Category Archives: Culture

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.” (http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/21/politics/mark-cuban-donald-trump/)

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.

Immediate Feedback

I was driving along the other day and recognized that I had changed my behavior. I’m a guy so this is indeed a significant moment of self awareness. I don’t think anyone else noticed this change in my behavior but me, but it was a change none the less. I have one of those cars that have a little indicator on the dashboard that tells me when I am being economical in my driving habits. Some cars have very cool indicators such as leaves. The more leaves that are visible, the more economical you are being. Mine doesn’t do that. It says “ECO” or it doesn’t say anything. On or off. That’s all you get. But it is immediate, and that is what I wanted to talk about.

In the past I never got the sort of immediate feedback from my car that encouraged me to be economical. The only feedback that I got was a delayed, periodical feedback when I needed to refill my car with gas. I would stand there filling up (because full service gas stations like the one I used to work for when I was a kid are things of the past) and watch the price wheels whirl around gyroscopically fast due to the immense centripetal forces acting on them. I would try to think back to how long ago that it was that I previously filled up, and wonder what else I could be doing to lengthen the interval and hence become more economical and save some money.

What my car told me was that most of the time I was being pretty economical. I sort of got in the habit of checking both my speed and my economy rating as I drove. I found that when I became frustrated with slow movers who insisted on remaining in the left lane while traffic whizzed by them on the right, people who were obviously lost and needed to get off the road, find a parking lot and call someone to get directions, or anybody who was ignorant enough to be texting while driving, and did all I could to rapidly get around and away from them, my little “ECO” light went off.

This is not the change in behavior that I was talking about.

I still want to be nowhere near these moving road hazards as they navigate through their commutes, and will expend a little extra gasoline in order to achieve this goal.

What I do want to talk about is all the other less apparent and visible times that the “ECO” light went off and gave me the immediate feedback that I might not be driving as economically as I could be. I have smoothed out my accelerations and anticipated my stops. I have become more aware when my car is being operated in an economical mode. I have changed my behavior.

Now I have been driving for a long time. I started driving when some cars that are now considered “classics” were then considered “junkers”. I have filled the tanks in the various cars that I have owned for years. Thinking back, this was the only time that I got any feedback regarding the relative economy of my driving habits, other than my mother and later in life my wife telling me to slow down. This feedback was delayed. It was feedback that was given well after the behavior had been exhibited. In fact I think most of the time that I actually got this feedback the car was off and I was standing outside of it trying to fill it up.

I can’t really think of a single instance where I would call the feedback associated with the expense of paying for yet another tank of gasoline constructive or supportive. It was usually more of the negative feeling associated with giving away some of your hard earned money for something that you were just going to burn.

Yet for years I had gone on with this post behavior, periodic feedback without really materially changing the behavior that was driving what could at best be described as negative feedback. It took something as simple and small as immediate positive behavioral reinforcement feedback in the form of a little light on my dashboard that came on when I was doing the right thing. It worked.

Now let’s metaphorically switch gears (there have been several of these automotive metaphors sprinkled in so far) and apply what I have learned to business, which is usually the subject for any of these articles.

Most people who work report to someone. If you report to someone, chances are that periodically you are either going to have a review in which you are provided feedback, or have a review in which you will provide feedback. The parallel here is that this review will be the opportunity for someone to refill your tank, or for you to refill someone else’s tank. As I pointed out above, filling the tank is not usually synonymous with having a good time or a positive event.

As trite as it may sound, I think the idea of utilizing an immediate positive behavioral dash light, the first successful driving behavior altering event (for me anyway) may be a new and better way of positively modifying or reinforcing positive employee behavior, which if I am not mistaken is one of the primary goals of employee reviews.

I have tried to maintain a closer view and review with my team since recognizing this behavioral modification key in myself. I have taken to reinforcing the desired behaviors and events with my team on a much more regular basis. Instead of dwelling on or going into greater depth on those issues that are not performing in the desired manner, I ask that they look at the opportunities where we are getting good results and pattern their actions and activities in a similar manner.

One of the keys here is not to confuse immediate feedback with micro-management. Telling people what to do, or providing infinite feedback on everything that they do will probably not assist in achieve either the desired goals or the desired behavior. It will probably just annoy everyone, yourself included.

Pick the specific desired goal. In my car’s case it was fuel economy. It didn’t try to tell me how to steer, drive, maintain or clean my car. It just told me when I was operating it in a relatively economical manner. Each business and probably each group within the business will have a primary goal, to which behaviors should be pointing.

