Wednesday, August 30, 2020

Short-term Myopia

The focus of many businesses today—because, sadly, most shareholders require this—has turned away from the long-term strategies that they need to thrive and grow. Instead, they focus on analyzing quarterly performance: Trying to anticipate the next quarter’s results and match them to expectations that are usually based on simple demands for “more,” rather than sensible objectives tied to recurring business cycles.

A recent survey of more than 400 financial executives reported that 80 percent of the respondents said that they would decrease discretionary spending on such areas as research and development, advertising, maintenance, and hiring in order to meet short-term earnings targets; and more than 50 percent said they would delay new projects, even if it meant sacrifices in value creation. (“Mapping the Terrain” survey, Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics, 2004). As a joint report by the CFA Centre for Financial Market Integrity and Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics, says:
Although the creation of long-term company value is widely accepted as management’s primary responsibility, this research suggests that managing predominantly for short-term earnings expectations often impairs a manager’s ability to deliver such value to shareowners.
The press release for the report summarized their findings like this:
The obsession with short-term results by investors, asset management firms, and corporate managers collectively leads to the un-intended consequences of destroying long-term value, which decreases market efficiency, reduces investment returns, and impedes efforts to strengthen corporate governance.
“Short-termism” isn’t new or unusual. It’s the natural response of anyone whose horizons are narrow and limited. The opportunist, the confidence trickster, those out for all they can get, none of them have ever shown any interest in something that requires you to wait before reaping a reward. All have an essentially short-sighted view of the future.

Businesses, and the executives who run them, want to win. But the perception of winning depends entirely on what you take to be success. Is it claiming victory in the next skirmish, or winning the war? If you have never developed patience, or see it as unimportant, the very notion of waiting into the future to claim success seems impossible. You want to win now, and to hell with what might happen a few years down the line.

If you have never developed patience, or see it as unimportant, the very notion of waiting into the future to claim success seems impossible.
This, I believe, is the key to understanding why business today is so myopic about current returns. It isn’t that there is no credit to allow firms to continue to trade while waiting for future pay-offs. It isn’t even that investors are eager for money in their hands today, not promises for tomorrow. It’s the viewpoint organizations and executives are taking on the future: a short-term viewpoint based on winning today, where no one is ever seen as better, or worse, than their latest set of results.

Of course, people who think like that are usually easy prey for wiser, more patient competitors. They can be lured into traps baited with short-term success and pulled off course, or set up to fail. In a sense, they destroy themselves because of their eagerness to grab at every trifling prize, while missing the big ones that are waiting outside their limited vision. How have Japanese car manufacturers risen to dominate the market? Mostly, I think, by steadily following a long-term strategy of providing ultra-reliable, high-quality, often rather boring models. Their American and European rivals tried to deliver a series of quick knock-out blows, based on being fashionable and trendy, but missed the dull stuff about quality and reliability. A car that turns heads is attractive, but not if it is constantly causing problems and running up repair bills at the garage.

Leadership—real leadership—is another dull, long-term activity. Anyone can try the trick of being a Hollywood-type leader, leaping into action at the drop of the Director’s arm and blazing away at the enemy. Sometimes it will work, short-term. But every time such leaders grab for their six-guns and strike a John Wayne pose, they run a danger that Hollywood never includes in its scripts: the danger of being shot down by the enemy. To keep his or her star status, the short-term leader has to win every single shoot-out. One failure can be enough to end their career for good. Imagine the pressure that puts them under and the risks they must take every day to stay ahead.

Perfection is a terrible taskmaster. As a goal, it is doomed to failure.
Perfection is a terrible taskmaster. As a goal, it is doomed to failure. Those with a long-term perspective can endure defeats and setbacks with calm resolve. No one likes to lose, but for them it is the winning of the war that counts, not the outcome of some individual battle. Most of today’s hugely successful companies have been through hard times and been written off by pundits with no criteria beyond immediate results. Just about any great leader you can name had periods of failure and impotence. It’s how the world works.

You can rush about all you like; work 80-hour weeks, and take your BlackBerry to bed with you at night; near kill yourself with constant effort and striving, but you cannot produce perfection by doing so. If you set the standard for success as meeting every short-term goal, you are condemning yourself to fail sooner rather than later. However hard you work, nothing will change that.

So why not slow down, make a better life for yourself and those who work with you, and accept that human beings fail and stumble, but those among them who keep their eyes on the long-term may still come out ahead?

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, August 29, 2020

When "Near Enough" Isn't

Here's an interesting quote from Edward de Bono (of lateral thinking fame), courtesy of Management Issues for August 28th, 2006:
If you have an obvious problem and think you have a solution, what is the need for creative thinking? Actually, there is a real need, because an adequate solution is not necessarily the best solution. Too often, the adequate blocks the best when it comes to problem solving.
When people are rushed, harried, anxious, and desperate to meet the deadline or this month's financial targets, even an adequate solution seems like a godsend. The quick fix, the "near enough" solution, is chosen right away. Who has time to stop and think again?

I wonder how many great opportunities are lost forever, simply because a harassed employee jumped at an adequate solution instead of taking his or her time to find a really good one? I've used software that positively reeked of "near enough," received answers to questions that I'm sure weren't anywhere near the best the customer service agent could do, and suffered from trying to help organizations whose executives grabbed the first, roughly workable solution, and weren't interested in anything better. I'll bet you have seen all of these things too.

Taking enough time isn't only about being "laid back" or even having a better life (though both sound great to me). It's mostly about getting a good result instead of one that barely makes a passing grade.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, August 28, 2020

Human Nature Doesn't Change

It’s easy to think that today’s problems and behaviors are unique; that we are somehow different from everyone who went before us, perhaps because we’re the ones with the BlackBerries, the Internet, Beyoncé and Madonna (Heaven help us!).

Here’s the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161 - 180) making a point that today’s leaders could well bear in mind:
I have learned from Alexander the Platonist that I should not keep telling people, nor write in letters, that I have no time for leisure, unless I truly must. Nor should I continually excuse my neglect of the duties that come from relationships with the people around me by alleging urgent occupations.
How many leaders and managers today find it convenient to claim to be rushed off their feet to get out of obligations to others, I wonder? And how many have become so used to saying they have no time for anything that they say it automatically, even when it isn’t true?

I thought of this when I saw this quotation from Eric Hoffer in the blog “37 days” at the head of a piece called “Purge Your Portfolio” on making sure you aren’t continually giving excuses for things you’re ashamed of in your life.
For many people, an excuse is better than an achievement because an achievement, no matter how great, leaves you having to prove yourself again in the future, but an excuse can last for life.
Many people today cling to their belief that they are rushed off their feet because it offers a fail-safe excuse for missing things, ignoring things, or not completing things they didn’t want to do anyway. If they once admit the excuse isn’t always true, they might have to face up to activities and obligations (and relationships) that they’ve managed to avoid for years.

I wonder just how much overwork and time pressure is becoming that priceless possession, an excuse that can last for life?

