Category Archives: Empowerment

The Illusion of Choice

I find it rather interesting that I read a many different articles and books from many different sources, that become the genesis of many of my own articles. This fact isn’t really that interesting, unless you consider it interesting that I read things that consist of more than one hundred and forty characters, require a certain amount grammar and literacy capability, and don’t use emojis to convey how the author feels about the topic they are covering. What is probably a little more interesting is that I like to write about business, sales and leadership, and that I rarely find the inspiration for my articles in literary sources that are purporting to be specifically about business, sales and leadership. I seem to find my thought applications from other sources that resonate at a little more elemental and hopefully timeless level.

Such is the case today.

By and large I have found most business articles to be somewhat bland and derivative of other previously written sources. They are also somewhat ephemeral and short lived. There was “The One Minute Manager” and then “The Fifty-Nine Second Employee”. Really. They all seem to be related to the idea of “get rich” or “get successful” quick sort of scheme. After all, if someone actually wrote the definitive text for how to successfully run a business or organization and get rich and successful quick, what would all the other authors have to write about?

Some of my preferred sources can go back hundreds or even thousands of years. I think I have mentioned “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, “The Prince” by Machiavelli, “The Book of Five Rings” by Musashi and the “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” by Gracion on multiple occasions. Fortunately, my inspiration today was not from these sources, although, come to think of it some of what Sun Tzu said could apply…. I’ll leave it to those that have read both sources to comment.

Today my ideas sprung from a few words by the man who was the coach of the team that lost, yes lost, the last national collegiate championship game for American football this year. For those of you that missed it, it was on TV. I bet you can find it on YouTube. Clemson scored on the last play of the game to defeat Alabama. (I make sure to define it as American football, as I do have friends in the rest of the world where “football” is something entirely different. It is what we in the states would call “soccer”. I don’t know why.)

You would think that there would be far more to learn from the Clemson coach, the winner of the championship, than from the Alabama coach, the man whose team lost it. After all, it was an upset. Alabama was favored and was supposed to win, and it fact, almost did. There may be much to learn from the Clemson coach, but those lessons may not apply to business, sales and leadership as well as what the leader of the Alabama team had to say. At least for me in this instance.

Coach Nick Saban, of the University of Alabama has enjoyed sustained success in his field, the likes of which has probably not been seen in decades. He is successful. He has already won a total of five national championships (across 2 different schools) and is annually expected to be a contender for the next championship playoff. He is the example and standard of what every other coach, school and leader wants to be and do.

But he still lost, last year.

When he was asked what he is going to change, and how much he was going to do different next year in order to win the championship, he responded with what can best be described as an old school response.

He said that he understood all the new offenses, defenses, systems and processes that are out there, but that he was not going to overhaul a system just because he had lost in this year’s championship game. He came in second out of three hundred and seventy-five schools, which when thought of in that way, wasn’t really too bad. Yes, the loss hurt, but there are literally hundreds of other schools and coaches that would have wanted to be there in his place. He understood what it took to get there, and he also understood what it would take to get back next year.

It was at this point that he made the comments that resonated so strongly with me. He discussed that having learned what it took to be successful, he learned that there are no short cuts. He referred to it as “the illusion of choice”. He said that so many people want to make the easy decision, or take the supposed easier road to success. A new process, or a new system were the quick cure. He said this was an illusion. If you wanted to be successful (in his profession) there really were no choices.

It required the recruiting of the best talent available. Alabama’s recruiting classes of new freshmen out of high school are routinely viewed as some of the best in the country. Think about the fact that every three to four years, he (like every other college football coach) has close to one hundred percent turnover of his team. But every year he contends for a championship.

It requires a work ethic that is second to none on his part, and it has to be transferred and translated to the rest of his staff and the players on the team. There can be no illusion that talent is enough. It takes hard work and dedication. There is a base line process and preparation that needs to be adhered to.

