Category Archives: Culture

The Reckoning

For just about as long I can remember I have heard that what you have learned, and what you know, and your experience are valuable. They are the tools of your trade in the knowledge-based businesses and economies. And to some extent I think this idea may still apply, at least in part. I think that there will always be a need and desire for intelligent people in the businesses of today and in the future. One of the best accepted ways to demonstrate intelligence is through the attainment of a college degree. This may or may not actually demonstrate the intelligence level, but it is the now somewhat de-facto threshold for employment in the technology and knowledge-based economy. However, I think that now more than ever before, where you live is going to be one of the key driving factors to your employability.

This is particularly the case for the larger companies and organizations. I am sure that there are those that are reading this and are thinking: “What is he talking about? The rise of virtual offices, and working at home, and so on and so forth, have removed location from the context of the employment equation.” (That employment equation being the value that you generate for the company needs to be perceived as greater than the fully loaded cost of your employment by the company.) Please bear with me, as I think you may be thinking too small, as the true effects of globalization start to take effect in areas other than factory production.

As usual, there was a genesis for this direction of thought. It came in the form of an article by Erin Fuchs, Deputy Managing Editor at Yahoo Finance, titled “Why Wages Aren’t Rising Faster”. (https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/why-wages-arent-rising-faster-192629608.html). In the article he examines why, in a period of historically low unemployment, what amounts to the usual economic model of high demand for labor versus a stable supply has not resulted in higher wages, as the model would predict.

He points out three things that are occurring that are holding wages down. The first element he points out is that the data now indicates that there is no longer a growth in employee productivity occurring. I don’t know if this is due the virtualization of the office and the accompanying loss of “synergy”, or if the process driven structure of organizations is starting to reach an asymptotic limit. What it does mean is that growth now will be linearly linked to the number of people doing the same type of work. Sort of like that factory production line model, and I think we all know what eventually happened to the factory production line job. I’ll come back to this idea in a minute.

The second element was the “…misleading nature of average wage growth figures…”. I take this as a direct reference to Mark Twain, who is credited with saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Simply put, this means that one Bill Gates retiring from the workforce can and will offset many of the lower paid positions’ wage gains that might for example affect the food service industry. This is also an interesting topic that I’ll revisit.

The third piece to the wage stagnation puzzle was the ability for companies to opt to hire overseas, in lower-cost countries, instead of paying the higher wages being demanded in the higher-cost countries.

This seems to me to be the element that ties the previous two items together.

If you are working at home, in a higher cost country, why can’t someone else do the same work at home in a lower cost country. As we noted earlier, we have removed the distance issue from the virtual organization. So, while it may not have mattered where in the country you lived in performing your job, it now seems to matter to a much larger level, what country you live in when performing your job.

When the employee productivity curve starts to flatten out, as it appears to be doing, the only way to continue to show business improvement is to reduce the cost of each of the linearly added employees. Processes that have more and more finely defined employee functions can now be applied to less costly employees in lower cost countries. Any quality or productivity issues can be absorbed in the overall value of the resulting total cost reduction.

I think we are already seeing the start of this approach to business. Those disciplines that do not require direct customer or market interfaces are already moving out of the expensive higher-cost countries. Production and manufacturing were the first to go. Research and Development were not too far behind. Don’t confuse the spark of creativity with the work associated with developing a product from it. Soon Human Resources, Finance and Accounting followed. These were also essentially well defined, repeatable functions with well-defined processes and procedures.

This essentially left Sales (a direct customer interfacing function), marketing (a culturally dependent function) and operations (the customer delivery function) as the only mandatory functions that need to remain in a high cost country (or any country for that matter). Any other corporate function, or support function could and would be moved as soon as it made economic sense to the organization.

In the past it was argued that when the average wage rates increased, it was the more highly educated that benefited as opposed to those in the lower paid roles and positions. It now seems that the fruits of this type of environment have also sown the seeds of the issue that is now faced. It is now the higher cost, well-educated roles that are being lost to lower-cost countries, while the lower waged roles are now benefiting from the new laws aimed at increasing the minimum wage.

