Category Archives: Creativity

Hard Work

Perhaps I am getting a little too retrospective, or was it introspective. I forget which.

I think it is interesting how my concept of “Hard Work” has changed over time. I used to think of it as moving rocks and landscaping timbers around our yard for my mother when I was younger. Hours in the heat with all that physical exertion. Then I remember that I was also a competitive tennis player back then, and that also entailed hours in the heat with significant physical exertion. That didn’t seem to be as hard work, at least back then.

Now both yard work and tennis in the heat of a Texas summer seem somewhat equally uninviting. Right now, both seem like pretty hard work.
I think I would like to look at what hard work was, what it is today, and possibly more importantly, what it may become in the future.

I seem to recall that I also had a distinct dislike for reading text books and studying (on my own time, after school, when I wanted to do other stuff, of all things). It was hard work to both get myself to do it, and to maintain the focus on topic so I could learn and master the required topics. Now I find myself reading recreationally on those same topics, as well as many others related to my professional disciplines, and actually enjoying it. Now it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Using these examples, it seems that hard work is the work that we don’t want to do, but are somehow compelled to do. It may be best described as doing something which you have not fully bought into doing. Something you have to do, instead of something you want to do. I think I’ll go with that definition for now.

I had bought into the idea of spending hours in the heat practicing the various aspects of my tennis game. Initially not so much on the yard work for the then family home. Later with my own home and family, I enjoyed both the tennis and the yard work. Now, in the triple digit heat of a Texas summer, I do my best to refrain from both.

As an aside, I didn’t require my kids to join me working in the yard, as I was compelled to do. I don’t know at this point if I did them a disservice.

So far, neither of them has complained about not being required to do yard work in the heat. Go figure.

For some reason, I find myself quoting Mark Twain, a lot. I don’t know if it is just happenstance, or if there is some other type of connection. Either way, he seemed to say many things that can still be considered truisms today. He said:

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But I am actually not so sure that is the case. I think it may be more along the lines of: If you do something that you buy into doing, it means that you will not consider it “hard work”.

You may be fully engaged. You may get to the office early. You may stay late. If you are bought in, and are committed to the deliverable, none of what you are doing is going to feel like hard work. You are getting satisfaction and fulfillment from the effort, and probably feel you are providing value in what you are doing.

I have found when I am engaged and committed I have internalized the assignment or objective, and I want to deliver and excel. I suspect that I am not too different from the majority of people out there. Given the opportunity, I think most everyone wants to be engaged, and to have internalized their work goals. What I have learned over time is that people probably cannot be trained or managed into this type of commitment. They need to be led to it.

I think the ability to do this is probably a learned capability.

I think back to the periods in time when my views about what was and wasn’t hard work changed. When the drudge work of studying for an exam was supplanted by the desire to walk into the exam confident in the knowledge and command of the material. Some kids seem to get this early in their educational career. Let’s just say that it was quite a way into my educational journey before I learned it. Much the same feeling as when the drudge work of the preparing for the customer (or even internal) presentation changed to ownership and the confidence that went with it, although that one came much quicker in my professional career.

People buy into ownership and leadership. If they are given a responsibility and are shown how their role plays into the greater good, the process of getting them to buy in has started. But that is normally not enough. People want to contribute. This is where the pride of ownership comes in.

Communicating the “what” part of what needs to be accomplished is only part of the process. It is the “how” part of the objective, as in how is the goal to be achieved that will either get internalization and buy-in, or probably get the function labeled as “hard work”.

If people are told what they must do, and how they must do it, there is very little for them to contribute to the function, other than being the vessel that performs the assigned tasks in the prescribed manner. They may have no pride of ownership. Without it, almost everything, regardless of how simple or easily achieved has the potential to be considered hard work.

As I said, we all have goals that we need to achieve for the greater good of the business, but I can’t help feeling that being told what to do and how to do it sounds like a definition of hard work.

Even with all of that preamble, I believe that the working environment, and for that matter all work, not just hard work is going to change. I have talked about the application of process as a substitute for judgement in business before. Good judgement is a necessary leadership characteristic. There are those that seem to innately have good judgement, and there are those that have acquired it as a result of their experiences.

