Meeting Invitations

Let’s get one thing straight up front: I am not proposing to be any sort of Ann Landers when it comes to any sort of business conduct advice. I call ‘em as I see ‘em, and I try to base it on my personal experiences. And I am definitely not a Miss Manners when it comes to saying or doing the proper things according to some unwritten business protocol. I like to quote the Texas Comedian Ron White when it comes to describing myself: “I have the right to remain silent. Unfortunately, I seldom have the ability to remain silent.” However, today I may tread on the toes of the Mms. Landers and Manners, when I visit today’s topic, meeting invitations.

I think by this point it should be well known that I am not a particular fan of meetings. Any meetings. I believe that the current business climate has far too many meetings. And all of these meetings are invariably too long. I think that this meeting proliferation is a byproduct of the matrix organizational structures that are now the base-line organizational structure for so many businesses. I also believe that having meetings is an activity that sometimes confused with actual business progress.

Sometimes it appears that we are spending more time in meetings (actually not meetings, but what were once described as “conference calls”) making sure that everyone is aware of and aligned with the latest information and associated directions, than actually progressing in that chosen direction. These are calls where we go over what we have already gone over, with the possible exception of those pieces of the puzzle that may have changed or been incremented in, since the last time they were reviewed, if you know what I mean.

It appears that business has created something of a “meeting culture” where every meeting can hold significant importance and therefore anyone with what could be considered having even a tangential connection to the topic at hand should attend.

This brings me to today’s soap box.

If someone is invited to a meeting, that said meeting’s ownership does not automatically become partially theirs by the simple act of agreeing to attend that meeting. Meeting attendees should not presuppose the right to then invite any others to that meeting, just because they have accepted the meeting invitation.

This brings me to Rule One of meeting behavior:

“If you are not the meeting organizer, do not invite anyone else to the meeting without the express consent of the meeting organizer.”

If you have been invited to a meeting, good for you. If you truly believe that someone else should also attend due either to their topical knowledge, being a stakeholder in the issue to be covered, or just for comedic relief, you should reach out to the meeting organizer before forwarding that meeting’s invitation. There may have been an actual, viable reason that particular person was not invited to the meeting. On the other hand, they may have been genuinely overlooked and should attend.

The point is that you will not know for sure unless you ask first. It won’t take much time, and it may avoid future issues associated with the meeting.

On the other side of this forwarded meeting topic, if you are the recipient of a forwarded meeting invitation, there are two additional rules that you may want to follow. The first is:

“Ask the original meeting organizer if it appropriate for you to attend the meeting.”

After all, you were not directly invited by the meeting organizer. It would be a courteous thing to do to assure that your invitation and attendance is appropriate or desired. The second is:

“Do not feel that by having a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting you are appropriately empowered to forward it and invite still other people to the meeting.”

This is not a “more the merrier” sort of situation. This is how what were to be short and concise meetings become bloated, run long and lose much of their desired functionality. Again, if you have received a forwarded invitation to someone else’s meeting, when you are checking with the meeting organizer to see if it is appropriate for you to attend the meeting, you can then bring up the topic of additional potential meeting attendees.

Perhaps the meeting culture within business has progressed to the point where what we once viewed as a yes/no decision associated with attending a potentially germane meeting as a part of our position, has evolved to a position where it is now incumbent to attend all meetings that may somehow be related to our respective roles, as being now part of the greater defined job responsibility. Where it was once that we were relieved to not be invited to any specific meeting since it was then perceived that meetings got in the way of getting your job done, it appears that many are now genuinely disappointed if they are not on the initial meeting attendee list since it is now perceived that attending meetings is now a significant part of the job.

As you may have guessed by now, I have been involved (several times actually) in situations where I have scheduled a small meeting on a concise topic, only to have the meeting attendance balloon beyond normal recognition and the topics diffuse themselves to the point where progress is almost impossible. Now, I know that I don’t call many meetings, and that the ones that I do call are purposely kept short with a limited invitee list in order to drive both proper meeting behavior, and so as not to impinge on people’s limited availability of time.

I am beginning to believe that it is for these reasons that people seem to want to invite other people to my meetings.

Is it possible that there is some sort of cache associated with attending my meetings? Does their rarity and truncated length make them that much more desirable to attend? Do people get the same sort of satisfaction from attending one of my relatively few, short meetings, that would get if they were to get a reservation or access to one of those “in” bars or restaurants that it seems only the beautiful people get to attend.

There are no paparazzi skulking around my meetings ready to take pictures of the elite few that I have been invited to attend.

I am reasonably adept at calling and setting up meetings, as I am sure so many others are. If I had wanted other, or additional attendees to the meeting, I would have invited them myself. It really isn’t that hard to do.

So why does this happen?

I wish I knew. When I am invited to someone else’s meeting, the first thing that crosses my mind is not “who else should attend this meeting?”. It is more along the lines of “is this a functional meeting that I should attend, or not”. As I sit here, I am hard pressed to think of an instance where I have forwarded someone else’s meeting invitation either with or without their pre-approval.

On the other hand, I can usually count on seeing several more attendees than the number I have actually invited, at any meeting I set up.

Perhaps the greater change in the meeting culture of business is as I mentioned before: Meetings were once viewed as a necessity that usually got in the way of doing your job. As communications capabilities have blossomed, we seem all too eager to take advantage of the advanced meeting technologies available, whether we need to or not. Now what was once a necessity that got in the way is now perceived as just a necessity.

The perception seems to now be that if you are not in a large number of meetings, you are not busy. If you are not in all the meetings that could possibly impact your function, then you are not doing your job. As our abilities to meet and share information has grown, so has our desire to be a part of the meeting and sharing, whether we need to or not.

The matrix organizational structure, and the processes that must be in place to make it function effectively does require an increased amount of communication to make sure that the business can run relatively smoothly. Functional hand-offs require coordination. Coordination reduces the possibility and effect of “surprises”. These are obviously good things.

There comes a point in time where the business process and culture has become a meeting process and culture. A calendar full of meetings will then seems to be desired and aspired to, as opposed to limiting meeting attendance in favor of other functional activities. When that happens, it can seem that every available meeting has then become “open game” for whomever wishes to attend it.

You can tell that point has passed when meeting attendees start inviting other people to your meetings as a matter of course.

