Low Hanging Fruit

There are many “executive speak” phrases that seem to dot the business vernacular landscape. I have talked about this before. Many of these phrases seem to have evolved due to the desire of managers to fill a void in a conversation by saying something without actually providing any valuable information. I liken these phrases in business communications as the nutritional equivalent of Pop Tarts to food. There are probably some calories for sustenance in there somewhere, and as a change of pace they are sweet and acceptable on occasion, but if you make a steady diet of them, it is probably bad for your health.

With that in mind, I can’t seem to help myself but to go after the one executive speak phrase that seems to continue to grow in popularity, never ceases to amaze me, and all the while driving me crazy at the same time. Am I the only one that must fight the urge to speak up and call people out when they hear the phrase “Low Hanging Fruit”?

I Googled the phrase, just to see if it was really there as well as to provide a relatively equal basis to start this discussion from. I don’t know what I really expected, but it definitely was not the relatively large number of hits that Google delivered. I guess it is even more ubiquitous that I suspected. I selected Dictionary.com as my initial source, since I seem to go to them quite often for just these types of definitions. They said:

low-hanging fruit
noun
1. the fruit that grows low on a tree and is therefore easy to reach
2. a course of action that can be undertaken quickly and easily as part of a wider range of changes or solutions to a problem first pick the low-hanging fruit
3. a suitable company to buy as a straightforward investment opportunity
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/low-hanging-fruit

Now, I get the first definition. There really can’t be any argument about it. It is logical and follows directly from the phrase. Its fruit and it is low to the ground. Got it. It is the second and to some extent the third definitions that I take issue with.

It is at times like this that I feel compelled to step up on any available soap box, set my feet approximately shoulder width apart for good balance and announce to all who might listen, what I like to call “Gobeli’s First Law of Low Hanging Fruit”. In this case, it goes like this:

“There is no such thing as low hanging fruit when it comes to business courses of action, or investment opportunities. Anybody who says there is, is trying to sell you something.”

It doesn’t seem to matter what the discussion is about, or which business discipline is being mentioned. Everybody seems to want to use the term “low hanging fruit”. At the risk of sounding like I am propellering off on some sort of a rant, I need to start out by saying, I just don’t get it.

The instances where I have witnessed the phrase low hanging fruit being used are relatively succinct: During a presentation. When implementing something new such as a new program, project or product. When describing in a new recovery plan because the last program, project or product failed to enable the attainment of the then described low hanging fruit.

The basic idea that is trying to be conveyed is that whatever is being attempted, is going to get off to a fast start because there are quickly and easily obtainable results, as definition number two above would indicate, that are available. This phrase is designed to get management agreement and approval for whatever is being discussed.

It also sounds good and seems to indicate that this should be a “Oh my gosh, how did I miss that!” kind of moment.

It implies that the person uttering the phrase either knows that much more or is that much smarter than everyone else associated with the then current discussion. It hints at that person having either mysteriously or miraculously unlocked some sort hidden business or universal truth or secret that will enable them to make the difficult, challenging, or here to fore unsuccessful, easily attainable and wildly successful in the future.

I will be the first to say that just because I have never witnessed a miracle does not mean that they do not happen. I will say however, that I have heard “we will first grab the low hanging fruit” exponentially more often than I have ever seen such fruit actually grabbed. This leads me to Gobeli’s Second Law of Low Hanging Fruit:

“There is no such thing as Low Hanging Fruit. There are a lot of very bright people around. If there ever was anything even resembling low hanging fruit, one of these very bright people has probably already been there and grabbed it.”

Most people who truly recognize the existence of low hanging fruit keep their mouths shut and just go get it. Once they get it they will then take a bow, and then usually indicate how much more difficult it will be to get any further fruit, thereby keeping management’s expectations somewhat in check for future fruit attainment forecasts.

They don’t go and broadcast or publish the existence and location of low hanging fruit. It is not up for debate or discussion. It is like “Dark Matter”. There is a lot of somewhat esoteric evidence (that only physicists seem to be able to understand) that it probably exists, but nobody (including said physicists) has actually found some and examined it. If low hanging fruit ever did exist, it was an immediate challenge and all out race to get it first. Once obtained, it is gone. If it continues to exist while remaining only slightly out of reach and requiring only a little more time or investment needed to obtain it, it was probably not low hanging fruit in the first place.

