Category Archives: Decision Making

Looking a Little Farther Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions, Costs and Confirmation Bias

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess it can also be said that the best solution is also in the eye of the beholder. It probably also depends on who you ask. The problem is that the best solution depends on the relative criteria associated with the issue that requires a solution. It also depends on the lens that each individual looks through when they are trying to craft a solution.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who was most notably remembered for his ideas on the hierarchy of human needs. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book, but that is not why I am citing him here. He also said:

“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

and variants thereof, which is from Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

And here-in lies the issue.

What seems to occur is that if you are trained as a lawyer, you are taught to view every issue from a legal standpoint. If you are a marketer, you view every issue from a marketing point of view. If you are in finance it is always about money. The view you have of business influences the view you have of issues and their respective best solutions. And so on.

This is absolutely the case for engineers. It seems that if you are an engineer, everything is an engineering problem, and therefore an elegant engineering solution is probably not only possible, it is highly desirable. For engineers, it doesn’t seem to matter what the specific issue criteria are. Topics such as cost and time required take a back seat when it comes to engineers. It always comes back to engineering the best engineering solution.

For those of you (like me) who are not engineers, and who have argued with engineers in the past, you will probably very clearly understand the following. For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, be patient. I am sure that you will get your opportunity to argue with one in the near future.

There is an old saying regarding arguing with engineers. It is so old that no matter how I researched it (two or three variants of searches on Google) I could not find any direct attribution as to the original author. The saying goes:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud. After a while you realize that the pig is enjoying it.”

But I have digressed enough. With the possible exception of noting that engineers are usually much more associated with costs than sales. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The point that I am trying to make here in my own clumsy way, is to point out that regardless of what the defined criteria may be regarding an issue’s potential solutions, we all have a bias as to how we would go about creating our best solution. This type of bias has a specific psychological name: confirmation bias.

Between my earlier discussions regarding Maslow, and now confirmation bias, I seem to have taken on quite a psychological bent here.

Shahram Heshmat (Ph.D.) in his blog states confirmation bias occurs when we have formed a view on a topic, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias).

I brought this idea up to an engineering friend of mine. He said every problem should be viewed as an engineering problem, and started arguing with me again. Having just cleaned the mud off from the last time, I didn’t engage.

Confirmation bias is an interesting topic when it comes to management, leadership, and issues. This is especially true when it comes to looking at two very important aspects of any business: sales and costs. I will hedge my comments here with the qualifier “for the most part” in that there are definitely exceptions to every generalization. But for argument’s sake, I will go ahead and generalize a little.

When it comes to setting sales targets, who sets the goals?

Those of you that said sales are wrong.

Management usually sets the sales goals. They ask for bottoms up forecasts and expectations from the sales teams, which they will usually review and find lacking in that they do not meet the financial and or growth expectations for the company. They will then ratchet up the targets to be more in line with the company’s needs and requirements, and issue them to the sales team to achieve.

The confirmation bias here is that management believes and expects that sales will provide them with a lower set of sales forecast targets because it provides the sales team a higher probability of achieving those targets. When sale provides a forecast, regardless of its veracity, that is lower than management expectations, this bias is confirmed.

I really don’t think I have ever been part of an organization where the sales team ever provided a sales forecast which was greater than management expectations. Perhaps my own confirmation bias is that management sales expectations will always exceed the sales team’s expectations, regardless of the market conditions.

On the other side of the spectrum lie costs. When it comes to setting costs, it is usually engineers that set them. While there is usually a similar process of setting up costs and budgets associated with products and services (I am not going to look at specific disciplines or functional groups here, just the costs associated with deliverable products and services) where the cost groups (usually containing at least some engineers) are consulted regarding their input into the costing model.

Herein is where the processes begin to diverge. Management has the ability and bias to step in and alter or impose their sales demands on the sales experts, but does not have nearly the same inclination to alter or impose their wills on the cost experts and groups.

Their confirmation bias is that the cost groups are doing their very best to keep costs low, even though the cost group has the same rationale as the sales group when it comes to setting targets. Higher cost targets for the cost group are obviously much easier to achieve than lower cost targets.

The resulting higher costs drive higher prices and a sales team that is invariably told to “sell value, not price”.

This may have been an acceptable mantra when there was discernable value (and price) differences associated with products and services. In some instances, there still may be, but the race to the bottom regarding minimally acceptable product quality and service levels at the lowest compliant price seems to have mitigated all but the basic pricing and functionality topics as differentiators.

Customers do not particularly care what a supplier of products or services costs are. They care about the supplier’s price. And quality. In that order.

A colleague of mine mentioned that the incentives and commissions associated with sales incite the striving behaviors associated with good sales teams, while there is no similar incentive plan in place to incite a similar striving approach to reducing cost budgets for the cost groups. Sales teams make at least partial commissions, proportional to their sales target achievement, even if they don’t fully meet their sales objectives.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the compensation plans associated with the cost teams so that they more accurately reflect the need for continued cost budget reduction instead of the current cost budget achievement structure.

Nominally the market sets the price for a good or service. The market is made up of customers. Even Apple with its ubiquitous iPhone faces market challenges from the likes of Samsung, LG and other smartphone producers. If Apple raises its price too high they risk losing share, and profitability to competitors.

Apple is immensely profitable. They are also a veritable tyrannosaur when it comes to working and controlling their costs. If you don’t believe me, try becoming one of their suppliers and selling them something. I have been a part of organizations that have done this. It can be a challenge, to put it politely.

It would seem that Apple’s culture may have evolved out beyond the confirmation bias dichotomy associated with sales and costs to the point where they continue to challenge themselves with respect to their cost structures, and engineering solutions. They seem to have created a market cache, expectation and demand that may have enabled them to restructure their cost model focus in order to maximize their profits.

That is truly speculation on my part, but it is a theory that would seem to be supported by the empirical observations of them in the market.