Think about it.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, August 25, 2020

Taking Time Out to Listen

Anyone who has spent time in a working environment knows that most arguments aren’t fundamentally about status, power, money, broken promises, or even misbehavior. They are about what someone said. What people say to (or say about) one another causes the majority of misunderstandings, anger and broken hearts. Feuds and arguments are about what was said and what was heard—especially if the two don’t match up. Even disputes about status and power usually come down to someone saying (or being reported as saying) something that didn’t acknowledge the other person’s standing.

There must be tens of thousands of books, papers, and blog postings on the subject of better communication. Most of them are about techniques. There’s a natural tendency to assume that when communication is poor, some lack of skill or missing piece of know-how is the culprit. Although that may sometimes be part of the issue, the most common problem with communication is not lack of technique, but lack of time and attention.

Haste, pressure, superficiality, and anxiety—all the hallmarks of today’s business environment—undermine people’s capacity to pay attention. It’s so tempting to try to save time and energy by skimming. If you think you know what that other person is going to say, you maybe don’t need to listen to whatever is said. You pick up on the first few words, jump way ahead, and are polishing your own comments well before the other person has finished. Even if you do hear most of what is being communicated, you may still interpret the words incorrectly, because all those prior expectations and mental shortcuts get in the way. Watch what happens in a group. One person is speaking, but no one is truly listening. Either they are thinking up what they are going to say when they next get a turn, or they’re “tuned out” and thinking about something else. Whole meetings can pass during which no one fully listens to anyone else. Is it any wonder people go away with radically different recollections of what was discussed?

It seems to me that the vast majority of people can both communicate and receive input from others very well indeed, so long as they are interested enough to give the process sufficient attention and time. When they are dealing with something—or someone—that truly interests them, they weigh every word, often going over them again and again for hours. Given this amount of attention and time, not only is all the meaning extracted from whatever was said or written, people routinely insert all kinds of extra meanings and intentions that were never there in the first place. A love letter from someone you care about deeply, or a message from someone you feel strongly attracted to, may be read and re-read hundreds of times. A CV or covering letter for a job you desperately want will be re-drafted and polished again and again. In both cases, time is not seen as much of a consideration compared to the need to get it just right.

Of course, I’m not trying to say there are no skills involved in communication; or that lack of the right skill never leads to problems in expressing yourself or understanding someone else. There will be times when someone is trying extremely hard to get their message across and is held back primarily by lack of the required skills. What I am wondering about is whether that is generally the only, or even the primary cause of communication issues.

For many years, I worked with trying to understand people’s values and how they impacted behavior. One of the results that I often came across was that when people don’t value something—whether it’s a need, a result, or even someone else’s primary concern—they tend to blank it out of their consciousness. It’s as if their mind picks up the topic and decides, “Hey, this doesn’t matter. I have better things to think about. I don’t need even to pay this a minimal amount of attention. I can just ignore it.” It becomes a blind spot in their consciousness. Like an e-mail filter for spam, anything coming with that matter in the subject line is automatically erased. You never get to see it.

Whenever this happens, there are immediate consequences. Firstly, people don’t notice the topic in other people’s communication. Even if it is brought to their attention, they quickly lose interest and “tune out.” Secondly, if they observe behavior in others that’s due to whatever it is they themselves don’t value, they attribute the causes of that behavior to something else. It’s as if their minds tell them no one could possibly act because of that reason. There has to be another one.

Here’s what I see happening in many organizations:
  • The natural process of “tuning out” topics, values, and motivations you don’t care about is given a massive boost by pressure and assumed lack of time. Not only do you feel whatever it is isn’t important in itself, you don’t feel you have time or attention left for anything that isn’t obviously of the highest priority. As a result, much of what is being “broadcast” by others is instantly filtered out by your mind before it even reaches consciousness.

  • Although just about everyone is doing the same thing, all those individuals are tuning out different parts of the broadcast. While they tune in to the parts that are important to them, you are tuning out those same parts. However, they assume you have ignored those bits (and them, and their needs and concerns) deliberately. They respond as if you heard, paid close attention, and chose in full consciousness to ignore something they see as highly visible and important. You have to be stupid, careless, or deliberately trying to insult them.

  • Anger and frustration arises because those who do value whatever is being ignored assume they and their concerns are being deliberately tossed aside.

  • The organization’s culture acts in just the same way. The greater the sense of pressure and stress, the less time, attention, and tolerance there is for anything automatically assumed to be “fringe,” of minor interest, eccentric, or just plain irrelevant. These items aren’t consciously rejected. They simply never make it through the organization’s mental filters to the point where the system notices them.

  • This “deafness” and blindness blanks out a wide range of items that might be extremely important. When organizations act as if what is plain to everyone else is completely invisible and inaudible to them, that is exactly what is happening. Those matters are invisible. They’ve been automatically erased before anyone could notice them.
As with so many other problems of today’s organizations, the only way out of this cycle of miscommunication, frustration, and anger is to slow down, pay more attention, and listen even to (maybe especially to) whatever seems obviously unimportant to you. You are not the sole measure of truth and relevance, and your values are not the correct criteria for deciding what matters in the universe at large.

If individuals or organizations are allowing themselves to become habitually deaf and blind to large areas of reality, no amount of communication skill training is going to help. They don’t believe they have a problem. From their point of view, they aren’t missing anything—at least, nothing of the slightest importance—and surely no one has time to pay attention to every useless bit of information being tossed around by others. If they learn any new skills, they won’t use them to remedy their blind spots. They’ll only apply them to whatever already seems important to them.

What’s needed is not more skill (yet), but greater willingness to open your mind and senses to unfamiliar topics, including those currently assumed to have little or no value. That takes time and attention. Today’s macho, action-obsessed organizations already apply little enough of either outside the narrowest range of short-term concerns. There’s nothing quite so dehumanizing as a closed mind . . . unless it’s a mind held shut by pressure applied from outside by anxiety, stress, pressure, and a rigid organizational or social culture.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, August 24, 2020

Rampant Mistrust?

This week, I came across an interesting set of survey results from Maritz Research, based on a sample of 1300 people in the US.

Here are a few of the most interesting findings. (Although the key summary is on a site associated with the hospitality industry, the people surveyed were not limited to that field of work.).
  • Only 10% of those questioned strongly agree that their companies genuinely listen to and care about their employees, compared with 32% who definitely disagree.

  • Three times as many respondents disagree as agree that everyone at their company is on the same team, working toward the same goals.

  • 40% mistrust their employers to look out for their best interests; 30% do not trust their co-workers to look out for them either. In both cases, only 9% are clear that they do trust management or their co-workers.

  • Only 9% believe that their organization tries to help its employees achieve a balance between work and personal life; and just 12% feel that work expectations at their company are “realistic and fair.”

  • Of the workers surveyed, only 8% agree that they are “consistently recognized in ways that are meaningful.”
It’s easy to make more of such survey results than they deserve. A great deal depends on the precise wording of the questions and the context in which they are asked. Yet this much does seem to be clear: These findings point once again to a considerable lack of trust in the workplace today, especially between management and those who are managed. It seems people don’t feel their organizations listen to them, don’t believe their efforts are recognized, and don’t trust their employers to look after their needs and interests.

