Tuesday, July 03, 2020
Always give yourself time
Sufficient time is the key to making personal changes that stick.
One of the worst aspects of modern working life is the constant pressure to hurry. Not only does it create needless stress and tension, it goes a long way to making people seem dumber and more resistant to change than they are. If you want to make some personal—or organizational —changes, and make them stick, slow down and give yourself some time and space in which to work.In all the discussion on the subject of personal or organizational development, one subject that occurs far too rarely is time: the necessity of giving yourself and others sufficient time to allow change and development to take place properly. Time is an essential component in any change involving human beings. Despite all the rush in today’s world, and the constant demands for the gratification of desires now, almost any progress people make in their lives takes far, far longer than they usually allow for.
Time to learnYour first requirement should be plenty of free time to learn, to think, to reflect, and to internalize fresh ideas. Everyone has the experience of thinking they know something, only to find they’ve forgotten it after a few days. Say you’re learning another language. In the class, what the teacher says is clear and obvious. You know you have it straight this time. But 24 hours later it’s gone. Your brain isn’t a bag that you can stuff with knowledge and ideas and expect them to stay there. Most people’s brains are more like boxes full of holes that allow a great portion of whatever is put in to escape rather quickly. New learning is “liquid” and easily runs out through the holes. Only by repeating the learning experience, typically many times. can you make whatever you’re trying to learn “sticky” enough to stay put.
Time to see patternsYou also need time to reflect and see the links between items or areas of knowledge. The human brain finds it hard to hang on to disconnected pieces of information. Unlike a computer disc, it doesn’t cope well with large amounts of more or less random data. What it does best is see connections, linking information together and remembering the patterns, not the individual bits and pieces of data. Remembering a principle is far easier than recalling facts or some specific set of procedures. Do you see such links instantly? Usually not. It takes time to register them fully and understand them well enough to recall them whenever you want.
Time to thinkThinking time is also vital: time to plan, to prioritize, and to choose how best to expend your attention and energy. Doing anything in a rush increases the risks of missing key elements, making needless mistakes, and wasting effort. I’m somewhat suspicious of today’s fashion for simply getting things done. Which things? For what purpose? Are they the right things anyway? All the to-do techniques and software programs may make it easier to “recall” tasks and list them in some kind of order, but they don’t seem to me to help much with recognizing how much garbage doesn’t need to be on the to-do list at all. Lists easily become clogged with items if you don’t allocate enough time to thinking carefully about what you are doing. It’s a good idea to periodically go through any to-do list to see how many items can simply be dumped, with little effect other than saving valuable time and effort.
Time to changeOf course, change itself also takes time. You aren’t going to be successful with every change or idea for development every time. Many people, faced with change, behave like the investor who buys a stock today and sells it immediately if it doesn’t double their money overnight. Experienced investors allow enough time to grow their money steadily. They don’t get into situations where they must act on a particular day, since that may force them to buy or sell when the market is unfavorable. They don’t become ecstatic at every up-tick in the indexes, or depressed by every down day. They take the long perspective. Warren Buffett is famous for saying the best way to treat the ups and downs of the market is never to think about them at all. His kind of steady, thoughtful, long-term investment strategy works just as well for implementing change as it has for building his enormous fortune. Focusing on small, consistent improvements builds a solid foundation for long-term alterations that go deep enough to last.
Time to be creativeFinally, you need time to be creative. I’m not talking about sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That’s a romantic idea that bears no relation to what genuinely creative people do. In all those “gaps” where they appear to be doing nothing at all, the world’s outstanding creative minds are hard at work reflecting, ruminating, “noodling” with odd ideas: tinkering with patterns and unexpected connections. What you see as the result is a mental iceberg: nearly all the activity that brought it about is hidden below the surface.
Most people don’t achieve anywhere near their creative potential because they never give themselves time to do so. They’re so conditioned to quick action that they give up on fresh thinking long before it has a chance to develop into anything. Don’t make the same mistake. Time spent day-dreaming or running over odd ideas in your head is the “soil” in which creative ideas grow.
Give yourself time. Give others time. It’s essential, if you truly want to improve your own prospects and advance a more civilized way of living and working.
Tuesday, May 29, 2020
What do businesses and Las Vegas have in common?
Both typically produce big winners as a result of one or two lucky bets
Organizations fail because they rely more on repeating past successful behavior than risking failure by trying anything new. Individuals do the same. People are very poor at accepting the importance of chance and context in their lives. Focusing on your successes is a recipe for blindly repeating the past. Failures, however, always have a learning message and the potential for growth. Coyote explores why getting the reasons for success wrong dooms people and organizations to long-term mediocrity.
One of the enduring myths about the world of work is that effort is the key to success. Whether that effort comes in the form of long hours, constant endeavor, or sacrifice of much of the rest of what life has to offer, the belief that, somehow, hard work is always going to be rewarded is at the heart of much of the folklore that governs how people behave in the workplace.
