And We Have a Winner!

“We have an idea for a new product line,” Alicia sounded off. “It’s a logical extension of our core product. We all think it will be a winner.”

“How are you going to fund the startup and who are you going to assign to this new project?” I asked.

“Well, that’s a problem. We are currently under a hiring freeze and while we have a budget for development, actually ramping into production is going to pinch,” she grimaced.

“What are you going to let go of?”

Alicia was a bit surprised. “We hadn’t really discussed shutting anything down.”

“Alicia, the biggest mistake that young companies make is that everything looks like an opportunity. Before long, all their resources are spread thin and their product portfolio is a hodgepodge. They can’t figure out if they are in the shoe business or the construction business.

“To be truly successful, the company has to decide on its focus, and create a discipline around that focus. Especially in times where resources are tight, we have to make sure we have enough staying power. This requires an approach of systematic abandonment. As you adapt to the market, it is important to cut off those projects that are no longer returning value.” -Tom

Are You Busy?

“I know planning this project is important, but I have so much to do today,” Lauren explained, hoping I would let her off the hook.

I nodded my head. “I know you have a lot to do, today. How much of what you do today will be effective?” I asked.

“What do you mean? I have phone calls to return, emails to answer, meetings to go to. I have a couple of employees I have to speak to, about things they were supposed to take care. I have a couple of other projects that are behind schedule. A lot of things are piled up.”

“How much of what you do today will be effective?” I repeated.

“Well.” Lauren stopped. “I know some things are more important than other things.”

“And, how do you make that decision? How do you know what you do is effective? How do you know what you do is important?” Lauren’s posture shifted. She backed off the table between us. She was listening. “I will venture that 80 percent of what you do today will be wasted time and only 20 percent of what you do will be effective. How will you know you are working on the 20 percent?” -Tom

But, It’s Our Reputation

“But the project you are talking about abandoning is a service that we have provided for more than a decade. Our customers have come to expect it. Heck, part of our reputation stands on it,” Byron protested.

“So, is it your moral duty to continue something that is no longer producing results? Or can you accept that, what you are known for, once served a market, but that market was temporary? And that proud service no longer satisfies a customer need.” -Tom

Dead Horse

Byron was thinking back. “I think we have done what you suggested. Every year, in our annual business plan, we look at the cost structure in each of our project areas. And each year, we find one or two things that don’t quite measure up.”

“What was the last project that didn’t measure up,” I asked. “And what did you decide about it?”

Byron’s curiosity turned into a muffled laugh. “You’re right. Now that I think about it, the people involved, in the last project going south, negotiated more time and actually spent a ton of market research money to find out that there wasn’t as big a market as they thought. Their dwindling net profit went underwater the more they studied it.”

“And now?”

Byron shook his head. “They are still holding on to some hope that the market will turn around.”

“The answer is NOT, how can we make another research study? The answer is, how can we get out of this? Or, at least, how can we put a tourniquet on the bleeding?” -TF
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The failure to accomplish a goal does not prove that more efforts and resources are needed. The failure to accomplish a goal may indicate that efforts should be stopped and a different path should be taken.

Old Indian saying, “When the horse is dead, it is time to get off.” -Tom

Breeding Overhead

“I know how to say NO to new things coming up, but most of our troubles are from decisions we have already made,” Byron confided.

“Each year, don’t you review your decisions about what you will and will not do, including the cost structure for each of those decisions?” I asked.

“You mean, our budget?”

I nodded. “Yes, your budget. When you look at each budget item, whether it is a direct cost or an indirect cost, you have to ask this question.

“Is this absolutely necessary?

“If the answer is NO, get rid of it, dismantle it, idle it.

“If the answer is YES, move to the next question. What is the absolute minimum necessary to perform this function to our spec?” -Tom

Managerial Leadership is About What You Do

David was not surprised, but his disappointment was strong. “I don’t understand,” he started, then abruptly changed his pitch. “Yes, I do understand. I hired this guy, Marty, for a management position. He interviewed well, had all the buzzwords, you know, teamwork, synergy, empowerment. Heck, he even kept the book, Good to Great propped up on his desk the whole time he was here.”

“So, what was the problem?” I asked.

“The problem was, he never actually got anything done. We would meet, be on the same page, but the job never got done. The progress, during the time he was here, quite frankly, stood still.”

A few seconds ticked by. David looked up. He continued.

“You asked about the difference? I think I know the answer, now. The difference is execution. Words are fine, theories are fine, planning is fine, but the big difference in success is execution.”

“David, I often see this in my management program. Students come into the class thinking they will listen to a series of lectures, get the latest management techniques and life will be good. I talk about how education is often understanding certain technical information. I talk about how training is often motivational to make a person feel a certain way. But in my class, the focus is on execution. Quite frankly, I don’t care how much you know. I don’t care how you feel. I care about what you do.

