Category Archives: Change Management

Looking a Little Farther Ahead

I almost got hit by a truck the other day driving home from golf. Now a lot of you may be wondering what that kind of statement has to do with the nominal topics of business management and sales that I usually deal with here. I’ll get to that in a minute. For those of you that live here in Texas, you know that the word “truck” can cover a lot of territory. Everything from a go-kart with a toy wagon bed welded on, to a Peterbilt cab-over semi tractor-trailer. In this case I’m pretty sure that it was a Dodge Ram 2500 Crew Cab since the badging was at eye height as I looked out the window at it. In Texas, this qualifies as a “standard” sized truck. Anything smaller and you’re considered either a poser or a city-boy. Still, it outweighed my full-sized car by close to a ton.

Driving on the freeways in Dallas can usually best be described as a cross between bumper cars and playing a game of “chicken” at seventy miles an hour. As long as everybody abides by the same rules and speed, traffic seems to flow along reasonably, bumper to bumper at seventy miles an hour with a minimum of bad language and hand gestures.

However, occasionally there are those that appear to be unfamiliar with the freeway rules of the road, and opt for what I am sure they feel is a little more intelligently safer speed when changing lanes or taking exit ramps, and other such things. They also usually use their turn signals when performing these maneuvers, and equally importantly, turn off their turn signals when they are done. These people are easy to identify in that they usually have a very long line of impatient drivers behind them.

In this case, I was the then last car in such a line of several cars behind one of these drivers, as we all were taking an off-ramp which connected one high-speed freeway to another.

This position is the most feared position in all of Texas driving. You are going slower than everyone behind you, with little to no options of avoidance in front of, or to the side of you. You have a tendency to watch your rear-view mirror rather closely in such situations.

The SUV immediately behind me was a little slow on the recognition of the situation, but was still able to slow down and pull over to the left side of the ramp, but remained behind me. This maneuver on their part took them out of harm’s way and still left me fully exposed. The truck in question behind them however, did not seem to be as alert to the situation.

Did you know that even though they do not cause the loud, wailing skids that we are all accustomed to on television, you can still hear anti-lock brakes as they try to stop a large truck coming toward you? It’s sort of a staccato noise as the brakes bite and release as they avoid the skid. It is not something you really want to hear as it gets louder or closer.

At the last moment before hitting me, the driver of the truck swerved up over the curb on the ramp to the right of me. His truck came to a stop alongside my car, where as I noted earlier, I could very clearly see its name and size outside my passenger side window.

As traffic started to resume speed, I went ahead and let him pass me on the right. This is not usual protocol for Texas driving, but in light of the circumstances, I felt an exception might be in order. After a moment’s hesitation, the truck drove off and my journey home resumed.

So, here is where the business lesson for this event comes into play.

Most of the time we are all focused on what we are doing at that particular time. We are minding our own business. We are focused on our deliverables. We are paying attention to our deadlines. We have our own worries.

Occasionally we look up to see what the next step is. We have a process. We are preparing for what we must do next. We are looking ahead, but only at what comes next. We are aware that there are other factors that are coming into play. We are in effect checking the car in front of us.

For the most part, this approach will keep you out of most of the trouble that is out there. However, there will come a time when the expected events will not occur. The situation will present itself with alarming speed.

In other words, you could find yourself driving along in your big Texas truck, minding your own business, when suddenly the car directly in front of you dodges out of the way and you find yourself presented with the opportunity to smash into me from behind.

It’s not enough to only be aware of what you are doing and what those immediately around you are doing. On occasion, you need to be looking up and checking the horizon. What is coming into view? What are the competitors doing? Are they adding or deleting resources? What are the customers doing? Are they buying and spending, or are they delaying purchases? What are the analysts saying about the market in general and the company in particular?

Are there multiple cars up ahead with their brake lights on, and should you be prepared to, or possibly already be in the process of slowing down?

The combination of the increased reliance on process, along with the seemingly continuous growth in the reverence for the corporate fire fighter when the process fails, does not seem to mesh with this anticipatory approach to things. Processes have been implemented for the most part to reduce the reliance on this kind of judgement. It almost seems that the corporate fire fighter has been integrated into the process for those times when the process breaks down.

Sort of a “In case of Fire, Break Glass” kind of thing.

The lanes in business continue to be further refined by process. Dotted lines become solid lines, become multiple solid lines, become fixed dividers. If you don’t believe this to be the case, just look at any inter-organizational process flow chart.

It is very easy to focus solely on what you are doing. To perform your function in the process. The organizational structure and incentives now focus on that type of professional behavior. And for the most part, things can and do go relatively smoothly. Until they don’t.

Inevitably someone will miss a step, or improperly hand-off an incomplete work project, and things will unexpectedly slow down. Customers may decide to postpone their next purchase and wait for the next generation of product. Competitors may introduce new technology ahead of when it was expected. Foreign competitors may decide to instigate a new competitive approach based on price.

Processes are resistant to change, and will take time to adapt. They don’t come with anti-lock brakes. They have an inherent amount of momentum associated with them. Just like a speeding full sized, crew cab Texas truck. It’s not enough to be performing your operational duties in a vacuum. You need to be looking forward at the traffic and events in front of you.

Markets don’t provide plenty of warning when they are going to change. Customers rarely tell you when they are going to slow down or stop buying altogether. Companies usually don’t give you a pre-notice when they are going to have to react to the changes in customer and market status.

Looking out, looking forward, anticipating the changes in the business environment are still key to navigating in business. Processes are helpful in simplifying the immediate and making it somewhat more predictable, but it is still your responsibility to be anticipating those future needs and directions that the business environment will present you.