Pick the feedback methodology. My car told me when I was doing the right thing. It rapidly became apparent to me when I was not doing the right thing because my car was no longer telling me I was doing the right thing. That fact alone made me want to change my behavior so that I continued to get the positive feedback and reinforcement. I like positive reinforcement and feedback. I think most people do. Reinforce the positive and ask how they can move that which is not positive now into the positive in the future.

Stick with it. I have had my car for a while. Thinking back I am pretty sure it has had this economy metric since it was manufactured. I am not entirely sure I recognized when I was paying attention to it, but I do know now that looking back my behavior and driving habits have changed for the better (more economical)…
…except when I find myself behind a slow-poke in the left lane, a lost soul in the city, or a texting idiot.

Some behaviors take longer than others to change, but I am still hopeful.

There will continue to be those periodic reviews where there is a prescribed format for the review. They can be annual, semi-annual, or just about as often as you want, or can stand. They will also invariably be of the “you did this right, you need more work here” type of review. The big issue for me will be that they are appreciably separated from the actual behavior that is the subject of the review.

Sort of like the filling up of the gas tank as the metric of how economically you have driven over the last period.

If you really want to make progress with the team regarding goals and behavior, you need a dashboard light that provides immediate feedback.

Work and Effort

Wow, was it just me or did the last year and a fair chunk of the first month of this year just fly by? According to Einstein time is supposed to slow down the faster you go, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in business. It seems that the faster I try to go the faster time tries to go too. It’s interesting how in just about any race with time, time has a tendency to win. Go figure.

I think I may have touched on this topic in the past, but since we are at the relative start of a new year, I think I’ll spend a little more time on it. As we start out on a new year with new opportunities, new goals and new hope, we cannot forget that we must also reflect on the past year. This reflection is normally referred to as an annual review. Depending on how you did last year this reflection can either be a pleasant or unpleasant experience. I think most of mine for the most part have been reasonably pleasant experiences. I think that is because a learned early on the difference between work and effort.

I have mentioned in the past that I have an affinity for physics. This seems to serve me in good stead when my son brings home his high school physics assignments such as building a bridge out of paper or trying to construct a capability to disperse the force of a mass rolling down an incline plane. It’s kind of cool to be a go-to guy for your son. I just hope I got the equations right.

I also find that sometimes it relates directly to business as well. To a physicist work is done when a force that is applied to an object which moves that object. The work is calculated by multiplying the force by the amount of movement of an object (W = F x d).

In this example “Work” would equate to the goal that was set for the individual or business at the beginning of the year, “Force” is the equivalent effort that someone expends in the pursuit of that goal and “d”, the movement is the equivalent of an almost unknown item which I’ll call an efficiency or “success rate”. So for business the equation for work would be Work = Effort x Success Rate, or W = E x SR.

What this means is that the effort expended and the achievement of the goal may or may not be positively linked. This would explain why some goals would seem to be easily attained with apparently little effort and some goals may be unobtainable regardless of the amount of effort expended.

This is something of a roundabout way of saying that just because you worked hard last year; it doesn’t mean you are entitled to a good year end review.

Everybody works hard these days. The exception might be “Wally” in the Dilbert comic strip (by Scott Adams), but by and large everyone puts forth the effort. Even Wally puts forth an effort in his quest to avoid work. Effort is good, but it is at this point table stakes.

“Work” as it is defined in the annual review is the measurement of the achievement that they effort generated. If you are in sales and you have a quota that means you have a numerical target, such as orders. You can put forth a great deal of effort but unless you actually get some orders, according to your compensation plan (and probably your sales manager) you didn’t really accomplish anything. So by these measurement criteria you in fact did no work.

Catch the difference here? Lots of effort does not mean you did any work.

I purposely try to create primarily quantitative objectives and goals for my teams. There will always be a certain amount of qualitative acknowledgement associated with them, but for the most part I want them to be numerical, and measurable in nature. By doing this you remove a great deal of the effort versus work type of discussion.

In business we keep score via the financial numbers. If you can’t create objectives and goals for any of the business functions that you may have, that somehow relate to or distill down to these types of financial numbers, then I might suggest that a review of the necessity of the function being measured might be in order. Again to simplify things: If you can’t create a viable metric for a function that relates to the achievement of one of the financial goals, you had better look at the viability of the function, goal and metric.

