Friday, April 28, 2020

Contrarian Leadership

Investors are often urged to be “contrarian.” To be ready to buy when others are selling (to get the cheapest bargains), sell when others are buying (to get the best prices) and keep their nerve when everyone else seems to be plunged into panic. It’s pretty good advice for leadership too. Whatever seems to be the current fashion or orthodoxy, be ready to take a serious look at doing pretty much the opposite.

In the world of investment, following the herd is usually the best way to make significant losses. That’s what happened in the dot-com bubble: investors piled in at the last moment, paying extravagant prices for stock that was already way over-valued, only to lose their shirts when reality caught up with them. As long ago as 1841, Charles Mackay wrote a classic survey of human folly and financial scandals fired by greed and fed by naïveté: “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds.” Despite the rather archaic writing, it’s still a compelling study of how “the madness of crowds” leads otherwise intelligent and rational folk into trouble on a grand scale. Quick success draws attention, which draws new followers, which creates the appearance of yet more quick, sure-fire success. Then the notion takes off like the proverbial rocket, only to crash and burn when it runs out of its fuel — unthinking optimism and unbounded greed.

Leadership ideas may not make anyone a fortune, but they have a similar tendency to generate fashions that thousands follow without much serious consideration. There’s the same tendency to jump on whatever appears to be a quick-fix bandwagon. Recently, in a book entitled “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management,” two Harvard Business School professors take issue with some of the “sacred cows” of management thinking.

One is benchmarking. They note the “mindless imitation” that results when corporations ape whatever works at top performers, without considering why it works and whether it will work elsewhere. Another is doing whatever seems to have worked in the past; and easy target, but one that is all too prevalent despite its obvious stupidity. As the authors say “Suppose you went to a doctor who said, ‘I’m going to do an appendectomy on you.’ When you asked why, the doctor answered, ‘Because I did one on my last patient and it made him better.’ We suspect you would hightail it out of that office, because you know that the treatment ought to fit the disease, regardless of whether or not the treatment helped the previous patient. Strangely enough, that logical thought process happens less than we might care to admit in most companies.”

What lies behind such cases of mindless idiocy is always the same: the temptation to jump to conclusions and put one’s trust in instant answers; to seek safety by following what others appear to have done successfully, without taking the time to check it out. There’s nothing wrong with learning from other people’s success — nor from their failures — but everything wrong with imitating their actions without fully understanding what’s involved.

Excessive work pressures compound the problem, denying people the time to ask pertinent questions or consider the idea in depth. Fear is another powerful driver. In financial markets, greed for profit goes hand-in-hand with fear of missing out. Together they tempt otherwise rational people into expensive folly. In management, greed for success teams up with the fear of criticism for not doing what, it seems, everyone else is doing so successfully. People grab for so-called “industry best practice” in a kind of reflex action, convinced they’ll be pilloried if they don’t.

Of course, in the real world, the people — and organizations — who truly make a massive success from anything are the ones who got in first, well before the idea became well-known, let alone orthodox. It’s the innovators and the ones with creative vision who produce the iPods and five-dollar cup of coffee. Their imitators rarely make more than a bare living trying to catch up. By the time something becomes “industry best practice,” you can be fairly certain the organization that developed it is making its exit towards something else.

If everyone is offering larger and larger discounts to tempt buyers, maybe offering higher quality and better service instead will make your business stand out from the crowd. When companies are cutting benefits to save money, cutting top executive perks and maintaining — or increasing — sensible employee benefits is far more likely to attract the top quality people you need to beat the competition. Outsourcing call centers overseas may be the rage, but I believe I’m not the only one who feels instantly comforted by a local voice on the other end of the phone.

Contrarian thinking isn’t a panacea. It won’t always produce the right questions, let alone the right answers. But it will guard you from that all-too-human tendency to make a flying leap for whatever bandwagon is currently passing by. Best of all, it’ll force you to stop and think. The essence of “slow” is the willingness to take time to produce a good result — not rush headlong into mistakes because all the other lemmings were running past and you didn’t want to be left out of the mad rush. By the time you reach the cliff edge, it may be too late to turn back.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2020

The Self-Defeating Business

Two of the most widely-used individual therapies in the world, Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, share the view that self-defeating, irrational responses to circumstance are the most typical cause of personal problems. Life produces abundant challenges, but the cause of unhappiness and anxiety is the response you make to the challenge, not the challenge itself. Events in themselves don't make you stressed or miserable. You do that to yourself by the way you choose to deal with them. This same process seem to me to operate at an organizational scale.

We'll start by illustrating the way this works in individuals. Albert Ellis and Robert Harper's book A Guide to Rational Living explains this by using the first three letters of the alphabet. Adversities occur (A) and people respond to them by drawing on their beliefs (B) about what to do. Some of these beliefs are rational, other irrational. The consequences (C) of applying the beliefs to the adversities produce feelings according to which beliefs have been used. Changing the outcome, the feelings (C), is a matter of changing the belief.

Suppose Jane has been told she's going to lose her job. That's an adversity (A). A rational belief (B) might be that this will cause her some discomfort financially and she needs to get started right away to find other employment. The consequential feelings (C) to this belief might include sadness, some irritation—and perhaps some excitement as well at the prospect of maybe getting a better job. Her behavior, based on this rational chain of beliefs and feelings, is likely to be helpful and positive.

John gets the same news. His beliefs about it are irrational. He thinks someone must have a "down" on him. He doesn't deserve a setback like this. Companies always get rid of the losers during downsizing, so he must be seen as a loser. Maybe he is a loser. These thoughts and beliefs lead to anger, frustration and depression. He doesn't get on with finding a new job. Instead, he tears into the boss's office and bawls him out. When he goes for interviews for new jobs, he can't stop himself rehearsing his sense of grievance over again. As a result, few people are keen to employ him and his depression worsens.

At the organizational scale, things work in much the same way. Because of irrational beliefs, many organizations substitute requirements for frantic busyness for rational choices about activities and priorities. The irrational belief behind this? That the business will deserve success because people have put in so many working hours to gain it; and, by extension, it will deserve failure unless they do. By this line of thinking, long hours, stress and overwork become quasi-magical talismans of success.

Another very frequent type of irrational belief is the one that says because something could happen, it definitely will. This leads people to imagine a slew of fearful consequences and work themselves into a state of near-hysterical panic as a result. In their haste to ward off mostly imaginary disasters, they make decisions based on the corporate version of clinical depression: the market is dreadful, it's bound to get worse, competition is entirely unfair, taxation is crippling and the financial outlook is bleaker than it's ever been. Once again, it isn't the business climate that's causing the stress, it's the way businesses—and the managers within them—are choosing to respond that produces the pressure.

I say "choosing" because it is a choice. No one has to cling to irrational beliefs or act on them. If it doesn't feel like a choice, that's because it's become habitual. As with individuals, the key to unravelling the negative process of irrational organizational beliefs and dysfunctional consequences is looking hard at the beliefs themselves. Many organizations have created cultures built almost entirely on irrational beliefs: that the past is the best guide to the future; that there are simple answers to every problem, however complex; that driving people harder and harder is the only way to achieve success; that time is money and speed therefore guarantees cost savings or profitability.