As I noted Low Hanging Fruit is a term that is usually used to try to convince someone to do something. My personal experience is that when the term has been used, it was usually used to try and convince someone to do the wrong thing. This leads me to Gobeli’s Third Law of Low Hanging Fruit:

“Low Hanging Fruit is a term that is used to make something look easy. Nothing in business is that easy. It takes a lot of smart people working hard, together to be successful in business.”

Everyone wants an easy answer. We have all been inured to it by our thirteen second soundbite television environment. Simple answers may sound simple, when in fact they are surprisingly complex and difficult to implement.

I understand that on occasion I can sound something like a skeptic. The good thing about being a skeptic is that it is relatively hard to be disappointed. I also like to remember the old adage: “If it sounds to good to be true, then it probably is.” This doesn’t seem to stop us from wanting low hanging fruit to be true, though.

There are inevitably other competing ideas and directions vying for management attention and blessing. Several of them also probably have their here to fore unidentified low hanging fruit out there just waiting to be grabbed as well. All that they need is the time, money and management blessing that is currently being sought.

To me, low hanging fruit is a myth. It will always take time, money, effort, determination and possibly even a little luck (as defined by the phrase “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” – the Roman philosopher Seneca) for any initiative to be successful. The idea that success in business can be had as simply as wondering over and picking all the fruit off a tree that is within arm’s reach is not something that I have ever seen occur.

The theory of the Black Swan (just because you have never seen something does not mean it doesn’t exist. Swans were only thought to be white until black ones were actually discovered) suggests that such improbable events can occur. However, in all the world, up to this point, only one species of black swan has ever been discovered. And it does prove that there are indeed exceptions to just about every rule.

On the other hand, I have heard that we will be grabbing the low hanging fruit twice already today.

The only story regarding low hanging fruit that I think truly applies comes from the Bible, of all places. It involves a serpent, the first woman and low hanging fruit. It doesn’t seem that that one turned out very well either.

It doesn’t seem to stop us though, from looking for that supposedly easy win.

Not Invented Here

I had the opportunity to read an interesting article about Apple the other day. For the first time in a very long time Apple missed its top line guidance and market expectations by a little more than eight percent. In September of 2018, Apple had a market value of over a Trillion dollars, becoming the highest valued company ever. Today they are worth a little more than seven hundred Billion dollars. They lost more than four hundred Billion in market value because of this miss to expectations.

This seemed to be an overreaction to a relatively small miss to expectations, and has been directly blamed on the Apple CEO, Tim Cook. He is an excellent operations person who has continued to make Apple one of the most efficient companies in the world. https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/07/tech/apple-tim-cook/index.html

However, it seems that he is no Steve Jobs.

Apple has been a paragon of inventive and creative product and market genius. However, their then resident genius, Steve Jobs, passed away in 2011, and they have been unable to generate the next big technological thing ever since. Apple has gotten admirably more efficient under their now operations based and influenced leader, but they have not demonstrated the creative technological leadership that enabled them to get to the top. When they missed their forecast last quarter, this lack of perceived creativity was identified as the greater reason for the value decline.

I have had the good fortune to have had the opportunity to do a lot of different things in my career. Sales, Marketing, Product Management, Operations, Delivery and Customer Service to just name a few. I have never been anywhere near the stratospheric levels of Jobs or Cook, but it has been an interesting and enjoyable ride none the less. I also think that the opportunity to experience that kind of broader or varied career is going away. As companies continue their drives toward being process driven, nominally in the name of efficiency, the opportunity for people to step outside of their slotted functional lane and get that broader business experience continues to diminish. The result seems to be a pervading feeling that once you have become categorized within an organization, you cannot become anything else.

I am sure we have all felt that way at least one time or another within our respective careers. We see an opportunity, possibly to do something different, and we are judged as an improper fit for it simply because we have been performing a function that is not deemed to be an appropriate precursor to the desired role. Whether or not we may have been able to perform, or even excel in the role was secondary. It was not in our “lane” so we did not get to even try.

People within specific functions within an organization seem to have hit the point where they, as a business entity realize that since they may not be able to move outside of their assigned and expected responsibilities, that they also do not want anyone coming in from somewhere else to perform those same assignments and responsibilities. This role protectionism then becomes an ingrained and self-perpetuating attribute of the organization.