Numbers are finite. We all seemed to get a working knowledge of numbers dating back to approximately the second grade. We all know when one number is either larger or smaller than another number. It is usually not open to much interpretation. This concept usually leads to readily acknowledgeable annual reviews, regardless of the performance level.

Too many times we create “soft” goals that are somewhat open to management as well as staff interpretation. Any time there is an open interpretation of an objective you can be reasonably assured that there will be different interpretations of the achievement of the objective. This is the essence of the effort versus work example.

Non-quantifiable goals invite an effort based annual review. Quantifiable goals invite a work based review. Effort based reviews can lead to a basic inequality of reviews across an entire team. Instead of measuring progress and achievement you are instead measuring activity. Activity and progress are as different as effort and work. It is as different as splashing around in a pool (activity), and actually swimming across it (progress).

We all know that is possible to appear busy without actually accomplishing anything.

In looking back at the last year, and at last year’s goals it may be difficult to implement a quantifiable measurement scale, if the goals were not originally established with such a scale in mind. However, the other aspect of the early part of the year is that in addition to reviewing last year’s performance, it is the time and opportunity to set the goals and objectives for the coming year.

The beginning of the year provides leaders with the opportunity to modify the goals and objectives as well as the measurement scales and criteria so that they can be quantitatively based. By doing so the leader enables the team to focus on progress and achievement as opposed to activity, and work as opposed to effort. It enables the team to understand and make the distinction associated with knowing if they are doing something that will ultimately contribute to achieving an objective or if they are doing something that just keeps them busy.

The key point here is that when it comes time to review this year’s performance at the beginning of next year it would be to the benefit of all members of the team to have defined quantifiably goals, and a known scale by which they will be measured. It makes this time of the year a little easier for everyone involved.

Walls, Windows and Corners

I think it is safe to say that we are truly a status conscious species. We are probably also somewhat obsessive and we seem to like shiny things. Where we live, what cars we drive, etc to one level or another are important to us. It is how we differentiate ourselves from each other, but it is also what makes us all the same on a larger level. So how do we differentiate ourselves in the far more homogeneous business environment? Since we all strive for some sense of individuality, how do we distinguish who is who in an office environment where the focus is usually far more on the collective than the individual?

Office environments seem to be designed with the twin objectives of both minimizing the differences between those of the same level and formalizing the differences between those of different levels. The differences are removed from the system through the use of standardized office constructions. Based on their relative position in the office hierarchy like levels get like office sizes, colors and furniture. Office component colors and furniture are standardized to the point where the days of the mythical executive reserve known as “Mahogany Row” where huge offices and plush office appointments have all but receded into the mists of time.

Now a days there are still many office differences denoting relative professional rank, but they are all somewhat less apparent. The first of several formal office differentiators is office size. The workspace naming nomenclature also reflects this size disparity. No one has an eight foot by eight foot office. They have a “cube”. And regardless of how much square footage they have for work space they will continue to be considered in a “cube” until the second major work space status differentiator is taken into account: that being the height of the walls around a work space. If there is any space between the top of the office walls and the office ceiling, it is a cube, despite any arguments to the contrary.

The best barometer of work space status is the height of the walls around the work space. A good rule of thumb is that if you can see into the work space over the walls surrounding the work space that the occupant is of the most junior of levels. Chances are that they will have the least floor space as well. The only way that these “low wall” denizens can differentiate themselves from other junior cubicle dwellers is by the type and amount of stuff that they jam into their cube. We have all seen it. The over abundance of pictures, knick-knacks, plants, college memorabilia, you name it, that is used to individualize what is an otherwise small, nondescript work space.

As responsibility, prestige and status grow, normally so do the height of the walls surrounding the work space and the area contained within those walls. Surprisingly enough as the walls get higher; the amount of individualizing “stuff” within those walls also seems to decrease. Perhaps it is only those without such office adornments that are selected for higher walls. I think further study on this relationship may be required. It doesn’t matter how high the walls get or how much room there is within them, if the walls do not reach the ceiling of the work area, as I have already said, it will still always be considered a “cube”.

At some point in time the normal progression of wall height and work space size will hit a nominal limit, one of which is the afore mentioned ceiling. Not some sort of metaphorical glass ceiling. The physical acoustic tiled one within the office work area. Once the walls hit the ceiling the area they contain is no longer considered a “cube”. It is now an “Office”. These constructs normally come with a real door that can actually be closed. A nominal amount of privacy is now possible since office doors do not usually contain a window.