This belief endures because it is both comforting and convenient: comforting to the individuals who do the hard work, and can always believe that it will help them win big one day—even if it hasn’t yet; and convenient to employers, who use it as a way to persuade staff to continue to make determined efforts on the basis of vague promises about the future.
But is it true?
Simple observation suggests that it is not—at least in most circumstances.
Of course, some degree of determination and persistence is important. Giving up too easily, or lacking determination enough to make the required effort, will doom almost any hopes of success. But they are rarely the prime reasons for success in themselves; and there are many, many instances where individuals and organizations have exerted themselves to an almost superhuman extent, only to fail. There are also many cases where someone, or some organization, has done very little, only to be “rewarded” with an amazing amount of success.
The decisions that count for mostMost businesses depend on a relatively small number of large, often risky, decisions. The launch of a new product line. Entry to a new market. Purchase of a competitor. Expansion overseas. To see these as “bets” is quite fair, because that’s what they are, however carefully they have been researched and discussed beforehand. An obvious, safe, incremental step isn’t going to produce large rewards, if only because everyone else will know about it too and probably already be doing it. It’s defensive, not a move to extend or enhance. Only decisions that aren’t obvious, carry risk, and take the organization into new territory stand a chance of creating significant profits and stealing a march on competitors.
The same is true for individuals. The solid, hard-working, cautious, risk-averse person who always does the obvious isn’t going to make it to the top—especially in competition with those willing to take bigger risks and flaunt their successes more openly.
These make-or-break decisions are bets on an uncertain future. Get a few right, and you’ll look like a genius—even if what won you that acclaim is almost entirely luck, or other factors outside your control. That’s why you often see high-profile leaders with a track-record of recent success suddenly run out of steam and appear clumsy and incompetent. They haven’t changed. They’ve just run out of their lucky streak, or found themselves in new circumstances unfavorable to their way of thinking or doing things.
Why success doesn’t help you learnPeople are very poor at accepting the importance of chance and context in their lives—save when they are looking for an excuse for some bad mistake. We much prefer to believe that our successes are due to our own brilliance, while our failures are caused by bad luck and the mistakes of others.
This would be a harmless, if childish, failing were it not that it stops us from learning how to do better. Focusing on your successes is a recipe for continually repeating the past. There is not much to be learned from them, especially if you mis-attribute the reason for success to some personal action, when it was really the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Failures, however, always have a learning message—often one that is a vital step towards eventual success. But you cannot hear that message if you are always mis-attributing the reasons for your failures to bad luck, the errors of others, or unforeseeable events.
All the rush and haste of Hamburger Management leaves neither time nor inclination to sort out the true reasons for success or failure. Like the gambler in Las Vegas, the Hamburger Manager usually believes that he or she can somehow win over the odds consistently, even if no one else does. The result is the same in both cases: repeating the same behavior that once (supposedly) let you win big, until it causes you to lose even bigger. Organizations fail because they rely more on repeating past successful behavior than risking failure by trying anything new. Individuals do the same. It takes a long-term view to see the truth, but that’s something few people or organizations seem to possess.
Thursday, May 24, 2020
The great sine wave of life
Why recognizing the ups and downs of life and business is vital
Success in life rises and falls, yet most organizational projections proceed ever upwards in straight lines. What is going on? Can organizations and their leaders really manage what nature never does—continual, uninterrupted progress? Or is it just hype and self-delusion?
A little while ago, Steve Roesler posted an extremely perceptive comment on this site. I replied at the time, but I think what he drew attention to is sufficiently important to warrant its own article. He referred to “the great sine wave of life.” That’s the way success rises and falls in a natural, but unpredictable, pattern. He contrasted this with the way that managers continually show charts with progress (sales, results, profits, or any other measure of achievement) continuing in a straight, upward line, far into the future.
Here’s an extract from his comment:
I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I’ve sat down with clients and asked why, in the face of both evidence and the uncontrollable nature of life, they insisted on putting up one more slide that showed an upward straight line as an indicator of where they were going. It is as if anything less than the projection of near-total success is a sign of weakness or defeat. Yet looking back over years of performance, it is obvious that we are on the “Great Sine Wave of Life.” . . . There is a great peacefulness that comes from recognizing that one is not in control (even if one is in charge!). And that is the ability to enjoy the ride, even when it’s bumpy. When you hit the smooth tarmac again it feels that much better!
The ups and downs of accountabilityWe all like to believe our successes are due to our own brilliance and effort. It isn’t so. Much of it is due to luck, whether we admit it or not. Some is due to the efforts of others, which we may or may not recognize as we should. And all of it rises and falls, sometimes showing a welcome boost, sometimes falling back or getting blocked by some problem or unexpected change in events.