Randy Pausch in his book “The Last Lecture” said:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

This is a pretty well known, and surprisingly accurate assessment of the world. What may not be as well known, is the second line from this quote. It goes:

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

But as business continues its journey from process to automation and beyond (Artificial Intelligence?), getting experience, that most valuable thing, the basis for good judgement (at least for most of us) is going to be a more and more difficult thing to obtain.

Career progressions that were once based on the recognition of an underlying business issue, and the creation and implementation of solutions to rectify them, will no longer be the norm. It will become more along the lines of being compelled to follow the steps in the existing process. As experience is gained in one step, there may then be the potential opportunity to manage multiple steps, or entire processes, or potentially multiple processes. Work will change from the creation of a solution to a problem, to the management of the existing process.

One of the issues that we seem to be facing today is that we no longer appear to be accepting, let alone rewarding the individual who does what we used to call “Thinking Outside the Box”.

That does sound pretty trite to me, but unfortunately also pretty applicable.

Process minimizes the risk of poor judgment and the variability of results. But as business appears to be creating more processes, as a substitute for judgement, that compel people to remain in the process box, it also makes the opportunity for business (or process) improvement that much more difficult to achieve.

I guess this can be an acceptable situation if you are confident that the process in place is optimal. But again, we have all seen and have grown accustomed to the idea that the rate of change in business is continuing to accelerate. The progression of work from on shore, to off shore, to automation, to the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) should underscore this. So even if a process was optimal at one time, it does not appear that it can remain optimal in the face of accelerating change.

I think the future of hard work will lie in compelling people to continue to use more or less fixed processes in the face of ongoing, rapid change. The process structure by its nature is resistant to change with its multiple parties, stakeholders and check points and desire for predictability, and that does not bode well for it going forward in a continually more unpredictable environment.

Perhaps the new business leaders of the future will be the ones that instead of just recognizing and solving an issue, also master the means of rapidly modifying and adapting existing processes to the changing environment. That will probably require a fundamental change in how processes are created and managed. The proverb states that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I think that is the case here. Otherwise I think there is going to be an awful lot of hard work for everyone in the future.

Automation

Automation used to be a word that was welcomed into business. Back then we were a disconnected, manual world. If you needed to get more things done, or if you were growing, you had to go get more people to help meet the demand. There was a time that I remember seeing competitors driving advertising trucks around the outside of our business campus in an effort to lure our employees away to meet their growing demands.

But times have changed.

It’s fashionable to discuss off-shoring and out-sourcing when companies now reduce their staffs, but the force that is now causing the largest reduction in demand for employees is automation.

It has been easy to look at China, or any other relatively low wage country and discuss the economics associated with moving production and manufacturing to those locations. It is a very easy way to reduce the cost of labor associated with that production. I have discussed it in the past. We all can probably name several companies that we are aware of that have taken advantage of the economic model.

But do you know what is even cheaper than paying people less in low cost countries to manufacture goods that used to be manufactured in relatively higher wage countries? It’s really a simple answer.

Not paying anyone to manufacture your products.

From 2007 to 2013 manufacturing in the US actually grew about 2.2% per year (~17.6% total), however the number of manufacturing jobs fell. Approximately 13% of those job losses came from off-shoring. More than 87% of the job losses came from automation. (http://fortune.com/2016/11/08/china-automation-jobs/)

Now let’s fast forward only a few years. When you hear the word “automation” it can strike fear in the heart of anyone who is currently working. The active word in that last sentence is “currently”. And it is not restricted to just those in production or manufacturing based positions.
As I have also noted in the past, business and organizations continually try to apply those successful approaches used in the reduction of costs associated with production and manufacturing, to other disciplines in the organization. An example of this is where once only manufacturing were outsourced, so now are other disciplines such as finance, accounting and human resources.

So how does this trend affect automation?

The same rules of organizational cost reduction are going to apply. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has recently released a study that is predicting that up to 38% of all jobs in the US are at risk for being replaced by automation in the next 15 years. These are not just manufacturing sector positions. They also predict the finance, transportation, education, and food services sectors are also going to be significantly affected. (http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/24/technology/robots-jobs-us-workers-uk/index.html)

In case you missed it, that means that automation isn’t just for manufacturing anymore.