The interesting dichotomy here is that while the government may be imposing a new, elevated floor to the wage pool in the form of an increased minimum wage, businesses are in the process of imposing a de-facto ceiling or upper limit on what wages they are willing to pay in the same market. So, while the minimum wage may be rising in the strong employment market, the group that had benefited the most from strong labor markets, the educated and experienced, are now losing ground.

This has created an interesting situation and some even more interesting trends. Highly educated, highly experienced, and highly paid people are being shed by larger organizations as the company looks to continue to show bottom line growth. This availability of talent is seeing their market opportunity change. They can bring their benefits to smaller organizations, but at usually smaller wages as that specific type of labor supply increases. This is indeed what has been seen in many instances.

Or they can move more toward the “Gig Economy” where there seems to be growth in what could best be described as “Fractional” employment. Fractional employment is a situation where a smaller company may need an experienced, knowledgeable employee, but just does not need them full time, or all the time. So instead of offering a lower paying full-time position, they can offer a higher paying (based on hourly rates) part time role. This then leaves the contracted employee with the opportunity to either fill the rest of their available time with other similar roles, or not, as they choose.

This enables both the employee to maintain their desired income level, but only through employment at multiple locations, and allows companies to reduce their resource employment costs by no longer having to employ expensive resources full-time, when they are desired, but not effectively needed.

The interesting addition here is that the “benefits” usually associated with employment (insurance, vacation, etc.) are reduced for both the employer and the employee. Remember, employee benefits cost employers more than thirty percent of total employee expenses and are not usually paid to contracted or part-time employees. (https://smallbusiness.chron.com/cost-employee-benefits-employer-2694.html)

This brings us to the reckoning. The trend has started in high cost countries and markets. Higher cost higher educated positions in the larger organizations for the most part have started moving to lower cost countries and markets in increasing numbers. It would seem that nothing short governmental intervention in this sort of labor migration will be able to stop it. These types of employment regulations may or may not exist to greater levels outside of North America, but again it would seem that they will only be effective in slowing down this evolution, not stopping it.

This change cannot but help to start to reduce the wage levels that were here to fore thought of as the higher-level incomes. There will be more, higher educated and experienced resources chasing fewer onshore opportunities. Even though employment levels may be high, the higher end, higher paying opportunities once thought of as only available to the highly educated will start to become less available.

One way to combat this outflow of positions is to reduce the cost of onshore employment. The movement to fractional employment should continue to gain traction. The reduction in the pay rates for these “highly paid” positions should also start to flatten out and even come down. Finally, as we have seen the end of pensions and retirement compensation in the last few decades, we should also expect to see a reduction in the benefits such as insurance, vacation, etc., (and the accompanying corporate expense) that companies offer.

So, while wages may be going up for some of the labor market, it would appear that they are heading down for those at the upper end of the labor market, even in such a strong employment market. Employment may indeed be at historical highs, but those that were once thought to benefit the most from these types of market conditions are now poised to face both reduced roles and reduced opportunities as businesses continue to try to reduce their labor costs.

Working From Home……and Dilbert

Let’s get one thing clear up front. I don’t like working from home. I don’t even particularly care for the idea of working from home. There are many who think that it is the absolute best idea since sliced bread, but I am not one of those. Yet it seems that situations and events have conspired in such a way that I now find myself working from home. However, it is pretty clear to me that when I take all things into account, that working at home is the best alternative for me right now. I’ll talk about the things that I have learned that I need to do to be as effective as possible in working from home.

I guess I may just be a creature of habit, but I have always “gone” to work. You know. Got up. Cleaned up. Went to the office. Just like I had “gone” to school. I didn’t “go to school” at home. I went to the then appropriate institution of learning.

This was back in a time before technology enabled “working from home”. In fact, it was not uncommon for people to have to relocate to different cities if their responsibilities changed, and they found themselves with a job in another location. This was what is now referred to as “the dark ages”….

Back then teams were not virtual. People actually had to be in the same place in order to work together. True synergies were achieved because everyone was in the same room when a meeting occurred. It was a time when process was not as dominant as it is now. Individual knowledge, experience and judgement were sought after to create the most effective team dynamic. It was all about finding the best and most efficient way to achieve the desired goal.

But I have digressed in my remembrances of those bygone times.

