Category Archives: Leadership

The Overton Window

I am going to bet that not many people have heard of the “Overton Window”. There can be many reasons for this. One is that it is a relatively new concept. Another may be that is usually used in conjunction with the prevailing political debate. Finally, it was generated in a “Think Tank” type environment and those types of terms do not usually migrate out into the greater population. Be that as it may, I think it is a very interesting term in that to me it is just as applicable to business (and probably many more environments that I have not considered) as it appears to be to politics.

First, a little history and definition as to what the Overton Window is and how I came about looking into it.

I first came across the term “Overton Window” while reading one of the plethora of political analyses purporting to explain what is currently occurring in American politics. It discussed how various individuals were responsible for shifting what was, and what wasn’t politically acceptable to discuss. As I wish to discuss business and not politics I won’t name any of the individuals but suffice it to say there are not as many people as you might think that are capable of or are shifting what is acceptable in the current political discourse. The majority of them are usually just credited with screaming about one thing or another, depending on which side of any given issue they happen to reside.

So, since the Overton Window was mentioned, and I didn’t know what it was, so I then went and searched the term on the web. The following is the simplest description that I could come up with:

“The Overton window is the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse, also known as the window of discourse. The term refers to Joseph P. Overton, who claimed that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within the window, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. According to Overton’s description, his window includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

So, basically the Overton Window is the range of ideas that are “acceptable” to talk about at any given time. That doesn’t mean that they are the correct ideas. It only means that they are politically correct, or ideas that can be talked about without significant fear of a negative response.

We have all seen examples of what the possibly best solution to any specific problem may be, only to find out that the prevailing political climate renders this solution politically unacceptable. It also notes that this window can shift depending on a variety of factors. Ideas that may be in the window at one time, or for one administration, may not be in it at another time or for another administration.

“Overton described a spectrum from “more free” to “less free” with regard to government intervention, oriented vertically on an axis, to avoid comparison with the left-right political spectrum. As the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable. Political commentator Joshua Treviño postulated that the degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly:
• Unthinkable
• Radical
• Acceptable
• Sensible
• Popular
• Policy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

The Overton Window (with Trevino’s degrees of acceptance) is usually depicted as follows:

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

As I have noted before, reading about something like this always gets me to thinking, which as I have also noted before can be a dangerous thing for me to do. It got me to thinking about why so many organizations talk so incessantly about the need for change, but then react with an immune system like resistance response to those proposals that can in fact generate real change.

It got me to thinking that the Overton Window is a limiting factor in that according to its precepts, only those changes that fall within the relatively modest window can or will be acceptable. True or significant change would probably place that policy outside of the Overton Window, which would mean that it is politically unacceptable for consideration.

This would explain why only minor or incremental types of changes seem to find their way into the corporate (or political) application. Too great a change, regardless of its potential necessity or benefit would find itself outside the range of acceptable change for the then business (or political) administration.

The only way to compensate for the smaller than necessary amplitude of change is to increase the frequency of change. I think that the idea of many, smaller changes being more acceptable than fewer, larger changes is what has given rise to the now industry standard vernacular of business such as:

“The rate of change is not going to slow down anytime soon. If anything, competition in most industries will probably speed up even more in the next few decades.” – John Kotter
http://www.ideachampions.com/weblogs/archives/2011/04/1_it_is_not_the.shtml

On the other hand, and probably a little less known or accepted we have:

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
– Woodrow Wilson https://toprightpartners.com/insights/20-transformational-quotes-on-change-management/

I’ll let you guess who’s proposed changes were within the Overton Window and whose changes were probably outside of it.

I think what Overton recognized about politics is probably reasonably applicable to business as well. All organizations have a political aspect to them. This is the personal and interpersonal side of things. Stakeholders have committed to a then acceptable and approved course of action. Significant change or movement away from that direction could cause a perceived loss face or position.

So, how can this change limiting window be moved or enlarged?

In politics, the answer is relatively simple: Elect someone else. If those in office refuse to accept that a new direction is needed because of whatever commitments and ties they have to the current direction (or whichever special interest group), replace them with someone new who’s views more closely align with the new direction or change that is desired.

Okay, so what do you do in business to expand an organization’s ability to change, since you can’t readily elect new business leaders?

Therein lies the issue. Organizations are not elected. They are put in place from the top down. CEO’s are selected in a closed environment by Boards of Directors. The CEO’s then surround themselves with executives that will support and enable their programs. This type of directional change then cascades in one form or another throughout the organization. On the other end of the organizational spectrum, managers likewise look for team members who will also support and enable their objectives and assignments.

With this sort of top-down approach to organizational structures it would appear that in order to affect a desired or needed change of any significant magnitude, you would have to make a change at least one to two levels above the desired change location in order to affect the Overton Window that is limiting the desired change. Normally, as a matter of course, changes of this type, or at this level do not occur easily in a business organization, unless the entire system, and its performance are under a great deal of stress, and by then, many times it is too late.

I think the concept of the Overton Window does a very good job of explaining why organizations talk so much about the need for change but seem significantly limited as to the size, type and amount of change that they can actually affect. As long as the existent organizational team and structure remain in place, change of any real magnitude will be very difficult when the topics and paths lie outside the window of acceptable discourse for the existing team.

While it may be desirable and sought after that change be made from “the bottom up”, this type of change can only really occur when the bottom of the structure, or in the political sense, the voter makes the change by electing someone else, and the management structure (those elected) listens to and responds to the mandate. In a business organization the mandate comes down from the executives, not up from the employees.

Change in any environment is difficult. I think the concept of the Overton Window goes a long way toward explaining why so many organizations say they want to or need to change but fail to make any significant or meaningful changes. It is usually not until the situation reaches a point where it becomes incumbent to replace specific organizational or business leaders with others, who may have a different window as to what is now the new and acceptable discourse on what and how to change.

Low Hanging Fruit

There are many “executive speak” phrases that seem to dot the business vernacular landscape. I have talked about this before. Many of these phrases seem to have evolved due to the desire of managers to fill a void in a conversation by saying something without actually providing any valuable information. I liken these phrases in business communications as the nutritional equivalent of Pop Tarts to food. There are probably some calories for sustenance in there somewhere, and as a change of pace they are sweet and acceptable on occasion, but if you make a steady diet of them, it is probably bad for your health.

With that in mind, I can’t seem to help myself but to go after the one executive speak phrase that seems to continue to grow in popularity, never ceases to amaze me, and all the while driving me crazy at the same time. Am I the only one that must fight the urge to speak up and call people out when they hear the phrase “Low Hanging Fruit”?

I Googled the phrase, just to see if it was really there as well as to provide a relatively equal basis to start this discussion from. I don’t know what I really expected, but it definitely was not the relatively large number of hits that Google delivered. I guess it is even more ubiquitous that I suspected. I selected Dictionary.com as my initial source, since I seem to go to them quite often for just these types of definitions. They said:

low-hanging fruit
noun
1. the fruit that grows low on a tree and is therefore easy to reach
2. a course of action that can be undertaken quickly and easily as part of a wider range of changes or solutions to a problem first pick the low-hanging fruit
3. a suitable company to buy as a straightforward investment opportunity
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/low-hanging-fruit

Now, I get the first definition. There really can’t be any argument about it. It is logical and follows directly from the phrase. Its fruit and it is low to the ground. Got it. It is the second and to some extent the third definitions that I take issue with.