Many have heard me discuss my aversion to the perceived over-utilization of process that seems to be plaguing businesses today. Yet here I am praising it. Here process is used to prepare the team. They have practiced and been trained on how each individual need to prepare, perform and act as part of the greater team. A process is not used during the game or against the competition. If so the competition would quickly adapt and defeat it. There is a game-plan, but not a game process.

He assembled the best staff possible, that he vested with the authority to get things done and that he held accountable for those various aspects of the team (Offense, Defense, Special Teams, etc.) he had assigned. However he only held himself responsible for the outcome. He never blamed anyone else. It was his responsibility.

It was this litany of decidedly unglamorous basics that he pointed out were responsible for getting him and his teams (multiple, different teams) to arguably the acme of his profession. He pointed out and reiterated that there really was not choice if you wanted to be successful. It took talent, it took outworking the competition, it took everybody’s commitment and buy-in for the team succeed. There were no “get rich” or “get successful” quick schemes.

That didn’t mean that he wouldn’t change and adapt. He is also recognized as one of the best leaders at innovating and modifying his game plans when his team’s talent, or the competition called for it. He has noted that the basics of the game have not changed, but how you apply them can vary greatly in each situation.

As I noted, by design his team membership turns over every four years. He also turns over his leadership (coaching) staff with significant regularity. His assistant coaches are in high demand to become the leaders at competing college programs because of their success and what they have learned. No less than seventeen of his assistants have gone on to lead their own programs.

It looks like the players are not the only ones that are mentored, taught and become leaders.

Sun Tzu, from almost twenty-five hundred years ago, also talks about talent selection, training and preparation as immutable keys to an organization’s success. He is also quick to point out that flexibility and the ability to adapt to new and different situations, and to be able to take advantage of them while either in or on the field are also the keys to success.

It looks like the idea of putting well trained teams in the field and letting their leaders lead them is in fact an idea that has been around for over two millennia. It sounds to me like Nick Saban may be right when he says that if you want to be successful, and enjoy a sustained success, it really is an illusion of choice. While a new process or system may come into vogue, success is really built on the basics of talent, hard work, and planning, and then letting your leaders lead, and not relying on the illusion that some other process or system can be a substitute for one of those basic building blocks of success.

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.

Ownership

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

There is an ancient Indian proverb that goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambivalence

I didn’t know if I should write about ambivalence or not. I didn’t seem to feel too strongly about it one way or the other.

Ambivalence seems to be creeping into almost every aspect of our professional world. I can this tell by the number of times that I hear comments along the lines of “It is what it is…” or “We are where we are…” We seemed to have stopped learning, risking and striving. Instead of making things happen, we are now following a process and waiting for them to happen. What’s worse is that it seems to be a malaise borne trend that is increasingly difficult to counteract.

I don’t know if I can truly draw the analogy between the rise of the process driven organization and the perceived rise in ambivalence in the organization, but it does strike me as potentially more than coincidence.

Before the rise of the process, it was incumbent on the leader to drive the business machine. Creativity, anticipation and a drive to achieve the goal were the keys to their success. Mistakes were obviously made, but so was considerable progress. When looking at Jobs, Gates and others, they chose to break new ground, not follow a process. It was because of their new approaches to goal setting and problem solving that they were successful, not in spite of it.

There seemed to be no question as to what needed to be done and how to do it. They were going to get it done regardless of the adversity and it was going to be done their way. They were the ones that were Accountable, Responsible, Consulted and Informed. (That’s a reference to the ever more popular RACI matrix, where depending on the process being followed, there can be separate entities established for each of those topics.)

I think ambivalence comes from a loss of commitment, and the loss of commitment comes from the loss of ownership. It seems more and more that people no longer own the problem and solution relationship. They don’t even own the process of arriving at the solution. They are only required to follow a proscribed set of steps associated with the process that has been developed to enable the team to reach the solution.

When this happens it becomes that much easier to say “It is what it is.” It becomes sort of the modern mantra for saying “I was doing what I was supposed to do, so it is not my fault.” It is the acceptance of saying even though I was doing my job; I’m not responsible for the results.

