Category Archives: Problem Solving

Question Everything

One of my favorite shows just started its eleventh season. It is the X-Files. Watching agents Moulder and Scully deal with various supposed conspiracies, monsters and other abnormal behavior associated with aliens (the science fiction ones, not the terrestrial, international border crossing ones), the various hidden agendas and conspiracy leaders obviously got me to thinking about all the parallels that can be drawn between the television show and what actually goes on in business. In the X-Files it is said that “the truth is out there”. That may not truly be the case in business, although one would hope so. With that being said, when searching for answers out there in business, it may be best to remember this little gem: Question Everything.

Since we are crossing the science fiction with the business schools of management here, we probably ought to start with a quote from one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Robert Heinlein. He said:

“If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.”

There have been many instances in my career where I have taken on a new role where the phrase “Challenge and opportunity” was involved. At first, I thought this was a management code phrase for a bad thing because that was what those around told me it was. They all knew that the issues and challenges plaguing the operation were deep rooted, endemic and impossible to fix. Many had gone before me and none had been successful.

What I learned was that these challenges and opportunities really are opportunities. They should be sought out, not avoided. They are not easily solved or corrected, but few issues in business ever are. The truth that was out there, was that the solution was not to be found in fixing the issues that others had supposedly identified and already (unsuccessfully) dealt with. Everybody knew that those were the only real issues, and everybody knew that none of the solutions that had been applied worked.

And as Heinlein noted everybody was usually wrong.

When I first take on a new opportunity and challenge, I probably ask a bunch of dumb questions. There are many who think that is the only type of question I am capable of asking. I could see the exasperation on the faces of those that I asked. I was new to the role. I wasn’t fully experienced in it. My questions were probably dumb. It is not a bad thing to own the truth.

That was okay. As I got smarter about the situation, so did my questions.

Invariably I ended up coming back to the original dumb questions. These were the ones that were usually answered with lines such as “That’s the way we do it” or “That process evolved over time” or “It was the result of an event that occurred several years ago”. These were in effect the “everybody knows” we do it that way response.

The eventual solutions invariably came from questioning these “everybody knows” basic tenets of the unit’s operation. Just because that was the way it has been done, doesn’t mean it is the correct, or proper way to do it.

I found that most issues associated with the “challenge and opportunity” performance of a business stemmed from the basics of how the business was set up to run. Too many times it is the symptoms associated with the improper basic assumptions or alignments of an organization that are focused on. These are the easiest things to see, and hence the most visible to treat.

Notice that I said treat, not cure.

If a business performance issue is large enough to be visible to management to the extent that it is felt that a change is needed, it is usually not a superficial, easily recognizable symptom, that is the cause. It usually relates to a basic way that the business is done. Treating a symptom does not cure the problem.

When it comes to this level of business examination, everybody becomes a stakeholder. Everybody has agreed to do it “that way”. And as a result, there will be resistance from everybody when it comes to questioning, and even changing what has been viewed by so many as basic to the way the business has been run.

This means that when questioning everything, be sure to do it on an individual level. When digging in to any organizational or operational can of worms it is best to do it on an individual basis. Jumping back to our science fiction, alien based school of business management thought, Tommy Lee Jones summed up this phenomenon best when he was discussing whether or not to let everyone on earth know that the earth was in danger of being destroyed by aliens in the first Men in Black (MiB) movie. He said:

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!”

He was pointing out that people in a group will do, say and act differently than they do as an individual. There is much that has been written about the psychology of groups (and mobs). Most of what has been written is succinctly summed up in what the quote from MiB.

This is no different in business. Almost every individual, will separately acknowledge that a change must be implemented, However, when the individuals are placed in a group, the group will almost always unanimously state that no change is possible, or if change is in fact needed, it is the other groups, and not theirs that must change. This is the group fear of change and the unknown.

We have to remember that science fiction and change in business actually have a lot in common. I think Arthur C. Clarke, another great science fiction writer put it best. He said:

“…science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to.”

When it comes to change in business, it can also be described as something that could happen, but usually most people don’t really want it to. Change means incrementing in risk on both an individual and group level. It is doing something that hasn’t been done before. It requires leaving the current comfort zone. It is as Captain Kirk intoned in the prolog to Star Trek (both the original series and the movies):

“To boldly go where no one has gone before….”

Not everybody is built to be that adventurous. Either in space exploration, or business. That is why process has been created, introduced, and flourished in business. Process is designed to reduce the need for judgment, and add predictability and hence comfort. It in effect, tries to remove the adventure from business.

As such, it also adds impedance and resistance to the need, introduction and acceptance of change. If everyone in the process knows and accepts their role in the process, then any change introduced to the fundamental functions associated with the business will probably affect all of their roles. No one likes to have their role affected by an external entity, regardless of who or what that entity is. Hence, they will either directly or indirectly resist or impede the proposed change.

This effect is usually the genesis of the everyone knows it can’t be done phenomenon.

This brings us to the final intersection between business and science fiction (at least in this article). Terry Pratchett, author of the satirical and humorous “Discworld” series of books put it best:

“It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done.”

Not knowing that an issue “can’t be fixed” is probably the key to fixing it. If everyone knows that is the way that things are done, then it is probably a very good place to start looking for solutions. If everyone is resistant to change, then it is probably a good bet that change is what is needed most in that organization.

When changing, you have to question everything. Especially those topics which everyone believes don’t need to be questioned. This is precisely because all the topics that everyone does believe need to be questioned, have probably already been questioned, and didn’t provide the solution. The truth is probably out there, but if you don’t question everything, there is a very good chance that you will miss it in favor of the more easily digested and implemented symptomatic solution, which is probably the one that everybody knows is the right one.