If 88% of people cannot agree that management’s work expectations are fair, 91% aren’t confident that organizations are doing anything to help employees balance work and the rest of life, and 92% don’t feel properly recognized, something is surely wrong.

Just when that set of findings was depressing me, I found these, courtesy of Management Issues:
  • A quarter of all job applications received by Britain's financial services employers contain at least one major discrepancy, based on 2487 job applications fact-checked for discrepancies, embellishments and false information.

  • High earners taking home in excess of £80,000 ($140,000) a year are most likely to lie in their applications get a plum job.
If a quarter of all financial services applicants have embellished job titles, extended dates, or falsified other key facts on their application forms—and the majority of these are applying for senior positions—what does this say about people’s honesty and trustworthiness? As I have written here before, the trouble with any organization whose leaders fail to trust others is that you teach them to do the same to you.

Trust and honesty are two-way streets. If people believe their employers, plus the top echelons, do not care about them and are dishonest and untrustworthy in their actions, why should they be anything else in return? What civilized nation should tolerate a situation like this?

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, August 23, 2020

Those Much-ignored Essentials: Time, Thought, and Proof

Regular readers will know that I admire much of the writing of Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician, Nobel Prize winner, and philosopher. Here he is, writing in 1932 about thought leaders and full of typical Russell irony:
If there are among my readers any young men or women who aspire to become leaders of thought in their generation, I hope they will avoid certain errors into which I fell in youth for want of good advice. When I wished to form an opinion upon a subject, I used to study it, weigh the arguments on different sides, and attempt to reach a balanced conclusion. I have since discovered that this is not the way to do things. A man of genius knows it all without the need of study; his opinions are pontifical and depend for their persuasiveness upon literary style rather than argument. It is necessary to be one-sided, since this facilitates the vehemence that is considered a proof of strength. It is essential to appeal to prejudices and passions of which men have begun to feel ashamed and to do this in the name of some new ineffable ethic. It is well to decry the slow and pettifogging minds which require evidence in order to reach conclusions. Above all, whatever is most ancient should be dished up as the very latest thing.
It seems little has changed in 74 years.

Gurus and executives share the tendency to pontificate. They also share an inclination to value form over substance and rely far too much on what is fashionable. But the words that most struck home with me in what Russell wrote are: “It is necessary to be one-sided, since this facilitates the vehemence that is considered a proof of strength.”

When you are rushed, stressed, and under pressure, it’s fatally easy to mistake vehemence for strength, just as it is tempting to take emotional statements as rational arguments. In a world that relies more than ever on sound-bites and 30-second news stories, anything that hits home hard and fast is valued—even if a slower and more considered view reveals it to be superficial or just plain wrong. Who takes the time to collect evidence or require rational proof before following some management theory? Of course, we all have ample time to do this, provided we see how important it is. Fitting in with the current fashion for speed and superficiality uses far more time in the long run, as you are forced to re-work mistakes and recover from bad decisions that you might have avoided altogether with a little more thought and care.

Slowing down has three* arguments in its favor: it’s better for your health, it’s better for your sanity, and—often the strongest of all three—it’s better for your credibility and success. Much of what passes today for leadership advice and management knowledge is based almost entirely on anecdotes and emotional beliefs. There is little or no evidence to back it up. Yet grand statements are routinely made, and over-simplified generalizations are hailed as profound insights, especially by the people who make them.

What does it say about the state of leadership learning when one of the two most frequently sold “management” books is about how to manage in one minute (which is about 60 times as long as it is worth considering such an approach); and the other is a story about mice and the movement of cheese? Suppose you found that your surgeon was basing his or her techniques in the operating theater on “The One-minute Guide to Surgical Operations” and a child’s storybook about a guinea-pig who practiced surgery on a pair of hamsters. Would you be impressed by the surgeon’s expertise . . . or appalled at the idea that such a doctor was still allowed to carry out operations?

Nobody needs books of instant “knowledge” or childish dumbing-down of everything remotely complex in workplace life. Nor do they need the “personalities” who peddle such ideas with all the glitz and panache of PR hacks pushing the latest Hollywood blockbuster. What we need least of all are leaders and managers who are even tempted to take such stuff seriously, and build a career on the basis of flashy presentations and fashionable panaceas.

Here’s what makes sense:
  • Demand to see the evidence before accepting any important statement about management practice. Test it. Check it against your own experience. Think it through and look for logical flaws and simplification. Above all, look at the “fine print” to see whether any studies that are put forward in support of it are soundly based. Caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware!) applies just as much to management techniques as to anything else people try to sell you.

  • Enjoy a smooth, well-delivered presentation, but don’t confuse performance skill with actual knowledge. Don’t allow yourself to be carried away by displays of vehemence and emotion. Trainers and presenters are in the entertainment business. Treat them as such. Enjoy the show, but don’t let them persuade you to skimp on needing proof to back up what they tell you.

  • Never jump into a decision right away, especially if you’re feeling excited and your emotions are running in full spate. If it’s a good decision, it will still be good in 24 or 48 hours. If it doesn’t look as good after a night’s sleep, you’ll be glad you held back. Tricksters know that giving their victims time to think nearly always ensures that they lose them. They’ll do all they can to get your instant commitment.

  • Slow down and take your time. It’s better to be slightly behind everyone else and right than out there leading the pack of lemmings towards the cliff edge.
Leaders are paid to deal with tough, complex, and risky decisions. They are expected to exercise careful judgment and help others avoid falling into easy errors. Above all, good leaders are expected to keep their thinking straight and their judgment free from emotional distractions and logical errors. People who act first and think afterwards are usually forced to spend most of that later thinking on wondering how they could have been so stupid as to do whatever they did.

Can you miss an opportunity by sleeping on it? Yes, sometimes. But you’ll miss out on more mistakes and embarrassments than good opportunities. If someone is pressing you to make up your mind right away, they have a reason that will probably be in their interest, not yours. If they’re trying to convince you that life is simple and can be handled with a few obvious rules and guidelines, beware: you are either dealing with a fool or a trickster. And if they can’t show you good, logical reasoning or sound evidence for what they are saying, being skeptical is the only course that makes sense. Vehemence and belief are not proofs, nor is an appeal to the fashions of the moment. Only time and thoughtfulness can put you on the right track.

*Maybe there are now four reasons to encourage employees to slow down. According to Information Week:
Companies that give employees BlackBerrys and cellular modems, providing always-on connectivity, may wind up with lawsuits, if they don't promote balance between work and play . . .
According to a report from Rutgers University School of Business scheduled for release later this month, people whose lives get "screwed up" by spending too much time at work will soon begin to look for someone to blame. The author of the report says that employees will turn to their employers and say "not only did you let me do this, but the pressure to get promoted and not laid off led to this addictive behavior." Remember what happened to the tobacco industry? People who smoked for years, in spite of all the warnings, sued tobacco companies for their health problems. Many won. Obsessive, hard-driving organizations take note!