I have written (ranted?) in the past that not quite good enough is now the acceptable standard. I am beginning to believe that the process based organization may also be at least partially at fault here as well. We seem to have shifted the focus away from actually getting things done and now focus more on the way things are done.

This behavior results in the rewarding of those that conform and administer the desired process the best as opposed to those that can creatively solve problems by taking ownership and driving the issue to resolution. And if you are only going to be recognized for how well you can follow a process as opposed to what you can actually conceive, do and solve, what sort of commitment are you going to have?

I suppose there are those that can in fact be fully committed to a process but I think the majority prefer to commit to a goal. This is where that inspiration and commitment thing comes back into play. I believe that people get inspired and committed to goals, not the process.

In May of 1961, then President John F. Kennedy set this memorable goal:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

He did not commit to the process of launching rockets. He did not commit to the process of training the best astronauts. He understood that while these processes would be a key to the Space Program*, he also knew that they would inspire neither the participants nor the public (who were in this instance the stakeholders that were being asked to pay for the expensive project.) He committed to the strategic goal of the Space program: namely getting to the moon.

*A little information on the difference between Programs, Projects and Processes. It may be a little arcane, but please bear with me as it will help with the example, as well as with better understanding the ambivalence in business today.

The definition of a program is usually that it is the sum of a related group of projects. The Space Program included a number of contributing Projects and sub-projects. Building the rocket was a project; however that project was further broken down into sub-projects such as the building of the command module, the building of the booster engine, etc.

The definition of a project is usually that it is a unique endeavor with a beginning and an end undertaken to achieve a goal. The building of a command module was a unique endeavor as it was the section of the rocket that would house the astronauts and control the flight. It contributed to the overall space program.

The definition of a process is usually that of a repetitive collection of interrelated tasks aimed at achieving a certain goal. The building of the command module was the project. The way that they built it was the process. I am not so sure that there were that many repetitive interrelated tasks associated with building these command modules as they were all essentially hand, but I think you get the illustration. Actually upon reconsideration when you start thinking about all the construction, installation and testing functions involved with the assembly of the command module there may have been ample room for many processes.

In a more business and organizational example, Steve Jobs set goals for his organization regarding what computing and personal devices should look like and be capable of in the nascent electronics markets. Bill Gates set goals for his organization regarding what operating systems should contain and how they should perform in the new software markets. Kennedy set goals for NASA (and the country) in what has become known as the space race. There was a total organizational commitment to the goals set by these respective leaders.

No one looked around and told Kennedy we are where we are, or it is what it is, when faced with the competitive successes of Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin at that time.

I think that as the Space Program progressed it should have taught us that as our goals advance, the projects and more importantly the processes must also be redefined on an ongoing basis. Just as the Gemini Program gave way to the Apollo Program which in turn gave way to the Space Shuttle Program, there was a continual refresh of the supporting projects and processes.

Allegiance and commitment are always made to the goal, not the process. I think ambivalence starts to creep into our structures when the new goals are only incremented from the old and the objective becomes more process oriented and less goal focused. I also absolutely believe that process will continue to be a key to the success of almost all future endeavors, both business and national. It is the way we retain what we have learned from past goals and apply it to the future goal to avoid making the previously encountered mistakes.

My issue is that when the following of a process gets so rigorous and is so focused on avoiding past mistakes that we are no longer making any new mistakes we begin to become process bound. When that happens we are arguably no longer making progress or owning the goal. We are instead focused on the process, and we become somewhat ambivalent to the goal.

I am pretty sure I know how I feel about that.

Over Leading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the balance point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a Step Back

Normally in business when we mention the phrase “taking a step back” people immediately think of accepting a position or assignment with a perceived lower title or lower set of responsibilities. That may well be the case, but that is not the step back that I want to discuss here.