And remember what Heinlein said about what everybody knows…..

Engineering Solutions

There can be no question that engineers are one of the cornerstones of any successful technology oriented business organization. It doesn’t matter if they are hardware, software, electrical, mechanical, chemical or even civil engineers. Their role and importance cannot be overstated. We need to be very clear about that. I will try to walk the fine line of discussing the work of engineers in business without sliding into the realm of picking on engineers in business. Wish me luck.

It has been said:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

The origin of this quote is attributed to two wildly different sources: Voltaire, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and Uncle Ben, the Spiderman character, not the instant rice one. Both are acknowledged as saying something close but not quite like this, hence the somewhat open-ended attribution.

If I have a choice I’m going with Uncle Ben. Just because I haven’t seen that many entertaining movies about Voltaire and the French Enlightenment. However, I am sure that Marvel Comics will eventually get around to it. Probably after Thor – Thirteen, or some such time.

Mark Twain however, is widely acknowledged as the source of this quote:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I believe the modern technology equivalent of this statement is now:

“To an engineer, every question looks like it needs an engineering solution.”

Herein is where we get to the topic of engineering solutions. Engineers have a great power and responsibility when it comes to finding solutions to today’s customer based technological opportunities. A solution usually cannot be created, or implemented without them. Somebody usually has to put them together, and that somebody is usually an engineer.

Engineers have been trained starting in school to create the best solution. It usually entails a single variable. The strongest solution. The highest. The most secure. The longest. The tallest. Very seldom is there a scale or constraint added where there is some sort of trade off versus another variable. This can have a tendency to be the mindset that engineers use when creating real world solutions.

But even in this high technology, engineering dependent environment, it must be remembered that engineering is only part of the solution, not the entire solution. We are no longer in a time where a president can challenge a country to reach a goal, and the engineers can spend whatever is necessary to reach it. Doing things because they are difficult is a great challenge, but doing them within a budget is even a greater challenge.

About this time, I will have lost all readers that have an engineering degree, an engineering role or even just an engineering predilection. To mention that there are items other than engineering that are important to customer solutions, in their eyes can border on blasphemy. Unfortunately, that is the business world that we now live in. I have talked about this evolution before. It is the transition from the best solution, to the solution that is good enough. This idea is likely to drive engineers crazy.

Little things like money, time and resources must also be taken into account when creating a customer centric solution. This is because, contrary to standard engineering thought, the customer does not necessarily want the best engineered solution. They want the best solution that matches their money, time and resource constraints.

Engineers must be continually reminded of these real-world business constraints: money, time and resources. Otherwise it is not uncommon for them to develop the ultimate engineered solution, that is wholly implausible or unimplementable in the real world. It may be the best technical solution, but there will be very few that can afford to buy and implement it.

When engineering customer solutions, it is best not to think in terms of “absolutes”. Words like the “greatest”, “most” and “best” need modifiers otherwise engineers have a tendency to take them as literal objectives and work to them accordingly. This can result in some of the most elegantly over-engineered solutions imaginable.

Pareto Analysis is a statistical technique in decision-making used for the selection of a limited number of tasks that produce significant overall effect. It uses the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) the idea that by doing 20% of the work you can generate 80% of the benefit of doing the entire job. (

Many think that it was the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who created the Eighty – Twenty rule. To a certain extent this is somewhat true. Pareto first observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. However, it was management thinker Joseph M. Juran who actually suggested the principle and its far wider applications. Because of Pareto’s observation and work, the technique was named for him. (

Business, in all its simplest forms, is about investment and return. How much you put in versus how much you get out. This is the basis for employment decisions (if the company thinks that a person will generate more value for the company than the company will have to pay that person in compensation, then the company makes the hiring decision), and it is that way in purchasing decisions (amount paid versus expected return), and it needs to be that way in generating customer solutions.

Customers are not blessed with infinite resources. As I have said, in many instances they cannot afford to pay for what may be considered the “best” solution. Time and money always come into play for them. How much must they pay for each solution? What definable value does the solution generate (reduced costs, increased sales, etc.)? When would they expect to see these returns (the sooner the better)?

Engineers are excellent at the quantifiable. It is the nature of their work. However, if left unchecked they do have a tendency to view costs, time and resources more as “variables” instead of “constraints”. This is where business and leadership reinforcement is required.

When working with engineers, boundaries and constraints are a necessity. An upper limit on costs must be set. This can be in the form of a specific number (The cost cannot exceed…) or a derived relationship (the customer requires a pay-back period of….) based on costs, value generated and specific time frames. This will enable the engineer to modify various combinations of these business variables, but also provide a limiting constraint on the solution.

This customer pay-back period can also be used to help generate the value limit as well. If as Pareto has asserted that first eighty percent of the value can usually be derived with the first twenty percent of the effort, then it should follow that each additional amount of engineering effort (or any effort for that matter) will only provide a continually decreasing return. If the desired customer pay-back is based on returns and time, there is a limit as to what can be engineered within the constraint. Only so much can be done before the cost or pay-back period are exceeded.

It should be noted that not all engineers are so single-mindedly focused on engineering solutions. I have had the opportunity to work with several who understood that good customer solutions are the result of many, sometimes opposing forces in the solution creation process. These are the engineers that have recognized that real world issues and solutions have both a cost and a value associated with them.

A few final comments and observations on the engineering of solutions:

The optimist will look a glass that is half full of water and say that it is indeed half full.