Organizational beliefs and behaviors are frequently self-defeating. Haste and a refusal to stop and think make it worse. When you're running as fast as you can, it's hard to realize the belief you're acting on is totally irrational. That niggling doubt creeps in that if you don't push as hard as everyone else seems to be doing, you'll deserve to suffer. The obsessive work ethic that defaces our society ensures you'll feel constant guilt unless you fill every moment with activity.

Slowing down is the best way to take an objective look at the beliefs driving your organization. How many are rational and defensible? How many are a mixture of imagination, superstition and the corporate version of Old Wives' Tales? Irrational beliefs and dysfunctional actions in individuals produce depression, neuroses and behavioral problems. In organizations, they lead to a negative, poorly functioning corporate culture; an atmosphere of continual pressure and paranoia; self-defeating choices that only increase the gloom; poor levels of retention of talented staff; and eventual business failure.

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Monday, April 24, 2020

Slow Measurement

Measurement is everywhere in today's organizations. Top executives agonize every month over a long list of measures, hoping to find clues to the state of their business and the decisions facing them. They obsess about working capital, return on equity, return on investment, revenue per employee or other financial ratios. They ponder items like customer satisfaction and order fulfillment times; fuss over sales figures compared with last month, last quarter or last year (or all of those); gloat (or console each other) over current market share; explore employee satisfaction, staff retention and talent audits. Surrounded, sometimes overwhelmed, by a mountain of numbers of all kinds, they seek to direct the business like radar operators in the bowels of a warship: completely dependent on their "instruments" to tell them what's happening—and rarely seeing the real world outside.

How well do the executives truly understand all these ratios and indicators? I guess the answer is some do and many don't. Mostly it's a matter of rules of thumb: separating "good" result from poor ones by reference to previous figures (good ones go up, poor ones down—unless it's the other way around) and assumed norms and standards.

Most conventional measurement systems weren't designed to help corporate leaders decide on necessary action. They were invented by accountants to report financial results to shareholders and tax collectors, then pressed into service to support management decisions for want of anything else. Nearly all are available only after the event, when it's too late to take action anyway. As the cliché puts it, using them is like driving down the road with your eyes fixed on whatever is in the rear view mirror.

As ways of making leadership decisions, they're nearly useless. Suppose costs are rising, sales are falling, and you're running out of working capital. You know swift action is needed, but what? Cut costs (which may depress sales further)? Try to boost sales (which may cost more initially in discounts and special offers)? Raise more capital (but who will invest over falling sales figures)? Indicators are just that: they indicate something may need your attention. They don't tell you exactly what, or why, or what action to take.

Leaders who rely on figures to determine direction are putting their trust in something very likely to let them down. Why do they do it? The cynical answer is everyone else does and they're afraid to be different. The kinder, more realistic answer is speed: like the whole world these days, they're hoping for quick, simple, sure-fire ways to cut through the overwhelming mass of data to get to what might actually make a difference. Get it all on half a sheet of paper, even if the resulting simplification makes it meaningless.

As the size and scale of operations have grown, leaders have lost faith in their experience, their intelligence and their intuition. None of those seem "scientific." They're also worryingly personal. When there's relentless pressure to improve performance and do so immediately, but no clear idea of how to do it, "making the numbers" seems a safer option—even if the numbers required are mystifying, or based on no more than a fixed percentage increase over the last set, or threaten to compromise long-term future prospects. The search is on for yet another "sure-fire," simple indicator to act as a compass in extremely rough and stormy waters. Give me a clear number to head for and don't expect me to have the time to think.

As managers invent more and more measures to track progress in this way, they're producing two other things: still more data to add to the mountain already threatening to overwhelm them; and ever more complexity to add to their workload. They compile statistics on statistics in the belief performing as the numbers require will equate to achieving business objectives. It's an idle hope. Any connection between the items being measured and the organization's success is theoretical at best. More often it's totally illusory. In time, squads of people spend their working lives collecting data of no use to anyone and ignored by all. That's organizational inertia at work: once a routine is in place, it's nearly impossible to stop it. Time, energy, people and money are allocated to measurements that have no value. In a well-meaning attempt to manage "scientifically" and find a sure, numerical basis for their decisions, they've simply added to the waste already clogging progress.

Action is the only part of leadership that makes a difference. Anything that doesn't contribute to action is useless; and that goes for all the laborious collection, analysis and reporting of data that results neither in action nor increased understanding. Many measurements date from a past as different from today's needs as the Stone Age. In the pursuit of comparisons, companies stick with whatever they've measured before—even if it's clear it has little or no relevance. In the desperate hope of finding a short-cut, they add measures they read about in magazines or heard about from consultants. The collection of meaningless figures accelerates.

When I worked in a sales environment, everyone had covert ways to hide away "excess orders" against lean times in the future. At year end, the accountants became nearly frantic trying to force us to disgorge what we were so carefully making sure we could carry over to the next year. They never succeeded. Old hands instructed newcomers in the best ways to thwart prying eyes. We made our personal "numbers" into whatever we wanted them to be; and the aggregation of all that fudging and hiding of results was doubtless further "massaged" by others before being codified and simplified into a neat ratio to be set before the CEO. By the time it reached him, it had lost any link to the reality of customers, orders and business operations. Heaven knows what decisions he based on that meaningless column of numbers.

Slow Measurement is about understanding reality, regardless of the numbers or approved financial ratios. It's focused on using information far beyond what can be simplified into numbers on a spreadsheet. The numbers will be there—some of them—along with other sources of useful information, like asking questions, getting out to see what's happening, listening to what people want to tell you and using your experience and intuition to help you sort out the meaning behind all those figures. It's slower, messier and much less amenable to computerization and collection into a database. It's also more flexible, more creative, more practical and more likely to produce understanding that points to the correct way forward.

Intelligence, in the sense of information needed to direct future action, will never be reducible to neat statistics and analysts' reports. The reason is simple: when you're dealing with people, as all businesses are, you're up against something that can't be captured in numbers and formulae. People don't do what they should. They make mistakes, jump to emotional conclusions, miss the most obvious opportunities and fall into the most unexpected messes. They thwart those who seek information and put their own concerns before abstract ideas like ensuring accurate returns and maintaining data integrity. Sometimes they screw up the data purely for fun.

An elderly vicar I knew in England told me the story of the British government's attempts to understand available emergency accommodation in the early days of World War II. Asked to report how many people his church could hold, he responded accurately—400. A few months later he was asked again. He gave the same answer. The third time he was asked, something snapped. Since, as he told me, the capacity of his church hadn't changed since it was built sometime around 1300 AD, he wondered if anyone was reading these returns. To test his theory, he added a zero—his church suddenly held 4000 people. No response. And so it went. Every time the return arrived, he responded with an extra zero. No one questioned the amazing, expanding church. By the end of the war—and the return—he had the largest church in the world, with a seating capacity of 400,000,000 and rising.