Now if I could just get the people in those large trucks when they following me to do that a little better.

The Five Stages of Change…..and Grief

A friend of mine asked me to look over a document that he was going to issue to his most prized customers. He wanted to prepare them on how he saw things were going to change in the coming (if not already here) digital world. I was flattered. Normally the only people who ask for my opinion are some of my myopic golf buddies when they are having trouble reading a putt. My friend wanted to make sure that his message was not viewed as just another document to be scanned and thrown on the pile of other documents his customers read. As usual, this got me to thinking about how we can relate to and react to the now inevitably changing processes, as they continue to barrel down the tracks at us.

As is also usual I first went out and looked around to see if there was anything written on the five stages of change. I wanted to know if I was capturing some original thought or possibly just rehashing something that someone else had already said. It was with only a modicum of surprise that I did indeed fine information on the five stages of change. According to the article I found, the five stages of change are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance. I correctly assumed that anything that includes both precontemplation and contemplation in its description is somehow academic in nature and not fully business oriented. You too can see this at:

I have never really encountered “precontemplation” in a business environment, but I will now be on the lookout for it. Most of the time I am both surprised and thrilled if I run across anything that even resembles contemplation, let alone precontemplation. For those of you wondering what precontemplation is, it is the point in time when people are not even considering (contemplating) change.

I had to look it up because I didn’t know either.

The five stages of change that I want to deal with are a little more basic and deal more with the human factor associated with change. They are, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some of you may recognize these five stages of change also as the five stages of Grief. Since there is very little in business these days that causes more grief than change, I think that they are most appropriate.

I have had the opportunity to be a change agent in several different roles for several different organizations. I have found that the two primary reasons that businesses need to change are: The business is doing well and it is anticipated that the market will require the change, or, the business is not doing well and the change is required by the market if the performance is to improve.

Pretty simple, huh?

In either instance, you are almost guaranteed that the universal initial response by those who must change will be denial. They are already doing everything in accordance with both their objectives and the existing process. It will be others who must change, not them. And they are usually at least partially correct. However, I have found that the proper response to such a denial is that others will also change, not just them.

Denial can be one of the longest lasting stages of the change process. Too many times change is seen as an invalidation of what the business has been doing. This not and should not be the case. All business environments are dynamic. Change is an inevitable requirement.

I promised myself that I would try to avoid platitudes of that type. I guess I will continue to try and promise myself that after that last statement.

The next stage in the change process is anger. If denial is not the longest stage of the process, then anger is. When people are made to do something that they don’t particularly want to do, they do tend to get emotional and this usually translates to a little angry. They can also perhaps be a little angry that they were not the ones that recognized the necessity of the change, or that they were not the ones that proposed the change, or even perhaps that the change occurred on a Tuesday as opposed to a Monday or Wednesday.

The idea here is that the response to change can be emotional. And the first rule of dealing with an emotional response is to not get emotional in return. Understand why the response is present, but don’t slow down or alter course.

So now everyone is denying that a change is necessary, and they are now also angry that you are not paying attention to their denials. What’s next?

Bargaining is next. This is an interesting stage in the change-grief process. It denotes the understanding that some change is going to occur. It is also the beginning of the internalization process for that change. It is the methodology by which people begin to take ownership of the change.

It is always good to engage in the change-bargaining process because no one has a corner on the market for good ideas. You never know where the next one will be coming from. Listening to the team that is preparing to change is always beneficial. There is one thing to remember though:

It is not a negotiation.

There may be pieces and parts of proposals that can and should be incorporated into the change process, and there may be those that may best be ignored. Most organizations will not change of their own volition. It takes someone to change them. And it will take will power to overcome the inherent resistance to the desired change.

Once the bargaining is done, along with all the associated renting of clothing, gnashing of teeth and general keening, there is usually a quiet period. This is where the depressing truth of the pending change sets in. It’s going to happen. People will have to change the way they do things. There may even be pending changes to the people themselves.

It will be up to the change leadership to do two primary activities during this period. The first is to make sure that the period between the acknowledgement of the pending change and the actual implementation of it is minimized. It is up to the leader to keep this stage of the change process as short as possible. They need to minimize the length of this negative effect.

The second is to continuously communicate with the changing team during this time and process. Over communicate. Be visible. The change leader must assume the responsibility for moving the team, not just the process, forward at this time.

Finally, if everything has gone right, and the implementation of the change has begun, there should be the final stage of the change-grief process: acceptance. And as with almost every other stage in this process, there will be varying levels of acceptance. Some will embrace the change and move forward with it, and some will begrudgingly go along with it. The only way to make sure that all are on the same page is to take one more additional step.


What was the reason for the change? Why was everyone put through the grief inducing process? What was the outcome of the system before the change as opposed to the now current outcomes?

In short, show the team what the benefit of the change was. Look at the business performance before and after. Document what is was before, what the implemented change was and what the performance is after.

The idea is to close off the change-grief process with a review that (hopefully) shows that all the effort was in fact worth it to the business. Having a final review of what was the situation and performance before the change and what the new baseline is after the change closes the loop with the team that has gone through the change.

There is no doubt that change induces grief into an organization. Even the prospect of change can and will generate grief. I think that organizations might have a little better response to change if they focused more on dealing with it as grief instead of just change. While the idea of change has its own connotations, it does not engender the appropriate management response. Change is almost an intellectual concept.

Dealing with the organizational upset generated by change from a grief point of view enables management to understand more of the human response and emotion that is created. After all we like to think of change on organizational levels, but it is really on the human level within the organization that the meaningful changes actually take place.