Companies that are looking to maximize their profit potential probably need to do a little internal analysis to understand their own costing processes and capabilities. There are many that are still looking at them from a bottom up, confirmation bias based point of view. Apple has recognized that their costs and their product price really have very little relationship and should be treated as almost totally unrelated items.

This approach would allow product and service providers to focus on their sales strategies and their costs strategies in separate, but similar ways. It would seem that the best solution has proven to be to engineer your products and services, not your costs, and instead to treat your costs with the same type of aggressive objective setting that you treat your sales.

Off-Shoring

One of the hottest debates going on in business these days is the debate regarding what work, if any, will stay in the supposedly high cost country and what work will be sent to the supposedly low cost country. This is the function that is usually referred to as off-shoring. There are many factors that seem to be taken into account with this decision, but there are also several factors that don’t seem to be included. It appears that the only major factor that companies really consider in the off-shoring decision is the relative wage differential of the existent workforce versus the prospective workforce. Having gone through, worked with and reviewed some of these types of working environments, it has made me wonder if there are other factors that should be reviewed before these decisions get made.

The bottom line in all of these out-sourcing or off-shoring decisions seems to be doing what is perceived as best for the organization’s bottom line. This is also somewhat subjective depending on which of the shores you find yourself. The idea is to save money. All other factors will be dealt with or considered in due course. And one of the best ways to save money is to try and reduce the cost of your labor associated with the function in question. Are there other people in other places in the world that can and will be paid less per person to do the work in question?

On the surface the answer to this question is almost always “yes”.

If the only factor to be considered is the wage rate paid to the resources doing the work, then the decision is always an easy one.

But things are usually never that easy.

The first jobs to experience this sort of movement were the production and manufacturing jobs. Production lines and repetitive functions were sent elsewhere. Business cases were built containing the incremental cost of building a new factory as well as the reduced cost associated with the low-cost labor to staff it. Questions were answered about how long the pay-back was on the needed off-shoring investment and decisions were made. Factories and production lines were built in these low-cost countries. The production of simple and basic products was then moved.

I am not going to continue too far down this line of thinking because we all know where it goes. More and more, and more production functions have been off-shored. These are finite directed positions that perform repetitive processes at a fixed rate, to create large numbers of similar products.

Let’s now fast forward a few decades.

Almost every business function is now subject to the discussions associated with which shore it should be on. One of the biggest issues associated with any proposed move now, is that the work being considered is usually more variable than the production work of the past, and it is more subjective in its execution.

While a production line will move along at a fixed rate enabling all participants in the production line to work at the same rate, the same cannot, and should not be said about knowledge based disciplines. Do all people who write software code, or design hardware do it at the same speed? Are they all equally proficient at their respective disciplines? Are all accountants or financial managers at the same competency level?

On an even more basic level, do all locations have the same financial drives, work culture, language fluency and associated work styles when it comes to delivering the required work products? Remember now we are discussing complex or service oriented work products, not physical products such as consumer electronics or other real goods.

It is no longer just a question of the difference in the hourly wage rates, or salaries of the teams involved. The question now moves into the somewhat murkier areas of work force effectiveness and work force efficiency.

Efficiency and effectiveness refers to how many resources it takes in each relative location to accomplish the desired work, and how long it takes them to do it. Too many times it is assumed that one workforce is as proficient as another. This might have been the case on the fixed speed production line (after appropriate training and time to come up to speed), but is it correct to apply these same principles to non-production line types of work and service products?

This is neither a case for or against the off-shoring and cost reduction push. These are tidal type forces that will continue until some sort of economic equilibrium is reached. This is more a question of identifying, accepting and analyzing the total costs associated with each proposed workforce location decision.

Just because it takes ten highly motivated, well educated, relatively expensive resources in one global location to deliver a satisfactory work product, does not mean that it will take the same number of similarly motivated, similarly educated relatively inexpensive resources in another global location to deliver the same work product in the same amount of time.

Research has shown that it usually takes more people, and more time for the lower waged (and supposedly lower cost) locations to accomplish the same tasks and deliver the same work products. (https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/offshoring/failures.html)

What this means is that it is not just the relative cost of each hour of work that must be examined in the off-shoring decision. It is also the relative number of hours of work that are required at each location that must be included in the equation. That means that the relative number of people (spending hours on the work) and the length of time that they spend (how many hours) should also be taken into account.

If it takes five people one month to do the work at a higher cost location, and it takes eight people two months to do the work at lower cost location, the resulting total cost of work delivery may yield a very different work location decision that just the straight hourly wage comparison that has been so popular in the past.

On the other hand, it should be noted that if the relative wage differential is great enough, even these types of labor inefficiencies can be overcome.

I try to focus on real and definable costs. The relative number of hours used and the relative wage rates at each location in question are either known or can be estimated with some relative amount of accuracy. These are usually real numbers that deliver real relative costs. As always there are other factors that can be associated with the off-shoring question. I’ll list a few of them, but as they are less quantifiable in their effect, it will be difficult assign an actual value to them.

Are there incremental but hard to quantify costs associated with the increased complexity of the operations, IT, infrastructure and security associated with an off-shoring. In today’s hacker infested world one would think that adding facilities and resources in other global locations would have an effect on these types of costs. However, it is hard to add them into any comparative costing discussion.

There are considerations that should be observed regarding the relative quality of the work product generated in each location. Are there bugs in the software? Are there differences in the way customer support is provided that affect customer satisfaction? These are difficult issues to quantify, at least prior to having to try and resolve them.

Communications will also become more difficult. What was once a real-time conversation may now become a series of emails, depending on the relative time zones associated with the differing locations, potentially across multiple days. The overall speed at which things are accomplished, or issues resolved can become problematic.

The cost of management should also be expected to increase as well. At least initially, expatriate management will need to be present at the off-shore site to setup the new functions and oversee them. Depending on how things progress, their presence could extend over a significant period.

