Category Archives: Process

Hard Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had been thinking about this dichotomy for a while.

All sorts of quotes and thoughts have come to mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Volume vs. Meeting Value

I think I may have telegraphed this week’s topic with that title.

It is no secret that I have been looking at the topics of Process, Meetings and Virtual Offices and the effects that the changing norms for each of these topics have had on each other. As more process is driven into the business organization, the requirement to have more meetings as a part of the review process increases. As people who were once in the office now work from a virtual office instead of the brick and mortar organizational location, they attend more and more meetings “virtually”. Meetings are now really little more than what would once have been described as very large and elaborate conference calls. Against this new backdrop I can’t help but wonder if what was once a vital aspect of corporate culture and progress has become little more than an opportunity to answer emails and texts while partially listening to someone talk on the phone.

I think process has a place in business. It should provide guidelines and directions as to what potential next steps need to be taken in a given situation. This is probably particularly important in those disciplines that deal with crisis situations (such as critical system failures, etc.) or those that deal with repetitive situations where uniformity of approach, response and output are desirable.

I am sure that there are probably others, but for now a think that a little process guideline setting can go a very long way.

I have written in the past that process is invariably input into an organization as a replacement for judgement. The human brain, when properly applied, is a spectacular difference engine. It is capable of correlating seemingly unrelated inputs and creating leaps of faith and imagination that no process could ever hope to replicate. This is what “judgement” is.

And yet we continue to put more structures in place with the purpose of curtailing this capability. We continue to input more process into business as a replacement for judgement, and then react by trying to input even more process when it comes the time for good judgement, and there is none available.

One of the hallmarks of process is the requirement that there must be review meetings to make sure that the process is being followed. Otherwise, how could anyone be sure that the process even existed, let alone was being followed. These are events where everyone associated with the process attends, mainly it seems because the process indicates that everyone associated with the process should attend every process review.

Process review meetings are usually pretty large affairs. As we have increased the application of process to business, we have also increased both the number of meetings, particularly process reviews, and the number of attendees at those meetings.

Virtual Office arrangements have also contributed to the ever-expanding meeting numbers and sizes.

Back in the olden times, when people actually all went to a specific place to work together, it was usually somewhat apparent what everyone was doing and how busy they were. You could see them. You could see what they were doing. Even if you weren’t talking to, or directly interfacing with them you were at least peripherally aware of what was going on.

But now with the proliferation of Virtual Office arrangements, no one can be really sure what any of “those people” who are not in the office are actually doing. This phenomenon is also not lost on the people who are in the virtual office. So, what do the people in the virtual office do?

They attend more meetings.

There can be no doubt regarding someone’s work status when they are always in meetings. There is no question as to what they are doing if their calendar shows that they are attending a meeting.

Meetings have now evolved into a vehicle that allows the once “invisible” virtual office worker to not only be more visible, but to be more visible to many, many people. Since meetings have devolved from face to face events where you could see who you were talking to, to expansive conference calls where just the slides appear in front of you on your personal computer screen, and are addressed by a voice on the telephone, they seem to have grown in size.

That doesn’t mean that they are any more popular, or more useful. They are just more easily attended.

In a face to face meeting, it is readily apparent to everyone else in the meeting is doing. You can look over and see. Are they paying attention? Are they engaged? Are they making eye contact? Are they asking questions? What, if anything are they getting out of the meeting?

This is no longer the case.

We now have an ever-increasing slate of meeting attendees, most of which are no longer even in the same building as the meeting host. We have an increasing number of meetings, attended by an increasing number of people, for an increasing number of reasons. Just because we now have more people at these meetings doesn’t mean they are paying attention. Chances are more than pretty good that they are not.

The only thing that seems to be decreasing when it comes to meetings is the actual interaction that goes on during the meeting.

Since there is usually no one in the room with any particular presenter during a particular meeting, they are no longer presenting “to” anyone. They are presenting “at” them. And since there is no longer any direct ownership associated with the reception of the presented information, there seems to be fewer and fewer questions associated with what has been presented.

Meetings, events that were originally created to enable the two-way exchange of information, seem to have been reduced in importance and capability by the very technology that was designed to further enable the meeting’s reach.

I think that this has been an ongoing phenomenon for a while. I, like I am sure many of you, looked to see who is in virtual attendance at the meetings I attend. I then noted the number of questions that are asked. The number of specific items that are addressed. The number of dates that are selected or identified. The number of action items that have been taken, or given as the case may be. The deliverables that are to be expected. And the number of people who speak.

It seems that the actual number of any of the above listed events occurring during a meeting is going down. Meetings no longer seem to be events where discussion occurs. The give and take dynamic seems to have been lost as meetings have become more process driven and virtually attended. Meetings now seem to be designated times where slides are presented, and the most important aspect of the meeting is to make sure that it ends on time in accordance with the process that is being followed.

Meeting attendance seems to have evolved into some sort of barometer associated with individual activity levels and importance, where actual participation in the meeting, the value added in attending a meeting, has continued to decline.