The End of Maintenance

Service used to be a distinguishing characteristic for a company. You wanted to be known as a great service company. If you were good at it, service was also a pretty profitable way to augment both the top and bottom lines. But that was before customers figured out that they could make do with lower levels of service. Excellent service is now too expensive, and barely acceptable service has become good enough. There are many forces at work in the market, and I think they all point toward the end of maintenance as a viable service or business.

Almost all products come with some sort of maintenance agreement to start. It is normally referred to as the manufacturer’s warranty. This is the period of time after the purchase of the product that the manufacturer guarantees that the product will work. The length of this guarantee can vary and depends on several things.

The age of the technology involved, the stability of the market, the relative dominance of the consumer or the vendor in the market, and the speed with which new technologies or substitutable products are introduced, can all be factors effecting the length of the product guarantee.

Automobiles are a baseline technology that has been around for more than one hundred years. They may be becoming more complex, but their basic components still include engines, seats, wheels and the other basics. One manufacturer’s automobile is readily substitutable for another. Warranties on cars can now extend up to ten years. Manufacturers are now guaranteeing car operation for a decade. Research shows that few people actually own a specific car that long but the guarantee is there.

On the other end of the spectrum telephone companies used to require a twenty-year support guaranty from its suppliers for the products they purchased. It wasn’t initially expected that technology would change at the rate it has evolved to. High reliability and long product life cycles were the norm. Now the carriers can no longer pass along the cost of that type of product and its support to the consumers, so now much shorter product support guarantees are acceptable.

Apple has decided that the warranty on the iPhone will be one year. They have also decided that it is a limited warranty, meaning only certain service repairs will be covered, and that they may repair or replace a broken iPhone with potentially refurbished model or parts. They are Apple. If you want one of their iPhones this is what you get.

So, if the article is about maintenance, why am I spending so much time talking about warranty?

The answer is simple. Once your product comes off warranty you have basically two options for service: You can get a maintenance or extended warranty type contract, or you can hope that your product won’t break, and if it does break you can hope there will be someone out there that can fix it.

Or the third alternative will be that you can go out and buy another, or the next generation of product and then make use of the new product warranty.

I think it is safe to say that business used to be all about the best service possible. It then modified that perception and position by saying it was all about the best service at a reasonable price. It seems it is now more along the lines of the cheapest price for the lowest minimally acceptable service.

Products were engineered to the highest levels of reliability. They were not expected to break. When the product came off warranty customers were expected to purchase post warranty maintenance contracts, just in case something ever did go wrong, they would get the best support possible. Since the products were engineered so well, they didn’t break very often. Maintenance contracts were very profitable for most manufacturers.

It seems that something strange started to affect both ends of this arrangement. Manufacturers could not afford to make such reliable products in the new market. They didn’t have the time required to create them. And if they did, customers were not really interested in paying for them versus slightly less reliable, but much less expensive competitors.

There is a wireless carrier that has recognized this shift in preferences. They have a tag line that asks: “Our network reliability is within one percent of our competitor’s. Why would you pay them twice as much for only a one percent difference in reliability?”

On the other side of the relationship, customers decided that maybe reliability, while nice, wasn’t worth the premium they were paying for it. They started to examine their costs. One that obviously pops up is the high cost of maintenance. The drive started to reduce this cost.

Customers started looking a competitively provided maintenance solutions. Competitors realized that if products were reliable, they could sell maintenance cheaper than the manufacturer with relatively little risk, and still make money. In turn customers demanded that if the manufacturer was going to provide maintenance they would need to match or even better these competitive maintenance price levels.

The race to the bottom was now on.

The speed with which new products were introduced was increased. It would seem that the life cycle of products became ever shorter. Products were developed, introduced and then superseded by the next newer and improved version at an accelerated rate.

The reliability of new products diminished in accordance with the lower prices. As the life cycle, and more importantly the life expectancy of products reduced, they were no longer engineered to last a long time. It seems that they are now engineered to last only slightly longer than their warranty periods. After that, all bets are off.

Customers were more willing to accept reduced maintenance capabilities if they came at commensurately lower prices. It has often been said that we have evolved into a disposable society. What was once retained and repaired is now discarded and replaced. After all, with the new and improved version either already out, or on the cusp of availability, why would you want to repair the old one, when you can get the new one for close to, or possibly only slightly more than the repair price?

Why would you want to repair the old one, when you can get a new and improved one?

When a car comes off warranty it is six to ten years old. At this point in time it will be significantly depreciated in value. Chances are if it needs a repair it will be a significant investment verses the actual residual value of the older car. Probably better to get a new one.

When you buy your iPhone you get a year maintenance. Hopefully it will last just a little longer than that, but it doesn’t matter. The iPhone was released in 2007. There has been a new iteration of the iPhone released every year since then. And people line up every year in advance of the release to get some of the first new ones. Why would you want to fix your old iPhone when the cost of the repair represents a significant portion of the cost of just getting the next generational model?

This same approach is now finding its way into business as well. The demand for reduced maintenance costs by customers and the shorter product life cycles driven by competition are combining to eventually squeeze maintenance out of existence as a viable business for manufacturers.

It will probably become what would be called a “break – fix” type of environment. Customers will look for a warranty on a new product that is commensurate with its expected life cycle. They will probably have an extra one or two around as spares. If one breaks they will implement a spare and then do the cost benefit analysis of either getting the broken one repaired, or just buying a new one from the next generation of products.