Yet we also want to believe that our mistakes and failures are due to something—perhaps anything—other than our own mistakes, failures, stupidity, and weakness. This is also not so. Luck plays a major role here too, of course. So do the actions of others, or the rise and fall of markets and customer confidence. But we cannot shrug off our own accountability quite so easily. As Steve says, we’re not in control but we are are still in charge. And if we’re not entirely responsible for our failures (though our actions play a significant part in bringing them about), we’re not entirely responsible for our successes either (though we can help things along by acting in sensible ways).
So why do we persist in believing that we—and our organizations—can somehow cheat the natural order of things and compel continual, unchecked progress by mere effort and willpower?
On a personal level, this delusion is sad and causes great misery and stress. But on an organizational level, it gets twisted into a doctrine that states that people can be required to make things happen exactly as others demand; and that they deserve blame and punishment if they fail to do so. It’s as if the mere setting of some goals—regardless of how realistic they may be—is sufficient to cause them to happen. Unless, of course, individuals or teams “fail” in bringing them about. No account is taken of circumstances or external events. Successes are gleefully mis-attributed to human action (when luck is often the main cause), and failures are mis-attributed in the same way, this time for the simple reason that those in charge are also expected (impossibly) to be in control. By accepting such nonsense, people and organizations set themselves up to experience unnecessary stress at the slightest sign of “failure.”
The madness of macho managersWorst of all, the macho bent of Hamburger Management creates a further layer of craziness: the assumption that a successful person should be able—who knows how?—to bend the future to his or her will.
Can anything be less productive of a calm, beneficial, and satisfying working environment? Can there be an attitude that is more likely to produce confusion by obscuring the real reasons why success comes about, in favor of silly myths about heroic personal endeavor? Is any set of beliefs more likely to generate stress and result in the punishment of the innocent and the adulation of the merely fortunate?
Does individual effort count? Surely it does, but not for nearly as much as we like to believe. Should people be held accountable for making things happen, regardless of the context and the effects of chance? Of course not. That is insanity on a corporate—even societal—level.
Nature contains no straight-line graphs, only wavesIt’s time for a strong dose of realism. There is no such thing as continual progress. It proceeds in fits and starts, accompanied by times when everything seems bleak. Increasing profits without intermission can only be sustained by trickery, such as buying back large numbers of shares to inflate the price of the remainder, or other forms of creative accounting. That’s why much of the business of accountants has shifted from auditing past results to finding ways to change the appearance of present and future ones; and why consulting companies thrive on finding new ways to manipulate organizations to produce—at least on paper—the straight-line increases the financial markets now expect.
Until we can see clearly what is down to personal endeavor and what simply has to be accepted, like the vagaries of the weather, we cannot have a process of organizational leadership that is rational or civilized. Until we admit that we are not in control of the future—nor even fully in charge of this week’s results—we will continue to create our own, entirely artificial stressors.
Tuesday, May 22, 2020
How useful is the Pareto Principle?
The Pareto Principle is often quoted as a way to save time and effort and thus lower pressure. In theory, it’s a great idea. And, if you look back at the past, it can seem quite easy to identify the 20% of situations, actions, or even people that generated 80% of the returns. But is it quite as simple as it appears? The Coyote investigates.
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the results from any series of actions are caused by 20% of the actions themselves. In other words, most of the results we get because of a minority of our actions. The rest are either wasted or produce little of value. This sounds like a useful observation. However, before you decide the Pareto Principle is true and can be used to guide your actions, I want to ask some important questions.
- Can you identify which actions make up the useful 20%? And can you do so in advance? We have to live forwards in time, so to be useful a principle has to be predictive.
- Going forward, will this useful 20% still contain more or less the same actions? If it doesn’t, repeating them won’t produce any benefit.
Identifying the “magic 20%”Let’s take the first question. It’s easy to feel intuitively that most results arise from a small group of actions. The Pareto Principle feels immediately valid. It also feels like a practical tool. Identify the “magic 20%” of actions and you can more or less dispense with the other 80% without much impact on your results. What a marvelous saving of time and effort.
Of course, this only works if these conditions hold true:
- You can reliably distinguish the 20% of actions that produce that disproportionate amount of benefits.
- These actions or behaviors remain the same for long enough to produce enough benefits to make a difference. If they change more rapidly, not only will repeating them be useless, it might even prove harmful. History contains many instances of people clinging on to actions that used to be helpful, long after they have ceased to be anything of the kind.
- The beneficial 80% of results come from single, identifiable actions—or at least small, obviously-linked groups of them.
What about change?How long will the beneficial actions remain valid? Change can come quickly and unexpectedly. Sticking with what used to work might become a liability in a fast-changing world. And can you be certain that is it always the same 20% of actions that count?
The Pareto Principle is perhaps most often applied to sales. Suppose you could reliably identify the 20% of sales calls that produced 80% of the orders you took this week. How much might the success of those calls rely on the market intelligence, knowledge and simple practice you gained by making the other 80%? Could you miss out all the rest, or even a significant number of them? That would include new customers being encouraged to place larger orders, most prospects and those former customers who might be won back from a competitor.
