Category Archives: Objectives

Forecasts

Forecast meetings are interesting animals. They are basically meetings where you compare what you think the numbers are going to be, with what you want the numbers to be. Over time I have had the opportunity to attend many different types of forecast meetings. Sales, Revenue, Cost, Delivery, all types of forecast meetings. I have found that there are basically two types of forces competing for supremacy at a forecast meeting: The volumetric force, which is the force working to drive the numbers toward what they are wanted to be, and the accuracy force, which is the force driving the numbers toward what they have a higher probability of being.

The volumetric force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are either meeting or exceeding the business plans for that particular aspect of the business, regardless of whether they are or not. This means that for example, if it is a sales forecast in question, the desire is to see the annual sales target for business to be divided by twelve (coincidentally the number of months in a year) and to see the sales forecast incremented upwards by one twelfth the annual sales target each month, which is coincidentally the usual frequency of the sales forecasting meeting.

The accuracy force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are relatively reliable, and have a relatively high probability of actually becoming reality. An example here would be if the average interval between order and revenue was six weeks, and the orders target was achieved with eight weeks remaining in the quarter, there is a reasonably high expectation that the revenue forecast should also be reliably achieved.

Sometimes these forces work in concert. This is where the volume of the forecast and the accuracy of the forecast are both close to, or ahead of the desired targets. This can mean that sales are above target, or costs are below target, or both. This is also where there is a very high probability of the business sales or cost performance coming in at or very close to the forecasted numbers.

In business vernacular, times when the volume and the accuracy of the forecasts are both on target are usually known as “rarefied air”. They don’t align this way very often. When they do it seems to be a foregone conclusion that either the volume or accuracy targets for the next forecast will be changed significantly.

Once the volume and accuracy targets for the forecast have been modified to the point where one or both of the variables are now in question, the business process can now be considered back in normal state equilibrium, or more accurately in the normal state of disequilibrium.

One of the primary topics of forecasts are the numbers. It is usually a good rule of thumb that if there is anything but numbers in a forecast meeting, then somebody is trying to distract somebody else’s attention from the numbers. Given the opportunity, there is a reasonably high probability that those responsible for presenting the forecast will try to add in extraneous information of some type, if their forecasted numbers do not meet or exceed their assigned targets.

Both a strength and a weakness of the forecasting process is the periodicity with which it occurs. Regular forecasts enable the business to prepare for and adapt to the forecasted changes and values that are projected. If forecasting meetings are held too often, there is not enough time for new events to occur and the forecast to change. This results in wasted effort and repeated information.

On the other hand, if they are held too infrequently, it can mean that events have occurred during the forecast interval that must now be responded to in a far shorter time. It can also mean that the results of the last forecasting meeting can be forgotten or obscured. This can result in a loss of directionality as to how the forecast is either progressing or regressing. One of the main benefits of the forecasting process is to get an understanding of which direction the specific piece of the business is moving.

This results in the potential need for at least some incremental information to be included in the forecast. Again, think numbers. The most useful of which is the comparison of the current forecast to the desired target numbers. That provides a snapshot of what the predicted versus the desired performance will be. The next useful piece of information will be the comparison of the last forecast to the current forecast. This information provides a directionality to the snapshot. Is the forecast getting better, worse or staying the same with respect to the targets?

Adding much information beyond the targets and the previous forecast can cause the information in the forecast to become somewhat garbled or confusing. I have seen forecasts where the information was compared to multiple previous forecasts, or the forecast from the same period a year earlier. This one I am not sure I understand, unless you are looking for some sort of a longer-range piece of information regarding how things have changed, or not, over a year.

To me the salient point is always to know how things are progressing towards this year’s targets. Knowing what last year’s forecast was for the same time period can be a little bit like knowing what the weather was forecasted to be for the same day, a year ago. It might be interesting to know, but it has little to do with whether or not you will need an umbrella or not tomorrow.

The purpose of forecasts is to alert you to the state of the business with as much lead warning as is possible. Do those presenting the forecast indicate that things are getting better? Are they getting worse? It takes time for changes to produce the desired effects in a business. The more time that you have to make them, the greater the effect that they can have. Does the forecast indicate that any changes are required at all?

