What Can They Sell?

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

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

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

I would say yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He made Apple products “cool”.

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

Jobs is famously quoted as saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Relevant

It’s hard to think of really where to start here. Everyone everywhere has already talked about the ongoing, continuous change that is constantly occurring in business. Even I have written about it, and I actually do try to stay away from those ubiquitous, and somewhat trite types of topics. As they say, no good can come of that.

However, those of us that have had either the good, or bad fortune to inhabit one of those industries that are subject to the technological whims of change, have an added issue with which to cope. In an environment where the “next thing” is always perceived as the now “best thing”, how do you fight what can best be described as career inertia, and remain relevant in your organization, and to a larger extent, your industry?

Charles Holland Duell, was the commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901. Duell has become famous for, during his tenure as United States Commissioner of Patents, purportedly saying “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” However, this has been debunked as apocryphal by librarian Samuel Sass who traced the quote back to a 1981 book titled “The Book of Facts and Fallacies” by Chris Morgan and David Langford. In fact, Duell said in 1902:

“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

I bring up this often mis-cited tidbit for a couple of reasons: the first is that even more than a century ago the speed and relevance of change was already being anticipated, and the second, is that relevance seems to be in the eye of the beholder. It is not so much what you think about your relevance to various opportunities, but what others think of it.

For the most part now, Duell is thought of as an out of step, foolish curmudgeon that had the audacity to state that nothing new was ever going to be developed or patented, when in reality he foresaw that both the magnitude and rate of future changes was going to be unprecedented.

An interesting urban myth, but I have digressed.
I think I’ll look at how both time, and technology work against just about everyone in business. I think this is a position that is somewhat out of step with some of the current thinking.

There is a school of thought that says experience is a good thing. But in order to gain experience you have to have been around either a company, or an industry for a while. The up side of experience is that in order to have remained around for a while you probably had to learn a few things. The down side is that time has passed, and that you may have been pigeon-holed into a role which is defined by your experience.

Robert Heinlein is an author of many famous books and multiple great quotes. I have read most of his catalog, and I have cited him often in many of my quotes. One of his most famous, and one of my favorites is:

“Live and learn, or you don’t live long.”

This is especially true in business. If you haven’t learned from your previous experiences, you probably aren’t going to get the chance to have any experiences in the future.

But how much is that experience worth in business? By just being around for a while, chances are that you are also going to experience salary growth. Yearly reviews, pay raises and inflation are an ingrained part of the business compensation structure. The longer that you are around, usually the more you end up costing the company.

Also, in today’s organizations it is reasonably well documented that management would prefer specific subject matter experts as opposed to very broad experiential histories. Again, that means that the longer you are around, the higher the probability that you are going to be associated with a specific business, technology, and capability set.

But what happens when the baseline business or technology changes? Strategic directions change. Digital has replaced analog. Wireless has replaced wire. Optical has replaced copper. Unleaded has replaced leaded. Transistors have replaced tubes. Fuel injection has replaced carburetors. The list obviously goes on and on.

It is not uncommon for relatively more experienced, and expensive people to be associated with what was once but may no longer be viewed as strategic businesses within an organization. In instances such as this, the opportunities for advancement can dwindle, and in the longer term so can the opportunity for employment.

So, what can be done to prepare and avoid such issues? How do you stay relevant in the face of ongoing change?

My suggestion for the first step in maintaining relevance is to understand the current environment. Employment is now a cost – benefit, or value proposition. As long as it is perceived that you are delivering more value to the business than you are costing it, chances are that things will continue.

That would mean that the correlation to the idea that the longer you are around, the more you probably will be making, is that as time passes it is probably expected that you need to be generating greater value. This is usually much easier said than done. It also means that if time is passing, and you are remaining in the same role, that it becomes more and more difficult to be perceived as generating greater value.

Value is normally associated with orders, revenue, costs and earnings. Understanding your relationship with, and ability to quantify your effect on these topics will go a long way toward defining your value. The weaker your relationship with these key metrics, the more tenuous your value proposition may be viewed.

The second step is to align more with a specific business function or discipline, and not so much with a specific business unit or specific product set or technology. Accountants, Financial Managers, Sales Staff, Project Managers, etc., can usually ply their trades across different industries and business units. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to move from one industry to another. It merely reduces some of the perceived barriers that will normally be erected when someone is experienced in one industry and not another.

Next, as Heinlein said, if you are not learning, you are probably not going to be around for long. Take courses. Take training. Most companies have training programs to help increase both the depth of knowledge in specific disciplines, as well as programs to support external trainings and certifications. Use them.

If you are planning on being around for a while, it will be expected that you will have to know more in order to maintain your employment value proposition. Learn about other technologies and disciplines. Understand and become more conversant in the process and project orientation that most businesses are currently in.

Finally, it is incumbent on you to challenge both yourself and the organization by demonstrating your willingness and ability to move out of your comfort zone, or area of expertise, and take on new roles. Most of the time no one will come looking for you to take on a new role. You must step up, and out on that proverbial limb and make the first move.

Otherwise it will probably be assumed that you are content where you are, and there you will get to stay. Until something changes.

This approach requires an active awareness and participation. Businesses will normally present you with the opportunity to learn many diverse topics, disciplines and technologies. They will also usually present you with the opportunity to at least try to move into something else. It is up to you to search them out and take advantage of them. Very few companies require you to take courses to stay abreast of new trends within business. Fewer still will actively try to reposition you into new strategic product and businesses.

These are some things that you have to do.

It takes extra time. It involves extra effort. It requires your own initiative.

Otherwise you may be risking your relevance expecting the things you have been doing to be as important, and relevant, to the business in the future as they are today.

