Category Archives: Priorities

Drop the Rope

Business, like life is about growing. Pretty deep, huh? Actually it is probably more aptly described as pretty trite and stale. In so many instances we seem to associate business and professional success with acquiring an ever growing reporting structure. The more people you have reporting to you, the greater the size of the pyramidal organizational chart that you sit atop of, the more successful you must be right?

This acquisitive approach to organizational dynamics is probably the leading cause of more lost business productivity that just about any other topic that I can think of. The time that is lost to the business based on the various organizational structuring, restructuring, acquiring and defending from being acquired, plans and discussions has to be boggling in its magnitude. I think it may be the largest driving factor in the zero sum gain practice of business and office politics.

As an example, if you and I are peers, there are essentially two ways that I can advance in the organization with respect to you, and others in the organization, given the ever reduced nature of opportunities as you advance up the organizational structure. I can do something that truly merits my promotion into a next level up vacancy, or I can arrange it so that your team, or even better, you and your team report to me, then either I have been de facto promoted or you have been de facto demoted. Either way I am now relatively more important than you (and presumably others in the organization) based on the new reporting structure and my increased span of control.

Most of the time these sorts of restructurings and reorganizations are couched in terms of “increased efficiency” or “improved corporate alignment” or some other type of corporate speak.

Having been a veteran of these resource wasting political machinations I can honestly say that I have come up with a new approach to dealing with them. It may not actually be a new approach. It is the approach that I choose to use when I find myself in these political and organizational responsibility free for alls and tug of wars. There may be others that have chosen to use this approach, only I haven’t run into one of them yet. I have termed it “Dropping the Rope”.

In many of the business environments that I have previously been in, if you were not openly or aggressively looking to expand you span of control within that organization, you were viewed as an internal organizational target for acquisition to enable the expansion of someone else’s control.

What a “dog eat dog” view of internal organizational politics. Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which side of the acquisition process you have been on, with a few exceptions it has tended to be an accurate perception, at least for me.

Dropping the rope, as the name implies simply means that there is usually nothing to be gained in openly opposing these sorts of restructurings. Pulling against a force that you may, but more probably cannot counteract, is a waste of your effort. I have written in the past that ego is good in that it drives us to work harder in order to avoid failure and to achieve our goals. I have also written that there are times where one must check their ego at the door because it causes us to pursue unproductive goals. I believe that these sorts of political turf wars are some of those unproductive times.

That does not mean that you should just roll over every time someone makes a political foray into you area of responsibility. Far from it. It is always good to directly check with your reporting structure to vet out what is in effect business management sanctioned and what is just curiosity. Once you have verified that a political reorganization is going on, the time has already passed for counter arguments. If you have not been involved in the restructuring decisions any resistance to them will be viewed as an unproductive professional tantrum and obstructionism. It is time to drop the rope and get on board.

I have been careful to classify these events as a political reorganization. Reorganizations for the purpose of cost reduction, or to get closer alignment to the customer’s business structures are usually clearly defined as such. They also usually entail some sort of a reduction in staff. If there is a restructuring going on that does not involve a reduction in staff you can usually guess that it is political in nature. And as such it will probably not add value to either the business or its customers.

Therein lays the key. In a time when the business is internally focused on a political reorganization focus even harder on the value that you and your organization brings to the customer. If part of your value proposition is affected in the impending changes, simply identify it and clearly document that it is being transferred to a new responsible party.

Instead of taking time away from the customer based charter, instead of putting together all sorts of irrefutably logical reasons why the decided change should not in fact happen, instead of taking it personally that a responsibility that was once yours is now going elsewhere, focus on the customer and let it go. It is hard to believe but these things do have a way of working out.

I hope this sounds like the now logical but formerly painful, ranting, frustrated voice of experience. I have learned to trust in my abilities. I would suspect that you have as well. My experience in these situations has usually been that when I officially transition the function or responsibility in question, in due time I am contacted and requested to resume responsibility for it. Political expediency has a way of giving way to functional performance. The most recognized and valued performance in business involves customers and their money. A temporary political internal focus in a business will always give way to a need for customer performance.

Dropping the rope in an internal, political organizational tug of war quickly removes you from the distraction. It gets you out of the arena in question. It cleanly severs your ties with the responsibility in question. It enables you to remain professional and keeps you from being viewed as an obstruction to the desired organizational change. It allows you to stay focused on the customer.

Staying focused on the customer is everyone’s job. Periodically organizations do have a tendency to become internally and politically focused. These periods by necessity always pass. When they do it is usually those that have stayed focused on the customer based substance of the business, and not those that have been focused on the internal politics of the organization that tend to profit in the long run.