Just about any position that has any sort of a repetitive nature to it can and probably will be a candidate for automation. It is predicted that many of the first positions to go will be those focused on the consumer sector. The continued automation of teller based functions will further reduce the number of people in your local bank. Baristas at the local coffee house may also be endangered. How repetitive is it to take an order for a fixed set of options and then write a name on a plastic cup? If there are relatively similar activities being repeated, the function will be looked at for automation.

Look what Amazon has done to the previously brick and mortar based appliance product purchase process. What was once a trip to the store where you dealt with sales associates and waited downstairs for them to bring out your purchase, is now an online search for the best price, the tapping of a few keys and then answering the door when they deliver your purchase, in some instances in as little as one day.

Of course these trends will be somewhat balanced by many consumer’s distaste for dealing with systems instead of people. But even that is changing. Each new generation of consumer has less and less of a tie to the human touch and is more technically savvy than the previous. And even the preceding generations learn the value, simplicity, speed and most importantly the economic benefit to their own personal finances of the new automated model.

Amazon has been successful not only because they have worked to improve the shopping and purchase experiences. They have been successful because they have also reduced the customer’s cost and simplified their search. No more driving around, visiting stores and malls and looking for a sales clerk to answer your questions and wondering if what you want is still in stock.

If you don’t believe that this is the case, the current number of retail stores that have announced they will be closing starting in 2017 now stands at over 4,500. http://clark.com/shopping-retail/major-retailers-closing-2017/.

These are also concepts that will be applied to organizations and business to business commerce.

However, as noted above, I think they will be primarily focused in internal corporate activities, instead of any functions that deal with corporate customers. I have already noted customers distaste for not being able to deal with and have direct human interaction when it comes to their requests for support when they have an issue. I think we could expect an even stronger reaction if corporate customers were asked to interface with a machine for their complex equipment and service needs.

I would also expect even this type of resistance to reduce in the future as each successively tech comfortable generation matriculates up through management to positions with purchase decision responsibility.

The drive for automation within corporations and businesses has started with the internal functions. Just as the automation of spreadsheets reduced the need for the number of accountants in business, so is the drive for on-line processes, tools and tracking systems reducing the need for the number of other types of support staff.

As processes continue to be implemented and refined, and as tools for the tracking of work continue to expand and go on-line, the business environment becomes ripe for automation. Sales opportunities are now tracked from suspect to prospect to bid to contract to implementation in on-line tools. How much data resides in that tool that can be automatically reviewed, with the generation of sales forecasts, booking reports and expected profitability projections made available with just a few key strokes.

Costs are likewise automatically tracked via on-line time charging and the utilization of already automated production and shipping capabilities. How much easier will it then be to generate booking, shipping, revenue and profitability reports.

People in these support and accounting roles who have up to now been providing these periodic reports and functions need to be aware of which way the automated wind is blowing.

So where does that leave us?

First I think everyone is going to need to “up their game”. People are going to have to get reacquainted with the risk-reward scenario. The relatively safer “support” type roles are going to get squeezed almost out of existence. You are going to have to be able to “do” something, not just support the people who actually are doing something.

It is always the “new” or next great thing that is prized in business. People will have to relearn that following the past methods of success will not now provide them with success. They will have to get used to looking forward and trying to predict what will be needed and then trying to move in that direction instead of relying on what was once needed. The creative spark will need to be reignited in all workers as those who wait to be told what they need to do will probably be automated (or off-shored) out of their current roles.

Everyone will truly have to get used to and good at selling. Selling their products, their services, their vision, their ideas, their value, their future. It will probably not be good enough to align with and support someone else who is able to do this.

Everyone will also have to get good at delivering. Customers will want their solutions in ever shorter time frames. Look at how Amazon is driving toward same day – immediate gratification – delivery for their customers. Customers will be defined as those that use your particular service or value. That means that they can be internal to the organization, external to the organization or both.

And value will not be a report. It will have to be more along the lines of an idea, or the fulfillment of an idea.

Automation is coming. The capability to automate will only continue to expand. However, it will be the ability to generate ideas and conceptualize that will be the most difficult to automate (if ever) and will hence increase in value. The person who can think of new ways of doing things will increase in value.