Getting Angry

I was recently asked why I was such an angry person. This question caught me off guard and surprised me greatly as I had never thought of myself as an angry person. Others may have, but not me. Before answering, I asked why it is that they thought I was so angry. They responded by saying that they thought I had become angry during the last project review we were in. I said they were incorrect, I did not get angry during the last project review. I had quickly and directly responded to what was unacceptable performance as reported in the review. I explained that I am not generally an angry person, but that I can get very direct, both with myself and with others, and will challenge unacceptable behaviors when commitments are not honored, and responsibilities are avoided.

I also said that one should not confuse the immediate and direct challenge to unacceptable performance, with anger.

I have mentioned before that my preferred method of leading is to focus on, and address the achievement aspect of performance. I tend to look at what has been done well and what has gone right, far more so than what has gone wrong or needs to be improved. But that doesn’t mean that failure to deliver on commitments, or objectives can be excused or ignored. And depending on the reasons for that failure to deliver, occasionally they must be dealt with directly.

I have found this to be the case more and more often in the matrix structured, process driven organizations of today. This is the structure where members of the “virtual” team actually report up through separate organizations, and where authority and accountability lines can have a tendency to blur. In this type of structure, it is not uncommon to find that it is felt that the process is the responsible entity for the project’s performance, and not the people that operate within it.

It is true that sometimes events occur that can make it exceedingly difficult if not impossible to honor our commitments. It happens. However, that does not remove the responsibility. Even with mitigating circumstances, the responsibility to try and deliver on agreed commitments, to the then best of an individual’s capabilities continues to exist. And most of the time I think everyone tries to operate in this manner.

However, occasionally, such as the afore mentioned project review, that was not the case.

When you are told that someone did not honor their agreed upon commitment because “they were busy”, that is an excuse, not an acceptable reason.

We are all busy.

I mentioned this this to the person who thought I was angry.

I also mentioned that I did a little further exploration during the project review before truly engaging on the failure to deliver on such a direct level. Were there unexpected issues or circumstances that arose? Were there other activities that got reprioritized, and if so why were this project’s commitments the ones that were deprioritized? In short, why did this happen?

If there had been reasonable responses to those questions, it would have resulted in the creation of a mitigation and response plan to try and recover from the missed commitment. There wasn’t. They just said they were busy.

Sometimes a direct and focused response to unacceptable performance can be perceived as anger, since it seems to occur less and less these days. The idea of individual deliverable ownership can have a tendency to fade in a large process driven project. If the process is the preferred methodology, and something is not achieved, how do you directly address the process? You don’t. You address those that are responsible for executing the process.

Anger in general has no place in the professional environment. When commitments are not honored and there are no acceptable or mitigating reasons, an immediate and direct response to that level of performance can be called for, not anger on a personal level. It is in short one of the best methods to communicate that the performance and the excuse are not acceptable.

The fact that it was so memorable by the participants in this case was because it has become such a rare approach to performance. As I said leading from an achievement focus usually provides the required drive to achieve the desired goals. The fact that the response in question was such a departure from the norm is what made it so memorable.

My litmus test for if the reason presented for missing a deliverable acceptable is very simple: Would it be acceptable to senior management?

It has been my experience that some of the best leaders are also some of the busiest people. The demands on their time and the breadth of the decision responsibilities require a continued focus on the objective and the components and deliverables that will be required to achieve them. Will telling them that you were too busy to get something done be acceptable?

The short answer to that question is “No”.

There is a fine line that should not be crossed in instances such as this. The focus needs to be on the performance, deliverable or objective, and not directly on the individual. Direct responses to performance issues cannot and should not become personal attacks.

In our now process driven, performance interdependent business world, any individual failure to deliver has a far broader affect that on just the specific individual in question. Knock-on delays and other dependent deliverables will also suffer. Everyone’s performance can and will suffer to some extent.

As we become more “PC” (which in this instance means “Process Correct”) in the business world, we tend to attribute both the successes and failures in business to the process and not the people. Performance issues become obfuscated as process issues. And as a result, we have a tendency to try and address the process instead of the performance within the process.

In the past direct and immediate feedback, both positive and negative was viewed as a cornerstone of a strong performing team. It is now difficult to single out an individual’s performance, either positively or negatively without the interaction being construed as either lavish praise, or anger. Neither of which are particularly conducive to positive team alignment or performance.

We all can be and should be sensitive to a certain extent about the feedback we receive. It should help and serve to drive us forward. We also need to understand that it is our own individual behaviors and performance that serve as the baseline for whatever feedback we receive. We also need to understand that while the feedback may be specific to an individual, it must be focused on specific performance items and cannot be construed as being personal in the way it is delivered.

Anger is a personal thing. It doesn’t belong in the professional environment. We are all human and sometimes it is hard not to get angry. Still we must try to maintain our focus. The focus must always be on the performance of the individual, and not the individual themselves. When dealing with performance we must stay at the professional level and not the personal one.

Shorter Meetings

I’ve been trying something new lately when it comes to meetings. I started by looking at the number of meetings I attend. I don’t think I am too far outside the norm by saying, I seem to attend a significant number of meetings. I think I have said this before. We may have hit the point where we seem to establish our credibility and measure our value contribution by the number of meeting we attend. We have now associated attending meetings with making progress.

I then started looking at what actual portion of the meeting was I actually engaged in or contributing to. I am sure there are those that would question my engagement or contribution to any meeting I attend or participate in.

The point here however, is that I found that there were specific portions or times during meetings where the topic being discussed was germane to me and I needed to be fully engaged and participative. The rest of the time, maybe not quite so much.

When I looked further at this relative “down” time I would experience in a meeting, I found that a significant portion of it was associated with what I will call “related” meeting topics, not the specific meeting topics. I’ll give an example.

I was in a project review meeting where the objective was to detail the status of the project. An issue was identified. This is a good thing. But it quickly caused the meeting to go off the rails. Instead of identifying the issue, and assigning those responsible to work out a resolution, those responsible for working out a resolution proceeded to try and work out their solution – during the review, with everyone else waiting to contribute their portions of the review.