In business we all have our areas of responsibility. These normally come in the form of job descriptions and objectives. Simply put these are the things we do and the targets we are supposed to achieve. We are provided directives and incentives associated with them. We are incited to focus only on our specific pieces and parts of the business. With all that focus it is very easy to become somewhat myopic with respect to the overall business or organizational picture.

Sometimes all of us need to take time out of our ever more hectic days, take a step back and look at the overall business picture and what our specific part or role in it is, to see if what we are doing or have done is still fully aligned with the greater good.

As an ever more refined and specific business process is viewed as the clear path to greater efficiency and more profits, the incentive for each participant in that process is the ever refine and narrow their focus to their specific role in that process. As this structure evolves, organizations end up trying to create integrated end to end customer solutions out of ever more discrete and individualized work components. As the number of hand-offs in the process increases, the disconnection between the solution components increases as well.

In the extreme you can end up with a number of disconnected groups performing discrete unrelated activities (all while following a “process”) that results in a final work product that may not meet any of the requirements that were initially assigned to it. Everyone may have done everything that they were responsible for doing, but the final result doesn’t meet the need.

I think that much of today’s process orientation has originated in the Project Management discipline. (I have gone through the Project Management Institute PMP (Project Management Professional) training and certification process and do have a PMP accreditation.)

Part of the process of managing a project is to create what is called a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Creating a WBS is the process of subdividing project deliverables and project work into smaller, more manageable components (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) 4th Ed., pg. 103). It is described as the decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives.

But isn’t that essentially what every process is? Isn’t every process a series of work components that at the end of the process are supposed to deliver a finished work product or solution?

So enough of the esoteric discussion of the similarities of projects and processes. Where does this all get us and what does it have to do with the position I have put forth about taking a step back?

In a project there is a project manager. That person is vested with the responsibility of managing that project from end to end. As Harry Truman would say: “The buck stops there”. It is the project manager’s responsibility to make sure that all work components are aligned and additive in the direction required to complete the project.

In today’s organizations where parts are globalized, parts are regionalized and other parts are verticalized, all in the name of greater efficiency, it is almost impossible for someone to call themselves the “owner” of a process that spans multiple organizational structures. Organizations and people within those organizations may own pieces of the process, but there are precious few with the purview of a project manager who can review the process from end to end.

Once the process has been decomposed into its smaller work components, and those components are distributed to different organizations and groups, it seems the overall end to end view of things gets lost. Responsible parties seem to focus only on their specific work component. They perform their task and pass it along to the next responsible group.

It has been shown that when dealing with a uniform process all tolerances or margins for error are more or less normalized out. What that means is that in a uniform environment there will normally be additive and subtractive variances. Estimates will normally be either a little high or a little low, but on the average they will cancel each other out. This is the model that is used when the process is created.

When the process is decomposed into its component functions and then distributed into different and somewhat unrelated organizations, it can no longer be looked upon as a uniform process. It is probably more accurately defined as a “Random Variable” process. This is a process that is not uniform and where the variation in one group performing a work component has no effect on the performance of another group performing a different work component.

Okay, so what does this mean?

What is means is that when a process is no longer uniform the variances associated with the various work components no longer have the tendency to cancel each other out. They have a tendency to add together to create ever larger variances.

The net result is the creation of a process that by its very nature will not deliver a desired solution. Each group that is responsible for a work component can and will provide an acceptable output, but the sum of these outputs will invariably not be an acceptable solution.

A good example of this phenomenon can be seen in the creation of cost structures. In a project that is controlled by a single project manager, some costs will be estimated high, and some will be estimated low, but on the whole the costs will balance out. In a cost process where there is no single owner and multiple groups and disciplines involved, all costs will be estimated high (in an effort to make sure that all individual contingencies are covered) with the final cost estimate being unacceptable to the customer.

As I noted, in a project environment the project manager has oversight and control of the costs and processes associated with the project. Costs and activities must all fit within the overall envelop associated with the project and the project’s profitability. Variances within any specific group are then viewed from the point of the overall project. This ownership and oversight does not usually exist within the decomposed process. It is due to this comparative lack of oversight that a uniform process can devolve into a random variable process over time.