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, August 22, 2020

Support for Slowing Down

From time to time, I trawl through cyberspace looking for anything relevant to Slow Leadership. Here are some recent “catches” from my net.

You won’t be surprised that I was instantly attracted to a site whose tag-line is “Slow Down Now: The almost serious antidote to workaholism.” Here’s how they explain themselves.
Slow Lifesytle Manifesto

We believe multitasking is a moral weakness.

We would never needlessly indulge ourselves in hurry or rush. If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing slowly or not at all.

We value focus and relaxed concentration. We value being here and now.

This is not to say we don’t believe in hard work, we do. We believe it exists. We have witnessed it on occasion, and, in times of recklessness, we have even engaged in it. But we believe there is a better way.

Slowing down is a skill that must be learned. We understand that it’s not for everyone. The Ancient Greeks understood that we work in order to have leisure. If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
I couldn’t have put it better!

Management Issues is always worth a look, with lots of up-to-date articles and links to research and ideas. I was quickly caught by part of a posting which said:
A team of business consultants recently wrote an article in the McKinsey Quarterly about four traps executives often fall into when a business is failing. I was struck by how often these same mistakes occur on an individual level:

1. Confirmation bias. We look for information that reinforces what we already believe and ignore information that doesn't.

2. The sunk cost fallacy. When we've already spent too much money (or time), we invest yet more. Your grandmother knew this as, "Throwing good money after bad."

3. Escalation of commitment. Not giving up becomes a matter of pride—even when giving up would be the sensible thing to do.

4. Anchoring and adjustment. We raise our estimate of the eventual pay-off because we've invested so much time or effort.
The more hard work and stress that you put into some activity, the less you are willing to give it up, even when it’s clear to everyone else that it won’t work and was a poor idea from the start. That’s another consequence of today’s obsessive management style: a stubborn unwillingness to change when change is obviously essential.

Thanks also to Management Issues, I now know that I have the head of the Roman Catholic church on my side in pressing the ideas of Slow Leadership.
Workaholics take note. According to Pope Benedict XVI, working too hard is never a good thing. In the middle of his summer break, the Pope has reiterated the thinking of the 12th-century St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who warned against "the dangers of excessive activity, whatever the condition or office held, because many occupations lead to a 'hardening of the heart' and suffering of the spirit."

"This warning is valid for every kind of occupation, even those involving the governance of the church," the Pope said.
That’s powerful backing, I guess!

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, August 21, 2020

Taking Your Time

One hot day, two lions were lying in the long grass on the side of hill in the African veldt. As they looked down into the valley below them, they could see six fine antelope grazing. The first lion, who was young and full of energy, could barely contain himself. “Let’s dash down there right now, ” he said to the other lion. “Between the two of us we could probably grab one of those antelope.”

His companion, and older lion who often seemed to do little except sleep, shook his head. “No . . . no . . .” he said. “You haven’t thought about this. We’ll just sit here and watch them for a while, and we’ll think about the way the land lies down there. Then we’ll creep down—nice and slowly . . . and catch them all.”
Too many managers today are like the young lion. They dash into action as soon as they see an opportunity. All their rushing about and causing a disturbance alerts everyone else to what they are doing; not just their “prey,” but also every competitor. It’s amazing how many people cannot hold back from telling everyone they meet about this great deal they’re about to pull off, or this wonderful new product that will amaze the market. Is it surprising others decide to muscle in on their action?

There is a time for action and a time for thought. For too many managers, action comes first and though comes after. They dash headlong into the first opportunity they come across, moving so fast they fail to spend any time thinking, and therefore gaining only part of the benefits. If they had given themselves time to look and listen, they might have worked out ways to produce far greater results. They are like the young lion. They catch just one antelope and think how splendid their achievement was. Successful people know that thought always comes first—a great deal of careful thought—followed by even more patience until the time is just right. Then comes the action: swift, purposeful, and tightly focused on what will produce the best possible outcome. They catch all the antelopes. They take even a modest opportunity and turn it into something big.

Even if they fail, they go on thinking: analyzing what happened and how they can do better the next time, and learning every lesson experience can teach them. They don’t rush, or fret, or give way to impatience. They don’t waste their energy on high-speed chases, or try to impress their colleagues by constantly rushing about. Warren Buffet is the richest investor in the world. Is he the typical Wall Street type, focused on putting together swift, high-profile, flashy deals full of complex financial tricks? It’s clear he is not. For years he has stuck to a simple investment philosophy and a down-home style. But none of those Wall Street types has made anything like the money he has made. He crept down the hill and patiently caught whole herds of antelope, while they have been dashing about trying to catch just a few.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, August 18, 2020

Do You Hear Me?

Rushed, overworked, and poorly focused leaders rarely listen to anyone very well; their minds are too distracted. Others—usually the more arrogant and self-obsessed—make the silly mistake of trying to save time and effort by mentally categorizing people: an A-list (always worth hearing), a B-list (who are sometimes given some attention), and then everyone else (who are automatically ignored or excluded). Such leaders, whatever their motivation, greatly increase their risk by shutting their ears (and their minds) to vital sources of information. Failure to listen quickly leads to failure in everything else.

A typical top executive, for example, might choose to hear powerful colleagues nearly all the time, together with an inner clique of close friends and advisers. Others the executive must at least appear to listen to (usually people on the B-list) are given polite expressions of attention, while the executive’s mind is mostly elsewhere. As for everyone else, the executive either manages to avoid them altogether—“minders” and personal assistants are a great help in this—or chooses to dismiss whatever they say before they open their mouths.

Failing to listen widely and with an open mind is a basic error of leadership. Sometimes it is caused by simple egotism (I am too important to have to listen to anyone less important than I am). More often it is a by-product of an over-stretched schedule, leading to the belief that spending time listening—especially to those whose views are assumed to be not worth hearing—is wasting time urgently needed elsewhere. Yet acting like this is always hazardous, since it closes off vital sources of information about what is going on outside your immediate area of view (which is already highly restricted). Making up your mind instantly about who is worth hearing leaves you easy prey to every glib, smart-souding manipulator. They know how to sound impressive, even if what they have to say is self-serving, biased, or incorrect. Someone capable of bringing you the true picture may be nervous and inarticulate, especially if it is someone junior who knows others may have been keeping you in the dark.

Failed leaders are usually those who allow themselves to become insulated from the real world by a clique that feeds them false information. Why are there so many stories about a good ruler who is lead astray by evil counsellors? Because it’s one of the commonest events in human history. The saddest part is that the leader concerned typically co-operates in his or her downfall by refusing to listen to anyone else. More leaders fail through lacking accurate and timely information than ever come to grief through incompetence. Most of these have fallen into the trap of relying on data from a tiny A-list of chosen people, many of them just as remote from everyday reality, and all of them actively pursuing personal agendas. The data was there, as were those who could have supplied it. What was missing was the leader’s willingness to listen to those who might conceivably have something useful to say.