It will also be the person who can actually deliver and implement the products, services and processes of the future who will also be in demand. As I said, it will be those that are able to “do” things as opposed to those that enable others to “do” things that will be in demand in the future.

I guess it has always been that way to some extent, except with automation the gulf between the two will become that much greater.

Arguing With Customers

If you have dealt with customers for any length of time you have probably run into a situation that is similar to this: You have a perfect solution to a customer’s problem. It can involve a product or a service. It can be minimally disruptive or invasive to their organization. It has a good business case and a quick pay-back for the customer. There is only one problem: The customer doesn’t see it your way and wants to do something else that is far less effective, and wants you as the vendor to foot the bill for their solution’s lost efficiency.

And now the argument starts.

The phrase “The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge’s Department Store in London. It is a mantra that we in business have all had drummed into our collective heads since we left school and started working. So what do we do when we know in our heart of hearts that in this particular instance the customer is most assuredly wrong, or at the very least not as right as they could be?

I think the above quote might be an edited version of Selfridge’s original idea. There is absolutely no proof of the following, but I still feel the original quote probably went along the lines of something like the following:

“Depending on who has last spoken to the customer, and what they personally believe, what time of day it is, what they ate for dinner last night and the recent incidence of sun spot activity, the customer may be misguided, misinformed, misunderstood to the point of being potentially ignorant of all relevant information associated with the topic, but they are always the customer, and therefore that makes them right”.

In case you are wondering, I added the “sun spot” part myself, just for extra impact.

I think you can see why Mr. Selfridge condensed down the original concept into his now famous quote. The original was a bit of a mouth full and probably wasn’t as customer friendly an idea as he was trying to convey. I’m only guessing here as 1909 was a long time ago and Mr. Selfridge is no longer around to confirm or correct my position.

The point still remains however. Since the precept is that the customer is always right, we probably ought to rephrase the question to: What do we do when the customer has not arrived at the correct right answer?

One thing you can be certain of is that there will be no shortage of people trying to tell a customer what to think. Between you, your competitors, the customer’s internal peers and management, family members and pets, just about everyone will be expressing a view as to what the customer’s proper direction should be. Against this type of backdrop, it is easy to see why a direct confrontation or argument with a customer will not be the most beneficial course of action.

The simplest step in this situation is to check and see if that despite the fact that the customer wants something that is different from your most efficient, effective and elegant of solutions, are they correct? As rare as it may seem there are recorded incidences of customers actually knowing what they want and being correct. It does happen more than one might suspect.

If you can prove to your own and your management’s satisfaction that what the customer wants is indeed a wrong solution, then the next step is to determine who the solution is wrong for. Is it wrong for the customer in that it does not adequately solve their problem, or is it wrong for you the vendor in that it for whatever reason it cannot be defined as good business.

Good business is usually defined as a solution that can be provided (as opposed to one that cannot be provided or does not exist), can be provided profitably and within the time-frames desired by the customer. If the vendor cannot provide the solution or cannot provide the customers desired solution profitably, it is probably not good business.

Unfortunately, there are many recorded instances where despite knowing better, vendors have agreed to and accepted business that does not meet the “good business” hurdle as defined above. These not good business decisions are normally defined as “strategic business” opportunities. A good company can normally stand only so many of these types of “strategic” deals.

If the desired solution is in fact the wrong solution for the customer a logical argument can occur. If it can be empirically proven to the customer that the solution does not solve their problem, then a direct approach can be taken. Empirical proof usually involves numbers and financial comparisons, and not so much on the assumptions and estimates. When it comes to assumptions and estimates, unless there is some very good backing data, who is to say that yours are better than anyone else’s, especially the customer’s?

If you can show a customer numbers, and prove that something else might be a better solution, or save them more money, or (more difficultly) provide them increased value, then the pending argument rapidly just becomes a discussion.

If it turns out that the customer desired solution is wrong for the vendor, then the argument gets a little more involved. While much has been written about solution quality and functionality and such things, it seems that in these days of rapid product and solution turnover, price is the primary driving customer decision factor. If there is a vendor profitability issue associated with a customer desired solution, modifying or increasing the solution price is rarely an acceptable approach to resolution.