For those of you not familiar with the expatriate role, these people are expensive. They are normally paid at the “high cost” location salary rate, and their expenses for staying in the low-cost location are usually also covered by the company. They are in effect paid close to twice for the inconvenience of living in one location and working in another.

The final “soft” cost that I will address is the public perception of moving jobs out of their current location and to another, as well as the potential exposure associated with future governmental regulations associated with this activity. Market movements associated with drives to “Buy Local” and legislation designed to increase the expense associated with off-shoring are gaining traction in multiple locations.

It is easy to see why low wage rates in other parts of the world may be attractive. As companies continue to become more virtual in their natures’ Virtual Office can mean an office anywhere on the globe. The initial success and savings generated by moving the simple and repetitive off-shore has given rise to the desire to move more and more complex and unique functions as well. This complexity and uniqueness affects the efficiency and effectiveness of the model.

While the relative wage differential will continue to be an important factor in the off-shoring equation, other factors will continue to increase in importance as the off-shoring drive continues to move up the business complexity curve.

The Review Process

I got to thinking about all of the reviews that I have had the pleasure of sitting through, or have been sentenced to, as the case may be. Both the ones that I conducted and the ones that I just got to attend. They are a sometimes interesting, and sometimes not so interesting mix of development, product, marketing, finance, sales, operations and ultimately business reviews where there was a little of each of the previously mentioned disciplines covered. They have ranged in length from the relatively short one hour to the interminably long multiple days in length. I have traveled internationally to attend, present or conduct them as well as done the same over the phone. Throughout all of these reviews, the most important thing that I learned is that it is up to the review leader, not the review process, to make the review useful.

I think it is reasonably apparent that no one likes to be the bearer of bad news in a review. We all like to feel that we can and should be able to march triumphantly into the review and present as well as receive only good news. Schedules are being met. Sales are up. Earnings are good. Enough said. Take a bow. Let’s get out of here.

Admittedly I have been in only a few reviews like that, very few.

However, most of the time I have found that a review usually contains some good news, some bad news and more than a significant amount of extraneous information. Extraneous information is the information that is presented about the activities conducted by the presenter, that are other than the assigned topics that they were given to present on. Extraneous information is what fills up the extra charts and time in almost every review. It has evolved to almost become and expected part of the review process.

I think this might be another opportunity for the coining of another one of the specifically not famous “Gobeli Laws of Business”:

“If allowed to go unchecked the amount of extraneous information that is included in each successive periodic review will grow to a point where it renders the review almost useless.”

Since everybody likes to present good news, and since not all news is good news, people will almost always try and compensate for any possibly perceived bad news in a review by presenting more and more other extraneous information. This information, while possibly interesting to the presenter, and is usually positioned to sound like highly functional activity levels and good news, while in reality it is likely of limited use to the person conducting the review.

This type of information distracts from and obfuscates the important information to be imparted at the review, while continuing to maintain the appearance, flow and process of the review. Unless it is specifically cited and prohibited, almost every presenter at a review will probably include some of this type of information “filler”. The result will be overall less time available to deal with any potentially germane or relevant review topics.

I think I have mentioned before that I matriculated through management within the General Management business model as opposed to the seemingly more in vogue Process Oriented business model of today. It seemed then that objectives were mandatory and processes were guidelines as opposed to the current structures where the reverse seems to be the rule. Ownership of an end to end deliverable objective made reviews that much easier. Progress against an objective is always easier to measure than progress on a process.

The purpose of objective oriented reviews is two-fold: the avoidance of surprises, and the identification of actions for the resolution of issues. They are not and should not become opportunities for everyone to tell everyone else what they are doing.

One of the first rules of business is that there should be no surprises when it comes to performance. Everyone should have an objective, know how they are doing against that objective and be able to succinctly report that information. This approach should be applicable to every business discipline. There can be no excuse for “surprise” misses to sales targets, or budget overruns, headcount and staffing levels, profitability, etc. Providing this type of information is the responsibility of the review presenter.

Once a potential issue or objective miss is identified in the review, a plan of action to bring the objective miss back under control should be the next function of the review. A specific set of activities, and activity owners need to be identified and assigned. Performing this type of function is the responsibility of the review owner. Notice that I didn’t say solving the problem is the review owner’s responsibility. I’ll get back to this point later.

I think this also might be another opportunity for the coining of another one of the specifically not famous “Gobeli Laws of Business”:

“The best type of issue to have in business is one that you prepared for, and avoided.”

This is the focus of reviews. To enable the team to foresee, and take action to avoid issues associated with objectives. It should be with these review objectives in mind that reviews are conducted. If the material covered does not directly apply to these objectives, it should not be included.

There may also be a secondary focus on understanding the cause of the identified issue so that steps can be taken to avoid similar issues in the future, but I have found that these types of root cause analyses should probably be taken outside the review. This has the benefit of keeping the review to a shorter more manageable length, as well as minimizing the impression among all attendees of creating a negative environment for reporting issues.

Everyone has issues at one time or another in obtaining their objectives. A public examination of why they missed as opposed to a public plan on how they can recover will usually generate a more conducive environment where issues are identified and discussed as opposed to being glossed over.

If a review is allowed to become a matter of process, where the purpose of the review is lost in the extraneous information that each presenting group imparts to the other presenting groups detailing all the activities they are doing, but precious few of the issues they are encountering, then its value is lost. They should be times to challenge both management and each other. They are opportunities to do better.

I always looked at reviews as opportunities for the team to suggest solutions to issues. Issues are to be expected. Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, who was Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff in the mid nineteenth century is credited as saying:

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

This has also been simplified and paraphrased down to:

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

What this means is that once you start the implementation of anything, stuff happens that requires you to adjust both your plan and the way you implement it. In short, issues occur. And how you deal with them will directly affect the success of the endeavor and the achievement of the objective.

The sooner the issue can be identified, and the more information that can be supplied about it, the better the resulting response can be.

