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”.


Competence

August 15, 2009

Never underestimate the power and value of competence. You could substitute “professionalism” here probably, but I like competence better.

I have to vent a little, as I’ve has a string of personal frustrations lately that their heart are issues of people either not caring or not taking the time to get things right.

Case 1: I return from my lovely vacation at the beach and take my puke-stained mini-van (my 6 yr old couldn’t handle 24 hrs in the car!) to the high end car detailing shop. I wanted the car strip cleaned…I mean really nuke it. I paid >$50 for the interior detail package.

I’m in a hurry, as we had just gotten back and I had to get dinner and run other errands before getting home. I wait 45 minutes, which doesn’t bother me as it’s a big job. I get the keys returned to me and drive home. It turns out the back wasn’t vacuumed (sand everywhere) and a few other visible defects were obvious.

Should I have checked while there? Sure. Should I have to? No.

Competence…

Case 2: We just sold our old house. After a drawn out sales process given the economy, we finally had a buyer. While we were on vacation the check from the deal didn’t clear with me 1500 miles away and relatively helpless to move other money around. I have NEVER in my personal or professional life been so angry. I went crazy with my real estate agent and our closing agent. I ended up unavailable later in the day when people returned my calls, so my wife had to spend 3 hours on the phone with 3-5 different parties to get it squared away.

It turns out the title company mis-printed every check that day. The real issue to me isn’t the mistake. We ALL make mistakes. It’s that we had to literally yell to get any response and that no one in the process would own the case.

Competence…

I hear so much talk about the need to be a “star” and a “leader”, all sorts of aspirational descriptors of wonderfulness. Well, in large parts of my career I’d have settled for people just doing what they were supposed to do.

I want to be clear, that in my world “competent” does not mean average. It means “good” or “professional”. It describes the colleagues who understand their role, do their best most of the time, are practical and focused on the end goal, don’t get too caught up in the silly stuff and (most importantly) are NEVER going to bail before the job is done.

In my program at the Carlson School, I have 5-7 student consultant teams every semester. Teams all do well and we have happy clients, but there’s always “turbulence” on a few teams. I would say the #1 gripey feedback people have about others when things go poorly is lack of commitment and/or follow through. It’s rarely that someone couldn’t do their work, rather that they DIDN’T. And in the worst cases, without any advance notice. Often, all it would take to at least buffer the problem is a little warning and then doing some make-good helping at some later point.

Some people just never get this. They also fail to anticipate the future reputational consequences. You want to be the person everyone wants on their team, not the person no one wants.

I sometimes wonder in what universe it’s OK to just not do what you said you would.

At some point in the murky past my uncle, a successful small town businessman, offered the following (paraphrased) advice. “Stay in one place and be competent and you’ll never have to look for business.” His point was that most people move around too much and/or aren’t as reliable as we might want them to be. (How bad is it that my wife is in love with our deck builder because he returns calls and shows up when he says he will?) If you put both together, you’ll do OK.

It comes down to acting the way we all know we should and yet a lot of people can’t seem to muster:

  1. Do what you say you will.
  2. Follow through. Most of the time, it’s as simple as returning a call.
  3. Be good at what you do.
  4. Care about the result.
  5. Care about the impact of your work & commitments on others.
  6. Be respectful to others.

I could go on, but will stop. I’d encourage you to think about how important it is to be “competent” if you strive to be a star or a leader…or even if you just want respect.


Always be nice to gatekeepers and staff…

April 11, 2009

…or you don’t get through the gate.

 

I am continually amazed by some people’s lack of both pragmatism and grace in various business situations. One of the most obvious ones is dealing with individuals who are obviously “gatekeepers”. To me a gatekeeper is anyone who is clearly standing between you and an individual or group you want/need access to.

 

Why should I care?

 

In my undergraduate management class we talk about “power” and its sources. They include things like hierarchical position, control over information, network of allies and several other attributes. A gatekeeper almost always wields a deceptively large amount of power and influence for several reasons that relate to these power bases.

 

First, they are often very close to the principal in question. If they are their admin or adjutant they are typically intimately aware of their boss’s goals, needs, opinions etc. This person is usually personally chosen by the executive and has the executive’s interests at heart. Their success is bound up in their boss’ (at least at some level). They have “referred hierarchical authority” from their boss.

 

Second, because they aren’t a senior executive (or at least are less senior than the boss), they are more accessible and thus are privy to scuttlebutt and gossip their boss may not be. This puts them at the center of information networks with “insider knowledge”.

 

Third, due to both these things bosses often put a great deal of value on their assistant’s view of others. Why? These folks see others in less formal or guarded settings than the boss does. Most of us can control ourselves in obvious power situations where a superior is watching us. How you act when no one is looking is much more revealing. Gatekeepers tend to have a better view of this aspect of us. I have seen people lose six figure opportunities over subtle office issues around how candidate treated staff in situations the hiring manager didn’t see, but heard about.

 

Fourth, these people are often the ones charged with creating order in their bosses hectic worlds. Most senior execs are out of control and the admin manages this as best they can. They can lock down a calendar and completely deny you simply based on schedule and (your lack of) priority.