Suppose that this week, 20% of your calls do produce 80% of your sales. Pareto rules! Next week, you need to sell just as much. Will you visit the same 20% of customers and receive the same orders? Surely that’s unlikely. They only just placed an order. Most, maybe all, need to use up that order before buying again. Fine. You just need to find another 20%. But how? Everyone else was in the “unproductive” 80% last week. Why should that change?
What’s going on? My guess is that:
- The Pareto Principle distinguishes groups you can only find after the event, once you can see what worked and what didn’t.
- The 80:20 proportion only works over quite long periods. Take any shorter period and it’s much less likely to be correct. 80% of sales might come from 20% of customers over a year or more, but not over a month or a quarter.
- The membership of the “magic 20%” of people, behaviors, or actions shifts. Wait long enough and just about everyone will sometime be part of that 20% group.
I’m not saying Pareto is wrong. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone has ever done the lengthy and extensive research needed to find out. I’m merely suggesting it’s not the universally applicable principle, or the simple course of action, or the practical guide to decisions that we’ve been asked to believe it is.
To sum upI think the Pareto Principle has great intuitive attractiveness—which says little about whether or not it works, nor how it works (if it does). However, these questions remain unresolved for me:
- How do you know which 20% is producing the results? Can you ever find out at a time when the knowledge might be useful? I suspect you can usually only find the answer—if there is one—after the event. And if that’s so, it leads me to a second question.
- Is it always the same 20%? If it’s not (and I suspect it isn’t), maybe the whole 100% will be in that magic 20% group sometime. And if that’s true, the Principle applies only to a specific time period (if it applies at all).
- Are the beneficial results caused by either single actions, or small, readily identifiable groups of actions? If they come from complex patterns of linked causes and effects, it may be impossible, in practical terms, to identify the “magic 20%” under any circumstances.
Friday, May 11, 2020
What would a Hamburger Manager do?
You’ve probably all seen the bumper stickers that exhort you to ask yourself “What would Jesus do?” or “What would The Buddha do?” Their purpose is to urge you to pause before some important ethical or personal decision, using the question to make yourself consider the issue in greater depth—usually with Jesus’ or The Buddha’s teachings in mind. This is my own version of this idea, aimed at helping you to be a better Slow Leader.
Instead of using the teachings of a famous religious figure as a guide to how you ought to react in some difficult situation, I’m going to suggest the opposite: that you take a few seconds of time out to think about what the typical macho, “grab-and-go,” Hamburger Manager would do—then avoid that option whenever you can.
There are two reasons for suggesting this. One: Hamburger Management responses have become the unthinking norm in many organizations, so it will force you to think creatively about a different approach. Two: most of our management problems today are caused by sticking with this out-dated and discredited way of managing, so choosing something else is virtually guaranteed to be better.
Here’s how it might work:
- Profits are falling and sales are looking shaky. What would a Hamburger Manager do? He or she would cut costs violently (to restore profits in the short term), lay off people (to cut costs still more), and use threats and oppressive supervision to drive those who remain to find quick-fixes to push up sales. The result would be a short-term lift, followed by more long-term decline.
By avoiding this approach, sensible managers might take the time to explore why profits and sales are in decline, perhaps uncovering quality problems, poor customer service, technology issues, or loss of competitiveness through obsolescent products. Any solution would be permanent and long-term, without the blow to morale.
- Results are extremely good. Performance is high. There is ample cash available for discovering new ways to grow and sustain the organization. What would a Hamburger Manager do? Hand out huge amounts of money in bonuses and share options to top executives, start on a spree of ill-considered acquisitions, begin claiming to be a management genius and solicit sycophantic articles in major magazines, and generally spend his or her time in actions aimed at self-aggrandizement. Then announce impossible targets (based purely on ego and showing off) and try to force the organization to meet them. Generaly drive the organization's results up like a rocket (and soon down like the stick).
By avoiding this, executives might spend the cash wisely, keeping their heads and realizing that good times rarely last, accept that luck was probably a major reason for success, and focus instead on trying to strengthen the organization for long-term, sustainable growth (and against the tough times that will surely follow some day).
- The media (or some consulting firm) announce that the organization spends far more on staff costs than some supposed “benchmarks.” What would a Hamburger Manager do? Cut staffing, find ways to lower benefits and payments to staff, get back as quickly as possible to the benchmark level—so good people leave, it’s harder to attract talent for the future, and there is a general decline in innovation, creativity, and the availability of good staff.
The alternative? Probably to ignore the announcement and do nothing at all, so long as those extra costs are there because the staff are of a higher quality than in most organizations, and doing a great job. Most of these supposed benchmarks have no real validity anyway. Many (perhaps most) are invented by consultants as a way to solicit business.
