Forecasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what happens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write It Down

A very small event occurred yesterday. On the surface, it usually doesn’t mean much, but I try to recognize them anyway. The pen I had been using to take notes on my activities and calls with, to jot down ideas with, and to work out solutions with, ran out of ink. As I said, on the surface, it didn’t mean much other than I had written down enough stuff that I had exhausted the ink cartridge in one of those disposable pens that I like to use. And as I said, it was a little thing, but I noticed it.

So, why am I writing about such a seemingly innocuous topic?

I learned long ago, back in college, in a time long before Personal Computers, that the quality of what I was able to learn, retain and utilize was directly related to what I wrote down. It was just me, but writing something helped me get it.

This of course was then the only way to capture information when taking notes in a lecture. This was a time before smart phones that enabled you to play Angry Birds video games in class while they recorded the entire lecture for you to peruse at some later time when you weren’t so focused on something else. It was a time when the professor’s words were ephemeral. They were spoken and then they were gone.

I found that intently listening was not good enough. If I physically wrote them down I not only captured them on paper, I captured them much better in my own mind. Revisiting the notes was always useful when it came time to study, but it was the initial writing down of the information that provided the most value.

When it came time for studying, I found that annotating those already written notes, in effect rewriting them, helped me prepare that much better. Somehow the act of writing helped me learn and retain information that much better.

When I told some of my friends about this study and retention technique, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I still used it anyway.

I thought about this idea, which is no mean feat for a then teenager. I wondered if the simple act of writing down concepts and notes as they pertain to lectures was such an aid to my learning and retention, would it also work with my academic reading load?

Till then I, like most of my student peers, just used a highlighter to highlight those passages in text books that I thought were important. I then tried taking notes on the textbook assignments I had instead of just the typical highlighting. It seemed to work as well. At least for me, it worked. I retained and was able to utilize the information far better than when I just read and highlighted it.

These realizations drove several changes in my behavior that still stay with me today. Whenever I need to learn and retain something I write it down. I learned that I no longer wanted lose-leaf binders and discrete sheets of paper. Paper would become ragged and eventually tear and fall out. I wanted permanently bound composition notebooks so the notes would always be there.

I didn’t want large, full sheet sized notebooks as they were prone to succumbing to the abuse that repeated access would cause, nor did I want the small note card sized ones as those did not allow for sufficient information per page. Hard cardboard or plastic covers were also desirable.

The simple act of my pen running out of ink got me to thinking about all of this learning, and retention and utilization of information. I wondered if it was just me or did others utilize this practice. I noticed that some of my now professional peers in the office also had notebooks, although many did not. As PCs have continued to proliferate, this notebook habit seems to be rarer and rarer.

I have tried to replace my notebooks with my PC. There are a couple of things holding me back. First, although I took typing in high school, I am still basically a “two-finger” typist. If I really get going, the number might expand to four, but never approaches the ultimate of using all ten fingers. The second is, that when I used the PC instead of the notebook, I didn’t retain the information nearly as well. It just didn’t work as well as writing it down for me.

I wondered if this was just me, or if others had found the same thing, so I Googled it. By the way, I continue to find it interesting how in this language a proper noun, the name of a company, can become a verb. Sort of like how having a “party” has now morphed into “partying”. I guess this is also the origin of “Xeroxing” as well.

Sorry. I digressed.

I searched “information retention from writing”. Holy smokes. A ton of stuff came up, supporting and detailing just what I have been talking about.

“A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

“Why Using Pen And Paper, Not Laptops, Boosts Memory: Writing Notes Helps Recall Concepts, Ability To Understand” http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-using-pen-and-paper-not-laptops-boosts-memory-writing-notes-helps-recall-concepts-ability-268770

“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html

“Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm

These are just some of the articles that came up on the first page, and they are predominantly from the last ten years or so. They also seem to deal with the difference in learning between typing and writing, although the last couple do deal with the cognitive and comprehension benefits of writing something down.

This was just the first page. Google said there was something on the order of one hundred and twenty-one million results to my search. Judging by the first hits, I am going to guess that the rest will be rather supportive of the position.

That position, as you might guess, is write it down.

Ah, but there are probably some out there that are at least thinking to themselves that this is all well and good, and after all this discussion about the value of writing things down, does he “write” down his blogs and then transcribe them on the computer? The answer is no. I do not. I actually compose at the computer.

I have thought about this as well.

The best description of the difference that I can come up with is that when I want to learn and retain information, I write it down. I am trying to take external information and internalize it. Writing it down is part of the process that helps me do this more efficiently.

On the other hand, when I am trying to take thoughts and information that are already internalized and express them, I find that the keyboard is actually a faster methodology. I can compose better at the keyboard.