I think that this is the genesis and essence of what we have all come to refer to as the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. This is the bias that arises within organizational functions that simply states that if you have not previously been in that function, you are not an acceptable candidate for that function. The idea is that if you are not currently in a sales role, you are not qualified for any potential sales role. The same could be said for almost any other functional discipline (Marketing, Finance, Accounting, etc.) within the organization.

It is probably reasonable to say that in many instances they are a good thing. There are several disciplines that do require extensive, and specific training. I am not sure I would like someone in the admissions office of a hospital to apply for the job of neurosurgeon just because they both work at the same hospital, at least not without the proper medical training to support the application. But that is just the point. Any discipline can be learned by just about anybody, if they are given the opportunity to learn it.

I think this is the reason that it seems that companies are turning increasingly to external candidates when it comes to innovation. The existing people within an organization are already categorized, rightly or wrongly into a role. It doesn’t matter that the Sales person may have some very good ideas about how to Market a product or service due to their experience in directly interfacing the customer. They are a sales person. If a Marketing person is needed, the company will go out and get one of those.

Just as Apple was led to its present position by an inventor (Jobs), his internally sourced replacement, Cook, was not an inventor, but an operations specialist. It is also interesting to note that while Jobs was one of the people associated with the founding of Apple, he was actually sourced externally from the company when he was made the CEO in 1995. In 1985 John Scully was the CEO of Apple, and Steve Jobs was the head of the Macintosh group when he was fired. He had spent the previous ten years in roles outside of Apple.

My point with all this history and comment is that organizations create their own resistance to internal change. Ideas that are not generated within the organization are resisted. The cross pollination of people, and their ideas between organizations within a greater company is becoming more and more difficult to achieve.

The age of specialization, and the codification of it into process, continues to reinforce the internal “Not Invented Here” resistance to change and innovation. It is in essence the creation of the internal position that if one group cannot have input into, or movement into any other group, then no other group can have input or movement into the first group.

This leads to the position that in the future true change will probably have to come from outside of the organization, but from outside of the company. Since the internal resistance to movement between organizations within the company will continue to increase, the only way for an organization to change will have to come from entities that are not bound by having to deal with that internal resistance.

Getting back to Apple briefly. Apple still generated two hundred and sixty-five Billion dollars of revenue in 2018. They still have over two hundred and eighty-five Billion dollars in cash on hand. This makes Apple the equivalent of the eighteenth largest country on the planet (approximately the size of Switzerland) as measured by Gross National Product (GNP).

I don’t think Tim Cook’s job as Apple CEO is in any immediate danger with that kind of performance.

But what I do think is that if Apple wants to resume the growth and market leadership that is associated with it being an inventive and creative bellwether within the industry, they will eventually have to look outside of their organization to find that new inventive and creative leader. Their current leadership and structure are probably not conducive to enabling that sort of creative and inventive executive evolution.

This would also seem to indicate that unless organizations can find a way to overcome the continued creation of walls limiting inter-organizational movement, or the inertia associated with process codification, true change for organizations will also probably need to come from external sources as well. Meaning, it will need to be sourced to those who do not have any vesting in the current roles or processes.

In many instances Not Invented Here refers to the concept that external ideas are met with resistance by internal organizations. I think at a little deeper level it extends more to the people within organizations. The idea is ingrained that only the finance organization can generate people and ideas that are versed in and capable of benefiting the financial aspects of any issue or organization. The same goes with the other disciplines within an organization.

As an aside, I have found this to be the case almost in the extreme with lawyers, but that is possibly due to my own personal bias due to my past dealing with lawyers. Many lawyers believe only they can be versed in legal issues, while also believing every organization issue is rooted in legal topics. I once worked for a chief operating officer who said that he believed that lawyers within his organization needed to be periodically “flogged”, just so they would understand what their specific role was within the organization. While this is definitely not the approach with all lawyers, I have met many who could probably benefit from such treatment.

Generating change requires that an organization does something different. Doing something different generates risk associated with the doing, the result of which is unknown. Organizations, and processes are designed to reduce just this sort of risk. Once these types of organizational people, opinions and processes are rooted, anything idea or activity other than what is currently being done is “Not Invented Here”.

I guess what this means to me is that if people truly want to have an impact and make a change, then they will probably have to go somewhere else, regardless of where they currently are, to do it. And, if organizations want to change, they will probably have to look outside of their own structure to locate those change agents that they want or need. That will probably be because the with the way they are currently working, they are also not invented here.