The issue was important. But more so specifically to a subset of all those in attendance. The rest of the meeting attendees (myself included) time was less than efficiently spent listening to the attempted resolution of a topic that may not have been completely defined, or fully germane to their areas of focus.

In other words. We sat there on the call.

The meeting dragged on. Another issue was identified which created another attempt at an on-line resolution.

The meeting ran out of time so that those at the end of the agenda had to curtail their reports.

The meeting ran over the allotted time.

Parkinson’s Law was reaffirmed.

For those of you that are not familiar with Parkinson’s Law, according to Google, it is as follows:

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. A proverb coined by the twentieth-century British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, known as Parkinson’s Law. It points out that people usually take all the time allotted (and frequently more) to accomplish any task.”
https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=BhmlW5GQIsvzzgLem5qABg&q=work+expands+to+fill+time&oq=work+expands+&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l2.1768.4291..6750…0.0..0.86.947.13……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i131j0i10.QQZmraKUhpQ

It seems that it may have its roots in science (Physics actually, and as we all know I am extremely fond of Physics).

”This law is likely derived from ideal gas law, whereby a gas expands to fit the volume allotted.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

And as we all know, if it is science, it must be true.

As with any scientific theory, several corollaries have been created as a result.

“The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

Other corollaries include Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

All of this got me to thinking. And, as we also all know, this can be a dangerous situation for not only me, but all those involved or effected. It seems to me that meetings have taken on a status where it’s okay to ramble and take extra time, because invariably we make excuses for, or accept this kind of meeting behavior. The end result is that the meeting does achieve is goal, but it takes far more time than anyone is comfortable spending, and no one feels a sense of accomplishment when it is done.

My answer to this issue was pretty simple.
I made my meetings shorter.

Instead of having a one-hour review, once a week on Wednesdays, I scheduled two – one half hour reviews on Tuesday and Friday. I didn’t reduce the agendas or topics either. We covered everything in each meeting.

You might ask how this is possible? The answer is really very simple.

I became ruthless in cutting non-specific meeting discussions off.

If the meeting is a review, then it was a read-out, or reporting delivery only. If an issue was identified, it was immediately taken off-line, with an action item and an owner identified and would be resolved so that it could be read out and reported during the next half-hour call.

No exceptions.

It took a couple of meetings for the team to understand and get the rhythm of the approach, but the results have been very apparent. The project is moving faster. Ownership of issues and their resolution is much clearer. Progress is accelerated.

Just to review: we are spending the same total amount of time in meetings on the project reviews, but we are making more, and faster progress toward our objectives.

Looking back at Horstman’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law, meaning if work expands to fill available time, that it should also contract to fit available time. Parkinson’s Law would mean if we schedule a one hour review we will conduct the meeting in such a way as to fill the full hour (and then some). Horstman’s Corollary would say that if we reduce the available time from one hour to a half-hour, we should be able to get the work done in that interval as well.

They both seem to be correct.

The issue is changing what were full hour meeting behaviors to the now necessary half-hour meeting behaviors. That means:

Ruthlessly staying on topic.
If it is a read-out meeting, read out only. Issues need to be taken off line, resolved and then read out at the next read-out meeting. If it is an issue resolution meeting, resolve the identified issue only. Don’t read out. Don’t work on other, related issues.

Cutting them off.
Many times, presenters do not know how to end their presentations. Sideline discussions, anecdotes, stories and all other manner of communications needs to be curtailed. Then move on.

Action Items.
Just because non-germane topics come up does not mean that they are not important topics. Clearly note them. Assign an owner and a time for resolution – and move on. Do not allow the group to lose focus on the topic at hand. This will keep everyone engaged.

Own it.
If it is your meeting, then it is your responsibility not to waste everyone else’s time. Stay on topic. Cut them off if necessary. Assign the action items. Publish the meeting minutes.

I didn’t set out to prove what are widely regarded as accurate, if not tongue-in-cheek axioms regarding how time is spent in business. I actually set out to see if I could start to reduce the amount of “down” time I was spending in meetings in general.

I am reasonably well convinced that the reason we have so much multi-tasking during meetings is due to the length and engagement requirements we now seem to expect in our meetings. We know the meeting will be longer than we want. We know that we will really only need to be fully engaged and aware for a relatively small percentage of the time that the meeting is conducted.

We know we will be bored the rest of the time.

The alternatives are to either multi-task, or to reduce the total time of the meeting in order to reduce the down time. Multi-tasking is the meeting attendee approach to solving their individual wasted meeting time issue. Reducing the actual meeting time is the meeting owner approach to solving everyone’s wasted meeting time issue.

Conducting shorter meetings will take significantly more effort on behalf of the meeting owner, and by extension some of the attendees, but I have found that you can actually get more done in the meeting by taking this approach. And I think that everyone in the meeting appreciates that, since that is supposed to be the objective of the meeting in the first place.

Presenting

Like it or not, sooner or later you are going to have to stand up in front of somebody, or maybe a group of somebodies, and convey some sort of information to them. This is called “presenting”. This event usually occurs when it is deemed that you know more about a certain topic than those in your audience do. Sometimes it is actually the case, and sometimes it is best to study hard and do some research beforehand so that again it can be the case. Regardless, how you perform on this stage, conveying information to other people, can determine a great deal regarding your opportunities to continue progressing in your business career.

Laurence J. Peter is the author of the book the “Peter Principle”. In it he states:

”…that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”. In other words, employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”

Understand that the ability to cogently present and convey information to others is a baseline, table stakes capability in business. If you are not good at it, you can assume that you are at your current level of incompetence and will remain there until your presentation skills improve.

