Category Archives: Implementation

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.

From Anything to Something Specific

I really tried to take a break from putting out anything this week. The problem was that the closer I got to the end of the week the guiltier I began to feel at not writing anything. I tried to convince myself that my public would be disappointed at missing their weekly fix of my views on business and sales, and indeed I actually did get a question from a reader as to where was my post. However, the truth be told, it seems I am a creature of habit, and I am in the habit of providing my views on things, regardless of whether they are appreciated, or even requested, or not.

Oh well.

It was interesting that I wrote about golf last week, and then Tiger Woods announced his return from injury to play in this week’s tournament. This is a little bit interesting on several levels. First it is always interesting to have Tiger Woods in the field at a golf tournament. Love him or hate him he does draw interest. For me it’s a little bit more than that. Tiger Woods has always had a game plan whenever and wherever he plays. His preparation is the stuff of legend. In essence he plans his work and then works his plan. And he seems to do it better than just about anyone else. He has set the standard, whether it is on his recoveries or in standard execution.

Except this time. He acknowledged that he was not in optimal playing condition and has not prepared and practiced as he has before on previous recoveries, and that he was going to “play himself into shape”.

Many attribute this decision to the proximity of the next major golf tournament and Tiger’s pursuit of the record for the most major wins in a career. If this is truly the case then his latest move in returning to golf in a relatively unprepared state has a certain air of desperation around it and desperation in any endeavor, be it golf or business, is a cause for some amount of speculation and concern.

The same type of speculation and concern applies for businesses that are attempting a comeback from issues of their own. Businesses very seldom find themselves in any sort of difficulty as the result of a single event. Tiger hurt his back and had surgery. I am hard pressed to mention a similar type of singular event where as the result of it a business finds its ability to perform to be fully in question. Businesses don’t hurt their backs and have surgery which then require them to execute an immediate comeback plan.

The more usual reason that businesses find themselves in trouble is due to an inattention to the fundamentals of the business or the trends in the market. These types of issues tend to compound themselves over time and culminate with a “sudden” realization that there is a problem. With the realization that there is an issue comes the first reaction to desperately seek a quick solution.

I think it is fair to say that since most business issues did not result from an abrupt sort of event, quick solutions to the problem are not going to be easily implemented or particularly successful in resolving the issue. But that doesn’t seem to stop many businesses from at least trying them.

The two quickest solutions to business issues normally boil down to two simple approaches: Sell more, and Cut costs. Sometimes both solutions are attempted at the same time. Surprisingly enough, I think that these are probably the correct approaches, but that trying to apply them too quickly may only make the problems worse.

Just as many people are concerned that Tiger Woods’ trying to make a comeback from surgery so quickly might cause further injury to his back, making things worse.

There is an old saying in business: “You cannot cut your way to prosperity”. I think this is true. You may have to cut your way to survival, but you can’t cut your way to growth. With that in mind I am going to focus more on the “Sell more” aspect of businesses’ desperate responses to issues.

Too many times a business that finds itself in a recovery mode institutes a “Sell more” sales drive in order to drive incremental revenue, and hopefully incremental margin from it. Unfortunately under these types of circumstances “sell more” many times gets translated into “sell anything”. This usually results in the acquisition of many sales opportunities that do not adequately fit the proper deal profile for the business.

A proper deal profile for a business includes consistent, attainable deliverables; repeatable business products and functions that do not drain or strain business resources, pricing that enables contributory margins and profitability, and contract conditions that do not present onerous hurdles to the success of the engagement. These are the specifics associated with a healthy approach to sales.

Too often a business can get too anxious to rapidly try and recover from an issue that occurred over time. This can result in the “sell anything” approach to business in an attempt to generate revenue to help turn things around. All too often this approach results in lower margin deals and one-off opportunities that in the end not only do not add to efficiencies, but actually detract from them in the longer run. The sell anything approach is a scatter-shot pursuit of a specific solution, and as with most scatter-shot applications it results in far more “misses” than hits.