This is where the volumetric forecasting force can work against the business. As stated, this force is the desire to forecast increasing performance, that is at or near the desired targets. But what happens if either the market conditions, or business performance are such that the actual forecast is indicating that the numbers are moving away from the desired targets?

If you actually forecast this type of event, the known decline of performance and missing of a target, you are inviting what is known as “management assistance”. This type of assistance usually comes in the form of even more forecasting meetings where the opportunity to explain what is going on is made available, that is until the forecasts improve in line with desired results.

So, what happens?

A general rule of thumb is that once a forecast is created, it cannot get worse. They can either improve, or stay the same, but having a forecast that is moving away from the target will cause much consternation. As we all know, business is a continually changing environment and set of events. Very little in business can or should stay the same. Accurate forecasts should reflect the constantly changing environment.

If you see a forecast, of any type, that is not changing with time, then you know it is getting worse.

The advantage to this situation is that management is not being directly told that things are getting worse, so they have plausible deniability to their senior management, and the business performers are not having to spend incremental time explaining what has occurred, and what they are doing to correct it. They can just get on with correcting the performance and trying to improve the forecast.

However, this approach will only work for a while. Eventually even management will have to recognize that they are being shown the same information over a prolonged period of time and they will be forced to question it. Once this type of questioning on the relative believability of the forecast begins, there is little that can be done to stop it. This is where plausible deniability ends.

As process has continued to expand its role within business, forecasting has also become the forecasting process. This usually means that instead of just having the person or team closest to, or responsible for the specific set of numbers for that specific period enter them into the forecast, they must now put them on a form where they are then routed to many other people and teams who are either only tangentially or wholly unrelated to the numbers, can then approve them before they are actually entered into what will become the forecast.

Forecasting is a critical aspect of a successful business. The ability to accurately predict present and future performance enables business groups and disciplines to take the most effective actions to benefit the business. Understanding how forecasts are put together, and being able to accurately interpret the numbers they contain are key capabilities for the business leader to learn.

It is also critical for the business leader to be able to interpret the information that the forecast contains that may not be specifically numeric in nature.

The Illusion of Choice

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

Such is the case today.

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

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

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

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

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

But he still lost, last year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work and Effort

Wow, was it just me or did the last year and a fair chunk of the first month of this year just fly by? According to Einstein time is supposed to slow down the faster you go, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in business. It seems that the faster I try to go the faster time tries to go too. It’s interesting how in just about any race with time, time has a tendency to win. Go figure.

I think I may have touched on this topic in the past, but since we are at the relative start of a new year, I think I’ll spend a little more time on it. As we start out on a new year with new opportunities, new goals and new hope, we cannot forget that we must also reflect on the past year. This reflection is normally referred to as an annual review. Depending on how you did last year this reflection can either be a pleasant or unpleasant experience. I think most of mine for the most part have been reasonably pleasant experiences. I think that is because a learned early on the difference between work and effort.

I have mentioned in the past that I have an affinity for physics. This seems to serve me in good stead when my son brings home his high school physics assignments such as building a bridge out of paper or trying to construct a capability to disperse the force of a mass rolling down an incline plane. It’s kind of cool to be a go-to guy for your son. I just hope I got the equations right.

I also find that sometimes it relates directly to business as well. To a physicist work is done when a force that is applied to an object which moves that object. The work is calculated by multiplying the force by the amount of movement of an object (W = F x d).

In this example “Work” would equate to the goal that was set for the individual or business at the beginning of the year, “Force” is the equivalent effort that someone expends in the pursuit of that goal and “d”, the movement is the equivalent of an almost unknown item which I’ll call an efficiency or “success rate”. So for business the equation for work would be Work = Effort x Success Rate, or W = E x SR.

What this means is that the effort expended and the achievement of the goal may or may not be positively linked. This would explain why some goals would seem to be easily attained with apparently little effort and some goals may be unobtainable regardless of the amount of effort expended.

This is something of a roundabout way of saying that just because you worked hard last year; it doesn’t mean you are entitled to a good year end review.

Everybody works hard these days. The exception might be “Wally” in the Dilbert comic strip (by Scott Adams), but by and large everyone puts forth the effort. Even Wally puts forth an effort in his quest to avoid work. Effort is good, but it is at this point table stakes.