- A new CEO (division head, head of department) is appointed, perhaps to try to revive the organization after a bad patch. What would a Hamburger Manager do? Fire, or otherwise remove, as many as possible of the existing management team and replace them with his or her own people (a.k.a. cronies). Sweep away as much as possible of the previous way of doing things. Organize a series of high-profile meetings, complete with lengthy Powerpoint presentations, to announce vague and grandiose new strategies. Review the performance of the staff and demonstrate “toughness” by letting go everyone rated as “below average.” The result would be a period of total chaos and confusion, during which results would probably fall still further. If so, the new person might be fired, and the process would repeat.
An alternative would be to spend time listening to current staff, make as few changes as possible during this learning period, show that good people had nothing to fear from the new regime, and seek out and act on creative ideas from all sides for turning things around. Which would make you stay and do your very best?
Thursday, April 05, 2020
Taking a positive view of procrastination
Putting things off may be a sign that you haven’t done what you need to do to make a firm decision
I’m amazed how many blog postings, articles, e-books, and books there are claiming to cure procrastination. It must be a global pandemic, worse than bird flu could ever be. If there are enough people who habitually procrastinate to justify so many words and prescriptions, it’s a miracle any work is done at all. Yet is procrastination always a failing? What if it’s telling you something that you need to hear?Hardly anyone ever looks at the positive benefits of procrastination. There seems to be a universal assumption it’s an almost moral failing to be eradicated. Perhaps that’s because of the prevalence of the Puritan Work Ethic. Procrastination is assumed to derive from laziness; and there’s no greater sin in the Puritan Work Ethic Catalog of Deadly Sins than laziness. And if it’s not laziness that’s the problem, it’s poor organization. Use this or that planning tool and never procrastinate again! Whipping up concern about procrastination is a wonderful marketing ploy for anyone with something like that to sell.
But are laziness or poor organization the only reasons for procrastination? Sure, both happen sometimes, but many of the “cures” put forward for poor organization are so simple it’s hard to believe people haven’t already tried them—even if they didn’t buy the expensive software yet. (It used to be planner diaries, but now it’s software. Same difference.) And while some people are lazy, I’m not at all sure that it’s as prevalent as all those anti-procrastination urgings would suggest.
I’m more interested in the reasons why people procrastinate. When you consider those, it seems procrastination may often be a sensible, even essential, response. Here are some possible reasons:
- One of the commonest reasons for putting something off until later is fear: fear of making a fool of yourself, fear of getting it wrong, fear of doing something you know that you can’t do properly. Fear is our natural warning system. It may be rational or irrational, but it should always cause you to slow down and think before going further.
Is the fear imaginary or real? Many are imaginary. You conjure up all kinds of potentially bad situations in your mind, then convince yourself they’re bound to happen. Total nonsense, of course. Still, you may have benefited by the moment’s pause to consider them and dismiss them as foolish. But not all fears are illusory. Some are warnings of real pitfalls ahead; problems you would do well to consider in advance. In such cases, procrastination may save you from serious harm.
- Next there’s that uneasy feeling you get about some choices. They seem sensible, but there’s a niggling question in the back of your mind. Something about them doesn’t feel right. So you procrastinate.
That’s entirely rational behavior. If something doesn’t feel right—and you aren’t absolutely forced into instant action—it’s logical to hold back until you can resolve the problem. Using some planning tool to override your unformed concerns isn’t a good idea. Once again, there may be nothing to worry about. But if there is, far better to take your time and get it straight first. Another plus for procrastination.
- You may also procrastinate because you suspect that you aren’t ready to handle something. Yet another good reason to wait. Or because you didn’t do the necessary preparatory work and think you might be caught out by lack of preparation. Or because you aren’t sure you’ve considered all the options. All excellent reasons for delay. All positive kinds of procrastination.
- Another common cause of holding back occurs when you believe you ought to do something, but you don’t want to do it. Surely this is a situation where pushing past your urge to procrastinate is essential?
Hold on a little. Why don’t you want to do it? You might be right to hold back. There are many cases where all those “shoulds” or “oughts” have no rational basis. They’re there because it’s the conventional thing to do, or someone else is pushing you to fit their agenda, or because of some rigid dogma or traditional belief. None of these make them right. If something is holding you back, you should at least explore it properly before allowing yourself to be bulldozed into action by a “should” or an “ought.” Take it as another warning and act on it.
- Then there’s one of the commonest reasons: pressure. There’s someone, usually the boss, driving you on to do something that you don’t believe is right, or even sensible. You’ve raised your objections, but have been told to keep quiet and do what you’re told. Maybe you’re under pressure to make sure “the numbers” look right, but you know that isn’t in the organization’s best interests longer term. Is it right to delay? Or should you forget your scruples and comply? Not an easy decision, and one that almost anyone would want to take time over.