White Boards

There have been a lot of great inventions that I have tried to take advantage over time. A great example of invention progression is the evolution from cassette tapes to audio CDs to MP3 players. It used to be an effort to take your music with you on a trip. Now without a second thought I can bring it along in my smart phone, stick in my ear buds and try to ignore the large guy next to me who is staking claim to take half of my seat in addition to his on the plane while he snores and drools on my shoulder. In business the advent of voicemail, email and PCs has had the beneficial effect of removing both time and distance from the business environment. While I have had cause in the past to point out how these advancements may have been abused or used in ways that they were not intended, they have by and large been beneficial to business. What I want to discuss now is an invention that in my opinion has far outstripped any of them in its importance to business, at least for me – the whiteboard.

The whiteboard is the product of its own technological evolution. It appears to have started out in the open air conference areas of Egypt a few thousand years ago as a granite slab, a hammer and a chisel. During the meeting when you wanted to write something down you chiseled it into the granite. This worked great until you filled up the slab. Erasing was problematic, so you just went and got another slab. This had a tendency to slow ancient Egyptian business meetings down.

Millennia passed and the granite slab was eventually replaced by a sheet of black slate. The writing substrate was still rock based; but it was much more easily erasable and you were much more efficient in that you didn’t need as much of it. The hammer and chisel were likewise replaced by white chalk. This new technology worked so well that blackboards and chalk were placed in almost every school room in the world. These blackboards were heavy, expensive and caused students to try and suck up to teachers by offering to rid the erasers of excess chalk dust outside during recess. Then came colored chalk. While this improved artistic license it did not improve the bottom line.

Black slate boards then gave way to pressed particle boards and chipboards with some sort of sprayed on green, semi-erasable covering. The green boards did not seem to erase quite as cleanly as slate boards, and they still used chalk but the boards were not nearly as heavy and expensive. The expensive, heavy slate chalkboards were then recycled into heavy expensive slate roof shingles which were then used for the roofs of expensive houses. There may be some moral to that story but I can’t quite figure it out. Green boards not only appeared in schools they also started appearing in conference rooms.

Business executives were still not happy in that most of them had a difficult time translating the ideas and information that were expressed with light colored chalk on a dark colored board into ideas and information that they would write as dark colored ink on a white sheet of paper. This light to dark thing seemed to cause a great deal of consternation in the management ranks. The solution to this problem was either to change all business over to using dark paper and pens that wrote in white ink so that the ideas and information would not have to suffer through this color inversion conversion, or create a white surface board for people to write on in the first place. I still believe that we would all be writing on black or green paper with white ink if they had been able to figure out how to mimeograph and photocopy on to dark paper.

The first whiteboards were actually sheets of steel with a white porcelain coating. It was found that the porcelain was so non-porous that it would not absorb any of the ink used to write on it. This allowed it to be erased perfectly clean. Because steel and porcelain were again found to be too heavy and too expensive and probably too efficient, new old substrates such as particleboard and chip board were quickly substituted for the steel sheet and other white, more porous coatings were substituted for porcelain. The fact that these new coatings would partially absorb permanent ink which in time would eventually render them useless seems to have been lost on everyone. These are the ubiquitous whiteboards that we have today.

I am a huge fan of the whiteboard. I have not one, but two of them in my office. I would have more if I could but the corporate facilities drones have told me that would be showy, presumptuous and far above what they consider my current station in the organization. I have thought about scavenging another white board from some other empty office or conference room but my “To Do” list has not yet exceeded its current two whiteboard limit, and I am not that desperate.

I keep an ongoing list and record of the issues, topics, ideas, customers, etc. that I must address on my white boards. This way whenever I have the opportunity to look up I can reassure myself that I have prioritized what needs to get done, and which topic is next to be addressed. As issues are solved they are erased, sort of, since today’s whiteboard coating are now semi-absorbent, and as new items come up I can add them in.

To the casual observer coming into my office, my white boards are impressive. They are covered with cryptic topics and diagrams, all of which are color coded in association with whichever of my multitude of dry erase pens was functional enough to leave a legible image on the whiteboard at the last eureka moment in time where I identified a topic or requirement that I would need to note in order for it to be prioritized and addressed. Some of the topics have been there for a while, meaning they are either immutable / unsolvable issues, or are of such a low priority that I never seem to be able to get around to fixing them. Some are as recent as my last ad-hoc discussion on issues facing the business this week.