It is at times like this that I feel compelled to step up on any available soap box, set my feet approximately shoulder width apart for good balance and announce to all who might listen, what I like to call “Gobeli’s First Law of Low Hanging Fruit”. In this case, it goes like this:

“There is no such thing as low hanging fruit when it comes to business courses of action, or investment opportunities. Anybody who says there is, is trying to sell you something.”

It doesn’t seem to matter what the discussion is about, or which business discipline is being mentioned. Everybody seems to want to use the term “low hanging fruit”. At the risk of sounding like I am propellering off on some sort of a rant, I need to start out by saying, I just don’t get it.

The instances where I have witnessed the phrase low hanging fruit being used are relatively succinct: During a presentation. When implementing something new such as a new program, project or product. When describing in a new recovery plan because the last program, project or product failed to enable the attainment of the then described low hanging fruit.

The basic idea that is trying to be conveyed is that whatever is being attempted, is going to get off to a fast start because there are quickly and easily obtainable results, as definition number two above would indicate, that are available. This phrase is designed to get management agreement and approval for whatever is being discussed.

It also sounds good and seems to indicate that this should be a “Oh my gosh, how did I miss that!” kind of moment.

It implies that the person uttering the phrase either knows that much more or is that much smarter than everyone else associated with the then current discussion. It hints at that person having either mysteriously or miraculously unlocked some sort hidden business or universal truth or secret that will enable them to make the difficult, challenging, or here to fore unsuccessful, easily attainable and wildly successful in the future.

I will be the first to say that just because I have never witnessed a miracle does not mean that they do not happen. I will say however, that I have heard “we will first grab the low hanging fruit” exponentially more often than I have ever seen such fruit actually grabbed. This leads me to Gobeli’s Second Law of Low Hanging Fruit:

“There is no such thing as Low Hanging Fruit. There are a lot of very bright people around. If there ever was anything even resembling low hanging fruit, one of these very bright people has probably already been there and grabbed it.”

Most people who truly recognize the existence of low hanging fruit keep their mouths shut and just go get it. Once they get it they will then take a bow, and then usually indicate how much more difficult it will be to get any further fruit, thereby keeping management’s expectations somewhat in check for future fruit attainment forecasts.

They don’t go and broadcast or publish the existence and location of low hanging fruit. It is not up for debate or discussion. It is like “Dark Matter”. There is a lot of somewhat esoteric evidence (that only physicists seem to be able to understand) that it probably exists, but nobody (including said physicists) has actually found some and examined it. If low hanging fruit ever did exist, it was an immediate challenge and all out race to get it first. Once obtained, it is gone. If it continues to exist while remaining only slightly out of reach and requiring only a little more time or investment needed to obtain it, it was probably not low hanging fruit in the first place.

As I noted Low Hanging Fruit is a term that is usually used to try to convince someone to do something. My personal experience is that when the term has been used, it was usually used to try and convince someone to do the wrong thing. This leads me to Gobeli’s Third Law of Low Hanging Fruit:

“Low Hanging Fruit is a term that is used to make something look easy. Nothing in business is that easy. It takes a lot of smart people working hard, together to be successful in business.”

Everyone wants an easy answer. We have all been inured to it by our thirteen second soundbite television environment. Simple answers may sound simple, when in fact they are surprisingly complex and difficult to implement.

I understand that on occasion I can sound something like a skeptic. The good thing about being a skeptic is that it is relatively hard to be disappointed. I also like to remember the old adage: “If it sounds to good to be true, then it probably is.” This doesn’t seem to stop us from wanting low hanging fruit to be true, though.

There are inevitably other competing ideas and directions vying for management attention and blessing. Several of them also probably have their here to fore unidentified low hanging fruit out there just waiting to be grabbed as well. All that they need is the time, money and management blessing that is currently being sought.

To me, low hanging fruit is a myth. It will always take time, money, effort, determination and possibly even a little luck (as defined by the phrase “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” – the Roman philosopher Seneca) for any initiative to be successful. The idea that success in business can be had as simply as wondering over and picking all the fruit off a tree that is within arm’s reach is not something that I have ever seen occur.

The theory of the Black Swan (just because you have never seen something does not mean it doesn’t exist. Swans were only thought to be white until black ones were actually discovered) suggests that such improbable events can occur. However, in all the world, up to this point, only one species of black swan has ever been discovered. And it does prove that there are indeed exceptions to just about every rule.

On the other hand, I have heard that we will be grabbing the low hanging fruit twice already today.

The only story regarding low hanging fruit that I think truly applies comes from the Bible, of all places. It involves a serpent, the first woman and low hanging fruit. It doesn’t seem that that one turned out very well either.

It doesn’t seem to stop us though, from looking for that supposedly easy win.

Not Invented Here

I had the opportunity to read an interesting article about Apple the other day. For the first time in a very long time Apple missed its top line guidance and market expectations by a little more than eight percent. In September of 2018, Apple had a market value of over a Trillion dollars, becoming the highest valued company ever. Today they are worth a little more than seven hundred Billion dollars. They lost more than four hundred Billion in market value because of this miss to expectations.

This seemed to be an overreaction to a relatively small miss to expectations, and has been directly blamed on the Apple CEO, Tim Cook. He is an excellent operations person who has continued to make Apple one of the most efficient companies in the world. https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/07/tech/apple-tim-cook/index.html

However, it seems that he is no Steve Jobs.

Apple has been a paragon of inventive and creative product and market genius. However, their then resident genius, Steve Jobs, passed away in 2011, and they have been unable to generate the next big technological thing ever since. Apple has gotten admirably more efficient under their now operations based and influenced leader, but they have not demonstrated the creative technological leadership that enabled them to get to the top. When they missed their forecast last quarter, this lack of perceived creativity was identified as the greater reason for the value decline.

I have had the good fortune to have had the opportunity to do a lot of different things in my career. Sales, Marketing, Product Management, Operations, Delivery and Customer Service to just name a few. I have never been anywhere near the stratospheric levels of Jobs or Cook, but it has been an interesting and enjoyable ride none the less. I also think that the opportunity to experience that kind of broader or varied career is going away. As companies continue their drives toward being process driven, nominally in the name of efficiency, the opportunity for people to step outside of their slotted functional lane and get that broader business experience continues to diminish. The result seems to be a pervading feeling that once you have become categorized within an organization, you cannot become anything else.

I am sure we have all felt that way at least one time or another within our respective careers. We see an opportunity, possibly to do something different, and we are judged as an improper fit for it simply because we have been performing a function that is not deemed to be an appropriate precursor to the desired role. Whether or not we may have been able to perform, or even excel in the role was secondary. It was not in our “lane” so we did not get to even try.

People within specific functions within an organization seem to have hit the point where they, as a business entity realize that since they may not be able to move outside of their assigned and expected responsibilities, that they also do not want anyone coming in from somewhere else to perform those same assignments and responsibilities. This role protectionism then becomes an ingrained and self-perpetuating attribute of the organization.