Not Making Decisions

I think we have all probably had the opportunity to work either for, or with people who when presented with a decision-making opportunity would actively avoid making the requisite decision. This is an interesting phenomenon in business, and one that seems to be far more common than anyone might expect. We all have been indoctrinated (well, obviously not all, the subjects of this article seem to have avoided this indoctrination) from early ages that leaders advance in business because the make good decisions. They are right far more often than they are wrong. They seize the moment. They are proactive, not reactive. They are the masters of their own fate. Why then does it seem that there so many managers around in what should be positions of what should be leadership, if they actively avoid making a decision when the time comes to make one?

I had been contemplating this decision-avoidance management style for a while, when I saw a Facebook posting that pushed me over the edge into writing about it.

Yes, Facebook.

I mean, after all, if you see it on Facebook, it has to be true, right? Twelve thousand Russian internet trolls can’t be wrong, can they? But I digress….

The following is the post I saw (It was actually re-posted by a friend of mine. Below is the actual URL):

(https://www.facebook.com/REALfarmacyCOM/?hc_ref=ARTa6SNGQ99wX_NW_jDp2bf-MzzSqL-Lr1SXCVjnWX09uq0fonu7AiT5_p8DhES1MLM)

It was originally a much larger post, in what was obviously an effort to assure attention, not to mention veracity, by being that much larger than anything else on the screen at that time.

It is also in my opinion, patently wrong.

It has been my experience that the decision avoidance approach to management must be a viable approach to business, especially for those with what is referred to as “bad judgement” (or judgment challenged, if you prefer) based on the number of managers who seem to avoid making decisions. Many have survived and even flourished in business without being decisive. More on this in a moment.

Peter Drucker is a famous business management leader, consultant and writer in the twentieth century. He said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”     (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/451403-whenever-you-see-a-successful-business-someone-once-made-a)

On the surface, this is correct, but only as far as it goes. Making decisions is good really only when you make the right decisions. Being courageous and wrong in your decision making is probably a good way to end your employment. Drucker probably should have said:

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made the correct courageous decision.

The difference is small, but crucial.

Almost every business will try to tell you that they value risk takers and encourage their teams to take risks, and that risks are good, and we should all risk, and so on and so forth.

What the business is really saying is that they want you to take risks, as long as you are correct, and the risk works out. What I have observed is that while companies say that by taking risks and being wrong, there can and will be a learning experience, the usual item that is learned by the risk taker is that they shouldn’t have been wrong. This conclusion is invariably arrived at later, normally in the process of looking for their next opportunity.

This would then lead us to the slight modification of the Facebook post, so that it would read in the following way:

Be decisive.
Right or wrong,
make a good decision.
The road of life
is paved with
Flat Squirrels
Who made a
Bad Decision

This revision of course begs the question:

Who wants to be a flat squirrel?

We now understand how the decision avoidance approach to management has come about. The up-side to making multiple good business decisions is that you may get the opportunity to make more, larger and more important business decisions. The down side is that if you make one bad decision, there is the potential to become a flat squirrel that will not be given the opportunity to make any further business decisions in the future. This sort of risk-return associated with business decisions results in driving many to avoid making decisions.

So, with this in mind, how do managers who won’t make a decision appear to become leaders?

The answer is the same with all questions of this type: Very carefully.

When presented with a decision-making opportunity, instead of making a choice, most managers will opt for pseudo-decision-making activities that will give the appearance of taking action, but will not directly subject them to the decision making risk. Examples of these activities can be:

Socialization, where the decision options, criteria and possible outcomes are presented to multiple other entities. This can result in opinions and responses with suggested options, or even just general feedback that can be used to diffuse the decision source and responsibility.

Discussion, where a meeting is called where the decision options are discussed and presumably the best option will be chosen. This process can actually take multiple meetings, depending on the amount of research that may be called for. Again, the result here is the diffusion of the responsibility for the decision. It is no longer a single manager, but now a team or group decision.

Escalation, where a decision avoiding manager can escalate the decision, either directly or indirectly, to a more senior level where it can then be made. This usually happens when a decision / risk averse manager reports to a decision inclined supervisor. In this situation, this kind of decision behavior may actually be encouraged.

And delaying, where the decision is put off or postponed long enough for the required decision option to become self-evident enough that there is relatively little risk in finally selecting it.

There may be many other behaviors and responses that can be observed by decision avoiding managers, but I think these are probably the most prevalent.

So, what does this all mean? Is decision avoidance an acceptable management style?

I think the answer is yes, and no. It has proven to be a workable strategy for many either risk averse, or judgement challenged, people. The proof lies in how many of these decision avoiders exist in management. But I think it is by nature a strategy of limited potential. If the goal is a middle management low risk and lower reward position and career, then it can probably be a workable approach. However, I think regardless of your preferences or career position there will always come a time when a decision will need to be made.

It may be small, or it may be large, but there always comes a time in business that will call for an answer. Those with decision making experience (analytical skills, judgement, etc.) will have an advantage. Those that don’t, won’t.

These instances are definitive examples of what is known as “The Peter Principle”. The Peter Principle stems from:

“Observation that in an hierarchy people tend to rise to “their level of incompetence.” Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less-effective because good performance in one job does not guarantee similar performance in another. Named after the Canadian researcher Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1910-90) who popularized this observation in his 1969 book ‘The Peter Principle.’”
(http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/Peter-principle.html)

The Peter Principle would lead us to believe that eventually a decision averse manager will find themselves in a position that will require the ability to make good decisions. After all, as Peter Drucker noted, business will eventually come down to making a courageous (read: correct) decision. Unless they have been keeping this ability in reserve, or well hidden, they will have then reached their upper limit on their management mobility.

It would appear that the successful method of applying a decision avoiding management strategy is to not desire or aspire to a role of such a level of responsibility that it requires a number of high visibility decisions to be made.

I don’t know of many business managers that knowing opted for the decision avoidance approach to business. I do know of some (I think we all do) who may have drifted into this business approach. It would seem to me to be a seductive, but probably slippery slope that could lead managers in this direction. The avoidance of issues instead of the difficulty of dealing with them can be attractive. If the opportunity and capability to do this was made available, there would of course be some who would take advantage of it. Matrixed organizations and well rooted processes for dealing with all manner of issues that will ultimately require a decision of some sort to resolve, may actually begin to drive this type of behavior.

It is at times like these that I hear the lyrics to the Rush song “Free Will” off of their 1980 released “Permanent Waves” album.

Yes, I listen to and appreciate Rush. I also applaud their finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

The passage that comes to mind is:

“….You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice….”