It is due to this sort of inertial force associated with process decomposition that we all need to periodically (read “frequently”) take a step back and review our roles and deliverables. In a greater scheme of things all that we do can be viewed as part of the ongoing business process. There are pieces that we can control and pieces that we must rely on others for. We need to make sure that we are in fact maintaining our alignment with the overall organizational goals and not just maximizing our specific work products.

It may sound a little counter intuitive. The idea should be that if we all maximize our work products, then the final deliverable should be maximized. In theory it should work. However when the goal is to minimize, or reduce or drive greater efficiency, sometimes maximizing does not work as well or drive the desired solution.

Take a step back and think about it.

Micromanagement

Before I dive head first into the metaphorically shallow waters associated with this topic, I guess it would be best to find an acceptable definition of exactly what micromanagement is. We are all pretty comfortable with what a microprocessor is. I am particularly well versed in what a microbrewery is and the delicious products that they produce. I am even familiar with the show “Tiny House Nation” on the FYI channel. (I couldn’t think of another micro-something, so I had to settle for a tiny-something. It’s the same thing really.) But I think everyone has a different view or definition of micromanagement.

Webster’s dictionary defines micromanagement as:
verb (used with object), micromanaged, micromanaging.
1. to manage or control with excessive attention to minor details.

That’s a pretty good start, but I don’t feel that it entirely captures the full annoyance factor that can be associated with this management practice. I have found that attention to detail is sometimes a necessity and not a particularly negative connotation item the way micromanagement is. I think we can all reminisce back to past assignments, lives and times in our respective business careers when we each may have been members of teams that were led by individuals that might possibly have been defined as micromanagers.

A cold chill just ran down my spine. I think I will go and get one of those previously mentioned microbrews to try and soften that specific micromanager memory.

The definition of a micromanager that I will start with is someone who not only tells you what to do (which is the role of just about any standard run of the mill manager) but also tells you how to do it.

Remember, a leader is someone who tells you what has to get done and then supports you when you work out the part that you need to do, and how you plan to go about doing it. Leaders inspire and groom future leaders by challenging them to perform the radical business process commonly known as thinking.

Micromanagers seem to believe that they should do all the thinking. If something needs to get done, they will tell you what you need to do, how you need to do it and when you need to do it. Your responsibility will simply be to follow the instructions. That is unless you have been told to do the wrong thing. Then it will most likely be your fault for not recognizing it was the wrong thing that you were told to do, and instead doing the right thing.

I have heard of many micromanagers being described as “control freaks”. Again I think this description has a little bit too much of a negative connotation that I don’t wish to be fully associated with. I think I would prefer to refer to them as “control enthusiasts”. Some of them can be so enthusiastic about it that at times they can become difficult to tolerate.

So now that we have hopefully adequately defined what a micromanager is, the question that is engendered is: Why do people become micromanagers?

The simple answer to this one is: I have no idea.

If I were going to guess, I would guess that during their formative years in business they were once given an assignment and for whatever reason they created and implemented an ultra-detailed plan, and it worked. This possibly reinforced what here to fore might have been a latent behavior and voila, and a future micromanager was born. Perhaps during the same formative period the future micromanager reported to a current micromanager and the micromanagement DNA was passed down to the future management generation through some sort of micromanagement osmosis.

It might be as simple as a personality defect.

Whatever the cause micromanagement is in and of itself a self limiting management style. As a manager matriculates up the management structure they take on more responsibilities. This means that there are more and more items for the micromanager to try and keep track of and manage. There are only so many hours in a day. Sooner or later the micromanager is going to run out of time to micromanage all that they have on their plate.

One of two things will then happen. The pace of the business will either slow down to accommodate the micromanager’s business technique, or the micromanager will learn to let go of some of the control that they are so enthusiastic about in order to keep pace with the demands of the business. If the business is slowed by the management process, it will fall behind the market, which will not slow down in order to accommodate the micromanager’s technique and it will soon find itself in a recovery mode.