The pessimist will look at the same glass and say that it is in fact half empty.

The engineer will look at it and say the glass is twice as big as it should be, and will set about trying to engineer a smaller glass that will be much more efficient in the holding of that specific amount of water.

Before they are allowed to do that, it is best to check to make sure that the customer wasn’t all that thirsty to begin with, and the amount in the glass is all the water that they wanted at this time. It might actually save more time, money and effort than the solution the engineer would create.

There are probably many engineers that would like to argue this point of view. I have found that for an engineer, the next best thing to trying to engineer the best solution to a problem, is to argue about what is the best engineered solution to a problem. For those of you that have not had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, this is a good time to remember the following quote:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling in the mud with a pig, after a couple of hours you realize the pig likes it.” (anonymous).

The Review Process

I got to thinking about all of the reviews that I have had the pleasure of sitting through, or have been sentenced to, as the case may be. Both the ones that I conducted and the ones that I just got to attend. They are a sometimes interesting, and sometimes not so interesting mix of development, product, marketing, finance, sales, operations and ultimately business reviews where there was a little of each of the previously mentioned disciplines covered. They have ranged in length from the relatively short one hour to the interminably long multiple days in length. I have traveled internationally to attend, present or conduct them as well as done the same over the phone. Throughout all of these reviews, the most important thing that I learned is that it is up to the review leader, not the review process, to make the review useful.

I think it is reasonably apparent that no one likes to be the bearer of bad news in a review. We all like to feel that we can and should be able to march triumphantly into the review and present as well as receive only good news. Schedules are being met. Sales are up. Earnings are good. Enough said. Take a bow. Let’s get out of here.

Admittedly I have been in only a few reviews like that, very few.

However, most of the time I have found that a review usually contains some good news, some bad news and more than a significant amount of extraneous information. Extraneous information is the information that is presented about the activities conducted by the presenter, that are other than the assigned topics that they were given to present on. Extraneous information is what fills up the extra charts and time in almost every review. It has evolved to almost become and expected part of the review process.

I think this might be another opportunity for the coining of another one of the specifically not famous “Gobeli Laws of Business”:

“If allowed to go unchecked the amount of extraneous information that is included in each successive periodic review will grow to a point where it renders the review almost useless.”

Since everybody likes to present good news, and since not all news is good news, people will almost always try and compensate for any possibly perceived bad news in a review by presenting more and more other extraneous information. This information, while possibly interesting to the presenter, and is usually positioned to sound like highly functional activity levels and good news, while in reality it is likely of limited use to the person conducting the review.

This type of information distracts from and obfuscates the important information to be imparted at the review, while continuing to maintain the appearance, flow and process of the review. Unless it is specifically cited and prohibited, almost every presenter at a review will probably include some of this type of information “filler”. The result will be overall less time available to deal with any potentially germane or relevant review topics.

I think I have mentioned before that I matriculated through management within the General Management business model as opposed to the seemingly more in vogue Process Oriented business model of today. It seemed then that objectives were mandatory and processes were guidelines as opposed to the current structures where the reverse seems to be the rule. Ownership of an end to end deliverable objective made reviews that much easier. Progress against an objective is always easier to measure than progress on a process.

The purpose of objective oriented reviews is two-fold: the avoidance of surprises, and the identification of actions for the resolution of issues. They are not and should not become opportunities for everyone to tell everyone else what they are doing.

One of the first rules of business is that there should be no surprises when it comes to performance. Everyone should have an objective, know how they are doing against that objective and be able to succinctly report that information. This approach should be applicable to every business discipline. There can be no excuse for “surprise” misses to sales targets, or budget overruns, headcount and staffing levels, profitability, etc. Providing this type of information is the responsibility of the review presenter.

Once a potential issue or objective miss is identified in the review, a plan of action to bring the objective miss back under control should be the next function of the review. A specific set of activities, and activity owners need to be identified and assigned. Performing this type of function is the responsibility of the review owner. Notice that I didn’t say solving the problem is the review owner’s responsibility. I’ll get back to this point later.

I think this also might be another opportunity for the coining of another one of the specifically not famous “Gobeli Laws of Business”:

“The best type of issue to have in business is one that you prepared for, and avoided.”

This is the focus of reviews. To enable the team to foresee, and take action to avoid issues associated with objectives. It should be with these review objectives in mind that reviews are conducted. If the material covered does not directly apply to these objectives, it should not be included.

There may also be a secondary focus on understanding the cause of the identified issue so that steps can be taken to avoid similar issues in the future, but I have found that these types of root cause analyses should probably be taken outside the review. This has the benefit of keeping the review to a shorter more manageable length, as well as minimizing the impression among all attendees of creating a negative environment for reporting issues.

Everyone has issues at one time or another in obtaining their objectives. A public examination of why they missed as opposed to a public plan on how they can recover will usually generate a more conducive environment where issues are identified and discussed as opposed to being glossed over.

If a review is allowed to become a matter of process, where the purpose of the review is lost in the extraneous information that each presenting group imparts to the other presenting groups detailing all the activities they are doing, but precious few of the issues they are encountering, then its value is lost. They should be times to challenge both management and each other. They are opportunities to do better.

I always looked at reviews as opportunities for the team to suggest solutions to issues. Issues are to be expected. Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, who was Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff in the mid nineteenth century is credited as saying:

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

This has also been simplified and paraphrased down to:

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

What this means is that once you start the implementation of anything, stuff happens that requires you to adjust both your plan and the way you implement it. In short, issues occur. And how you deal with them will directly affect the success of the endeavor and the achievement of the objective.