It takes time to understanding the dynamics of a business; time and hands-on expertise. No two are alike. The factors that will lead to achieving organizational goals shift and change constantly. Many of them are beyond anyone's control or influence. Like signposts along a road, measures are useful to indicate whether things are roughly on course, but they can't do more than alert people they may have taken a wrong turn. In the end, it's up to the managers to find and address the causes of any problem. The value lies in the process of discovery, not in the figures that started it.

To use Slow Measurement, focus on revealing the true causes of performance, using qualitative as much or more than quantitative information. Take whatever time is needed to understand fully, before jumping into action. Spend less time asking how the business is performing in the short-term, and more considering how it might perform as well or better for as far ahead as can be reasonably imagined. Sometimes you need to realize what looks like a problem is the first sign of a wonderfully unexpected opportunity.

And if the best, most accurate and complete information on all this comes from Sid and Ruth in the warehouse—or Gerry, whose been a loyal customer since 1988—that's the information that should be used…and to Hell with all the figures in the spreadsheet.

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Friday, April 21, 2020

Fog and Friction: Organizations and Murphy's Law

When Napoleon was ruling most of Europe, a Prussian general called Carl von Clausewitz wrote On War—one of the all-time, classic books on warfare, still studied in military academies. He coined the term friction to mean all the things that can—and mostly do—go wrong in the chaos of battle conditions. In another chapter, "Intelligence in War," he discussed the problems of getting accurate information in the middle of a military engagement: a situation later summed up by others as "the fog of war."

Business, like warfare, is messy and uncertain. Despite all our electronic wizardry and battalions of analysts, what von Clausewitz wrote still holds true. As soon as people move from the calm of the meeting room to the rough and tumble of action, friction and fog obscure the vision and confound the most careful planning. Actions rarely work as planned (friction) and accurate information is easily missed, lost or mangled (fog).

The confusion, tension, adrenaline and fear of battle quickly brings in Murphy's Law to govern events ("whatever can go wrong, will"). If you create similar pressures in an organization—by under-staffing, overwork, fear of dismissal, pressure to win no matter what, and despotic management—you'll get the same result: chaos, confusion, constant breakdowns and unnecessary losses. All the hurry, stress, competition, anxiety, in-fighting and pressure to meet near-impossible deadlines increases fog and friction a thousand-fold.

Machines that run at high speed demand constant, abundant lubrication to ward off the natural effects of friction between the parts. Slower-speed machines need less. Running a machine, or a business, faster than it should go is the perfect recipe for the maximum number of breakdowns. Excessive haste is the prime cause of all communication mistakes and omissions. A person under pressure hasn't the time to check they've explained clearly and you've understood. Someone listening when all around them is frantic is very likely to pick up the message wrongly or in incomplete form. If it doesn't seem to make sense, they'll try to remedy the nonsense using the best guess they can make. No time to check back or ask for clarification. The corporate grapevine is often a better, more accurate source of information than official channels simply because everyone takes their time when relaying gossip.

Do you remember the game children used to play called Chinese Whispers? How you sat in a ring, whispering a message hurriedly to the next person, who had to pass it on immediately, whether it made sense or not? That's organizational communication in many companies today. It's no wonder garbage comes out, whatever was put in at the start.

The best way to avoid Murphy's Law and messed up communications is simple: slow down. Give yourself time to react properly when things go wrong—for they surely will, whatever you do. Instead of rushing into panic mode, take a deep breath, stand back and look at the problem calmly and without the turbulent effects of emotion. If you're wise, you'll have expected quite a few things to fail or snarl up, so you won't be surprised or unduly alarmed.

Fog and friction are the prime causes of wastage in organizational settings—wastage of money, time, effort, manpower and resources of every other kind. They turn opportunities into fiascos and frequently cause top executives to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The world is a turbulent place; you can't change that. But it makes no sense to add to your problems through self-inflicted and usually unnecessary time pressures.

Slow down. Relax. Take time to let the fog clear and the dust settle. Most situations are less pressing and critical than you think. Success in business rarely depends on split-second decisions. That's just ego and hype.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2020

Time: The Most Important Business Necessity

Organizations—and people—are always trying to do things in less time. This might be admirable if they used the time saved for important matters like relaxing, thinking, enjoying life or paying attention to friends and family. Unfortunately, they don't. They save time on the work they're doing to allow them to do yet more work. It's a spiral with no end.

Time is an essential ingredient for success. How you use—or abuse —the time you have often determines the outcome of an enterprise. Spending more time, or spending it more wisely, always enhances results. Doing something in a rush is rarely a recipe for doing it well.

Nearly every significant innovation is brought about by laziness; by people finding ways to expend less effort on whatever they need to do. Lazy people are extremely creative in avoiding unnecessary work. Instead of rushing around, filling every moment with activity, employees should be encouraged to find ways to "do more with less" by tapping into their natural laziness—then rewarded by being allowed to slack off. Letting them "waste time" in this way will guarantee an outburst of creativity.

Organizations or teams should be ready to throw away the first attempt to produce any product or service. The only usefulness of this first try is to teach them how to do it properly. Using their newly acquired understanding from the first attempt, they can now produce a second version that will be smarter all round. That's the one they should give to the customers. The time needed to "waste" the first attempt should be factored into every schedule. Failure to do so accounts for the frequency customers are offered half-completed products or services, which have to be redesigned later, after they've failed in the market and alienated consumers.

The customers almost never knows exactly what she wants until she gets your product or service and sees it isn't right. This initial disappointment helps her work out what she really wants from your organization. You need to allow time to cope with this and help her reach a clear understanding you can act on. If you rush, she'll be stuck at the moment of disappointment. That's what she'll tell her friends: how your product or service looked good initially, but wasn't really up to what she needed—and how you weren't willing or able to put it right in time.

Every significant project, in any organization, will be late, over budget or riddled with defects, blockages and unexpected mistakes—probably all of these. The more people rush at the last moment, or add extra members to the team who have no idea what's gone on before, the more mistakes, setbacks and snafus they'll create. Initial project time scales and budgets should be treated as no more than guesses fueled by over-optimism and ignorance. Whatever the deadline and estimated cost, mentally double it. Then don't get excited until you've passed that figure. Life is uncertain and Murphy's Law is found everywhere.

The essential tools for leaders and managers are these: introspection, inspiration, personal understanding, thoughtfulness and care. You can't use any of them in a hurry. Ignoring such essentials produces the mindless, automatic, dogmatic actions we see all around—people jumping from the frying-pan into the fire because they've been taught doing anything, however ill-conceived, is more likely to be applauded than sitting down and thinking the problem through. Lack of time makes people careless. Lack of time coupled with pressure from outside makes them act stupidly. Lack of time, constant pressure and inflated egos produce morons, CEOs and politicians.