This again, should be one of the driving goals of the review. Everyone wants to avoid issues. The best way I know how to do this is to get them identified as early as possible and then take the requisite steps to mitigate, and hopefully avoid them.

I think the hidden key to the review is that each reported or identified issue needs to be accompanied by an associated solution. It should not be the review leader’s responsibility to solve all the issues. This is a situation that seems to have evolved in a process driven organization, in that it is usually only the leader that has purview over the entire system. Hence any issue associated with any step falls to them to resolve.

In an objective oriented review, it should be the responsibility of each individual that identifies an issue to also provide a suggested course of resolution. They are the ones who identified the issue. They should be the ones closest to it and in the best position to affect its resolution.

It will be the leader’s responsibility to accept, reject or modify the recommendation. It should not be the leader’s responsibility to generate the recommendation.

It seems more and more common that reviews are becoming just another step in a process. A box to be checked off. They seem to have lost some of their true purpose. That is a shame.

I have been in plenty of reviews where the time was spent and the motions gone through, and not much else was accomplished. But I can also remember many of the reviews where issues of substance were identified and dealt with. Where team members got to display their leadership capabilities when it came to solving their own and others issues. And where things got done.

They were challenging reviews where performance against the objectives was reviewed, hard questions were asked, and answered, and where the results were what drove the process.

Judgement

I read an article the other day by Stephanie Vozza in “Fast Times”. (https://www.fastcompany.com/3068771/how-employees-at-apple-and-google-are-more-productive ) It was one of their “4 Minute / Work Smart” articles. I normally am not too inclined to read these types of articles, but for some reason I did read this one. While it was ostensibly about why employees at Apple and Google are more productive, there was a passage in it that both resonated with me, as well as rang significant alarms. It captured what I have been feeling, and writing about regarding business and leadership in such a succinct way that I felt I had to address it. In her discussion regarding Organizational Drag, and the associated costs and losses to business due to processes, Vozza said:

“This often happens as a company grows, as the tendency is to put processes in place to replace judgment.”

Wow. I think she hit the nail on the head. Process is implemented to replace judgement. I do think there ought to be a qualifier in ahead of that last statement such as “Most processes, when over implemented…”. Many processes when implemented as guidelines do provide a needed and efficient methodology for accomplishing repetitive tasks. It is when they are over-expanded, applied and relied on for all facets of an organization that they cause drag and sap judgement.

A quick Googling of the word “judgement” provides the following definition:

“the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.”

Let’s tap the brakes here for a minute. Are we really saying that we want to replace people’s ability to make considered decisions, or to come to sensible conclusions with some sort of follow by rote process? Isn’t judgement one of the key attributes of business leadership and business stewardship? And not just judgement, but good judgement.

There are a lot of people who have said something along the lines of:

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”

Will Rogers, the American humorist said it in the 1930s. Simon Bolivar, one of the great heroes of the South American Hispanic independence movements of the early 19th century, said it in the early 1800s. I think you get my point. A lot of people have talked about the need for, and how you get good judgement. We would all like to think we were just born with it, but that is usually not the case.

The primary method of gaining good judgement is to learn it through experience.

So, again let me get this straight. It seems that by implementing so many processes to avoid the potential costs associated with errors and bad judgement, businesses are both creating the incremental expense of organizational drag that Vozzie noted, as well as removing the opportunity for team members to practice and gain good judgement through the experience of learning.

I don’t know about you, but I came up through business hearing the mantra surrounding management’s desire that we take (reasonable) risks in our efforts to improve the business. This is in line with the risk and return economic model. This model would require the use of judgement to ascertain what the contributing factors to the risk were, and did the expected return justify the business decision in question. The process oriented model would remove these opportunities.

Process, when used as a guideline and milestone marker can be a powerful tool. It seems that whenever it goes beyond this and starts generating ever finer detailed steps, is when it starts to generate issues both in terms of organizational drag, and what I think is potentially the greater long term risk, the stunting of leadership growth.

The Fast Times article mentions the total cost lost to organizational drag associated with process at approximately three trillion dollars. That’s a three with twelve (count ‘em, twelve) zeroes behind it. This seems like a relatively expensive price to pay to avoid whatever the number of errors associated with bad judgement (the learning process) and the costs that they would generate. One would suspect that by just flipping a coin one would hope to be correct on average at least half the time.

By removing judgement in favor of process future leaders are no longer able to get the experience (and judgement) that they will need as they move into leadership positions. The process experience that individuals gain in its place may be useful in a more predictable or production line type organization (secondary type economy sector – producing finished goods, e.g. factories making toys, cars, food, and clothes), but as the economy continues its evolution further into a tertiary sector (offering intangible goods and services to customers) I would think that judgement, and in particular good judgement would not only be preferred, but a necessity.

I think one of the ways to deal with the “Process versus Leadership” issue may be to dial back the drive for process just a little bit. I think we have all heard the adage that if a little bit of something is good then a whole lot more of it should be better. I think we are all aware of the fallacy behind that type of thinking as well. But, it appears to be the creeping mind set of many companies as they grow in size and expand across different geographical and technological markets.

It is all too seductive to aspire to manage all sorts of diverse markets and technologies via standardized processes. If it worked once in one place it becomes a goal to make it work every time in every place. Once that process starts it appears to be a slippery slope of incrementing just one more step in each process to take into account each new business or market variation that must be dealt with. The desire for repetitive and interchangeable processes leads to both product and market biases that can result in multiple missed opportunities as well as the organizational drag that has already been noted.

I think leaders may need to start thinking of the drive for processes as points on a scale. On one end of the spectrum there is a fully structured, process oriented organization. This would be an organization where very little judgement is required, the function or market are stable and little variation is required.

Accounting comes to mind, but that might just be me.