When I have encountered this situation, and after ascertaining that no amount of logical discussion is going to change the customer’s mind, I have found it best to at least partially change sides in the argument. By that I mean that instead of pitting one solution against another in some sort of winner take all sweepstakes, I have tried to decompose the customer’s preferred solution into its component parts to see which parts may be congruent with my solution, and focus on those as the opportunity to discuss.

Everyone likes to feel that they are right, and by focusing on the points where there is agreement instead of the overall solution where there is not, a vendor can focus on the aspects of the opportunity that can provide them “good business” while accepting that the customer wants a different solution. This approach is essentially the de-scoping of the aspects of the overall solution that cannot be profitably provided. It highlights where there is complete agreement between the customer and the vendor and where there is not. It also clearly, but not in a confrontational manner quantifies what the cost and value of the disagreement is.

I learned some time ago that all mutually healthy dealings between customers and vendors occasionally requires either party to tell the other “no”. Customers can very easily do this by simply selecting another vendor to fulfill their needs. This approach can be a little drastic but it is definitely guaranteed to get a vendor’s attention very quickly. Vendors on the other hand can only afford to act in a similar manner, i.e. firing a customer, if they have the entire market for the desired good or service cornered where they are the only supplier, or they risk such behavior at their own peril.

By breaking down the customer’s desired solution into its component parts it is possible to tell the customer both “yes” and “no” at the same time. A vendor can say yes to what makes sense, and no to what doesn’t.

When there is contention between a customer and a vendor over a solution, look at the subsets of the total solution where there is agreement, instead of the total offered solution where there is not. This approach serves the twin functions of communicating to the customer where the issues are with their desired solution as well keeping focused on the primarily profitable business that is beneficial to the company.

Just be prepared for the phrase “You have to take the bad with the good”, but that will be another discussion. At least at that point you are negotiating.

Over Leading

The hockey season is almost upon us. For me this is good news since I am not so much of a baseball or football fan. I am aware of how the baseball playoffs are shaping up and how the football season has opened for the various teams, but I know who has been injured, signed, traded and is skating for my favorite hockey team, and their competition. I am not so sure that this is a good indication of the kind of person I am.

This fact in and of itself doesn’t really mean very much. Probably most everyone has a favorite team or sport. It’s just that not everyone’s favorite team and sport are as cool as hockey with its speed, creativity, physicality and game flow. But I am digressing a little here.

Being a hockey nerd means that I read a lot of articles not just about my favorite hockey team specifically, but about the sport in general. When you are the most popular sport in the world, except for football (both professional and college), basketball (both professional and college), baseball and soccer, sometimes it is hard to find the sport’s coverage in the media. It’s usually right next to the fencing, lacrosse and jai alai coverage. Believe it or not there was a global hockey tournament in progress for the last couple of weeks. The best players in the game were playing for their respective countries in the World Cup of Hockey.

When football does this (that’s “soccer” for those of us in North America) and holds its “World Cup”, entire nations have been known to stop, declare a national work holiday so that people can watch their team’s games.

You haven’t heard of it or seen it on television? I think that’s probably because it may only have been broadcast on something called “The Hockey Network” (or some such thing) and most cable suppliers don’t supply channels that require four (or more) digits on the set top box to access. The satellite providers asked NASA for the extra capability at the very far end of the broadcast spectrum to supply it, but were denied because they didn’t want the broadcasts to interfere with the wireless garage door openers. You get the idea. It’s not what you might call a high demand channel.

Since it was so difficult to follow on television I ended up reading an article about the state of the tournament specifically and the state of hockey in general, and as is usually the case it got me thinking. The article pointed out that the general state of hockey was pretty good but that the coaches were affecting the direction of hockey in that they seemed intent on implementing systems where no individual players were able to fully utilize their talents and capabilities. They had been coached into a defensive hockey process where the team system was designed to keep the other team from scoring and superseded the ability of the individual players to fully utilize all of their skills and capabilities to score.

Now wait a minute. We have a team sport where the coaches are limiting the ability of superstars to dominate a game in favor of a process oriented team based system that they feel gives their respective teams a greater probability of success, i.e. winning the game. Isn’t that the goal (pardon the hockey pun. If it had been a soccer pun it would have been “Isn’t that the Gooooaaaallllll”), to win? What could be wrong with that?