It may take time for this apocalyptic vision of maintenance to come to pass, but I do think it is coming. The economics on both the vendor and consumer sides of the value equation are pushing it in this direction. Vendors won’t be able to afford the multiple generations of maintenance staff required by rapid product development and introduction. And customers will not be will to pay the costs of even reduced maintenance contracts if newer and more capable replacement products are rapidly and relatively inexpensively available.

I think we are heading to the point where the warranty and the life expectancy of a product are going to be very close to the same length. Any incremental life that can be squeezed out of any product beyond the warranty period will be looked at as an incremental unexpected benefit. Once the warranty expires, the break-watch will begin. If and when the product should happen to break (remember products will no longer be over engineered to last significant periods) the fix – replace decision will be made.

If it makes sense to repair it, it will be repaired. If it doesn’t make sense to repair it, it will be replaced. I just don’t think that we will see products continue to be under maintenance contracts in the future. Business probably needs to start planning for that eventuality now.

Organizational Chemotherapy

One of the most hackneyed, trite and stale topics to talk about in business is change. Of course that is all the more reason for me to talk about it. We all know we need to change. This is a given. I do not think there is one person out there that could not identify something associated with their occupation, or some aspect of what they do, that needs to be changed. If that is truly the case, I think the greater question associated with change is not what to change, but how and when to change it.

I recently read an article which featured a discussion with Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA basketball team and erstwhile member of the board on the television show “Shark Tank”. I am neither a particular fan of the Mavericks (I prefer the Dallas Stars hockey team), nor do I watch the Shark Tank, but I was intrigued by the article. Mark Cuban is known for speaking his mind quite often, or at least he appears to speak his mind quite often based on the media coverage he receives, and upon first blush this particular article didn’t seem to be any more important than any of the other myriad of times that he has chosen to speak up.

I guess I speak up quite often too, but since I neither own a professional sports franchise, or appear regularly on TV, there are not nearly as many media articles that cover what I have to say or write. Therefore, I seem to have to write my own.

I guess having a couple billion dollars can influence the media’s opinion of you. Go figure.

Mark Cuban, while appearing on CNN’s “New Day,” morning infotainment, talk show and celebrity-fest referred to President Donald Trump as “political chemotherapy” for the system. He then went on to explain the genesis of the term was from one of his “smart friends” who said:

“Mark, I’ve voted for politicians my entire life. Do you know what the definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So I voted for Donald Trump. Is he poisonous in a lot of respects? Yeah, this is out chemotherapy. We hope he’s going to change the political system. And if that’s the way you’re evaluating Donald Trump, he’s doing a phenomenal job.” (

I am in no way or form going to get into any discussions regarding politics or the relative values, or lack of values of any politician. I am merely interested in the term “political chemotherapy”.

Using this example, I would extend Cuban’s example to the professional environment in that when an organization or business continues to do the same thing and apply the same process over and over again, and does not seem capable of doing anything else, but continues on hoping for a different result, it would seem that it would also become time for what I would call organizational chemotherapy.

And indeed, we often see that this as the case when it is finally recognized that there is a need for a change of direction within the organizational system. This change usually comes in the form of a new business or business unit leader, usually from outside of the stricken organization, who is brought in. Since they are not beholden to, or vested in the existing processes or structures, it is their role and responsibility to be the change agent, much like chemotherapy, that changes the way the existing business system is operating.

I do not seek to minimize or reduce the hardship that people must go through when they are forced to endure chemotherapy. Everyone I have spoken to who has gone through it, and everything I have read about it indicates that it is as an unpleasant process to endure as can be imagined. Having to ingest a proscribed list of toxic and poisonous chemicals into one’s system on a regular basis for the purpose of eradicating items that if left unchecked will destroy the system, cannot be thought of in any sort of lighter terms.

I am however interested in the analogy that was drawn by Mark Cuban’s friend to the political process, and the similar analogy that can be drawn to the business process and organization.

It seems in both the political system, as well as in the business system, it sometimes takes the injection, or introduction of something that can best be described as a known toxin into the system to get the system to change. This usually occurs when it is recognized that if left unchecked the system can become, or may have already become somewhat compromised, and are unable to correct themselves. The inertia of the organizational and business process in these cases, once compromised are almost impossible to correct from inside the system.

Almost all business systems are risk averse. It doesn’t matter what the organization says. It doesn’t matter if the organization claims a culture that rewards risk. Almost all business processes are created to reduce risk. And one of the greatest perceived risks to business is change.

Change in business requires the system to do something it hasn’t done before. It can be small or it can be large. Regardless, it will be resisted. Over time the resistance to change will become ingrained into the system. The resistance to change can almost become a process unto itself. This point is usually achieved when the stakeholders in the status quo structures and processes have neither the authority or inclination to “buck the system”.

The perception in the organization evolves that the return for the risk of challenging the system is lower than the potential penalty for the continued less that optimal performance under the current methodologies.

This is the point in time for the organization, when it will probably take nothing less than business chemotherapy to force the system to change. There will probably be both good and bad effects associated with it. A stable if underperforming system will become at least temporarily unstable. There will be uncertainty and risk for the members of the organization as they must change what they do and adapt to the changes being imposed, or face exiting the system as part of the corrective solution.

One of the side effects of organizational chemotherapy is that like its sourcing namesake, it doesn’t specifically correct the system. It is actually designed to remove something that is detrimental to the system. While similar, they are in fact two distinctly different actions. It hopefully allows the treated system to return to its normal, more healthy performance level.