Meetings used to be recognized as having a specific purpose. Meetings used to be designated as a face to face event. It took people out of their specific environments and put them in a meeting. While they were in the meeting they were not busy or distracted with other activities or demands on their time. There was a goal associated with the meeting.

As we have continued to implement more and more process into the business system we have generated more meetings to track our progress against the process. As we have virtualized our offices, so have we virtualized our meeting attendance. What was once a designated time to exchange ideas and leave with a goal achieved has evolved to a time to call and review charts on-line.

We seem to be meeting more, but getting less achieved at each meeting. In many instances, it seems that instead of having a goal, the meeting is the goal. Instead of challenging each other, due to the size and impersonal nature of virtual meetings, we are presented at. If we have issues or concerns, they are probably best handled off line.

In short, we seem to now attend meetings. We no longer participate in them.

I have yet to hear anyone suggest that they are not attending enough meetings. Perhaps it is time to participate instead of attend, and expect more from meetings. Asking and being asked questions, assigning and accepting the assignment of action items, and challenging as well as being challenged need to be expected parts of all meetings.

It is going to be through these attributes that value is driven back into meetings. The meeting needs to evolve away from its current spectator – presenter arrangement, and back to its original participant structure. Meeting minutes need to be taken at every meeting and distributed. If you are not going to be a participant in the meeting, you should not attend. You can read the minutes.

Reducing the number of spectator attendees, assigning and accepting action items, and delivering meeting minutes afterwards seem to be simple requirements. But meetings should be simple. They should be to exchange ideas and challenge each other. I think that is where the basic value in them lies. Not in the number of them that you have or attend.

The Illusion of Choice

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

Such is the case today.

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

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

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

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

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

But he still lost, last year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ownership

I think ownership is an interesting concept. Early North American Indians did not have the concept of “ownership” as we know it when it came to the land they inhabited. That concept of ownership was brought to the then new world by the colonists who had a centuries-old concept and tradition regarding ownership. In general, they conceived of land as personal property to be used for the realization of economic and material gains. This seems to be the definition of ownership that has been perpetuated both down through time as well as throughout business. The single possible exception to this ownership concept in business can best be seen when there is a performance problem. Then it appears that like the early North American Indians, no one owns any of the land on which everyone is standing.

There is an ancient Indian proverb that goes:

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

I like this one as it nicely defines the stewardship responsibility that was felt. They didn’t own it, but they were responsible for taking care of it. It is admittedly a somewhat different variation on the concept of ownership but it was an important one. They didn’t own a piece of the Earth, but they were responsible for it on the whole.

In business, these days it more and more seems that if you do not directly own it, then you are not responsible for it. And just as importantly, it seems that if you don’t own it, you are not responsible for taking care of it. It looks like the concept of stewardship has been lost as we have matrixed and processed business organizations over time.

As we continue to look to decompose what were judged as complex business actions into ever more granular, simpler, repeatable activities to create our processes, we “own” ever smaller pieces of the whole. We no longer have ownership, stewardship or even responsibility for an issue or activity, but rather just a continually smaller piece of it.

It appears that the concept of “if one person being responsible for solving a problem is good, then multiple people trying to solve the same problem must be better” is now being applied. This has given rise to the now popular concept in business of multiple owners for the resolution of business and performance issues. This in turn has given rise to what I like to refer to in the following axiom:

“If there are multiple owners for the resolution of an issue, there is in fact no owner for the resolution of the issue.”

While everyone will be involved in the process used to hopefully resolve the issue, each participant will be primarily focused (and measured) on their specific aspect of the solution, not the overall performance. No one person will have the higher-level view required to change, modify or even remove any of the defined steps in the process. The result of this sort of an issue resolution structure can usually be seen in the progress report meetings.

You can tell the overall ownership of the issue resolution is lost when there are no “difficult” questions being asked in the progress report meetings. Each group will report on their specific area of responsibility, and as is usually the case, they will try to put their best foot forward in their report. And since no one reporting group wants to incite similar difficult questions to be asked of them, no difficult questions will be asked. The net result is the presenting of several reports detailing the high points of any of the several aspects of the issue, while the actual primary overall issue remains largely unimproved or unresolved.

A few examples of the issue resolution detachment can be easily shown. In a time when business profitability is the overall issue, it is usually each sub-organization’s position to show how their costs are either at, or slightly under their proposed budget levels. If every group is under budget on costs, then why is profitability an issue? It is obvious that the overall profitability problem is not their responsibility since they are well within their cost objective guidelines.

There can obviously be several causes for this issue. Increased competition causing either reduced market share (volume) or reduced prices in order to maintain the current volume are a couple of simple reasons that come quickly to mind. While each group’s costs may be in line with their budget, something else is causing the margins to miss as a whole.

An immediate focus should obviously be to see what can be done to increase the top line to help alleviate the margin issue. However, there must also be an overall owner of the margin issue who would also have the responsibility to challenge the various cost budget oriented groups to reduce their costs as an alternative action to help bring margins back into line, just in case increasing sales turns out to be more difficult than expected. Someone has to have the responsibility to say that in reduced margin times like these, meeting your cost budget isn’t good enough. Someone has to own the overall issue and have the ability to adjust the discreet aspects of the process, such as reducing component group cost budgets, in order to achieve the margin objective.