Also understand that technical competence, or mastery of the topic is only part of the requirement for making successful presentations. In other words, you may know what you are talking about, but that doesn’t mean that you will be successful at getting your point across to others on the topic. I’ll try to go through a few items that you should keep in mind when you are presenting. Many should be obvious, however some maybe not so much so.

Who is your audience?
Believe it or not, this is important. Not everyone is going to be interested in what you have to say. Who are the people in the room that will be listening to you, and why are they there? Your presentation needs to match their expectations. Management will want general trends and overviews. Individual contributors may want more specifics. Sales, engineering and finance all have different expectations regarding the presentations they see. Sales wants to know how whatever you are talking about will help them sell more. If this aspect is not addressed, for them it will be wasted time. Likewise, finance will want to know about the costs, revenue, profitability of the topic. Telling them about how it will help them sell more will at best be only marginally acceptable.

What is the “Thesis Statement” for your presentation?
What is the purpose of your presentation? Why is this presentation important to them? Is it just to report on the progress of an internal company project? Is it a customer product or service presentation as part of an ongoing customer sales engagement? Are you trying to get management to agree to fund development of a new product?

The point here is that a presentation is usually used to convince somebody about something. Whether it is that progress is actually occurring on a project, or that your product is superior to the competition’s, you should have either a specific or implicit thesis, or reason for your presentation. This will help keep you on topic, and again it will help limit the amount of extraneous information that may try and creep into your presentation.

How much time do you have?

As Gary Larson has shown, time is money. People have only a certain amount of time that they can devote to certain activities. You may have the most import, or most interesting topic to talk about, but you will never have all the time that you will feel that you will need to be able to comfortably talk about it.

“One well-known formulation for PowerPoint presentations is the 10/20/30 rule. This rule dictates that you should use about ten slides for a twenty minute presentation, and each slide should utilize thirty point font. In other words, each slide should be about two minutes in length.”
https://www.wikihow.com/Choose-the-Right-Number-of-Slides-for-a-Powerpoint-Presentation

Needless to say, most presentations do not adhere to this information, and as such, most presentations today, in my opinion are often not very good. If you can’t say it succinctly in twenty to thirty minutes with ten to fifteen slides, at most, then you have too much non-critical information in your presentation. Be succinct.

Proof read your presentation. Several times.
With today’s spelling and grammatical checking capabilities, there is no excuse for misspelled words, improper grammar, improper punctuation or improper word usage (their, there, they’re).
End of story.
How can you be perceived as an expert, leader, or in this case imparter of information and wisdom if you cannot deliver the message free of mechanical errors. Having them undermines the intended message.

Simplify everything associated with your presentation.
Not everyone will have your level of knowledge regarding the topic. Specifically define any acronyms you may choose to use. You are presenting slides, not writing a book. Bulletize everything possible. It will help break up the slide. It will make it easier for the audience to follow. It will force you to be concise in what you say. Remember, you are not having a conversation. You are presenting.

Do not read your slides to the audience.
There is a very good chance that everyone in your audience can read. You don’t need to read to them.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is an English language-idiom. It refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single picture, this picture conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_picture_is_worth_a_thousand_words

Convey the essence of your topic with the slide and let the verbal aspect of your presentation deliver any necessary specifics to fill in the story.

Unless you are specifically presenting a detailed topic, such as tabulated data, or specific engineering or performance metrics, etc, the less verbiage on a slide, the better. As I said, you can speak to the slide to impart the specifics. It also enables you to manipulate your time allotment by speaking more to certain slides and less to others, and still stay within your time allotment.

Respect other people’s time.

Be ready to start on time. Set the standard for answering any questions either during (interactive presenting) or at the end of the presentation. Do not run longer than your allotted time. There may be instances where the consensus is that you should take more time, depending on the topic and audience, but in general, you need to be prepared to finish within your allotted time.

As business continues to get more complex, it is many times an easy trap to fall into in making our presentations also more complex. We have the technical capabilities to edit and manipulate both data and image to the point where we can have far more data on a single slide than can either be presented or understood quickly. We continue to generate more complex data and then use more complex means to convey it.

It seems that both the amount of data per slide, and the number of slides per presentation continues to expand. It takes us longer and longer to present the information, and many times we end up spending time presenting to an audience that has a marginal interest in the topic to begin with.

Presentations of all types are an integral part of business. With the continued acceleration of the velocity of business, we need to be ever more mindful of both the time we spend presenting a topic, as well as the time we spend preparing the presentation on the topic. Shorter and more focused presentations are a far more preferable means to convey and convince than the seemingly more prevalent, long and detailed ones that appear to be in vogue today.

Expertise is more better displayed by making the complex simple and easy to understand than it is by making the presentation more complex, and longer, to match the topic.

Process Purpose

With the continued increase of the process-oriented approach to all facets of business, a new phrase has found its way into almost every business conversation and lexicon: “How do we fix the process?”. Immediately upon hearing this, it is not uncommon for multiple teams to set up multiple cross functional calls, across multiple geographies and time zones to discuss the problems. Multiple issues will be defined with the process, and multiple action items will be assigned.

We are no longer fixing business problems or issues. We are fixing processes. Much of the generated activity and churn associated with fixing the process might be avoided with the simple act of stepping back and first correctly understanding what the purpose of the process is.

Many times, we all take it for granted that the process is there to help employees perform their required tasks. We associate processes with making things go faster. Making tasks easier to complete. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, however, maybe not. I’ll provide a few generic examples.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was relatively new to business, I remember there used to be a very special place where companies, business units, groups, teams, etc., kept a very special resource known as supplies. Supplies usually consisted of the little things that made it easier for employees to do their jobs, such as pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, staplers, tape and tape dispensers, highlighters and the like. When people needed these supplies, they would go find the person that had the key to the supply location, get access to it and select the supplies that they needed to continue efficiently performing their job.