“Work” as it is defined in the annual review is the measurement of the achievement that they effort generated. If you are in sales and you have a quota that means you have a numerical target, such as orders. You can put forth a great deal of effort but unless you actually get some orders, according to your compensation plan (and probably your sales manager) you didn’t really accomplish anything. So by these measurement criteria you in fact did no work.

Catch the difference here? Lots of effort does not mean you did any work.

I purposely try to create primarily quantitative objectives and goals for my teams. There will always be a certain amount of qualitative acknowledgement associated with them, but for the most part I want them to be numerical, and measurable in nature. By doing this you remove a great deal of the effort versus work type of discussion.

In business we keep score via the financial numbers. If you can’t create objectives and goals for any of the business functions that you may have, that somehow relate to or distill down to these types of financial numbers, then I might suggest that a review of the necessity of the function being measured might be in order. Again to simplify things: If you can’t create a viable metric for a function that relates to the achievement of one of the financial goals, you had better look at the viability of the function, goal and metric.

Numbers are finite. We all seemed to get a working knowledge of numbers dating back to approximately the second grade. We all know when one number is either larger or smaller than another number. It is usually not open to much interpretation. This concept usually leads to readily acknowledgeable annual reviews, regardless of the performance level.

Too many times we create “soft” goals that are somewhat open to management as well as staff interpretation. Any time there is an open interpretation of an objective you can be reasonably assured that there will be different interpretations of the achievement of the objective. This is the essence of the effort versus work example.

Non-quantifiable goals invite an effort based annual review. Quantifiable goals invite a work based review. Effort based reviews can lead to a basic inequality of reviews across an entire team. Instead of measuring progress and achievement you are instead measuring activity. Activity and progress are as different as effort and work. It is as different as splashing around in a pool (activity), and actually swimming across it (progress).

We all know that is possible to appear busy without actually accomplishing anything.

In looking back at the last year, and at last year’s goals it may be difficult to implement a quantifiable measurement scale, if the goals were not originally established with such a scale in mind. However, the other aspect of the early part of the year is that in addition to reviewing last year’s performance, it is the time and opportunity to set the goals and objectives for the coming year.

The beginning of the year provides leaders with the opportunity to modify the goals and objectives as well as the measurement scales and criteria so that they can be quantitatively based. By doing so the leader enables the team to focus on progress and achievement as opposed to activity, and work as opposed to effort. It enables the team to understand and make the distinction associated with knowing if they are doing something that will ultimately contribute to achieving an objective or if they are doing something that just keeps them busy.

The key point here is that when it comes time to review this year’s performance at the beginning of next year it would be to the benefit of all members of the team to have defined quantifiably goals, and a known scale by which they will be measured. It makes this time of the year a little easier for everyone involved.

Put it on Paper

Here I go again, demonstrating to the world just exactly what sort of a business dinosaur I am. That’s ok. I don’t really mind. For those of you not exactly following what I am saying here, I would refer you to the title. I refer to paper. You know, that old technology, tactile foldable thing; paper. Most people don’t use paper anymore. If they want to take a note they usually type it into their omnipresent laptop or tablet, or if really pressed they will use their thumbs and try to tap it into their smart phone.

I remember attending a sales conference some time ago. For those of you who may not be familiar with sales conferences, these are events where the sales team goes to celebrate their previous year performance while also receiving their next year targets and objectives. I also understand that each day of the sales conference has a two drink minimum.

I am not going to discuss paper and its relationship to a sales team’s past performance. The paper that is normally associated with that is green, has pictures of past presidents (and others – Ben Franklin wasn’t a president, at least I don’t think he was) and is recognized as legal tender. In this case I am going to talk about paper and how it was used in relationship to the future targets.

Success in sales is a double edged sword. Do well and you are rewarded handsomely with commissions and recognition. On the other hand, do well and your next year’s targets will be raised so as to reflect your past success. They will usually be significantly increased. It is one of the basics of target setting. Beat them one year, expect them to be significantly increased the next. Such is the life and continuous challenge of being a top flight sales person.

At the sales meeting I was at, the Senior Vice President of sales had just finished congratulating the team on their past performance, when he turned everyone’s attention to the future. It was if he simultaneously and collectively hashed everyone’s “mellow”. He told them what their targets were for the next year.

The air left the room. There was an audible whooshing sound as the blood drained from the various sales leaders’ heads. What had been a celebration now sat precariously on the precipice of becoming an insurrection. The demanded growth was that large. It was impossible to achieve. It looked like it was going to get ugly.