I think that this is the genesis and essence of what we have all come to refer to as the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. This is the bias that arises within organizational functions that simply states that if you have not previously been in that function, you are not an acceptable candidate for that function. The idea is that if you are not currently in a sales role, you are not qualified for any potential sales role. The same could be said for almost any other functional discipline (Marketing, Finance, Accounting, etc.) within the organization.

It is probably reasonable to say that in many instances they are a good thing. There are several disciplines that do require extensive, and specific training. I am not sure I would like someone in the admissions office of a hospital to apply for the job of neurosurgeon just because they both work at the same hospital, at least not without the proper medical training to support the application. But that is just the point. Any discipline can be learned by just about anybody, if they are given the opportunity to learn it.

I think this is the reason that it seems that companies are turning increasingly to external candidates when it comes to innovation. The existing people within an organization are already categorized, rightly or wrongly into a role. It doesn’t matter that the Sales person may have some very good ideas about how to Market a product or service due to their experience in directly interfacing the customer. They are a sales person. If a Marketing person is needed, the company will go out and get one of those.

Just as Apple was led to its present position by an inventor (Jobs), his internally sourced replacement, Cook, was not an inventor, but an operations specialist. It is also interesting to note that while Jobs was one of the people associated with the founding of Apple, he was actually sourced externally from the company when he was made the CEO in 1995. In 1985 John Scully was the CEO of Apple, and Steve Jobs was the head of the Macintosh group when he was fired. He had spent the previous ten years in roles outside of Apple.

My point with all this history and comment is that organizations create their own resistance to internal change. Ideas that are not generated within the organization are resisted. The cross pollination of people, and their ideas between organizations within a greater company is becoming more and more difficult to achieve.

The age of specialization, and the codification of it into process, continues to reinforce the internal “Not Invented Here” resistance to change and innovation. It is in essence the creation of the internal position that if one group cannot have input into, or movement into any other group, then no other group can have input or movement into the first group.

This leads to the position that in the future true change will probably have to come from outside of the organization, but from outside of the company. Since the internal resistance to movement between organizations within the company will continue to increase, the only way for an organization to change will have to come from entities that are not bound by having to deal with that internal resistance.

Getting back to Apple briefly. Apple still generated two hundred and sixty-five Billion dollars of revenue in 2018. They still have over two hundred and eighty-five Billion dollars in cash on hand. This makes Apple the equivalent of the eighteenth largest country on the planet (approximately the size of Switzerland) as measured by Gross National Product (GNP).

I don’t think Tim Cook’s job as Apple CEO is in any immediate danger with that kind of performance.

But what I do think is that if Apple wants to resume the growth and market leadership that is associated with it being an inventive and creative bellwether within the industry, they will eventually have to look outside of their organization to find that new inventive and creative leader. Their current leadership and structure are probably not conducive to enabling that sort of creative and inventive executive evolution.

This would also seem to indicate that unless organizations can find a way to overcome the continued creation of walls limiting inter-organizational movement, or the inertia associated with process codification, true change for organizations will also probably need to come from external sources as well. Meaning, it will need to be sourced to those who do not have any vesting in the current roles or processes.

In many instances Not Invented Here refers to the concept that external ideas are met with resistance by internal organizations. I think at a little deeper level it extends more to the people within organizations. The idea is ingrained that only the finance organization can generate people and ideas that are versed in and capable of benefiting the financial aspects of any issue or organization. The same goes with the other disciplines within an organization.

As an aside, I have found this to be the case almost in the extreme with lawyers, but that is possibly due to my own personal bias due to my past dealing with lawyers. Many lawyers believe only they can be versed in legal issues, while also believing every organization issue is rooted in legal topics. I once worked for a chief operating officer who said that he believed that lawyers within his organization needed to be periodically “flogged”, just so they would understand what their specific role was within the organization. While this is definitely not the approach with all lawyers, I have met many who could probably benefit from such treatment.

Generating change requires that an organization does something different. Doing something different generates risk associated with the doing, the result of which is unknown. Organizations, and processes are designed to reduce just this sort of risk. Once these types of organizational people, opinions and processes are rooted, anything idea or activity other than what is currently being done is “Not Invented Here”.

I guess what this means to me is that if people truly want to have an impact and make a change, then they will probably have to go somewhere else, regardless of where they currently are, to do it. And, if organizations want to change, they will probably have to look outside of their own structure to locate those change agents that they want or need. That will probably be because the with the way they are currently working, they are also not invented here.

What Can They Sell?

Over time I think I have the opportunity to sit through innumerable Product Line Management (PLM) meetings where various product managers described and extolled the virtues of their specific products. These meetings seemed to follow a similar pattern: The product manager described the product, told everyone how much better it was than anything else they had ever produced, how much better it was than any competitor’s product, how big the market was for the product and how much the company would sell and make from the product. Then they would spend the rest of the meeting describing how the sales team was supposed to sell the product in order to take maximal advantage of all the product had to offer.

What I think I learned over time from attending these meetings was that there invariably was an inverse relationship between the volume of information provided by the product managers regarding how to sell their product, and the actual success that their product resultingly enjoyed in the market. The more they described how they wanted and expected the product to be sold, the worse the chance the product had of ever being successful.

Could this be because we had people who were experts in the product, and not experts in sales, trying to dictate to the people who were experts in sales, how they should go about doing their job?

I would say yes.

Too many times it seems that we have product and technology experts trying to explain why the product or technology in question could and should be sold in ever greater quantities.

Customers are not usually buying the technology. They are buying what the technology delivers. Back in the dim, dark past, both 8-track tapes and cassette tapes delivered portable, recorded music. It was demonstrated that cassette tapes delivered an inferior recording technology, yet they were unarguably viewed as the preferred delivery medium. They were smaller, and hence viewed as more portable than the 8-track competition. In this case it was not the technology that won the decision criteria. It was the portability.

As an aside, I shudder at the thought of an 8-track tape equivalent of the seminal Sony Walkman…..

I am sure that there were probably innumerable 8-track product managers who spent inordinate amounts of time trying to explain to sales people why their product was better than cassettes, and then tried to educate them on how to properly see the superior product.

Believe it or not, I can remember all the way back to 8-tracks and cassette tapes, but only as a childhood user. But contrary to popular opinion, I was not in the business world at that time, so I really cannot confirm what if anything the 8-track product managers did or did not do.

To be fair, sometimes this product and technology driven approach works. Stephen Jobs, who seems to be rapidly ascending in the pantheon of business icons, was one of the notable exceptions to this standard. But even he did not approach his highly technical products (Mac’s, PC’s, iPhones, iPads, iPods, etc.) from a technology advantage point of view.

He made Apple products “cool”.

He relied on designs, user interfaces, displays, etc., as his customer product differentiators. He made them sleek and appealing so that customers would want them. He made them intuitive to operate. He knew that technological advantages would be ephemeral at best, and that design and cache would create a brand loyalty that would continue.

Jobs is famously quoted as saying:

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/988332-some-people-say-give-the-customers-what-they-want-but)

But, as I have said, the number of product technologists that can successfully do this has been limited. Even Jobs had to look back more than a half-century to quote Ford on his visionary product success.