I have commented in the past that it is well documented that work expands to fill available time (Parkinson’s Law, C. Northcote Parkinson). Likewise I have had people comment that it appears the number of issues and the size of the writing on my whiteboard seems to increase in proportion to the available room for topics on the whiteboard. The more I think about this the more I am inclined to review it. If this is indeed an accurate white board corollary to Parkinson’s Law, I have an empirical test that I think I will try.

Instead of adding another white board to the brace of them that I currently have, I may actually remove one of them. If the whiteboard corollary to Parkinson’s Law is correct and issues expand to fill available space on a white board, then by removing a whiteboard I should reduce the number of issues I have to deal with. If I take this to the logical extreme and remove both white boards, I should hit the point of optimal performance. Since I will have no white board space where I can write down and capture the issues that I need to deal with, I should therefore have no issues deal with.

Maybe I won’t try that one after all.

What I have found is that I do some of my best work when I am animated. I think many others do too. It is difficult to be animated and to continuously produce quality work when you are sedentarily sitting at a desk and staring at a screen. When I work and even as I write this article, I periodically feel the urge to get up and move around if for no other reason than to become active. Having a whiteboard around allows me to capture topics and ideas during these active times.

Several millennia from now when the future equivalent of today’s Egyptologists are excavating the ruins of my office they too will be trying to decipher the hieroglyphic remnants of the messages that remain on the whiteboards. The difference will be that where we had only one layer of carvings on granite to try and understand the topics and priorities of the ancient Egypt
ians, they will have innumerable partially erased layers of permanent ink on semi-porous whiteboards to try and piece through with us. These future archeologists may also wonder why we created these multistory mausoleums that we inhabit today, where the crypts on each floor were so densely packed. They may also wonder why the walls in each crypt didn’t extend all the way up to the ceiling and we put the whiteboards on the inside of each crypt; when the ancient Egyptians only created the pyramids with walls of stone for their hieroglyphics.

Some might say that we have come a long way.


It appears to me that preparation is becoming a lost art. It seems that we always have something better to do than to prepare for what we need to do. Whether it is studying for an upcoming exam, gathering our materials for a pending presentation, coordinating speakers and logistics for a customer visit or familiarizing ourselves with the business specifics for that crucial job interview, it is preparation that lays the groundwork for success. So if preparation is a key ingredient to the success of almost any endeavor, why aren’t more people prepared?

I have noted in the past that business seems to be more enamored with the people I have dubbed “fire fighters”, those people who are called on in times of crisis, than it is with those who quietly go about doing their jobs, being prepared, and avoiding the crises that others are always so willing to deal with. I guess this extends to our entertainment complexes as well. When was the last time that you saw a commercial let alone a television show about fire prevention or crime prevention? I can’t remember one. There are however several shows on about fire fighters and crime fighters.

I am not here to critique a bunch of television shows that I do not bother to watch anyway. I only bring it up as an illustration of what seems to be our preference for drama. Fighting fires is more dramatic than preventing them. This penchant seems to have filtered over into business. In business, as I would assume elsewhere, fighting fires is not more cost effective than preventing them. It might be more dramatic, but it usually takes more time, money and people to fight the fire than it would have to just get prepared and avoid the issue.

So, what has all this discussion about fire fighters have to do with preparation? It’s pretty simple. The best way to avoid fires and other issues is through preparation. If this is the best way to avoid extraneous activities, maintain focus and save money, why don’t more people do it?

The answer is: I don’t know.

Why don’t more sales people take the extra steps in preparing for their customer presentations? Providing the corporate attendees with information on the sales opportunity, products and applications being considered and the status of the sales process enable everyone to understand the customer situation. Written agendas are always appreciated by both those presenting as well as those being presented to. Vetting the topics with the customer prior to the presentation assures that the presentations are on target. Making sure of locations, logistics and equipment availability means that the entire visit will go smooth. This may sound like minutia and detail but these are just the basics.

Providing information and individual profiles of the visiting customers to the corporate attendees and presenters assures that everyone will know who the decision makers and influencers are at the meeting. Providing the titles and responsibilities of the corporate attendees to the customer allows them to understand the responsibilities and qualifications of those that are presenting and talking to them. It also provides each attendee with a written record of who was at the meeting and the role they played. It also provides a location where notes and comments associated with each attendee can be captured. It’s not a lot more work. It is just a little more preparation, but it will make a difference.

How many times have you interviewed a candidate for a position, and had the feeling that they were not entirely prepared? Candidates should not only be versed on the company they are interviewing with in general (as most of them usually are), they should also understand the various and specific markets that the company is in and the primary competitors that the company must deal with. They need to know how the company is doing with respect to these competitors. They should be familiar with the primary senior executives of the firm, as well as any specific programs that have been announced and the progress if any against these goals. Knowledge of the company’s financial performance for the past quarter and past year, as well as the analysts’ expectation of the company’s performance for the next quarter and the next year should also be expected.