The article in question addressed the issue from the player’s point of view with the idea being where would the next Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr come from. They were transcendent scoring talents that defied systems and defined their positions. Would they have been able to become such dominant forces in the game if they had been limited by the systems and processes of today?

The general consensus was that by implementing processes and systems into hockey, coaches had reduced the ability of individuals to excel (and score ala Gretzky, Orr, and others) and as such had reduced the attraction and beauty of the game. They were in essence trying to remove the creativity and risk from the game.

For me the topic of interest was the other side of the same coin; more along the lines of that by increasing the focus and dependence on a specific leader (the coach) and the reliance on the process or system that they implemented and not so much on the talents, creativity and capabilities of the members of the team, the possibility of failure (being scored on) may have been limited, but the opportunity for greater success (or scoring) was also greatly reduced.

In sports, as in business, talent wins. Processes and systems are something that should be used in order to enable the team’s talent to flourish, not limit their opportunities to create successes. When a leader or the systems and processes they implement become more important than the actual talent levels and individual performance of the team members, then the upside performance potential is being sacrificed in favor of avoiding any potential downside result of the risk.

It seems that in hockey, as it is with business, that the shift in focus from fully utilizing the talents of the team members to score, to only applying those talents as they fit into the process or system that the leader (in this case the coach) has implemented has been recognized as an issue. The fact that someone wrote about this phenomenon as it relates to hockey was interesting to me.

It seems to me that this phenomenon is also occurring in other sports, as well as in business in general is also interesting. By implementing systems and processes that limit the risk and are defensive in nature we seem to be limiting our abilities to make progress and “score”. We probably make fewer mistakes, but we probably also stifle our teams creativity in the process.

So what is the balance point?

There is no question that leadership is important. At the risk of sounding somewhat trite, each leader’s method of leadership is a unique mix of their specific traits and capabilities. There is a question as to if a leader would have become the leader we know if they had been products of a business process or system. Would Steven Jobs or Bill Gates have been able to create the business juggernauts that they did if they had been forced to operate within the systems of their predecessors?

To illustrate this point with these two individuals even further, since these individuals have left their roles in their respective organizations have those organizations continued to creatively prosper as they did in the past?

Tim Cook has done an admirable job at Apple since taking the CEO role in 2011. It is extremely difficult to follow a legend.

Just ask the hockey player that followed Gretzky in Edmonton when he left for Los Angeles. I don’t think anyone even remembers that player’s name.

Apple has continued to perform and perform well, but the consensus is that they have not really generated the new technology and products that they did under Jobs, and that have come to define them. It seems that they are trying to maintain and defend their current position via trying to extend the current systems and processes with new iterations of existing products. As an illustration, the iPhone 7 has recently been announced. Even the Apple Watch has been credited to Jobs as his idea.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is a little harder to discuss for a couple reasons. First, he was not the immediate replacement for Bill Gates. Steve Ballmer was. Second, he has only been in charge since 2014, so he may not have had the time to actually put his fingerprints on the company yet. However since the same 2011 time frame as Tim Cook, Microsoft has acquired Skype Technologies for networking applications (a step outside of Microsoft’s then core capabilities), entered the Personal Computer equipment market with the Microsoft Surface computer (another step outside their core) and most recently tendered a $26.2 Billion offer to buy the business networking site LinkedIn.

Now Microsoft has not scored on every one of their forays. Their move to enter the smart phone market in 2014 cost them $7.2 Billion, which they ended up have to write off completely as a loss. They are still in the market but I don’t think this is what they had in mind. You obviously win some and lose some.

Of the two companies it would appear that Microsoft has recognized that new leaders must be given the reins and allowed to take chances and put their talents, opportunities, and potential failures fully on display. I guess that only time will tell which system and process will turn out to be the most successful one.

I think I am more of a fan of “event” hockey where the final score is five to four as opposed to system hockey where the final score may be one to nothing or two to one. These guys for the most part are pretty talented athletes. (Hockey has evolved from the days of the designated “fighters”. With the speed and way the game is now played there really is no room for those “enforcers” any more. I think it a better game because of it as well.)

