegory a little farther (to possibly foolish extremes, but since I am already in this deep…) this can result in inter-organizational relationships (as noted above) that can be best described as resembling those of the participants of the “cold war”. That being somewhat distrusting and antagonistic, but not so openly as to flare into open warfare.

Although the start of détente has been attributed to President Nixon in the 1970’s, it arguably hit its peak in the 1980’s with president Reagan. As the two world powers searched for a way to work together toward nuclear arms reductions, Reagan is credited with the immortal phrase:

“Trust, but verify”

Suzanne Massie, a writer in Russia, met with President Ronald Reagan many times between 1984 and 1987. She taught him the Russian proverb, “Доверяй, но проверяй” {Doveryai, no proveryai} (trust, but verify) advising him that “The Russians like to talk in proverbs. It would be nice of you to know a few.” The proverb was adopted as a signature phrase by Reagan, who subsequently used it frequently when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Using proverbs that the Russians could relate to may have helped relations between the two leaders.

Reagan used the phrase to emphasize “the extensive verification procedures that would enable both sides to monitor compliance with the treaty”, at the signing of the INF Treaty, on 8 December 1987.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust,_but_verify

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) is the abbreviated name of the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermediate-Range_Nuclear_Forces_Treaty

Now, “extensive verification procedures…” are very good if you are talking about global nuclear weapons reductions. I for one, am all in favor of it in this instance. The easing of tensions and the reduction in nuclear arms are “good things” as Martha Stewart is apt to say. The significant cost of these verifications when measured against the global good generated by the agreements and conduct of the participants would seem to be a significant value.

However, when we are talking about inter-organizational tensions in business, how do you trust but verify?

Matrix organizational structures, and their accompanying processes were put in place to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Each group was to be responsible for the application of their discipline specific expertise, and then hand off the process to the next organization. An almost production line capability was envisioned where efficiency would rule. These inter-organizational tensions were never taken into account. So, what has occurred?

As I noted earlier, each business organization associated with a process has relinquished ownership and control for all associated activities outside of their specific disciplines. This means that the product group that feels that it knows best how to make sure the product is properly sold, has no real direct responsibility or authority for the sale of its product. This obviously creates tension between the sales group and the product group.

How do they create detente out of this situation?

The answer that seems to have evolved with the “trust, but verify” aspect of the relationship. Most product group organizations have responded to the trust issue by creating a product group owned organization that is responsible for “helping” or supporting the sales group in the proper sale of the product. They bring aspects of the product group to the sales team, and provide communication from the sales team to the product group. They in essence handle the process hand-off from the product team to the sales team.

The other actual function of these sub-group organizations is to trust the sales group in the sale of the product, but also to verify that they are in fact selling the product, and selling the product properly (at appropriate margins, with accurate and deliverable functionality, etc.), in the manner the product group might prefer.

The product group (in this example) is not the only discipline to have created an inter-discipline “support” team. These inter-organization hand-off groups have a tendency to spring up at almost every inter-organization interface in the matrix business process. A structure and process that was thought of and designed to increase efficiency and reduce costs has now given way to a whole new set of incremental organizational structures designed to make sure that those “other” groups are in fact doing the job that they were envisioned and supposed to do when the matrix structure was adopted.

Inter-organizational détente has been achieved, but at what cost?

Have the efficiencies that were to be gained by going to a discipline structured matrix organization with defined processes and hand-offs been lost due to the proliferation of these inter-organizational “support” groups? Has the “Trust, but Verify” doctrine created the need for every business organization to create groups that are designed to understand and interface into every other business organization, for the purpose of verifying that the other groups are in fact doing what they are responsible for doing? Doesn’t all this seem to violate the idea of efficiency and cost reduction that drove the matrix structure in the first place.

The cold war, and détente ended when one of the powers involved started to crumble under the weight of the structure that they had imposed. In the 1980’s the Soviet leadership tried to introduce reforms that would allow their system and structure to adapt to the new realities of the fast-changing world. These new structures and adaptations did not enable the soviet system to adapt, but instead ended up further precipitating its downfall.

… In November of that year (1989), the Berlin Wall–the most visible symbol of the decades-long Cold War–was finally destroyed, just over two years after Reagan had challenged the Soviet premier in a speech at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” By 1991, the Soviet Union itself had fallen apart. The Cold War was over.  https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history

It appears that sometimes the idea of an organizational structure can be much better than the reality of it application. When the concept and reality don’t quite mesh, the first impulse seems to be to try to increment and adapt the structure to get closer to what is called for. This seems to be something of a delaying tactic for what is usually the inevitable outcome.

A structure can be imposed by management with the idea of better progress and efficiency for all. As incremental structures are added to deal with the true business environment, the entire “weight” of the organizational structure begins to be strained. Many of the expected efficiencies associated with the matrix structure organization would appear to have been lost due to the growth of the many hand-off and verification groups that have sprung up to deal with both the process, and human nature.