Either way the level of micromanagement will have reached its limit.

During a discussion some time ago I was asked if there was ever a time where micromanagement was called for.

I had to sit quietly and think about that one for a moment. With the entire myriad of business structures and environments there probably was at least one that called for this approach. After careful consideration I had my settled on my response.

I said “no”.

I have mentioned many times that people and teams want a leader not a manager, and certainly not a micromanager. A leader does not tell all members of the team what they are to do. Team members have their respective responsibilities. It is up to the leader to define and communicate the goal and then enable the team to achieve it.

If a team truly requires micromanagement attention in order for them to achieve their goals again one of two things has happened. They have either been so conditioned that their individual input is not appreciated or utilized and have adapted their behavior to that desired by the micromanager, or they truly cannot or do not know what to do.

In the first instance, a management or management style change may be able to return that micromanagement conditioned employee to a business condition where they can contribute more fully to the success of the business. Instead of being an “order follower” they can become a solution creator in their own right.

In the second instance the team either needs to be better trained or replaced. If the team is incapable of performing except under constant management supervision they may be trying to do work that they are not qualified or capable of completing. If the team members are in fact capable and qualified to do the work, yet still require micromanagement in order for them to achieve their goals then they may be candidates for roles in other organizations where micromanagement is the preferred form of management.

Offhand, I can’t think of many of those types of organizations.

Micromanagement is a centralized decision making management structure. One person, the micromanager tries to make the decisions for everyone else in the organization. As organizations become more culturally diverse and geographically dispersed this structure rapidly becomes a limiting factor instead of a performance enabler. The speed and flexibility of response that an organization needs to be successful in today’s business environment is lost when micromanagement is in play.

People will respond to the guidance provided by leaders by making good business decisions and will be fully vested and committed to the outcome. The only response people will have to micromanagement direction will be to make no decision, only to comply rather than commit to the desired outcome, and just follow orders.

As leaders we need to focus on what needs to get done, and rely on the talents of our team members to help us come up with the best ways to get it done. By definition they are closer to the issues than we are. It only goes that they should have some good ideas on what needs to be done and how they can best do it. It is up to the leader to best utilize all the ideas that are available, not just their own.

Learning Opportunities

Normally when I get started on a new post I have an idea as to what the title should be. I sat here and knew what the topic was that I wanted to cover, but try as I might I could not come up with a title that satisfied me. I had a few but when they sound trite to even my own ear, they don’t make it to the post. Hopefully an idea for the title will present itself during the course of the post. Interesting, I normally don’t have a problem titling a post.

Over the course of my career I have learned that I am a positive reinforcement type of individual. I tend to focus on what I need to do to get better, as well as what the team needs to do to improve. That does not mean that I ignore my own or others mistakes. It does mean that I have found that going back and beating myself up, or beating up others for past mistakes does not normally provide a constructive solution. Since there is no way to go back and modify a behavior or decision that has already occurred, it seems to me that the best approach is to acknowledge the issue, understand what caused it, and take the appropriate steps to first solve it and then make sure that you have learned enough so that you don’t repeat the same issue in the future. Pretty simple, but it seems to have worked very well for me.

Too often it seems that issue resolution loses its way and becomes more of a historical re-visitation of the issue in order to make sure that blame is appropriately assigned. While culpability will be a topic of concern in the longer term, the immediate topic needs to remain on the issue resolution. Besides, I have also found that by the time the issue has manifested itself, those ultimately responsible for the issue are either abundantly aware of their own actions that were the genesis of the issue, or long gone from the scene.

No one likes to be wrong and no one likes to make mistakes. However once the mistake has been made there is the immediate need to rectify the situation. Corrective actions need to be scoped out and implemented. Once that is done and the solution is in process, then the learning opportunity can be examined on both an individual and business level. Again the focus needs to be on what has to be done on order to achieve the desired results or conversely what needs to be done to avoid the undesirable results.