On the other end of the spectrum would be a completely judgement based organization where each new opportunity is unique and would require its own new set of potential processes for implementation. I am sure there are other examples, but organizations that conduct search and rescue operations along the lines of the freeing of the trapped Chilean miners in 2010 might be a good example of such a unique organization.

Obviously, in reality most businesses lie somewhere between these endpoints. There will most likely be multiple organizations within the business that are distributed along the process – judgement scale. What concerns me is that as process continues to be implemented in greater detail and into new areas, business run the risk of both alienating their current leaders in that their judgement will no longer be desired, and hampering the development of their future leaders as the opportunities to gain judgment are replaced with the continually more complex process.

Businesses need to begin learning to resist the desire to replace judgement with process, and understand that there needs to be a balance between the two. Just as many organizations seem to have a built-in resistance to change, they also seem to have a built-in desire for predictability which process seems to satisfy.

However, nothing comes without a cost. The implementation of process can create a stable, repeatable, predictable organization, but its costs can be seen in the organization’s inability to quickly respond to changing conditions, the resulting costs associated with organizational drag, and reduction in the use and availability of good judgement.

The Short Horizon

As the pace of business continues to accelerate, there seems to be one aspect of the business process model that is struggling to keep up: The Business Case. There was a time where capital expenditures were looked upon as long term investments by the business. The life-cycle and pay-back processes, as well as the accounting amortization of these investments, were expected to last years, and in some instances, even decades. The average business case became attuned to these norms.

But those days are long gone. As the speed with which technology has changed has continued, by necessity the business case used to justify the new or incremental investment has needed to become shorter. If Moore’s law of eighteen-month capability doubling (it was actually Intel executive David House, who predicted that chip performance would double every 18 months. Gordon Moore, for whom the law is named, was the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, and whose 1965 paper described a doubling every two years in the number of transistors per integrated circuit was the basis for the coining of the “law”) is to be believed, then the asymptote for the length of an acceptable business case should approach that eighteen month to two year limit as well.

That doesn’t mean that a product’s useful life is only limited to eighteen months. I think quite the contrary. There are aspects of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) that have been in place for more than fifty years, and are still providing beneficial service to the communications carriers and their subscribers alike.

On the other hand, people are known to line up and over-night camp out every eighteen to twenty-four months in order to be the first to get the next generation of the Apple iPhone.

It appears that customers who are being asked for either capital or operational expenditures associated with technology oriented products, are driving their partners and their vendors to ever more rigorous and aggressive value propositions and rates of return. This is the genesis of the short horizon business case.

The simplest definition of value is how much money is made or saved over what period of time. The more you make, or the more you save over a given period, the better the value. In the past it was acceptable for a business case to extend out over a long enough time period as to show an acceptable return. If the initial business case for the sale didn’t make sense for one period of time, it was easy just to lengthen out the time frame until it did.

What appears to be happening is that as the rate of technological based product change has continued at the speed of Moore’s Law, the period that a customer is willing to measure value has shrunk. Business cases still need to show the customer value, they now must do it in far less time. The tried and true form of extending the business case period to make the value and pay back equations work is now gone. Customers will no longer accept it, and are driving for shorter and shorter review periods.

I think there are several factors in addition to technical obsolescence that are helping to drive a short horizon on the business case:

As each new generation of technology arrives it almost exponentially drives down the (residual) value of previous generations. I think it is no secret that one generation old technology is viewed as old and disadvantaged, and that two-generation old technology is probably approaching the zero value state. We have all seen this in our consumer based technology purchases as well. Products get old so quickly that we have developed a disposable attitude toward them. With Personal computers now going for a few hundred dollars, what is the value of a two-generation old computer? What was once repaired and retained is now simply expected to be replaced.

How would consumers (and manufacturers) react if the same logic was applied to say, automobiles and two to three model year old car was considered almost valueless?

We also see (comparatively) decreasing operational returns as each new technology generation is introduced. This means that as each new product gets smaller and more efficient the value of generating operational savings associated with the previous generation of product also tends to get devalued.

The idea of saving something with what you have is not as attractive as the possibility of saving more with something new. I guess this is what they call “Marketing”.

I think one of the final evolution’s of the short horizon business case is the “Cloud”. I am sure everyone has heard of this thing. It’s in all the magazines.

One of the many ways that manufacturers and vendors have adapted to the evolving business case rules is to try and remove both the obsolescence associated with technology and to more closely align the delivered solution with the customer’s need. The idea being that if a customer only needs a four-unit solution but the technology only comes in six or eight unit increments, there is a delivered solution miss-match.

By delivering a function from the cloud as opposed to a product based solution, the vendor has effectively removed technology obsolescence from the customer’s decision process, as well as matched the required amount of solution with the required amount of need.

The net result is a much shorter period needed to achieve the required business case. Customer purchases can be made in smaller increments, which in turn only require smaller pay-backs. Future product purchases and existing product obsolescence are removed from the customer’s decision criteria as the customer is now only purchasing the product’s function, not the product itself. The obsolescence issue, and all the other costs associated with operation of the product are now retained by the vendor (and should be built into their business case).

The continued drive for more value has driven customers and business cases to the short horizon. Capital for technology can no longer be viewed as a long-term investment. It must be judged and justified by how quickly it can pay back on its cost and the relative business value it generates. It is this drive for better business returns that continues to reduce the time scale associated with the business case.

This trend would appear to potentially be a seed cause for future changes to the way business is conducted. On one hand it will continue to make the sale of capital based technology products more difficult. By demanding shorter pay-back and business case periods, customers are in essence expecting lower prices for products, and higher value delivered. That is a demanding and difficult environment for any supplier.

It should also continue to drive product virtualization and the Cloud as ways for suppliers to retain costs and risks, and hence remove them from the customer’s business case. This will continue to be an interesting market, but not all technologies and products may be potential candidates for the cloud.