As time passed and costs and cash flows continued to draw greater and greater attention from the company’s financial community, it was decided that this anachronistic way of providing employees supplies was not in the company’s best interest. It may have been efficient for the employee, but not for the company. Seemingly random and untracked amounts of money were being spent on supplies, and then these supplies would just sit idle (reference to the utility of money and cash flow) somewhere, waiting for someone to come by and use them. And then there was no specific process or methodology to be able to track who was actually using these supplies.

Unaccounted for money and expense was sitting in supply cabinets everywhere.

The result was that associated support teams and their supply budgets were reduced. And usually in their place a new process was created where individual employees would then have to access the on-line purchasing systems themselves where they could then order their required supplies.

Now admittedly the preceding topic has created an exacerbated issue in that it does require a change in employee behaviors. In the past, an employee would wait until their pen ran out of ink, or they used their last piece of paper before going to the supply location and getting more. Now they had to take into account the added time and complication of gaining access to the supply ordering system, and the delay associated with the supply provider delivering the desired supplies, and the internal delivery system to get desired supplies from the loading dock to their office.

What used to be a simple walk to the supply location to get any required supplies, had now become a multi-day, multi-system, multi-approval ordering process.

Now a days, if you need supplies, you had better plan ahead. Or you can just run by the office supply store yourself, and buy your own supplies. Either way, the corporate goal of the new office supplies process has been achieved: the amount of money the company spends on supplies has been reduced.

The point I am making here is that the supply ordering process was not implemented to make it easier to order supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount spent on supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount of money the company has tied up in supplies, sitting in some supply cabinet, waiting for someone to come by and get them.

The same can now be said just about any process that involves the expenditure of company funds. Travel approval policies are not there to make it easier for people to travel. Hiring processes are not there to make it easier to hire people. These processes are not put in place not to make it easier, or faster to perform these functions. They are in place for corporate tracking and control.

Just because they take extra time and require multiple approvals does not mean they are broken processes. In many instances it means that they are working as planned.

On the other side of the coin, we can look at those processes that are associated with the provision of the product or service that the company sells in its selected markets.

Sales people inherently understand that the relatively cheaper a product is versus its competition, the easier it is to sell and the greater the probability for a successful sale. Companies that vest too much uncontrolled authority in the sales arm have a tendency to experience lower margins and profitability, as sales tries to press for lower prices.

As proof of this point, would you be willing to go to the gas station across the street to buy their gasoline if it was five cents a gallon cheaper? How about two cents a gallon? There is always a point where convenience and timing can outweigh price differential, but in today’s cost intensive world price always plays a key role in everyone’s purchase decisions.

Sales and pricing processes are then normally put in place to enable business management to have greater influence on pricing in an effort to achieve desired profit levels. These are not processes designed to make it easier to create quotes and provide lower prices. These are processes designed to put checks and balances in place that protect the company’s profitability.

If you are a sales person attempting to compete for a customer’s order, they are an impediment and hindrance to your potential success. They are a broken process that is making it more difficult for you to obtain the order.

They are also probably the result of someone (or multiple someone’s) demonstrating bad judgement. Somewhere, sometime, someone probably knew that a price that was supplied to a customer was probably not in the best interest of the company as a whole, but did it anyway in order to get an order. The individual goal was achieved, but the corporate profitability suffered.

I have said many times that process is implemented as a substitute for judgement. In this case, bad judgement.

Sales people inherently know that the company must be profitable, if it is to continue in business. Margins must be at sufficient levels to meet the numerous business objectives such as paying for expenses, investing in new product development, paying sales commissions and providing a reasonable return to its investors.

Unfortunately, most sales incentive plans are focused solely on obtaining a top line order level. This is the objective that drives sales people to try and drive prices down, thereby making it easier for them to sell. It is also contrary to business objectives listed above.

In this situation there would be two key aspects of the business structure creating friction. The physics definition of friction is:

“… the resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another.” https://www.livescience.com/37161-what-is-friction.html

One trying to move price down, and one trying to increase prices. Process or not, this is inefficient for the company and creates waste.

Instead of creating a process to govern a function that generates corporate friction, which I would liken to the “stick” approach to problem resolution, (removing independent thought and decision making capability from those closest to the customer) I would suggest that It might be better to implement incentives that encourage the desired behaviors, or the “carrot” approach.

What might happen if the company offered the incentive of increased commissions to sales with higher margins, and at the same time offered the deterrent of significantly reduced commissions on sales with lower margins?

Instead of creating a process that can become an obstacle to the desired event (getting office supplies, or generating competitive customer offers and proposals…) which must be dealt with, or in some instances overcome, why not reexamine the event (and judgement point) that is driving the creation of the proposed process? Aligning individual, business unit and corporate goals, with appropriate incentives and deterrents for specific behaviors could be a much more efficient way of dealing with the issue.

With this approach in mind, it might be found that much of the effort that may be currently spent on “fixing the process” can be refocused on solving the underlying business issue and need. This is because, as has just been demonstrated, just because a process is not helping the individual be more effective and efficient at doing their job, does not mean that it is a broken process.

The “Hail Mary” Career Strategy

I was riffing through the Yahoo! Finance page the other day and saw what I thought might be an interesting article: “The Real World Is Increasingly Rough For 30-Year-Old Americans”, by Katie Krzaczek. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-real-world-is-increasingly-rough-for-30-year-old-americans_us_5b574ae2e4b0fd5c73c947fe
So, I clicked on it, hoping it was not the obligatory “click-bait” that we have all come to love. To my surprise it wasn’t. But it did send me to “The Huffington Post” page. Before I went any further, I did a little research on just who the Huffington Post is. I didn’t want to be responsible for furthering some Russian troll’s agenda.