So, what should a product technologist do in a situation such as this?

The simple answer, and the first place to start is with the sales team. Ask them what their customers need. Ask them what they can sell. Ask them how what they currently have can be better. Ask them can they sell it.

But just as the product technologists should not be allowed to try to dictate how a product should be sold, sales people should not be allowed to try and dictate what technology or product should be supplied. Henry Ford was probably right in that if he had asked the sales team what was needed, the response would have been a faster horse. The horse was the then best technology of the time. That response would have been technology dependent.

The proper response would have been the desire for the ability to travel faster and farther, with the ability to carry more people and cargo. That was indeed the problem Ford solved.

Too many times product and technologists seem to become too enamored with their own products and technologies. They can get caught up in the idea that the issue is the sales team’s inability to sell the product is a sales issue and not something else. Because the product or technology is so good, it obviously must be related to the sales team either not understanding or not being able to properly sell it.

I have found that by and large, corporate sales teams are usually pretty good at selling. If they were not, neither they nor ultimately the company would be there for long. The competition from other sales teams would see to that. This usually means that if there is some sort of an endemic issue with the sales levels for a product, that it probably has something to do with the product.

Again, one of the best ways to determine this is to ask the sales team. They are incited to sell the product. Their employment and ultimately their livelihood depends on their ability to sell. If they cannot sell the product on their own, chances are that a product technologist will not be able to generate a sales process that will significantly improve the market performance.

It seems that too many times sales teams are viewed as a group that can and will generate orders and sales regardless of products, market conditions, or competition. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, it is obviously not. However, it seems that it is usually the sales team that is the first point of examination if a product or technology is not experiencing the type of success or market reception that the product and technology teams feel that it should.

As I earlier noted, the sales team has the same tendency as the product group, except in reverse. They will almost always try to dictate the technology to use. This input will be based on what has worked in the past. This will result in requests for “faster horses” or “more flexible buggy whips”.

It should be the product team’s responsibility to decode the sales team’s customer product requests, to separate the technology from what is in essence the application. This is what Stephen Jobs was so good at. He could see what the customer would want as being totally separate from any technological constructs or limitations. He would then go about designing and creating the new products to meet these desires.

Unfortunately, Jobs was a pretty unique individual. So, for the rest of the product and technology teams, if you want to get a good gauge on a potential products viability and success in the market, it is probably a good idea to ask the sales team what can they sell.

Sales teams in general rarely lack opinions on what the product needs to be. The key will be separating what they say they need the product to do, as in carry more people and cargo, and go faster and farther, as opposed to what they say they need the product to be, as in a faster horse.

Even Jobs noted that the focus always has to be on the people as opposed to technology, as a recipe for success. He said:

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”
https://blog.hubspot.com/sales/steve-jobs-quotes

C.O.T.S.

It has long been known that just about everyone thinks that they can build a better mouse trap. Indeed, several in fact have. That is where innovation comes from. By building something better than what currently exists, a competitive advantage is created. It is usually a short-lived advantage as there are many others that are always also trying to innovate as well, who will either copy, or actually improve on the new design.

Add to this, the question of whether you should actually make your own better mouse trap, or buy someone else’s better mouse trap, and you have the makings for a reasonably spirited discussion. Remember, not everyone is in the same mouse trap business. So, do you invest in developing your own, or do you just go out and buy somebody else’s, already complete? However, when it comes to your own business systems, processes and tools, the decision should be very simple.

Unless you are in the tool and system business, never, ever, ever make your own tools and systems.

The tools and systems within an organization usually fall under the purview of the Information Technologies (IT) group (or some derivative thereof). The IT group can be staffed with some of the finest and brightest people in the organization. But everyone must remember, that unless you are in the IT services, tools and application development business, that is not the business that the organization as a whole is in. IT is then not directly associated with the products and services that the company positions as best in class and sell to its customers. It doesn’t develop them. It doesn’t sell them.

If IT based tools and systems are not the organization’s prime business, then investing in their custom development should never make sense. IT should then be treated as an administrative expense that is required to be spent in order for the organization to maximally leverage the available technology in the pursuit of its business goals, not a tools and systems development organization.

With this definition and positioning of IT in mind, I’ll now delve into the issues that almost every organization now faces when it comes to leveraging available technologies and how to be more efficient at it.

Over (a long) time I have had the opportunity to witness several different businesses and organizations try to utilize their product development capabilities to develop what has come to be known a “Multi-Tool Product”. This is a product that is supposed to do everything. It is designed to be all things to all customers. Instead of buying four different devices to serve four different purposes, you can buy one device to do all four.

And every time I have witnessed this type of product development attempt, I have witnessed what can best be described as failure, and worst described as abject failure.

There are two primary reasons for this type of Development failure:
1. The time and expense associated with this type of development is always, always much longer, much more complicated and much more expensive than ever budgeted or even imagined.
2. The functionality of the multi-tool product is never, ever good enough, nor delivers enough value to unseat the individual discrete products that it is competing against.

I like to tell the story of attending a multi-tool product development review some many years ago. The review was opened by the product manager stating that it had been eight weeks since our last formal review, and that unfortunately due to unforeseen development complexities, product availability had slipped twelve weeks in that time.

I commented that since it seemed that we were now falling behind faster than time was passing, that the only logical thing to do was cease development now so as to fall no further behind.

I was never invited back to another one of those product reviews.

The product however, was never completed nor released. It was quietly shelved many months, and millions of dollars later.

As to multi-tool product functionality. It may be time for another Gobeli Postulate on Product Development. It goes:

1. A product that is purported to be able to do everything, will do nothing very well.

Individually developed products are each optimized for value and performance. They are targeted at being the “best in class”. Multi-tool products by their very structures cannot match this. Each individual capability in a multi-tool product must carry the product cost and functionality overhead of every other capability in the multi-tool product.

This is equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife example. It may have a knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors, but none of those attributes are as good in comparison to a separate standalone knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors. And you must pay the added expense of the housing and overhead that is required to combine them all into one device. Invariably the four different best of breed items can be bought for less than the single, less functionally capable multi-tool product.

Okay, so what has all this got to do with IT?

Part of the average IT group’s responsibility is to create / select tools that will enhance the systems and automation of the business organization, their customers. It must be remembered that IT is a support group. They exist to provide functionality to the business.

This is contrary to some IT departments I have witnessed who appeared to believe the business existed in order to fund them.

Most internal (not out-sourced) IT tools groups think that they can create tools, capabilities and applications that are far better than what can be purchased in the market. They believe this due to their increased knowledge and proximity to their very business specific support needs. It is their focus to create tools and systems that deliver ever greater functionality and capability to an ever-greater number of people.

In short, they believe they can create better Multi-tools.

This is not always the case, but I think we can all probably remember instances where a perfectly functional and eminently usable tool was replaced in the name of “integration” by a tool that had greater integration with other systems, but lower functionality than the tool it replaced.

So here is where we get to the Title of this article: C.O.T.S. – Commercial Off The Shelf.

“Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, without the need to commission custom-made, … solutions … Although COTS products can be used out of the box, in practice the COTS product must be configured to achieve the needs of the business and integrated to existing organizational systems.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_off-the-shelf

Please take note of the word “configured” in the above definition. It does not say “customized”. IT provided tools and systems should be configurable to handle multiple applications across different business groups. They should not be customized into different discrete tools to address each group.

There are organizations in existence whose business model is to create tools for other companies and organizations. In order for them to grow and flourish they must create best in breed tools for their specific applications. They cannot create all the tools. Only those types of tools that they are experts in.

That means that in order to get a full suite of tools to address all the business needs of the organization that the IT group serves, they will need to deal with multiple tool supplying organizations.

IT is usually a technology oriented group. External tool providing companies will usually provide tools much faster, better, cheaper and with greater functionality than anything that an internal tools group could create. However, working and negotiating with external businesses is not very technical in nature, which is somewhat out of alignment with the desired direction of most IT Tools groups.

They want to create and develop. Not negotiate and buy.

Many companies have created their competitive advantage by developing their own “better mouse trap”. This self-reliant development mentality can easily bleed over into the IT group when it comes to the tools and systems. Senior management can also be receptive to the IT tool and system development siren song, since that is how they were able to achieve success as a business.

However, management needs to remember that regardless of what they may think, or be told by IT, their business systems and tools needs are probably not so unique as to require custom tool development, but more likely just need the proper configuration of a C.O.T.S., best in breed, already available tool or system. This solution direction will invariably lead to simpler and faster implementations, as well as a lower cost of ownership and sustainment across the commercial life time of the tool.

IT will almost always be the owner of the make / buy analysis when it comes to tools. Building your own multi-tools will almost always be a slower, more expensive and lower functionality alternative to buying C.O.T.S., regardless of what the IT tool development group may want or think. Especially if your business is not the tool and system business.

Not Making Decisions

I think we have all probably had the opportunity to work either for, or with people who when presented with a decision-making opportunity would actively avoid making the requisite decision. This is an interesting phenomenon in business, and one that seems to be far more common than anyone might expect. We all have been indoctrinated (well, obviously not all, the subjects of this article seem to have avoided this indoctrination) from early ages that leaders advance in business because the make good decisions. They are right far more often than they are wrong. They seize the moment. They are proactive, not reactive. They are the masters of their own fate. Why then does it seem that there so many managers around in what should be positions of what should be leadership, if they actively avoid making a decision when the time comes to make one?

I had been contemplating this decision-avoidance management style for a while, when I saw a Facebook posting that pushed me over the edge into writing about it.

Yes, Facebook.

I mean, after all, if you see it on Facebook, it has to be true, right? Twelve thousand Russian internet trolls can’t be wrong, can they? But I digress….

The following is the post I saw (It was actually re-posted by a friend of mine. Below is the actual URL):

(https://www.facebook.com/REALfarmacyCOM/?hc_ref=ARTa6SNGQ99wX_NW_jDp2bf-MzzSqL-Lr1SXCVjnWX09uq0fonu7AiT5_p8DhES1MLM)

It was originally a much larger post, in what was obviously an effort to assure attention, not to mention veracity, by being that much larger than anything else on the screen at that time.

It is also in my opinion, patently wrong.

It has been my experience that the decision avoidance approach to management must be a viable approach to business, especially for those with what is referred to as “bad judgement” (or judgment challenged, if you prefer) based on the number of managers who seem to avoid making decisions. Many have survived and even flourished in business without being decisive. More on this in a moment.

Peter Drucker is a famous business management leader, consultant and writer in the twentieth century. He said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”     (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/451403-whenever-you-see-a-successful-business-someone-once-made-a)

On the surface, this is correct, but only as far as it goes. Making decisions is good really only when you make the right decisions. Being courageous and wrong in your decision making is probably a good way to end your employment. Drucker probably should have said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made the correct courageous decision.

The difference is small, but crucial.

Almost every business will try to tell you that they value risk takers and encourage their teams to take risks, and that risks are good, and we should all risk, and so on and so forth.

What the business is really saying is that they want you to take risks, as long as you are correct, and the risk works out. What I have observed is that while companies say that by taking risks and being wrong, there can and will be a learning experience, the usual item that is learned by the risk taker is that they shouldn’t have been wrong. This conclusion is invariably arrived at later, normally in the process of looking for their next opportunity.

This would then lead us to the slight modification of the Facebook post, so that it would read in the following way:

Be decisive.
Right or wrong,
make a good decision.
The road of life
is paved with
Flat Squirrels
Who made a
Bad Decision

This revision of course begs the question:

Who wants to be a flat squirrel?

We now understand how the decision avoidance approach to management has come about. The up-side to making multiple good business decisions is that you may get the opportunity to make more, larger and more important business decisions. The down side is that if you make one bad decision, there is the potential to become a flat squirrel that will not be given the opportunity to make any further business decisions in the future. This sort of risk-return associated with business decisions results in driving many to avoid making decisions.

So, with this in mind, how do managers who won’t make a decision appear to become leaders?

The answer is the same with all questions of this type: Very carefully.

When presented with a decision-making opportunity, instead of making a choice, most managers will opt for pseudo-decision-making activities that will give the appearance of taking action, but will not directly subject them to the decision making risk. Examples of these activities can be:

Socialization, where the decision options, criteria and possible outcomes are presented to multiple other entities. This can result in opinions and responses with suggested options, or even just general feedback that can be used to diffuse the decision source and responsibility.

Discussion, where a meeting is called where the decision options are discussed and presumably the best option will be chosen. This process can actually take multiple meetings, depending on the amount of research that may be called for. Again, the result here is the diffusion of the responsibility for the decision. It is no longer a single manager, but now a team or group decision.

Escalation, where a decision avoiding manager can escalate the decision, either directly or indirectly, to a more senior level where it can then be made. This usually happens when a decision / risk averse manager reports to a decision inclined supervisor. In this situation, this kind of decision behavior may actually be encouraged.

And delaying, where the decision is put off or postponed long enough for the required decision option to become self-evident enough that there is relatively little risk in finally selecting it.

There may be many other behaviors and responses that can be observed by decision avoiding managers, but I think these are probably the most prevalent.

So, what does this all mean? Is decision avoidance an acceptable management style?

I think the answer is yes, and no. It has proven to be a workable strategy for many either risk averse, or judgement challenged, people. The proof lies in how many of these decision avoiders exist in management. But I think it is by nature a strategy of limited potential. If the goal is a middle management low risk and lower reward position and career, then it can probably be a workable approach. However, I think regardless of your preferences or career position there will always come a time when a decision will need to be made.

It may be small, or it may be large, but there always comes a time in business that will call for an answer. Those with decision making experience (analytical skills, judgement, etc.) will have an advantage. Those that don’t, won’t.