Successful generals have long known that time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted. Never restrict your sources of information in an arbitrary way. Don’t assume some person is always worth listening to and another is not. It is rarely true. Even the most trusted advisor may sometimes bring you data of dubious worth. And never fall into the trap of trying to save time by dismissing ideas or suggestions in advance, purely on the basis of their source.

Wise leaders understand that it is not safe to assume other people will always be expert at expressing themselves. Nor is it up to others to make it through the defenses well-meaning assistants will try to keep in place around any busy manager. It is their job, as leaders, to be experts at listening and getting the information they need; and at seeking it out wherever it may be found. If they don’t have currently enough time to do this, they drop something less useful to make space in their day. Being a poor listener, especially an arrogant and pigheaded one hiding behind a screen of minders, will ruin you faster than just about anything else.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, August 16, 2020

Seeing in Black and White

Speed and pressure aren’t the only reasons why leaders are tempted to simplify their view on the world to black or white images, but they undoubtedly have the most impact. When people feel stressed or harassed, especially if they feel they have no time beyond the minimum, something has to go. That something is usually complexity or subtlety. Faced with making decisions quickly, no matter how uncertain or complicated, people fall back on black-or-white thinking.

It’s human nature to seek security when you’re feeling anxious or afraid: to look for some simple, comforting place to stand. If that means reducing your view of the world to simplistic certainties and rules of thumb, this seems a small price to pay for a sense of stability. It’s the mental equivalent of Charlie Brown's comfort blanket or sucking your thumb—and many leaders today are addicted to it.

You can see this addiction in the constant demands to have explanations and arguments fit onto one side of a sheet of paper. The ostensible reason is saving time: The senior executive doesn’t have the space in his or her schedule to read lengthy reports. Another is the popular belief that if you can’t say what you need to say in less than 300 words, you haven’t thought it through clearly enough.

It’s easy to have sympathy with managers who want to avoid endless sets of meaningless PowerPoint slides (ugh!) and the usual morass of business-speak and jargon-filled BS that masquerade as reports or briefing papers. But clarity is not the same as brevity. Because something is expressed in a series of sound bites, it doesn’t mean it will be more understandable, and certainly not more sensible. Often, the price of reducing the explanation of a complex issue to a few hundred words is enough over-simplification to make it meaningless. This constant demand for brevity and simplicity does not help senior people make better decisions. It forces them into the business equivalent of getting their information about the world from the tabloids: simple, highly-colored, sensationalized, and 95% fiction.

True brevity and clarity in our complex, highly-colored world takes time—and lots of it. Expressing the essence of a difficult business problem in a very few words would challenge a professional writer with days to spend preparing, editing, and revising. In most businesses, reports or presentations are put together by relatively junior managers with no training in writing skills and perhaps few hours at most to complete the task. As a result, senior managers make critical decisions on the basis of information so reduced in content that it offers no more than a vague, confused, and partial image of reality. It is like asking for advice on whom to marry, and receiving a pile of blurred photographs and two-sentence descriptions. . . all except for the single candidate favored by the person providing the advice.That candidate gets a large, clear photograph and two paragraphs of enthusiastic support. Basing business decisions on such simple, “one-side-of-a-piece-of-paper” information reduces executives to virtual idiots, whatever their personal expertise and track-record.

Many years ago, I worked in an organization where one particular director was the terror of every person who ever had to submit a report or make a presentation to the Board. All the other Board members arrived weighed down with briefing papers from their subordinates; he never had anything save the agenda. They relied on subordinates to reduce the complexity of the choices facing the Board to simple, one page statements of how they should proceed. He used his brain, his own ability to think through the issues, and his time to fasten on the weak points of a presentation, or the places where issues had been skated over to produce a simpler picture. Anyone who tried to miss out important points found themselves pinned down with sharp, incisive questions and a demand to go away and think about it some more. Was he clever than his colleagues? No. Did he have more time available? No. Did he do something they failed to do? Yes, he did. He never allowed his subordinates to confuse him by over-simplifying an issue or omitting key areas of concern for the sake of brevity.

A leader’s role is simple in concept, though far harder in practice. It is to get the best available people into key roles, then help them produce the best results they are capable of producing. Good leaders serve those they lead. Mediocre leaders expect to be served with whatever they mistakenly believe will make their lives easier. The very worst leaders demand to be fed a diet of simplified information that will never, ever, question their biases and preconceptions, or force them to think beyond their immediate levels of prejudice.

Simplistic, black-and-white thinking produces poor leadership. It is becoming more common, not because leaders are generally declining in quality, but because more are being denied the time to do their jobs properly. Slowing down, sorting out proper work priorities, and delegating correctly usually provide a complete cure. If that still doesn’t work, you have the wrong person in a leadership role.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, August 14, 2020

The Dangerous Myth of the Heroic Leader

Some of you may already have discovered Bob Sutton’s website “Work Matters.” If you haven’t, it’s well worth taking a look. I recently found this posting, which set me thinking about how easily we misunderstand reality and the true causes of organizational success. The high-pressure, anxiety-ridden workplace culture this creates is the root cause of much of today’s obsessive, “macho” management style.

Briefly, Bob’s point is that while the actions of CEOs and top teams are usually treated as the primary causes of organizational performance, this is not the case. Linked to this error is the equally common assumption that providing “suitable” incentives, such as share options, will encourage top executives to work harder, ensuring rising profit goals are met. This is often described as aligning the executives’ interests with those of the shareholders. They both want money, and the shareholders believe the executives’ actions are the key to producing it..

As Bob writes:
The problem with these arguments is that they all are based on the assumption that CEOs have a lot of influence over performance. After all, if CEOs didn’t have much influence, tying their rewards to performance or getting rid of bad leaders wouldn’t matter much. It is instructive to compare this unwavering faith in the power of CEOs with the best evidence. Yes, leaders do have some impact, but far less than most people think. My colleague Jeff Pfeffer published a paper in 1977 in the Academy of Management Review showing that leader's actions rarely account for more than 10% of the variation in organizational performance, and often account for much less. Subsequent studies have confirmed this general pattern.
If the actions of top teams and leaders really have such a limited impact on the business, does Slow Leadership matter either?

I think it does, and here’s why. What Bob says matches my own experience when it comes to the success of the business in market and financial terms. There are far too many variables, complications, and sheer unknowns for any one person—or even a whole group of senior executives—to be able to impose what they want on the world at large. And that’s without the fact that for every Company A that wants the market to go in one direction, there will be a Company B (and probably Companies C, D, E, and F too) who wants more or less the opposite, and is working just as hard to bring that about. Only one could be the winner in this game of changing reality; unless the truth is that none of them have much effect on the universe, but when chance turns one of them into a temporary success, they happily take the credit.

However, when it comes to creating the culture of a company, the position is reversed. The actions of people at the top have enormous influence. Ever since hierarchies came about in the world, those below have studied, and copied, what those above them do. It’s usually seen as the best way to make it up the ladder. People emulate the boss’s behavior (after all, it worked for him or her, didn’t it?) and apply some subtly flattery at the same time. Besides, going against what the boss thinks is right isn’t a smart way to win favor. Subordinates study, analyze, and copy the boss all the time. No boss thinks of copying their subordinates.