Taking this example the next step further, when looking at the sales process, the business development team may be generating all sorts of customer contacts, however for some reason these contacts may not resolving into the required volume of sales. Are the right types of contacts being generated? Have customer product preferences shifted? Are the correct markets being addressed? The list can obviously go on.

This is not going to be a discourse on Greek Philosophy, asking the Plato-esque question: If every aspect of the problem-solving process is being correctly administered, why isn’t the issue being correctly resolved? I tend to try to be a little more pragmatic. I usually follow a couple of very simple rules in situations like this:

The first is: If what you are doing is not generating the results you want, then you had better do something different. As simple as this sounds, it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement in an increasingly process driven organization. Change imputes risk and almost everyone is risk averse. That is the reason for the rise of the process. It is supposed to reduce the risk of change and variation in business.

I think we have all been in situations where whatever the approach that was being used was not working, but the prevailing feeling was that it would work the next time, so it was best not to change it. Einstein made reference to the sanity of these types of decisions. It seems that sometimes the fear of change is greater than the fear of continued failure.

The second is: If you want a problem solved, make sure someone is identified as the owner of the problem, has the responsibility of solving the problem and has the ability and authority to make the changes necessary to solve the problem. Someone has to be responsible to make a decision as to what must be done. When there is a committee in charge, there is safety in numbers and anonymity when it comes to issue resolution.

Issue resolution is about leadership. If there is a business performance issue, that means that whatever is being done is not working and must be changed. Experience has shown that change does not occur spontaneously. It must be led; otherwise organizational momentum will mitigate any group change effort.

I don’t think leaders shy away from issue ownership. On the contrary I think leaders look at issues as opportunities to improve the business. It seems that the process driven organization may be slightly at odds with a leadership oriented organization in that it holds the process responsible for success and not the leader. Processes are at their best when variations are minimized.

Unfortunately, when organizational performance is lacking it is an operational variation or change that must be called for in order to generate the desired variation or change in performance. It is at that time that a leader is needed to own the issue, instead of a process.

Brevity

I’ll let everyone know up front that this article is going to be somewhat brief, or at least shorter than the average article that I usually post.

It is probably no secret that while I think I may understand and appreciate the concepts and the thought that goes into creating a project and process oriented business (I have a PMP certification to this point), I also recognize that there is the potential for significant overhead and non-productive work to be attracted to this type of business structure. It is easy to say that you have got to take the good with the bad (as the beginning of the famous anonymous quote goes), but I am not so sure that is the case. Project and process structures were created in order to generate efficiencies in business. But who, if not ourselves, is responsible for making sure our projects and processes remain as efficient as possible?

This brings me to my topic: Is it just me, or more accurately, is it just my imagination or have all of business’s documents and presentations been getting longer, more detailed, more complex, and less functionally useful or justifiable?

A process at is simplest is defined as: “a series of actions or steps that are taken to achieve a particular goal”. I couldn’t make that up. It came straight out of the dictionary that way. The idea here being that it is possible to break down a complex work requirement (goal) into a series of simpler tasks and functions. This breaking down process is called “work decomposition”. I didn’t make this one up either. Although somewhat paraphrased, it comes directly from the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) handbook.

So the idea of taking the complex and breaking it down into a series of simpler, repeatable steps is the goal of a process. This is a good thing.

So what has this got to do with the burgeoning size of documents and presentations you might ask. I think it has a lot to do with it.

As we continue to try and bring finer and finer granularity to the work requirement, we find ourselves documenting and presenting on ever more specific and smaller topics associated with the overall process and goal. Instead of presenting on sales, we now are discussing the various sales and support team engagement processes and when they come into play in the overall sales process. We don’t necessarily look at orders, but all those functions associated with the order process. Now each team will create documentation and presentations on their specific roles, when they engage and who they hand off to when they are done.

I can remember being asked to review a thirty-one-page document (not presentation, an actual Word document) regarding one of these team’s engagement process. That is correct. Thirty-One pages.

I do not begrudge anyone their function or role, but I am concerned that if it is felt that thirty-one pages are required to try and define one’s role in the greater scheme of a sales process, then it may be just possible that we have reached the point of decreasing returns on the value of the incremental process documentation investment.

The add-on effect of this process granularity can now also be seen in volume of slides and presentations that are now also being generated.

There was a time (long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away) when overhead slides and overhead projectors were somewhat expensive and cumbersome items. This had the knock-on effect of limiting the size of presentations. Now with the proliferation of personal computers, bandwidth to connect them and the sharing of desk-tops each new image now represents only a slightly greater utilization of an ever more abundant resource. If you think you need more slides, go for it. As the great Yogi Berra once said: “The limitations are limitless”.

It now seems that fifty slide presentations are no longer the exception, but instead have become the norm.

The net here is that we seem to be producing ever greater amounts of documentation, be it written word or image / presentation based, about ever smaller and more specific topics.