All of this type of information is easily available through a number of public sources. However there are always a number of people that want to talk about opportunities and positions, that haven’t taken the time or put in the effort to prepare them with it. If the position is truly desired, this type of preparation is crucial and will differentiate the candidates.

I suppose my point is that preparation takes time and it takes effort. It takes a willingness to do something now that may not be required until some point in time in the future. Good preparation is taking the time and effort to be ready for something that may never be required, but you are ready in the event that it is.

There are innumerable sayings associated with preparation. Most are along the lines of good things happen when preparation and opportunity intersect. Those are nice but I tend toward a little bit more substantial in this case. I think George Washington Carver said it best:

There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.

I think if we spent a little more time preparing for whatever we deem important, as well as for possible alternatives, we would end up spending lot more time achieving and a lot less time fighting fires. That would probably best be described as progress.

Expect What You Inspect

I was thinking back to some of the sales and revenue meetings that I had attended. These are normally meetings where the top line is the focus of management’s attention. This is arguably step one in any business process. One of my favorite phases is to state that in order to have a good bottom line you need to start with a good top line. This sounds pretty logical, but you might be surprised by some of the directions that some of these meetings have taken.


Top line review meetings invariably go in one of two directions; if the top line is below the objective, you stay focused on sales and revenue and what steps must be taken to achieve the targets. If the top line is at or above the targets, the meeting will almost immediately begin to focus on the margins that the sales are contributing. The focus of the sales meeting then becomes margins.


You are inspecting sales, but are expecting margins.


This got me thinking further about some of the operations reviews that I have attended. The idea of these reviews is to see if the operations and service level objectives are being met. Again I recalled that these meetings invariably went in one of two directions, depending on the measurement attainment. If the operational and service objectives were not met, they stayed focused on service. If the operational and service levels were met, the meeting changed focus to profitability.


They were inspecting service levels, but expecting profitability.


The point I am making here is that you should only expect what you inspect. If you are only inspecting sales, then sales are all you should expect. Too many times we have seen the volume of sales go up in accordance with the attention it has received, only to see a change or reversal of course when the lower margins associated with those increased sales come to light. The same sort of events seems to occur when the incremental expenses associated with increased service levels come to light. Again too many times we have seen the service levels go up in accordance with management attention, only to pull back when the costs associated with those higher service levels come to light.


If you are going to inspect both the volume and margins on sales, you will need to make the sales team responsible for both sales volumes and margins. If you have a sales team that is only responsible for, and compensated on volumes, then margins will continually be an issue associated with sales. If you are going to inspect both the operational levels and profitability then the operations team needs to have responsibility for both the service capabilities and the associated profitability. If the operations team is only measured on their operational performance levels, then the costs and profitability associated with those functions will continually be an issue.


When metrics are provided to any team as a means of inspecting their performance, expect that team to focus on the actions required to attain the goals associated with the metrics. There are always tradeoffs in business. Lower margins may be required in order to increase sales. If the sales teams do not have the responsibility to evaluate those sales volumes to lower margin tradeoffs, they won’t. You can continue to have sales inspections with the sales team, but you will need to have a margin inspection with some other team.


The same goes for operations. If service levels are the only focus that the operations team is to be measured on, they will do whatever is necessary to meet those service levels. If they are not required to evaluate the tradeoffs between desired service levels and profitability, they won’t. It will be left to someone else.


Individual, team and business unit inspections need to be aligned with overall business expectations and requirements. If you only inspect one aspect of a desired performance, then that will be the only aspect that receives focus. If you only inspect the volume of sales, expect good volumes. If you do not inspect the margins associated with those sale, do not expect good margins. The same goes for operational goals and profitability.


I suppose the same could be said for just about any function within the organization. If you are going to expect multiple facets of behavior and performance, you will need to measure and inspect each of the facets and behaviors collectively. If you inspect them individually, don’t expect them all to be met.

Travel, Productivity, Cost Savings and Golf

As we continue to look for ways to keep our business’ costs down, one of the first things that get looked at is travel. Travel limitations, restrictions and freezes are all well known approaches to trying to reduce costs. I guess the success of these approaches depends on the goals that you are setting. If the idea is to bring down the hard dollar costs associated with your budget, then a true travel freeze can work, up to a point. However, there are not many businesses that can function properly or continue to grow without some amount of travel.