This was when the wily sale vice president stood up and said.

“I don’t know how we are going to get to the number either, but the first thing we need to do is to put it on paper so that we can start working on it.”

He understood that while the goal sounded outrageous and unattainable, that the first step in generating success was to make the target real. Putting it on paper demystified it. It made the number real. And making the goal real, regardless of the perceived difficulty in attaining it is the first step in attaining it.

By putting it on paper you take something that may seem out of reach and reduce it to a number, or words on a piece of paper. Think about that for a minute. When it is on paper it is both bound and defined. It is no longer unbounded and undefined. It is real.

I thought this was a pretty spectacular way to regain control of the room. Sales people are not renowned for being the most forward thinking of strategists. Some of the really good ones that I have known are, but for the most part, maybe not so much. In any event, by telling the team members to write it down, and then taking a moment to pause in his presentation, which had the effect of adding more impetus to the request, he slowed the runaway new quota riot train before it could fully leave the last year’s performance station.

It took me a while to come up with that allegory. I am not sure that I fully like it, but I think I will leave it for now.

The simple fact of writing something down starts the planning and strategy process. Putting pen to paper. Once something is written invariably something else will be written next to it, or below it. Once the thought process starts other ideas will begin to evolve. Eventually plans and strategies will emerge. It won’t happen all at once. It will take time. But it all starts with just writing down the goal on a piece of paper.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Unlike the shows on television, business does not come with its own laugh track. You have to make your own. That doesn’t mean that business isn’t funny. It is. I mean both funny (ha ha) as well as funny (strange). There usually isn’t an audience around to tell you when you are supposed to laugh. You need to be able to figure that out on your own.

Perhaps I am a product of my time and generation in that I grew up watching many of the best observational comedians around. Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld and the late great Robin Williams all looked at various aspects and idiosyncrasies in the world and brought out the humor and sometimes the absurdity involved therein.

I wish I had their eye for the detail and comedy that they found and related associated with everyday life. I don’t. Fortunately, I have found throughout my business career that I usually didn’t need their incisive eye for finding humor in the subtleties of business. The humor associated with business is usually never that subtle.

We all have the tendency to immerse ourselves in our problems and issues of the day. This is both a good thing in that it enables us to focus and concentrate on solving the problem, but it is a bad thing in that it has a tendency to enable us to take ourselves and our “issues” almost too seriously. When we do that we not only miss out on the humor associated with the work, we also tend to miss out on the enjoyment of the job as well.

I think the key here is that we all need to reserve a little piece of ourselves to be our own audience. We need to be able to be able to metaphorically stand off to the side and watch our own interactions. As we have seen on the afore mentioned television shows, it is the audience that will provide us with the laugh track and tell us when we are supposed to laugh at something funny, including ourselves.

Let me provide an example of how humor can raise its head at the most unsuspected of times.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away it now seems) I worked in a business unit where there was a significant amount of employee dissatisfaction. The business unit manager was a little bit of an autocrat (…okay, a lot of an autocrat, being of an even older business school than me at the time), but it had seemed to be a style that he had had success with. After all, he had risen to the top post of the business unit. Even so he understood that he needed to address the employee satisfaction issue, so he took an employee survey. He wanted to know why the employees were dissatisfied.

There is an old proverb: “If you truly want honesty, don’t ask questions you don’t really want the answer to.”

There would then to be held an all hands meeting where the results of the survey were going to be reviewed and the dissatisfaction issue solved. At the meeting it was revealed that the number one issue associated with the employee dissatisfaction was “Management did not listen to employee input on issues.” It seems that everyone wanted to be involved in contributing to the solutions associated with the business directions and issues.

There was a general murmur of agreement from the crowd accompanied by many nodding heads. The crux of the issue had been identified. The group was now awaiting the response and resolution. We were about to get somewhere.

The unit manager then said: “I don’t think that management does not listen to the input of the team. I think we should move on to the next topic while we review this one off-line”

I think this is where I had my first audience laugh track moment.

I looked around to see what everyone else’s reaction would be to what we had just heard. To tell you the truth it seemed as though there was a mixed set of reactions. Some were nodding, some were scowling and some were just blinking as if they were still trying to process what they had just heard.