It is said that work will expand to fill available time (C. Northcote Parkinson, in one of my favorite books: “Parkinson’s Law”) and that demand will expand to meet available supply. It now seems that the expansion of our ability to share information has also come with the desire and ability to share ever more of that specific information. Now it appears that the volume of what we share has increased in accordance with our ability to share it. Technology has enabled us to share more, in finer and finer detail, to the point where it seems that we may have lost our bearings as to what level of detail represents a useful or appropriate content materiality.

In the African plain faster cheetahs are able to chase down the slower gazelles. That left only the faster gazelles to reproduce the next, faster generation of gazelles. This in turn meant that the slower cheetahs were then not be able to chase them down and did not survive. That left only the still faster cheetahs to reproduce the following even faster generation of cheetahs. On and on it has been going, with both species currently topping out at speeds of approximately seventy miles an hour during the chase. There is a question as to where this evolutionary cycle will lead.

Previous generations of business structures and communication technologies seemed to have had an effect on limiting the number, topic and volume of documents and presentations created and communicated. As the speed and capacity of each succeeding generation of business structure and its communications capability has increased, so it seems has the number, topics and volume of documents and presentations that it has created.

Who can be sure what the future holds for business organizational structures. It is however expected that our ability to connect, share and communicate will continue to expand. This would lead me to the somewhat gloomy supposition and expectation that with this expanded communication capability we should expect to continue to see an expansion in the number and volume of documents and presentations created and shared to fill it.

I think that sooner or later the limitations imposed by each individual’s available time will have to kick in and start to curtail their ability to read or process this information deluge. I would hope that we would then see the pendulum start to swing back toward brevity and the informational value associated with the document or presentation, not its volume.

I have always valued the clear and concise. Fifty-page presentations and thirty-page process guides are usually neither. We seem to be in an age where we create them because we can, not because we need them. We need to get back to sharing the information we need, not all the information we have.

I told you I would be brief, or at least shorter than usual.

Ambivalence

I didn’t know if I should write about ambivalence or not. I didn’t seem to feel too strongly about it one way or the other.

Ambivalence seems to be creeping into almost every aspect of our professional world. I can this tell by the number of times that I hear comments along the lines of “It is what it is…” or “We are where we are…” We seemed to have stopped learning, risking and striving. Instead of making things happen, we are now following a process and waiting for them to happen. What’s worse is that it seems to be a malaise borne trend that is increasingly difficult to counteract.

I don’t know if I can truly draw the analogy between the rise of the process driven organization and the perceived rise in ambivalence in the organization, but it does strike me as potentially more than coincidence.

Before the rise of the process, it was incumbent on the leader to drive the business machine. Creativity, anticipation and a drive to achieve the goal were the keys to their success. Mistakes were obviously made, but so was considerable progress. When looking at Jobs, Gates and others, they chose to break new ground, not follow a process. It was because of their new approaches to goal setting and problem solving that they were successful, not in spite of it.

There seemed to be no question as to what needed to be done and how to do it. They were going to get it done regardless of the adversity and it was going to be done their way. They were the ones that were Accountable, Responsible, Consulted and Informed. (That’s a reference to the ever more popular RACI matrix, where depending on the process being followed, there can be separate entities established for each of those topics.)

I think ambivalence comes from a loss of commitment, and the loss of commitment comes from the loss of ownership. It seems more and more that people no longer own the problem and solution relationship. They don’t even own the process of arriving at the solution. They are only required to follow a proscribed set of steps associated with the process that has been developed to enable the team to reach the solution.

When this happens it becomes that much easier to say “It is what it is.” It becomes sort of the modern mantra for saying “I was doing what I was supposed to do, so it is not my fault.” It is the acceptance of saying even though I was doing my job; I’m not responsible for the results.

I have written (ranted?) in the past that not quite good enough is now the acceptable standard. I am beginning to believe that the process based organization may also be at least partially at fault here as well. We seem to have shifted the focus away from actually getting things done and now focus more on the way things are done.

This behavior results in the rewarding of those that conform and administer the desired process the best as opposed to those that can creatively solve problems by taking ownership and driving the issue to resolution. And if you are only going to be recognized for how well you can follow a process as opposed to what you can actually conceive, do and solve, what sort of commitment are you going to have?

I suppose there are those that can in fact be fully committed to a process but I think the majority prefer to commit to a goal. This is where that inspiration and commitment thing comes back into play. I believe that people get inspired and committed to goals, not the process.

In May of 1961, then President John F. Kennedy set this memorable goal:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

He did not commit to the process of launching rockets. He did not commit to the process of training the best astronauts. He understood that while these processes would be a key to the Space Program*, he also knew that they would inspire neither the participants nor the public (who were in this instance the stakeholders that were being asked to pay for the expensive project.) He committed to the strategic goal of the Space program: namely getting to the moon.

*A little information on the difference between Programs, Projects and Processes. It may be a little arcane, but please bear with me as it will help with the example, as well as with better understanding the ambivalence in business today.