Once the threshold has been crossed from cube to office, you might think that the opportunity for status differentiation would be limited. If you thought this you would probably be wrong. There is still the opportunity to differentiate offices by size and location. There is a point of diminishing returns with respect to office size so for the most part I will deal with the aspect of office differentiation based on location, or more importantly, the number of windows that it does or does not have.

Offices that are constructed on the internal walls and passage ways of the work area allow the external sun light to enter the windows and illuminate the entire work area. This allows the people with low walls to at least enjoy the sunlight. This sort of office structure usually indicates one of two possible scenarios: either that the company is truly work environmentally conscious and wants everyone to enjoy the sun light, or that the people inhabiting those offices still haven’t quite made it to the big leagues.

I have only worked in one company in one location where all the offices were intentionally placed internally away from the windows. Needless to say, this is a rare event. On the other hand I have also worked in several locations where you could not actually tell if the building had external windows, or if the sun was actually shining outside unless the doors to the external wall offices were open and the sun was shining through the open door. Chances are if there are internal offices and you are in a multi-story building, you have just not gone to a high enough floor to find the external wall offices.

But even window offices are subject to a status arrangement. The two status guides here are the number of windows that the office has and whether or not it has a “Corner”. This is where the phrase “Corner Office” came from. If you have an entire wall of a four sided office covered in windows, the only way you can get more windows is to have windows on a second wall of your office. According most accepted theories of geometry the most efficient way to achieve this phenomenon is to put your four sided office in a corner of the building so that two of the office sides have windows.

The corner office is generally accepted as the apex of the office status pyramid. If you have one of these you are generally regarded as someone to be reckoned with.

Corner offices are usually reserved for only those who reside within the “Executive Suite”. If you want to see more on the “Executive Suite” please see my May 8, 2014 article on this topic.

I think one of the most spectacular examples of the need and desire for corner offices can be seen in the United States military. Most buildings are build with four corners, which naturally limits the number of corner office opportunities. The US military built the Pentagon, which as we all know has five corners instead of just for. This increases the number of available corner offices by twenty five percent. I guess they had to find an appropriate way to office all the Generals, Admirals, etc that they had.

But now here comes a new office status disruptive technology; the home office. With all the new communication technologies that are available, many former inhabitants of the cube farm are now opting to work at home and cyber-commute to their work. Now it is possible for everyone to have their own office, that can be as big as they want, with as many windows as they want and decorated however they want, and no one will ever know the difference or be able to assess their relative rank in the office hierarchy.

As this work at home technology proliferates we will have to revert to the old tried and true methods of assessing your office status, namely: what city or neighborhood you live in, how big is your house, what kind of car you drive and how many shiny things have you accumulated.

Oscar Wilde once said “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” He may actually be correct. However now it appears that we are entering an age where work may be imitating life far more that life is imitating work. I wonder what Oscar Wilde might think of that since he actually worked at home as well.

Vacations

I have spent most of my time writing about business and leadership and work. I going to veer off into a little bit of a different area here and write about what is supposed to be the antithesis of business and work, and that is vacations. Vacations are part of your total compensation package. Vacations are supposed to be the time that the company pays you not to work, to recharge your batteries so to speak, to get a tan. Vacations are something that we seem never to have enough available time to properly take. Vacations are an interesting concept in that they truly seem to vary in definition and application from company to company and definitely from culture to culture.

For example, I don’t think I can remember taking a vacation that lasted longer than a week. I think part of this stems from the idea that we all like to view ourselves as far too important to the ongoing operation of the business to be gone from our roles for periods of time extending beyond this. Equally I think there is a fear that if we do take a vacation that extends beyond a week, we may have it proven to each of us that we are in fact not so crucial to the efficient operation of the business and that they can get along just as well and possibly even better without us. There is also the possibility that if some people are gone from their job for more than a week that they will need to be retrained on how to do their work when they return.

The other issue associated with taking an extended (greater than a week long vacation) is the inability of the business to leave you alone for greater than a week. I have been on two-day vacations where I have gotten calls (usually more than one) from the office. It is interesting to note that these calls while on vacation have seldom originated from my team but rather invariably come from management. It seems that here management believes that if they are not on vacation, then no one should be on vacation.

The exception to this no extended vacation trend at least in the United States seems to occur toward the end of the year when many in business start reviewing how many vacation days they have, that they are going to lose if they do not start taking vacation. In the past many companies allowed their employees to carry over their unused vacation days into subsequent years if they were either unable or decided not to take all their vacation. This resulted in many people having an inordinate amount of vacation available to them, and created a significant exposure to the businesses. I think at least part of this practice came from the idea that when businesses had layoffs that they had to pay the severed employee for their unused vacation. If you had saved up a bunch of unused vacation days it was like guaranteeing yourself extra severance pay, should you need it.