It may be a subtle difference but it can and will set the entire tone for the team going forward in how it behaves and works. Looking at what needed to be done right in order to achieve the desired goals will automatically create a learning experience when people compare it with what was actually done. Looking at what was done has the potential to be perceived as more of a blaming experience than a learning experience.

Focusing on the positive aspect of what needs / needed to be done instead of focusing on the specific activity that generated the issue is one of the best ways to keep an issue that currently just needs resolution from devolving into what can be perceived as almost solely a blame assignment exercise. It is critical to understand this from a team leadership point of view, otherwise you can run the risk of having the team disengage from the resolution process.

By keeping a focus on what needed to be done you can retain the team’s capability to make aggressive decisions and take decisive actions. If everyone understands that issues will be resolved and reviewed from the point of view what needed to be done as opposed to the perception of holding any individual or team’s mistakes up for analysis, you will continue to encourage the team to make those types of decisions or to take those kinds of actions.

If your post issue actions become not much more than an analysis of the incorrect decision or action, you will begin to incite those individuals or teams to not “risk” making those decisions or to take those actions, as no one like to have the mistakes specifically and publically aired. By focusing on the negative you are encouraging the team to avoid the negative reinforcement.

You would hope that avoiding this negative reinforcement would result in more positive result generating decisions and actions. What I have found is that it normally results in fewer decisions or unilateral actions of any kind as people withdraw from risking the negative exposure.

Let me repeat that. Negative reinforcement or even the perception of negative reinforcement will result in fewer mistakes and issues because people will stop making decisions or taking actions. The only way to assure that you are never wrong is to not make the decision or take the action.

By looking at what needed to be done instead of what was done the business leader can communicate the same learning experience to the team or individual without the perception of it being an analysis of what that team or individual did wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. The objective is to keep everyone striving to do more, but with fewer mistakes. If people only recognize the downside of the mistake, the analysis of what they did wrong, they may choose to reduce the potentiality of repeating that uncomfortable event by becoming just that much more conservative in their approach to business.

In the times of that much more aggressive competition and the various drives to reduce costs and improve margins, it will not be the fully conservative approach that will carry the day. It will be new and innovative ideas, decisions and actions that move organizations and businesses forward.

Not everything new and innovative will work. However I think we are all in reasonable agreement that many of the current methods and directions associated with businesses (and government for that matter) today will not take us where we need or desire to go.

If we focus on the mistakes that get made instead of taking action to correct them and focusing on what the proper course of action is for future events we are encouraging people to not make mistakes. This on the surface is good. The only problem is as I have already said; the only way that I know of to assure that you don’t make a mistake is to not do anything. In taking the mistake focused approach, this is invariably what you get – fewer mistakes because there are much fewer decisions and actions taken.

I still don’t have a title for this post that I am fully happy with. That means that I will have to go with instinct on this one. If it’s wrong, I guess I’ll just have to look at it as another learning opportunity for me.

Empowerment


Empowerment seems to be a catch phrase for just about every organization these days. The idea seems to be to push down the authority to make substantive decisions into the organization where it is presumed that both the expertise and need reside. Instead of bubbling up every decision to a few decision makers who may be somewhat disconnected from the details of the issue, it is thought to be desirable to empower the manager directly dealing with the issue to make the decision. In theory this is a pretty good model. The idea seems to run into trouble when there is not appropriate responsibility and consequence associated with that increased decision authority.



Every action should have a consequence. Consequence is a word with a seemingly negative connotation, but it should not necessarily be that way. Maybe it stems from the old television show “Truth or Consequences” where if you failed to perform in some sort of an unpleasant challenge you had to face some sort of a potentially more undesirable or embarrassing second challenge or consequence. Maybe I am really dating myself by even admitting I am aware of that show. Growing up in New Mexico, where they have a city that actually renamed itself Truth or Consequences in honor of that show, it is difficult to not be aware of it. In any event consequences can be and should be both positive and negative in their behavioral reinforcement.