That leads us to travel limitations, restrictions and of course lowest cost airfare routing. This is where business and job productivity come into the travel and cost savings equation. I am going to use a hypothetical, if somewhat tongue in cheek example to help illustrate my point.

If I live in Dallas and I am asked to attend a meeting in Boston, I have several decisions to make. The first question is; do I need to go? If my boss has asked me to go, then the answer is easy; yes. If somebody else has asked, then I probably need to do a little more work to truly identify the need for my travel. Let’s assume my boss has asked me to go. For those of you that know me, the second question I always ask is; can I play golf there? Boston, March, probably not high on the golfing opportunity list.

Boston is approximately a four hour direct flight from Dallas. However, direct flights are usually more expensive. Most companies now require you to take a less expensive set of flight arrangements if available. I am now faced with the decision of either explaining why I have chosen the more expensive direct flight, or taking the less expensive connecting flight arrangements. Let’s assume that the president of the company is not currently available to authorize my more expensive direct flight travel arrangements, so I take the connecting flights.

This now brings up a couple more important points. The first is that in my 25-plus years of travel, I have never heard of an airline actually successfully keeping a traveler and their golf clubs together on connecting flights. They always get lost. Golf is definitely out in Boston.

Unless I decide to rent clubs.

The second point is that due to airline connecting schedules, what was initially a four hour flight is now a seven-plus hour set of flights. By selecting the connecting flights I have added 3-plus hours of travel time to each direction of my trip. That is the equivalent to adding almost the time of an entire round of golf each way. I have essentially added an entire day (two rounds of golf) to my trip. I will now also have one incremental day worth of meals associated with this trip, as well as potentially depending on connections, another night worth of lodging expenses.

This entire extra day of travel associated with going to this meeting is not spent being productive at my job, or playing golf. It is spent in airplanes and in airports. I am not going to get into the actual loaded hourly rate that is being paid or absorbed by the company while an extra day is spent traveling. What I am going to say is that it is my belief that the productivity value lost to the company by my (or anyone else) not being able to do productive work, as well as the incremental attracted costs (meals and lodging) for an incremental day due to travel are probably greater than the perceived savings difference between the cheaper connecting flights and the more expensive direct flights.

I am sure there will be instances where this lost productivity / airfare analysis will swing the other way and it will not make sense to fly direct. I do believe that in most instances it will be in the company’s best interest to get me or any other employee to our business destination and back home again, as quickly as possible in order to maximize the time where we can be productively working, and not sitting on airplanes and in airports. Besides, it’s hard to work on your putting in the airport. My putter has a tendency to set off the metal detectors, and people in the terminal don’t seem to pay attention and keep kicking my golf ball.

Beware of the Tiger….Team

There are many corporate animals in the organization, but one that has the potential to do so much good, also has the capability to cause significant harm. That corporate “animal” is the Tiger Team. Tiger Teams normally evolve from some sort of issue that has lingered unresolved for a significant amount of time. When senior most management’s frustration with the current problem owners group’s inability to drive a resolution boils over, they will create the Tiger Team. This is when scarce resources will be thrown at the problem.


Every manager has a reasonable idea of who their best performers, problem solvers and go-to for solution people are. These are also usually some of their busiest people. When a problem reaches a certain age, or criticality, it is usually these people who are called on. They become members of the Tiger team, and begin work on the solution.


In many instances this will be the end. The team will form, the team will work, and the team will solve the problem and move on. Case closed.


However in some instances Tiger Team members can be drawn from one group to help solve the problems of a second group, and placed under the temporary management of someone from a third group. There are now at least three members of management (and possibly more) that feel they have at least some claim to that resources time and the prioritization of their work.


Unless reporting lines are very clearly drawn, and work is very clearly prioritized, some of the most highly regarded resources in the organization have now been put in a very difficult situation. How are they supposed to arbitrate between the demands of so many different members of senior management? If they were working close to or at capacity before, which work will be delayed based on the additional duties required by the Tiger Team? If left on their own to decide, whatever direction they choose will leave at least one and possibly more managers unhappy because their work requirements were not met.


The key elements of a successful Tiger Team are the understanding by all members of the entire organization what the work priorities, and the leadership priorities of the Tiger Team are with respect to the entire organization. If the work of the Tiger Team takes temporary precedence, then the leadership of the Tiger Time also needs to take temporary management precedence. This is sometimes a tricky situation when the resources in one group must be provided to help solve the issues of another group, and their current accompanying work deliverables must be temporarily de-prioritized.


Without the clear establishment of responsibilities and priorities, a Tiger Team has the potential to turn into an exercise in trying to herd cats, with about as much opportunity for success.