I think we have all seen high profile instances of organizational chemotherapy. I have actually lived through one, where a CEO was brought in specifically to change and remove a “good old boy” culture that was hampering the growth and evolution of the organization. It seemed he was successful beyond even the board of director’s expectations in that he seemed to alienate everyone including the board that hired him, and he genuinely seemed to enjoy those aspects of his role.

The issue was that once the culture had changed, there was not a new beneficial system and process available to put in place to replace the old one. The CEO knew how to remove what was unwanted, but did not know how to replace it with what was desired. The company began to falter and performance began to fail. The board then had to step in again and replace the chemotherapy agent with a new CEO who rapidly built back up a new culture based on merit and performance. The company then took off.

The progression was one of starting with an organizational system where performance was secondary to “who you knew” or were politically aligned with; to one where it was essentially toxic to be associated with the old system and regime, but again where performance was secondary; to one where performance and merit were moved to the forefront.

It took approximately three years from when the chemotherapy CEO was installed to when he was replaced. And this represented three distinct organizational systems and processes. It was also interesting that as the solution to the first cultural problem, he only knew how to remove the problem. He did not have the capability to implement the desired final solution for the organization. He focused on his strength which was to remove the undesirable aspects of the original organization. It took someone else with a different skill set to rebuild the new system.

Organizations have a tendency to want to drift into comfortable, known and reduced risk structures and processes. It takes careful stewardship and an eye on the future by the organizational leader to continue to drive a balance between acceptable risk, challenge and new directions, and the continued implementation of risk reducing processes and decisions.

Regardless of how hard an organization tries, it continues to be exceedingly difficult to violate or even change the Risk-Return economic equation. As an organization constrains itself with the drive to reduce risk, it also by necessity also reduces its related opportunity for gaining an acceptable return. Invariably the solution to this issue is for the organization to try and implement even more of the constraining systems and processes to address the new issues, which in turn creates even more organizational drag.

At some point it becomes apparent that a chemotherapy type solution will be required to change the self-defeating process constraints. As shown in the above example, organizational chemotherapy may solve the current problem, but it needs to be closely monitored, because correcting the current set of problems is in many instances not the same as creating the desired final solution and system.


I think ownership is an interesting concept. Early North American Indians did not have the concept of “ownership” as we know it when it came to the land they inhabited. That concept of ownership was brought to the then new world by the colonists who had a centuries-old concept and tradition regarding ownership. In general, they conceived of land as personal property to be used for the realization of economic and material gains. This seems to be the definition of ownership that has been perpetuated both down through time as well as throughout business. The single possible exception to this ownership concept in business can best be seen when there is a performance problem. Then it appears that like the early North American Indians, no one owns any of the land on which everyone is standing.

There is an ancient Indian proverb that goes:

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

I like this one as it nicely defines the stewardship responsibility that was felt. They didn’t own it, but they were responsible for taking care of it. It is admittedly a somewhat different variation on the concept of ownership but it was an important one. They didn’t own a piece of the Earth, but they were responsible for it on the whole.

In business, these days it more and more seems that if you do not directly own it, then you are not responsible for it. And just as importantly, it seems that if you don’t own it, you are not responsible for taking care of it. It looks like the concept of stewardship has been lost as we have matrixed and processed business organizations over time.

As we continue to look to decompose what were judged as complex business actions into ever more granular, simpler, repeatable activities to create our processes, we “own” ever smaller pieces of the whole. We no longer have ownership, stewardship or even responsibility for an issue or activity, but rather just a continually smaller piece of it.

It appears that the concept of “if one person being responsible for solving a problem is good, then multiple people trying to solve the same problem must be better” is now being applied. This has given rise to the now popular concept in business of multiple owners for the resolution of business and performance issues. This in turn has given rise to what I like to refer to in the following axiom:

“If there are multiple owners for the resolution of an issue, there is in fact no owner for the resolution of the issue.”

While everyone will be involved in the process used to hopefully resolve the issue, each participant will be primarily focused (and measured) on their specific aspect of the solution, not the overall performance. No one person will have the higher-level view required to change, modify or even remove any of the defined steps in the process. The result of this sort of an issue resolution structure can usually be seen in the progress report meetings.

You can tell the overall ownership of the issue resolution is lost when there are no “difficult” questions being asked in the progress report meetings. Each group will report on their specific area of responsibility, and as is usually the case, they will try to put their best foot forward in their report. And since no one reporting group wants to incite similar difficult questions to be asked of them, no difficult questions will be asked. The net result is the presenting of several reports detailing the high points of any of the several aspects of the issue, while the actual primary overall issue remains largely unimproved or unresolved.

A few examples of the issue resolution detachment can be easily shown. In a time when business profitability is the overall issue, it is usually each sub-organization’s position to show how their costs are either at, or slightly under their proposed budget levels. If every group is under budget on costs, then why is profitability an issue? It is obvious that the overall profitability problem is not their responsibility since they are well within their cost objective guidelines.

There can obviously be several causes for this issue. Increased competition causing either reduced market share (volume) or reduced prices in order to maintain the current volume are a couple of simple reasons that come quickly to mind. While each group’s costs may be in line with their budget, something else is causing the margins to miss as a whole.

An immediate focus should obviously be to see what can be done to increase the top line to help alleviate the margin issue. However, there must also be an overall owner of the margin issue who would also have the responsibility to challenge the various cost budget oriented groups to reduce their costs as an alternative action to help bring margins back into line, just in case increasing sales turns out to be more difficult than expected. Someone has to have the responsibility to say that in reduced margin times like these, meeting your cost budget isn’t good enough. Someone has to own the overall issue and have the ability to adjust the discreet aspects of the process, such as reducing component group cost budgets, in order to achieve the margin objective.