The sooner the issue can be identified, and the more information that can be supplied about it, the better the resulting response can be.

This again, should be one of the driving goals of the review. Everyone wants to avoid issues. The best way I know how to do this is to get them identified as early as possible and then take the requisite steps to mitigate, and hopefully avoid them.

I think the hidden key to the review is that each reported or identified issue needs to be accompanied by an associated solution. It should not be the review leader’s responsibility to solve all the issues. This is a situation that seems to have evolved in a process driven organization, in that it is usually only the leader that has purview over the entire system. Hence any issue associated with any step falls to them to resolve.

In an objective oriented review, it should be the responsibility of each individual that identifies an issue to also provide a suggested course of resolution. They are the ones who identified the issue. They should be the ones closest to it and in the best position to affect its resolution.

It will be the leader’s responsibility to accept, reject or modify the recommendation. It should not be the leader’s responsibility to generate the recommendation.

It seems more and more common that reviews are becoming just another step in a process. A box to be checked off. They seem to have lost some of their true purpose. That is a shame.

I have been in plenty of reviews where the time was spent and the motions gone through, and not much else was accomplished. But I can also remember many of the reviews where issues of substance were identified and dealt with. Where team members got to display their leadership capabilities when it came to solving their own and others issues. And where things got done.

They were challenging reviews where performance against the objectives was reviewed, hard questions were asked, and answered, and where the results were what drove the process.

Meetings and Phone Calls

I don’t think that it is any sort of a big secret that I am not a great fan of meetings. I can remember way back into the dark ages when meetings were convened in order to reach a decision. Sometimes you counted the votes in an effort to achieve some sort of a democratic consensus in the hope that the combined input of all would result in the best decision and solution. Sometimes the votes were “weighed” where the boss’s vote weighed more than the sum total of everyone else’s vote combined. The point was that a decision got made.

Originally meetings were just that, a “meeting”. Webster’s Dictionary (one of my favorite books) defines the verb “meet” (as in to meet) as “to come into the presence of”. Meetings were defined as a physical presence event. They were held face to face. People came from all over to attend. Meetings were not taken lightly. You needed to be prepared. They were special times where the day to day grind was set aside, where reports were presented and decision were made. You looked people in the eye. Feedback was immediate and visible. Things got done.

This was back when everyone worked in a place called the office.

As time has passed we have virtualized our office. Technology now enables us to work in teams across time zones and around the world. This new approach has broadened our ability to work together, but it has also reduced our ability to have the physical presence that defined a meeting.

Instead we now have phone calls. When we have more than two people on a phone call it is termed a conference call. We seemed to have evolved to a place where we now consider conference calls to be “meetings”. As more time has passed it seems that these conference call – meetings have become more and more of an open discussion forum where the actual making of a decision and moving forward has taken a back seat to the ongoing discussion of the topic at hand.

I am convinced that at least part of the reason for the increasing ineffectiveness of meetings these days stems from the fact that telephone etiquette is different from meeting etiquette, and the ability and proclivity of people who are invited to the conference call – meeting to forward their invitation to the meeting to other people.

In short, technology advancements, virtual offices and the ability to invite ever increasing numbers of attendees to a meeting without the meeting initiator’s consent have conspired to cause the loss of control, purpose and value of a meeting.

In the past a meeting had a defined time. It started, had an agenda and it finished. Because of the effort involved for people to meet face to face it was a taken that there had better be progress, or resolution or a solution to the topic. The investment in time and people and travel made it imperative.

This is no longer the case with a conference call. On a conference call the only one really paying attention at any point in time is the person speaking. Because everyone else is usually busy and sitting at their desk, they are multi-tasking and doing something else while only partially attending the conference call – meeting. If nothing is accomplished at the meeting it is no great loss. It is easy to schedule another conference call and pick up where the last one left off.

The sense of purpose and requirement for conclusion is lost because it is no longer a meeting. It is a phone call.

A second contributory factor to the decline and fall of meeting effectiveness is the growing sense that it is alright for people who were invited to the meeting (now conference call) to invite other people to the conference call. What was once a manageable number of attendees, each with a specific role to play and deliverable to provide now seems to have blossomed into a search for consensus across anyone and everyone who could conceivably be associated with the meeting topic.

In the past when people actually met face to face this just didn’t happen. No one just “crashed” a meeting uninvited like some college fraternity party. In the time when you actually had to be at the meeting in order to attend it, it meant something to be there. You had to stop whatever else you were doing and go to the meeting. It was a very rare occasion where an incremental invitation was extended to someone who was not on the initial meeting invitation list.

It was even rarer when an incremental invitation was extended by anyone other than the person who called for, set up and owned the meeting.

Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case anymore.

Now I find with ever increasing numbers we have meeting attendees who are attending (actually dialing in to the conference bridge) who were not invited to the meeting. I see more and more electronic notifications that someone who was invited to the meeting has forwarded the meeting invitation to someone else.

When did it become okay to do this?

The only time that I could see this type of situation arise would be when an original meeting invitee can no longer attend and must delegate their responsibility with respect to the meeting to someone else. But here we have a one for one replacement, not an incremental attendee.

I liken the incremental invitation scenario to be similar to being invited to a friend’s house for a dinner party and arriving with several of your friends (who were not invited and the host may or may not know or have planned for) because you thought they would enjoy a dinner party and should be involved.

I have stated many times that I am probably old school in my approach to business. That does not mean that I will not embrace new technologies and business techniques. I will whole heartedly do so if I can see the value and improvement the new idea brings to the business. I understand the new virtual office and team structure. I see many of the benefits that it brings. I also see many of the detriments that it also brings.