Individuals are not interchangeable. Half as many people working twice as hard don't get the same result. It takes time to amass experience and understanding. Cut staffing, let that experience walk out of the door, overwork those who remain and what you'll get is exactly what you deserve. Under pressure, people produce quantity (because that's what's typically measured) and to hell with quality or innovation. The audit mentality that pervades business today should be treated as what it is: a serious mental defect, requiring long periods of rest in a darkened room.

Time is not money. Money is money. Time is what it takes to do a job properly, however much money you throw at it. Saving (i.e. cutting) time doesn't save money. It may appear to save some immediate costs. But when you consider the project or business as a whole, skimping on time virtually always adds to the cost in the long term: through reworking, forced redesign, increased defects, added wastage, loss of customers, loss of talented employees and and diminished innovation and competitiveness.

Time is precious, non-replaceable and always slipping through your fingers. Money, in comparison, is cheap and plentiful. Cutting time to produce money is crushing flawless diamonds to make sandpaper.

P.S. A small milestone. This is the 100th posting on this site.

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Monday, April 17, 2020

The Ultimate Enemy

Most organizations are focused on increasing efficiency through the elimination of cost. That’s why so many people have lost their jobs and so much work is being outsourced to low-wage countries. Such a focus is understandable, but it’s fundamentally flawed. As so often in modern management thinking, it puts the cart before the horse. What leaders should be concentrating on is the elimination of waste and purposeless activity, not simply cost or people.

Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, defined waste as “any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value.” Organizations are riddled with it: completing returns and reports nobody reads, creating statistics no one understands, attending meetings with no purpose beyond protecting your butt, dealing with mountains of copied e-mails that aren’t your concern anyway. One of the major reasons people have so little time for important issues—like thinking, being creative or recovering energy—is the amount of time they’re forced to waste on activities with no purpose or useful outcome.

Focusing just on getting the maximum output from anything—machines, people, processes—is nearly always a mistake. It encourages managers to over-produce, so inventories pile up and excess goods have to be sold-off at huge discounts later. The American motor industry is a prime example: parking lots stacked with vehicles, produced with great numerical efficiency, that far outnumber the customers willing to buy them. Simply getting the biggest output isn't efficiency, unless that output matches actual demand. Running a machine, a process or a person too hard typically leads to waste, as well as increasing breakdowns and problems.

The Optimum Rate For Progress

There’s an optimum rate for everything. If you fall short, you don't perform as well as you could, but that's all. Exceed it and you pay a serious penalty.

It's that misunderstanding which persuades organizations to cut employee numbers to the point where good people leave and the rest are so exhausted they can’t do more than pull the levers and hope. Customer service becomes a joke and quality is compromised, yet still the organization can’t meet Wall Street’s inflated profit expectations. Why? Because the penalty they pay for exceeding the optimum use of their resources is greater than the "benefits" they gain through the increased output in numerical terms.

That would be bad enough if so much haste and scrimping didn’t also often end in long periods waiting for the next step in the process. Any journey by air these days contains waiting and flying in a ratio of at least two to one in favor of waiting. The “efficient” hub and spoke system, beloved of major airlines, flies passengers where they don’t want to go, makes them wait for periods they don’t want to waste, then eventually flies them on to their destination—often without their baggage. On a recent flight to Mexico (I live about 60 miles north of the US/Mexico border) I was forced to fly first to Dallas, Texas (a two hour flight to the east), wait three hours and then fly the same distance back to the west as part of my journey southwards. A friend coming from New York State flew west to Chicago, then back east to Atlanta, then west to Dallas, then joined the same flight as I did. It took her 12 hours to travel less than 1000 miles in the air. Most of that time was spent waiting in airports.

The Curse of the Audit Mentality

In today’s world, we rarely need huge batches of uniform products or services. Consumers demand choice, flexibility and responsiveness to their needs. The days are long gone when companies could offer a standard product with a “take or leave it” attitude. Yet that’s exactly what’s needed to justify traditional ideas of efficient operation. The audit mentality in many companies, backed up by mountains of figures none of the top people have time to read or understand, measures “efficiency” in simplistic ways. True efficiency only happens when there’s no waste and every action has a definite purpose that results in increasing value: more responsiveness; better service; providing customers exactly what (and how much) they want, when they want it; all using no more resources than necessary to produce the desired outcome.

It’s fatally easy to focus on a single aspect of a business and make it “better,” only to make everything else worse. To ignore the complex interactions that control the operation as a whole and focus on a simplistic measure like output per person. In our haste and superficiality, people are encouraged to use the simplest, most obvious action. That’s very often the one that’s guaranteed to cause the greatest long-term waste and ineffectiveness.

Take cutting costs. The conventional approach is childishly simple: the biggest bill in most companies is the wage bill—therefore cutting people (or wages or both) is the easiest way to reduce costs, quickly and “efficiently.”

Wrong. Removing waste in the form of unnecessary jobs makes sense. But most of those people are there because they are the organization; they make, deliver, service, support or invent what the organization does. Firing them is like deciding to cut off your left hand because you’re right-handed and do things better with the other one. Sure, you could manage with one hand, but you have two because you need two to function best (sometimes I think four would be even better).

Finding True Efficiency

To be truly efficient—in the sense of providing their customers with the right service, at the right price, in the right way, exactly when and how they want it most—many organizations would be better advised to increase staffing; and pay for it by cutting out wasteful meetings, excessive perks for the top echelons, pointless reports and data collection, and grandiose buildings and furnishings. They could also sell the Old Masters in the boardroom and the corporate jet.

We’ve had decades of a mindless belief in so-called economies of scale. This pernicious doctrine has been used to justify every mega-merger and support the ego-driven fantasies of executives drunk with the idea of presiding over some corporate behemoth. How many of these over-inflated businesses have failed? How much money have shareholders lost through indulging the foolish urge of directors to equate growth with size? There’s a correct scale for everything too. Being too small limits what you can achieve; becoming too large instead produces waste, over-expenditure and lumbering inflexibility. Yet corporations persist in trying to add to their size, instead of adding to their ability to fulfill their purpose; becoming stronger, not simply larger.

It’s time to slow down and take a long, hard look at reality. Most people don’t truly grasp what it means to be efficient. An organization has more than a single purpose. Profit isn't the only measure of success, and never was. Maximizing shareholder value may mean minimizing every other kind the organization provides to its members, its community and the country as a whole.

Nature is often described as profligate and wasteful with resources: an oak tree may produce tens of thousands of acorns, yet only a handful become seedlings and perhaps just one will grow into a new tree. Yet the abundance feeds innumerable insects, birds and animals. If you take the oak tree in isolation, and assume the only purpose of an acorn is to grow a new tree, it’s hugely wasteful. Put it in context and you get a smoothly efficient, complex relationship between the tree and all the creatures that depend on it. Nature has spent millions of years slowly perfecting what it does. We could start by absorbing the lessons it offers.

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Friday, April 14, 2020

"Slow" Teams

You can’t create an effective team instantly, on demand. Teams take time: time to come together; time to learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses; time to discover how best to cooperate; time to grow into something greater than the sum of their individual parts. It isn’t a process that can be rushed. Yet that’s exactly what far too many organizations try to do: push people together into a team and expect them to perform at their best right away.