Businesses countered this “banking” of vacation days by disallowing the carrying over of unused vacation days between years. The desired result was the reduction of the vacation exposure to companies and the encouragement of employees to adopt the attitude of either “use it or lose it” when it came to their vacation.

This seemed to work, but only up to a point. After so many years of not taking vacations a culture had almost grown up around the concept of not taking vacations. This approach to not taking vacations didn’t change, and in some instances and locations it still hasn’t changed. The result is that as the end of the year approaches many employees find themselves with several days of vacation that they still must take or lose.

People will not accept the loss of vacation days. This event is seen by the employees as comparable to giving the company free work days as the company no longer compensates them for, nor allows them to save the unused vacation days for future use. This invariably leads to people taking extra days of vacation around the end of the year holiday season in an effort to use up their vacation.

Fortunately most people take their business phone with them during these vacation periods just in case either their team or management need to talk with them. It seems some habits die hard.

It is hard to believe that taking a vacation has become such an effort or an afterthought when it seems to be such a prized portion of each employee’s compensation package. What was once seen as a time to relax and recharge is now yet another source of stress associated with making sure that all vacation days available are in fact taken.

This does not seem to be either the situation or such an issue in other countries and cultures around the world.

In Europe time off is not referred to as vacation. It is called holiday. A slightly different nomenclature than what we are used to in North America but still functionally useful. For those of you not familiar with this term, there is a descriptive term for European vacations that you may be a little more familiar with.

It is called “August”.

It seems that almost everyone in Europe goes on holiday (vacation) in August. It’s true. If you don’t believe me, just try and arrange a business meeting or complete a business task there during August. In Europe when they go on holiday, they are gone. And unlike here it does not seem quite as acceptable to try and contact them when they are on holiday.

This is actually not a bad idea. If everyone knows that everyone else is going to be out of the office during a specific time that becomes the ideal time for them to be out of the office as well. Since everyone is on holiday at the same time no one is left in the office to be concerned about any potential lost productivity.

There are similar types of vacation or holiday times in countries around the world. In Brazil there is Carnival, which for the longest time I thought was Portuguese for “February”. In reality it is approximately a week long holiday associated with the Easter – Lent season. However it appears that it takes approximately a week to prepare for, and if properly enjoyed, may take as much as an additional week to recover from. This period could in fact be considered a holiday.

In Asia the Chinese New Year is another extended holiday season. It is usually a multi-day celebration that begins on the first day of the month (usually February) and extends approximately 15 days to the first new moon. Again an extended holiday period that usually serves as a basis point for the taking of vacation. Have you ever tried to get much done during the Chinese New Year in Asia?

The culture seems to be changing here in that people are now encouraged to take their vacation. What it appears that we need is some sort of cultural or specific “holiday season” or event (other than the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons) to provide an impetus for people to take their vacation. And while management may have succeeded in getting people to take their vacations, management must now take the lead in demonstrating and understanding that when people are on vacation that they should not be called with issues regarding work.

Bon Voyage.

International Travel, Beer and Cabs

A recent international business trip reminded me of several axioms that I had learned on past international trips but for some reason seemed to have forgotten. When I mention international trips, I mean real international trips. Not trips to our neighbors to the North or South, but trips over oceans and to different continents. Trips where you get to sit next to people for eight, ten, twelve hours at a time while traveling. Those are the kind of international trips I am talking about. In fact it can’t really be considered an international trip unless you go to a place where you can order and drink a beer that you have never heard of before, and the actions that are perpetrated on the highways during the natural order of conveyance (what we would call driving) scare the hell out of you.

I’ll start with the more pleasant of these two aspects of international travel, the beer. As time has passed I have found myself ever more comfortably in the rut of preferring to drink beer as my social beverage of choice. It is estimated that beer was invented some 7000 years ago. There have been ancient Sumerian poems written about beer that are more than 6000 years old. Some anthropologists argue that it was the invention of beer (along with bread) that was the base line cause for the rise of human civilization and technology. I guess if you are going to have to survive on something as boring as bread you better have something tasty to wash it down with.