(https://www.rush.com/songs/freewill/)

Wow, Facebook (Decisions), Peter Drucker (Decisions), Laurence Peter (The Peter Principle) and Rush (Decisions) all in one business article.

Détente in the Organization

As the matrix organizational structure continues to flourish, where organizations are structured according to business disciplines and processes rule on how these organizations interact, tension is bound to build between these organizational states. Product groups will always believe that they know how best a product should be sold. Finance teams will always think that they are the only ones who will care about the profitability of a deal. Sales will always have to deal with ever more aggressive competitors, and ever more demanding customers, as they try to translate these requirements into something the product and finance groups (and others) can act on and agree with. Trust between these groups when associated with the new business process will be key to the success of the organization going forward.

So, how do you deal with the tension between these organizational groups? History has shown that détente, as practiced between the United States and the USSR during the cold war has probably found its way into the organizational environment.

Détente (a French word meaning release from tension) is the name given to a period of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that began tentatively in 1971 …https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/detente

The relaxation of strained relations or tensions https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/d%C3%A9tente

While the Soviet Union (in that manifestation) no longer exists, it would appear that Détente still has a place in the current organizational discussions, at least when it comes to discussions associated with matrix organizations and how they interact. That being in how these organizations can decrease the tensions that invariably arise when they are working with each other, sometimes at cross purposes, in the pursuit of their business objectives.

This is just a nice way of introducing the idea of how do you get disparate organizations to work together towards the overall business goals. In the perfect world these organizations would all be altruistic, focus on the business’ greater good and trust each other as they worked together according the latest management process. Unfortunately, none of us resides in a perfect world.

To continue the political allegory a little farther (to possibly foolish extremes, but since I am already in this deep…) this can result in inter-organizational relationships (as noted above) that can be best described as resembling those of the participants of the “cold war”. That being somewhat distrusting and antagonistic, but not so openly as to flare into open warfare.

Although the start of détente has been attributed to President Nixon in the 1970’s, it arguably hit its peak in the 1980’s with president Reagan. As the two world powers searched for a way to work together toward nuclear arms reductions, Reagan is credited with the immortal phrase:

“Trust, but verify”

Suzanne Massie, a writer in Russia, met with President Ronald Reagan many times between 1984 and 1987. She taught him the Russian proverb, “Доверяй, но проверяй” {Doveryai, no proveryai} (trust, but verify) advising him that “The Russians like to talk in proverbs. It would be nice of you to know a few.” The proverb was adopted as a signature phrase by Reagan, who subsequently used it frequently when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Using proverbs that the Russians could relate to may have helped relations between the two leaders.

Reagan used the phrase to emphasize “the extensive verification procedures that would enable both sides to monitor compliance with the treaty”, at the signing of the INF Treaty, on 8 December 1987.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust,_but_verify

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) is the abbreviated name of the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermediate-Range_Nuclear_Forces_Treaty

Now, “extensive verification procedures…” are very good if you are talking about global nuclear weapons reductions. I for one, am all in favor of it in this instance. The easing of tensions and the reduction in nuclear arms are “good things” as Martha Stewart is apt to say. The significant cost of these verifications when measured against the global good generated by the agreements and conduct of the participants would seem to be a significant value.

However, when we are talking about inter-organizational tensions in business, how do you trust but verify?

Matrix organizational structures, and their accompanying processes were put in place to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Each group was to be responsible for the application of their discipline specific expertise, and then hand off the process to the next organization. An almost production line capability was envisioned where efficiency would rule. These inter-organizational tensions were never taken into account. So, what has occurred?

As I noted earlier, each business organization associated with a process has relinquished ownership and control for all associated activities outside of their specific disciplines. This means that the product group that feels that it knows best how to make sure the product is properly sold, has no real direct responsibility or authority for the sale of its product. This obviously creates tension between the sales group and the product group.

How do they create detente out of this situation?

The answer that seems to have evolved with the “trust, but verify” aspect of the relationship. Most product group organizations have responded to the trust issue by creating a product group owned organization that is responsible for “helping” or supporting the sales group in the proper sale of the product. They bring aspects of the product group to the sales team, and provide communication from the sales team to the product group. They in essence handle the process hand-off from the product team to the sales team.

The other actual function of these sub-group organizations is to trust the sales group in the sale of the product, but also to verify that they are in fact selling the product, and selling the product properly (at appropriate margins, with accurate and deliverable functionality, etc.), in the manner the product group might prefer.

The product group (in this example) is not the only discipline to have created an inter-discipline “support” team. These inter-organization hand-off groups have a tendency to spring up at almost every inter-organization interface in the matrix business process. A structure and process that was thought of and designed to increase efficiency and reduce costs has now given way to a whole new set of incremental organizational structures designed to make sure that those “other” groups are in fact doing the job that they were envisioned and supposed to do when the matrix structure was adopted.

Inter-organizational détente has been achieved, but at what cost?

Have the efficiencies that were to be gained by going to a discipline structured matrix organization with defined processes and hand-offs been lost due to the proliferation of these inter-organizational “support” groups? Has the “Trust, but Verify” doctrine created the need for every business organization to create groups that are designed to understand and interface into every other business organization, for the purpose of verifying that the other groups are in fact doing what they are responsible for doing? Doesn’t all this seem to violate the idea of efficiency and cost reduction that drove the matrix structure in the first place.

The cold war, and détente ended when one of the powers involved started to crumble under the weight of the structure that they had imposed. In the 1980’s the Soviet leadership tried to introduce reforms that would allow their system and structure to adapt to the new realities of the fast-changing world. These new structures and adaptations did not enable the soviet system to adapt, but instead ended up further precipitating its downfall.

… In November of that year (1989), the Berlin Wall–the most visible symbol of the decades-long Cold War–was finally destroyed, just over two years after Reagan had challenged the Soviet premier in a speech at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” By 1991, the Soviet Union itself had fallen apart. The Cold War was over.  https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history

It appears that sometimes the idea of an organizational structure can be much better than the reality of it application. When the concept and reality don’t quite mesh, the first impulse seems to be to try to increment and adapt the structure to get closer to what is called for. This seems to be something of a delaying tactic for what is usually the inevitable outcome.

A structure can be imposed by management with the idea of better progress and efficiency for all. As incremental structures are added to deal with the true business environment, the entire “weight” of the organizational structure begins to be strained. Many of the expected efficiencies associated with the matrix structure organization would appear to have been lost due to the growth of the many hand-off and verification groups that have sprung up to deal with both the process, and human nature.