The definition of a program is usually that it is the sum of a related group of projects. The Space Program included a number of contributing Projects and sub-projects. Building the rocket was a project; however that project was further broken down into sub-projects such as the building of the command module, the building of the booster engine, etc.

The definition of a project is usually that it is a unique endeavor with a beginning and an end undertaken to achieve a goal. The building of a command module was a unique endeavor as it was the section of the rocket that would house the astronauts and control the flight. It contributed to the overall space program.

The definition of a process is usually that of a repetitive collection of interrelated tasks aimed at achieving a certain goal. The building of the command module was the project. The way that they built it was the process. I am not so sure that there were that many repetitive interrelated tasks associated with building these command modules as they were all essentially hand, but I think you get the illustration. Actually upon reconsideration when you start thinking about all the construction, installation and testing functions involved with the assembly of the command module there may have been ample room for many processes.

In a more business and organizational example, Steve Jobs set goals for his organization regarding what computing and personal devices should look like and be capable of in the nascent electronics markets. Bill Gates set goals for his organization regarding what operating systems should contain and how they should perform in the new software markets. Kennedy set goals for NASA (and the country) in what has become known as the space race. There was a total organizational commitment to the goals set by these respective leaders.

No one looked around and told Kennedy we are where we are, or it is what it is, when faced with the competitive successes of Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin at that time.

I think that as the Space Program progressed it should have taught us that as our goals advance, the projects and more importantly the processes must also be redefined on an ongoing basis. Just as the Gemini Program gave way to the Apollo Program which in turn gave way to the Space Shuttle Program, there was a continual refresh of the supporting projects and processes.

Allegiance and commitment are always made to the goal, not the process. I think ambivalence starts to creep into our structures when the new goals are only incremented from the old and the objective becomes more process oriented and less goal focused. I also absolutely believe that process will continue to be a key to the success of almost all future endeavors, both business and national. It is the way we retain what we have learned from past goals and apply it to the future goal to avoid making the previously encountered mistakes.

My issue is that when the following of a process gets so rigorous and is so focused on avoiding past mistakes that we are no longer making any new mistakes we begin to become process bound. When that happens we are arguably no longer making progress or owning the goal. We are instead focused on the process, and we become somewhat ambivalent to the goal.

I am pretty sure I know how I feel about that.

Over Leading

The hockey season is almost upon us. For me this is good news since I am not so much of a baseball or football fan. I am aware of how the baseball playoffs are shaping up and how the football season has opened for the various teams, but I know who has been injured, signed, traded and is skating for my favorite hockey team, and their competition. I am not so sure that this is a good indication of the kind of person I am.

This fact in and of itself doesn’t really mean very much. Probably most everyone has a favorite team or sport. It’s just that not everyone’s favorite team and sport are as cool as hockey with its speed, creativity, physicality and game flow. But I am digressing a little here.

Being a hockey nerd means that I read a lot of articles not just about my favorite hockey team specifically, but about the sport in general. When you are the most popular sport in the world, except for football (both professional and college), basketball (both professional and college), baseball and soccer, sometimes it is hard to find the sport’s coverage in the media. It’s usually right next to the fencing, lacrosse and jai alai coverage. Believe it or not there was a global hockey tournament in progress for the last couple of weeks. The best players in the game were playing for their respective countries in the World Cup of Hockey.

When football does this (that’s “soccer” for those of us in North America) and holds its “World Cup”, entire nations have been known to stop, declare a national work holiday so that people can watch their team’s games.

You haven’t heard of it or seen it on television? I think that’s probably because it may only have been broadcast on something called “The Hockey Network” (or some such thing) and most cable suppliers don’t supply channels that require four (or more) digits on the set top box to access. The satellite providers asked NASA for the extra capability at the very far end of the broadcast spectrum to supply it, but were denied because they didn’t want the broadcasts to interfere with the wireless garage door openers. You get the idea. It’s not what you might call a high demand channel.

Since it was so difficult to follow on television I ended up reading an article about the state of the tournament specifically and the state of hockey in general, and as is usually the case it got me thinking. The article pointed out that the general state of hockey was pretty good but that the coaches were affecting the direction of hockey in that they seemed intent on implementing systems where no individual players were able to fully utilize their talents and capabilities. They had been coached into a defensive hockey process where the team system was designed to keep the other team from scoring and superseded the ability of the individual players to fully utilize all of their skills and capabilities to score.

Now wait a minute. We have a team sport where the coaches are limiting the ability of superstars to dominate a game in favor of a process oriented team based system that they feel gives their respective teams a greater probability of success, i.e. winning the game. Isn’t that the goal (pardon the hockey pun. If it had been a soccer pun it would have been “Isn’t that the Gooooaaaallllll”), to win? What could be wrong with that?

The article in question addressed the issue from the player’s point of view with the idea being where would the next Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr come from. They were transcendent scoring talents that defied systems and defined their positions. Would they have been able to become such dominant forces in the game if they had been limited by the systems and processes of today?