There are many increases in productivity that can be directly traced to the new virtual structures. I think that there are also many decreases in productivity that have not been fully recognized yet in the new business processes that are resulting from these new structures. I think some of the loss of meeting productivity is one of them.

When we turn a business meeting into just one of several other telephone calls we start to devalue its purpose. We multi-task and no longer give it our full attention. When we start inviting, or allow others to invite more and more people to a meeting we are complicating the process and diffusing the focus, and again devaluing the meeting.

And all of this seems to be okay because if we don’t get anything done in this meeting, or on this call, we’ll just have another one. It is now so much easier to have a meeting, and so much easier to forward meeting invitations that allow us to bring more people than necessary together, that we no longer feel that the purpose, function and conclusion solution that were once the primary objectives of having a meeting to continue to be of primary importance.

In short, it appears that it is now so easy to attend a meeting, and we have so many people attending meetings, that we have devalued the purpose and objectives of having meetings. It seems as a result we are having more and more meetings attended by more and more people, and getting less and less done at each meeting.

What that means is the next time you get invited to a meeting, pay attention to the proceedings, insist that there be a definable outcome of the meeting, and don’t forward the invitation to anyone else for the meeting.

If we all did this we would all probably have fewer meetings to attend because we would get more done at the ones we actually went to.

Towards Trouble

When I was a kid it seemed that I was the only kid that got in trouble. My parents used to say that it got to the point that if there was a problem they would just come find me because it saved them time and energy in the long run. As I got older I learned that this was only the case in my house. My brother and my sister seemed to have been graced with the capabilities to either totally avoid getting in trouble, or if implicated they always seemed to have a plausible story as to why it was actually my fault and not theirs. This could possibly have been because most of the time it might actually have been my fault, but that was just details.

The point of all this is that when we are younger we usually learn to deal with trouble as it comes to us. When we found ourselves in a situation where we might have been considered to have potentially been involved in something that could have been construed by the unenlightened as possibly a source of pending trouble we did the only things we then knew how to do; We either ignored it and hoped it would go away or denied our involvement and hoped it would go away.

Does this method of dealing with trouble sound familiar in business?

Since this is the way most kids learn to deal with trouble from a young age, and for the most part unless you are one of the select few who actually had to confront trouble, either your own or somebody else’s, this method might have worked occasionally. What I later learned was that the only time this method of dealing with trouble worked was when my parents decided it was more trouble to confront me about the trouble than the original trouble was worth, so they just ignored it. I didn’t realize it then but my parents must have been kids once too.

I think this learned childhood behavior may be the basis for the methodology that most managers today use for dealing with the issues that arise during the course of conducting business. In business we no longer have trouble. We have issues. Issues are the adult business equivalent of childhood trouble. Chances are today as an adult if someone actually comes up to you and tells you that you are in trouble, it’s probably time to find a good attorney and hope they don’t put the cuffs on too tight.

In business today it seems that either ignoring the issue and hoping it will go away or denying involvement and again hoping it will go away is the preferred issue resolution process. Those of us who grew up dealing with trouble have a tendency to look on at this business process now with wonder. Then we start moving toward the source of the issue.

What I learned was that if I waited for the childhood trouble to come to me, (and it seemed that it inevitably would) I would have to deal with it on somebody else’s (usually my parents) terms. I would be playing defense. I would be explaining. The same goes for the business issues of today. If you are trying to ignore the issue or deny involvement in it you are playing defense. Not much progress is to be made in business from a defensive position. In this process the issue manages you, not you solving the issue. If you want to make progress with an issue, either solving or resolving it, you have to confront it and move toward it.

Business, and I guess several other aspects of daily life today, seems to have evolved to a point where having problems confront the business instead of the business confronting the problems is now the acceptable norm. It may be a subtle or even semantic difference, but in can mean a great deal. If you are not confronting the issues you are coping with them. Instead of removing or solving the issue, you are modifying your behavior or process in response to the issue. This is usually not the optimal solution to an issue.

I have stated in the past that businesses provide their customers value by taking the customers’ issues (sometimes these are issues that the customer may not have even been aware that they had), internalizing them within the business, and presenting the customer with a solution. If done properly this process will result in the customer giving the business money.

Again the key here is taking the customer’s issue, internalizing it, and solving it. The ingrained ignoring and denying response to issues won’t work here as it doesn’t provide any value. This means that if you want to provide value to your customer, or your business, when you see an issue you need to move towards it.

Despite several other managers’ most fervent belief that if left alone most issues will just somehow sort themselves out, the only way to solve an issue is to acknowledge and confront it, and to apply work and effort to its resolution. The only way to do that is to become fully engaged in the issue. It may be that the ignore and deny managers do such a good job of ignoring and denying the issue that they do not see the work and effort being done by those who are engaged in solving the issue, and hence when it is solved it just goes to reinforce their position of ignoring and denying.

No one likes to have trouble. I didn’t particularly enjoy it as a kid, and I am not real fond of its issue equivalent in business. As a kid I seemed to have developed a sense of when trouble was coming, and what I would need to do to deal with it when it came. This sense usually occurred right after I did something that could get me in trouble. I also learned to recognize the actions of other kids that could get me in trouble and what I would need to do in those instances as well.

Now in business I use this experience in recognizing issues (trouble) to prepare for them as well as to how resolve them. I have learned to move towards trouble in order to deal with it and resolve it on terms that are most beneficial to the business instead of ignoring or denying it until a point where the business must react. Acting on an identified or anticipated issue is always preferable to and more optimal than reacting to a known or expected issue that has eventually presented itself.