It could also be argued that a potentially unexpected result of the drive to align business cases with product life cycles could be the reversal of Moore’s Law. It has long been expected that there is some sort of limit to the capacity doubling process. It has been going on for over fifty years. There are recent articles in no less than the MIT Technology Review, Ars Technica, and The Economist (to name just a few) that are now stating that Moore’s Law have in fact run its course.

And this may also be of benefit to business. If customers want to align their capital business case length with the product’s life cycle, and the current eighteen to twenty-four month life cycle of the product makes this increasingly difficult, then one of the solutions may be to lengthen the product life cycle to more than twenty-four months. If there truly is a link between business case length and product life cycle, then this could be a possible solution.

This will be an interesting cause and effect discussion. Is the potential slowing of Moore’s Law going to cause the reversing of the short horizon trend associated with customer’s business cases, or is the demand for short horizon business cases going to accelerate the slowing of Moore’s Law due to business necessities? Either way, customers are requiring businesses to change the way they put together the business case for capital technology sales, and that is having a significant effect on how business can successfully get done.

Instinct

It has been a somewhat interesting week. Many items have caught my attention and seemed as though they would be good topics to write about. I may save a few of these ideas for later articles. Some of them are probably better left out or forgotten. I don’t mind wandering off into some potentially arcane or hard to relate to business topics occasionally, but I don’t want to generate just another rant about this topic or that one and then try to relate it to business.

What I thought that was interesting today was the idea of instinct. I think we all have a basic idea of what instinct is, but since I am eventually going to relate it to business I think I may want to start out at a reasonable baseline. May favorite way of doing that is to go out to Merriam-Webster and retrieve the following “simple” definition of instinct:

“Something you know without learning it or thinking about it”.

Okay, a couple things here. First, when did Merriam-Webster start providing a “simple definition”? Really? Have we actually come to the point where we are abridging our definitions into the simplest of vernacular? I couldn’t make this up. There is now a “simple” and a “full” definition. I fear for where our society is going at this point, but I promised not to propeller off into some sort of a rant.

Second, I think I’ll go with the “full” definition, because I guess I am just that kind of person:

“A natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity”

Either way, I think you get my point. We have all met people in business that just seem to know what to do and when to do it. They make good business decisions. They can extrapolate limited data and input it into very good solutions. They make smart choices. They are said to have good instincts. But do they really?

We usually hear of “good instincts” as it applies to athletes. It seems to be some sort of method for describing why an athlete who is not biggest, fastest or most imposing physical specimen is so good at what they do.

I have mentioned in the past that I have become something of a hockey fan. Even I find this rather interesting since I grew up in the desert southwest and currently live in Texas, which as we all know is not considered a hotbed of hockey fandom. Go figure.

With that in mind, the best example of this good instincts phenomenon that I can think of is the hockey player Wayne Gretzky. The leading scorer in the history of the National Hockey League. The man who’s nick-named “The Great One”. The measuring stick for all other great hockey players.

He was not particularly big as hockey players go. He was not the fastest skater, nor did he have the hardest shot. He just scored, a lot. When he was asked how he did it, he said he didn’t go to where the puck was, but where he thought the puck would be. Based on his success it looks like he had great instincts.

Or did he? I’ll get back to this a little later as well.

Let’s fast forward to the opening day of the National Football league and the first game of the season for the Dallas Cowboys. I am not a particular Dallas Cowboys fan. That person in our house would be my wife. I am however wise enough to sit on the couch quietly while she cheers her team on. I guess it is our version of “together” time.

The game in question was a see-saw affair and was reasonably exciting. It was coming down to the last few seconds when a field goal could steal a victory for Dallas. With no time outs and just a handful of seconds left on the clock a pass was thrown to the Dallas receiver on the sidelines. All he needed to do was step out of bounds and stop the clock.

But this is where his instincts kicked in.

Instead of stepping out of bounds and stopping the clock, which in this instance was the most limited resource in the situation, the receiver turned and tried to run up field and gain a few more yards. I don’t blame him (my wife does however) because every receiver’s instinct is to maximize the gain on each individual play. Needless to say he was tackled in bounds, time ran out and Dallas lost.

It is apparent that in this instance his instincts were wrong.

Time was in fact the most importance aspect of the situation. He needed to understand that and adjust his behavior appropriately. He needed to think about where he was and the situation he, and the team were in and act accordingly.

This is easy enough to say when you are sitting on a couch next to someone who is cheering wildly, and not down on the field actually competing.

Now let’s go back to Wayne Gretzky. He gave us the definition of his “instinct”. He thought about where the puck was going to be and went there to meet it. Was the puck there every time he went to where he thought it would be? No. But he was right enough to become the leading scorer in the history of professional hockey.

The point here is that as he said, he “thought” about it. It was not instinct as we currently like and want to define it. He was able to process the game situation, formulate a plan and implement it in such a way as to be in the right place at the right time in order to score. He did not just skate around waiting for people to pass him the puck. He was always aware of the situation and adjusted accordingly.

It seems to me that Gretzky’s “instinct” was more related to the way he saw and thought about the game as he played it. He was able to process the various locations and movements on the ice and anticipate where he thought the puck would be. Then he would go there. Since hockey is a game of split second decisions as I said he wasn’t right all the time, but he was right more often than anyone else.

Now let’s talk about business. Businesses love predictability. When things are predictable, just about anyone can anticipate what is going to happen.

In hockey this would be the equivalent of everyone knowing where the puck was going with the result that all of the players would be clustered around Gretzky waiting for the puck.

But in business, like hockey, not everything is predictable. Most everyone thinks in different ways and reacts differently to different inputs. For every Wayne Gretzky or Steve Jobs, there are a number of different elite players or leaders in the game. After all, someone else had to pass Gretzky the puck in order for him to score.

I think “instinct” whether in sports or in business is not some unseen or unconscious force associated with performance, but rather the ability to process and make connections between multiple inputs and variables that result in good decisions. It is the ability to think, sometimes faster than your competition, and most times more accurately than your competition.