It seems that at least in this cognitive approach technology has the benefit of improving the expression of the written word, but not so much the learning or retention of the information that it represents.

We all like to think of ourselves as somewhat unique. However, there are many things that we have in common. Understanding how we learn is something of a baseline that can also help us understand how we work, and more importantly how we can work better.

As business continues to increase in complexity and velocity, we have more and more information that we need to find ways to internalize that much faster. I think we need to understand that the tools that we employ, at least for me, are best utilized at helping in the expressing of our ideas. The taking of what we have and providing it to others.

On the other side of the same coin though, they are probably not so much good in the process of learning and utilizing of the ideas and information that others have provided via the same medium.

I think this is a point that needs to be remembered going forward. Computers and all the other forms of automation and intelligence that are out there, are better applied as capabilities that enable us to express the information that we have already internalized, but they are not nearly so good, or so helpful in aiding us in the understanding or internalizing of the information that they provide us.

If you really want to learn something, all the data and the research says that one of the best ways to do it is to write it down.

I think I’ll go get another disposable pen out of the pack now.

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.

Solutions, Costs and Confirmation Bias

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess it can also be said that the best solution is also in the eye of the beholder. It probably also depends on who you ask. The problem is that the best solution depends on the relative criteria associated with the issue that requires a solution. It also depends on the lens that each individual looks through when they are trying to craft a solution.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who was most notably remembered for his ideas on the hierarchy of human needs. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book, but that is not why I am citing him here. He also said:

“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

and variants thereof, which is from Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

And here-in lies the issue.

What seems to occur is that if you are trained as a lawyer, you are taught to view every issue from a legal standpoint. If you are a marketer, you view every issue from a marketing point of view. If you are in finance it is always about money. The view you have of business influences the view you have of issues and their respective best solutions. And so on.

This is absolutely the case for engineers. It seems that if you are an engineer, everything is an engineering problem, and therefore an elegant engineering solution is probably not only possible, it is highly desirable. For engineers, it doesn’t seem to matter what the specific issue criteria are. Topics such as cost and time required take a back seat when it comes to engineers. It always comes back to engineering the best engineering solution.

For those of you (like me) who are not engineers, and who have argued with engineers in the past, you will probably very clearly understand the following. For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, be patient. I am sure that you will get your opportunity to argue with one in the near future.

There is an old saying regarding arguing with engineers. It is so old that no matter how I researched it (two or three variants of searches on Google) I could not find any direct attribution as to the original author. The saying goes:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud. After a while you realize that the pig is enjoying it.”

But I have digressed enough. With the possible exception of noting that engineers are usually much more associated with costs than sales. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The point that I am trying to make here in my own clumsy way, is to point out that regardless of what the defined criteria may be regarding an issue’s potential solutions, we all have a bias as to how we would go about creating our best solution. This type of bias has a specific psychological name: confirmation bias.

Between my earlier discussions regarding Maslow, and now confirmation bias, I seem to have taken on quite a psychological bent here.

Shahram Heshmat (Ph.D.) in his blog states confirmation bias occurs when we have formed a view on a topic, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias).

I brought this idea up to an engineering friend of mine. He said every problem should be viewed as an engineering problem, and started arguing with me again. Having just cleaned the mud off from the last time, I didn’t engage.

Confirmation bias is an interesting topic when it comes to management, leadership, and issues. This is especially true when it comes to looking at two very important aspects of any business: sales and costs. I will hedge my comments here with the qualifier “for the most part” in that there are definitely exceptions to every generalization. But for argument’s sake, I will go ahead and generalize a little.

When it comes to setting sales targets, who sets the goals?

Those of you that said sales are wrong.

Management usually sets the sales goals. They ask for bottoms up forecasts and expectations from the sales teams, which they will usually review and find lacking in that they do not meet the financial and or growth expectations for the company. They will then ratchet up the targets to be more in line with the company’s needs and requirements, and issue them to the sales team to achieve.

The confirmation bias here is that management believes and expects that sales will provide them with a lower set of sales forecast targets because it provides the sales team a higher probability of achieving those targets. When sale provides a forecast, regardless of its veracity, that is lower than management expectations, this bias is confirmed.

I really don’t think I have ever been part of an organization where the sales team ever provided a sales forecast which was greater than management expectations. Perhaps my own confirmation bias is that management sales expectations will always exceed the sales team’s expectations, regardless of the market conditions.