Even a kid knows that.


I am pretty passionate about what I do and the responsibilities I have. It makes me opinionated about what needs to be done for the benefit of the business. It drives me forward and I think it has probably been a key element of my successes in business. If I am going to sign my name to it, or be responsible for the results generated, I want to believe in it and have input to it. I understand that I have my point of view. I understand that there may be points of view other than mine. When I encounter these other points of view I usually try to convince these misguided souls of the errors of their ways by demonstrating to them the superior logic and position of my point of view. These interchanges are usually called arguments. I have learned over time that before I engage those with opinions that are different than mine in an argument (or high energy discussion if you prefer), that I need to wait.

Discussions are about participants exchanging ideas. They are usually about a search for something, be it more information or a better solution. Arguments are about the participants trying to convince each other that the other participant is wrong. When you get into an argument basically one of two things can happen. You can be right and win the argument, but at what cost? Or you can be wrong and lose the argument, and again at what costs?

Discussions have a collaborative element to them. There is benefit to be gained by both parties. Arguments are a zero sum gain situation. Someone will win and someone will lose. Like a boxing match in arguments there can be knock outs, technical knock outs, unanimous decisions, and split decisions. Occasionally there can be draws or no decisions, but those are relatively rare outcomes of any argument. Arguments are meant to be won, otherwise why engage in them?

I once worked at a company where culturally the “right” and “wrong” of an argument did not matter as much as the passion and rigor that was employed in the argument. This meant that an acknowledged “wrong” outcome could be the result of an argument if the arguer was vehement and passionate enough about their position. It was a culture of arguing, not discussing. As you might suspect that was quite a learning experience.

Being passionate and opinionated about business are key elements that drive leaders to both achieve and succeed. Left unbridled or uncontrolled these elements can create an argumentative environment. If a leader formulates an opinion and then is unwilling to look for more information or a potentially better solution, there will be no room for discussions. There will only be arguments. Eventually there will be fewer and fewer of those as they are generally viewed as unproductive. With no discussions and fewer arguments, a leader had better hope they are correct in the formulations of all their opinions.

When I was a kid my dad used to tell me that he was not always right, but he was never wrong. I guess I didn’t get to win many arguments with him, despite however I might try. He also told me that he might not always be right, but he was always the boss.

Winning an argument usually means that you have to prove the other person wrong. Depending on how this is done it can be either a constructive experience or a destructive one. I think we have all been in the position where someone is so far out on a limb in their argument and in our opinion so far out of touch with the realities of the situation that it is difficult not to publicly saw it off out from under them. While this act can provide momentary pleasure it causes issue with the person on the limb and it will cause issue for those doing the sawing.

Publically putting someone down in business, regardless of how badly they deserve it, or possibly need it will only lead to a reputation as being someone that puts people down. It will not enhance your image. It will not make you a better leader. It will just make people a little more careful about what they say around you. If this is your object, then go for it; however be prepared to be shown no mercy in the unlikely event that at some time in the future you may actually be wrong.

The key point here is that there is a significant difference between being passionate and opinionated about what needs to be done, and being argumentative about what needs to be done. Very few people will venture into an argument believing that they are wrong. They like you will believe that they are right and will want to do what is best for the business.

We all have a pride of ownership associated with our ideas and plans. This is what makes us want to defend them so vigorously when faced with questions or alternative proposals. The idea here is to wait before engaging in an argument. That is correct, wait.

There will always be time to argue. Once the argument is started it usually can’t be stopped. It took me a while to learn this one. In school as in just about anywhere else, it was encouraged to argue your position. That was because you only had an hour or so in each class and like your favorite detective show on TV a solution had to be arrived at within that hour.

In business you have more time than that. Business does move quickly, but not so quickly that you cannot afford to sleep on any issue that may be the genesis of an argument. If you still feel the same way about the situation in the morning then you can argue. However it has been my experience that you won’t.

You will have had time to cool down and avoid the immediate emotional response. You will have had time to evaluate, even if it is subconsciously, the other person’s opinion and position to see what if any merit it may actually hold. You may be better able to participate in a discussion instead of precipitating an argument.

In short, by learning to wait you may be able to make sure that everyone is a winner instead of having to have someone lose in an argument.

Thinker’s Block

I love my subconscious. It always seems to be on, even when I am not. It does have its drawbacks. I suspect that it is responsible for my fear of spiders, but I can’t prove it. I didn’t know I had a fear of Spiders until I saw the movie “Arachnophobia” some years back. About half way through the movie I couldn’t stand to have my feet on the floor of the darkened theater because I thought I felt things on my legs. I guess that is the price I have to pay for having an active subconscious. But I know it is always there, ticking away. “Ticking” makes it sound like my subconscious works like some sort of fine Swiss watch. I am pretty sure it doesn’t do that either. It actually seems to go in fits and starts, and leaps and bounds. I have also learned to trust it almost implicitly when it comes to business issues and finding answers.

When we are faced with an issue or a problem it seems to be our nature to obsess or grind on it until we have a solution. In general this approach will usually work. The conscious application of experience and knowledge, focused and brought to bear on a finite and defined problem will usually yield a workable solution and good results. We learned this by studying for and taking examinations in school. We learned the basics and the tenets of our various disciplines and then tried to apply them to the questions posed to us to see if we knew how to properly apply them, not just memorized them. This was a good process to use when you knew going in that there was a “correct” answer to be found. Hopefully we have brought these good solutioning habits into our business environments.