There have been other similar moments that I recall:

There was the time the manager asked me why I had made a decision and taken action before consulting with them. I explained than the manager had specifically stated that he wanted his staff to show initiative and take actions and that had been the impetus for my behavior. He then explained that he wanted his staff to show initiative and take action AFTER they had consulted with him as to what initiative to show and action to take. These things had to be managed.

I also can remember a co-worker lamenting that she did not feel that management took her or her opinions seriously enough. This is a feeling that many new hires or less experienced employees are apt to feel. Of course she made this comment from her cube where every available flat surface was covered with crystals, cast pewter unicorns and her collection of beanie-babies.

Business punch lines are not delivered with the intent of eliciting laughter. They are usually uttered in response to some unexpected yet related stimulus. Asking for input when input is not actually desired. Taking initiative when initiative may not be really wanted.

Business and the work we do are important. I understand that it is how we all make our living and support ourselves and our families. We need to take what we do seriously. It is just that we need to be somewhat more self aware in that we should not take ourselves too seriously while we are doing it. We should not stop having fun just because we are in the office.

I don’t think that we should point out these foibles as they occur for the purpose of embarrassing others or ourselves when they are committed. I think it is better to look at ourselves and enjoy what we do. In general I expect to have a good time at work. And in general, and I think at least partially because of my expectation I do have a good time at work.

Enjoyment means smiling, laughing and sharing with those around you, both at home and in the office. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be focused when necessary. It does mean that there are times and places where the unintentional and unexpected humor of the situation should be recognized and enjoyed.

Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher said:

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

It is interesting in that it seems he had no discernable occupation other than to write proverbs, aphorisms and sayings. What’s not to love about that job? To me it sounds like a pretty good gig if you can get it. Of course he must have been pretty good at it as we are still quoting him all these centuries later.

It does make me wonder though, with all the good proverbs he wrote that have come down to us through the ages, how many bad ones did he write that we have never heard about? No one bats a thousand, and even the best baseball players only get a hit about a third of the time.

I am pretty sure to one extent or another we all enjoy our work. If we didn’t we would probably put in more time at trying to find something else to do. I wouldn’t say that I “love” my job as there certainly have been days where I have not only felt that I worked, but also felt that I have been worked over.

I do however realize that I have fun doing what I do. I believe the teams I work with have a tendency to recognize this and have fun as well. I think everyone understands that having fun does not mean not performing. It is always more fun to achieve goals than it is to miss them. As long we all understand that and continue to take the actions required to achieve our goals I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have some fun doing what we do.

Sometimes that means that we need to laugh with the others, at ourselves.

Your Record


Bill Parcells is a name that every football fan should know. His nickname is the “Big Tuna”. I have no idea how he got that name but it has to be one of the best nicknames ever. He is also thought of as one of the great football coaches of recent times. He has won Super Bowls. He has turned around or built dynasties out of several football teams. In short, he seems to be a pretty good leader who has a record of demonstrated success over an extended period of time. Like many sports managers, coaches and personalities he is also the source of several great quotes.  



At one point in his career he had been brought in to a franchise that had been suffering through a period of extended poor performance. They were a once proud franchise that had been going through and extended period of losing records. He started the process of making changes. He made the incremental changes associated with how the team trained, and how the coaches coached. This was expected. He also started making changes in personnel on the team. This was also expected but to a much lesser extent.



The quarterback is arguably the most important leadership position on the team. The quarterback for the team was an established star who had been in the league for several years. He had been a high draft choice coming out of college and had been traded for by the previous coaching regime. He had a strong arm and could make all the throws. He had been around and knew how to read defenses. His only weakness was that he was not the most mobile of quarterbacks. The television announcers occasionally likened his mobility to that of “statuary”. Defenses knew this and attacked him accordingly.



In the first year of Parcells tenure with this team, things started to improve. The team started to win more games, but still ended up with a losing record. After the season the press was interviewing the quarterback. He stated that he had achieved many of his goals and then uttered the most favored statement of teams with losing records:




“We are better than our record showed.”




Then it came time for the press to interview Parcells. They asked him what he thought of his quarterback’s statement that they were better than their losing record would indicate. It was his turn to utter an immortal phrase. He said that the team was NOT better than its losing record would indicate. The team had a losing record and that showed how good they were. They were a losing team. If they were a better team they would have won more games and the record would show that.