The general consensus was that by implementing processes and systems into hockey, coaches had reduced the ability of individuals to excel (and score ala Gretzky, Orr, and others) and as such had reduced the attraction and beauty of the game. They were in essence trying to remove the creativity and risk from the game.

For me the topic of interest was the other side of the same coin; more along the lines of that by increasing the focus and dependence on a specific leader (the coach) and the reliance on the process or system that they implemented and not so much on the talents, creativity and capabilities of the members of the team, the possibility of failure (being scored on) may have been limited, but the opportunity for greater success (or scoring) was also greatly reduced.

In sports, as in business, talent wins. Processes and systems are something that should be used in order to enable the team’s talent to flourish, not limit their opportunities to create successes. When a leader or the systems and processes they implement become more important than the actual talent levels and individual performance of the team members, then the upside performance potential is being sacrificed in favor of avoiding any potential downside result of the risk.

It seems that in hockey, as it is with business, that the shift in focus from fully utilizing the talents of the team members to score, to only applying those talents as they fit into the process or system that the leader (in this case the coach) has implemented has been recognized as an issue. The fact that someone wrote about this phenomenon as it relates to hockey was interesting to me.

It seems to me that this phenomenon is also occurring in other sports, as well as in business in general is also interesting. By implementing systems and processes that limit the risk and are defensive in nature we seem to be limiting our abilities to make progress and “score”. We probably make fewer mistakes, but we probably also stifle our teams creativity in the process.

So what is the balance point?

There is no question that leadership is important. At the risk of sounding somewhat trite, each leader’s method of leadership is a unique mix of their specific traits and capabilities. There is a question as to if a leader would have become the leader we know if they had been products of a business process or system. Would Steven Jobs or Bill Gates have been able to create the business juggernauts that they did if they had been forced to operate within the systems of their predecessors?

To illustrate this point with these two individuals even further, since these individuals have left their roles in their respective organizations have those organizations continued to creatively prosper as they did in the past?

Tim Cook has done an admirable job at Apple since taking the CEO role in 2011. It is extremely difficult to follow a legend.

Just ask the hockey player that followed Gretzky in Edmonton when he left for Los Angeles. I don’t think anyone even remembers that player’s name.

Apple has continued to perform and perform well, but the consensus is that they have not really generated the new technology and products that they did under Jobs, and that have come to define them. It seems that they are trying to maintain and defend their current position via trying to extend the current systems and processes with new iterations of existing products. As an illustration, the iPhone 7 has recently been announced. Even the Apple Watch has been credited to Jobs as his idea.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is a little harder to discuss for a couple reasons. First, he was not the immediate replacement for Bill Gates. Steve Ballmer was. Second, he has only been in charge since 2014, so he may not have had the time to actually put his fingerprints on the company yet. However since the same 2011 time frame as Tim Cook, Microsoft has acquired Skype Technologies for networking applications (a step outside of Microsoft’s then core capabilities), entered the Personal Computer equipment market with the Microsoft Surface computer (another step outside their core) and most recently tendered a $26.2 Billion offer to buy the business networking site LinkedIn.

Now Microsoft has not scored on every one of their forays. Their move to enter the smart phone market in 2014 cost them $7.2 Billion, which they ended up have to write off completely as a loss. They are still in the market but I don’t think this is what they had in mind. You obviously win some and lose some.

Of the two companies it would appear that Microsoft has recognized that new leaders must be given the reins and allowed to take chances and put their talents, opportunities, and potential failures fully on display. I guess that only time will tell which system and process will turn out to be the most successful one.

I think I am more of a fan of “event” hockey where the final score is five to four as opposed to system hockey where the final score may be one to nothing or two to one. These guys for the most part are pretty talented athletes. (Hockey has evolved from the days of the designated “fighters”. With the speed and way the game is now played there really is no room for those “enforcers” any more. I think it a better game because of it as well.)

I think I am also a fan of event business as well. Cool products such as iPhones, iPads, and Surface Tablets came with the inherent risk of failure. Playing to win is always much more fun than playing not to lose. Especially in business. I think that the business processes and systems should enable the business (or sports) team to utilize its talent and take the intelligent risks associated taking the next leap forward, not limit them to just the smaller incremental steps associated with the last advancement.

Taking a Step Back

Normally in business when we mention the phrase “taking a step back” people immediately think of accepting a position or assignment with a perceived lower title or lower set of responsibilities. That may well be the case, but that is not the step back that I want to discuss here.

In business we all have our areas of responsibility. These normally come in the form of job descriptions and objectives. Simply put these are the things we do and the targets we are supposed to achieve. We are provided directives and incentives associated with them. We are incited to focus only on our specific pieces and parts of the business. With all that focus it is very easy to become somewhat myopic with respect to the overall business or organizational picture.

Sometimes all of us need to take time out of our ever more hectic days, take a step back and look at the overall business picture and what our specific part or role in it is, to see if what we are doing or have done is still fully aligned with the greater good.

As an ever more refined and specific business process is viewed as the clear path to greater efficiency and more profits, the incentive for each participant in that process is the ever refine and narrow their focus to their specific role in that process. As this structure evolves, organizations end up trying to create integrated end to end customer solutions out of ever more discrete and individualized work components. As the number of hand-offs in the process increases, the disconnection between the solution components increases as well.