This isn’t a new idea. People have recognized for decades that effective teams aren’t produced at the drop of a hat. So why do organizations persist in acting as if the opposite is true? A cluster of people sent together into a room and given a common task aren’t a team in anything but name. They maybe have the potential to become a team, but that’s all. Fulfilling that potential will take weeks, months or years—if it happens at all.

Patience isn’t seen as a virtue these days. It’s all about instant gratification. But when “instant” isn’t gratification at all, but a sure road to frustration and wasted effort, it’s hard to understand why anyone bothers to seek it. “Instant” teams are like fast food: a jumble of barely-edible ingredients, thrown together. Real teams take time to cook, so the flavors blend into something truly nutritious.

A team is a community: a group of people with a history of understanding and respect. Its members need time to build relationships and learn how to support and complement one another. They don’t all need to like each other, but at least they must come to accept their colleagues as important and valued members of the group, with essential qualities to contribute.

The “instant team” or "virtual team" isn’t a team at all. You can be part of a consultation group (working party, study group, call it what you will) without personal contact or time to “gel,” because this form of group activity needs little more than remote communication. Members act as individuals or representatives of some department or interest group. If the group stays together for a long time, with a stable membership, it may begin to form some of the signs of a team. But personal contact on a long-term, regular basis—seeing the others operate, talking to them informally, getting their measure and deciding how (and if) to cooperate with them fully—is so fundamental to team formation its absence is bound to block development beyond a certain point.

Team formation is slow. Some of the original members may decide they don’t fit; others may be ejected for the same reason. It’s like a band, or an orchestra, or a chorus. You could put together the best individual musicians around and they might not form an effective ensemble. I recently read an article that pointed to The Beatles as a prime example of a successful team that took a long time to come together. There were several changes in membership. The roles within the group shifted (at one time, Ringo Starr was one of the vocalists). The band spent years playing in small clubs and dubious bars as they formulated a distinctive style. If they seemed to burst on the music scene fully fledged, that’s only because their earlier work was mostly forgettable and forgotten.

If you or I had heard The Beatles in their first few gigs together, we wouldn’t have recognized anything special about them at all. There was nothing. They were just one of thousands of wannabe pop groups. The talent may have been there, but it wasn’t showing itself yet. That took time—lots of it. There are artists who come from nowhere and cause a five-minute sensation, but few last into a serious career. Those that do usually face a distinct dip in popularity and impact for a few years, while they mature into their eventual performing personality.

Teams are living entities. They're born, they grow and mature, they flourish (hopefully) and then they die. Many never reach maturity. The best of them still die. You can’t create a fully-functioning team immediately or by command; you must grow it, as you would grow a garden. It takes patience, perseverance and—above all—time. If you want something done immediately, put an individual in charge. If you want to produce a situation where a group of people produce more as an ensemble than they can do alone, give them the time and space to develop into a team.

A “slow” team is one that has been allowed to grow organically, taking on its own unique character as it does so; just as slow food is cooked gently to allow the ingredients to blend to perfection. Any idiot can toss a mess of meat and vegetables into a pot, turn the heat to maximum and hope for the best—but I, for one, won’t be hanging around to try it when it’s served up. Any organization can throw people together, call them a team and demand results in five minutes. The result will taste just as bad, whether you’re part of the “team” or the ones waiting to try the outcome.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2020

The Lure of Quick (and Seductive) Solutions

People under pressure rarely have time to think—at least, that's what they tell themselves. When you probe a little more deeply you find they replace thinking with a series of inferior alternatives.

When you're harassed, stressed and feel you're out of time, you're looking for more than a quick answer; you're looking for certainty, so you won't have to revisit the problem—or commit more time to defending what you've done. Thinking, reflecting and exploring are often avoided because they require time you believe you don't have; and, in every case, they make you responsible for the decision.

People under pressure want still more responsibility like they want a social disease. If a decision made by thinking for yourself turns out to be a mistake, the accusing fingers point straight back at you. The same applies to those other non-intellectual choices, gut instinct and personal experience. Neither offer certainty nor a way out of later criticism if they prove wrong.

There are, however, ways of deciding that appear to do both. And while they offer only a modest a degree of certainty, each comes with an in-built defense mechanism. The more pressured people are, the more attractive they look.

The first—and simplest—is conventional wisdom: call it rule of thumb, or "what everyone has done for years." It's quick, always to hand and has a rough respectability from its age and ubiquity. It's also what people point to when you don't do it and things go wrong. "It was obvious," they say. "Surely anyone with any commonsense would have done that." That's also its inbuilt defense: to suggest it was only what 99 out of 100 other people would have done in the same circumstances. It was the simplest, most obvious course of action, so that's where you began. Now it hasn't worked, maybe you'll try something else.

The next step up the twin ladders of certainty and defensibility is applying a set rule or procedure. It has more substance than a simple rule of thumb. Someone, at some time in the past, established it as the correct action. If you ignore changing times (and most people do), you can suppose it will still hold good (sadly, it almost certainly won't, given how much change there is today). But if it fails, you can blame the person who set up the rule in the first place. It's the bureaucratic version of the age-old defense "I was only following orders."

Next in the hierarchy is numerical analysis. Many people who ought to know better revere numbers and formulae—mostly, I suspect, because they look scientific and are rarely fully understood. This approach produces decisions based on "the numbers" in financial statements, market research, customer complaints or quality control data. The ideal is to establish an automatic link between some supposedly objective measure—a ratio, a variance, or a threshold number—and a specific response.

Because the arithmetic is certain (or should be; mistakes in calculation are common, even with computers), that certainty rubs off on the decision itself. It also has the huge advantage of being impersonal and reassuringly technical. In truth, everything depends on the quality of the supposed link between numbers and reality, so you're back to another kind of rule. One that's as subject to deterioration through change as anything else—and that may have been illusory in the first place. Besides, the accounting and similar scandals of recent times have somewhat tarnished the image of "the numbers" and reminded people how easily they're manipulated, so it's not quite as attractive a defense as it was once.

At the top of the hierarchy is the expert opinion from an acknowledged authority. If consultants have proliferated in the past few decades—and they've spread faster than a pandemic virus—a major part of the reason is the urge to appeal to external authority. Not only does it seem to promise great certainty—as long as the authority is as knowledgeable as he, she or it claims—it provides an obvious defense in times of trouble. Don't punish me, the blame lies with the expert who advised me.

What all these answers have in common is a combination of surface acceptability and inner weakness. Managers and leaders aren't paid to rely on rules of thumb, written rules, past procedures, the prescriptions of numbers and computer programs, or the advice of supposed experts. If that's all you want, hire anyone—cut out the manager altogether—and save a great deal of money. Middle and senior managers are supposed to make decisions themselves—using their own knowledge, intelligence and expertise—and carry the responsibility afterwards. That's why they're paid more than others.