“Some students,” I continued, “are surprised to find themselves, no longer sitting comfortably in their chairs listening to a lecture, but standing at the front of the class. I want them on their feet, out of their comfort zone. Leadership starts with thinking. Leadership is about who you are. But ultimately, managerial leadership is all about what you do.” -Tom

What is Competence?

Andrew was beside himself. “How could this happen?” he exclaimed. “We had that bid locked down. That was our contract. We literally worked for 16 months to position ourselves. We built the infrastructure. We built the relationships with the customer at all the levels. Then one guy gets promoted and we get a form letter saying that our contract has been terminated, thirty days notice.”

“What do you think is the problem?” I asked.

“I don’t know, sometimes I think my whole team is incompetent. To let this slip through, when we worked so hard for it.”

“Do you really think your team is incompetent?” I followed up.

Andrew shook his head from side to side. “No. Heaven’s no. What am I thinking? To every person on the team, I wouldn’t trade a single one. They are all A players. I just don’t know what happened.”

“Sometimes, when we think about competence,” I replied, “we think it is our ability to control the parts of the world that cannot be controlled. Events of the world will occur in spite of us. So, what is competence?”

Andrew was listening, but not sure if he liked what he heard. I continued.

“The Boy Scout motto is Be Prepared. Competence is not the ability to control the uncontrollable. Competence is the ability to control ourselves in the face of uncertainty. Be prepared. Be prepared for uncertainty. It is a matter of mental fitness.” -Tom

Short of a Temper Tantrum

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was recently promoted to a manager role. Our company is really big on accountability. My first big challenge is holding other people accountable. I seem to stand by in a dream land watching a team member underperform or make a mistake. I point out the mistake, but that doesn’t seem to solve the problem. The mistake is made again. And, now my manager is telling me that I don’t hold my team accountable. Short of throwing a temper tantrum, what am I supposed to do?

Response:
Most companies get accountability backwards. A technician on your team makes a mistake, and your manager expects you to hold that technician accountable. It is YOU, the manager, that I hold accountable, for the output of your technician. You picked the technician for that assignment. You provided the training. You inspected the quality of the training. You provided the tools. You created the work environment. You provided the coaching. You provided the materials. As the manager to your team, you control all the variables around that technician. It is you I hold accountable for the output of the technician.

So, if the technician makes a mistake, what are the variables that you control? What changes will you make? How will you manage the risk in this task assignment? The source of all accountability is self-accountability. What are YOU going to do? -Tom

How Long Has This Been Going On?

Miriam looked wide eyed as she explained what happened. “I know I should have confronted the behavior straight away, but I didn’t. And now, she thinks it’s okay to be snotty and nasty to people when she doesn’t get her way.”

“How long has this been going on?” I asked. Miriam stopped. She didn’t want to tell me.

“Well, it pretty much started the first month she was here.” Silence. “Okay, about a year and a half.”

“And you haven’t spoken to her about her behavior?”

“At first I thought she was just having a bad day, then it turned into a bad week, then a bad month. By then, nobody wanted to go near her for fear she would rip their head off.”

“That bad?”

Miriam pursed her lips, looking sideways. “Well, not that bad, but she is just plain mean to people around her.”

“And what does your team think about the way you have handled it?”

“Oh, they must think I am very frustrated with her,” Miriam explained. “They know I am just afraid to say anything, even though I am the manager.”

“I don’t think so.” I lowered my eyes to look directly at Miriam. “After a while, you begin to stand for what you tolerate.”

How to Sustain Accountability

Phillip assembled his sales team. They promised to meet to look over their schedules for the following week. Two had substantial clutter on a spreadsheet looking paper. Others had something tucked away inside a folder, a corner peeking out, but nothing available for casual inspection.

“Phillip tells me, you all decided to make some changes with the way the sales team goes to market,” I started. “I am very interested to hear about your plans.”

There was shuffling of bodies around in chairs, everyone trying to get comfortable with this new accountability.

“I see some schedules for next week,” I continued. “Let’s get the cards out on the table.” Everyone looked to their left and then to their right, some schedules appeared, then more, then all. Some were full of chicken scratch, some were sparse.

I asked Phillip to explain, again, the purpose of the meeting, the purpose of the schedules, the purpose of this change of habit. We went around the circle, each explaining their schedule.

“Here is the secret to accountability,” I said. “And, if you don’t do this, the likelihood for success is slim.

“Many people think that accountability is noble and that nobility will sustain it. Others think that if they don’t take accountability seriously, they will feel guilty and the guilt will sustain accountability. Neither of those thoughts work.

“The only thing that sustains accountability is to gather those people around you who will not let you off the hook, who will hold you accountable for what you promise to each other. It is the team that will sustain you through those times when you want to quit, or when you feel lazy.

“So, look around the table, my friends. This is the team that will help you to the next level. You just have to give them permission to hold you accountable.” -Tom