Let’s bring the two points of this article together and see what we have. First, we have the basic assumption that the actions of leaders are the main determinant of corporate success. It’s false, but everyone seems to believe it, including most of the leaders themselves. That puts them under a great deal of pressure. Whether the business succeeds or fails, they’ll be seen as the cause. Then their remuneration is closely tied to business outcomes. Take these two facts together and you can see why it is inevitable that leaders will try to keep everything they can under their close control. In a very small business, that level of personal involvement might just be possible, but in a huge, multi-national corporation . . . ?

I think the outcome of this erroneous belief in the superman-type leader is two-fold: it makes leaders devote just about all their waking hours to the impossible task of trying to force the future to turn out exactly as they want it to; and causes subordinates who watch this happening to get the idea that doing the same is the key to making it to the top.

The mad belief in the leader as corporate hero and savior, or source of every failure and setback, is the first stage in creating today’s barbaric workplaces values. The second is adding the common practice of linking leaders’ financial rewards to measures such as profitability or share price, in the mistaken belief that these are primarily determined by those same leaders’ actions. Knowing they will be blamed for every failure, and richly rewarded for every success, leaders become extremely anxious about the future. They assume their actions are what determines events, so they strain every nerve to try to bring about favorable results, including hounding and harassing all those around and below them. The resulting corporate culture is high-pressured, full of long hours and constant anxiety, and riddled with stress. It cannot be otherwise, since everyone is devoting themselves to doing the impossible: to making reality move according to their personal wishes by sheer willpower and effort.

The truth is that actual organizational results come in the main part from a shifting combination of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and favorable effects from a myriad of people you don’t even know about. All this anxious striving and worrying is mostly for nothing. Copying the actions of successful leaders of the past, following the latest management panaceas, hiring expensive consultants: none of them have more than a marginal impact. However, the continual anxiety and stress at the top quickly gets replicated throughout the organization, until everyone, at every level, is straining and obsessing over how to impose their will on the future. No one stops to ask the simple question: Does any of this make any measurable difference to reality? If they did, maybe they would notice that, once again, the emperor has no clothes.

Calm down. The future will be what it will be. You can maybe have some limited impact on the small part of it that directly surrounds you, but the further away the thing you desire lies, the less you will be able to make it happen. Hard work might help you get good grades, but it cannot ensure you health, happiness, or ultimate success. What you can be fairly sure is that constant stress, anxiety, and obsessive attempts to control the uncontrollable will ruin your life, your well being, and your relationships. And, if you hold a leadership position, your bad habits will be copied by those beneath you. Whatever you do, you aren’t directly responsible for the way the future develops, but you may end up accountable for messing up other people’s lives as well as your own.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, August 11, 2020

Practicing Generosity

Generosity is a leadership virtue that rarely gets due consideration in today’s workplace. I don’t mean being free with money and resources; that is hardly the totality of what it means to be generous. What leaders need to make available to their subordinates as much as they possibly can is their time, their attention, their know-how, and their willingness to listen and strive to understand.

Generosity is essential to good leadership. Leaders need to share their time freely, discussing and enjoying the interplay of ideas. They need to be generous with encouragement, respect, admiration, and compliments. They need to give freely of their attention and empathy. It is as easy to be miserly with information, know-how, experience, or inside information as it is with cash or gold bars.

Many of today’s leaders would benefit greatly from some history lessons. The word “generosity” is formed from the same root as “generate,” meaning to create or bring to birth. Originally, in medieval English, “generous” meant a person of nobility. During Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times in Britain, the first duty of a king or lord was to display open-handed generosity to his followers. Generosity produces; meanness merely hoards. Leaders who are generous in sharing whatever they have can quickly produce a climate of fresh ideas, increase motivation, add to their people’s knowledge, and help the whole operation become more productive. Those who are stingy with their time and attention produce only frustration and disillusion.

Sadly, when people are in a rush, they often don’t have the time or energy to act generously towards others. All the pressure and manic busyness in today’s organizations is increasing whatever tendency people already have to hang on to knowledge or power as a means of personal survival. If you are afraid that you may lose your position in the next round of staff cuts, you are hardly likely to share whatever you think gives you value to the organization. You will cling to it as the sole means of increasing your own chances of survival. You’ll try to hide it and make yourself indispensable.

Like most virtues, generosity is reciprocal. If you act ungenerously towards others, they will repay you in the same coin. If you hoard your knowledge and try to hide away any advantage you possess from prying eyes, others will do the same. In time, the whole organization becomes more and more secretive, each person building their own personal silo where they squirrel away bits and pieces of information and expertise. When anyone leaves or is let go, that knowledge goes with them. The organization is steadily bleeding vital know-how, though few probably realize it until it’s too late.

Generosity is particularly important right at the top. Once someone enters the executive suite they become increasingly remote from the rest of the business. That group of top executives is an exclusive club, with its own rules, concerns, obsessions, and assumptions. Among them, influence matters more than authority, so much of the time and attention of top people is absorbed by political maneuvering and the defense of their existing areas of influence. Of course, little of this is of any benefit to the organization as a whole, but any group of ambitious people with their hands on the levers of power are going to behave in the same way.

This is where the virtue of generosity can pay rich dividends. Generous people feel less inclined to hoard. They are more willing to share what they have, whether it’s information, power, knowledge, encouragement, or expertise. Instead of looking inwards, like a miser, and secretly gloating over their riches, they look outwards into the organization. They become philanthropists of know-how, delighting in giving away their wealth to benefit others. Our dearest possession has little value until we give it away, since anything that is hoarded slowly loses its worth there in the dark. A person who teaches others what he or she knows adds to the value of that knowledge with every lesson. A leader who shares power increases it with every person they help. Someone who treats their influence as the means to assist others will see that influence grow and flourish like a field of ripening crops.

Generosity should be recognized for what it is: the mark of an effective leader. In today’s egalitarian and democratic culture, nobility of birth counts for little. But nobility of mind is still as vital as it ever was. The most important role for every leader—especially top executives—is to help others achieve the organization’s purpose, whether by mentoring, providing resources, or spending time sharing their experience and know-how with a new generation. To be mean with any of these is to harm the organization’s prospects in the cause of furthering your own ambitions. And that’s a “crime” that needs to be seen for what it is. . . and judged accordingly.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, August 09, 2020

Practicing Restraint

Restraint isn’t usually seen as a leadership virtue, especially today, when headlong action is typically rewarded. But doing something isn’t very difficult. Doing the right thing (and knowing what that is) is far harder. When leaders rush into action, goaded by impatient bosses or investors or misinterpreting their real role, the likelihood of making unnecessary errors is far greater than the chance of getting anything right.

The tendency to rush into premature actions isn’t solely the result of impatience. Today’s typical corporate culture is permeated by an unthinking preference for action (of any kind) over thought or reflection, based on the assumption that busy, active people are more productive that those who spend more of their time considering what to do and less of it doing what then turns out to be useless.