Knowing where to go to meet the puck, or when to get out of bounds instead of turning and running up field, or when to invest in a new product or technology comes from understanding the multiple inputs associated with each situation, thinking through the alternatives, selecting and acting upon the best one.

As I said, Gretzky did it a lot. Jobs seemed to do it more often than not. We all remember the iPod, Mac and iPad. Does anyone remember NeXT computer or the Apple Lisa? Just asking. I am sure the Dallas receiver has made many more good game play decisions than bad ones. It’s just that his last bad one had such an immediate and visible result.

Not everyone makes the right decision every time. Instincts or not, business is very much like every other game out there: How quickly can you get to the right decision. How people think and process information obviously has a great deal to do with the decisions that they make. Different situations call for different types of thinking and decisions.

I think it is our natural instinct to migrate towards people who think and act like we do. This is a normal sort of reinforcement behavior. We tend to like people who agree with us as it reinforces the decisions we make. We need to think a little more about that. I think we need to actively encourage contrary behavior and thought processes. I don’t think we should view this behavior as open defiance or insubordination, but more as a check sum verification.

In looking at a replay of the Dallas receiver’s last play of the game, one of his team mates can be clearly seen trying to get him to run out of bounds instead of up field. It seems he didn’t see him or if he did, he didn’t pay attention to him. Either way it was obvious someone else had thought about the game situation and come up with a different decision for that situation.

As I have said, not everyone makes the right decision every time. And sometimes our instincts are wrong. It’s always good to listen to and think about other possible solutions before relying on instinct and turning and running up field.

Business Cases

“My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention. My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives…”

(Hedley (not Hedy) Lamarr in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”.)

Ditto.
Extra points if you knew who said that as well as who uttered the response.

I seem to have costs on my mind (as well as a lot of other things, apparently) these days. I didn’t know what I wanted to address in this posting: Cost Reduction, Business Cases, Business Predictability all seemed to have been foremost in my mind among the possible group of posting topics. It seemed like the best thing to do was get started and see where it went. It went to “Blazing Saddles”. I don’t know if it is recoverable from there, but I will try.

Since this is nominally a Business Blog, and I did at least tangentially address cost reduction as one of the primary growth industries in business in my last posting, I think that I will head over into business cases. However, do not lament the transition away from cost reduction entirely, as costs do play an important role in the creation of any good business case.

It appears that creating or generating a really good business case is becoming a lost art. Coming up with an idea, specifying the investment parameters, analyzing the markets and demands, and ultimately defining the returns and value to the company are some of the building blocks of a successful business. It is a rigorous process (and it should be) because it deals with the lifeblood of the business – money.

This is not going to be some sort of a “how to” do a business case primer. It’s more about what they are and why they’re needed. Simply put, a business case is the justification package that you put together when you want the company or organization to invest in something. This is a very high level definition. The “something” to be invested in can be almost anything: research and development for new products, production automation equipment to reduce the labor component associated with manufacturing, additional sales people in an effort to expand the addressable market and grow sales, are just a few of the fun ones that come to mind.

Business cases are all about what the company should invest in. Investing is all about money, specifically when you spend it, how much of it you spend, when you get it back and how much more of it you get back. Businesses are in business to make money. Like every good investor, when money is spent or invested, a return is expected on that money or investment. If that does not seem to be the case, then the business case process has probably broken down.

I do not claim to be a business case guru. I have put several of them together and have found a few topics that I look for in every good business case. If you want to find out all that should be included in a business case, just Google “Business Case Template”. I think you will get a little more than eight million results.

In my experience, every good business case should have the following three major components:

What is it that is wanted?
What are you asking for and how much is it going to cost? Every business case is about asking for money. In the examples I cited above you would be asking for a specific amount of money for either research and development (people, lab space, lab equipment, etc.), money for manufacturing equipment for automated production, or money for salaries for incremental sales people. This amount is known as the investment.

What is it that you get for the money?
Why would the organization or business want to give you this money? What are they going to get in return? If it is for research and development, what products are they going to get and how will they positively affect the growth of the company. If it is for an automated production line, how much are production costs going to be decreased. If it is for additional sales people, how much are sales going to increase.

When do they get their money back?
No, the organization is not “giving” you money. Think of it as a loan. Every loan needs to be paid back, with interest. This interest is usually in the form of increased profits for the company, either in the form of margins from increased sales or reduced costs. If you don’t believe me on this repayment with interest thing, just ask the bank or financing company the next time you want to invest in a car or house. I think they will be quite specific regarding the interest you will be paying on the loan and the expected repayment schedule that they will require you to comply with. This money that is given back to the company is known as the return on investment.

Business Case Tip #1.
One of the guiding principles of a good business case is that the return on investment should be greater than the investment itself was.

I don’t think there are many (any?) other business case tips that can be given that have the same importance as this one. A proper business case requests a specific amount of money. It defines what the money will be used for (spent on). It specifies what will be produced (new products, cost reductions, increased sales, etc.). It also forecasts when and how much the returns will be. It is all about the numbers.

It is this last part which is especially important. When are they going to get their money back. It is during this discussion when you may hear a term such as “pay-back”. Pay-back is when they get all of their original investment back. This is the break-even point. After this, everything that is returned to the company is a benefit or profit.

Business Case Tip #2
No matter how soon or how quickly the business case hits the “pay-back” point, it will not be soon enough.

Contrary to what some may believe, money in a company is not free. A company must pay for its money, one way or the other. A company can fund a business case investment via either debt or equity financing. In debt financing it is the interest and overheads that it must pay on the loan (debt) it takes out to get the money. In equity financing it is the relative risk and return it must pay in the form of stock appreciation or dividends to the equity investor in order to attract them. This is called “the cost of capital”. It is in effect the interest or discount rate that the company must use in the business case when it looks at the future returns on its investment.

