Putting a Stake in the Ground

March 22, 2010

Sometimes you just have to take a position to move things forward. I see many teams and organizations get paralyzed by indecision, conscious stalling and/or lack of clarity.

I am certainly the king of “it depends” and “context matters” and am a serial deferrer to buy time for more data to come in. I also would stipulate that sometimes, waiting is the most effective strategy. But sometimes, you have to force the issue.

Let’s first discuss how we can force the issue and then get into when and why.

Universal Answer- How

In almost all of these cases, the “answer” is proposing a straw model(s) for people to debate. The point is to put something reasonable in print for people to respond to. In can be high-level and conceptual, or very detailed and well thought out. Whatever works for the context you are in. The point is to commit it to a form that people can understand and meaningfully debate.

You are doing several things in this process.

1 – Summarizing what you believe to be “the current understanding”. This requires synthesis and thought on your part.

2 – Framing clear discussion points for stakeholders. Whether in the form of a proposal, documented assumptions, alternate scenarios etc., you are allowing others to get the “digested” thinking. This advances discussion more quickly.

3 – Controlling the agenda. Remember that he/she who commits thoughts to print first frames the discussion.

4 – Increasing communication efficiency – The discussion will much more quickly move to clarification and debate when people understand what you are saying. No need to waste time on multiple rounds of clarification if you are clear.

You can position the straw model as your thinking, or distance yourself from it as appropriate. (You still need to e politically astute). Either way, you are driving discussion and action.

The key is often to embed a failsafe trigger that will “go off” if someone doesn’t respond. From a negotiations standpoint the idea is to create a sense of urgency. So document your idea/position and publish it. Could be an email to group, a power point proposal or clear position on white board in a meeting.

Now let’s explore a few times when forcing the issue makes sense. What follows is an unscientific list of situations that I see a need for “stakes in the ground”.

When to apply 

You are on a timeline

In this situation, you often have no other choice. Whether the issue is major or minor, there isn’t time to waste. This is particularly true for consultants. We are always “on the clock”, with time equaling either billable hours or engagement profitability. For better or for worse, clients also know you will be gone by a certain date. Often the issue is as much attention from relevant stakeholders as it is resistance. You are competing for their attention and mental bandwidth.

Example – A team of mine recently did a nice job of managing a client situation by writing a very detailed list of assumptions and actions they were going to take in conducting quantitative analysis of a large and complicated data set based on those assumptions with a due date. They also pointed out the cost if their assumptions were wrong and a timeline for responding.

The result was important (and timely) clarifications, as well as enhanced team credibility due to the detail and rigor of their efforts. Any less effort and we all would have been spinning our wheels for weeks more. They had been struggling to get clarity and finally realized that pe

You want to expose potential disconnects/create a shared understanding

What does this even mean? Here, you think that everyone is not on the same page and the point is to take a position to reveal others’ understanding of the issue. This can be particularly important in cross-functional or cross-organizational discussions.

 One example is that people may not mean the same thing even when they are using the same terms. “Terms of Art” is a phrase used to describe the actual definition of a technical or functionally specific term. For example, organizations often differ from classical functional boundaries. What does “supply chain” mean at your firm? What’s in “operations”? It’s crucial that you reach common operational definitions for these terms to ensure common understanding.

Other examples include:

  • Surfacing assumptions that are so deep, no one even thought to discuss them.
  • Highlighting areas believed to be commonly agreed, but more detail or specificity reveals that the devil is in the details and maybe there wasn’t as much agreement as thought.

You need to make people publicly take a position

This one is more political. Often people are trying to avoid taking a position on politically difficult topics. If you can maneuver them into a position where they have to be specific in their objections, then you can document their issues and potentially push them into a corner if you can address all their objections. You then expose their motivations if they continue to resist/object when their concerns have been addressed.

As always, I struggle with being MECE, but these are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know if you can think of others.

Knowing which side is your bread buttered on

March 14, 2010

I’ve seen lots of people lose site of who the client/boss is. Whether it’s a consulting situation or merely your boss, it’s important to maintain focus on who it’s (relatively) most important to please. Particularly early in their career, professionals can get hung up on what’s “the right” thing  to do, presenting “the right” solution (as if there’s just the one) or naively misunderstanding what gets rewarded and punished. My point is not that idealism is wrong, but rather to keep perspective on priorities and understand “which side your bread is buttered on”.