These instances are definitive examples of what is known as “The Peter Principle”. The Peter Principle stems from:

“Observation that in an hierarchy people tend to rise to “their level of incompetence.” Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less-effective because good performance in one job does not guarantee similar performance in another. Named after the Canadian researcher Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1910-90) who popularized this observation in his 1969 book ‘The Peter Principle.’”
(http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/Peter-principle.html)

The Peter Principle would lead us to believe that eventually a decision averse manager will find themselves in a position that will require the ability to make good decisions. After all, as Peter Drucker noted, business will eventually come down to making a courageous (read: correct) decision. Unless they have been keeping this ability in reserve, or well hidden, they will have then reached their upper limit on their management mobility.

It would appear that the successful method of applying a decision avoiding management strategy is to not desire or aspire to a role of such a level of responsibility that it requires a number of high visibility decisions to be made.

I don’t know of many business managers that knowing opted for the decision avoidance approach to business. I do know of some (I think we all do) who may have drifted into this business approach. It would seem to me to be a seductive, but probably slippery slope that could lead managers in this direction. The avoidance of issues instead of the difficulty of dealing with them can be attractive. If the opportunity and capability to do this was made available, there would of course be some who would take advantage of it. Matrixed organizations and well rooted processes for dealing with all manner of issues that will ultimately require a decision of some sort to resolve, may actually begin to drive this type of behavior.

It is at times like these that I hear the lyrics to the Rush song “Free Will” off of their 1980 released “Permanent Waves” album.

Yes, I listen to and appreciate Rush. I also applaud their finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

The passage that comes to mind is:

“….You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice….”

(https://www.rush.com/songs/freewill/)

Wow, Facebook (Decisions), Peter Drucker (Decisions), Laurence Peter (The Peter Principle) and Rush (Decisions) all in one business article.

Would You Like To Buy The Brooklyn Bridge? – An Infrastructure Sales Story

I have been thinking a lot about infrastructure lately. There are many different types of infrastructure out there. While I am primarily in the High-tech infrastructure environment, almost every other industry has its own type of infrastructure (think oil, airlines, brewing, etc.) and for me, it is hard not to think about things like the Brooklyn bridge when you start talking about infrastructure. I think by way of analogy, I’ll stay with bridges in general and the Brooklyn bridge in particular for this discussion, because it enables me to make the general points I want to make about infrastructure sales and business decisions, and there are a ton of very cool facts that I was able to discover, and hence would like to share.

“The Brooklyn Bridge looms majestically over New York City’s East River, linking the two boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since 1883, its granite towers and steel cables have offered a safe and scenic passage to millions of commuters and tourists, trains and bicycles, pushcarts and cars. The bridge’s construction took 14 years, involved 600 workers and cost $15 million (more than $320 million in today’s dollars). At least two dozen people died in the process, including its original designer. Now more than 125 years old, this iconic feature of the New York City skyline still carries roughly 150,000 vehicles and pedestrians every day.” Or so says History.com. (http://www.history.com/topics/brooklyn-bridge.)

I find this to be very interesting. Here is some infrastructure that was built 135 years ago and is still in service. In fact, it could be said that based on its load and traffic, it is doing more now than it was doing 135 years ago when it was put in service. It cost $320 M in today’s dollars, but probably could not be built for fifty times that ($15 Billion) today. It was basically designed to last 100 years, but at 135 years it is still going strong.

Please note these facts. I will be getting back to them.

When it comes to selling infrastructure, there is one man that historically stands out, head and shoulders above all others: “George C. Parker (March 16, 1860 – 1936) was an American con man best known for his surprisingly successful attempts to “sell” the Brooklyn Bridge. He made his living conducting illegal sales of property he did not own, often New York’s public landmarks, to unwary immigrants. The Brooklyn Bridge was the subject of several of his transactions, predicated on the notion of the buyer controlling access to the bridge. Police removed several of his victims from the bridge as they tried to erect toll booths.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_C._Parker.)

What this teaches us is that if you are going to sell infrastructure it is important to identify the proper customers.

What this also shows is that George was a man who was way ahead of his time. If he was selling infrastructure today he probably would be incredibly successful selling infrastructure to those that are actually in that business, and would not have to spend the last eight years of his life behind bars in Sing Sing prison.

It is also important to understand the engineering associated with some of the existing infrastructure (at least in the US, and probably elsewhere – look at the London Bridge for example), as people go around trying to make a case to replace it. The engineering associated with older infrastructure usually far and away exceeds the stress requirements that were to be placed on it. This probably cannot be said today. As costs have skyrocketed, engineers are now designing and building structures as close to the required loads and specifications as possible in order to keep those costs low. That means they also do not last.

In other words, in the past infrastructure was usually built to last. In addition to old bridges, think about all the pictures in magazines (and on the web) of the old copper pot stills being used at the various breweries (my personal favorite), and bourbon and scotch distilleries. I am sure that all the manufacturers of commercial distillery equipment would like to replace them, but I suspect that also isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Again, looking at our favorite infrastructure example: “(it employed) a bridge and truss system that was six times as strong as was thought it needed to be. Because of this, the Brooklyn Bridge is still standing when many of the bridges built around the same time have vanished or been replaced.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooklyn_Bridge.)

For comparison sakes, a newer piece of infrastructure, the Tappan Zee bridge was put into service, in the same area, about 70 years after the Brooklyn bridge: “As another example, the original Tappan Zee Bridge was opened in 1955, and construction of its replacement is now underway. A 2009 New York state report on the original bridge described its design as “non-redundant,” meaning that one critical component failure could result in large-scale failure; the bridge was featured in a History Channel show entitled “The Crumbling of America.” The new bridge is being designed with a 100-year lifespan; info about the “New NY Bridge” is available” here. (http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/287844/Building+Construction/Lifespan+of+a+Bridge+Span.)

And there is also: “After years of dawdling while the bridge crumbled, state officials say they are rushing to complete a review of the most feasible solutions to the problem of the Tappan Zee. But a decision is still two years off and a new bridge would require eight additional years and as much as $14.5 billion to build, they say.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/nyregion/a-bridge-that-has-nowhere-left-to-go.html.)

“The bridge was built on a very tight budget of $81 million (1950 dollars), or $796 million in 2014 dollars.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tappan_Zee_Bridge.)

This would indicate that more recent infrastructure is usually neither designed to last as long as some of the older infrastructure, nor is it as reliable and cost effective as some of the older, over-engineered variety.

This would lead many to the position that for some of the older infrastructure, it would be much more economically feasible to repair it, upgrade it, maintain it, than it would be to replace it. This is despite what many of the current infrastructure suppliers might want or even indicate. If it is working and can still continue to work, why would anyone want to build another bridge, right next to the still working one, to carry the same traffic.

However, just because it was initially built well doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t or doesn’t need to be maintained. Infrastructure requires continued investment in order to maintain it: “The repairs, ordered quietly last October by the city’s Department of Transportation, are intended to fortify the concrete-reinforced steel-mesh panels beneath the bridge’s traffic lanes, which were found to be deteriorating by construction crews at work on a repaving project last July, officials said yesterday.….. the city’s Transportation Commissioner, attributed the problems to ”normal wear and tear” on the 115-year-old bridge…..He added that the steel girding and concrete that must be repaired, which were put in place during a 1954 repaving project, ”were installed with a life expectancy of 60 years,” and had therefore fulfilled most of their engineering mandate.” (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/05/nyregion/as-concrete-falls-city-moves-to-fix-brooklyn-bridge.html.)