 

In my experience, a bad run in with an admin or exec assistant can actually be more damaging than a bad run in with the boss. Why. I can forgive you jousting with me, I might even give you credit for standing up for yourself if professionally done. Treat my assistant badly and you’re just a bully. Same as going after my son or daughter. No quarter will be given. View the offer as gone if you were an intern or the promotion off the board later in your career.

 

Conversely, being favored can yield special access, quiet behind doors praise, special knowledge of information others (even senior execs) don’t have access too. This can be as simple as getting 5 minutes to brief the exec on an idea while others are rebuffed. But this access is precious.

 

How do I develop support?

 

So, given the importance of gatekeepers, how do I develop rapport and influence without coming across as craven and just a brown-noser? This is just a specific case of applying concepts on building support from my earlier post. Read here for general guidance.

 

My point in this post is to focus your attention on how important gatekeepers are in the general scheme of things.  In many cases, simply treating them nicely (not even going above and beyond) will go a long way. Showing interest in someone whose whole job is to serve someone else who is the center of attention can be very comforting. You’ll be surprised at how much people will tell you if you simply demonstrate respect and make time to hear about their day.

 

In the end, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.


Is the juice worth the squeeze?

April 6, 2009

I’ve always been coached and offered the advice to people to be careful when they take certain actions. Make sure it’s worth it. I recently got a great summary of it when reconnecting with a former boss. He said where he grew up this is called “is the juice worth the squeeze?”

 

In difficult situations, there’s always a temptation to respond impulsively or do what feels good. Whether it’s an email, a “witty” response in a meeting or a significant political position…think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

A common misperception I see people make all too often is that there are no, or limited, consequences to just saying what we think. This is soooo wrong. There’s a great scene in the godfather where Sonny blurts out a disrespectful and revealing comment to Sollozzo. Don Corleone’s dismissal of Sonny is “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.” In this case it ends for Sonny at a toll booth in a hail of bullets. I’ll summarize in saying the juice was definitely not worth the squeeze.

 

Obviously, most of our lives are not as dramatic. Nevertheless there are many opportunities to make a poor choice along the way. I’d encourage you to think through in certain situations WHY you would be responding or acting the way you do. My point here is to separate ethics from ego. A few that come to mind are:

 

1)    Making yourself feel better. This is entirely ego and almost always a bad idea. You’ll feel better for seconds…until you feel worse. The downside is generally worse than the few seconds of cleverness you get to enjoy. Not much upside here. The classic example here is emailing angry. Bad choice.

 

2)    Speaking truth to power regarding a likely poor decision. This is more complicated. Ego and ethics can get co-mingled and both sides can believe they are doing the right thing. My counsel is to think carefully. You are probably more able to be somewhat assertive as you are (hopefully) data driven in your concerns, have a fact base to argue from and are smart enough to frame disagreement impersonally. Just think carefully before speaking.

 

3)    Speaking truth to power regarding an ethical concern. This is where things get stickier. You need to think hard before responding and consider whether you completely understand the situation and the implications of acting. Making a major ethical stand can be heroic…or foolish.

 

First, assess the situation. MAKE SURE you have your facts straight and that you are on firm ground ethically. Lots of things can be gray. Being black and white in a gray world can be problematic. Second, be sure you are willing to leave or be marginalized if things go badly. When you fall on your sword, you are impaled. You may not survive so be sure you understand this.  Third, make sure you have assessed the bigger picture. Could you have a bigger impact by swallowing hard, staying and keeping other things on track?

 

4)    Acting in your own vs. others’ self interest. In the end everyone will know if you take care of yourself over others. Your reputation will suffer. Consider the implications before acting.

 

So think through how to respond in difficult spots. I’ll write my next post on how to handle some of these situations wisely to create scenarios where you can do what you think is right without blowing yourself up.

 

There isn’t a right or wrong answer in these areas. It’s up to you to do what’s right for you. Just think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.


Orbiting the Giant Hairball

March 4, 2009

 

Ever wonder how you survive to innovate in a larger company? Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball; A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace is a fun and useful read. MacKenzie worked for Hallmark for 30 years and has compiled a sometimes whimsical, sometimes profound summary of his experience a learnings.

 

The “Hairball” is any organization that has put in place departments, rules, processes and standard operating procedures to systematize its existence. “Orbiting” is the art of staying relevant and attached to said hairball without flying off into space (or irrelevance). He calls it “responsible creativity”. Orbiting creates all sorts of desirable outcomes because it allows an individual to use the resources of the hairball while not being completely tied to the routinized and standardized processes inherent in it.

 

The book is produced creatively, with drawings, poems and art used throughout. It’s also a quick read.

 

A few of his key points that lined up with my way of thinking:

1.      If you truly can’t stand the hairball, leave it. Note he remained at Hallmark 30 years despite fighting aspects of the company’s culture for years.

2.      Be proactive. I call it “don’t be a victim”. If things aren’t working, what are you doing to try and change them?

3.      Responsible creativity means risking being wrong, but ultimately being aligned with the organizations broader goals. For him, you had to working towards making money selling greeting cards. The battles were around HOW, not WHETHER to do this.

4.      He had great metaphors and stories about corporate life that offer wit and wisdom on coping and overcoming absurdity.

5.      Figure out what matters to you. It won’t be clear at the beginning, but keep asking and challenging yourself.

 

“If you go to your grave

without painting

your masterpiece,

it will not

get painted.

No one else

Can paint it.

 

Only you.”


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.