When a business is in any sort of difficulty, or is experiencing issues, incrementing in a number (large or small) of sales misses to the solution mix does not help. It only detracts from the situation, both in the resources spent ineffectively and the resulting number of sales deals that do not generate the desired or expected returns.

If it is deemed that the issue is sales or market related, and that a new sales direction or approach is required as part of the overall business recover solution, then a specific strategy and approach to new sales is called for. This will help minimize the number of extraneous or non-contributory deals that will be added to the business mix. When there are business issues, everything must be aligned and additive to the business solution. This includes the types and values of the sales opportunities that are pursued.

A business cannot allow the “Sell More” solution to become the “Sell Anything” solution. It will only  prolong the business’s recovery, or potentially even make things worse.

Will Rogers is quoted as saying “When in a hole, stop digging.” We also have the much older and unattributed quote “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” In business it would seem that the equivalent of the first quote might be “When in a hole, start selling”, with the equivalent rejoinder to the second being “Don’t just sell. Sell something specific.”

The idea of focus and discipline never goes out of style in business, even when times are tough, or recoveries are being attempted. Maintaining a focus on selling something specific and resisting the temptation of selling anything available will result in a better solution and stronger business over the longer run, and that is the focus that business needs to maintain.

Tiger Woods is a unique talent. We shall see if the departure from his proven successful preparation process pays off in his recovery attempt. It might pay off for him, but he did miss the cut in his first tournament back, and that is news in and of itself, since he so rarely fails to make the cut. Most of the time it does not pay off for a business to try for a quick recovery that departs from their specific processes either.

Drivers Wanted

An opportunity is recognized in the market place. An issue has occurred in supporting a customer. An idea has generated a new product or solution. What do we do now?

 

It seems more often than not we call a meeting. Then we call another meeting to make sure that we understood what we heard. Then we call a meeting to plan our next steps. Then we start the process of looking for “Buy In” from everyone else. Pretty soon the focus on what could have been a “game changer” has been swallowed up by the safety and security of the process.

 

There is a difference between “Driving” the process and “Working” the process. Driving is when as a leader you have the conviction that what you are doing is right. You have looked at the issue, worked with the team and have made the commitment to move. There is a process in place for situations like this but it generates its own resistance and impedance. When you are driving you will take input but you will not accept delay.

 

Businesses today seem to be more content to work the process. This is a situation where we seem to be more content to accept delay and modification to the decision or solution. While the conviction may still be strong, the risk of being wrong seems to outweigh the benefits of being right. We allow the delays and changes in order to get a “Consensus” as to what should be done. This consensus enables the risk associated with the action to be mitigated across all those that participate. The idea seems to be that if it succeeds everyone can take a bow, but if it does not, no one individual will take a fall.

 

There is value to getting buy-in. It helps the team internalize an external goal. The problems with consensus are that it can take a while to achieve, can water down the solution, and requires everyone to say “yes” and can be stopped when anyone says “no”.

 

Great leaders know how to drive the process, while they work it. They set the goal, provide the resources and do not allow any reasons or excuses. A key here is making sure that the resources are made available. President John F. Kennedy set the goal of sending a man to the moon and back, and drove NASA to do it. He also made sure that NASA had the people and money to accomplish the task.

 

He drove the process (he made sure the goal, objective and measurement were known – get a man to the moon and back before 1970) and he worked the process (he made sure that the funding was provided and the responsibilities were clear), and it worked. If it had failed NASA may have taken some of the blame, but by and large it would have been Kennedy’s failure.

 

I don’t know if it is a reflection of the times, be they economic, political, or other, but we seem to have lost this “Driver” type attitude in doing business. I think we need to get back to it if we want to see the types of growth and performance that are wanted and needed to move forward. Its at times like this that I think of that car commercial – the one with the catch phase “Drivers Wanted”.