On the other side of the spectrum lie costs. When it comes to setting costs, it is usually engineers that set them. While there is usually a similar process of setting up costs and budgets associated with products and services (I am not going to look at specific disciplines or functional groups here, just the costs associated with deliverable products and services) where the cost groups (usually containing at least some engineers) are consulted regarding their input into the costing model.

Herein is where the processes begin to diverge. Management has the ability and bias to step in and alter or impose their sales demands on the sales experts, but does not have nearly the same inclination to alter or impose their wills on the cost experts and groups.

Their confirmation bias is that the cost groups are doing their very best to keep costs low, even though the cost group has the same rationale as the sales group when it comes to setting targets. Higher cost targets for the cost group are obviously much easier to achieve than lower cost targets.

The resulting higher costs drive higher prices and a sales team that is invariably told to “sell value, not price”.

This may have been an acceptable mantra when there was discernable value (and price) differences associated with products and services. In some instances, there still may be, but the race to the bottom regarding minimally acceptable product quality and service levels at the lowest compliant price seems to have mitigated all but the basic pricing and functionality topics as differentiators.

Customers do not particularly care what a supplier of products or services costs are. They care about the supplier’s price. And quality. In that order.

A colleague of mine mentioned that the incentives and commissions associated with sales incite the striving behaviors associated with good sales teams, while there is no similar incentive plan in place to incite a similar striving approach to reducing cost budgets for the cost groups. Sales teams make at least partial commissions, proportional to their sales target achievement, even if they don’t fully meet their sales objectives.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the compensation plans associated with the cost teams so that they more accurately reflect the need for continued cost budget reduction instead of the current cost budget achievement structure.

Nominally the market sets the price for a good or service. The market is made up of customers. Even Apple with its ubiquitous iPhone faces market challenges from the likes of Samsung, LG and other smartphone producers. If Apple raises its price too high they risk losing share, and profitability to competitors.

Apple is immensely profitable. They are also a veritable tyrannosaur when it comes to working and controlling their costs. If you don’t believe me, try becoming one of their suppliers and selling them something. I have been a part of organizations that have done this. It can be a challenge, to put it politely.

It would seem that Apple’s culture may have evolved out beyond the confirmation bias dichotomy associated with sales and costs to the point where they continue to challenge themselves with respect to their cost structures, and engineering solutions. They seem to have created a market cache, expectation and demand that may have enabled them to restructure their cost model focus in order to maximize their profits.

That is truly speculation on my part, but it is a theory that would seem to be supported by the empirical observations of them in the market.

Companies that are looking to maximize their profit potential probably need to do a little internal analysis to understand their own costing processes and capabilities. There are many that are still looking at them from a bottom up, confirmation bias based point of view. Apple has recognized that their costs and their product price really have very little relationship and should be treated as almost totally unrelated items.

This approach would allow product and service providers to focus on their sales strategies and their costs strategies in separate, but similar ways. It would seem that the best solution has proven to be to engineer your products and services, not your costs, and instead to treat your costs with the same type of aggressive objective setting that you treat your sales.

Don’t Do Your Job

Although we all like to think of ourselves and our careers as fully and totally unique, I think there are some experiences that we have all probably gone through, to one degree or another, that are probably somewhat similar. It is how we react and respond to these experiences that creates the differences in careers and career trajectories. As I think back on all the roles I have had in the same organizations as well as in new or different ones, I think of one thing that pretty much all of them had in common. They all had a specific job description.

They didn’t all have the same job description. Each role had a somewhat different or unique job description. It was usually that job description that helped the then hiring manager define the combination of experiences, traits and capabilities that led them to choosing me to fill that role. I think it’s probably the same for just about everyone else who doesn’t have some sort of genetic or familial tie to also trade upon in the organizational world.

I think we can all remember those first days in a new position (any new position) where the first thing you do is try to ascertain both what is expected of us and what we will be reviewed and rated on. This is only natural. We all want to do what is expected of us. We want to have objectives to work toward and be measured against. We like to know what we have to do to get ahead.

We then dig in and go on our merry way in trying to achieve or even possibly exceed our goals.

The end.

When review time comes around we are then tasked with the objective of trying to define whether we exceeded our goals in such a way as to merit an excellent “super-star” status (or some such similar ordinal ranking), or just merely a good, exceeded what was expected. Was it really an “exceed” or was it just in reality a “strong achieved”. Did the objective get achieved, or could it in reality have been done better.

It seemed what was once a defined and specific object has now turned out to be open to some interpretation, as it were.

Then there is the ever-present worry regarding whether the ratings that are being discussed are a true reflection of actual individual performance, or is it influenced by, or the result of the organization’s requirement that only certain percentages of the organizational populace can and must fall into certain ranking categories. The dreaded forced rank stacking.