But what happens when you do everything you are supposed to do, and the solution does not present itself? In business you are not assured that there is ever a “correct” answer to be found. Perhaps the best you can do is finding an answer that is not as bad as any of the others. You gather the facts and check the data. You understand the needs and availabilities, costs and prices, supplies and demands. You have got it. Just like all the previous times. But for whatever reason unlike all the other times, the answer to your issue this time is just not there.

You have the dreaded Thinkers Block.

I call it thinkers block because for the most part we are all knowledge workers. When a writer finds that they are unable to write for any reason, it is usually referred to a “Writer’s Block”. It only goes along the same lines of reasoning that if a knowledge worker is unable to perform their knowledge based work they must have Thinker’s Block. I guess you could use “Knowledge Block”, but it just doesn’t seem to communicate the issue at hand as well.

You might think from empirical observation that there are many people out there in the world in general and the business environment specifically who spend their entire lives in this state of mind. I have come to the conclusion that this is not the case. I think that most of these people have probably made a conscious decision on their part to not think anymore. If pressed these people can like riding a bicycle, remember how to think and deliver a solution, but for the most part will not do so. For whatever reason it seems that they have learned that it may be easier to let other people ride their bicycles while they metaphorically take a cab.

So where does the unconscious come into all this discussion of conscious decisions, problem solving and thinkers block you might ask? What I have found is if I have truly done my due diligence on an issue, done the research and applied myself to a solution and still have not arrived at a workable conclusion within a reasonable time frame, then the best thing for me to do is to take a break. It’s time to step away from the issue, work on or do something else for a little while, and let the subconscious take over. What I find is that while I am away or when I come back to the problem that there can be a new way of looking at things or an unexplored direction may be a new path to a solution.

Now you might think that this is such a neat trick that it might be best to just go ahead and bypass all the seemingly unproductive conscious effort and skip right to the unconscious part of the problem solving scenario. I have actually tried this as well. It doesn’t work, at least for me. It seems in this scenario my subconscious does not readily accept direct input. Unless the input is filtered through a direct and significant effort at consciously finding a solution, my subconscious does not seem interested in becoming engaged in the process. I am pretty sure that this is some sort of a built in safety mechanism since from what I can tell I probably do not want to be able to directly access some of the other things in my subconscious directly on a regular basis. If there is anything else in there that is worse than the spider thing I don’t think I want to know about it.

I have actually seen this subconscious problem solving process captured in a movie; “Men in Black III”. When presented with a conundrum that despite their best efforts they couldn’t solve, they didn’t keep pounding their heads against the thinkers block brick wall. They went and got pie. They took a break. And low and behold it worked. Now some script writer must have noticed the same principle that I am writing about or it probably wouldn’t have found its way into that movie.

Now in movies everything has a tendency to work out just fine. In reality, not so much so. However I have found that if I do encounter a situation where I am not able to come up with a solution via the normal analytical process, where I have worked hard at finding a solution but seem to have come up against a brick wall, that if I set it aside for just a little while and either take a short break or work on something else, when I come back to it I seem to have a refreshed view of the situation and can find a way around my thinkers block. I don’t necessarily have to go for pie like the Men in Black do. I usually go for a diet soda, or more recently a bottle of water as I try to take on more of the aspects of a healthier life style.

Sometimes when you have Thinkers Block, the best thing you can do is take a break. When you come back the issue, you may also find that your subconscious has also been busy, and will enable you to look at the problem with fresh eyes and to see an answer.

Now if I could just get it to work on that spider thing.

Do Something

The business world right now is a pretty scary place. It has probably always been a pretty scary place but I just may have been blissfully, no, euphorically unaware of it. Either that or I was just too dumb to realize how scared I should have been about the things I was doing.  On the other hand, that may have been the unintentional contributing factor to some of the successes I was having. It also explains to some extent all the resistance that I had met along the way. I was doing something.

I think we have all been party to those conversations where we as minions of those that inhabit the uppermost floors of our corporate buildings were discussing what we consider to be the oh so apparent solutions to the myriad of problems our business is facing. Words like “management” and “should do” and “ought to do” are thrown around like a baseball around the infield after a strikeout. Agreement is usually unanimous that management should do something. Imagine that.

I am going to give a little attribution to my dad here. He told me:

“Engineers solve problems. Lawyers dwell on them.”

I don’t know if he stole that from someone or if it was one of his own. He does have a PhD. In physics and is a really smart cookie in my book, so I prefer to think of it is one of his own comments. Way to go dad.

Now I am not going to get into lawyer bashing, although I do agree with about ninety percent of the quotes in existence as they pertain to lawyers. If you want to know what that means, just Google “lawyer quotes” and start reading. Now there are some creative writers.

My final comment here is that currently 60% of the members of the US senate and almost 40% of the members of the US House of Representatives are lawyers, and we all know how well those institutions are performing in the solving of our problems. Enough said.

Where I am going to go with this is to focus on solving problems. This is a dangerous road for many of us in business to take because it involves assuming responsibility, taking action, sometimes without even being told to, and doing something. And when you do something like that you will invariable make some people happy, and you will also make some other people unhappy. The hope is that you please the proper people. The objective is to make you happy. Regardless, taking a considered action is always the first step in solving a problem. Without action you don’t solve a problem, you just continue to cope with it.

I like to work on generating quantitative (measurable) improvements in businesses and solving problems. I guess I got this from my dad. I also have a degree in physics, just not a PhD. I like making visible progress. I like learning new things. I think many people do. I like to work with and associate with people who operate in this way as well. I also think that there are many who are not comfortable in that change oriented environment. These events can entail significant changes and certain amounts of discomfort for not just me, but for everyone else as well. Not everyone understands or agrees with the fact that every job description and every job function should entail a certain amount of discomfort. 