(Caveat: There is a whole separate set of topics around this on “getting what you want” and “being politically astute”. For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about these things. We’ll focus both on pleasing the boss and understanding the consequences of not pleasing him/her. There are certainly times when we decide to do what we think is appropriate and that has consequences. That’s for another post.)

First, let’s be goal oriented. As reward seeking individuals, we want to do well. This can be defined financially (won another sale, increasing my pay), reputationally (I was praised publicly, increasing my social capital), emotionally (I did good work that was important, increasing my satisfaction) and in many other ways. To get any of these you need influential people to decide you did good work.

So what’s the pecking order of who we need to please? With clear exceptions and understanding that “it depends”, I would propose the following hierarchy:

Level 1 – Your boss. You MUST please your boss. Even if your boss is ineffectual and weak, if they don’t advocate for you you will have a hard time in reviews and salary discussion. Make your boss look good and you are well on your way to good reviews.

Note: I get that some bosses are crappy and treat you poorly. In this case you need to manage a move without pissing them off. Whether you like them or not, you don’t want to turn them into career terrorists for you. Also – getting a reputation as someone who can work with anyone is a plus.

Level 2 – Your boss’ boss and chain of command. Collectively, these executives will have a big influence over your fate and your work presumably directly affects their performance. You want them to A) definitely know who you are and B) have a positive impression. Generally speaking, they will be the ones who decide whether you get other opportunities, not your boss. This is usually because they have greater span of control and more influence.

Note: They have more power, but are second on the list because your boss will still be more immediately relevant in your review, compensation etc. If your boss kills you in a review, you’re dead.

Level 3 – Clients. This could be either internal or external.

I have them third because in any individual interaction, you need to understand your boss’ priorities as you evaluate and prioritize your activities. In the long term if you piss of your clients, you’ll have a short career. I am not saying clients are less important than your chain of command. Without clients, there is not business. What I am saying is that for an early/mid-career professional, never forget who’s in charge.  For example, sometimes you need to aggravate your client to meet a firm goal in the short term.

If you are a consultant working for a client or working cross-functionally on a team outside your department in a large organization, it’s important to understand several things clearly.

First, who is actually paying (or reviewing) you? Stated differently what budget line item is your fee coming from and who is the actual decision maker? Never confuse that with “who do we deal with the most” or “who is assigned as our liaison” etc. Understand where the buck stops.

Second, you need to understand their political position. Are they internally powerful? Are they internally weak? This matters because you want to be smart about navigating a client’s environment. Whether it’s being clever in support of your primary client and their agenda or not overplaying your support because you want to win future work and they aren’t in a position to buy, you need to understand the landscape.

Managing across levels. Sometimes you have to piss someone off. Be strategic and don’t always make it the same person/group. Spread the pain and make sure you “make good” at some other time.

I’ll give a few examples I have seen in my career:

  • Partner tells you to do something that doesn’t appear in your client’s interests.
  • Client staffer (but not your “paying” client) you really like is going to get hosed by a pending decision.
  • Your boss’ boss asks you to do something not in your boss’ best interest.

How would you handle these? There’s no “right” answer, but I’d encourage you to think broadly about how to prioritize and always remember “which side your bread is buttered on”.

Market Sizing Fallacies

November 7, 2009

Here’s a great post from Colin Raney at IDEO who nicely summarizes what he terms the “Large Market Fallacy”: http://colinraney.com/2009/08/the-large-market-fallacy/

I have seen this at multiple steps in my career. People get too excited about big numbers and fail to dig deep enough to understand key market drivers, assumptions etc. I have written on effective planning techniques to avoid this in past posts.

Here was my reaction:

Here’s my observation about why people do this. I think there are 2-3 big reasons (that have some overlap).

1) Not as many people as we want to have actual curiosity and drive to solve problems. Intellectual lazinesss/lack of time is a huge factor.

2) Many people in positions to be doing the plan either lack skin in the game (as you point out), or more commonly (in my experience) they lack actual experience to even understand the depth of their ignorance. It’s a “they don’t know what they don’t know” issue.

3) Corporate culture sets this up as well. Many execs WANT the exiting plan to look good and figure that they’ll “figure out the details later”

So I’m with Colin. Avoid being lazy or ignorant and falling into the Large Market Fallacy Trap.

Fake it ‘til you make it

September 12, 2009

Something I see a lot of people struggle with in their careers is having the confidence to lead. I hint at this in a number of my posts, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed head on. So here goes.