I think I am also a fan of event business as well. Cool products such as iPhones, iPads, and Surface Tablets came with the inherent risk of failure. Playing to win is always much more fun than playing not to lose. Especially in business. I think that the business processes and systems should enable the business (or sports) team to utilize its talent and take the intelligent risks associated taking the next leap forward, not limit them to just the smaller incremental steps associated with the last advancement.

Stop Using Best Practices

Businesses, like just about everything else, are always looking for the best way to do things. Businesses also like predictability. They like to know what the response or result will be to any specific action that may be taken. It is because of these drives and desires that when something is dubbed a “Best Practice” all businesses seem to flock towards it. While on the surface this has all the appearances of a good thing, in reality I think it has a tendency to hold businesses back.

I think the idea of “Best Practices” is a business construct created by consultants to position themselves as invaluable to the progress and evolution of business. In other words, it was created so someone could get paid for it. This would be similar to a music critic who tried to position Justin Bieber as invaluable to the progress and evolution of music. I guess you truly have to be a “Belieber” to buy into either of them. I also do not know of any music critic that would propose such a thing, and still be allowed to retain their music critic membership card, or music critic certification, or music critic secret decoder ring or whatever it is that allows them to be accepted as some sort of music critic. Even so, there are people who are actually “Beliebers”, and there are also businesses that buy into the idea of best practices.

Personally I am a Jazz and Alternative Rock kind of guy. I guess this musical preference may also indicate why I am more attracted to the more original and less formulaic ways of doing things.

I am concerned that when someone claims that they have developed a “Best Practice” that they are inferentially removing the possibility that there may be some other different or better way of doing things. After all, what can be better than a best practice? An even better than best practice? A new and improved best practice? This also brings up the question to me of: who gets to declare something a “Best Practice”? How do they know that their “best practice” is better than anything else, including those methods that may not have even been tried yet? My view is that they don’t.

I seem to have gotten off into musical allegories here, so I guess I will try and continue in that vein. Just because John Phillip Souza may have developed what some music critics now consider to be the very best practice when it comes to the genre of music that is known as “Marches” does not mean that he has developed a best practice for music, or marching bands for that matter. In fact as I sit here the idea of people who march to the beat of a different drummer continues to work its way into my consciousness. To take this idea even a step further, I think I remember watching a college football game on television last year where at half time the band actually played a heavy metal song by the band Metallica, instead of a Souza march. As I recall it got quite an ovation from the crowd.

I think any business that aspires to something other than their own optimal performance is limiting themselves. The idea here is that optimal performance is a moving target. As times, competition and conditions change, so will the optimal performance target. I think this will be the case, as in a different case, for each individual business. It is the differences and the different approaches to their optimal practices that generate differentiation, and competitive advantages for businesses in the market.

Best practice has a tendency to be thought of as a process, or a way of doing things. The idea being that if you do things in the best way possible, you should end up with the best possible result. Herein lays the issue with best practices for me.

Any process that is deemed to be best without first comparing and adapting it to both the existing business environment and the known and desired goals will probably not work. For me the definition of a best practice is the process that will get the business from where it currently is to the goals that it has set for itself the fastest, least expensively and the most efficient way possible. Notice how the best practice is dependent on both the starting point and the desired end state.

There are many purveyors of the best practice solution who would posit that this is not the case. They would say that the proper system is to change the business to adapt to a known process. This sounds suspiciously to me that a consultant (or the equivalent) has generated some sort of process that if rigorously followed should generate a positive result. Instead of going through the effort of adapting the “Best Practice” to the current or new business environment, it is positioned that the environment must be changed or adapted to the process.

Wait a minute. How is that again?

That to me would be the equivalent of deciding on a time signature (beat) and a chord progression in music and then stating that all successful songs will need to follow that guideline. Classical music, waltzes, polkas, pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass, etc, etc, will not all fit into this best practice guideline. It is the creativity and ingenuity of the musician who takes their knowledge of music and generates a new song that determines how successful they will be. If there truly was a best practice in music that was to be followed, all songs would sound monotonously similar.