Détente, and trust, but verify, are excellent historical applications associated with the difficult relationship between global nuclear powers. I think when you can start seeing the parallels associated with these concepts within the difficult relationships between business organizations, that there may be some inherent challenges associated with the organizational structure. After all, the result of the application of these ideas was the verifiable dissolution of one of the global participants and the changing of their organizational model completely.

The RACI Matrix

As the Project oriented view of the business world continues to flourish in the business organization, we have seen the rise in importance of something called the “RACI Matrix”. Sometimes it is pronounced “RAY-see”, and sometimes it is pronounced “RACK-ee”, depending on whether or not the hard or soft pronunciation of the letter “C” is chosen. I think that I have heard the second, hard “C” pronunciation more lately, as it appears that no one wants to be associated with anything that could potentially be considered racy in the working environment.

In the apparently now outdated but venerable “General Manager” model, there was no question of where the responsibility and accountability for getting things done resided. Leaders led their teams and the buck stopped there. They were responsible and held their teams accountable. However, as this management structure appears to continue to wither away, the matrixed and project based organization model with the RACI Matrix have proportionately grown in both their application and need, as a way to keep track of these new project oriented and structured roles and responsibilities.

As usual, first a little definition work:

RACI is an acronym that stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. A RACI chart is a matrix of all the activities or decision making authorities undertaken in an organization set against all the people or roles. (https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=91SdWu7FI8Kz5gKHsoTYDQ&q=raci+chart&oq=raci+&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l10.1435.3243.0.8245.5.5.0.0.0.0.198.609.0j4.4.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..1.4.606…0i131k1.0.-TcIxdozKYA)

The most important aspect (I believe) here is the potential organizational division of Responsibility and Accountability. When a Matrix organizational structure is employed, there is the potential for people to be held responsible for a deliverable, but they may not have anyone who directly reports to them that is assigned to the deliverable. In situations such as this, there is the need for some sort of tracking and governing document. Hence the RACI Matrix.

Now a little more definition work:

responsible
re·spon·si·ble
adjective

  • having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role.

synonyms: in charge of, in control of, at the helm of, accountable for, liable for

  • being the primary cause of something and so able to be blamed or credited for it.

synonyms: accountable, answerable, to blame, guilty, culpable, blameworthy, at fault, in the wrong

  • (of a job or position) involving important duties, independent decision-making, or control over others.

synonyms: important, powerful, executive
(https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=8ZudWur9G4_n_Qbj55eQBg&q=responsible&oq=responsi&gs_l=psy-ab.1.1.0l10.2660.8341.0.11364.12.10.1.0.0.0.241.1165.0j4j2.6.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..5.7.1177…0i131k1j0i10k1.0.Er0EPShawI0)

Okay….but I’m not so sure I am comfortable with having the word Accountable used in the definition of Responsible. After all, according the RACI Matrix these two items, Responsible and Accountable are supposed to be separate.

accountable
ac·count·a·ble
adjective

  • (of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.

“government must be accountable to its citizens”
synonyms: responsible, liable, answerable; to blame

  • explicable; understandable.

“the delayed introduction of characters’ names is accountable, if we consider that names have a low priority”
synonyms: explicable, explainable; understandable, comprehensible
(https://www.google.com/search?ei=_ZudWvG1MsGO5wLIm7GACA&q=accountable&oq=account&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0i67k1l4j0i131k1j0i67k1j0j0i131k1j0l2.122902.124228.0.127937.7.5.0.2.2.0.209.523.0j2j1.3.0….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..2.5.558…0i131i46k1j46i131k1.0.wz1wZ7U8_QE)

Alright. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the difference between Responsible and Accountable. I guess a little more research is still required.

The accountable person is the individual who is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision. This includes “yes” or “no” authority and veto power. Only one accountable person can be assigned to an action.

The responsible person is the individual(s) who actually complete the task. The responsible person is responsible for action/implementation. Responsibility can be shared. The degree of responsibility is determined by the individual with the “accountability.” (https://resources.workfront.com/project-management-blog/accountability-vs-responsibility-in-project-management)

Now I think we are getting somewhere.

The Accountable person is the one who must see to it that something gets done.
The Responsible person is the one who must actually do it.

The basic difference between responsibility and accountability is that the former is assumed whereas the latter is imposed. While responsibility is understood as an obligation to perform a particular task, accountability denotes answerability, for the completion of the task assigned by the senior. (https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-responsibility-and-accountability.html)

That seemed like an awful lot of work just to determine what the definitions are for a couple of the columns in the project work and responsibility matrix.

I don’t think I am going to bother going through the Consulted and Informed portion of the RACI Matrix. I think those terms are a little bit more self-explanatory and have less direct effect on the outcome of any discussion or project.

What I am getting at here is that as business moves to more of a matrix oriented business structure where the lines of responsibility, accountability and authority no longer remain within a single business organizational structure, a set of rules was needed to be put in place to define and govern these new cross organizational roles and relationships.

All this incremental work, definition and process was put in place in the interest of increasing speed and efficiency, reducing costs and assuring improved project implementation.

To be fair, what has really occurred is the codification of the inherent rules associated with the general management model so that they can be applied in the matrix structure.  In the GM model the leader was accountable and assigned responsibility to the various members of his team in order to get things done. It is when the solid reporting lines become dotted, that the rule book had to be created so that all can now operate appropriately.

This again assumes that an organizational discipline driven structure is more efficient than an organizational interest driven one.

When an organization is aligned along business disciplines (Project Management, Marketing, Operations, etc.) instead of aligning along business interests (specific products, specific global regions, etc.) companies are relying on the hopefully increased specific disciplinary economies of scale to outweigh the lost economies of scale associated with the specific business product or region interests.

In short many companies now believe that having a shared cadre of say, Project Managers, that every business unit within the organization can access and use, is more efficient than each business unit having their own dedicated group of Project Managers. For smaller organizations this might be the case as having a shared group would obviously reduce the opportunity for “down” time where a PM may not have a project to manage or be fully utilized.

However, for larger organizations, it would seem that having dedicated PMs, with their increased specific product, or region specific, etc. knowledge within the specific business interest might be a more efficient model, with less documentation and process overhead needed to govern the inter-group relationships. It would almost seem to be a foregone conclusion that any time you must create a process, with a rule book and a division of responsibilities matrix, just to conduct existing business within a new business structure, there might be an opportunity for confusion and a reduction in speed.