I was just reading a column in business week (“Acting the Part of a Leader”) by noted leadership author Warren Bennis that struck a few chords for me. Many people I chat with or teach have the mistaken impression (in my opinion) that people they perceive as leaders have tremendous confidence, are particularly wise or have some other higher powers that they aspire to have. They often are looking for “the answer” to how to get there themselves. I am certain I was that way years ago and I guess I still am in some ways.

Based on my own experience and backed by some scholarly research, here’s the secret: Most “leaders” didn’t start out that way. It is in fact achievable if you are willing to work at it, take some risks and be resilient when you get knocked down. In addition, you usually have a limited number of really high pressure situations in which to learn to perform. These situations are often thrust on you by circumstances.

Play the Part

Bennis makes an important point about leaders. They are usually “acting the part” of a leader. I suppose that some people naturally do the right things, but most I can think of (Lincoln, Roosevelt, MacArthur, Churchill, Alexander etc.) were masters of wearing “the mask of command”. They understood the part they were required to play to move people forward.

The same dynamic plays out in smaller groups and day-to-day experiences. Most of us won’t lead the free world or face life and death decision for multitudes. But most of us will face adversity in groups and have the opportunity to lead, even if quietly and not from the front.

I think this takes courage more than confidence – A willingness to “be out there” and maybe be wrong. I encourage people to put themselves out there. If it’s a little bumpy, that’s to be expected.  Confidence grows from experience. Do it more and you’ll get better at it.

I’d also add there’s a big difference between being nervous and showing your anxiety. Being visibly agitated doesn’t instill confidence in anyone. I haven’t met many people who were confident in every situation they face, but those who adapt and are able to project confidence are better able to bring teams along.

You often have to play a role that is difficult for you, but needed by the group to advance. In my own career I can think of many examples. The way you lead a small group of high performers is very different that how you lead a team that is underperforming and on a tight deadline. That’s part of what makes genuine leadership tough. There are common principles, but every situation is different. You need to try and be who you need to be given the context.

 So I guess my take-away is “fake it ‘til you make it”. There’s no reason you can’t be more effective if you work at it.

Driving to Yes or No: Case Study

March 1, 2009

In my last post I talked about taking a more investigative approach to growth opportunity evaluation. In this one, I’ll discuss both what it looked like leading a venture using this methodology while touching on what it meant from an executive level.


I had to eat my own cooking when I took a position leading a “growth opportunity” at 3M. We had adopted a phased approach to allocating budget and resources to opportunities through a venture board structure (ie: limited capital allocated to competing business plans). In the “opportunity” phase, an idea received modest funding to answer high level questions. If the opportunity proved compelling, then it could progress to being a “venture” at which point it would receive higher funding for a pilot or launch year. After that a division would have to own the P&L. I think it’s a good process. Divisions compete for funding new ideas, but take it seriously because they know they will eventually have to own the financial results.


My experience was with a new business format opportunity based on an aftermarket car care model that quietly developed in Asia. One of the wonderful things about a diversified global business like 3M’s is that each country unit has incentives to develop innovative new business models based on local market conditions.


My challenge was to determine whether we could take our traditionally product based business and brand into retail “do-it for me” services. Our product line included window tint, paint protection film, waxes, polishes etc. This was clearly a global question, in part because 3M China had developed successful 3M branded service centers with partners and also because the Asian car markets were all growing so aggressively with first time, inexperienced car owners.


I developed my “issue tree” outlining what I thought the big questions were and also worked through a reverse P&L as well as assumptions list (see last post).  Among my major assumptions (in no particular order) were that 1) we could develop the skills and knowledge necessary to win, 2) that we could have a broad enough portfolio to be relevant to consumers, 3) that brand mattered 4) we could hit defined revenue and income targets and 5) that we had sufficient alignment globally to get it done internally.


I went through three phases. The first was a study phase that cost us largely my time and a little research. We easily passed the hurdle at this phase gate. I think of this type of review as passing “the laugh test”. We had executive support and they were interested in the opportunity, so this gate was more of a check in.


For the second phase, we needed to do much more work on business model, detailed market understanding and a risk assessment. As a part of each gate, you have to define success metrics and detailed plan and budget for the next phase. Part of my plan included Michele, the kids and I moving to Shanghai, China for an extended stay in 2006 to understand the Asian business.


To short cut the better part of a year’s work, here’s what I determined and why I think the process and methodology was a good one. In the end, I recommended a retrenchment of the existing opportunity in China and placing better controls on its use of brand and avoidance of the franchise law for several reasons:


1.      The team had been very creative and had excellent results, but the Chinese regulatory environment related to franchising changed in 2005 in ways that were disadvantageous to potential franchisors. Note that at the time KFC and McDonald’s didn’t franchise there either. They owned.