He said that a team is as good as its record. Nothing else mattered.




As the team leader Parcells sent the message to his team. If the team goals were not met, no equivocation would be accepted. No “achieved” reviews would be ratings would be provided to the on field leader of a losing team. The team did not win enough games. Its performance and hence the performance of its on field leader did not meet expectations. He was very direct and honest with his rating of “needs improvement”.




I am a big believer in data, metrics and records. Like Parcells said, you are as good as your record. If the data and the metrics show that you did not achieve your goals, then you didn’t. If you are the leader of the team then your judgment and your example matters. If you indicate that you are willing to disregard the team’s record and actual performance when it comes time to assess your individual leader’s performance, then you are communicating that you do not hold yourself or them accountable for the performance.




While there are several aspects of leadership that can be considered qualitative, the record of the performance of the business is not one of them. Like the won – loss record of a football team, it is numeric. It is a metric. It is data. Individual accolades and measurements are good, but if you are the leader of the team and the team did not achieve its goals then there is an issue.




The following year the star quarterback was replaced. Despite his individual performance being good, he was not able to elevate and lead the rest of the team to a better team performance. It seemed that Parcells decided he needed someone that could lead and elevate the performance of the entire team, and not be so judgmental on his own individual performance.




I have stated in the past that performance rating criteria need to be commensurate with the ability of the individual to affect the performance that they are rated on. An offensive lineman cannot directly affect the teams won – loss record other than his individual performance on how well he blocks or how many times he allows the quarterback to get sacked. If he is a great individual lineman who does his job, blocks well and protects the quarterback then he has met or exceeded his goals for performance, almost regardless of what the team’s record would indicate. The quarterback is however the on field leader. He touches the ball on just about every play. If he has a great year completing passes, but the team continues to lose is he a great quarterback? Like it or not, as the on-field team leader he will have to shoulder the majority of the responsibility for the teams record. It goes with the position.




The individual metrics would indicate that he is a good player. The team performance would indicate that he is not a good leader. When the quarterback in question seemed to put his own performance above that of the team, it appeared that coach Parcells decided he was not the on-field leader that he needed. When the quarterback said they were better than the record indicated, it could be construed as he was saying he was better than the record indicated.




I appreciate what the Big Tuna said and did. He made the incremental changes needed in the way the team practiced and prepared for a game, but he also made the personnel changes both in his leadership positions as well as the other team positions that were required for both a winning culture and a team culture approach to performance. The team in question continued to improve and did reach the playoffs quickly after he instituted these changes.




And as Parcells noted, they continued to be as good as their record indicated.

Business Oxymorons


Every time I get a memo, directive or request from management, or anyone else for that matter, that causes me to shake my head, I put it in a file where I can review it and smile at a later date. I have to do that because sometimes it is almost impossible to believe in, let alone laugh at many of the documents and directives when they are actually issued. It seems that it is only on reasonable reflection that the humor associated with the document can be appreciated. Over the years I have amassed a fairly large file of what I like to refer to as management “Business Oxymorons”. Here are some of my favorites.



Process Simplification:


Process simplification has long been a target for cost cutting and efficiency increasing projects and teams. Regardless of how the business is structured, or what processes there may be in place, this is an area that can and will receive incremental focus. My favorite approach here was when I received a 36 chart presentation deck detailing the process we would all be using going forward for corporate process simplification. That is correct. It took 36 charts to detail out how we were going to simplify things. Needless to say, I had a suggestion for the first process to focus on for future simplification.




Announcing / Assigning a New Team to Track Cost Reduction:


Like process simplification, cost reduction is also always a favorite topic for management attention. Indeed cost reduction should be an ongoing focus for every business. The point here is the activity of cost reduction should be the focus. The idea is to reduce costs. The tracking of cost reduction doesn’t actually reduce any costs. It could be argued that one of the best ways to start reducing costs would be to get rid of all the teams whose only responsibility is to track cost reductions, since they are actually an unproductive incremental cost to the business. I always thought that the people who were implementing cost reductions were also capable of tracking cost reductions too.