It's easy self-righteously to blame old chestnuts like the sorry state of American management, the creaking education system, and even more unlikely culprits like television and video games. The true villain is the prevailing "wisdom" on how to run a business. If you pile on the work and don't give people time to think; if you train people to fear any mistake; if you demand results while stinting on what's needed to obtain them; and if you criticize people based on 20:20 hindsight and ignore the real circumstances when the decision was made, you'll produce a culture where thought is penalized and it's more important to have a ready excuse than find the right answer.

Slow Leadership means giving people time to do their jobs properly—and that includes ample thinking time. It means acknowledging mistakes are inevitable and forgiving honest errors. Slow Leaders criticize people for blindly following mechanistic rules and supposed experts, not for using their brains to reach an independent judgment. There are no rules. Life is way too uncertain for that. And following expert opinion is still a judgment call, not a way of avoiding responsibility.

Leaders are there to lead; which means thinking for themselves, not passing off decisions to others. If they don't always do this, it's the organization's fault as much as their own. The constant demands for "making the numbers," even if they're nearly impossible, and resource cuts that force people to work 60-hour weeks, are creating a culture of reliance on almost anything but what you carry between your ears. It's time to forget the excuses and allow leaders to do what they're paid for.

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Monday, April 10, 2020

Really? Is That True?

We're all well acquainted with financial inflation: a fall in the value of money over time. But there's another type of inflation that's far less understood, much more common and infinitely more harmful. It's verbal inflation: people's tendency to use speech that exaggerates the size—or impact, frequency, or emotional nature—of situations and events, making them far sound worse than they are. And it's another situation where slowing down usually provides the answer.

I don't mean boasting or deliberately embellishing something to make it more dramatic or interesting. I want to draw attention to the casual, unconscious way many people exaggerate, especially when they're emotional. This kind of overstatement may not appear to be a serious issue. That's not the case. A habitual tendency to overestimate difficulties—to get problems and failures out of proportion—causes many people to fall short of fulfilling their potential.

You're tired at the end of a long day. Someone in another department promised to send you a piece of critical information—then either forgot or couldn't get around to it. Now they've gone home, no one else knows how to get the data you need, and you're stuck. "They're always doing this," you say. "I can never get the information I need from people in that ******* department. It's typical of all of them. I'm totally devastated by this!"

Of course, what you said isn't literally true. Maybe this is the first time that person has let you down. Maybe it's happened before with others from that department, but certainly not every time, with every person. In your anger and frustration, you've exaggerated the situation from a specific, short-term headache (probably with a definite, understandable cause) into a universal, regular, critical problem with all of them. And are you totally devastated? Well, you're angry and frustrated, certainly, but hardly more than that.

Here's another example. Your boss asks you to make a presentation to a key group of top executives. It's to be about your area of expertise and you're the person who knows most about the issues. You're extremely nervous about the idea. You've never done anything like that before and don't feel you want to cope with it now. "No," you say. "I just can't do that. I'm useless at giving presentations and the top brass always terrify me. I know I'll screw it up. Get someone else to do it."

Verbal inflation again. Maybe you aren't skilled at preparing and delivering presentations. Maybe you haven't done it before; and you're nervous about standing up in front of a group of senior managers—almost everyone feels like that. But you've turned another specific, curable problem (you maybe need help, some presentation skills training and a little coaching) into a universal statement—and one that's no longer about the situation (you're not skilled at presentations, nervous, but can get better with help), but about you (you've defined yourself as useless at presenting to senior people—and suggested you always will be).

Why is such casual and apparently harmless exaggeration so detrimental?

Firstly, other people generally believe what you tell them about yourself, if you do it loudly or often enough. "I don't really know much about her other skills, but she's a total klutz with any kind of presentation. She told me that herself." Like monetary inflation, verbal inflation devalues the currency of communication. It spreads falsehoods about you and undermines your credibility in your own eyes as well as other people's. You may believe everyone always understands you don't really mean what you're saying. They don't. That's another exaggeration.

The second reason is even more dangerous. By casually thinking and speaking in such terms, you're unconsciously setting limits on yourself. The unconscious part of your mind acts on what it hears you saying. You told it you're useless. It believes you, so it'll cause you to act on that belief. "I know I can't learn how to do better. I'm simply useless." If that's what you believe about yourself, there's no point in trying.

And if that isn't bad enough, careless verbal inflation magnifies your emotional responses to the point where you're wasting your life responding to imaginary crises. Remember my first example? The colleague who failed to give you the data you needed? How you were totally devastated by what she did?

All that evening at home, you're going over and over the maddening situation in your mind. "That ****** woman! She knew I needed that data. She's always like that: careless and selfish. Everyone in that department's the same. I'll bet she did it on purpose. You wait till I get to her. I'll show her! She won't do that kind of thing to me ever again." Round and round you go. Anger spoils your evening, ruins your digestion and keeps you up half the night. Each time you repeat the exaggerated picture of the situation to yourself, it seems worse. Now it's not an annoying delay, it's a personal attack on you that threatens your career. You're even more angry—maybe approaching being at least partially devastated.

What's making you angry? You are; nobody and nothing else. The problem is irritating, sure, but you're furious because you've changed it from a specific issue into a massive, long-term threat—simply by your overblown way of talking about it to yourself (and anyone else who doesn't manage to run away fast enough). Every time your emotions begin to calm down, you stir them up again. They're getting stronger and stronger. She hasn't made you so mad, you've done that on your own.

If only you'd slow down and take a few moments to see what's real. You didn't get the data, so something you needed to do wasn't done. Okay, that's it. In a couple of days you'll probably have forgotten about it—unless, as many people do, you keep stoking the emotional fires by going over and over the problem in your mind.

Hundreds of thousands of people suffer physical and mental pain—even cause themselves major health, psychological and relationship problems—because they exaggerate a specific issue into some life-threatening, universal crisis—then can't or won't let it go. Whenever their emotions start to wane, they stir them back into life by re-running all the hurt and anguish, like some horror movie they're watching for the hundredth time. Who's causing their misery. They are. Who's ruining their lives? Right again. They're doing it to themselves.

Suppose you told yourself something like this: "It's a pain about that data. There's nothing more I can do tonight. I'll find out the problem in the morning. It may be something simple. If it isn't, I guess I'll worry about that when it happens."

You go home, have a pleasant evening, a good meal and sleep soundly. Next day, you talk to the person who caused you the problem. Maybe she forgot (people do). Maybe her child got sick and she had to rush home before she could sort out the data you wanted. Maybe she does hate you and enjoy seeing you thwarted (unlikely, but possible). Whatever the cause of the problem, you can now respond accordingly. Wouldn't that beat tearing into the office and chewing her out in front of everyone—only to find the data was on your desk the whole time but you missed seeing it?