2.      Direct ownership did not seem viable to me given the speed of change in the market, our conservatism operationally and financially and our lack of direct experience in retail services. In addition, we couldn’t find a viable partner or acquisition target.

3.      The reality of company politics regarding brand and legal issues, lack of internal alignment globally and several other internal factors told me that this was not do-able for us.


There is a lot more detail than this, but fundamentally I didn’t see it happening for this opportunity. Here’s why I think the process worked.


1.      Two years prior to implementing this process I think this would have gotten potentially large funding and failed slowly and painfully. It was sexy, represented “breakthrough thinking” and “business model innovation” and all sorts of other applicable buzzwords.

2.      It could have been sold well and gone OK for a few years until it fell under its own weight. Typically, to be cleaned up by the next manager as the first one would have moved on to bigger things based on the buzz from their cool work. (No one ever really knows the financials of someone else’s business)

3.      We got to a “quality” no, based on data and as a result executives didn’t need to revisit the question. Note here that I always could make the math work. The sheer growth in China could carry very conservative assumptions to a positive financial case. I recommended not proceeding because of the work around the “softer” assumptions that were critical to success.

4.      Corporate was happy that a real effort had been made to answer key questions credibly and reliably.

5.      Another benefit of the process to the company was exposing talent to senior management in bake-offs that exposed the quality of people’s business acumen and drive. It highlighted how many “administrators” versus “leaders” there were.


In the end, we went forward as a business unit with a “federated” approach globally while laying out guidelines and serving as a knowledge and best practice sharing hub. Each country took its own approach within guidelines that we laid out. We didn’t try to force a uniform process or business model on each country unit and as a result, the business has continued to grow across 3M. We learned a great deal that has infused other business decisions as well, including some significant acquisitions (lesson: we needed other’s existing expertise and portfolio to be successful quickly). We were fortunate to have a leader who was pro-active in learning and then taking action.


The few caveats I have include:

1.      No process is a substitute for talent. A poor team will kill a great opportunity. This is a place to put your best people, not turf out your problems.

2.      It doesn’t work if opportunities aren’t protected. Nothing kills innovation or creativity like strangling it when things get tough.


I think this process is a good one. My only caution is to not fall so in love with a process or set of tools that you check your brain at the door.

Driving to Yes or No; How to Reach More Rationale Business Investment Decisions

February 23, 2009

Business investment decisions and strategy choices get so complicated. At least we like to make them that way. It justifies the large salaries and tremendous amount of time that goes into PowerPoint slides and Excel models. I’m not really that cynical, but when you’ve sat through as many PowerPoint death marches that end with a recommendation to invest and you’re not sure what you’re investing in, you get a little jaded.


In my prior life working on corporate and business unit level strategy at 3M several of us got turned on to the work of Rita Gunther McGrath as well as some excellent work from the Corporate Strategy Board in this area, primarily a 2003-4 report entitled “Strategic Assumptions Prioritization” that focused on Air Products corporation. McGrath is well known for her work on entrepreneurialism and growth. Her 1995 Harvard Business Review article “Discovery Driven Planning” proposed a useful (to those of us who bought in) and compelling model for how to think about prioritizing and shepherding a portfolio of growth opportunities to kill/launch decisions.


Often, internal capital allocation decisions and “bake-offs” between ideas can lead to PowerPoint template hell. Lots of disconnected slide or excel workbook templates that only apply to certain opportunities, not to others and the resulting desultory compliance in generating useless “analysis”. We asked ourselves: “how do I make the process genuinely useful and also more ‘fair’ as we looked at unlike opportunities (i.e.: a product vs. a service)?”


Based on our research and own internal needs, we devised a process based on several key steps. The first was defining a “reverse P&L/income statement”, the second was documenting the most important assumptions that drove economic success in the reverse income statement and third was conducting research to better understand the accuracy of the key assumptions and refining them as you better understood them. McGrath’s article in HBR nicely describes this and I’ll summarize in a minute.


The major shift for the business I was in was institutionalizing this at a business unit level and better preparing executives to challenge teams’ assumptions and also be more equipped to evaluate unlike opportunities fairly in a common process.