In the extreme you can end up with a number of disconnected groups performing discrete unrelated activities (all while following a “process”) that results in a final work product that may not meet any of the requirements that were initially assigned to it. Everyone may have done everything that they were responsible for doing, but the final result doesn’t meet the need.

I think that much of today’s process orientation has originated in the Project Management discipline. (I have gone through the Project Management Institute PMP (Project Management Professional) training and certification process and do have a PMP accreditation.)

Part of the process of managing a project is to create what is called a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Creating a WBS is the process of subdividing project deliverables and project work into smaller, more manageable components (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) 4th Ed., pg. 103). It is described as the decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team to accomplish the project objectives.

But isn’t that essentially what every process is? Isn’t every process a series of work components that at the end of the process are supposed to deliver a finished work product or solution?

So enough of the esoteric discussion of the similarities of projects and processes. Where does this all get us and what does it have to do with the position I have put forth about taking a step back?

In a project there is a project manager. That person is vested with the responsibility of managing that project from end to end. As Harry Truman would say: “The buck stops there”. It is the project manager’s responsibility to make sure that all work components are aligned and additive in the direction required to complete the project.

In today’s organizations where parts are globalized, parts are regionalized and other parts are verticalized, all in the name of greater efficiency, it is almost impossible for someone to call themselves the “owner” of a process that spans multiple organizational structures. Organizations and people within those organizations may own pieces of the process, but there are precious few with the purview of a project manager who can review the process from end to end.

Once the process has been decomposed into its smaller work components, and those components are distributed to different organizations and groups, it seems the overall end to end view of things gets lost. Responsible parties seem to focus only on their specific work component. They perform their task and pass it along to the next responsible group.

It has been shown that when dealing with a uniform process all tolerances or margins for error are more or less normalized out. What that means is that in a uniform environment there will normally be additive and subtractive variances. Estimates will normally be either a little high or a little low, but on the average they will cancel each other out. This is the model that is used when the process is created.

When the process is decomposed into its component functions and then distributed into different and somewhat unrelated organizations, it can no longer be looked upon as a uniform process. It is probably more accurately defined as a “Random Variable” process. This is a process that is not uniform and where the variation in one group performing a work component has no effect on the performance of another group performing a different work component.

Okay, so what does this mean?

What is means is that when a process is no longer uniform the variances associated with the various work components no longer have the tendency to cancel each other out. They have a tendency to add together to create ever larger variances.

The net result is the creation of a process that by its very nature will not deliver a desired solution. Each group that is responsible for a work component can and will provide an acceptable output, but the sum of these outputs will invariably not be an acceptable solution.

A good example of this phenomenon can be seen in the creation of cost structures. In a project that is controlled by a single project manager, some costs will be estimated high, and some will be estimated low, but on the whole the costs will balance out. In a cost process where there is no single owner and multiple groups and disciplines involved, all costs will be estimated high (in an effort to make sure that all individual contingencies are covered) with the final cost estimate being unacceptable to the customer.

As I noted, in a project environment the project manager has oversight and control of the costs and processes associated with the project. Costs and activities must all fit within the overall envelop associated with the project and the project’s profitability. Variances within any specific group are then viewed from the point of the overall project. This ownership and oversight does not usually exist within the decomposed process. It is due to this comparative lack of oversight that a uniform process can devolve into a random variable process over time.

It is due to this sort of inertial force associated with process decomposition that we all need to periodically (read “frequently”) take a step back and review our roles and deliverables. In a greater scheme of things all that we do can be viewed as part of the ongoing business process. There are pieces that we can control and pieces that we must rely on others for. We need to make sure that we are in fact maintaining our alignment with the overall organizational goals and not just maximizing our specific work products.

It may sound a little counter intuitive. The idea should be that if we all maximize our work products, then the final deliverable should be maximized. In theory it should work. However when the goal is to minimize, or reduce or drive greater efficiency, sometimes maximizing does not work as well or drive the desired solution.

Take a step back and think about it.

Cartoons and Strategy

My son was being abnormally quiet the other day. Actually he was being quiet with periodic outbursts of laughter. This is not the normal state of affairs. For those of you with teenage boys you also probably know this to be the case. There is normally an ongoing chatter followed by screams of either anguish or happiness depending on who was most recently vanquished in the current on-line military game being played. I won’t mention which one. They all seem the same to me. We have all seen the commercials on television.

It was so odd to hear him in this mode that I did the unthinkable. I went upstairs to the game room to check on him. He wasn’t wearing his gaming headset. He wasn’t even on the internet. He was watching the Roadrunner and Coyote (more specifically Wile E. Coyote for those fellow purists like me) cartoons. I remembered watching these cartoons when I was young. It was amazing to me that they were still on. He had stumbled across them on a network that only played old cartoons; surprisingly enough called the “Classic Cartoon Network”.