7000 years is a long time to have in the perfecting a beverage. I think we have gotten pretty close in some instances, and maybe not so much in others. I think the last great advancement in beer-kind was when we went from “beer” to “cold beer”. Mixed drinks have come and gone. Martinis were popular, then they were not. Then they enjoyed another resurgence, but then fell out of style yet again. And this was all just last month. The same can be said about various other drinks based on bourbon, gin, vodka and just about any other distilled spirit you can think of.

The one exception to this rule would be scotch. One should never mix scotch with anything. Alone and unmixed scotch is almost undrinkable. Mixing it with anything is the one thing that does in fact render it truly undrinkable. I suppose mixing scotch with water, or ice (frozen water) is acceptable as it serves to dilute scotch’s almost undrinkable nature.

I have digressed. Each culture has its local preferred beer. I have found that part of the fun of visiting these foreign countries is to sample the local brews. It usually surprises my hosts and creates a common topic of conversation. I have learned that in foreign countries Budweiser is considered an imported exotic brew. Now I have nothing against the good people of Anheuser Busch, in fact when I am home I have been known to partake of many of their products. Despite the “man-law” that you “don’t fruit the beer” I seem to have developed a certain partialness to one of their lime infused beers. Again I have digressed. This seems to be a common thread when I talk about beer.

My foreign hosts invariably try to order me one of these types of beers when I visit. Why would I fly thousands of miles just to drink the same beer that I can easily get at home? I want to try the favorite local beer. Almost without exception it has been a very pleasant experience.

In Ireland the fresh Guinness from the tap does in fact taste different than the Guinness we get here in a bottle. The bottled stuff here reminds me personally of shoe polish in both its color and taste. The stuff in Ireland is truly wonderful. The same can be said about Hite beer in Korea, Cerpa in Brazil and Steinlager Pure in New Zealand. They are great tasting beers and there is certainly a reason why they are popular brands in their home countries. I strongly urge everyone who travels to sample the local foods and drinks when traveling. Since civilized business people have been drinking beer for thousands of years, it is a great ice breaker, conversation starter and usually results in a pleasant discovery.

The only real problem with the beer in foreign countries is that you usually have to go somewhere in that country to get it. The act of going somewhere for beer, or anything else for that matter usually involves getting in a car and venturing out on the roads, with the local inhabitants. There is nothing that can prepare you for this, short of going to your favorite amusement park, getting on the roller-coaster and demanding that they run at least five other roller-coasters at the same time, on the same tracks, all in different directions. I don’t ask to drive these roller-coasters, and I certainly know better than to try and drive in a foreign country. When visiting foreign countries I don’t drive, I take cabs.

First of all, contrary to my wife and children’s opinions, I do know how to drive. I know most of the rules of the road here in the US, both the written and unwritten ones. The unwritten ones seem to include such gems as “Don’t make direct eye contact with someone you are passing” and “Turning on your signal to move into another lane is seen as a challenge to anyone else to try and speed up so as to occupy the space in the lane you are intending to move into”. I think we are all reasonably familiar with these rules and many others when it comes to driving here. It seems to be part of the “sport”.

However, nothing can really prepare you for riding in a cab in a foreign country. I am not casting aspersions or trying to denigrate any people, places or things. What I am saying is that, in general and with a few noted exceptions, that upon entering a cab in a foreign country you should be issued a blindfold and a cigarette when getting into the back seat.

While this idea may conjure up images of facing a foreign firing squad, it should not. First of all a firing squad ends reasonably quickly, while a foreign cab ride can go on for hours. A more accurate comparison would require a firing squad with guns that either would not, or could not operate properly, people who might not know how to properly operate or aim their guns and multiple conflicting orders being issued from a multitude of incomprehensible commanding officers.

Amidst all this, after a certain amount of time, many loud noises and several near misses later, you would then be required to then pay this firing squad an unspecified amount of money and to thank them for their time and effort on your behalf.

The foreign cab issued blindfold would more properly be so that you couldn’t see what was going on around you on your way to wherever you were going, and the cigarette would be to calm your nerves, even if you didn’t smoke.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying: “All generalizations are incorrect, including this one”. I would say that in general he is correct. One notable exception that I have encountered to the international driving free for all that I have experienced has been in Australia. While travel on the roads there does seem to have a tendency to take on certain aspects of a game of high speed bumper cars, you are actually expected to ride in the front seat of the cab, next to the driver. Perhaps this passenger proximity has a mellowing effect on the drivers. Perhaps it is the funny accent all Australians claim we have when we speak English there. Whatever it is, they seem to drive in a manner that I can more readily comprehend.

That, and they have some really great beer there too.