This sort of ranking has been put in place to make sure that managers don’t neglect their responsibility to differentiate employee performance. Instead of having real, and sometimes difficult discussions with their individual team members, some managers have been known to give everyone a “good” rating, regardless of organizational performance.

It’s sort of like this grade inflation thing that everyone seems to be talking about in schools these days. I still don’t understand how you can do better than a 4.0 (straight “A’s”), but apparently, it is possible.

This employee ranking and review is also a good thing in that even outstanding organizations probably have some team members that could benefit in some areas by increased focus, and poorly performing organizations probably have some team members that have performed above and beyond the call.

What this has all led up to, and the point I am trying to make is that when you follow a job description and just do your job, it becomes a question of relative ratings when it comes to reviewing your performance. There is a certain amount of qualitative that inevitably seeps into the quantitative review.

Contrary to what you might think, in this age where the “process” has taken on ever increasing importance, where you would probably think that as a result the quantitative aspects of performance review would be at their strongest, the qualitative aspect of reviews has probably increased.

Think about that for a minute.

As processes continue to ever more granularly define roles, jobs, and their inputs and outputs, the ability to differentiate performance among similarly defined jobs, at least at the high level, becomes smaller. It can almost come down to interpersonal and soft skills as one of the differentiators between similar performers.

Now think back for a minute about that last statement. Have you ever seen that occur?

So, what do you do when just doing your job leaves you open to these types of performance interpretation vagaries?

Don’t just do your job.

Just doing your job is the easy thing to do. You have a job description. You were probably selected because your experiences and abilities matched that job description in such a way that there was a perceived high probability that you would be able to perform the tasks that were outlined in that job description. That was what made you uniquely qualified to fill that role. You were the chosen one.

Don’t flatter yourself.

There are a significant number of people in any organization that can perform any and each specific role in that organization. You may have been selected for that new role, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anyone else around that could do it. Chances are that there were several candidates for that role, and from them they selected you.

I have had it explained to me in a couple of ways, that I will share. The first was that in business, all candidates that make it to the interview portion of the job search are judged to have all the requisite technical and experiential capabilities for the role. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be called in to talk. All candidates enter the interview process as relative equals. It will be their soft skills demonstrated in the interview(s) that differentiate them.

Remember what I said about soft skills and reviews earlier?

The next is that if we each are truly “one in a million” as the old saying goes, and there is in fact close to eight billion people on the planet, then there are at least eight thousand people that are like each one of us.

There are a lot of people that can fulfill each and every job description.

I guess the point I am making is that the job description is the table stakes in the game. It is going to be what you do above and beyond that job description that sets you apart. Performing against only that job description, regardless of how well you feel you have, or even how well you may be able to demonstrate you have, still puts you somewhere on the “achieved” continuum when it comes review time. You are demonstrating that this is the role or job that you can do and no more.

Regardless of how well things were going, every role that I have been in had facets or areas that could be improved. Sometimes these opportunities for improvement were within my defined responsibility, but many times they were not.

This is where for leaders; the process focus must change. There must always be a bigger picture view that the leader must hold, and be able to rationalize against the more detailed and specific needs of the business. It is not enough to just do your job and fulfill a job description.

You have to recognize on the larger level what needs to be done, and then chart the way to do it. What needs to be done may not reside in your job description. It may not be within the realm of your responsibilities. It may not be immediately obvious and may take time to identify.

The issues that are causing the business issues will however become clearer for you as you perform the tasks that are expected of you. It will not be so much the identification of these business issues that will set you apart. Chances are that the issues are already very well known. It will be identifying the causes of these issues, and the resulting solution that you create (and potentially implement) that will be what sets you apart. Remember what I said earlier about how we react and respond to these issues will define careers and career trajectories?

Again, in short, it will not be doing what is expected of you via fulfilling your job description and objectives that will enable you to continue to move forward. It will be doing the unexpected. It will be questioning some of the basic business assumptions that “everybody knows are correct” and creating a new model. It will be questioning and causing issues as people are challenged by you to move out of their comfort zones.

It will be looking at old problems through the new eyes of someone coming into a new position. New employees in new positions are not yet beholding to the status quo. They have not yet become stakeholders in the existing process. It will be those who are not content to do their job that see the answers to questions, many of which may not have even been asked, and identify the new ways to move forward.

It is not how well you do what you are supposed to do that sets you apart from everyone else. It will be how well you do what you are not expected to do that will differentiate you. It will be important to don’t do just your job if you are to get ahead.

Automation

Automation used to be a word that was welcomed into business. Back then we were a disconnected, manual world. If you needed to get more things done, or if you were growing, you had to go get more people to help meet the demand. There was a time that I remember seeing competitors driving advertising trucks around the outside of our business campus in an effort to lure our employees away to meet their growing demands.