Careers and Gigs

A new year has started and that has got me thinking again. Always a dangerous pastime for me. I watched my dad go through his career. He was and still is a scientist. One of those guys who actually conceptualized and then created things. A PhD in physics. He worked at Bell Labs and got put on permanent loan to the United States federal government for research. Later in life he went on and did some other interesting stuff. He created some forecasting capabilities to predict price movements in the commodities markets. Most recently he started to lose some of his hearing, so he created a new type of hearing aid (which he and my mom sell), and from that technology he is working on the creation of true High-Fidelity ear-buds for listening to music.

That to me was, and still is an amazing career. He will be eighty-nine next month. He is still having fun. I hear it in his voice when I talk to him.

I bring this up because I believe for the most part, that the age of the career in business as we have known it, is just about over. Most people in the workforce, and certainly those that are just entering the workforce are probably not going to be able to enjoy what has in the past been described as a career. Like everything else, the definition, and expectation of a career is changing.

It used to be that a career was built on what you learned and then how you applied it to the next opportunity or situation. You learned, you internalized, you synthesized, and you applied it elsewhere. You built, and you grew. There was an investment in you and you were vested in them.

I’m going to change gears here a little bit and talk about music, one of my other advocations. I like to play in some of the Jazz bands located around here. It has been a long road to get there. I had to learn, practice and apply what I had learned in order to get to the capability to play with some of the musicians in the area. Even then I feel as though I am barely able to keep up. I enjoy that challenge.

However, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of demand for Jazz bands. There is some, but it is a decidedly niche type of audience. What this means is that the opportunities to play for people, particularly people who specifically like and appreciate Jazz are somewhat limited. The opportunity to be a “house band” or have steady employment as a Jazz musician is pretty limited.

The opportunities to play for an audience are usually referred to as “gigs”. Dictionary.com defines “gig” as:

gig
[gig]Slang.
noun
a single professional engagement, usually of short duration, as of jazz or rock musicians.
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gig

So, as a Jazz musician, you are usually always looking for the next opportunity to play, or gig. Even if you currently have one, you are looking for the next one because you know that in a reasonably short period your current gig will be over, and you will need to find the next one.

I think you can see where I am going with this. Dictionary.com also defines “gig” in the following way:

gig
[gig]Slang.
noun
any job, especially one of short or uncertain duration
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gig

I looked back over my career and realized that I have had the opportunity to work for no less than eight major corporations. Some of the moves and changes were of my own volition. Some of the changes were due to corporate mergers and acquisitions. Some were due to corporate downsizings and changes in strategic direction.

The point I make here is that my dad worked for basically one company (Bell Labs, even while on loan to the Federal Government) for the vast majority of his career. I have considered myself nominally stably employed for the majority of my career, but even so I have worked for eight companies. I think that going forward that corporate tenures are going to continue to become shorter and shorter, either through the individual’s own volition, or the company’s.

In short, it would seem to me that business employment is going to take on many of the characteristics associated with gigs. Opportunities are going to be shorter term as both the employee and the employer begin to expect and react to the gig environment. It does not appear that there will be the longer-term commitment or investment by either the company or the employee going forward.

In other words, don’t expect a career. It will be a job. And as time goes by, it will probably be best described as a gig. You sign up, work and then sign off.

A side benefit to the company with the new gig business structure will be the corporation’s ability to better control their labor costs. Due to the fluidity and replaceability of labor associated with the gig structure, annual, merit, seniority and cost of living raises will probably become things of the past. Instead of increasing someone’s pay to perform the same gig, it will be cheaper to just hire someone else to do the work.

In the past it was sometimes viewed as a sign of instability if there were too many different positions and companies on one’s resume. I think that will obviously change. In fact, I think in the future having multiple assignments, or gigs, with various companies will be seen as a strength. If you don’t have enough, varied assignments with different companies, employers will wonder why.

Employees should no longer look to or expect to matriculate upwards into management, in a single company. As the horizon continues to shorten, each gig will be viewed as just a step in an overall body of work. (Very similarly to each album is an increment to the musician’s bodies of work.) If you don’t change your direction and content often enough you will run the risk of being type-cast or worse, thought of as lacking in aggression or creativity.

As companies continue the drive toward being process driven, the gig will continue to be defined and refined into smaller and smaller, discrete functions. The only way to get broader experience will be to have multiple, different gigs. The best way to get that will be to go to different companies.