Many years ago, I was told this story by a policeman in Birmingham, England. The newspapers had been full of dire warnings about the terrible state of local schoolchildrens’ understanding of simple arithmetic. Everything was blamed, from incompetent teaching to laziness amongst pupils and apathy from parents. My policeman friend didn’t believe a word of it. He told me about a young man he’d arrested many times for various betting scams. This boy (he was fifteen) had almost no education and could barely read or write. Ask him any normal math problem and he’d be lost. But he could calculate betting odds, and the pay-out on the most complicated multiple series of linked bets, in the blink of an eye. No mistakes. What he truly wanted to do, he did. The rest meant nothing to him.
Before you sweep your hesitation aside, stop and think. What may it be telling you? Is it just laziness and disorganization? Or are you being rushed into something that is making you feel uneasy—perhaps with very good reason.
One of the worst aspects of many organizational cultures is the over-emphasis on action and related denial of the importance of taking time to reflect fully before making any important decisions. Rushing intro something unprepared, or with too little consideration, is hardly a sound basis for success. Yet tens of thousands of people have swallowed the idea that, to be a good leader, you have to be willing to take snap decisions on just about everything. There are even books extolling the supposed merits of the process: making decisions in the blink of an eye, rather than taking the time needed to consider options and alternatives properly. Against a measure like that, almost any response other than an instant one looks like procrastination. Perhaps that’s why it suddenly seems to be so prevalent.
Monday, April 02, 2020
Decision making by data collection isn’t management. It isn’t even sensible.
The current-day obsession with data and measurement is part of a supposedly “scientific” approach to management and decision making. Yet our equal obsession with speed and cutting corners ensures that choices are often made without taking enough time to weigh all the evidence, test it for validity, or even consider its true meaning. To parody Sir Winston Churchill: “Never in the history of human leadership has so much been measured by so many for so little resulting clarity.”We live in an age that prizes data and measurement to an almost obsessive degree. Computers have increased our ability to collect and process information by many orders of magnitude. Almost every special interest group, from political parties to social action groups and trade associations, trot out yet another slew of survey results whenever they wish to make a point or attract the attention of the media. No one seems to stop to ask what use we are making of all this data. Do we even know if it’s correct? Or what it means?
The media report all the often conflicting survey results with gleeful interest. Survey stories fill air-time and column inches. You can nearly always find some nugget in them to create a jaw-dropping headline. Never mind that today’s survey contradicts yesterday’s. The public attention span is assumed to be too short to care—or maybe even to notice.
Surveys and statistical studies have long been the stock-in-trade of academics. You publish your results, others test and criticize them, and—slowly—knowledge inches forward. If what you report fails to stand up to analysis and replication by your peers, it is rejected. You are an expert writing for experts. They demand solid evidence and unshakeable methodology. This process is the foundation of the scientific method.
Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.In organizations, much of the data is collected and analyzed by amateurs. The methods used are often poorly understood. Once available, results are use more politically than scientifically: to justify individual points of view, support pet projects, or wave in the face of opponents. What supports a case is seized up. Often there is no one to question it, since any “inconvenient” findings are quietly hidden away. Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.
It is the aura of scientific respectability that makes the day-to-day use of numerical data and survey results so attractive—and so dangerous. The results printed in the media, or reported in tens of thousands of Powerpoint presentations in corporations every day, are not delivered to be checked, questioned, or challenged. They are to be believed. All the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) trappings are used to foster an unquestioning acceptance of the supposed findings. The hearer or reader is subtly reminded that they are ill-informed amateurs being addressed by experts possessing all the data. This isn’t science. It’s marketing and PR “spin” wrapped in scientific garb. It’s a very aggressive wolf trying to pretend it’s a harmless, scientific sheep.
In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five . . .In the workplace, more and more data is demanded, processed, and used to justify various points of view. Do those making decisions based on presentations of this data understand it? Do they have the knowledge, or the time, to question its validity—or even reflect on what else it might be pointing to, in place of whatever they have been told to believe? Is there any opportunity given for fact-checking or attempts to replicate the findings?
The answer to all these questions is usually “no”. Haste is endemic. Executives are expected to make virtually instant decisions. Most of them are too overwhelmed with data, let alone all the other demands that they face, to do more than accept what their “experts” tell them. In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five; or that they have virtually no grasp of statistics and can be bamboozled by almost any set of plausible-seeming figures.
Worse, yet, many of the “experts” producing and presenting this data are consultants, and expensive ones at that. When you pay millions to get a report from a consulting firm, you aren’t usually disposed to question or reject the results. And the more that you’ve paid for the consultants’ findings, the less willing that you are even to consider that your money might have been wasted.
What does it take to make sure of a sensible level of fact-checking, critical analysis, and consideration of all this data, let alone the conclusions that you are told that it supports?
In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual.It takes time and the willingness to regard all proposals, however enthusiastically presented and wrapped in “scientific” analysis of data, with initial skepticism. In our judicial systems, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty (though try getting the media to respect that). In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual; and all proposals supported by data, however superficially convincing, should be the subject of deep suspicion until proper independent evidence is produced.