But times have changed.

It’s fashionable to discuss off-shoring and out-sourcing when companies now reduce their staffs, but the force that is now causing the largest reduction in demand for employees is automation.

It has been easy to look at China, or any other relatively low wage country and discuss the economics associated with moving production and manufacturing to those locations. It is a very easy way to reduce the cost of labor associated with that production. I have discussed it in the past. We all can probably name several companies that we are aware of that have taken advantage of the economic model.

But do you know what is even cheaper than paying people less in low cost countries to manufacture goods that used to be manufactured in relatively higher wage countries? It’s really a simple answer.

Not paying anyone to manufacture your products.

From 2007 to 2013 manufacturing in the US actually grew about 2.2% per year (~17.6% total), however the number of manufacturing jobs fell. Approximately 13% of those job losses came from off-shoring. More than 87% of the job losses came from automation. (http://fortune.com/2016/11/08/china-automation-jobs/)

Now let’s fast forward only a few years. When you hear the word “automation” it can strike fear in the heart of anyone who is currently working. The active word in that last sentence is “currently”. And it is not restricted to just those in production or manufacturing based positions.
As I have also noted in the past, business and organizations continually try to apply those successful approaches used in the reduction of costs associated with production and manufacturing, to other disciplines in the organization. An example of this is where once only manufacturing were outsourced, so now are other disciplines such as finance, accounting and human resources.

So how does this trend affect automation?

The same rules of organizational cost reduction are going to apply. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has recently released a study that is predicting that up to 38% of all jobs in the US are at risk for being replaced by automation in the next 15 years. These are not just manufacturing sector positions. They also predict the finance, transportation, education, and food services sectors are also going to be significantly affected. (http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/24/technology/robots-jobs-us-workers-uk/index.html)

In case you missed it, that means that automation isn’t just for manufacturing anymore.

Just about any position that has any sort of a repetitive nature to it can and probably will be a candidate for automation. It is predicted that many of the first positions to go will be those focused on the consumer sector. The continued automation of teller based functions will further reduce the number of people in your local bank. Baristas at the local coffee house may also be endangered. How repetitive is it to take an order for a fixed set of options and then write a name on a plastic cup? If there are relatively similar activities being repeated, the function will be looked at for automation.

Look what Amazon has done to the previously brick and mortar based appliance product purchase process. What was once a trip to the store where you dealt with sales associates and waited downstairs for them to bring out your purchase, is now an online search for the best price, the tapping of a few keys and then answering the door when they deliver your purchase, in some instances in as little as one day.

Of course these trends will be somewhat balanced by many consumer’s distaste for dealing with systems instead of people. But even that is changing. Each new generation of consumer has less and less of a tie to the human touch and is more technically savvy than the previous. And even the preceding generations learn the value, simplicity, speed and most importantly the economic benefit to their own personal finances of the new automated model.

Amazon has been successful not only because they have worked to improve the shopping and purchase experiences. They have been successful because they have also reduced the customer’s cost and simplified their search. No more driving around, visiting stores and malls and looking for a sales clerk to answer your questions and wondering if what you want is still in stock.

If you don’t believe that this is the case, the current number of retail stores that have announced they will be closing starting in 2017 now stands at over 4,500. http://clark.com/shopping-retail/major-retailers-closing-2017/.

These are also concepts that will be applied to organizations and business to business commerce.

However, as noted above, I think they will be primarily focused in internal corporate activities, instead of any functions that deal with corporate customers. I have already noted customers distaste for not being able to deal with and have direct human interaction when it comes to their requests for support when they have an issue. I think we could expect an even stronger reaction if corporate customers were asked to interface with a machine for their complex equipment and service needs.

I would also expect even this type of resistance to reduce in the future as each successively tech comfortable generation matriculates up through management to positions with purchase decision responsibility.

The drive for automation within corporations and businesses has started with the internal functions. Just as the automation of spreadsheets reduced the need for the number of accountants in business, so is the drive for on-line processes, tools and tracking systems reducing the need for the number of other types of support staff.

As processes continue to be implemented and refined, and as tools for the tracking of work continue to expand and go on-line, the business environment becomes ripe for automation. Sales opportunities are now tracked from suspect to prospect to bid to contract to implementation in on-line tools. How much data resides in that tool that can be automatically reviewed, with the generation of sales forecasts, booking reports and expected profitability projections made available with just a few key strokes.

Costs are likewise automatically tracked via on-line time charging and the utilization of already automated production and shipping capabilities. How much easier will it then be to generate booking, shipping, revenue and profitability reports.