Times have changed. Companies now get merged and purchased with significantly increased regularity. The pendulum of workplace office arrangements has swung from the highly structured shared office environments of the 1950’s (where everybody had an assigned workspace within the shared space) to the cube farms (where everyone had there own individual work space and everyone measured their progress by cube square footage and wall height) of the 1980’s and 1990’s, to the current iteration of the 1950’s model where no one has an assigned work space, but they all work together in the shared environment, and you have to put everything away in your locker at the end of the day.

The last time I had to have a locker to put my things away in at the end of the day was when I was back in school.

Against this backdrop of office moves, business consolidation and “new and improved” office environments, should you find yourself with a pretty lengthy commute to get to a new office location, with the new shared dynamic seating environment, you might choose to give working at home a try. When I did this a few weeks ago I found out a few things that I needed to do to help with my effectiveness, even though I was no longer in my preferred working environment.

I also recalled several Dilbert ® cartoons by Scott Adams. I like to follow him because he appears to be scarily prescient when it comes to most interesting work topics. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he has been addressing the work at home topic for over thirty years. Talk about being ahead of your time.

As I mentioned earlier, part of going to work was the process of getting ready for work. The getting up and cleaning up. I am an early to the office person. Since I have worked with several groups internationally in the past, I got it the habit of coming into the office early in order to facilitate communications with them. If I didn’t have calls or meetings scheduled early, I used the early quiet time to get a jump on the requirements of the day.

I also liked the idea that for the most part, my working time and my personal time had two fairly specific delineators; namely the commute to and from the office. There was a defined “starting time” when I got to the office, and a defined “ending time” when I left the office. Obviously, there were situations where calls, meetings and work would and could cross these thresholds, but for the most part, there was a beginning and an end to the work day.

When working at home the “start” and “stop” lines seem to begin to blur. There is no longer is any appreciable commute to the office. You can get up and walk into the home office and just start working. When working at home it is easy to say that I’ll go through the preparatory activities later. The idea is that you could just get up and go into the “office” without any preparation. This didn’t work for me. I found that the “ritual” of getting up and preparing to work helped me get into the proper frame of mind to do the work I needed to do. Needless to say, Dilbert recognized this activity as well.

As a side note, the above comic strip is from 1995.

I also found that I worked and concentrated best in a professional environment. That meant no turning on of the television to see what was on the news. No turning on of the stereo to create background music. These are distractions that do not normally exist within the business environment, and if you are going to extend the business environment to the work at home structure, they shouldn’t exist there either.

And again, Dilbert has addressed this very issue:

And again, this comic is from 1995.

Finally, despite all the assurances to the contrary, access to the corporate network, which is required in order to work from home to be viable, can be somewhat challenging. There are usually specific secure remote access applications that must be present and mastered in order to access the network. The issue usually arises in the form of needing access to the secure corporate network in order to request support in order to get access to the secure corporate network. There have definitely been improvements made in this area, but as I have noted, it can still be somewhat challenging.

Usually what happens here is that a trip must be made to the new office where access to the corporate network is available, in order to contact the Information technology group that is responsible for simplifying remote access to the secure network. This then ends up creating other issues since the remote access issue can no longer be replicated because you are no longer using remote access when requesting support.

The result of this interaction with the Information Technology support group is then the closure of the trouble ticket reporting the remote access issue, since the issue seems to have rectified itself by your coming into the office.

And you guessed it. Dilbert has also recognized this as an issue facing many today.

I have found that the best way for me to work at home is to make sure that I am preparing for and acting as though I am going to work in the standard office environment. Waking, preparing, dressing, etc., as though I were going into a standard business office helps me make sure that I am in the “work” mind set, as opposed to the “home” mind set. This of course is referring back to the time when home and work were indeed two separate entities.

Working at home does present its own set of unique challenges. It is almost too easy to fall into a new set of behaviors that may not be as conducive to creating a good work environment as many expected. While it is convenient, for me it doesn’t match the energy of the collocated team. I understand the value of the virtual team, but for me, it is hard to measure what was given up in exchange for what is hoped to be gained by the new.

Maybe it will just take some more time for me to get used to it.