Unprofitable “Strategic” Business:


I wrote an entire post dedicated to this concept a few weeks ago. Sales teams want to sell things. That is what they are supposed to do. Customers usually want the lowest price possible for the goods and services that they are going to purchase. Sales teams try to get their customers the lowest price possible, sometimes by describing the business opportunity as “Strategic”. Getting requests to discount product and service prices to the point of unprofitability because it is strategic to the company to get this business has always been an interesting exercise in logic for me. How can bringing in any incremental unprofitable business be of benefit to a company, let alone strategic to it?




Multi-Tasking Equals Productivity:


We are all continually asked to do more. That is the nature of business. How we go about it is the key to our effectiveness. I know many people who pride themselves on their ability to be on conference calls, do their email and converse on their computer’s instant messaging system at the same time. I also notice that these people are usually so busy that they never get anything actually accomplished or completed. Productivity is the measure of things that are completed, not the measurement of the number of things being done concurrently. It is similar to the idea about the difference between work and progress. Work can be a great deal of splashing around in a pool. Progress is actually swimming somewhere.




Measurement is the Solution:


It seems that whenever there issues in a business, the first thing management requests are a brand new set of metrics and reports regarding the already identified issues. Metrics and measurements are key tools and sources of data for any manager and business. They help us keep score. They help identify where issues may lie and where performance may need to be improved. Measurements very seldom tell us how to improve performance, only that against some sort of scale that performance needs to be improved. More measurements or more detailed measurements may not help this situation. It is the decisions that are made and the actions that are taken in the business as a result of the measurement information that are the solution. Business measurements are a ways to a means, not a means unto themselves. The 80 / 20 rule truly does apply to measurements and data, and the idea of trying to measure your way out of a performance issue rarely works.




Global Projects:


The world is a very big place and the way business is conducted varies significantly from place to place in it. Global tools, programs and platforms, while always a desirable goal are almost always problematic when it comes to implementation, but that has never seemed to stop the drive towards them. Part of this issue seems to be in that global projects focus on trying to remove the differences between business regions instead of leveraging the similarities that the regions have. By the time you modify the tool, platform or project to take into account every regional business difference, you usually have a uniform solution that is so large, complex, expensive and unmanageable that it is worse than the separate and discrete capabilities it replaced. My father would have called this phenomenon the starting of a vast project with something along the lines of a half vast idea.



These are just a few of the business oxymorons that I have in my file. I am sure there are others that I will bring out in the future. I believe it is the irony associated with the approach as it applies to what was obviously the desired solution that causes me to share them here. It appears that at least in some circumstances it is true what has been said about good intentions. It also doesn’t hurt to find the humor in it.

Metrics


We are a numbers driven world. Look at the way we all watch the weather reports for tomorrow’s temperature. We watch the stock market to see where the market is today and what the change is from yesterday. We are constantly being told of unemployment rates, interest rates, price changes and approval ratings. Look also at the way we watch our own key performance indicators to help us keep track of the health of our businesses. Metrics are an important aspect of what we do. They shape our opinion of our world and of how things are going.


 


We need to remember that good metrics do not cause good performance. Good metrics measure performance, good or bad. Metrics provide you guidance on how to look at the various aspects of the business.


 


Metrics also take time and effort. They require business leaders to continually make judgments as to whether the effort required to generate different or more detailed tools and systems will result in better visibility and detail of the performance of the various aspects of the business, and if this better visibility can provide better guidance as to what potential changes need to be made to the organization. The other side of this business discussion is could the effort required to generate better the better tools and systems be invested in the elsewhere in the business and provide a better return (more sales, cost reductions, etc.).


 


More detailed or complex metrics will not improve your business’ performance. Good planning, implementation, competitive capabilities and commitment to cost control will help improve your business’ performance. It is not the metric that improves your business. It is what you do with the metric that can improve your business.


 


Metrics are a ways to a means. In many instances they seem to have become the means unto themselves. The objective is not to have good metrics. The objective is to have a good business, where the metrics will reflect this performance. Businesses in some instances have a tendency to believe that it is the metrics fault that poor business performance is being reflected. This phenomenon can be seen in the periodic revamping of report and review materials to provide more and greater detail. Real information has a tendency to be subjected to ever more complex statistical analysis in order to provide more detailed views of performance.


 


I have found that metrics, like objectives are best when they are very simple, and focused. They need to focus only on those attributes that directly affect your ability to achieve your goals. If they require incremental or additional explanation, then they are not appropriate to the business. They should almost be intuitive in the nature of the information that they are conveying. Good metrics should guide you both on performance and what type of changes, if any need to be made to the business.