People in these support and accounting roles who have up to now been providing these periodic reports and functions need to be aware of which way the automated wind is blowing.

So where does that leave us?

First I think everyone is going to need to “up their game”. People are going to have to get reacquainted with the risk-reward scenario. The relatively safer “support” type roles are going to get squeezed almost out of existence. You are going to have to be able to “do” something, not just support the people who actually are doing something.

It is always the “new” or next great thing that is prized in business. People will have to relearn that following the past methods of success will not now provide them with success. They will have to get used to looking forward and trying to predict what will be needed and then trying to move in that direction instead of relying on what was once needed. The creative spark will need to be reignited in all workers as those who wait to be told what they need to do will probably be automated (or off-shored) out of their current roles.

Everyone will truly have to get used to and good at selling. Selling their products, their services, their vision, their ideas, their value, their future. It will probably not be good enough to align with and support someone else who is able to do this.

Everyone will also have to get good at delivering. Customers will want their solutions in ever shorter time frames. Look at how Amazon is driving toward same day – immediate gratification – delivery for their customers. Customers will be defined as those that use your particular service or value. That means that they can be internal to the organization, external to the organization or both.

And value will not be a report. It will have to be more along the lines of an idea, or the fulfillment of an idea.

Automation is coming. The capability to automate will only continue to expand. However, it will be the ability to generate ideas and conceptualize that will be the most difficult to automate (if ever) and will hence increase in value. The person who can think of new ways of doing things will increase in value.

It will also be the person who can actually deliver and implement the products, services and processes of the future who will also be in demand. As I said, it will be those that are able to “do” things as opposed to those that enable others to “do” things that will be in demand in the future.

I guess it has always been that way to some extent, except with automation the gulf between the two will become that much greater.

Self Help

“I love those automated attendants, recorded voice answering machines and the endless opportunities I get to push my own buttons whenever I make a call looking for someone to help me.”

Said no one, ever.

It has been well documented for some time that customer satisfaction is adversely affected whenever a customer has to deal with or must navigate through one of those automated phone answering systems. Normally when they call, they have a question, or need help with an issue. They want to talk to someone. Otherwise they would have just sent a text. Or accessed the company web page and sent an email. But no, they had hit a threshold where this type of technological linking was not good enough. They wanted to ask another human being to help them. And yet despite their need for support and desire for human interaction, they are denied.

The problem is so rampant that there are now commercials by certain companies appearing on network television espousing the point that when you call them, you actually get to speak to “a real human being”. Some companies now feel that it is now a competitive differentiator that they will have a real live human being answer your call and that you actually get to talk to them when you call them. It is interesting how quickly times changed initially to the automated systems, and then just how quickly they are changing back. There can only be one reason for this service technology whiplash.

Money.

Companies originally saw these systems as opportunities to reduce the cost of support by in effect making the customer responsible for some of their own issue or support request. They would need fewer support people if they could make customers work a little bit in the identification of the type of issue they were calling about. Fewer people needed for support equated to reducing the cost of support. This is always thought of as a good idea for the bottom line.

What they learned was that for the most part customers didn’t really like this type of automated system. It may have saved the company money in their support costs, but it made their customers unhappy. And unhappy customers were not as likely to buy more equipment or products from the vendor that made them use an automated attendant system when they needed support. This is normally thought of as a bad thing for both the top and bottom lines.

Companies learned, or actually relearned the old adage:
“Penny wise and Dollar foolish”. (It is actually “Penny wise and Pound Foolish”, but, I live in Texas, USA, so I have taken a foreign exchange liberty here.)

They may have saved a few pennies with the automated systems which enabled them to reduce the number of people required to deliver customer support, but it ended up costing them many dollars in lost sales from their customers who were not particularly impressed or happy with the support that they got.

Now we have companies advertising that they are using people to answer their service calls, just like everyone used to do thirty plus years ago. Go figure.

While it is interesting to discuss the migratory aspects of the types of customer service and support, I think it might be time to discuss a group that may not have fared so well in the evolution of support: The Employee.

It is no secret that companies must spend significant amounts of money, time and effort supporting their own communications and networking needs. Every company has a corporate network. Every employee has a Personal Computer. The employee productivity gains that have been created are enormous and well documented.

It has also put an enormous strain on and demand for corporate Information Technologies (IT) teams for support by these employees. Security and the ability to keep hackers out has almost become an industry unto itself. Requests for networking, applications, upgrades and support continue to grow as the complexity of what is required by the corporate knowledge worker increases. In the age of Virtual Offices (VOs) the demand to deliver these services to locations outside the classic organization structure or office has boomed.