There can be real benefits derived for the organization from the matrix model. I think it requires a real understanding of what capabilities can be centralized and homogenized, and which might ought to remain within the specific business interest’s organization. I think this is a decision pendulum that will continue to swing one way and then the other as market, and management conditions continue to change.

Either way, it’s always a good idea to understand who is responsible, and who is accountable, as well as the other items in a RACI Matrix, because now a days it’s quite possible that the people who are identified with these responsibilities (and accountabilities) are no longer in the same organization.

Transformation

Oh, how I long for the days when all we had to worry about was change. We didn’t know or worry about what it was we were changing into. We just knew it was going to be new and different, and hence better than what we currently were. Somewhere along the way, the way we changed, changed on us. Soon we had a changing rate of change in the way we changed. Eventually it was all just considered small change.

Now a days, no one changes. Change is so last century. Change is so passé. Change has changed, yet again. Today, changing is no longer good enough.

Instead of changing, you must now transform.

I think this is now the appropriate time to understand the vast difference in the definitions of these business terms. To the dictionary:

change
CHānj/

Verb: change;
1. make or become different.
“a proposal to change the law”
2. take or use another instead of.
“she decided to change her name”

Noun: change;
1. the act or instance of making or becoming different.
“the change from a nomadic to an agricultural society”
2. coins as opposed to paper currency.
“a handful of loose change”

In case you were wondering, I think I was able to use every one of those change definitions in some way, in the first paragraph. On the other hand:

trans·form
tran(t)sˈfôrm/

Verb: transform;
1. make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.
“lasers have transformed cardiac surgery”

Mathematics Linguistics
Noun: transform;
1. the product of a transformation.
a rule for making a transformation.

(In case any of you are wondering about this mathematic definition for transform, in physics, the Lorentz transforms are coordinate transformations between two coordinate frames that move at constant velocity relative to each other. This is the kind of stuff you learn in any basic mechanics class in physics.)

There you have it.

A change is just a change, but a transformation is a thorough and dramatic change.

I’m glad I was able to clear that up. I like to leave my readers enriched for having read my posts, and this little nugget alone is probably worth the time spent reading, at least up to this point.

Below are a pair of Google based graphs of the use of the words “Change” and “Transform” over time. (I didn’t realize that Google had a function like this, but I think it is pretty neat, and will probably use it again in the future.) As you can see, the use and popularity of “Transform” has grown rapidly in recent times. I attribute this (although I have no way to directly measure it, but based on the nominal usage that of “transform” that I hear, I would believe it to be true) to the vast increase in the use of the word “Transform” in all written documents, articles, presentations, etc., etc., etc. associated with business in the last few years.

And as you can also see “Change” has been a generally more widely used term (with some recent growth – probably due to the number of people looking up and defining the difference between “Change” and “Transform”) until recently, where “Transform” appears to now be the more preferred descriptor (at least when it comes to business).

Change

Transform

One thing that can said about business: When it finds a new term that it likes, it will definitely over-use it.

Despite the similarity of the definitions, I do think that there may be some subtle differences in the connotations that each word evokes. Change, at least to me, speaks of moving from what you are, into some as yet undefined state. As I noted earlier, you may not know exactly what the change will entail, or what the end state of the change is, but you do know it will be different.

Transformation, again at least to me, speaks of moving to a little more defined end state. There is a target and a method to the change, or at least there should be. It implies that the target result of the thorough change is known and the while the required steps to get there may not be fully defined, at least the end state is.

Or at least it should be. The key is always going to be trying to convince those that you want to transform that you really do have an idea of what you want them to transform into, as well as plans for the steps to get there.

Knowing what you want to transform to, but not knowing how to get there, would seem to be only slightly better, if at all, than knowing and expecting to change, but not knowing what it is you will become.

Wow, I think I may have just propellered off into existentialism on that last discussion of change and transformation.

However, this discussion could help answer the question: When do you Transform, and when do you merely Change? I think the answer lies closer to the idea that you transform when you have an idea about what you want to become. You transform from an analog to a digital company. You transform to a cloud based solution.

It just doesn’t have the same ring, or gravitas to say you are changing to a digital company, or you are changing to a cloud based solution.

You change in response to a stimulus acting on a business. You transform in anticipation of the stimulus acting on the business.

I went and searched on the keys to changing. Aside from a lot of musical notation associated with when to use the tonic and how to change keys, most of the statements associated with change centered on two words: Courage and Fear. The courage to change and the conquering of the fear of change.

Perhaps that is the reason for the current popularity associated with Transform instead of change. People seem to need Courage to change, while I don’t nearly so associate Transformation as a courage requiring activity. People need to conquer their fear of change as a prerequisite to a successful change. Again, it would seem that the connotation of transformation does not invoke nearly as much fear in the participants.

It would seem that Transform is now the public relations equivalent of Change. More of a kinder, gentler version of change. It has all of the good aspects of change and not nearly so much of the bad. It would seem that changing (or transforming, if you prefer) “Change” to “Transform” is much along the same lines as when the United States Federal government changed (or transformed) the Department of War into the Department of Defense in 1949.

It functions much the same, but it just sounds better.

Again, perhaps because transformation implies a more directed process and end result, where change appears to be a little more undefined and open ended. And few in business like to be the one that is the first to venture into an as yet open ended and undefined future.

Selling Products vs. Selling Services

In case some of you are not fully aware, products and services are different. They can be tightly integrated. They can be mutually dependent. But they are entirely different. This can cause businesses that provide and sell both products and services significant issues.

Customers usually like to have a single point of contact with their vendors and suppliers. If the customer is large enough, this point might actually be a coordination point for the vendor’s sales team, as opposed to a single sales point. This creates an issue for the vendors in that more and more in the age of increased specialization, they are they are driven by customers, and hence driving their sales teams to try and sell both products and services.

I’ll start with the easy one first: Products. Just about everyone knows what a product is. Now believe it or not, a quick Googling of the word “product” has delivered two entirely different definitions:

product; plural noun: products
1. an article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale.
2. a quantity obtained by multiplying quantities together, or from an analogous algebraic operation. https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=c7loWtCWIYT5_AaP04-ICg&q=product&oq=product&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0i131k1j0j0i131k1l3j0l5.553.1679.0.3106.7.6.0.0.0.0.178.623.0j4.4.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..3.4.621….0.Jn1vc8zzN28

All the math nerds out there need to settle down. We are going to concern ourselves with the first definition of a product.