It turns out that Wikipedia has this to say about the Huffington Post:

“HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post and sometimes abbreviated HuffPo) is a liberal American news and opinion website and blog that has localized and international editions.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HuffPost

With that out of the way, and despite the fact that am probably far from being considered either a thirty-year-old, or a liberal, I read on.

The article dealt with the idea that despite the fact that all the available empirical evidence that that should logically lead to a different conclusion, this age group demographic was by and large positive about their earning potential.

The article cited the available data that the current percentage of thirty-year-olds earning more than their parents was at an all-time low: approximately fifty percent as opposed to almost ninety percent fifty years ago. It brought up these additional facts:

“Bloomberg recently used Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data to highlight how today’s young people “are weighed down by student debt and stagnant wages”, and

“Axios published several charts to show how more of today’s 30-year-olds are living with their parents, paying higher college tuition, taking on significant debt, and buying fewer homes than 30-year-olds four decades ago.”

In short it was painting a pretty bleak picture for what has been termed Generation Y, but was noting that they were still positive about their earnings prospects. In fact, it pointed out that more than half the people in this demographic expected to be millionaires.

Now, perhaps with inflation a million dollars neither goes as far, nor is as difficult to obtain as when I was in this age group, but even so, this seemed pretty amazing to me. What was even more amazing to me was the way they thought that they would get there.

Ethan Wolff-Mann and Melody Hamm of Yahoo Finance noted in the article:

“I’m not exactly sure where all of this positive sentiment is coming from… I’m not sure whether the stagnant wages are contributing to this or anything like that. I do think … people [are] just hoping that something comes along that they walk into luck.”

“… some young people “think they can become influencers or they can sort of get a following, perhaps have a YouTube channel, perhaps be on Instagram and get $5,000 to pose with a bag or a beauty product.”

“Unfortunately, the power of social media, and the “Hail Mary shot” it presents …. works for only a fraction of those hoping to get rich quick.”

Oh, my goodness…

This approach strikes me as betting your future on winning the lottery, or the Readers Digest Sweepstakes, or some such equivalent opportunity. Yes, it is true that someone usually wins, but as noted above, it is usually a small fraction of those that are playing. However, planning on being “lucky” does not strike me as either a good or intelligent strategy for making money, or prospering in business.

If you don’t believe me, just walk into any casino on the planet. When inside, look around. Notice all the nice employees, luxurious prizes, and very nice crystal, wood and marble appointments. Then look at all the people in there gambling. Understand that those are the people paying for all those nice things in that casino. Yes, there may be a very small percentage of them that actually win and are held up as examples to all the rest, but by and large, the vast majority of people that enter a casino leave it with less money than when they entered it. That’s how casinos stay in business and pay for all the nice appointments.

It seems that many may now have the opinion that you no longer have to work hard and excel at something to be successful. Perhaps it is the constant bombardment from the media depicting reality “stars” who seem to only excel at being famous as opposed to being talented, that is influencing this generation as to what success is. Perhaps it is the commercials only showing the Publishers Clearing House winners, and not the millions who don’t win.

Rightly or wrongly I have learned to associate success with hard work. Yes, there has to be some innate ability, but it is the drive and hard work to make something of that ability that leads to success. It seems that too often we attribute success to “luck”. Perhaps that is why so many now are relying on this Hail Mary approach to success. They just expect to get lucky.

The Roman philosopher Seneca is attributed as being the source of the following quote on luck:

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”

But we now depict the successful as not being prepared to be anything other than famous and successful. They are no longer famous because they were successful, they were successful because they were famous.

Too often we see the successful after they have “paid their dues”. Gates, Bezos, Jobs, Buffet and the others all worked long hours and were driven to be successful. I guess watching people work hard doesn’t make for good television, although the “Jobs vs. Gates” episode of the “American Genius” series on The National Geographic channel was an outstanding depiction of what hard work looked like.

It was also condensed down into a one-hour time frame and put together thirty years after the actual events. It seems today that people want to know and see who will be kicked off the island, or out of the house, tonight.

In business there are very few opportunities for the Hail Mary approach to success. I am sure that they happen occasionally. I just have never seen one, let alone had the opportunity to participate in one. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Just that they appear to be very rare opportunities and events.

As an example, when discussing the rarity of events, for the longest time people thought that the only type of swan that existed was a white one. There was even an old proverb relating to them (“A rare bird in the land”, first attributed to the Roman satirist Juvenal.)

It was not until relatively recent times that it was found that black swans do actually exist (in western Australia). This idea of “The Highly Improbable” was then put into a theory by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, present day scholar and statistician, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nassim_Nicholas_Taleb to explain the rarity of certain events:

“The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist – a saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

Furthering the idea of the rarity of the business Hail Mary, or Black Swan event, is the continued relative drift away from critical thinking business opportunities in favor of process expansion and edification. Simply put, the business structure of today does not lend itself to many Hail Mary opportunities for success.

Instead business presents the opportunity for focused and hard work, and the potential opportunity for advancement and increased responsibility. “Potential” being the key word. In business today, many have the ability and intellect for advancement, but few have the focus and drive that Gates, Jobs, Bezos and others have demonstrated as a requisite for their levels of success.

The opportunity for success in business is still there, as shown by those that do rise to the most senior levels of leaders in it. It seems it is more the internal drive (and hard work) that separates the successful in business as opposed to them planning on being lucky.

This idea does not play as well when stacked against reality TV, or YouTube channel auteurs who are seemingly being successful at being famous – although I am sure that being famous is probably hard work as well.

What is interesting to me is the way Krzaczek ends her article on thirty-year old’s plans and methodologies for success and getting rich, in a seemingly “liberal” publication. She cites Andy Sewer, Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief, who said:

“Get real, work hard, and don’t spend money. The best way to get rich in America is not to spend money.”

That sounds like a pretty conservative, but smart approach to success to both getting rich, and being successful in business to me.