Détente, and trust, but verify, are excellent historical applications associated with the difficult relationship between global nuclear powers. I think when you can start seeing the parallels associated with these concepts within the difficult relationships between business organizations, that there may be some inherent challenges associated with the organizational structure. After all, the result of the application of these ideas was the verifiable dissolution of one of the global participants and the changing of their organizational model completely.

Transformation

Oh, how I long for the days when all we had to worry about was change. We didn’t know or worry about what it was we were changing into. We just knew it was going to be new and different, and hence better than what we currently were. Somewhere along the way, the way we changed, changed on us. Soon we had a changing rate of change in the way we changed. Eventually it was all just considered small change.

Now a days, no one changes. Change is so last century. Change is so passé. Change has changed, yet again. Today, changing is no longer good enough.

Instead of changing, you must now transform.

I think this is now the appropriate time to understand the vast difference in the definitions of these business terms. To the dictionary:

change
CHānj/

Verb: change;
1. make or become different.
“a proposal to change the law”
2. take or use another instead of.
“she decided to change her name”

Noun: change;
1. the act or instance of making or becoming different.
“the change from a nomadic to an agricultural society”
2. coins as opposed to paper currency.
“a handful of loose change”

In case you were wondering, I think I was able to use every one of those change definitions in some way, in the first paragraph. On the other hand:

trans·form
tran(t)sˈfôrm/

Verb: transform;
1. make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.
“lasers have transformed cardiac surgery”

Mathematics Linguistics
Noun: transform;
1. the product of a transformation.
a rule for making a transformation.

(In case any of you are wondering about this mathematic definition for transform, in physics, the Lorentz transforms are coordinate transformations between two coordinate frames that move at constant velocity relative to each other. This is the kind of stuff you learn in any basic mechanics class in physics.)

There you have it.

A change is just a change, but a transformation is a thorough and dramatic change.

I’m glad I was able to clear that up. I like to leave my readers enriched for having read my posts, and this little nugget alone is probably worth the time spent reading, at least up to this point.

Below are a pair of Google based graphs of the use of the words “Change” and “Transform” over time. (I didn’t realize that Google had a function like this, but I think it is pretty neat, and will probably use it again in the future.) As you can see, the use and popularity of “Transform” has grown rapidly in recent times. I attribute this (although I have no way to directly measure it, but based on the nominal usage that of “transform” that I hear, I would believe it to be true) to the vast increase in the use of the word “Transform” in all written documents, articles, presentations, etc., etc., etc. associated with business in the last few years.

And as you can also see “Change” has been a generally more widely used term (with some recent growth – probably due to the number of people looking up and defining the difference between “Change” and “Transform”) until recently, where “Transform” appears to now be the more preferred descriptor (at least when it comes to business).

Change

Transform

One thing that can said about business: When it finds a new term that it likes, it will definitely over-use it.

Despite the similarity of the definitions, I do think that there may be some subtle differences in the connotations that each word evokes. Change, at least to me, speaks of moving from what you are, into some as yet undefined state. As I noted earlier, you may not know exactly what the change will entail, or what the end state of the change is, but you do know it will be different.

Transformation, again at least to me, speaks of moving to a little more defined end state. There is a target and a method to the change, or at least there should be. It implies that the target result of the thorough change is known and the while the required steps to get there may not be fully defined, at least the end state is.

Or at least it should be. The key is always going to be trying to convince those that you want to transform that you really do have an idea of what you want them to transform into, as well as plans for the steps to get there.

Knowing what you want to transform to, but not knowing how to get there, would seem to be only slightly better, if at all, than knowing and expecting to change, but not knowing what it is you will become.

Wow, I think I may have just propellered off into existentialism on that last discussion of change and transformation.

However, this discussion could help answer the question: When do you Transform, and when do you merely Change? I think the answer lies closer to the idea that you transform when you have an idea about what you want to become. You transform from an analog to a digital company. You transform to a cloud based solution.

It just doesn’t have the same ring, or gravitas to say you are changing to a digital company, or you are changing to a cloud based solution.

You change in response to a stimulus acting on a business. You transform in anticipation of the stimulus acting on the business.

I went and searched on the keys to changing. Aside from a lot of musical notation associated with when to use the tonic and how to change keys, most of the statements associated with change centered on two words: Courage and Fear. The courage to change and the conquering of the fear of change.

Perhaps that is the reason for the current popularity associated with Transform instead of change. People seem to need Courage to change, while I don’t nearly so associate Transformation as a courage requiring activity. People need to conquer their fear of change as a prerequisite to a successful change. Again, it would seem that the connotation of transformation does not invoke nearly as much fear in the participants.

It would seem that Transform is now the public relations equivalent of Change. More of a kinder, gentler version of change. It has all of the good aspects of change and not nearly so much of the bad. It would seem that changing (or transforming, if you prefer) “Change” to “Transform” is much along the same lines as when the United States Federal government changed (or transformed) the Department of War into the Department of Defense in 1949.

It functions much the same, but it just sounds better.

Again, perhaps because transformation implies a more directed process and end result, where change appears to be a little more undefined and open ended. And few in business like to be the one that is the first to venture into an as yet open ended and undefined future.