Moving

Moving, or changing offices by and large, is usually not very much fun. In business it entails gathering up all your stuff, putting it into standard moving boxes, which are not much more than over-sized, glorified shoe boxes, and going somewhere else. It can be in the same building or across the country. You are essentially out of commission from the time you start putting your stuff into the boxes, until the time that you have taken it out and reconnected to the network. It adds stress to an already crowded calendar.

Long ago, when I first joined the corporate world, I read that on average you moved or changed offices every two to three years. I actually tried to look up this article to properly cite it, but, alas I couldn’t find it. Perhaps it has passed from fact, to just something that everyone knows.

You either changed roles, or business units, or assignments, or were promoted, or any number of other events that resulted in you having a new place to sit while doing your job. This was back in the days when you came into the office to work. Everybody came to the office to work. Working at home wasn’t so much of an option then.

The idea back then was to generate synergy in an organization by having groups of similarly focused individuals sit together and regularly interact in the expectation that they would be more efficient, creative and powerful as a group then they would be as discrete individuals. It seemed to work, at least back then.

I think a lot of this idea was based on the sports analogy where it was demonstrated that having all members of the same team, working together and running the same plays, were far more effective than if they all acted as just talented individuals and did what each thought was best. It was widely accepted that the best teams won, not necessarily those that just had the most talented athletes. However, I think it was Roy Williams, the basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, who said: “I can coach them to play better basketball. I can’t coach them to be seven feet tall.” So, talented athletes are still very desirable.

There were many positives and some negatives associated with this co-located and hence almost constant office moving phenomenon, for both the individual and the business. As I said earlier there is a disruption to your ability to execute your responsibilities while you are moving. This affects your, and those that are dependent on your productivity. At least for a while. This was and, in some instances, still is debatable based on some roles and activities that I have seen.

On the business side there is the cost. There are two basic costs associated with all this moving. The lost productivity that I have already noted, and the cost of the team and staff of resources that were constantly planning and executing these moves. Depending on the size of the business location, there had to be a small army of people available to bring boxes, and then move and transport boxes to the new location. There had to be a logistics team working with the Information technology team to make sure that connectivity and communications were available, at the appropriate time at the new office (or cube) location.

Moving was not cheap. Therefore, it was expected that the synergy that co-location generated had to be good enough to offset this cost. For the most part it seemed that it was.

Another good thing about moving was that it presented the opportunity to go through your stuff, take stock of what you needed and throw away all the rest. It was sort of a forced purging opportunity. As an aside, I have a friend who used to take pride in the thirty to forty boxes of stuff that he took with him whenever he moved. He is an engineer and believes that there will come a day when he will need some of the documents or calculations that he has created over the last decade plus for something else he may be working on.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I am sure he will be prepared. Like I said, engineer.

The periodic purging associated with a move was the opportunity to get rid of stuff, primarily paper-based communications and documentation, when it was no longer needed. I have hit the point that if I haven’t looked at something in the last year or two, then I don’t need it. I think this is probably a good rule of thumb for everyone. Also, with the increase in machine and cloud storage capabilities, a hard copy of just about anything can seem to be a little bit of overkill.

You don’t know how much it pains me to say that. But just as I have had to change with the times and move from the tactical joy reading of actual physical books to using an e-reader, I have gone to reading a screen instead of printing a document. And they said that dinosaurs couldn’t evolve.

Organizations have also done their part in trying to reduce the costs associated with moving. Initially they started limiting the number of boxes that you could have / they would move. Now as we continue to move toward more and more of an “open office” concept, where no one has a defined office, there is also the requisite limitation on the amount of stuff that you can have based on what has now become a limitation on the amount of physical storage that is available.

If you don’t have any place to put it or store it, then you are forced to get rid of it.

The result is that what used to happen every two to three years, and cost both the individual and the corporation a lot of money in employee discomfort and lost productivity, as well as the maintenance of a staff the size of a small army to assist in making these moves, are now both essentially gone. In the open office environment there is no defined office to move either from or to. Storage for the physical accoutrements of an office have been so minimized, and document retention has now been virtualized that there is no longer any significant amount that ever needs to be moved.