Among senior managers, action nearly always means making decisions. Their roles rarely require them to do any direct work, so their lust for continual action can only be quenched by a non-stop series of decisions, large and small. They can’t stop themselves. They feel it’s what they’re employed to do. That’s why they spend so much of their time listening to presentations and working through spending proposals and policy papers. Each one represents a decision of some type, and decisions mean action and busyness.

When this gets out of hand, the executives’ unfortunate subordinates are required to send a continual stream of items upwards, each one requiring some fresh decision to be made. The bosses sit in conclave, skimming through piles of paper and making decision after decision, though they’re typically too far from the point where the decision is needed to have much insight into what is best. Their subordinates are rendered impotent. Nearly every decision must be passed upwards, while staff spend their time composing memos and presentations instead of getting on with what needs to be done. Bureaucracy blossoms as never before and the smallest decision takes days or weeks to obtain.

The proper role of senior managers is twofold: to set a direction and purpose for the organization, and to provide the means for their subordinates to achieve it. No decision should ever reach senior levels if it can be handled effectively lower down. To let this happen is to waste the time of senior people and prove that those lower down are either incompetent or not being allowed to do their jobs. Too many top executives today are overburdened by making decisions that should not even reach them.

It’s their own fault. What they’re experiencing is “punishment” for unexplored corporate assumptions about the nature of the executive role, the precedence given to action over everything else, and their communal lack of restraint. Every hour spent making decisions that aren’t properly their responsibility is an hour less that is available for thinking about the direction the business should be taking. Every meeting spent watching PowerPoints is time that should have been devoted to mentoring their staff and getting to understand more clearly what is needed to allow them to do a better job.

Executives who truly want to be more productive should start by questioning every decision they are working on: Not what the answer should be, but why the decision has reached their level at all. Subordinates who refer decisions upward without real need should be told to stop. Those who cannot handle such choices themselves should be helped to improve or find more appropriate roles. And any senior people who cannot restrain themselves enough to stop wasting their time interfering in what should not concern them directly should be fired. The last thing an organization needs is top people who cannot hold themselves back from doing the work of their subordinates.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Monday, August 07, 2020

Speed, Simplicity, and Bad Choices

Managers are no different from other people. They usually want simple, definite answers, even to complex questions, so they grab at anything that seems to offer a straightforward way of dealing with whatever problems they are facing. Black and white appeals to them more than multiple shades of gray, but reality is rarely so clear cut. Going too fast limits the possibility of exploring anything complex and forces you to work with rules of thumb and oversimplified formulae. As a result, many leaders make their decisions based on unrealistic assumptions of universal causes and equally universal effects drawn from only a few instances.

It is impossible to infer fundamental “truths” about any organization’s situation or prospects from its short-term performance. Nor can studying the actions of successful leaders yield universal principles of leadership for others to follow, unless you were able to study hundreds, maybe thousands, of such examples. Any particular instance of success or failure is more likely to be due to chance or context (beingin the right place at the right time, also by chance) than any specific action or policy choices. You can look like a business genius for no other reason than that your choices were lucky ones, even though the reasons for such good fortune had almost nothing to do with what you did or believed when you made them. It’s tempting always to attribute outcomes to something the people associated with them did or failed to do, but it makes little sense to do so.

Management theorists often base the proof of their ideas on the actions of one or two supposedly excellent leaders, ignoring the context in which those actions were taken and inflating specific instances of success into universal laws of leadership. This is history, not science. Considering how success and failure have been produced in the past is useful as a source of ideas, but a few instances of either cannot produce fundamental principles that are good for all time and circumstances. It’s this process of rapid over-generalization that produces most of today’s fads and fashions of management: an unthinking imitation of any action that seems to have been successful, without considering whether that success was truly due to the stated causes.

Chance plays a far greater role in determining results than we like to accept. Context is important too, sometimes to a degree that obliterates any other supposed causes. If you add the obsessive attention most organizations give to short-term outcomes, you have the pattern that underlies many—perhaps most—cases of seemingly incomprehensible corporate decisions: The willingness to base major decisions on erroneous assumptions about causes deduced from only one or two examples either of good or poor performance. Statistics is sometimes called the law of large numbers; management decisions are typically based on a corresponding “law” of numbers too small to be genuinely useful as a guide to reality. Leaders grasp at simple patterns where none exist, and hurry to fire those assumed to be responsible for failure, where the true causes lie in the organization itself.

It is vital to allow time to question all simplistic assumptions and wait for sufficient information before forming a definite conclusion. Slow Leaders focus on seeking out the true causes of performance, using qualitative as much or more than quantitative information. Before jumping into action, they take whatever time is needed to understand all the circumstances fully.

If the best, most accurate, and most complete information comes from Sid and Ruth in the warehouse—or Gerry, who’s been a loyal customer since 1988—that’s the information Slow Leaders use, even if high-powered number crunchers are on their staff. They also spend less time than conventional managers do asking how the business is performing in the short term, and more considering how it performs over as long a period as can be reasonably discovered. Traditional forecasting is often futile, but spending time envisioning possible futures can be useful in uncovering options and preparing people for the unexpected. Sometimes you need to realize what looks like a problem is the first sign of a wonderful but unplanned opportunity.

The search for basic principles of leadership is unlikely to cease. It speaks to something too fundamental in the human mind: the wish for patterns to make existence comprehensible. But collecting sufficient evidence to support even the most tentative attempts at laws of business is not the work of a few months, or even years; nor can the actions of one or two, or twenty, leaders be considered definitive. Until someone can collate the results of actions by hundreds of leaders in thousands of situations, carefully controlling for chance and circumstantial effects, leaders should rely on their own knowledge and reasoning, and avoid counting on any supposedly universal principles to guide them.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, August 04, 2020

Bertrand Russell on Competition

From time to time, whenever I feel I need a bracing dose of logic and realism, I turn to the writings of Bertrand Russell. I have been reading again his 1930 book “The Conquest of Happiness.” While it is dated in some respects, others seem uncomfortably prescient about the state of the world today, more than 70 years later.

Russell’s chapter on competition is full of such uncomfortably accurate thoughts, especially about how life is today in the United States and most of the developed world. Russell was not attracted to the American culture of the 1930s, and it shows; I think he would be truly appalled if he could see today’s version of the American Dream. Some of his comments also betray considerable upper-class British snobbishness, but if you can set these aside, he raises important questions about the cult of all-out competitiveness—as prevalent then as now.

He begins by searching out the basis for what he calls people’s fear over the struggle for life, describing it as “essentially trivial” in a business context. What he means, of course, is that no one in a rich country need genuinely fear death by starvation or want. This is debatable, even after 70 years, but his main point seems to me to be correct: Amongst people who are employed, especially those in managerial or leadership positions, competition is only about gaining more wealth, not preserving your existence. As he says:
What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbors.
For people engaged in this trivial struggle to outdo their neighbors and colleagues, every day becomes another contest and every small activity a race to be won or lost. Russell likens them to people using the all-out tactics of a sprint, when the race is actually a marathon. The level of short-term effort and concentration on winning each immediate stage is excessive, if the true winning line (the final measure of a good and happy life) is still far off. With all his or her attention fixed on daily competition with equally obsessive colleagues, the exhausted executive has no concern or energy for anything else. Winning and winning and winning again in every tiny contest is bound to produce continual tension and anxiety. It makes no sense as an ongoing way of life.