Time and skepticism: the very heart of Slow Leadership. Without them, managers and executives are almost helpless against manipulation by special interests and confusion by data overload. A glut of macho Hamburger Managers, all primed with endless ambition and eager to appear decisive, coupled with silly workloads and a corporate obsession with instant gratification, is a terrifying prospect. It’s like putting a group of manic two-year olds in charge of your trust fund.
Hardly a recipe for sound, truly scientific decision-making, is it?
Friday, March 30, 2020
Taking the time for complexity
Over-simplification and management by slogans threatens to drag us all into mediocrity
Hamburger Management is big on simplicity—and speed. It tries to find quick and simple answers to everything, since there’s no time available to develop a proper understanding of often complex situations. True experts in a topic can often make something extremely complex seem understandable by anyone, but that comes only as a result of decades of deep thought and experience. What Hamburger Management offers is simply the Disneyfication of leadership.
We live in a complex world. We’re complex creatures, full of complex thoughts and emotions. Nothing about us is straightforward, from the trillions of trillions of connections our brains can make to the way we’ve taken something as necessary as the continuance of our species and turned it into a maze of hopes, desires, fears and opportunities for righteous condemnation. Many of today’s organizations are massive—financially, geographically, and in terms of products handled and people employed. It’s probably fair to say that much of modern life, but especially business life, has never been more complex, interconnected, and far-reaching in its effects.
And still, despite all of this, managers and business leaders remain hooked on the notion that there’s a simple, quick answer to everything.
The myth that life is simple undermines comprehension, decision-making, learning, and even happiness.We’re urged to “keep it simple, stupid.” Complex projects, requiring decisions that may result in investments of millions of dollars, must be reduced to an “elevator speech” of thirty seconds or less. Opinions on matters so difficult and involved they almost defy comprehension are delivered in fifteen-second sound-bites. The Powerpoint presentation—that modern obsession designed to reduce every communication to a list of bullet points—has replaced any kind of reasoned argument, or careful explanation of options, evidence, and risks. Executives rush from meeting to meeting, rarely allowing themselves the time either to consider what they are about to decide, or reflect on what they have just accepted or turned down.
In an atmosphere like this, it become impossible to learn anything. The very best that can be done is to apply simplistic rules of thumb and take mostly emotionally-based decisions. Thoughts and the weighing of evidence take time. Emotional responses are virtually instant; plus they come with an impressive feeling of certainty, even if that feeling is based on almost nothing tangible. Is it any wonder that, in an age of news broadcasts reduced to slogans and sound bites sandwiched between far more extensive advertising, discussion programs aimed at producing confrontation rather than insight, and the written word reduced to books hyping “The Secret” and other panaceas for every known situation, few people even grasp the pressing need to slow down and allow yourself time to sort out fact from fiction and carefully-constructed spin?
The myth that life is simple undermines comprehension, decision-making, learning, and even happiness. Wishing doesn’t make the wish come true. Panaceas rise and fall with monotonous regularity, each one making a fortune for its proponents, then sinking almost without trace—only to be reborn a few years later in a fresh format. There is no credible evidence that the universe responds automatically to our thoughts and wishes, let alone the business world. Intention may help focus your thinking, but it provides no guarantee of success. Simple answers are simple for a very good reason: most of them have sacrificed understanding and reality in favor of sounding good.
Facts will stand up to any scrutiny. Hype and spin cannot stand up to a single, well-chosen question.It’s a sad failing of the human race that we nearly all want something for nothing—to be able to enjoy the fruits of success without the effort (and the time) that it always takes. Since civilization began, there have been glib snake-oil salesmen peddling easy, no-fail answers to life’s problems; just as there have been gurus of every kind assuring their followers that all it takes to win happiness and salvation is obedience to their every word and a few simple “spiritual”or mental exercises—known, of course, only to them.
Embrace life’s complexity. Don’t fall prey to the naive illusion that there is a simple, easy answer to every problem. Go beneath the spin, the presentation, the marketing, to the meaning below. Demand to see the evidence. Then demand the time to test and check that evidence fully. Facts and sound logic will stand up to any scrutiny. Hype and spin cannot stand up to a single, well-chosen question. Don't be hurried. Speed is usually a principal factor in disasters of every kind. The person in a rush is the one who misses all the warning signs, cuts all the corners, and jumps to conclusions without any real evidence to back them up.
Hamburger Management urges us to operate in a multiple-choice manner in a business world full of long, complex essay questions. To be genuinely simple takes long periods of time and enormous effort devoted to understanding issues in their full complexity—plus outstanding intelligence. To be simplistic takes neither effort nor thought nor time to consider and reflect. Slow Leadership isn’t slow for no reason. It’s slow because it takes time to get complex things right. Anyone can make a mistake in a heartbeat.
There’s power and interest and potential in complexity. Why throw it away to accept today’s shoddy, simplistic alternatives? Why take the risk of getting things badly wrong, just to save time in the short-term? Won’t those hurried mistakes mean that you’ll have to spend even more time later to try to put them right?