When things go wrong—or you're asked to do something you're not skilled or comfortable doing—here's what to do instead:
  1. Slow down.
  2. Avoid describing the situation in an exaggerated way (even inside your head).
  3. Let your emotions settle.
  4. Look at it squarely and realistically.
"Oh, I'm a bit nervous about making such an important presentation. I haven't much experience doing that." That allows people to help you and avoids implying you're a congenital idiot in an important aspect of communicating. "Rats! I really needed that information. I guess I feel mad about it. Still, nothing more I can do. I'll sort it out tomorrow."

People under pressure are the most prone to verbal inflation because their emotions are already primed for a hair-trigger response. By allowing themselves to get carried away, they add to the pressures and rarely solve the original issue. It's another situation where slow is better than fast or instant. Slow allows you to see the reality, not just the exaggerated version produced by your emotions.

The next time you hear yourself say—aloud or in your head—"That's always happening!" or "I could never learn to do that!" or "I'm absolutely furious!" call an immediate halt. I very much doubt any such statement is literally true. Stop, breathe, and let it all go. If you're very worked up, take a walk until you can see things in perspective again. Focus on the reality, not the exaggeration. Don't make the worst come true by creating an emotional, self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Friday, April 07, 2020

How to Kill Creativity

Most organizations claim they value creative, innovative people; yet many operate in ways guaranteed to limit, block or destroy whatever creativity their people have. The culprit is the fashionable, hard-driving, "results are all that matters" style of leadership. Here's how—and why—it happens.

Sara is head of department. Like all the other department heads, she's had to cut staffing levels, reduce costs every year and still meet increased performance targets. It's a large, busy department and her people, she knows, are tired, disheartened, over-stretched and close to burnout. At least three of the best performers, to her knowledge, are actively looking for jobs elsewhere. Now she's hearing rumors her department's function might be next on the list for outsourcing. She's harassed, constantly busy (at her desk before 7:30 a.m.—rarely leaves before 8:00 p.m.) and still desperate to justify her reputation as a high achiever.

One of her subordinates wants her to authorize a risky, though undeniably creative, change of direction that might make billions—or turn out to be an expensive, time-wasting, crazy flop. What will Sara do?

Here's the most likely outcome. Like many managers in such a position, Sara hasn't the time or energy to evaluate the idea fully; she's already running behind and there are ten more immediate problems on her current to-do list. She listens with less than half her attention, notes the risk and jumps right to what have become the key questions: "How does this solve our current problems? What's the payoff? How much by when?" When the answer is this is a long-term project, with a huge potential but little in the way of quick returns (or immediate relevance to her to-do list), she kills it. She knows the organization won't support her, especially if anything goes wrong.

When pressure's intense, creativity is one of the first casualties. Fear of producing still more work, fear of censure and fear of losing face foster cultures that are risk-averse; together with an attitude that protecting your butt always takes precedence. People become too afraid—or too tired—to do more than stick with what they know and what's worked before. You can say goodbye to any possibility of outdistancing the competition through innovation.

Besides, in today's most typical culture, internal competition is more intense as job cuts proliferate and promotion prospects diminish. No one can afford to make mistakes. Mistakes cost results and time; they undermine your credibility; they're noted by those who control promotion, political influence and employment itself. Why risk any of these to back some unproven idea? "Making the numbers" gets you a pat on the back—more or less however you do it.

Time is already in such short supply in companies like that no one dares use any on innovation. They all go instead for the quick, obvious answer; the "done it before a thousand times" answer; the quick-fix. That new idea may be a winner—sometime in the future. But who looks that far ahead, when getting through the rest of today looks uncertain enough? Unless it comes with one of these adjectives attached—instant, quicker, simpler, cheaper, fail-safe—or fits the "get it done and move one" fashionable attitude, dump it right away.

Why do people act this way, when it's such obvious nonsense? Because (a) it seems the safest option, (b) that's what they've been taught to do, (c) that's what they believe the bosses want, and (d) they're too afraid to make any other decision.

Stress, tiredness, fear of risk and constant exposure to unreasonable demands paralyze people's willingness to make decisions—especially risky ones—since anything beyond obvious routine poses a personal risk. That's why managers try to protect themselves with ever more exhaustive analyses, approval procedures, consensus-building meetings, memos, e-mails and all the other time-devouring elements of bureaucratic defensiveness. Of course, long before all that political maneuvering is over, and everyone is sufficiently certain (read armor-plated) to decide, the data is out-of-date, the customers have changed their minds…and any competitive edge is long gone. How many promising ideas are tested and analyzed to death in the name of caution and practicality?

In pressure-based cultures, old ideas are continually re-hashed, new ones tested to destruction, and any spark of innovation drowned in consensus-building. An idea that can't be grasped in under five minutes by executives so distracted they can't recall the next meeting on today's schedule—or what was agreed at the last—is dead meat. There's no time to be wrong, so there's no time to be right either. Stick to what you've done before and get a move on. With such penalties for trying anything new, is it any wonder everyone quickly gets the message that, whatever fine words executives use, innovation isn't wanted or valued?

These high-pressure, "the bottom line is all there is" organizations don't simply shoot themselves in both feet; they use machine guns. Their attitude ensures no new ideas will survive, so they get further and further behind less macho, results-driven competitors. As a result, they must run still faster to stay in business at all; and so have even less tolerance or time for risky, creative ideas. The result is self-induced obsolescence, followed by commercial suicide. Look at the "established" US airlines. When did one of these last produce a fresh idea to counter their new, risky, low-cost competitors? The best they can do is copy them—usually long after whatever they're copying is past its sell-by date.

Slowing down, making time and space for innovation and its inevitable mistakes and false starts, isn't just a better idea. It's the only idea that works if you want to be around for the long term.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2020

The Scarcest Resource

The scarcest resource in most companies isn't money or creativity. It isn't even time. It's attention. Everyone competes for it; everyone with an idea, with a need for resources, with a project they want funded, with a change they believe is required. But while companies try to allocate other resources according to their strategies and business plans, attention is usually ignored and allocated haphazardly, so it's frequently grabbed by whoever makes the most noise or wields the greatest political clout.

In our rushed and harassed culture, there's all-out competition for people's attention. Marketers and advertisers spend their lives trying to find better ways to catch the chosen customers' attention, whether it's through more eye-catching advertising or more memorable slogans and offers. Newspapers deploy intriguing headlines in massive type. Politicians and pressure groups use attack advertisements and employ "spin" that borders on outright propaganda. Fashion magazines rely on the "face" of the moment; the tabloids on promises of ever more salacious and unlikely revelations about the rich and famous. All compete for attention from an audience that's becoming less and less responsive as a direct result of this constant, numbing onslaught.

In organizations, attention is similarly under pressure. The busier you are, the less time you feel you have for anything not instantly recognizable as relevant to your current problems. The more you filter out what seems inessential. The less attention you feel you can spare for the long-term and the uncertain, let alone the unusual, the unexpected or the unknown.

Yet many—maybe most—of the most vital signs of coming change appear first in exactly those ways: something unusual in the long-term pattern of business; an unexpected competitor seemingly doing better that they should; an unknown, unexpected technology that may, perhaps, one day replace your own. Then there are all the fresh, unexpected ideas generated by people in the organization itself. Some of them may be winners; many won't. Sorting them out takes time and attention: the very commodities already in shortest supply. Is it any wonder they go to the back of your mental queue?