For purposes of this discussion I am going to look at products as a tangible item of substance manufactured for sale. (In an increasingly software driven world this idea can be stretched to software in as much as software is now also generally recognized as a manufactured or refined product as well.) A product is something that is made. People can usually touch it. It physically exists. Because it is a tangible good, a value can more easily be assigned to it. If a value can be assigned to it, it can be sold.

This is one of the main reasons that products are generally viewed as being easier to sell than services. There is a physical, tangible good associated in the exchange for money. A customer gives the vendor money and in return the vendor provides the customer with a tangible good or asset that they can point to when anyone questions them about the exchange.

A good example of a product for money exchange would be the purchase of a car. You know the car you want, and you know the amount you are willing to pay. If the vendor can meet those requirements, you will make the deal. You can look at the various attributes and features associated with the car and ascribe incremental (or decremental) value to them.

Things like leather seats and nice stereo systems are quantifiable attributes to that car. Dents and scratches are detraction’s from the value of that car.

The car is a tangible good that can be examined, with its value understood and hopefully agreed on.

Now look let’s look at services.

Another quick Googling of “services” takes us to Wikipedia, another source of simple and basic definitions. Wikipedia states:

In economics, a service is a transaction in which no physical goods are transferred from the seller to the buyer. The benefits of such a service are held to be demonstrated by the buyer’s willingness to make the exchange. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_(economics)

A service transaction is one where no physical goods are exchanged. There is nothing tangible that is being bought or sold.

Now I am sure there are many that are going to jump up (and subsequently down) and say that is not true. There are people, and time, and labor and all sorts of things that are being bought when a service is purchased.

I think you are wrong.

Do not confuse what the delivery of a service is, with what the actual purchase of the service is.

I think that the best way to illustrate what a service purchase is, is to begin with a definition of what is actually being purchased in a service purchase transaction. I would submit that a service purchase is actually:

The purchase of the expectation of an end-state situation.
(This is actually one of my own, and hence doesn’t have a citation for locating it on the web. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist there. It just means that I thought it up. I guess someone else could have thought it up as well.)

I’ll use the car example to further this idea.

Suppose you are going to take your newly purchased car to a car wash. Are you actually purchasing the labor and use of the machinery that goes into washing and cleaning your car?

I don’t really think so. I think you are purchasing the end state expectation of a clean and shiny car to drive off in. You are not overly concerned as to whether it takes ten people to wash your car quickly by hand, or whether it can be run through an automatic car washing machine as long as the same end state expectation is met.

I think this is a key point, and adds to the complexity of a service sale. Selling a service is actually trying to sell an end state solution, or position, instead of a tangible good.

Two of the biggest issues associated with the service sales model for intangible goods are, the loss of control, and the matching and the meeting of expectations of the service purchaser.

When I was younger, I was pretty protective of my car. It was one of the biggest assets I owned. I was concerned about relinquishing control of my car to someone else, even to clean it. I went to self-wash car washes, or I did it myself in my drive way. I got a great deal of pride from cleaning it. I was of the opinion that few if any could clean my car as well as I could. I was not a good candidate to be a car wash service customer.

I don’t suspect I was too different from many others with their first cars – with the possible exception of my teenage son. His car is, and remains, filthy.

I also didn’t have as much disposable income at that time, which meant that I had other priorities than paying for a car wash. Times change but the analogy continues. Some people don’t want to purchase the service associated with a car wash. They would rather do it themselves.

The second issue associated with purchasing the service associated with a car wash is the matching and meeting of expectations.

What happens if you buy the car wash, and it comes back obviously washed, but with dirt and streaks? What about hand prints on the windows? Maybe they didn’t vacuum the inside.

They have provided the service you purchased, but they did not meet your end state expectations. The service did not become tangible (in the form of a not entirely cleaned car) until after it had been delivered. Their interpretation of what a clean car was did not match your expectation of what a clean car was.

This potential for mismatched expectations is why there are contracts and lawyers. I’ll save that discussion for another day.

In the age of increased specialization, sales teams are increasingly being asked to sell tangible goods (products) which have a pre-defined end state capability, along with intangible services based on meeting the end state expectations of the customer. No one will truly know what the end state is, or if the expectations have been met until after the service has been delivered.

When viewed from this point of view it can be seen that services can be perceived by the sales team as a higher risk proposition. Products have defined specifications and features. Their functionality is usually well defined. Customers also know this. If the product operates to these specifications, there should be no question regarding customer satisfaction.

They in effect know that they will get what they pay for, before they pay for it.

This is not the case for services. Customers can get contracts. They can get vendor assurances. They can get all kinds of management commitments. But they will not know if they got what they wanted, and expected, and paid for until after the service has been delivered.

The selling of the tangible and intangible seem to require different approaches and techniques. The tangible can be compared and relatively valued versus both the current capabilities as well as the competitively offered ones. The creativity associated with the tangible application can be a differentiator.

The intangible is a little more difficult. It requires the defining of a future end state that doesn’t currently exist. Promised savings or improved efficiencies associated with a service cannot be realized until the service has already been implemented. And the fear then is that if the expectations are not met, it is already too late.

Defining and then codifying a viable end state solution will be the key to a successful services sale. How shiny is the washed car supposed to be? Are all the windows to be washed? Are best efforts to remove stains from the carpet good enough, or are you actually committing to replacing the carpets if you cannot in fact clean them appropriately.

Being able to identify the steps and milestones required to reach that end state will be required if customer expectations are going to be met, and a successful services transaction is to be completed.

And selling that kind of intangible is pretty different than selling a product.

The Nimble Process

I have read that there have been many claimed sightings of the nimble process in business these days. they usually occur in small out of the way places, and by possibly dubious sources. When the reports of these sightings first come in they are usually confused and somewhat contradictory. Sometimes the questionable sighting is just attributed to the reliability of the witness claiming to have seen it. Whenever there is an examination of the data associated with the sighting, the results are invariable inconclusive. The hunt for conclusive evidence goes on.

In short, confirming the existence of the nimble process may have become the business equivalent of trying to confirm the existence of Big Foot, the Yeti, or the Loch Ness Monster. There are plenty of people who have claimed to have seen them, but there just isn’t that much reliable evidence around to actually confirm their existence.