International Organizations


Not everybody gets to work for a foreign based multinational company. Many in the US may actually go through their entire business career without having every worked for one. I have had the opportunity to actually work for three different foreign based multinationals. I think it has provided a perspective on both the similarities and the differences associated with international and domestic business processes and practices. With the continued globalization of business and organizations, that may be a healthy concept for all leaders to be familiar with. While things are obviously done differently in North America, we need to understand the perspective that it is the North American business environment that is different from the rest of the world, not the rest of the world that is different from North America.



I will attempt to generalize at least some of the differences I have encountered between the foreign based and US domestic based organizations that I have had experience with. This is always a dangerous thing to do. Generalizations are opinions that are applied to greater sample sets, based on limited sample sets. Having worked for three foreign based nationals means I have some experience with three specific instances of foreign based multi-nationals. It doesn’t mean I should generalize across all of them, but that sort of perceived limitation has never stopped me from rendering an opinion or article before.




Mark Twain is a favorite author of mine. I have quoted him in the past, and will probably do so again in the future. I am envious of his way of expressing things, and while I may not be able to write a good line, I know a good line when I steal it. Twain said:




         “All generalizations are false, including this one.”




Undaunted by that fact, I will move forward with my comments regarding foreign based multinational organizations, and how and why leaders in North America need to understand them.




There is always the push-pull, love-hate, cats-dogs sort of relationship between the corporate offices and the field offices. In domestic based organizations one of the most feared phrases to ever be heard in the field is:




         “I am from headquarters, and I’m here to help.”




I think we have all either experienced or participated in the horror stories that have ensued after hearing this phrase. It can make your blood run cold.




It’s even worse when you think you may have just heard the phrase but you cannot be sure because your brain is still trying to unscramble and translate what you think you may have heard because it was stated in such a heavy foreign accent as to make it almost unrecognizable. Be afraid. Be very afraid.




Also remember that this is a person who is trying to communicate in English, which may be something other than their native language. That means that they have a working knowledge of at least two languages.  It sometimes open to interpretation whether some people who were born, live and work in the US have a full working knowledge of the native tongue.




With domestic organizations there is at least a consistency of culture, value set and approach that can be a basis for working together. In North America we know how fellow North Americans usually tend to think, or not think as the case may be. European and Asian cultures and value sets, believe it or not, are different from North American ones. I have not had the opportunity to work for an African or Australian based multinational, but I suspect there will be differences to a lesser or greater extent there as well.




What I have found is that despite North America being one of the largest markets for just about every type of product in the world, it is also the unique market in the world. What I mean by that is that I believe there are reasonable and rational similarities between the European and Asian markets in the way they conduct their business and the way they treat their employees. It is North America that is different.



A good example could be seen in the various approaches to contractual relationships. In Asia and Europe it seems that a contractual relationship is the beginning or starting point for an ongoing business relationship. Once the contract is in place both buyer and seller seem to understand that some changes will occur and will work together to adapt and modify the arrangement in a mutually satisfactory manner. In North America it seems that a contractual relationship is the end point or culmination of a business relationship. Once the contract is signed it seems to be the arbiter of all potential differences of opinion that can arise, and it is hoped that every possible contingency has been covered.




It has been my experience that in North America customers want to see working products before they buy them. This means that all potential vendors must create a competitive product and the buyer will select the one that they feel best meets their needs at the most favorable price. Admittedly this is not the method for all purchases, but since I have already discussed generalizations and the pitfalls associated with that, I will continue to go with it. Even the US Air Force wants to see a working model of the next generation aircraft from each of its potential suppliers before it decides which one it will buy. I always wondered how it could be next generation if there was already one built.




It has also been my experience to witness in Asia and Europe that customers seem to be much more willing to contract to buy a product based on a specification, with no actual working models. In Europe, several countries got together to pool resources and jointly design and build their next generation Joint Strike Fighter with nothing but a set of desired specifications to work from. They didn’t require that a working prototype be built as was required in the US. Again this is based on a small experience set, but it runs so contrary to what for the most part is accepted practice in North America I had to bring it up.



Despite these and many other business, organizational and cultural differences that can and will provide the grist for future articles, I strongly suggest and recommend that leaders spend some time in a foreign based organization. It will provide an entirely new perspective on how organizational structures, communications and cultures affect the business. In today’s increasingly global business environment, understanding business environments outside of what is considered the North American norm, and hence comfort zone, will help leaders deal with the complex problems associated with multinational business opportunities. It will enable them to understand and deal with the increasing number of non-domestic competitors that have entered or are now entering the domestic market.