If life itself is seen as an unending contest, individuals and organizations will find their natures warped as a consequence. Competitive success in the business world demands actions which have as much to do with politics as ability—probably more. If competition is all, a taste for continual excitement, challenge, and immediate opportunities to gratify the lust for winning (and seeing others lose) will multiply. Thought, reflection, insight, and concern for others quickly become worth less than manipulation, toughness, ruthlessness, and cunning. What organizations reward, they increase among the people who work there, while what is less valued is decreased in proportion.

Judging the capabilities of a person (or an organization) through purely competitive criteria makes little sense. So does seeking happiness and a good life through competition at the expense of everything else. Competitive success is no real proof of ability, since most achievements are as likely to be due to luck as anything else; but people skirt over that and cling to the notion that success and failure are based entirely on personal qualities. It’s little wonder then that the upper ranks of organizations are populated mostly by people with a strongly competitive bias, a short-term mindset, an insatiable desire for power, and a decided taste for political games. Nor is it surprising to find them concentrating on activities demanding only a limited attention span and a constant taste for challenge and excitement.

As Russell writes:
The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness. I do not deny that the feeling of success makes it easier to enjoy life. A painter, let us say, who has been obscure throughout his youth, is likely to become happier if his talent wins recognition. Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness; beyond that point, I do not think it does so. What I do maintain is that success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.
Competition too easily spills over into the whole of life, so that even supposed leisure activities become merely another arena for seeking to outdo others and claim bigger rewards. I wonder how many golf games are played for pure enjoyment, compared with the number played for the main purpose of schmoozing a client or winning business rewards? How many homes are chosen for the practical needs of housing a family, compared with those where ostentation and impressing other people dictate both size and location?

The greatest potential benefit of advanced technology is its power to remove want from people’s lives, together with the fear that tomorrow will bring starvation and disaster. Our greatest failure as humans is the way we have abused this power to provide obscene levels of affluence for a few while leaving the majority much where they were before. Organizational life provides a microcosm of this pattern, where the wealth of the few at the top increases at the expense of everyone else. What drives both is an obsessive emphasis on “trivial” competition: the competition to outdo those like yourself, not competition against a standard of excellence or good living that can apply to everyone.

I will leave the last word to Russell:
Competition considered as the main thing in life is too grim, too tenacious, too much a matter of taut muscles and intent will, to make a possible basis of life for more than one or two generations at most. After that length of time it must produce nervous fatigue, various phenomena of escape, a pursuit of pleasures as tense and as difficult as work (since relaxing has become impossible), and in the end a disappearance of the stock through sterility. It is not only work that is poisoned by the philosophy of competition; leisure is poisoned just as much. The kind of leisure which is quiet and restoring to the nerves comes to be felt boring. There is bound to be a continual acceleration of which the natural termination would be drugs and collapse. The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.

P.S. If you want to read Russell’s book yourself, it is still in print.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, August 02, 2020

Change and Stability

Business gurus and management writers are often vocal about change and the necessity of responding to the shifting of circumstances around us. They point out again and again that failing to adapt to a changing world puts businesses at risk from obsolescence and rigidity. So far, so good. But change is a complex of situations and perceptions, and changing too much, too often, will likely cause as much damage as changing too little, too late.

People need some sense of stability. Even those most open to new ideas and fresh approaches cannot operate effectively in the midst of wholesale changes to every part of their life. That is too disorienting. It produces more stress than most people can handle and still remain effective. It also destroys any sense of meaning in what you do, since if things are going to be radically different tomorrow, any meaning they possess today will disappear along with everything else.

In getting the balance right between too much change and too little, I think it helps to make a fundamental distinction between two aspects of business functioning: “how we (currently) do business” and “what this organization stands for.”

How We Do Business

Changing how you do business should be easy, painless and a nearly constant activity for everyone. That is where staying abreast of changing conditions in the marketplace pays off. Instead of infrequent, wholesale upheavals that cause major disruption and leave the organization breathless and confused for months afterwards, organizations should be looking all the time for smaller, simpler, and far less painful adjustments that can be instituted easily and without significant upset.

Clinging to “how we do business” is not likely to be any sort of competitive advantage if the rest of the market begins to move to a different mode. People are less reluctant to change their buying habits than many organizations would like to believe, especially if they either see an advantage in a new approach, or think it is fashionable enough to make them look “with it” and ahead of their friends. Look how quickly and easily millions have switched to Internet purchases, even for goods you might reasonably expect they would want to see and handle before buying.

Usually the strongest resistance to changing how an organization does business is internal. It comes from groups who fear their jobs or influence will wane if business systems are changed; from individuals who are unwilling to make the effort to learn new ways, or who are afraid their expertise will become less valuable; and from those who suspect their own credibility is tied up with the current ways of doing things. These groups can form a powerful coalition to defeat those who march in, waving the banners of wholesale transformation and full of themselves as great change catalysts and leaders.

Trying to impose change by brute force is rarely a sound idea. It doesn’t matter whether you rush into introducing reforms, assuming everyone can be won over by your boundless enthusiasm; or you try instead to impose change by means of authority. Either way may begin by creating “shock and awe,” and sending a cowed opposition underground, but those who are hostile to you and your changes will gradually re-emerge from their hideouts and bunkers to wage the kind of guerilla warfare it can be impossible to counteract.

What This Organization Stands For

That brings me to the second category: “what this organization stands for.” The meaning people crave in their lives should be found not in superficialities of business practice, but in the fundamentals of what the organization exists to achieve or promote. If what your organization stands for is soundly based, there should be no need even to consider changing that for years, decades, or maybe for ever. By holding to a strong pattern of guiding principles, values, and beliefs, around which everyone can rally, you make it far easier for people to accept changes elsewhere. Everyone will retain a strong sense of stability, even in the midst of the most hectic periods of change and redirection.

Part of the benefit of slowing down is the chance it gives leaders to focus on what really matters to long-term survival and success, however much other changes happen along the way.Too many leaders assume they know what their organizations stands for and fail to articulate it clearly enough for others to understand as well. Even more focus the organization’s purpose on shoddy, meaningless outcomes, such as mere profit for shareholders and top executives. Few will rally behind a cause like that. Who can blame them?

By focusing on what the organization stands for and holding steadily to that—first being sure that is something that can engage others and fire their enthusiasm—coping with change becomes little more than adjusting the means needed to reach an agreed set of goals. There’s nothing special about most change. It happens constantly. It only become important when it threatens the meaning and purpose for which the organization exists.

“How we do business” is not worth clinging to or protecting for more than a moment. “What this organization stands for” may be worth defending with everything you have—and doing so with almost any sacrifice needed for as long as it takes.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.