If we are going to look for, and discuss the nimble process, we need to start with some simple definitions. Where else but the dictionary can you go to get really good definitions:

Nimble [nim-buhl] Adjective: quick and light in movement; moving with ease; agile; active; rapid http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nimble

Process [pros-es; especially British proh-ses] Noun: a systematic series of actions directed to some end: a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/process?s=t

As can quickly surmise, a nimble process is what is known in many circles as an oxymoron.

Oxymoron [ok-si-mawr-on, -mohr-] Noun: a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness”, “jumbo shrimp” or “to make haste slowly.”. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/oxymoron?s=ts
(I threw in the jumbo shrimp one myself, mainly because a really like it for illustrative purposes. The other two were actually in the definition.)

The primary difference between a nimble process and other oxymorons is that there are verifiable instances of the other oxymorons existing in the real world. You can in fact go to the local grocery store or food market and purchase jumbo shrimp. They are in the bin next to the merely “large shrimp”. The search for the nimble process however, continues to go on.

As noted in their definitions, nimbleness is defined as quick and light in movement, and process is defined as a systematic series of actions, and operation…in a definite manner. Businesses yearn to be able to operate with quick and light movements in a definite manner. This is the big foot / yeti / Loch Ness monster that almost every organization is searching for. The ability to define almost every conceivable option in a process, and the ability to execute on any one of them almost immediately.

Personally, I think there is a greater probability of big foot calling and holding a news conference for the purpose of confirming its own existence.

Process is the defining of specific steps and alternatives. I have written in the past about the fact that process is designed to help generate repeatable results by removing judgement as a variable in the business process. Since almost everyone in business has different types and levels of judgement, it has been identified as a variable that can somewhat be controlled by process. If you define the process steps, you inherently reduce the need for judgement. If all your steps and alternatives are thus defined, what is the use in being nimble in the execution of them?

As more and more process is implemented into the business environment the supposed need for the ability to adapt to new opportunities, or issues, should also be reduced. If this was indeed the case there would be no need for being nimble at all. You would merely continue to increment in new steps to the process until every alternative would be covered.

This is what appears to be the business goal of what happening today.

Processes grow ever bigger and more complex as people strive for that process that can be applied to every situation. Instead of focusing on solutions, focus has shifted to how the process will need to be incremented or modified so that it will generate an acceptable solution.

Nimble is normally associated with the ability to perform the most of complex movements with speed and grace. It is the ability to change and adjust spontaneously to changing issues and inputs. It is moving lightly and actively as opposed to moving passively in a prescribed manner. It is in effect the basic opposite of process.

The only way to make a process more nimble and agile, especially when it comes to issues and events that have no current response defined within the process, is to reduce the intensity of the process.

As processes become more detailed and refined they become more rigid. The more prescribed actions and directions that are contained in a process, the less agile and nimble it becomes. The more judgement that is taken out of the hands of those implementing the process the more fixed and ingrained it becomes.

Judgement, or the lack of it, is an excellent indicator of both an individual’s and organizations ability to adapt and adjust to changes in its environment. It is indicative of the search for the nimble process in that as organizations implement more processes in an effort to remove performance variations, the environment that they must operate in continues to become more variable and to change at a faster rate.

Process, via its fixed step connotation as it is implemented, reduces an organizations ability to adapt to its variable and changing environment.

Still, the search goes on.

There are an ever-growing number of television shows dedicated to the search for finding proof positive regarding bigfoot. There is the show “Finding Bigfoot”. There is “Mountain Monsters”. Heck, even the guy who used to show us how to survive in the wilderness for a week or two with nothing but a multi-tool and some dental floss has given up his show “Survivor” and is now out there looking for bigfoot.

It appears that shows about finding what has to this point proven to be unfindable are entertaining and are generating an ever-increasing following.

Like-wise it appears that there continues to be an ever-increasing drive to create the ever more nimble process by draining the requirements for judgement and flexibility from those who most need, and must utilize those attributes. What really worries me is that there are so many who are comfortable with this ceding of their judgement to the process.

As long as it is easier, and now safer, to follow the steps in a process instead of thinking, using judgement, and possibly being wrong, business risks the continued petrification (a long-term process) of their processes. If business continues to drive judgement out of its staff’s lexicon in favor of process and predictability, then business will continue to become very predictable in its inability to demonstrate any nimbleness or agility.

It’s time to change the meaning of the word “process”. Process, as it is used in business today, is used as a noun describing a fixed methodology for performing actions. It appears that if true nimbleness is desired, many of the prescribed actions need to be removed from the current “by rote” methodology, and process will need to adopt one of its other dictionary definitions:

Process verb: to integrate sensory information received so that an action or response is generated: the brain processes visual images relayed from the retina.
to subject to examination or analysis: computers process data https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/process

The idea here is to take the input associated with the situation and generate a proper response, not follow a preconceived fixed in place response associated with a “process”. Instead of having people merely follow a prescribed set of responses in a process, businesses need to require their people to be smart, examine and analyze the information and input available, process it, and then act in accordance with their resulting judgements and less rigid business guidelines, not prescriptions.

I think therein lies the direction to the nimble process.

Instead of trying to create a process that takes every possible business and market permutation into account, businesses need to scale back the rigor associated with their processes, and require more of their team members. I don’t think that thinking is a lost art in business, yet. The more people that think and exercise judgement the faster a business can respond to new threats and opportunities.

Processes need to become a little more general, and a little less specific for nimbleness to take hold. The more complex the process is, invariably the slower it is to change, be changed and react to new and different circumstances.

There may in fact be a variation in performance as a result of the reduction in the prescribed steps in a process. As I said, not everybody’s judgement is the same. However, if there is as much variation and change in the market (see just about every article ever written about the status and stability of every market, for confirmation of this idea) as noted, then the increased ability to adapt to and deal with this change should in general generate more positive variations than negative ones.

And after all, isn’t positive performance the objective of any process?

Question Everything

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

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

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

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

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

And as Heinlein noted everybody was usually wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Notice that I said treat, not cure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good, Cheap, Fast – Pick Two

This has been a well-known conundrum in business for quite some time. There are always three variables associated with getting the product or service that you want. The variables are Quality, Price and Speed. They are normally associated with the words Good, Cheap and Fast. The conventional question has always been that you cannot get all three variables at high levels at any specific time. If that indeed is a limitation, the question arises: If you are a vendor or supplier dealing with your customers, which two of the Good, Cheap and Fast variables do you choose when delivering your products and services?