This could have a disillusioning effect on those that are coming into the workforce with expectations that may be unaligned with the current corporate directions and trends. Simon Sinek, the British-American author on business and organizations, had a very interesting video discussion where he addresses the millennial in the workplace topic.

In it he discusses how he believes that organizations are going to have to change and adapt to this new millennial force in the workforce. I think he is partially correct in that there is a mismatch between the millennial generation’s expectations and the direction that business is moving. As business moves to contractor / gig / low-cost labor model, the new employees are going to have less and less of an opportunity to have an effect on the corporation. This is the direction that companies appear to be moving, of their own volition. There is a drive for this inter-changeability.

Just as when a musician becomes unhappy with the band he may be in and leaves, the ability to replace them with another musician becomes paramount. So it will be in business. The process will define your gig. The way to move forward will be to have multiple gigs. The way to get multiple gigs will be to move from organization to organization.

As with any new organizational or employment structure, there will be ways for people to prosper. Just as good musicians are always in demand for bands and gigs, so will competent and capable employees be in demand. It will however change the dynamic between employees and employers in the extreme. Employees will be more and more apt to leave at any time. Employers will more and more structure employment around gig concepts and temporary assignments. When the assignment is up, it will be incumbent on the employee to find something else, either internally or externally to the company.

Just as all musicians, even those with a current gig, are always looking for the next gig, employees will also have to start preparing for their next gig, even when they have one. Times are changing. Cycle times are getting shorter, and so are the horizons that companies are willing to invest in research and development, new products, new markets and employees. The returns will need to be seen almost immediately or they will move on to something, or someone else quickly.

Just as a musician likes to have his next gig lined up even before he is done playing the current one, I think in the coming environment it will be almost a necessity to line up your next business gig before the one you are on is over. No one likes to be waiting on, or without a gig.

Old Technology

The phrase “old technology” should send shivers down just about everyone’s collective spine. If you have anything prior to an iPhone X you have old technology and are therefore not cool. If you have anything other than an i9 Core PC, with all the associated bells and whistles you are obviously riding jockey on a dinosaur of a computer. Golf clubs are now touting their technological advantages associated with adjustable club weighting and aerodynamics which are designed to improve everybody’s game, even though average golf handicaps have remained relatively level over the last decade.

This is all only sort of interesting until you start looking at what may best be described as “old technology” companies. Then it starts to hit much closer to home.

Companies that have been recognized as technology leaders and driving forces are now racing as fast as they can to try and out run the old technology moniker. Networking carrier giants such as Verizon and AT&T in this country as well as their foreign counterpart’s British Telecom, Deutsche Telecom and many others have all either announced or already enacted layoffs in the multi-thousands of people, each, in 2018. The same goes for big iron providers such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard. The same goes for networking equipment suppliers such as Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens and Cisco. Going further upstream, there have also been significant layoffs recorded across the entire semiconductor industry. The total number of technology and large company layoffs in 2018 is more than five hundred thousand people.
https://www.gadgetsnow.com/slideshows/18-technology-companies-that-announced-job-cuts-in-2018/photolist/65031261.cms

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/07/how-to-spot-job-layoffs-coming-even-in-a-good-economy.html

Yesterday’s technology leaders must now deal with all that old technology that they now have. Yesterday’s technology suppliers must now deal with supporting all that old technology. And they must all do it while continuing on the treadmill that brings forth the latest and greatest new technology. It appears to be an unsupportable model.

Just as 3G cellular was replaced by 4G which now faces the dawning reality of 5G, and PC cores became dual cores, which became quad cores, technology always marches on. It becomes faster. It becomes smaller. It becomes more efficient. Then it becomes a commodity.

This begs the question, can people become “old technology”? Technology companies of all types now find themselves in a race to divest themselves of their old technology as quickly as they can, in order to stay relevant in the new technology environment. With this shedding of old technology also comes the shedding of those workers and employees associated with that old technology.

As the Chinese curse states, we probably do live in interesting times. What was once the vanguard of new technology companies are furiously trying to reinvent themselves as they try to avoid becoming the old guard of old technology. What was once viewed as a competitive advantage in having technology savvy people is now becoming a burden as technology life spans and cycle times continue to become shorter and shorter.