The situation is worst at the top of organizations; partly because the pressures can be greatest there, but mostly because they've been institutionalized into conventional ideas of business leadership. The top manager who prides him or herself on "cutting to the chase" is the same one whose attention span has been gradually trained to switch off in a couple of minutes, unless the topic falls into that wonder category of "instant answers to our most immediate problems." Demands to have complex ideas explained on one side of a sheet of paper go beyond a normal need for brevity. They become an automatic reaction; part of the prevailing cultural style with its thoughtless emphasis on immediate action over reflection and understanding.

Top executives aren't stupid. They aren't blinkered by ignorance or incompetence. If they fall into the trap of blinkered, short-term thinking that too often misses all the early signs of change, it's because they've been taught to think in that way. Their attention is a precious commodity, so they ration it out. Sadly, the basis most choose for this rationing is badly flawed.

Competition is the heart of a free-market, capitalist system. We're told to trust the market to weed out good business ideas from bad ones. We distrust government intervention as a source of unnecessary regulation and giving subsidies to preserve uncompetitive operations. So what's more natural than to turn to the idea of competition to weed out good ideas from bad within the organization itself; to establish competitive systems to allocate money, resources and attention.

I once heard the system for project approval in a multinational corporation described like this: "Everyone sits alone two sides of a long boardroom table. The person proposing the project sits at one end and lets his or her project go. As it moves along the table, all the rest shoot at it. The ones that get to the other end alive are the ones we act on."

"How many make it?" I asked.

"Almost none."

That's the problem. New ideas are like tender plants, not greyhounds. They need care and nurturing to show their promise. If they're treated as roughly as that account suggests, most won't make it. Not because they're bad ideas, but because the system of openly competitive selection is wrong. It takes time to see whether a new plant will bloom profusely or turn out to be a disappointment. Plant breeders grow tens of thousands of seedlings to maturity to find the one or two that are worthy of putting on the market. If they decided purely on the basis of which seedlings grew fastest in the first few weeks, they'd almost certainly pick the weeds, not the flowers.

And the competition isn't even fair. When the market decides, you're relying on the judgement of millions of individuals. In companies, where attention goes is decided, very often, on the political power of a handful of people.

Attention is the scarcest resource at most levels, and doubly so at the top. If it's right to deploy less precious resources with care and intelligent focus—money, people, marketing support or production capabilities—how can it be sensible to allow attention to be doled out haphazardly through personal whims, political considerations or simply by chance? Open competition isn't the answer, as we've seen. Nor is relying on harassed and overworked managers to defend enough of their time to give new ideas the consideration they deserve. In the speed and short-term results oriented culture so prevalent today, it's inevitable that attention will be seized by what's quickest, simplest and promises the quickest pay-off—even if it's not in the best interests of the business longer-term.

The culprit for attention-theft isn't shortage of time. It's not a rooted bias towards simplistic panaceas. It's not intellectual weakness or even political maneuvering. It's the culture we've allowed to grow which rewards all of these—especially speed—and ignores the dangers…until the crisis comes and scapegoats are needed.

"Slow," in leadership as in food, is taking the time to bring out the best. No amount of frenetic activity will avail if it's misdirected. Nor will a diet of "fast management" fashions nurture a business for the long-term. Leaders who let their attention be hijacked by what's closest and loudest haven't matured enough to see beyond the noise and political chicanery to the substance that will count in the end.

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Monday, April 03, 2020

Heroic Management

"Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes." ~ Bertolt Brecht

"I don't believe in that phony hero stuff." ~ Steve McQueen
We live in an age that worships heroes. Perhaps that's the fault of television and films. Heroes make for great stories. But the hero tale has been around since The Epic of Gilgamesh, three thousand years or so ago, so maybe modern media aren't to blame this time.

What is different is the tendency of everyone to want to be a hero, in one way or another. Whether it's the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, or the mock heroics of contestants on reality shows, it seems being a hero—and especially having the praise that goes with it—is irresistible to many of us.

It's true in the workplace too. There's the heroic CEO, who retires, publishes his or her memoirs (thanks to a diligent ghost-writer), and becomes an idol in her own lifetime—maybe with a TV chat-show as well. The heroic whistle-blower, who calls unethical management to account and suffers accordingly—until she talks to the media and gets her face on the nightly news. Even the heroic middle manager, making the numbers despite every adversity and saving the CEO's bacon (though whether the CEO ever admits it—still less rewards the lowly manager appropriately—is open to doubt.)

I am not making fun of genuine heroes. We need those. As Victor Hugo wrote:
Man’s greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes—obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes.
I'm just suspicious of the supposed benefits of the unthinking, heroic style of management that pervades many organizations.

Heroes demand constant praise and recognition. From the time Achilles decided to sulk in his tent rather than fight in the Trojan War, all because the king didn't give him what he thought was his due, this has been a primary characteristic of the conventional hero. Of course, heroes also need competition (How else can they show their heroism?) and, preferably, a series of major crises they can solve single-handed; for the hero is, above all, an individualist. No nonsense about being a team player. I can't think of a single hero, from myth to real-life, who was content to triumph as part of a team. Being a hero is being the only figure in the limelight.

Genuine crises aren't as common in business as people like to believe. Nor are genuine heroes. But there are plenty of managers who act as if they're made in the heroic mold; and plenty of situations that can be represented as critical, even if the reality is less dramatic. After all, isn't it the stock-in-trade of every consultant to tell their client that things are far worse than they appear? Only the heroic intervention of the consultant will be able to save the day. This is simply salesmanship, of course. Who would make a presentation to a group of top executives that began with a review of their situation proving things were really going rather well?

"We're doing well? No crises? Great, we don't need you then."

There's the crux. When job tenure is shaky, and people fear they'll be replaced by someone in India or China earning a quarter of their salary, it's important to be needed. And what better way to prove this than to solve some crisis in a heroic manner?

A cynic would say many organizational crises are manufactured. That's probably too harsh. There are enough problems without inventing new ones. They're just not critical enough to show a heroic manager at his or her best. So what's the easiest way to increase the drama? Add a dose of time pressure.

The life of a heroic manager is composed of equal parts excessive hours and unreasonable demands. Crank up the time constraints a little; convince everyone you, and you alone, can handle the problem; add some drama by taking on more than you can reasonably handle. There you have the perfect display ground for management heroism.

Are there real time constraints? Of course. Do organizations truly overload key players? Yes, indeed they do. But what if some, at least, of those overworked, harassed managers were colluding with the process? Avoiding seeking help or involving others so as not to share the glory? Volunteering for tough assignments the way King Arthur's knights kept looking for dragons to kill, maidens to rescue and quests to undertake. After all, it's no use being a hero if you can't show it.

I think most organizations could do with rather more quietly good managers who don't seek the adulation of their peers and a lot fewer heroic ones who do.
Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

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