 


Metrics should provide facts and real event based information, not statistical means or averages. Remember what Mark Twain said about statistics.


 


“There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.”


 


Keep the metrics simple, focused and fact / event based. It’s not the metric; it’s what is done with the information the metric provides that is important.

Work Backwards


Process Reengineering and Process Transformation seem to be the new popular catch phrases for business these days. We continue to evolve and place more emphasis on the “process”. We like to define them, and map them, and engineer them, and reengineer them, and transform them. We even now have global “Process Owners”. The goal of all this additional and incremental work that is being applied to the process is to make the process more efficient. I understand the almost obsessive approach to processes that businesses are exhibiting these days. I am just not quite sure yet whether or not I agree with it.


This approach seems to be consistent with the idea that the most efficient process to build a staircase is to gather a number of previously defined and constructed steps and start to assemble them until you reach your goal, whether it is the second floor of a house or the top floor of a high rise building.


To me the simple definition of a process is a way to get something done. We used to want to standardize the way we got things done in order to be as efficient as possible. This was particularly effective when we were primarily a manufacturing / production oriented economy. We have continued to change from a production based economy to a product / services / knowledge based economy for quite some time as the production function has been moved to lower cost environments.  We are now trying to standardize the process – the way we get things done – for this new service / knowledge based business environment in much the same way we did for the manufacturing and production based structure. The new catch phrase for standardizing Service and Knowledge based processes is to “Industrialize” them.


Here is where I think we may start to run into trouble with this industrialization approach to processes. For quite a while we have strived for a diverse workforce. This diversity is a very good thing. Different people think differently. The diversity of thought and approach that results from having a diverse workforce helps prevent the group think phenomenon from happening, where similar people all see things the same way. If everyone saw and did things the same way there would never be any way to improve the process because everyone would see it the same way.


So now we are looking at trying to industrialize a process in order to make it more efficient, which if we are fully successful at will make it difficult to ever modify or improve in the future because we will all be doing it the same way. To go back to our steps and staircase example, if you are going to standardize on only one set of steps, you will only be able to make one type of staircase.


A further complication to the industrialization drive occurs when we look at the variations in service and knowledge that are to be applied either internally to the business, or externally to the customer. Manufacturing efficiency was driven based on a relatively few sets of variations to the end product. You used to be able to custom order your car with the specific sets of options that you wanted. Can you do that anymore? The last time I looked most car models came in approximately three option package variations: Standard, Enhanced and Luxury versions.


Because the knowledge and service needs of each specific customer will be unique to that specific customer, it may be difficult to fully industrialize the process of satisfying their wants and needs.


I have always been a goal driven individual, even when it comes to the processes that I must use. I have found that if I know the goal, I can begin the process of decomposing it into sub-goals or milestones and from there into logical tasks and steps. You can use this approach differently for different goals and that will result in a somewhat different process, and in different tasks.


If we have a goal and know what we need to get done, then we can work backwards from it to break it down into the steps that need to be taken to achieve it. This method of work definition provides a general framework or process to work from, but also enables individuals to see and do things somewhat differently in the pursuit of the goal.


As long as there are guidelines that are known (example: Bank robbery is not an acceptable solution to increasing the profitability of a customer engagement….) and responsibilities and ownerships (approval levels, etc.) are defined this generic process of working backwards from the end goal can provide a flexible framework that will enable the multiple variations of deliverables that customers require, while also enabling the business to efficiently and effectively adapt to each customer engagement.


The current push to industrialize and define each step of a process can be very useful if all you are going to do is provide straight staircases. This approach will work very well if all every customer wanted was a straight staircase. It starts to have real problems when you try to apply it to circular, elliptical and spiral staircases. These types of customer engagements while having the potential to utilize some industializable aspects of the process normally need to be customized to each specific engagement.


The final ingredient to a successful process is ultimately going to be the people using. We need to work at creating the ability within our people to recognize and adapt to each new engagement, to build the appropriate stairs and staircases that our customers want and our businesses need, instead of trying to industrialize a process to the point where all they can do is to try an assemble a predefined set of steps, in the hopes that it will more efficiently meet each new set of business and customer needs.

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”.