Moore’s Law states that we should see a doubling of the number of transistors on a dense circuit board (re. processing power) every 2 years, and sure enough this has been very close to the case. The first cellular network was put into service about thirty-five years ago (1983) and today (2018) we are seeing the fifth generation of mobile communications make its appearance. If my math is correct, that equates to a new mobile network build out about every seven years. The same sort of progression in capabilities can be seen in just about every technology platform in existence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4G
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law

So, what does this all mean.

I think to start, that it means if you are tied in some way to a specific technology, any technology, you risk becoming so associated with that technology that you as an employee in turn risk becoming considered outdated and past your usefulness when that technology hits its “old technology” finish line.

Now this is not a hard and fast rule. Those radio engineers that understood the 4G cellular network are probably your best bet for resources to understand the new 5G network engineering requirements. Probably. But as the lessons learned in the previous generations of mobile communications are applied to the next generations, are all of those resources going to be required? I point you back to the list of resource shedding companies that I noted earlier.

Supporting previous generations of technology continues to decline in importance as the next thing is now the best and most important thing. And the next thing is usually more efficient than the previous one.

And just as off-shoring and automation permanently changed the employment landscape for the manufacturing industries, so it is now coming to pass for the technology industries. As the relative cost of technology comes down (its price is actually remaining relatively level as its capabilities and speed expand), so the relative cost of the people required to implement and support that technology continues to rise.

I think the technology labor market is changing. It was not so long ago that business careers spanned one or possibly two iterations of a specific technology. Now with the two to seven-year generational technology horizons, a career should anticipate covering at least five and as many as ten or more technology shifts.

Being associated with a specific technology is no longer going to be good enough. It will more and more come down to which generation of that technology you are associated with, not just the type of technology itself. As businesses come to grips with the significant costs associated with supporting any technology other than the most recent iteration, the chance to be considered “old technology” will continue to grow.

It will no longer be good enough to be considered a subject matter or technology expert, because the subject matter and the technology will continue to change, and so will its strategic importance. And, if you are too closely tied to that technology, so will your strategic importance.

Customers too are facing this new market with increased issues. As they try to stay technologically current and relevant, they too will need to redirect resources away from the support of previous generations of technology. That doesn’t mean that the technology will be removed by the customer. It just means that the resources associated with sustaining it will by necessity be reduced. These limited resources will need to be continuously redirected toward the next generation of technology.

The old generation, both the technology and the associated people will continue to exist for some time. However, the market for them will change considerably. We have already started to see this market evolution in action. The cost associated with companies supporting old technology is starting to force them to sell off their outdated or older product lines to third party companies for continued support. These are companies that are making a business out of supporting old technology.

This is however, a double-edged sword. It is true that new technology companies will no longer face the cost and resource drain of supporting their old technology products, nor have to pay their old technology people, but they will now have to compete directly with their own old technology for the customer’s order. If the old technology can continue to be supported, will it be possible for the customer to delay the new technology purchase?

Buy selling off their old technology lines to other companies, they will in effect extend the life cycle of the old technology, otherwise no one would buy them. Customers could effectively delay buying decisions until prices, applications and values are more in line with their economic means.

So, what does this mean for the half million technology and large company employees that have been shed this year?

I think it means that there are probably more to follow in the coming near future as the new (and old) technology models and markets start to take hold. New technology companies cannot support their old technology businesses and structures. Old technology companies will have to become more efficient at support in order to make their business models work. They both will continue to drive all aspects of their business that do not directly interface with the customer i.e., Sales and Installation / Operations, to lower cost labor sources as the drive to reduce costs continues to intensify.

It used to be in the technology industries, that if you were a technology subject matter expert, you were in a relatively desirable position. Now, being too closely associated with a specific technology should at best be considered a short-term advantage as that technology will invariably age out rather quickly and receive the old technology tag. Technology careers and opportunities will not so much be about the depth of knowledge one has or accumulates about a specific technology, but the capability to move to and learn the latest technology quickly, before they get classified as old technology.

What Can They Sell?

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

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

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

I would say yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He made Apple products “cool”.

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

Jobs is famously quoted as saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Relevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are some things that you have to do.

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

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

Getting Angry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all busy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The short answer to that question is “No”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shorter Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words. We sat there on the call.

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

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

The meeting ran over the allotted time.

Parkinson’s Law was reaffirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No exceptions.

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

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

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

They both seem to be correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much time do you have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respect other people’s time.

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

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

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

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

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

Process Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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