The longer it takes to reach pay back to the company, the more the amount of discount that is applied to the return. The greater the discount, the more difficult it should be to make the business case work.

Remember that there is a limited amount of investment money that is available to any company. There is only so much that the company can borrow before the financial position of the company is adversely affected by its debt position and only so much stock that can be issued before the market adversely affects the equity price and expectation for the stock.

There are also other businesses and organizations within the company that would like to invest in their opportunities as well. That will create a competition for those investment funds. So how should the company decide where to invest?

There are usually two instances where a company will invest. One of the easiest is to invest only in those business cases that provide the greatest return on the investment. That would be those opportunities that have the best business cases. You have just seen above what should be expected at a high level for a good business case.

The second place that a company usually invests is in those strategic initiatives that may not provide the best return but are required for the long term health of the company. What are these strategic initiatives you may ask? That’s a good question. I have found business cases to try to define themselves as a strategic initiative when they contain a request for funding that does not show a reasonable return on the requested investment.

That’s probably not entirely true. There are investments for things such as core technologies that other products are built from that could be defined as strategic (among the many others of this type) as well as initiatives outside of the financially definable realm such as the reduction of carbon footprints or diversity that may not contribute directly to the financial well being of the company, but should be done none the less for the greater good of the company.

Companies expect and need to make money. Otherwise they normally do not get to remain companies for very long. I think a great deal of any company’s success can probably be attributed to how strong their business case process is, and how well they adhere to it. Having people who understand what a good business case is can go a long way to attaining that success.

A Soundtrack for Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their Answer

Most of us in the business world these days would be classified as “knowledge workers”. We all have some members on our respective teams that may challenge this point, but for the most part this means that we make our livings and do our jobs predominantly by using our brain power as opposed to our muscle power. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to sit behind a desk, but it does take a reasonable amount of knowledge to read, understand and appropriately act upon the information contained in a balance sheet or a profit and loss statement. When you think about it, this is interesting on several levels. This would mean that those with the most knowledge, and presumably the most experience would be the most valued employees. It would also mean that when someone asks a question that they would want the answer that is the result of utilizing the best brain power, knowledge and experience available.

Most people would think that this is obviously the case in business. The right answer is usually the best answer. Experience (as opposed to Knowledge) will teach that this is not always the case.

Answers are somewhat like ideas in that everybody has them in one form or another, and they are invariably proud of them. I have also heard that ideas are like children and that your own are always beautiful, whereas those of others are usually judged with a little more skeptical eye. Such is also the case with answers.

We are all usually very proud of the answers that we create (and will hence defend them vigorously from anyone that would have the temerity to posit a different answer), and we are all usually somewhat skeptical of the answers that others create (who will also vigorously defend them from any positions and questions that we have).

It’s funny how that works. We expect everyone to see and accept the beauty in the answers we have created, and we also expect everyone to accept and acknowledge any flaws we may identify in the beauty of the answers that others have created.

This brings me to the topic of “their answers”.

Whenever any question is posed, it is always best to “reflect” as Mark Twain would say, before answering. Is the person asking the question looking for the best, most knowledgeable answer to the question, or are they looking for a ratification of their answer to the question. Are they looking for a solution or are they looking confirmation of their solution.

It is possible that their answer and the best answer are one in the same, but that is probably not probable since after all, it is their answer at this point and not yours.

Another item to be aware of in the “answering the question” scenario is the forum in which the question is asked. This can provide a significant clue as to if a true answer is being sought as opposed to the confirmation of an answer already divined. It is a good bet to assume there is an inverse relationship between the desire for a genuine answer and the size of the audience in which the question is posed.

That means that if someone calls you on the phone and privately asks you a question or your opinion on a topic, they are probably looking for you to provide them your answer. If they send out an email with a wide distribution, or pose the question in some sort of a group or public forum, they are probably looking for you (and possibly others) to provide them “their answer”.

People who provide the desired answer in the group forum will have a tendency to see their response reinforced and those that don’t will usually be challenged to provide supporting logic.

It took me a while to learn this as a new hire directly out of graduate school. In school when you are asked a question you are relatively sure that there is usually a “correct” or “best” answer. It can be open to some opinion, but this is usually the basis of our advanced educational system. We are in essence trained to provide our view of the best answer.

What we miss here is that not everyone provides the same, best or correct answer, even in school. In business there is usually no predefined correct answer that is the accepted response by which all others are measured against. So there is no way to determine who actually had the right answer until the topic under discussion has actually come to pass and the proposed answers can be measured against the reality that has occurred.

This is where experience can come in to play. People who have matriculated up into leadership positions where they are enabled to ask questions have usually gotten to those positions by answering the past questions posed of them correctly more often than not. This past positive reinforcement of their answers is one of the key ingredients associated with the potential defensive reaction to other answers that are not entirely aligned with their own.

Put simply, people who have been right in the past have a tendency to think they will continue to be right in the future. They like trust and support their answers.

Herein lays one of the dichotomies of leadership: sometimes leaders have to temper some of the very traits that enabled them to attain the leadership position. What leaders must recognize is that as they have risen in the management ranks by their very success they have both moved further away from the issues that demand answers, and they have become responsible for a greater breadth of issues that need and demand answers. Most leaders no longer have that direct and intimate interaction with the issues that affect their businesses. They need to learn to rely on those members of their teams that do.

Very few of us get to be right all the time. A leader has to have faith in the answers that they generate, but the leader must also encourage the team to generate the best answers, not their answers. Moreover, the leader needs to know when someone else has generated a better answer. The leader has to learn to step away from generating all the answers (the very process that got them to the leadership position) and learn to trust others (the future leaders) to start generating the answers.

Leaders will always generate their answers. The key is for that leader to accept and expect their teams to potentially generate something other than their answers. It takes a strong leader to ask questions and accept something other than their answers. Letting go of their answers and listening to their team’s answers is the way things can get changed. It is also the way that an organization continues to find the best answers to its questions.