And what is the diametrically opposed force that companies must deal with in this time of burgeoning employee technology demands?

The desire to reduce, or at least limit the growth of Information Technology support costs.

Companies are facing explosive demand for new and innovative Information Technologies applications and services by their own people in order to continue to generate ever better productivity, but are having to temper responding to this demand due to a desire to keep their IT costs in check. There are many innovative ways that companies are dealing with this issue, and unfortunately there are also several ways that may not be considered quite so innovative.

When I was in college, I once had a physics professor who was preparing us for a rather extensive round of midterm exams. He informed us that once the test was passed out that there would be no talking. He also said that if we had any questions we would be encouraged to raise our hands. He noted that by raising our hands above our heads, blood would obey the laws of gravity and flow out of our arms. This would in turn increase blood flow to our brains. This in turn would cause an increase our brain activities in the firing of synapses and neuron transmission, which in turn should enable us to solve the problem on our own.

I am not sure, but I think the gist of his comments were that we were not to ask him questions, because it was a test.

I am concerned that many of the IT leadership of many businesses today seem to ascribe to the same school of thought when it comes to staff support. If you don’t believe me, try and find the internal organizational phone number to call and actually talk to someone real time if you need IT help with you technology based connections. Emails and instant messaging are by far the preferred mode of communication if you need help. And if by some chance you do locate the telephone number for IT support, I think you have guessed it: You get to deal with the corporate IT automated attendant.

It seems that what was once done for you as a valued productivity asset of the company, when it comes to new applications and upgrades, are now being pushed down to you to try and do on your own. The new definition for employee service seems to include unlimited numbers of IT based emails with directions on how to update, upload and upscope the many new, mandatory or desirable IT capabilities.

Sort of a raise your hand and hope for increased blood flow to the brain when it comes to IT support.

I think part of the reason for this internal support shift is that the cost of IT and support is a very identifiable amount. There are direct numbers, budgets and staff associated with it. In budgeting and costing terms, it has become a very identifiable target. There is a defined amount being spent and as such becomes a prime candidate for cost reduction.

The issue that arises is that for every identified and quantified dollar that is saved from the IT budget, there is not a specific quantifiable amount of incremental time or lost productivity that can be identified or captured by the employees, as they are forced to pick up the slack. The measurable IT budget is reduced and a real dollar cost reduction is recognized. But it is far more difficult to measure how much is “spent” when all the additional hours that all the individual employees must now spend completing these IT tasks are totaled up.

An extra hour or two, here and there spent by each employee doing what was once an IT task gets lost in the count. The employee’s work load doesn’t decrease to accommodate this new additional effort. The deadlines aren’t extended because there is now more to do. It’s just another issue to deal with.

Just like happy customers are known to buy more products, happy employees are known to be more productive. However, employee productivity is something of a subjective measurement where IT budgets are very quantitative. This leaves the decision in the realm of reducing a measurable budget, known quantity at the risk of reducing an unmeasurable, unknown employee satisfaction and productivity quantity.

When the cost of cost reductions is reviewed in such a manner, it is best to expect continued pressure on corporate IT budgets for the foreseeable future.

I think it is probably safe to assume that there will be a point where there is a recognition of the value of supporting employee satisfaction and productivity via increased, direct tool and technology support. My guess is that corporations are probably getting close to that tipping point.

When bellwether companies such as Yahoo! and IBM have already decided that there is in fact greater value to the company when employees interact with each other in the office as opposed to the convenience of working via Virtual Offices, it probably isn’t too far a leap to think that they will also recognize that the small, but highly visible investment in the IT resources to support them is also probably money very well spent.

The Five Stages of Change…..and Grief

A friend of mine asked me to look over a document that he was going to issue to his most prized customers. He wanted to prepare them on how he saw things were going to change in the coming (if not already here) digital world. I was flattered. Normally the only people who ask for my opinion are some of my myopic golf buddies when they are having trouble reading a putt. My friend wanted to make sure that his message was not viewed as just another document to be scanned and thrown on the pile of other documents his customers read. As usual, this got me to thinking about how we can relate to and react to the now inevitably changing processes, as they continue to barrel down the tracks at us.

As is also usual I first went out and looked around to see if there was anything written on the five stages of change. I wanted to know if I was capturing some original thought or possibly just rehashing something that someone else had already said. It was with only a modicum of surprise that I did indeed fine information on the five stages of change. According to the article I found, the five stages of change are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance. I correctly assumed that anything that includes both precontemplation and contemplation in its description is somehow academic in nature and not fully business oriented. You too can see this at: http://www.cpe.vt.edu/gttc/presentations/8eStagesofChange.pdf

I have never really encountered “precontemplation” in a business environment, but I will now be on the lookout for it. Most of the time I am both surprised and thrilled if I run across anything that even resembles contemplation, let alone precontemplation. For those of you wondering what precontemplation is, it is the point in time when people are not even considering (contemplating) change.