Taking this example the next step further, when looking at the sales process, the business development team may be generating all sorts of customer contacts, however for some reason these contacts may not resolving into the required volume of sales. Are the right types of contacts being generated? Have customer product preferences shifted? Are the correct markets being addressed? The list can obviously go on.

This is not going to be a discourse on Greek Philosophy, asking the Plato-esque question: If every aspect of the problem-solving process is being correctly administered, why isn’t the issue being correctly resolved? I tend to try to be a little more pragmatic. I usually follow a couple of very simple rules in situations like this:

The first is: If what you are doing is not generating the results you want, then you had better do something different. As simple as this sounds, it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement in an increasingly process driven organization. Change imputes risk and almost everyone is risk averse. That is the reason for the rise of the process. It is supposed to reduce the risk of change and variation in business.

I think we have all been in situations where whatever the approach that was being used was not working, but the prevailing feeling was that it would work the next time, so it was best not to change it. Einstein made reference to the sanity of these types of decisions. It seems that sometimes the fear of change is greater than the fear of continued failure.

The second is: If you want a problem solved, make sure someone is identified as the owner of the problem, has the responsibility of solving the problem and has the ability and authority to make the changes necessary to solve the problem. Someone has to be responsible to make a decision as to what must be done. When there is a committee in charge, there is safety in numbers and anonymity when it comes to issue resolution.

Issue resolution is about leadership. If there is a business performance issue, that means that whatever is being done is not working and must be changed. Experience has shown that change does not occur spontaneously. It must be led; otherwise organizational momentum will mitigate any group change effort.

I don’t think leaders shy away from issue ownership. On the contrary I think leaders look at issues as opportunities to improve the business. It seems that the process driven organization may be slightly at odds with a leadership oriented organization in that it holds the process responsible for success and not the leader. Processes are at their best when variations are minimized.

Unfortunately, when organizational performance is lacking it is an operational variation or change that must be called for in order to generate the desired variation or change in performance. It is at that time that a leader is needed to own the issue, instead of a process.

A Soundtrack for Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Acquired Taste

Chances are that if you work long enough for companies in the public domain you are going to get to participate in either the acquiring of another company, or the being acquired by another company. Acquisitions and divestitures are a fact of life in the business world today. Companies continue to grow and change and acquisition and divestiture are one of the fastest ways to rapidly remake an organization. Having already been through a few of these types of management and organizational changes in past lives, it is very clear that both the change itself, and the time anticipating and leading up to the change can be a challenge to your leadership capabilities, not to mention your sanity to try and get through.

There are all sorts of trite adages and sayings regarding change that can be inserted here. I’ll leave to everyone to insert the one that they are most comfortable with. The bottom line here is that when there is an acquisition, you truly have a change.

No matter how much due diligence the acquiring company has done, they cannot be aware of all the capabilities and the people that make up the organization that they are acquiring. And no matter how much communication the acquired organization provides its staff, and no matter how much research has been done on the acquiring organization, no one can be fully prepared for the new management philosophy and new management structure that will be imposed after the acquisition.

Divestitures and acquisitions are interesting phenomena in that there are a disproportionately large number of people being affected by the change, with only a disproportionately very few who actually have any sort of input to or affect on the change itself. So, everybody ends up worrying about the coming change, but there are very few, if any who actually can do anything about it. The fact that they can’t do anything about the change doesn’t stop people from focusing on it almost to the point of total distraction.

Reinhold Niebuhr seems to be the source of the quote that everyone uses in times like these. Oddly enough it is known as the “Serenity Prayer” and it goes:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I actually like this starting point, so I’m going to look at it in application to a business acquisition or divestiture.

Unless your organizational title begins with the word “Chief” and ends with word “Officer” chances are that you are probably not going to be consulted about any corporate acquisition or divestiture. It may be hard to believe but it seems that there are any number of individuals within an organization that feel this is truly some sort of mistake or oversight.

It’s not.

Unless an individual has the wherewithal to rapidly assemble another, competing acquisition or divestiture bid from another corporate entity or capital fund, this is the way it is going to stay. They are not going to ask for everyone’s, or possibly anyone’s opinion. The acquisition or divestiture is not going to be changed. This is where that “Serenity” portion of the prayer comes into play.

As difficult as it sounds, leaders cannot afford to spend time (read: waste time) worrying about the outcome of the acquisition. They need to remain focused on the achievement of their and the teams goals. At this point the team’s responsibility isn’t changing. Further the leader needs to keep the team as a whole, as well as the specific individuals within the team focused on their objectives as well. It is not an entirely easy thing to do.

This is where the “Courage” portion of the prayer comes into play.

As part of any acquisition or divestiture, decisions regarding who will be a leader in the resulting new organization and who will not, are going to be made. It is somewhat frustrating to all involved in that again a relative very few will be making decisions for the relative very many on these topics. As uncomfortable as that may sound, that is the way it is going to be. However, all is not left entirely to chance.

One of the key aspects that will be weighed and taken into account with these leadership decisions is going to be performance. It probably won’t be the only aspect reviewed, but it will be a key one.

Individual and team performance are items that can be changed. Leaders must have the courage to change their own and their team’s performance. They can probably change it for the worse by worrying about the acquisition or divestiture, or they can change it for the better by maintaining the focus on the business goals at hand. While it may be impossible to ignore the pending business change, it is probably best to acknowledge as an event that cannot be changed and move on to the topics and goals that can be changed.

There is a great disclaimer in just about every financial investment prospectus document that I have ever read. It goes (and there are several variations of it available):

“Past performance does not necessarily predict future results”

We have probably all seen it. It is a US Government Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) mandate that it be included in every investment prospectus.