Seminars and Webinars

I think we can all agree that one of the fastest growing business segments in the world today, regardless of industry, has to be the seminar and webinar segment. It has to be. Just judging by the relative number of and ever-growing list of empirical data that shows up in my email on a daily basis. I never think of myself as particularly unique within the business world in general, or within my chosen industry segment specifically, so if the expanding number of webinar solicitations is happening to me, it must be happening to others. If my mailbox is any indication of what everyone else is seeing in their mailbox, there must now be a seminar or webinar available for each of us to attend, just about every hour of every day.

When will this all stop?

I came in on a Monday morning to no less than five new seminar and webinar invitations. The first was a Hipaa Compliance educational opportunity, as if I even know what that is. I had to look it up. I guess I could stand to be educated on Hipaa.

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) is United States legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information. https://searchhealthit.techtarget.com/definition/HIPAA

Okay. Nope, don’t need that.

The next was “Team Effectiveness: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Nope, I think we are probably already dysfunctional enough without having to go to a webinar about it. I can just look around if I want to see dysfunctionality. I don’t need to pay a fee to see it.

I was concerned that there might be some sort of professional certification associated with that one.

The next was a SCRUM Study webinar. This one actually did propose some sort of certification. For those of you not familiar with this discipline, it is the latest and greatest variant of project management. While possibly intriguing, this one also went into the “Nope” file.

Then there was the “Keto-Burn” Protocol for Weight loss. Obviously spam, but I guess it does say something about our fixation on our weight and the growing obesity problem in the US if there are engines out there SPAMming it to business email addresses.

I personally ascribe to the age old “Eat a little less – Move around a little more” methodology of weight control.

The final one was “Stability Studies – Key steps to design and analyze the results to estimate a product’s shelf life”. Quite possibly a very interesting topic. However, not something that I think could generate appreciable business value over the course of a ninety-minute webinar.

The one thing that all these disparate webinars on all these disparate topics had in common was that they wanted me to give them money (in varying amounts) for the privilege of attending. Each of these solicitations referred to me by name and acted as if we were either long lost family, or possibly recently separated friends. They just needed a little of my money now, and they were sure that they could improve my livelihood, if not world in the future.

The first thought I had was: Are there really any people, anywhere on this planet that will sign up for one of these seminars or webinars solely based on an unrequested email solicitation?

I guess there must be.

Now I can understand how and why people will give money to a Nigerian prince if he sends them an email explaining that if they send him some money today, he will in turn send them a whole lot more money at some future date. Who wouldn’t want to make that investment? I keep waiting and hoping for such an email and opportunity, but at least up to now, to no avail.

But who would want to sign up for a webinar on some mundane or arcane topic, based on an invitation from someone who wasn’t a Nigerian prince?

Unlike the previous generation of direct mail – direct response (DMDR) campaigns, where businesses actually had to spend and invest money on the postage required to deliver their opportunities to the target addresses, all today’s email campaigns need is just an email address to send it to. It seems the internet-based bits that carry the message are essentially free. This means that if anyone, anywhere, for whatever reason ever responds to these campaign requests, and signs up for one of the webinars, there is an immediate positive business value generated to the sender. As I alluded to before, if one person does it, there will invariably be others that do it as well. After all, it essentially costs them nothing to send the invitation.

They are in essence trying to get something from you for nothing.

If they don’t. No problem. All they do is just fill up your inbox. If they do, then eureka, they scored.

A quick check of my Junk Mail / Spam Filter showed that there were no less than eleven other invitations to other events of varying magnitude that I would obviously have been foolish in the extreme to ignore, that arrived, and were diverted, over the weekend. I quickly identified the five senders that got through as spam and they too were now in the junk file. I am hopeful that all future requests from these sources will also be captured there before I have to deal with them again.

Undaunted by this apparent avalanche of cyber-trash that now appears in my email mailbox, I went and did a little research, as I am wont to do. The results are both surprising and unsurprising at the same time.

Contrary to popular belief (at least my popular belief) DMDR marketing campaigns are not dead. They still exist outside of the internet. In fact, there is an industry association set up for it (the Direct Marketing Association, strangely enough) and they continue to provide information and research on both its effectiveness as well as the effectiveness of what seems to be the bourgeoning direct spamming approach.

“Though there has been a reduction in response rate for direct mail over the last ten years, it’s still holding strong. In its response rate report, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) analyzed Bizo and Epsilon data and found that direct mail achieves a 4.4% response rate, compared to 0.12% for email.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2017/08/30/why-direct-mail-marketing-is-far-from-dead/#3c5e2ffc311d

I don’t know if I am horrified or relieved that such an august periodical such a Forbes is dedicating their precious column-inches to topics such as this. Then I remembered that Forbes is now also publishing on-line so the cost per column-inch has also come down appreciably in association with the cost of bits on the internet.

I guess they can now also expect an acceptance and response rate equal to the on-line DMDR people.

I wonder what that may have done to their advertising rates and values. Just a passing thought.

Not surprisingly, the DMA study shows that their preferred method of annoying people with unrequested solicitations via non-email methods, is close to forty times more successful that annoying them with email solicitations. On the surface this would seem to be the preferred method of annoyance.

However, I could not find any information regarding the relative costs of the methodology that they prefer. As I said, the bits on the internet are close to free, while postage for mail delivered by the postal service has a definite finite cost per solicitation. And since bits are basically free, forty times free is still free, so based on this type of cost – benefit logic, I think it is safe to assume that we will all continue to enjoy the multitude of unsolicited opportunities that appear in our email mailboxes for some time. Despite what appears to be a response and acceptance level that seems to be trending asymptotically close to zero.

It just means that the internet emailers need to reach out to forty times as many people as the non-emailers, to get the same number of respondents. And since the emails are essentially free, that is what they do. Hence the deluge of spam emails.