I had to look it up because I didn’t know either.

The five stages of change that I want to deal with are a little more basic and deal more with the human factor associated with change. They are, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some of you may recognize these five stages of change also as the five stages of Grief. Since there is very little in business these days that causes more grief than change, I think that they are most appropriate.

I have had the opportunity to be a change agent in several different roles for several different organizations. I have found that the two primary reasons that businesses need to change are: The business is doing well and it is anticipated that the market will require the change, or, the business is not doing well and the change is required by the market if the performance is to improve.

Pretty simple, huh?

In either instance, you are almost guaranteed that the universal initial response by those who must change will be denial. They are already doing everything in accordance with both their objectives and the existing process. It will be others who must change, not them. And they are usually at least partially correct. However, I have found that the proper response to such a denial is that others will also change, not just them.

Denial can be one of the longest lasting stages of the change process. Too many times change is seen as an invalidation of what the business has been doing. This not and should not be the case. All business environments are dynamic. Change is an inevitable requirement.

I promised myself that I would try to avoid platitudes of that type. I guess I will continue to try and promise myself that after that last statement.

The next stage in the change process is anger. If denial is not the longest stage of the process, then anger is. When people are made to do something that they don’t particularly want to do, they do tend to get emotional and this usually translates to a little angry. They can also perhaps be a little angry that they were not the ones that recognized the necessity of the change, or that they were not the ones that proposed the change, or even perhaps that the change occurred on a Tuesday as opposed to a Monday or Wednesday.

The idea here is that the response to change can be emotional. And the first rule of dealing with an emotional response is to not get emotional in return. Understand why the response is present, but don’t slow down or alter course.

So now everyone is denying that a change is necessary, and they are now also angry that you are not paying attention to their denials. What’s next?

Bargaining is next. This is an interesting stage in the change-grief process. It denotes the understanding that some change is going to occur. It is also the beginning of the internalization process for that change. It is the methodology by which people begin to take ownership of the change.

It is always good to engage in the change-bargaining process because no one has a corner on the market for good ideas. You never know where the next one will be coming from. Listening to the team that is preparing to change is always beneficial. There is one thing to remember though:

It is not a negotiation.

There may be pieces and parts of proposals that can and should be incorporated into the change process, and there may be those that may best be ignored. Most organizations will not change of their own volition. It takes someone to change them. And it will take will power to overcome the inherent resistance to the desired change.

Once the bargaining is done, along with all the associated renting of clothing, gnashing of teeth and general keening, there is usually a quiet period. This is where the depressing truth of the pending change sets in. It’s going to happen. People will have to change the way they do things. There may even be pending changes to the people themselves.

It will be up to the change leadership to do two primary activities during this period. The first is to make sure that the period between the acknowledgement of the pending change and the actual implementation of it is minimized. It is up to the leader to keep this stage of the change process as short as possible. They need to minimize the length of this negative effect.

The second is to continuously communicate with the changing team during this time and process. Over communicate. Be visible. The change leader must assume the responsibility for moving the team, not just the process, forward at this time.

Finally, if everything has gone right, and the implementation of the change has begun, there should be the final stage of the change-grief process: acceptance. And as with almost every other stage in this process, there will be varying levels of acceptance. Some will embrace the change and move forward with it, and some will begrudgingly go along with it. The only way to make sure that all are on the same page is to take one more additional step.

Review.

What was the reason for the change? Why was everyone put through the grief inducing process? What was the outcome of the system before the change as opposed to the now current outcomes?

In short, show the team what the benefit of the change was. Look at the business performance before and after. Document what is was before, what the implemented change was and what the performance is after.

The idea is to close off the change-grief process with a review that (hopefully) shows that all the effort was in fact worth it to the business. Having a final review of what was the situation and performance before the change and what the new baseline is after the change closes the loop with the team that has gone through the change.

There is no doubt that change induces grief into an organization. Even the prospect of change can and will generate grief. I think that organizations might have a little better response to change if they focused more on dealing with it as grief instead of just change. While the idea of change has its own connotations, it does not engender the appropriate management response. Change is almost an intellectual concept.

Dealing with the organizational upset generated by change from a grief point of view enables management to understand more of the human response and emotion that is created. After all we like to think of change on organizational levels, but it is really on the human level within the organization that the meaningful changes actually take place.