People like to be comfortable. When people get comfortable at what they are doing, they tend to want to stay comfortable. As they stay comfortable, the groove they are in gets ever deeper and soon little change and no improvement is possible. If everything else in the business world would now just cooperate and never change, these comfortable people could stay comfortable. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

There also seems to be plenty of people who could be described as problem dwellers in business. These are the people that seem to exist for the sole purpose of dealing with a known problem. You would think that with this sort of focus on a problem that it would be eventually solved. If that were the case, then there would no longer be a need for the problem dweller. What normally happens is that like your home dwelling that periodically needs updating and improvement, the problem dwelling at the office will be periodically updated and improved. And like you comfortably living in your home, the business problem dweller will go on somewhat comfortably working on the updated problem.

There are also those that either do not want the responsibility for doing something, or do not want to have to face those that will resist the change associated with doing something. These people are relatively easy to spot because they have a tendency to identify themselves as people who are not doing something. They call themselves “enablers” and “facilitators” and other such descriptors. What is an enabler or a facilitator? In today’s scary business world I would say that an enabler or a facilitator is someone who enables or facilitates someone else being able to do something.

I don’t know about you, but when it comes time for my annual reviews I like to be able to point to specific actions and say I did X, Y and Z, not I enabled someone else to do X, Y, and Z.

When you do something in business, such as solve a problem, it now means that everyone will now have to do something else. If they were working, or dwelling on that problem, they will now have to find another problem to work on. They can no longer be comfortable doing what they were doing.

This is called progress.

It may be a little disconcerting to associate discomfort with progress in business. I don’t think this should be the case. Progress, even incremental progress will require change of some sort.
In physics, a force is said to do work when it acts on a body so that there is a displacement of the point of application, however small, in the direction of the force. Thus a force does work when it results in movement. In physics changing a system requires that you apply a force or impart some work into the system. To do that you have to do something.

If you don’t, in business as in physics the system will not change. And as I said before, change is usually not comfortable, but I am not going to dwell on it.

Good Advice

The topic for this blog was suggested to me by my good friend Chris D. I thought it was a great suggestion since I think we have all been through and around the “advice” circle in one direction or the other. Thanks Chris.

Advice is a funny thing. Almost everything about it seems to fall into one of two categories.  There are those people that ask for advice and those that don’t. Those that ask for it can either use it or not. There are those people that offer advice and those that don’t. There are those that only offer advice when asked, and then there are those that offer advice even when they are not asked. People who fall into that last group are usually referred to as “annoyances”.

I once heard it said that there are two types of people: Those that divide people into two types and those that don’t. I think we can all safely say that we fall into one of those categories. I have also heard it said that there are actually three types of people: Those that know how to count and those that don’t, but I have digressed a little here. I think there are also two types of people that ask for advice: Those that are genuinely asking for help with a topic or issue, and those that are not.

I am willing to help just about anybody in business. I am a big believer in Karma. What goes around, does usually in some way come back around, and I never want to miss an opportunity to try and put the Karma universe in my debt. That being said there is also a physical limit to the number of things that I can do or help with at the same time. What that means is that I don’t like to be exercised unnecessarily on business topics. If someone is going to ask me for advice and I am going to put in the effort to try and generate a reasonable and workable response on their behalf, I would like to see at least some of my “advice” effort implemented. Otherwise, why have they bothered to ask me, and why have I bothered to respond.

Usually when someone asks for advice they are indeed looking for help on how to execute one of their responsibilities or assignments. Their requests are usually reflexive in nature and pertain to how they should complete their tasks. You are asking someone “what should I do?” Some may see asking for advice as a weakness. It’s not. If you know someone that has experience or expertise in a function you need to perform, it would be foolish not to ask their advice.

Advice also comes with a couple of strings attached and they involve feedback. If you ask for advice, it is usually assumed that you will use at least some of it. You need to let the provider know what you used, and it is normally good for to say “thank you”. By the way, saying thank you seems to be a lost art. If you did not use the advice there is an implied obligation and you owe the provider an explanation of why you didn’t use it. This is a common courtesy. It is particularly important if you ever want to ask for that person’s advice again.  

If you get in the habit of asking for advice and then either ignoring it or choosing to not implement it, people will stop providing it. This is similar to the story about the boy that cried “wolf”. Eventually there really was a wolf, and after so many false alarms, no one came to help. Sometime in their business careers, everyone could use some advice. If you have the reputation for asking for advice and then ignoring it, don’t be surprised if it is not available when you really need it.

The idea here is to not unnecessarily ask for advice. It communicates that you may not know which course to take and vests the person you are asking in the outcome you choose. If you think you have a potential solution in mind but may want a little more information, or perhaps some suggestions on a topic then don’t ask for advice. Ask for an opinion. Everybody has an opinion on everything. I heard a friend once say that they had an opinion and that everyone else was entitled to it. When you ask for an opinion you are essentially asking “what would you do?” You are not directly investing them in the success of the effort, and are not usually expecting the same depth of response.

Asking for an opinion doesn’t seem to invest people in the solution the way asking for advice does. I don’t know why this is. I would guess that requested advice is deemed valuable where a requested opinion is just that; an opinion. People who ask for advice are saying that they need help. People who ask for help usually receive it. People who provide help usually like to see it received and utilized. People who are asked for and provide an opinion usually assume that you probably have some clue as to what you need to do and will not be as put off if and when you ignore their opinion.

At least in my opinion.

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.