And of course, 20 years later more maintenance is needed on the Brooklyn bridge, only now, the cost is climbing: “The cost of repairing the Brooklyn Bridge is expected to hit $811 million — a roughly $200 million increase from estimates made only last year, The Post has learned. When the mammoth project to renovate the 133-year-old span began in 2010, the price tag was even lower — $508 million.” (http://nypost.com/2016/11/11/brooklyn-bridge-repairs-expected-to-cost-811m/.)

So, where does all this bridge information leave us when it comes to selling infrastructure?

I think the first thing to note is that unless the infrastructure is at risk of immediate failure, such as the Tappan Zee bridge is deemed to be, it is going to be very difficult to replace. You may be able to add to it. You may be able to augment it. But the financials usually do not make sense for a full replacement. It is going to be a tough sell to get a customer to buy something that does much the same as the thing it is trying to replace.

It also looks as though capacity is going to be the prime driver for infrastructure expansion and augmentation. The more cars that want to get across the river, the bigger the needed bridge, or the more bridges that are needed. New features and elegant designs of bridges are pretty cool, but the objective is to still get cars across the river as efficiently as possible. Form is nice, but it is function that predominantly drives infrastructure acquisition.

And I think finally, there is an excellent business to be had repairing, maintaining and improving the existing infrastructure. As we see above, even incredibly expensive bridge repairs are economically preferable to what would be the exorbitantly expensive cost of replacing the infrastructure. The Tappan Zee replacement bridge is expected to cost between $4 Billion and $15 Billion. The original Tappan Zee cast $81 Million. The financial math becomes pretty obvious, pretty quickly.

Focusing on how to improve the existing infrastructure, extend its life and help it to be used or run more efficiently are going to be keys to a customer first mentality that the good sales teams are going to need in order to be successful.

I think this is going to be especially important as customers are rapidly learning that the new infrastructure they buy today is not going to last as long as the old infrastructure they already have today.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the bridges.

Hard Work

Perhaps I am getting a little too retrospective, or was it introspective. I forget which.

I think it is interesting how my concept of “Hard Work” has changed over time. I used to think of it as moving rocks and landscaping timbers around our yard for my mother when I was younger. Hours in the heat with all that physical exertion. Then I remember that I was also a competitive tennis player back then, and that also entailed hours in the heat with significant physical exertion. That didn’t seem to be as hard work, at least back then.

Now both yard work and tennis in the heat of a Texas summer seem somewhat equally uninviting. Right now, both seem like pretty hard work.
I think I would like to look at what hard work was, what it is today, and possibly more importantly, what it may become in the future.

I seem to recall that I also had a distinct dislike for reading text books and studying (on my own time, after school, when I wanted to do other stuff, of all things). It was hard work to both get myself to do it, and to maintain the focus on topic so I could learn and master the required topics. Now I find myself reading recreationally on those same topics, as well as many others related to my professional disciplines, and actually enjoying it. Now it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Using these examples, it seems that hard work is the work that we don’t want to do, but are somehow compelled to do. It may be best described as doing something which you have not fully bought into doing. Something you have to do, instead of something you want to do. I think I’ll go with that definition for now.

I had bought into the idea of spending hours in the heat practicing the various aspects of my tennis game. Initially not so much on the yard work for the then family home. Later with my own home and family, I enjoyed both the tennis and the yard work. Now, in the triple digit heat of a Texas summer, I do my best to refrain from both.

As an aside, I didn’t require my kids to join me working in the yard, as I was compelled to do. I don’t know at this point if I did them a disservice.

So far, neither of them has complained about not being required to do yard work in the heat. Go figure.

For some reason, I find myself quoting Mark Twain, a lot. I don’t know if it is just happenstance, or if there is some other type of connection. Either way, he seemed to say many things that can still be considered truisms today. He said:

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But I am actually not so sure that is the case. I think it may be more along the lines of: If you do something that you buy into doing, it means that you will not consider it “hard work”.

You may be fully engaged. You may get to the office early. You may stay late. If you are bought in, and are committed to the deliverable, none of what you are doing is going to feel like hard work. You are getting satisfaction and fulfillment from the effort, and probably feel you are providing value in what you are doing.

I have found when I am engaged and committed I have internalized the assignment or objective, and I want to deliver and excel. I suspect that I am not too different from the majority of people out there. Given the opportunity, I think most everyone wants to be engaged, and to have internalized their work goals. What I have learned over time is that people probably cannot be trained or managed into this type of commitment. They need to be led to it.

I think the ability to do this is probably a learned capability.

I think back to the periods in time when my views about what was and wasn’t hard work changed. When the drudge work of studying for an exam was supplanted by the desire to walk into the exam confident in the knowledge and command of the material. Some kids seem to get this early in their educational career. Let’s just say that it was quite a way into my educational journey before I learned it. Much the same feeling as when the drudge work of the preparing for the customer (or even internal) presentation changed to ownership and the confidence that went with it, although that one came much quicker in my professional career.

People buy into ownership and leadership. If they are given a responsibility and are shown how their role plays into the greater good, the process of getting them to buy in has started. But that is normally not enough. People want to contribute. This is where the pride of ownership comes in.

Communicating the “what” part of what needs to be accomplished is only part of the process. It is the “how” part of the objective, as in how is the goal to be achieved that will either get internalization and buy-in, or probably get the function labeled as “hard work”.

If people are told what they must do, and how they must do it, there is very little for them to contribute to the function, other than being the vessel that performs the assigned tasks in the prescribed manner. They may have no pride of ownership. Without it, almost everything, regardless of how simple or easily achieved has the potential to be considered hard work.

As I said, we all have goals that we need to achieve for the greater good of the business, but I can’t help feeling that being told what to do and how to do it sounds like a definition of hard work.

Even with all of that preamble, I believe that the working environment, and for that matter all work, not just hard work is going to change. I have talked about the application of process as a substitute for judgement in business before. Good judgement is a necessary leadership characteristic. There are those that seem to innately have good judgement, and there are those that have acquired it as a result of their experiences.

Randy Pausch in his book “The Last Lecture” said:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

This is a pretty well known, and surprisingly accurate assessment of the world. What may not be as well known, is the second line from this quote. It goes:

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

But as business continues its journey from process to automation and beyond (Artificial Intelligence?), getting experience, that most valuable thing, the basis for good judgement (at least for most of us) is going to be a more and more difficult thing to obtain.

Career progressions that were once based on the recognition of an underlying business issue, and the creation and implementation of solutions to rectify them, will no longer be the norm. It will become more along the lines of being compelled to follow the steps in the existing process. As experience is gained in one step, there may then be the potential opportunity to manage multiple steps, or entire processes, or potentially multiple processes. Work will change from the creation of a solution to a problem, to the management of the existing process.

One of the issues that we seem to be facing today is that we no longer appear to be accepting, let alone rewarding the individual who does what we used to call “Thinking Outside the Box”.

That does sound pretty trite to me, but unfortunately also pretty applicable.

Process minimizes the risk of poor judgment and the variability of results. But as business appears to be creating more processes, as a substitute for judgement, that compel people to remain in the process box, it also makes the opportunity for business (or process) improvement that much more difficult to achieve.