I’ll summarize the challenges, basic principles and then offer a quick summary of my experience with this at both a business unit strategy level as well as


Challenges and rationale

1.      Most business evaluations are set to get you to an ROI or NPV type assessment early on. For truly innovative programs, this is almost impossible. You don’t know what you don’t know. The result is that better understood opportunities (i.e.: “easier” ones) always float to the top.  Air Products (the subject of the CSB report) developed a new method for evaluating these more challenging opportunities.

2.      Many losing propositions get launched and fail for what I think of as “knowable unknowns”. You could have found out cheaply if you had really tried.

3.      Knowing what to focus on can be hard. Everything seems important at first.



1.      Define success as specifically as you can up front. This can mean revenue, profit margin, market share etc. Make it tangible.

2.      Write down all the significant assumptions and then rank their importance and “known-ness” (i.e.: certainty vs. uncertainty) to achieve a loose prioritization.

3.      Build a plan and timeline around the most important assumptions.

4.      Focus research and efforts on cheaply and effectively validating and invalidating these assumptions.

5.      Be creative in finding “proxies” for your assumptions.

6.      Pilot/test ideas quickly to learn about assumptions that can’t simply be “researched”, but do it efficiently.

7.      Never, never, never forget that a good plan with a bad team won’t succeed. Planning is no substitute for talent.



1.      It much more clearly surfaces the key assumptions for everyone involved. Some programs get killed almost immediately once you agree on a key assumption and it doesn’t pass the “laugh test”. Other “far out” ideas become reasonable when you see the assumptions and say “we could do that!”

2.      This process is good at allowing flexibility across opportunities. Assumptions can be very different and get you to “apples to apples” comparisons.

3.      It forces you to more clearly articulate a “thesis” for the opportunity.

4.      It clearly aligns with gate-based decision processes. If you think generically in three phases (idea, pilot and launch) this gets you through them. An initial list of assumptions w/ a reverse P&L for $100 million may need a brief discussion to get $50K in seed funding to increase confidence that yields $1 million in pilot funding and the pilot will give you clarity on the potential $15 million investment required to scale. The process should be systematically reducing doubt as you move through the process.


My next post will be on my experience both at the BU strategy level and as an internal entrepreneur going through the process with a growth venture.

Structure is Important (Duh!)

February 14, 2009

One of my students just observed (paraphrased) that “sometimes you just need to remember the basics”. The comment came after a class in which we had speakers from McKinsey & Co. present and discuss their approach to structured problem solving.


I have this session annually and it mirrors much of the course content we present in the enterprise, but I still always take something new away from the talk. The simplicity of the basic approach is valuable, but also easy to ignore because it seems so obvious. From a teaching perspective I always need to remember that just because we talked about it awhile ago, doesn’t mean people remember it if you haven’t been re-enforcing a concept or tool.


The high level outline of the method is to 1) define the problem, 2) structure the problem, 3) prioritize issues, 4) conduct analysis, 5) synthesize findings and 6) develop recommendations. Every firm has their version of these steps. I teach similar steps in my class. It’s not rocket science.


Despite this I remain amazed at the extent to which we don’t take all the steps we know we should, finding rationalizations to avoid them “we don’t have time”, “we already know the question” etc.


So how do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy, sloppy or incoherent thinking? Here are a few steps that should help.


First principle: Bring your client & team along for the ride. They have to have a tangible role in each of these steps if you want the highest probability of a useful outcome.


1.      Write the problem or question down. This seems so obvious, but how often do you really commit it to print and get agreement from everyone on what it is.

2.      Determine who the client or audience is and what their interests are.

3.      Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can reference.

4.      Build a plan. Everyone needs to know what they’re working on. Not everything is equally important, so be prioritizing or de-prioritizing as you go based on your judgment.

5.      Then of course, you have to actually do the research.

6.      Develop recommendations that can actually be accepted and used by your client. There are some subtleties in this step.

·        A recommendation your client hasn’t had a part in building reduce the likelihood of success. ”Success” here is defined as they actually do something. Merely liking your work doesn’t meet this standard. The client has to “own” it enough to implement it.

·        Be practical about what is achievable. Don’t tell them about “best practices” they need to implement that they realistically can’t.

·        Don’t just tell them “what”, tell the “how”. A plan with nice ideas, but no implementation insight is mostly useless.


Each can be handled at varying degrees of detail. A six month process improvement project targeting $7 million in savings requires more thought and planning than a one week quick assessment you might summarize the thinking for on a napkin. Use your judgment.


Following good process through the project greatly increases the probability of success. It also reduces stress and increases client satisfaction because they can see where you are.