The office itself has also been virtualized. There are now both remote offices and home offices in addition to the open offices. It seems now that if you want to keep any “stuff” you will probably have to keep it in your home office. I tried this once. Then my wife complained about all my clutter. I told her it was what I needed to captain industry. She told me to get rid of it.

I personally think she was in cahoots with the corporate Workplace Resources group in this regard. Though, admittedly the home office does look cleaner.

But, I can’t help but wonder, if businesses saw such a value in the concept of having everybody actually physically work together, to the point that it outweighed the costs associated with making sure that they could work together, what happened to that value? Economics teaches us that there is no free lunch. The cost – benefit analysis of business is based on the same principles. There is a cost or investment for every benefit you get. 

Has someone, somewhere gone through the analysis associated with virtual / home / open offices and compared the hard, recognizable cost savings with the somewhat softer and much harder to quantify lost synergy values. In the past it was believed that the synergies outweighed the costs. Was everyone wrong for so long and now those ideas no longer hold true?

I think the answer lies in the “hard” cost and “soft” value equation that I mentioned earlier. It is easy to define how much is saved when most of the costs associated with moving offices are eliminated. It is a number. It exists in a budget. When it is reduced or cut, it can be tracked.

The same cannot be said for the values generated by having people work together in the same office as opposed to “virtually”. I think everyone believes there is a value associated with that type of working environment, but I is almost impossible to quantitatively put a hard number to that value.

You can estimate it, but that is never as good as a well-defined cost reduction. The result is that a definable cost has been reduced, and an undefinable value has also been reduced. But since the value was undefinable in the first place, the amount of reduction to it is also undefinable.

I really didn’t like moving offices all those times that I had to do it in the past. I think that we are going to dislike what we may have lost by not having to move anymore.

The Territorial Imperative

“The Territorial Imperative”, or more correctly, “The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry Into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations”, was written in 1966 by Robert Ardrey. It along with the “The Naked Ape”, or again more correctly “The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal” which was written in 1967 by Desmond Morris, are probably the first two books I read that were not written by Theodor Geisel, more commonly known as Doctor Seuss.

I didn’t choose to read them at that time. They were assigned to me one summer. I was getting ready to enter the fifth grade and attend a new school. I was told that they were preparatory work that needed to be completed before I could go to the new school.

I personally thought this concept sucked at the time, as summers were supposed to be school free, and here I was being required to read a couple of books.

What is interesting to me is that now, all these years later, these books and the topics that they covered are now coming back to me in the business world.

Initially both of these books were considered somewhat ground breaking in that they sought to explain the source of some human behaviors. Till then man (man as homo-sapiens the species, not man as a gender, for those of you who might have been getting ready to go full scale gender bias ballistic on me) was viewed as primarily a cognitive creature. What these books examined was the idea that man was also driven by certain instincts which also affected its behavior.

This was pretty radical and somewhat heady stuff for that time period. I’m pretty sure that as a would-be fifth grader I didn’t fully grasp a great deal of what the authors were trying to get across. I knew that it made me feel somewhat funny though. That is funny-strange, not funny-haha.

For those of you who have not read The Territorial Imperative, the following is a quick synopsis:

“It describes the evolutionarily determined instinct among humans toward territoriality and the implications of this territoriality in human meta-phenomena such as property ownership and nation building. … Ardrey posited that man originated in Africa instead of Asia, that he is driven by inherited instincts to acquire land and defend territory, and that the development of weapons was a fundamental turning point in his evolution. The Territorial Imperative further explores these ideas with a special emphasis on man’s distinct preoccupation with the concept of territory. It goes on to elucidate the role that inherited evolutionary instinct, particularly the so-called “territorial imperative”, plays in modern human society in phenomena such as property ownership and nation building.”

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

More simply put Ardrey posited that one of man’s driving instincts is to own and defend territory.

With that idea in mind, now look back at every business organizational structure and office / cubicle arrangement and apply this thesis to it. It ought to be somewhat enlightening. It also ought to explain why, when we are hired on, we are given “our space”, be it a desk, or cubicle, or whatever. It is now our physical, as well as metaphorical territory. We instinctively know that we must “work” in order to defend it.