Tuesday, March 27, 2020
Management today is becoming a fantasy game
He (or she) that expecteth too much often receiveth nothing at all.
When it comes to key decisions in the business world, expectations seem to outweigh reality on just about every occasion. The results include endless gyrations in financial markets, increasing levels of stress and anxiety, and the needless loss of excellent staff. It’s time to get our feet back on the ground.Have you noticed how much the world we live in today is driven by expectation, especially the world of work? Expectation trumps reality on just about every occasion, from the stockmarket to the boardroom and the office cubicle.
Let’s suppose that Acme Corporation reports a profit of $200 million for the quarter. That’s a tidy amount of money. Last quarter, they made $195 million, so they are consistently in the black by a substantial margin. Yet their share price falls on the news, perhaps by a significant amount. Why?
Expectations. The gurus of the stockmarket expected a higher profit, so Acme Corporation’s performance is judged to be below standard. But while this seems logical at first, it takes no account of whether those expectations were reasonable—or even had any rational or objective basis at all.
Reality is immediately trumped by expectations—even if those expectations are based on nothing more than hot air.A great many expectations in the financial markets and the media have neither factual basis or logical support. They are created from rumors, hopes, fears, and fantasy. In our imaginary example, Acme Corporation is returning a steady and substantial profit. But that reality is immediately trumped by expectations—even if those expectations are based on nothing more than hot air.
We can see the same process working at the individual level in many organizations. Sara Smith has a good performance record. She works hard, has good skills and a sharp mind, and maintains a clear focus on what needs to be done. Her boss has high hopes for her. Suddenly, things seem to go awry for Sara. She gets a performance rating of “adequate” and a long lecture from the boss on “letting the team down.” She’s urged to work harder. Hints are even dropped that her career prospects are on the line. Whatever happened?
Nothing. Sara has been doing what she has been praised for doing in the past. But her boss’s expectations have soared into the stratosphere. Without any reference to Sara, he has created a dream of constantly-accelerating results, all based on his imagined view of Sara as a whizz-kid. As her manager, he is already enjoying (in his head only, alas) the praise and rewards showered on him from the top brass. All it needs is for Sara to comply.
But Sara has a life outside of work. She is a good employee and well aware of the need to give a fair day’s work in return for her salary. But, when that is done, it’s time to go home and enjoy the rest of her world. She is not aware of her boss’s glorious dreams for her, and would not go along with them if she was. So she keeps right on doing what she has always done—only suddenly it’s no longer enough.
In this tragi-comedy of errors and misunderstandings, the boss feels fully justified in re-classifying Sara’s performance downwards, based on his expectations of what (in his mind alone) it ought to be. Not surprisingly, Sara is hurt and confused. She cannot see where she has failed. In her bewilderment, she starts to lose confidence in herself and the others around her. Her performance really does falter.
When the boss once again expresses disappointment and anger, Sara decides enough is enough. She looks for another job. When she leaves, her boss sees a team member who never really had the “right stuff.” Sara sees a boss, and an organization, that has no clear standards and arbitrary ideas about what is required.
It is the perfect lose:lose scenario, played out in hundreds of workplaces every day.The reality is that they are both wrong. The organization has lost an excellent employee, and must now incur extra cost to replace her. The boss allowed unsupported expectations to become his reality, ignoring what was really going on. He has failed as a leader and cost the business a great deal of money as a result. Sara has lost a job that she enjoyed—and probably taken away a severely lowered sense of self-confidence that may indeed impact her subsequent career. It is the perfect lose:lose scenario, played out in hundreds of workplaces every day.
Reality is what counts. Expectations are insubstantial thoughts—mere dreams and hopes—often based on little or nothing at all. To allow expectations to guide actions is like driving along with your eyes shut, following an imaginary road map inside your head. Is it any wonder if disaster lurks at every corner?
In a world driven by the media, expectations create headlines whereas facts produce only dull text.We have lost sight of the difference between legitimate hopes and goals and the reality that follows. There is nothing wrong in setting goals for yourself—or others—so long as everyone is able to probe and question how reasonable those goals are before accepting them. The notion that, merely by setting a “big, hairy, audacious goal,” you will galvanize peak performance is total fantasy. I can set myself the goal of earning $10 million next year, but such a goal has not the slightest contact with reality—nor can I justify it by enthusiastic wishing. So why do we do it? Mostly, expectations are more exciting than reality. And in a world driven by the media, expectations create headlines where facts produce only dull text.
Leaders and managers need to have the best possible grip on reality, however disappointing that reality may be. Nothing is to be gained by indulging in fantasies, even if they are well meant. Leave exaggerated expectations and imaginary scenarios to media hacks and political lobbyists. To succeed in life and work, every decision and choice has to be made on reality as it stands—never allowing your dreams for something very different to be confused with what is happening in the real world.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.