So what do we do? We go and look at the investments that have done the best over some period of time, and select those to invest in anyway.

If they have done well in the past, we expect them to continue to do well in the future. What else do we have to go on? Are we really going to select those investments that have underperformed in the past in the expectation that they have obviously learned from those mistakes and they will henceforth only do better in the future?

I don’t think so.

My point here is that when the business organizational change is done and the decisions regarding positions and leaders are being made, one of the very few items that a leader can affect is their performance. And despite what the “disclaimer” may say, I think it is probably safe to position that past performance in business and leadership roles is a good predictor of future results.

It may not be the only input taken into account, but it is one of the very few that an individual can change.

That doesn’t seem to stop people from worrying about the outcomes of any acquisition or divestiture based changes though. I guess this is only natural. When there is uncertainty, people will have a tendency to focus on those uncertain aspects. This is also where that “wisdom” portion of the prayer comes into play for a leader.

A leader cannot deny or ignore the uncertainty that their team members or peers for that matter will feel with the pending organizational changes. To do so would only exacerbate the issue and create different forums for these concerns to be aired. That will not be a constructive situation for anyone involved.

As I noted above, team and individual concerns regarding the organizational and structural changes need to be acknowledged. They are real. There may not be much that anyone can do about them, but they do need to be acknowledged. Once the concerns are identified, the leader needs to walk the team through the known information and structure and restate what is currently unknown.

By identifying the unknown aspects of the pending changes, they are in essence then contained, and a brief discussion as to what the team and its individual members can do about them will be in order. The key here is the public acknowledgement of the concern and the discussion about what can be done to correct the situation.

This in turn will drive the team and individual acknowledgement that there probably isn’t much that they can do to address these topics. Neither the information nor the ability to modify these concerns resides in the organization. The team focus can then be shifted back to those topics and concerns that the team can affect and address which primarily are their objectives and performance against those objectives.

Acquisitions and divestitures of organizations are the business equivalent of tectonic shifts. They are truly events that are only dealt with and responded to as there are very few things that organizations can do to plan for and work on to address them. By their very nature, these sorts of changes and agreements are kept from the public eyes for all sorts of legal and competitive reasons. It is always this type of required secrecy that generates concern and disruption in all the organizations involved.

The fear of the unknown and the uncertainty that it generates regarding the future can be debilitating to an organization going through an acquisition or divestiture. In times when this has occurred it is the leader’s responsibility to have the wisdom to keep the team focused on the aspects of the business that the team can change, as well as the courage to acknowledge and address the concerns associated with items that cannot be changed.

I am not so sure that anyone gets to have any serenity in times of pending organizational change, but demonstrating wisdom and courage will probably get the team through.

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.

Attrition: Causes and Cures

Just as every leader understands that each assignment is a step in their career, they also need to understand that the same is true for each of their team members. It is sometimes too easy to fall into the trap of complacency when it comes to team members. As a leader you have spent a significant amount of time assembling the best, brightest and most skilled team possible. Your team consistently produces exemplary results. Now you notice that they are leaving, and not just a few at a time but in significant numbers. There is no question about it. You have an attrition problem. Now what?

As is usual in business if you are recognizing that you have a problem it probably already is too late. This truly applies to attrition. By the time you recognize that there are more people leaving than would be normally associated with standard career transitions, you will have almost assuredly lost more talent than you want from your team, and more importantly you will have a significant number of additional team members that are probably in one stage or another of their exit process as well. The time to worry about attrition is before it happens. I’ll talk about avoiding attrition later. The question now is what to do about an unwanted attrition issue. Once it starts attrition can and will take on a life of its own.

The key to calming an attrition stampede is to understand on what level the issues of discontent are rooted. Is it a corporate wide issue, a business unit issue, or an individual level issue? Is it based on rumor or actual business performance? Maybe they just don’t like you anymore. Whatever it is that is causing good people to leave faster than you want, you had better find out. I said faster than you want because as I noted above, each assignment is a step in everybody’s career. It is usually not their end point destination. There will always be people transitioning on to their next career step. This is healthy for them and the organization. As with just about everything else in the world today though, too much of a good thing can be bad.

If the issue is deemed to be a corporate wide issue, it will usually be caused by either conflicting or ineffective messages being sent by the corporation’s senior most management. In times of senior management change or poor corporate performance a very clear and concise set of messages regarding strategic directions and plans needs to be openly communicated. Team members understand that change may take time and can usually be patient in order to see the results of the changes, to a point. The more specific the senior management actions and activities that can be identified that are to be taken, the more patient the team can be. However the team will need eventually to be able to see and identify progress against the actions in order to feel secure enough to remain through the period of corporate instability.

If the issue is thought to be on a business unit level, a cause will also need to be identified. Business unit attrition related causes are usually attributable to the business unit performance. If the business unit team believes that the unit has been identified as a troubled or “problem” business, they will try to anticipate senior management actions associated with improving business performance (cost reductions, travel freezes, lay-offs, etc.) and look to transition to other opportunities in other businesses or business units that are not so troubled. Again communicating a clear and concise set of actions for the business may help stem the attrition stampede, but there probably truly is no way to stop this one. People usually like to feel that they are part of a winning team, and in this case they will always look elsewhere if they feel the chances for success on their current team will be limited by the overall team perception or performance.