As we matriculated up through management we acquired larger physical territories (bigger cubes and eventually offices) as well as larger spans of control over others and their cubes and offices. These territories were then defended against both internal and external competitors.

But it seems that times are changing. At least when it comes to office space. Business organizations have started to move away from the concept of the business territorial imperative. Office size and location are seeming to be done away with as companies move to the “Open Office” concept.

In the open office structure, no one has any more territory that anyone else. In fact, there are no specific assigned locations of any kind. Instead of having “your” desk, cube, office, territory, it is first-come first-served in the seating arrangements. Desk, or more accurately table-space is shared. There is no distinction between levels and spaces. It is positioned as egalitarian and a better office structure for all those involved.

It seems to me that the more things change the more they stay the same. I was looking at some old pictures of office spaces in the 1950’s. It was some pretty interesting stuff. Below is one that caught my eye, primarily because it was in color. Most of the rest of them seem to be in black and white. For comparison’s sake, I didn’t want to try and compare a black and white photo to a color one. Take a look.

This is the modern office, circa 1958. That’s more than sixty years ago. It’s neat. It’s orderly. It’s “open”. What is not to like about it?

Now let’s fast forward a little more than sixty years to today. Here is a look at what is called a “Mezzanine Floor” open office design.

Except for a little better photography and perspective use, I’m not seeing a whole lot of difference, read “progress” here.

The difference is that in the 1950’s you had “your space”. You were assigned a desk. As small as it was, it was your territory. That is where you went to work. Now, you don’t. In the “open office” you can come in and sit anywhere. If you are promoted and given more responsibility, or assigned a new role, you still come in and the same rules apply. You come in and sit wherever you choose.

I don’t know how good or bad, this new (or in this case “old”) open office concept is going to be. I haven’t had the opportunity to try it out yet. But it appears that I will have this opportunity soon. I am going to be interested to see how this return to the past is going to work and how it will affect a workforce that has not been in this environment before.

Many people I know have said that they have in the past or are now currently working in such environments. I also notice that a very high percentage of them now “work at home” in a home office. This high correlation between open office environments and working at home is probably just a coincidence.

Really.

It is probably also a coincidence that “your” home office is a fixed location within “your” home.

The Territorial Imperative was a ground-breaking book. It submitted that man, while being a reasoning creature was also driven by certain instincts, one of which was to define its own territory. It was shown that the defining and defending of these territories was one of the basic drives, and a significant driving force in human growth and evolution.

Maybe I am reaching, but I find it interesting that the same principles could be applied, to a greater or lesser extent in organizational and office dynamics. I also find it interesting that we seem to be in the midst of a period where organizations appear to be actively removing this behavior driver.

In the past, the “trappings of office” were recognized as one of the driving forces that was a cause for people to input that extra amount of effort. You wanted the bigger office. It was a symbol of your success.

I guess on the other side of the coin, your bigger office might have been a symbol of someone else’s lack of success. In today’s age of participation trophies and ninth place ribbons, the desire may not be so much to remove the symbol of success, but to remove the symbol of the lack of success of others. I guess if everyone sits at the same sort of desk, with the same amount of space, with no predefined location, no one can feel bad, or good about their territory, or their apparent lack of it.

On the other hand, in today’s hyper-competitive business environment, reducing the office space allocated to each employee, regardless of relative organizational position, might be a pretty good way of reducing what was once thought to be a relatively expensive fixed cost.

It is interesting that the reintroduction of an office environment that was evolved away from, more than half a century ago is being viewed as a “new and improved” (to borrow from most new products advertising mantras) step forward. It will also be interesting to see how it changes office behaviors.

Will there be an increase in the flight from the office to the home office? Will there be a reduction in the commitment to the assignment and the company on a greater level since there will no longer be a defined territory associated with the office? Despite these and other potential questions, as well as the recent research that shows such open office environments are not particularly conducive to organizational productivity, (“The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration”, Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban,  Published:02 July 2018 https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239 https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239) I think we are all going to get the chance to experience the open office for ourselves. We have seen that man is an adaptable species. He lives in igloos in the arctic and grass huts in the rain-forests, and just about everywhere in between. I guess he can try working in an open office as well.

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.