That means that people who make good decisions should be positively reinforced, or rewarded, and people who make bad decisions should be negatively reinforced. Without this fundamental reward – risk structure, empowerment ideas will start to run into issues, and that will lead to seriously mixed messages for the organization, and ultimately poor business performance. Good leaders don’t allow mixed messages to be sent. Mixed messages demoralize and confuse the entire organization. It doesn’t take many mixed messages to achieve that undesirable goal.



Let me give a couple of examples of how a lack of consequence associated with empowerment can and will affect an organizations morale and performance. I am going to pick on an easy topic, travel, since we are all familiar it. I will draw on some past experiences to illustrate how empowerment, responsibility and consequence need to go hand in hand in business. Some of this may sound familiar as well.




Some groups in organizations travel more than other groups. Invariably the groups that travel actually want to travel less because it is not nearly as elegant an activity as people perceive, and those that do not travel frequently want to travel more because it breaks up the regular grind of being in the office. In times of financial stress one of the first things to be cut is discretionary spending. One of the first discretionary spending topics to be addressed is travel. When times are tough we have all been caught in the travel freeze.



Now in the empowered organization, people would be given the opportunity to travel based on their own or their manager’s decision of whether they needed to or not. They would also be responsible for the consequences of deciding to travel in the midst of a travel freeze. This would seem logical to me. If you decide to travel and get called about it, you had better have a very good reason for traveling when everyone has been told not to travel. However, I think many of us have seen the inevitably ensuing announcement where senior management issues the edict that even in the midst of the travel freeze, and with all the empowerment within the organization, all requests for travel will need to be signed by some member of senior management before they are approved.



How is that again? A guideline has been issued. Those that adhere to the guideline should be positively reinforced and those that don’t should be negatively impacted. Those are the consequences. Why would a second, empowerment contradicting edict be issued? Obviously it has been issued because the first edict, the travel freeze, has not been effective at reducing travel. Those that have reduced travel have not been rewarded for their behavior, and those that continued travel have not been punished. There were no positive or negative consequences provided as a result of the empowerment. Since there were no consequences, the empowerment will have to be taken away in order to achieve the travel reduction, and hence the second edict.



If you can’t successfully empower the organization to decide something as simple as when it should and should not travel, even within the confines of a “travel freeze” how can it be empowered to make other more complex business decisions. The answer is until there are consequences, both rewards and punishments associated with empowerment, it can’t.



There are other variants of this empowerment issue and travel that can be used to illustrate the issue. There is also the “no travel unless visiting a customer” senior management edict. Again this action is focused on attempting to reduce costs and expenses be reducing discretionary travel. This is usually proclaimed by an executive at their regional, or worse, global staff review where they and the other senior managers from around the world have all flown in from different locations to discuss how to limit travel. The edict is then proliferated by other executives at their regional staff meetings where the same travel affect has occurred. I am not normally aware of many customers attending internal staff meetings, but I am aware, and usually so are many others, of a significant amount of travel by executives to attend these internal meetings, even when there is a no travel except to customers freeze on.



This brings up a second important aspect associated with successful empowerment. If you want to empower employees to make what have previously been executive decisions, the executives will need to lead by example. If executives either do not or have not been adhering to the same rules that they want the organization to abide by, why are they surprised when the empowered organization behaves in the same way that the executives have been behaving? If the travel freeze means nothing to the senior management, it will also mean nothing to the empowered organization.



Successful empowerment requires leadership that leads by example and lives by the same rules as the rest of the organization. It also requires that consistent consequences, both good and bad be implemented. If there is no benefit for good conduct and no negative reinforcement for bad, then empowerment will not align goals and behavior in the desired best interest of the organization. The result will be the forced fallback position of senior management trying to dictate policies that they themselves do not adhere to, and an overall reduced level of performance and morale in the organization.