Being of sound mind and body, a guy, and having cartoons on the television, I did the only logical thing. I went in, sat down and watched old cartoons with my son. Some of them I remembered and some I didn’t. It was fun to hang out with my son, but as usual, it got me to thinking. The humorous aspect of the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons was based on the simplicity of the task at hand; catching the Roadrunner, and the ever more complex slate of strategies employed by the Coyote in his attempts to complete the task.

Leave it to me to compare perfectly good classic cartoons to business. It’s an insult to the cartoons.

Sometimes his failures came from obvious, predictable and expected issues. Sometimes they came from unexpected directions. They were all entertaining. The Coyote’s single mindedness regarding catching the Roadrunner always made me smile.

I always wondered, if he could actually buy, build and fly his own ACME rocket, why didn’t he just use that same intelligence to order take-out from his favorite restaurant, or switch to chicken, which might have been an admirable substitute for Roadrunner and bought some at the grocery store? It probably would have saved him a great deal of wear and tear from all the falling off of cliffs and having large rocks fall on him.

Undaunted by each successive failure, the Coyote would generate a new strategy to capture the Roadrunner. Each new strategy would invariably contain maps and charts and plans on what to do and where to do it. Each new strategy was usually also more complex and more intricate than the last, but was guaranteed to work this time. They never did.

What Wile E. Coyote Inc. teaches us about strategy is something we all probably recognize but occasionally need to be reminded of: Simpler is better. This obviously applies to other business strategy as well.

A good strategy has only a few major attributes. I’ll try and go through at least my opinion of them, just as a refresher course.

First: The goal must be achievable.

On the surface one would think that catching a Roadrunner should be an attainable goal. It probably was, but it was how the Coyote went about it that was entertaining.

As a corollary it’s also okay to want to double or triple in size as a business. It may also on the surface appear to be an attainable goal but the question that should always be asked is: What is going to fundamentally change in the business that is going to enable, or even drive this kind of growth? Everybody else in the market wants to grow too, and they also have strategies. You need to have a very solid and strong precept that makes you different.

Second: The strategy must be simple.

Rube Goldberg is a name that is synonymous with creating very complex machines to achieve very simple goals. He also appears to have been the chief strategist for Coyote Inc. in its desire to overtake Roadrunner Inc. There is even an annual competition in his name where a simple task must be accomplished in no less than twenty different steps. The 2015 objective was to “shine a shoe”, and due to the complexity of some of the past entries (with over two hundred steps) the contest has been limited to a maximum of seventy five steps.

In business the goal should be to shine the shoe. Find the shoe, apply the polish and buff till the desired luster is achieved. That’s it. As the Coyote taught us, the more complex the strategy, the greater the chance there was for something to go wrong.

Third: No strategy survives contact with the real world intact.

This is a paraphrasing of the original quote:
“…no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”
Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (The Elder)

Now for those of you who are not up on your nineteenth century Prussian military history, Moltke was the Prussian military commander during the middle part of the century, and he wrote this in his book “On Strategy” in 1871.

Again we look to Coyote Inc. for examples of what not to do here. He would usually achieve one of the attributes he was striving for in his quest to get the Roadrunner. With the help of his trusty ACME rocket he could achieve the speed of the Roadrunner. He would close in only to see the Roadrunner demonstrate his ability to stop before running off a cliff, or turn sharply before running into a cliff. The Coyote with his ACME rocket usually would not be able to match this agility and maneuverability, with the (now) expected results.

The very act of implementing his strategy caused a change in the behavior of his target. Coyote Inc. was able to go as fast as Roadrunner Inc., so Roadrunner Inc. learned to stop or turn quickly in order to elude its pursuer. The same goes in business. Things change. The competition will react to competitive behavioral changes. Customers will do the same. You had better be able to learn how to change direction quickly.

The idea is to be ready for it. The simpler the strategy means there are fewer moving parts in it. The fewer the moving parts means the fewer number of things that can go wrong, which in turn means the fewer the number of things that will need to be modified as conditions in the market change. This is especially useful when it comes time to change direction because a cliff suddenly appears in front of you.

Keeping goals attainable, strategies and the number of contributing components simple, and preparing change direction as the conditions warrant seems to be enough for any business. It is the complexity that is introduced into the plan that is usually the cause of issues. When it comes to strategy and its components, I am a firm believer in the adage that “Less is more”.

It was an enjoyable time with my son watching old cartoons. It didn’t last nearly long enough. It seemed in no time he had his headset back on and was busy wiping out whichever opponent was on line at the time. I on the other hand was ready to impart all of these strategy and strategic insights that I had drawn from the Coyote’s obviously poor performance to him. He didn’t seem very interested.

I really didn’t expect him too, but still it was mildly disappointing after sharing a solid thirty minutes of quality time as we did. Still the cartoons stuck in my mind and the basic tenets about strategy were there. I suppose if Wile E. Coyote Inc. had actually employed the simple and straightforward strategies it should have in its quest to overtake Roadrunner Inc. the cartoons would have been much shorter, and probably not nearly as funny.

And I probably wouldn’t have gotten to spend some extra time with my son.