If the attrition is truly localized into one specific organization then it may be an individual based attrition. This is usually the result of an interpersonal or management technique conflict between the team manager and the team. If it is happening to your specific team you had better be able to look in the mirror and ask yourself the difficult questions regarding you and your relationship to the team. If your role is to try and turn around an underperforming team and you are a change agent, then you can honestly expect that some team members may not be comfortable with the new direction and choose to leave. If you are picking up a new team that has been performing well and they are choosing to leave, then you had better understand those issues quickly. Issues such as frustration or a perceived slight at being passed over in the selection of a new leader can be a generating event in the starting of an attrition wave.

The time to worry about attrition, like forest fires and tooth decay is before it happens. Attrition prevention is far more preferable than having to rapidly implement corrective actions to try and stem the outward flow of talent. Attrition also requires an honest assessment of the issues. Too many times teams will try to equivocate and split hairs as to exactly how the definition, measurement or importance of attrition is to be set. Managers may have a tendency to try and justify higher levels of attrition as acceptable in light of certain factors. They may try to differentiate between attrition of people leaving the group for other groups within the same company and those that leave the company for another company. This direction is normally taken by groups that are suffering from attrition and either cannot or do not have the ability to address the underlying attrition causing issues. Regardless of how it is positioned, attrition is still the unwanted exiting of employees from a defined group or population.

The solution to attrition prevention is very similar to the solution to attrition itself; communication. The difference is that leaders will actually communicate clearly to their teams the challenges in front of them as well as the specific actions that are being put in place and being taken to address them. Managers will usually wait until there is a recognizable attrition issue before communicating. Leaders will be proactive in acknowledging the business issues and position with the team and preparing them for the actions to be taken. In many instances the corrective actions that are outlined to the team may encompass some unpleasant but necessary business activities such as lay-offs and other cost cutting measures. By getting them out into the open early leaders can at least begin to control the realities of what needs to be done and the accompanying rumors (which are almost always worse than the actual truth) can be minimized.

Attrition is expensive in that when people leave they take all that they know and all they have learned with them. They take a proficiency that they have acquired over time that can only be replaced with a similar amount of time and experience. Attrition leaves the remaining team short staffed and over worked (two incremental issues that can add to the underlying attrition causes) while replacements are sought. Attrition reduces the efficiency of the entire team as the replacement is searched for, located, brought on board and then comes up to speed in the needs of the position. Transitions of any type, at the corporate CEO level or the individual contributor all go much smoother when they are anticipated, planned for and executed as opposed to responding to the unexpected exit associated with attrition. The time to plan for and implement an attrition strategy is well before any issues arise, and any attritions starts.

What’s Right?

Anytime you have a business or office environment, people will congregate to talk. It’s part of the social aspect of working in the office. These are euphemistically known as “water cooler” conversations (although I really suspect that it has been decades since there was actually a real live water cooler in an office). People will talk about many things, but if they are in the office at least some part of the conversation will usually be about the company that employs them. I have worked in several different companies and this is a fairly consistent topic for discussion, at least in my experience.

What I have also found is that these conversations normally migrate to, and revolve around the issues, challenges and problems that the business is facing. Company stock prices, competitors’ products and capabilities, pending or potential staff reductions, executive bi-play and office politics are all favorite topics for discussion. I think we have all been there, and probably even participated.

In short, most of these conversations are at best group reinforcement sessions for all that can be perceived as wrong (rightly or wrongly) about the business, and at worst become a functionally demoralizing aspect of the work day environment. Sometimes it appears that these meetings can become an opportunity for company bashing where the objective is to see who can relate the worst example of bad corporate behavior or malfeasance. It has been seen it in the boom times of the past and it seems to have taken on an even greater propensity in the difficult times of today.

This “what’s wrong” discussion concept got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous proposition for me. Why do we always tend to focus on the negative? Doing so has to have a negative effect on both ourselves and those we share the negativity with at the office. Surely something has been going right, and probably has been going right for some time, to enable the companies and business units we work for to survive and grow for the periods of time that they have been around. I decided some time ago that I would put this idea to the test at one of these negative conversations that I was party to. I asked:

“Okay, I have heard your view on what is wrong with the company, but can you tell me what’s right with the company?

People looked at me as if I had just come from another planet.

Instead of playing along with the rehashing of all the latest down side issues and topics that seem to be present in every organization, I had challenged people to at least try and define what was good about the place we all worked.

I was immediately challenged in return to see if I could actually start the list of what’s right. I think this was done as a delay tactic so that everybody else’s brain could do a cold restart in this new direction for the conversation. I started off with the most basic good thing about working for the company that I could come up with:

“My paycheck cleared and was deposited in my account at the bank.”

I assumed that everyone else’s paycheck had achieved the same status. This is a tough item to argue about. We all got paid. Something had in fact gone right enough that we got, and continue to get paid. I also assumed that everybody would like to continue to get paid. The focus now should be what else we need to do right going forward to assure that we continue to get paid. It was an interesting change to the standard conversation at that point. It also seemed to work. Several other right topics ensued. There were some good things out there if people just thought about them.

I am not a Pollyanna in that we must only look on the brighter side of things. If we do not acknowledge what is wrong we will never focus on it, and there will be no improvement. What I am saying that we do have a tendency to not just focus on, but to dwell on what is wrong almost to the point of discouragement. This means that occasionally we need to take a step back and look at what has been done right.

I don’t think it needs to be done all the time. A certain amount of venting with friends and peers is good to provide a healthy work environment. There have also been instances in these negative conversations that have germinated some of the teams’ better ideas and plans on how to improve the business as a result of hearing from others what they think is wrong with the business. However, I really do think that on occasion it is a good idea for the group to have the water cooler conversation taken in a different direction and talk about what’s right with the business.