Just as it is with the creativity and ingenuity of business leader who takes their knowledge of the components of the business and combines them in a new way that creates a new more efficient business model or (gulp) practice.

Too many times it seems that businesses want to look at their practices and processes in isolation of the goals and objectives. As a would-be musician I practice in order to maintain my current (low) level of musical proficiency, and to hopefully improve. My goal is to play as well in the Jazz band as I do when I practice. I find that each time I perform with the Jazz band, by the very nature of having others in the band who I interact with during the performance, each performance is different from how I practice.

Sometimes it is better, and sometimes I wish I was better. It is the difference between having proficiency and trying to apply a best practice. It is the performance that counts, not the practice.

Driving an adherence to the idea of implementing an existing and defined best practice will stifle the creative ability of leaders to try and evolve and create new models for the business. The constraint of trying to change and to fit the business to the defined process limits the ability of the leader to define a new way or new direction, and the business’s ability to adapt to the changes in its environment. They will be locked into trying to recreate something that may have worked in the past practice, but may not fit with the current members of the business and the performance that they are being asked to give.

In music you look for people who have capability and proficiency, and can combine their talents with others to make the music. In business I don’t think that adherence to a best practice can be a substitute for capability and proficiency, and it may in fact hinder a business’s ability to change and adapt, especially when the music changes.

Editors


We are all knowledge workers. That means that we make our living and provide our value-add to our businesses based on how well we process the information we receive and what intellectual output we provide. The long and the short of it is that we think about the issues that are presented to us, and we create solutions for them.



As a kid I was pretty creative with the ideas that I could come up with. This caused my parents some significant heartburn on more than one occasion. I would like to think that I have not entirely lost that creativity but rather that I have learned to channel it a little better. I think in today’s business environment that we need to continue to try and create new solutions to both the new and the old issues that we face. We cannot continue to do things the same way we have been doing them and expect the situation to improve.



Unfortunately the current business environment has itself created an aversion to the risk associated with solution creation.




Creativity and new ideas require that we endure some amount of risk. The problem here is that the perceived up-side reward for risking and creating a new solution seems to be far outweighed by the down-side penalties that would occur for the solution being unsuccessful. It seems our current business incentive set is much more to try and avoid failure as opposed to that of creating success.



The result again seems to be a decrease in the number of people either creating or willing to create new solutions, and an increase in the number of people who while not willing to create, are willing to review and edit anybody else’s solution.




Editors can and do serve an important role in the solution process. They invariably look for the holes in the solution, or for scenarios that might not have been considered or addressed. The result of their involvement can be a stronger overall final solution product.




But they are not creators.




The editor doesn’t write the Pulitzer Prize winning book, or direct the Oscar award winning movie. They may have helped make it better, but they didn’t create it. It was someone else’s idea and vision. It was created and then presented to the editor to review. They had no real ownership, or risk, associated with the final product. Their name did not appear on the book cover, or in the opening credits of the movie.



The same goes in business. Organizations today seem to have significant numbers of people who are willing to review and edit any new idea that comes along. For the most part they are willing to tell you what is lacking in the idea, and the many reasons why they think it won’t work.
 



When I have encountered this sort of behavior I have found that there is usually some kernel of truth in the critiques that I have received. I try to look for it and see if I can use it to make my ideas and solutions stronger. I have also found that I have needed to grow a thick skin when dealing with their criticisms. I am still working on that.




My point here is two-fold. The first is that we need to try to get back to our creative roots in looking at how we are dealing with today’s issues in business. We know what the existing solution provides, and if we want to do better, that means we must do something else.




The second point is that the next time someone provides you with one of their ideas or solutions do not become an editor. There are already enough editors around. Look for the value of the idea and try to work from the point of view of what is right with the solution as opposed to what is wrong with it. What can you add to the solution as a co-creator as opposed to identifying the holes in it as an editor.




Creativity in dealing with the many issues that business is facing seems to be in short supply. If you can, look for ways to create new solutions. If you are presented with the opportunity to review and edit someone else’s ideas and solutions, fight the urge to critique and get involved in the proposed solutions creation process.




There is an old saying: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” I think in business today a more accurate rendition of this phrase is: “If you are not part of the solution, you are probably part of the editorial staff.”