A little further research has shown me that by law, all of these opportunity suppliers, or Spammers for short, must provide the ability for those receiving their messages to be able to opt out from receiving future opportunity notices.
https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2015/08/candid-answers-can-spam-questions

What I also discovered during this research is that there now appears to be another burgeoning industry opportunity on the business horizon. This one involves services that purport to be able to remove you from these email opportunity lists for you. For just a small fee, of course.

I now fully expect to start receiving email solicitations from these spam removal services, unsolicited of course, asking me to sign up for their service so that I will no longer have to receive unwanted emails from all the other internet people trying get me to attend webinars and seminars, or sell me things like spam removal services.

Gosh, I do appreciate email.

Inspiration

Inspiration is that magic elixir that enables us to be better. Without it, we would continue to just be what we currently are. It allows us to be cheaper, better and faster. It is how the better mouse trap is conceived and created. It is how we beat the competition at their own game. When we have it we can change the course of our business for the better. When we don’t we are forced to fall back on the plodding methodology of the current process. The good are always looking for inspiration. The great know where it is.

I was sitting waiting for inspiration to strike me so that I could start on my next article. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Still nothing.

Regardless, I figured I had better get started. Since I was currently lacking it, I would examine it. What is inspiration? As usual, I started looking for it on Google:

“in·spi·ra·tion
inspəˈrāSH(ə)n
noun: inspiration
the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”

Okay. I now recognized that there is a link between inspiration and creativity. However, I was still waiting for it to hit me.

Then I remembered that it was opportunity that knocks, not inspiration.

I decided that if I was going to be inspired enough to write something worthwhile, I was going to have to go look for it. It wasn’t just going to come to me. At least this not time.

Normally both current and past business events have a way of bubbling up within my psyche to enable me to look at them and share them here. Sometimes it is easier than others. Sometimes, not. This time however, no luck at all.

There are a great many things going on both in business and on the global stage, and in the past I have tried to capture some of these ideas and concepts, and both the current and past events associated with them. But none of the ones that I looked at seemed to resonate with me.

I don’t know if it was the World Cup entering the final stages (since I would not consider myself a real fan), or the NHL draft and ensuing free agency (since I would consider myself a real fan), but “it”, whatever it is, just wasn’t there. I would get a line or two into an idea and then become disenchanted, or uninspired.

This sad state of affairs is not the normal situation for me. Those who know me will be the first to say that I will usually have something to say about almost anything. It is far more difficult to get me to refrain from commenting than it is to get me to say something.

I am fond of quoting Ron White, the Texas based comedian, who once said when he was being arrested:

“I know I have the right to remain silent. I just don’t have the ability to remain silent.”

I think he has actually said it multiple times, since it has become a part of his stage act, but I think you get my point.

This time however, I just couldn’t find something that felt worthwhile to share here and comment on.

What I was missing here was that I was thinking that inspiration was something that came from without. It either “came” to you, or you went looking for it. In general, at least for me, I don’t think that this is the case. And, I think that for the most part it is probably not the case for most others as well.

We have a tendency to think that the event, action or activity that triggers our inspiration, is the source of our inspiration. I don’t think this is the case at all. It is merely a trigger. Something that causes us to take what we already think, know and feel, and bring it to the surface and recombine it in a new way.

Inspiration actually lies within.

Steve Jobs said:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

I think too often we rely on external queues for our inspiration. We want to follow the process for something that by its very nature does not lend itself to process.

We in effect, are trying to schedule our spontaneity.

And what we should all know by now is that “the process”, actually almost any process, does not lend itself to spontaneity, creativity or inspiration. Process is designed to reduce risk and replace judgement. Both of which are required for inspiration.

Getting back to Steve Jobs for a moment. He was recognized as one of the most inspired people in business. He “knew” and “saw” how his products should be, well before they were ever created. He demanded that they meet his inspirational expectations. He anticipated and created markets, instead of chasing them.

But don’t confuse being inspired with being inspirational. By all accounts, Jobs was not a particularly inspirational leader. The quotes regarding his management style range from:

“…It is well-known that Steve Jobs could be arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-spirited….”
www.business.rutgers.edu/business-insights/leadership-steve-jobs

To:

“…Steve Jobs is … a man who shouted down colleagues at meetings, was visibly impatient and dismissive of others’ contributions… and yet he is lauded as perhaps the most successful entrepreneur of his generation….”
https://www.bbc.com/news/business-34604387

I guess this means that you can act this way as long as you are right. But be wrong, just once, as Jobs inevitably was, and that behavior will come back to haunt you. This was seen when he was ousted from Apple.

As we know, he would eventually come back and experience even greater success.

So where did Jobs’ inspiration come from?

With a personality such as his, I think it obviously came from within. He made the connections intuitively and then drove the technologists, and the rest of his team to fulfill them. He was inspired, but he was not inspirational.

Every analysis and business review, seems to confirm this. He was an anomaly as a business leader. He did not lead his team. He drove his people. He demanded of his team. He invariably used the stick, instead of the carrot.

Most of us do not have the option of behaving the way Jobs did. But we can learn about inspiration from him.

He was able to make the intuitive connections that enabled him to see a better way of doing things. To see new products that would be needed and wanted, before others, including the prospective customers. To step outside of the current processes and procedures to make those quantum improvements.

It came from within him. The triggers were the current way things were done, and the current products that were being provided. He didn’t particularly try to make the current products better. He tried to make something else.

He looked at the way things were to establish a baseline. He looked within for his inspiration regarding what he thought they should be in the future.

I don’t really want to get to philosophical here. I was just trying to find the inspiration for a new article topic, and got to thinking about where inspiration came from. When I got to thinking about it enough, it then hit me, and voila, I had my new topic and article.

C.O.T.S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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