As a customer, the simplest answer has always been to demand all three variables, and to demand them immediately. They want the lowest price, the fastest delivery and the best quality. They want it now and please don’t argue. We have all been there. However, even the most demanding of customers recognize that this is usually only an opening gambit and that there will always be negotiations associated with what is actually obtained and when it is to be delivered.

In the past customer hierarchy of desirable product attributes, Quality has ruled as king. The higher the quality, the more reliable the product, the better the customer liked it. They would possibly make concessions to either Cheap and Fast, if they got the best Good there was.

If Quality, or Good, was the given, then the customer (and vendor) needed to decide which other variable, Price or Speed was going to be sacrificed. I think that history will show that for the most part it was speed. (In support of this position I will submit that almost all product and productivity focus in the last few generations of products have been on how to take time out of the equation). Even the axiomatic statements associated with business in general refer to the fact that the pace of change within business has been accelerating.

That meant that a good customer would wait for a good product, and that they would get at a good price.

Those were the days. That does not seem to be the case anymore.

As I just noted, everything about business has accelerated. Cycle times for everything from product development to customer billing have been reduced. No one wants to wait for anything anymore. What was once fast or accelerated is now the new normal. Full speed is now the minimum accepted and if you expect to get ahead you had better figure out how to go even faster. They want it all now.

We have become an immediate gratification society.

What was once saved for, and purchased later, is now purchased today on credit, and paid for later.

So, if this increased focus on Speed, or Fast, is the new primary given requirement (instead of Quality, or Good) for driving customer satisfaction, then which of the two, Good and Cheap, will be the second factor chosen in the customer purchase decision? (remember, the axiom of you can only have two of the three variables at any time still pretty much holds in reality – or does it….) One would suspect that since Quality was so important in the past that it would also be of high importance today. That would leave cheap as the odd variable out.

That would also mean that customers want their products and services Fast and Good, and would hence be willing to pay the requisite higher price associated with this variable selection.

I do not know about you, but it has been a very long time since I have dealt with a customer that is willing to pay more for anything, regardless of speed and quality.

I think the reality is that price is still king. It is very difficult to sell a higher price versus a competitive product regardless of the speed and quality delivered. It can be done, but you are starting out at a significant competitive disadvantage if you start with a higher price than your competition.

As I have noted in the past Good in the business vernacular has been replaced by “Good Enough”. As product life cycles have become shorter (there’s “Fast” again) and prices have come down as components, support, warranties and service have been reduced (there’s “Cheap” again), Good has been reduced down to Good Enough to compensate.

The answer to the Good, Fast and Cheap, pick two conundrum in today’s business environment is now Fast and Cheap.

How quickly can the product be in the market? It has to be fast because there will be another, better competing product put out by a competitor soon enough. It better be cheap because customers most likely won’t buy a more expensive product, regardless of any (temporary) advantages. As for quality? That’s now a given. It is almost impossible to differentiate in the market based on a quality variable. Almost all manufacturers in just about any given market can be viewed as having a high-quality parity.

Today, if a company is not viewed as having a high / acceptable quality level in its products, they won’t be surviving for very long.

As an example, look at automobiles. Manufacturers have tiered the market into sub-markets based on car size (e.g. Sub-compact, compact, mid-size, etc.). Many manufacturers have created specific models to address and compete in each specific market tier.

The model for buying a car has “Fast” as a given, since I don’t know anyone willing to wait for a specific car to be manufactured for them – they want to drive off the lot in their new car when they buy it, not at some later time. That leaves Price and Quality as the final negotiation variables. I think Quality for the most part is also a given since now almost all cars come with similar warranties, usually somewhere between six and ten years. If you don’t believe Quality is a given in cars, try negotiating a longer warranty for your car as a term of the purchase agreement.

Let me know how that works out for you.

That essentially leaves Price as the next (only) selected variable in your car purchase decision. The starting price can vary a little, based on the feature set that the car is equipped with (X, SX, LX, etc.), but even that is limited. Fast (you want to drive off in it) and Cheap (you don’t want to pay anything more than you absolutely have to), are the criteria.

Fast and Cheap. That’s it. That’s where we are in business.

Now there may be other variables that you input into the decision criteria such as the car must have an appealing design. This is a matter of personal taste. Car companies spend incredible amounts of money in creating appealing designs for each of their cars. Car companies also spend incredible amounts of money advertising these appealing designs with the objective of convincing you that theirs is the most appealing, (Mazda has gone so far as to create a commercial showing what I suppose is a sculptor, sculpting the latest appealing design of their latest car model) and hence getting you to come to their dealership where you can negotiate the price and then drive off in that appealing (work of art) car.

There are always exceptions to every rule in business. That is also probably also a rule of business as well. However, when putting together a strategy on how to attack a market in general, and to pursue specific customers on an individual basis, with quality now thought of as a given in the market where “Good Enough” is now good enough, focusing on speed and price will most likely provide the best competitive advantage.

Answering questions as to how quickly the solution can be acquired and more importantly implemented will be a differentiator. Price, more so than almost ever before will be a decision driver. With almost all products now being viewed as easily interchangeable, why would a customer pay more for anything?

I remember the good old days where management would blithely tell the sales team to sell “quality” when their market price was higher than the competition. Management would say reference the product’s “quality” when there was a delay in product availability.

Now if a product takes too long to arrive in the market, or the price is too high, the opportunity is most likely lost. It doesn’t matter what management will want to tell the sales team. A competitor will have a substitutable product available when the customer wants it at a price they can afford.

Times have changed. Quality was once a product differentiator. It is probably not anymore. Of all the resources available to everyone, time is the only one that we cannot readily get any more of. Hence Speed has become the new prime differentiator. With Quality a given, and speed a differentiator, that leaves Price as a decision driver.

Customers might pay a little more for a preferred product, but that differential is closing fast. The more expensive you are versus the competition, the more disadvantaged you are. There will always come a point where the Price differential will always outweigh any Speed or Quality advantages. That Price differential point is always moving closer and closer to the Cheapest solution.

Engineering Solutions

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

It has been said:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many think that it was the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who created the Eighty – Twenty rule. To a certain extent this is somewhat true. Pareto first observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. However, it was management thinker Joseph M. Juran who actually suggested the principle and its far wider applications. Because of Pareto’s observation and work, the technique was named for him. (https://www.entrepreneurs-journey.com/397/80-20-rule-pareto-principle/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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