 It may also help better prepare them for how to better understand, and deal with someone the next time they walk up and say:




“Ah yem fwoam haid-kwahtaihz, awn ah yem eah tew hehp yew.”

Don’t Produce…..Create

Happy New year to all. Here is to working toward a great 2011.

We have all heard the statements regarding the need to “produce” results. In these days of ever tighter budgets and greater demands for profits and performance, the phrase “produce, or perish” might never be more accurate. It is possible that after so much time trying to improve and refine our production that it might be time for a new approach.

“Producing” results had normally come from finding a way to do an existing job or process incrementally better than it had been done in the past. This incremental approach to producing and improving results has a tendency to run out of momentum due to the law of decreasing returns. It eventually requires more and more incremental process refinements to produce less and less incremental results improvements. After several years in the current economic environment, it may be possible to say that we are in fact in the region of decreasing returns when it comes to incrementally improving, and producing results.

What is required today in the business environment is a quality that seems to be in short supply during tough economic times: Creativity. In down economic times the “Risk / Return” relationship in business seems to invert. That is to say that the “Risk” part of the equation takes on a greater and greater importance vs. the potential for the improvement of the return. In down times it assumed that the “Return” will be more and more difficult to attain, so the process focuses more and more on reducing the risk and in many instance the cost of the change. This process plays more and more into the “Incremental” approach to improving and producing results.

The time has come for businesses at all levels to start looking at the data differently; to rethink the processes and to “Create” new business and new ways of doing things, not incrementally producing and improving the current results. This is obviously much more easily said than done. You cannot command the team to just create new ways of doing things, but as the leader of the team you can become adept at recognizing what is incremental improvement and what is the creation of new ways of doing business.

Again it is usually easier to accept the incremental improvement proposals. Some may be valuable and can be implemented; however as they say “Necessity is the mother of invention”. If you can show the unwillingness to increment, and the willingness to implement and reward the creation of the new, you can start to change the way business gets done. The responsibility to recognize and foster the creation of new processes and business needs to be vested with those that have the authority to accept and make those changes.

The time has come for businesses and business leaders to stop producing results, and start creating them.

Fear and Change in the New Assignment


Every time I have been taken a new assignment in a new organization, the first question that was asked of me was “What are you going to do first?” My answer was invariably the same one. I would reply “I am first going to learn”. I would give this answer to both the people I reported to, as well as the people that reported to me.

 

It is good to come into a new role with a rough idea about what may or may not need to be done. This helps you create the first action plan. What normally happens then is that both your preconceived ideas and your plan rarely survive the first encounter with the actual business realities of the assignment intact. It is then that you learn why the situation is in the state it is in.

 

Machiavelli noted that the two principle ways to govern a new organization were to either go live amidst the existing leadership structure, or to destroy the existing structure and replace it with your own. I have been in corporate cultures where both approaches have been the norm. The team replacement culture usually breeds a business culture of fear, whereas the more inclusive approach will create a more constructive environment for the business.

 

I have found that my personal preference is to go and locate amidst the existing structure. In this way you can facilitate and speed up your learning process regarding the business. The existing team will always have some stake hold in the existing structures and processes of the business, but in general they will also know that a leadership change has been made for a reason. That reason is to usually change the direction of the business. This is usually easier to do with a team that is familiar with you instead of one that is afraid.

Be Adventuresome and Use Chopsticks

All businesses are becoming global in nature. The emerging (and in some cases emerged) markets in Asia cannot be ignored or neglected from either a supplier or customer basis. This means you will have to go there, sometime, for the good of your business.


You will have a ball.


It is a long ways, and it takes a long time to get there, but once you do, you will enjoy it. The places and the things to see are amazing. However the best part is the people. The opportunity to spend time with the people should not be missed. The culture and the food are amazing. Be adventuresome and sample them all.


If you want to go a long ways toward either entertaining, or amazing your associates in Asia, use chopsticks. If you are poor with them you will be entertaining. If you are reasonably good with chopsticks they will be very interested in you.


I enjoy sushi as well as most other Asian cuisine, and as such have learned to use chopsticks relatively well. During dinners I was usually presented with a “western” fork, but always opted for chopsticks. My choice and dexterity were always a great ice breaker and opening subject for dinner conversation.


While there, enjoy the local food. You can get hamburgers and steaks anywhere, but eating the local dishes with the local dining implements should be part of the agenda. It will also help in establishing business relationships with your associates in Asia.