I guess this can be an acceptable situation if you are confident that the process in place is optimal. But again, we have all seen and have grown accustomed to the idea that the rate of change in business is continuing to accelerate. The progression of work from on shore, to off shore, to automation, to the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) should underscore this. So even if a process was optimal at one time, it does not appear that it can remain optimal in the face of accelerating change.

I think the future of hard work will lie in compelling people to continue to use more or less fixed processes in the face of ongoing, rapid change. The process structure by its nature is resistant to change with its multiple parties, stakeholders and check points and desire for predictability, and that does not bode well for it going forward in a continually more unpredictable environment.

Perhaps the new business leaders of the future will be the ones that instead of just recognizing and solving an issue, also master the means of rapidly modifying and adapting existing processes to the changing environment. That will probably require a fundamental change in how processes are created and managed. The proverb states that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I think that is the case here. Otherwise I think there is going to be an awful lot of hard work for everyone in the future.

Joining Them

For those of you that don’t directly know me, I can have a tendency to cause problems. I like to think of myself as a knowledge worker. That means that I tend to make my living utilizing my brain power as opposed to my muscle power. That also means that when people ask me questions, I (sometimes mistakenly) think that they are asking me to use the sum total of that brain power, experiences, training, and cognitive capabilities to provide what I think is the best response to their queries.

Many times, however, it seems that people who ask me questions are not actually looking for my response. They are looking for their response. They may already have an answer that they like, they just want me to agree with it. Sometimes I do. Many times, I don’t.

My wife, who also happens to be a very smart lady has learned that when she asks me something, the probability is asymptotically close to zero that I will provide her the response that she is looking for. Her solution to this situation has been to stop asking me questions or for my opinions all together. She now just goes ahead and does whatever it was she had already decided was best in the first place.

Sometimes I find out about it later. Many times, I don’t. I am told we are both happier with this arrangement.

In the past, this approach to business has stood me in good stead. I think it was pretty much this way for everyone. If your judgement was good, and you were right more often then you were wrong, you progressed forward. However, as times have changed in business, this approach to answering questions, or taking on assignments, has now led to me sometimes being viewed as something of a rebel in the process driven world.

As I said, initially this classification didn’t bother me, as such. I actually looked upon it with a certain sense of pride. I think part of it was that business and organizational process was still somewhat in its relative infancy as a methodology for management, and part of it was that for the most part I could still get things done. I would examine a problem, create a solution and chart a course for implementing it.

We had a business structure that was built on a Risk – Reward basis. If you had a better way of doing things and had the belief in it such that you put it out in front of the team and defended it, there was a real probability that you might get the opportunity to actually do it.

As the old saying goes: Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.

If you were right, and you implemented a solution that did improve things, you got the opportunity to continue on your trajectory. On the other hand, if you were wrong, or for whatever reason were unable to implement your solution, it was usually some time before you got another chance to do something new.

As the inexorable tide of process continues to rise within organizations, this approach to career trajectories appears to be a thing of the past. There is less and less room for rebels within a process driven system. There is less and less opportunity, and just as importantly capability, to effect change as the purview of process has continued to grow.

I had been thinking about this dichotomy for a while.

All sorts of quotes and thoughts have come to mind.

Japanese literature has many books about the tragic heroes throughout its history. Those that chose to stay true to their ideals and suffered defeat and paid the ultimate price for doing so. Many are now revered in Japanese society for what they did. Despite knowing that they were fighting a battle that they could not win, they chose to continue to fight.

I respect that. But it is not lost on me that they didn’t win. And they got killed.

If you are interested in reading any of this stuff, there are several books that I would recommend: The Nobility of Failure – Tragic heroes in the history of Japan, by Ivan Morris, Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, and Liam Hearn’s fully fictional Tales of the Otori series are all good.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is an excellent quote from Sam Rayburn. For those of you that don’t know him, he was a U.S. Representative from the 4th District in Texas. He was also the longest serving Speaker of the House in history, serving in that role for seventeen years between 1940 and 1961.

He also has a modern tollway named after him here in the Dallas area. You have to pay if you want to drive on it.

He said: “If you want to get along, you have to go along”.

Spoken like a true politician. I am not so sure if that is a really good way to proceed either, although there do seem to be many today in business that appear to subscribe to it.

I recently came across a quote by Marie Lu, who is a contemporary author of several series of young adult books. I haven’t read any of her books yet, as it is readily apparent that I am somewhat beyond young adulthood at this point. The quote struck such a chord with me that I will probably have to go out and read at least some of her books to see if they can live up to the expectations that this quote has set for me.

She said: “If you want to rebel, rebel from inside the system. That’s much more powerful than rebelling outside the system.”

Corporate organizational and process structures have now become so ingrained from a business and operations standpoint, that it is almost impossible for an individual to step outside of them and be perceived as offering anything constructive or beneficial to the business. Notice that I said almost. People such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and the late Steven Jobs at Apple all have stood as individual rebels who stepped outside the then corporate norm with great success.

It should also be noted that in order to achieve their ultimate goals that they had to stand so far outside the then corporate norm as to have to create their own new corporations and models. There were precious few if any companies that would have accepted their radical approaches to the business issues that they took on.

They didn’t seem to accept the then standard process. They believed in their own judgement.

However, many of us may not have had the absolute vision or solution on the scale that these rebels did. We may see what is wrong within the organization that we currently find ourselves in. We may see what needs to change in order to improve the business or opportunity that we are in. We face a conundrum. We know the structure or process in question is not optimal. We also know that if we rebel against it, from outside of it, the inertia of the process will more than likely continue in its present direction.

Do we stand by what we believe is correct and rebel (figuratively of course) from outside the process, or do we join the process with the hope and plan on changing it from within?

There are several people who seem to have been credited with the phrase “If you can’t beat them, then join them”. I saw various attributions which included Jim Henson (I don’t seem to remember any Muppet saying this), and Mort Sahl (a comedian from the 1960’s), but both Bartleby.com and the Yale Book of Quotes attribute the quote to Senator James E. Watson of Indiana, with its first appearance in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in February of 1932.

It seems that Marie Lu has put a new spin on a much older idea. The new spin is that Joining the system or the process does not necessarily mean the acquiescence and submission to those principles that it once did. But rather, the only way to now generate effective change for a business process or a system is now from within it.

Again, for those of you who know me, you probably understand how it pains me to say this.

External rebels within a defined business structure and process are probably going to go the way of the previously mentioned Japanese tragic heroes who may have been fighting a good and just battle in the face of insurmountable odds. While they might have been right, they didn’t achieve their goals. They didn’t survive either.

Those that went along in order to get along didn’t achieve their goals either. They may have survived but I’m not sure that really is a preferred existence.

I think the process driven structures of business today are now in such a state that the only way to effect meaningful change to them, is to do so from within them. External influence on a process has a decreasingly small effect on them. That means that you will have to join them. That doesn’t mean total acquiesce and allegiance to them. It just means that going forward in today’s business world, it appears that one of the only ways to change a flawed business process will be from within the process itself.

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.