The Lesson of ‘Good Enough’

Comparing and contrasting the birds-eye view with the worms-eye view

The higher a person ascends the ranks of financial operations, the more imperative it becomes to discern between certain levels of detail, and the need to push work products forward to completion. This is especially true in the budgeting aspects of financial operations versus compliance issues in accounting and auditing which can become exceedingly nitpick at times. Closely related to this is the need to learn to communicate financial information to other business professionals who are not financial specialists. This can proved to be exceedingly difficult for a highly competent analyst who frankly, loves “getting their hands dirty.” In other words, this is not meant in any way to trivialize the value of a highly detail oriented analyst. But it is meant to serve as a cautionary note to those who wish to exercise leadership that is built upon their years of financial expertise. Two quick thoughts may serve to illustrate this: the worm’s eye view and the bird’s eye view, each with its strengths and limitations.

The worm’s eye view will assist with a great deal of detail, but sometimes distorts reality due to its limitations of vision. This is not to in any way demean or devalue the benefits or the work of highly detail oriented people. It is simply to say, sometimes in order to complete certain types of work in a timely manner, decisions of priority must take precedence over the desire to continue with hedgehog-like determination and the quest for perfection that is sometimes not practical.

The bird’s eye view on the other hand, enables a panoramic vision of the whole while simply limiting detail. Both have their function in analytical work. But here is the takeaway. Leaders communicating financial information need to be able to deliver highly summarized, accurate information. Then in an instant, zoom into detail in response to a question, request for clarification, etc. Then zoom back out to high level – smoothly and reassuringly. Listen to a few quarterly earnings conference calls for effective and ineffective examples. For the executive leader, a careful distinction between the two approaches and the timing of the each is essential.

IBM’s Mysterious “Big Blue” Nickname

In honor of IBM’s conference call, I wanted to revisit the topic of the provenance of the nickname, Big Blue.

IBM's Mysterious Ubiquitous Name - Big Blue. Logo "bluing" courtesy http://howbehindwow.com/

IBM’s Mysterious Ubiquitous Name – Big Blue. Logo “bluing” courtesy http://howbehindwow.com/

I like urban legends not because they are believable, but because of what they say about human nature and sociology. Urban legends are also amusing not necessarily to believe, but they are fun to engage in (as if to believe) the idea of them being true, such as us humans ingesting eight spiders per year in our sleep.

A search for the provenance of the name Big Blue turns up very little historical documentation. Some say the term was first used in the early 1980′s, with the self-obviating point of the adjective big. But that doesn’t explain much. There are plenty of organizations with significant size, extent, influence, market share or intensity, and we don’t automatically add big to their description. The blue part seems to have no plausible theories at all. I have tried in vain to find the origins of this name, as I found myself instinctively using it years ago before ever realizing it was an ubiquitous nickname. I searched Google Books for the term and have been able to move the date back to 1975 with this mention. But the truth is, no one really knows the origin, including IBM:

How did IBM get its distinctive nickname, “Big Blue?” While the name came about organically, with no known single source, the first official reference in print to IBM as “Big Blue” was in BusinessWeek magazine:

“No company in the computer business inspires the loyalty that IBM does, and the company has accomplished this with its almost legendary customer service and support … As a result, it is not uncommon for customers to refuse to buy equipment not made by IBM, even though it is often cheaper. ‘I don’t want to be saying I should have stuck with the “Big Blue,”’ says one IBM loyalist. ‘The nickname comes from the pervasiveness of IBM’s blue computers’” (No. 1’s Awesome Strategy, BusinessWeek, June 8, 1981).

So there you have it. Isn’t that great, kind of mysterious and interesting? Or at least, it’s fun to engage in any of the possible explanations.

Shared Credit for Hard Work

The way to get things done, is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them – Benjamin Jowett

Credit for hard work is not something we should seek to avoid. But at the same time, should we not be overly preoccupied with acknowledgement if our goal is truly to produce our very best work product [as possible] with what is required of us right now.  Self-aggrandizement, overbearing personalities, and the inability to actively and empathetically listen, short circuit the team building process and the natural outworking of progress.

This disproportionate concern with acknowledgment runs contra to the concept of a team, and its accomplishments.  Goals and objectives can still be accomplished by an organization with leadership who tends to be in it for themselves, but who wants to live “one man’s dream” when you could experience all the benefits of healthy team effort? It goes without saying that at best, it is generally not pleasant for those who have to constantly to one person’s ideas to the exclusion of all others. But at worst, over the long haul, an organization will have to deal with the wreckage of only one person being heard. When contributors are heard, included and acknowledged, I think it will encourage not only being truly on board with an organization and its mission, but these same people can become the greatest advocates for changes needed in response to challenges.

Center of the U.S. Population 1790-2010

The U.S. Census Bureau has some of the most interesting data visualizations, many of which help illustrate the magnitude of the data being presented. According to the Bureau, after each decennial census is tabulated, “the Census Bureau calculates the center of population. The National Mean Center of Population based on the 2010 Census is near Plato, Mo., an incorporated village in Texas County.” The mean center is fictitious of course, for the purpose of illustration as the Bureau goes on to explain, “the center is determined as the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight.” And the movement is in a southwesterly direction as the interactive map below illustrates: 

What is even more interesting are the suggestions for why the migration has moved in this direction. The Bureau states that the westerly direction has historically been the result of a “sweep [that] reflects the settling of the frontier, waves of immigration and the migration west and south.” But it is fair to say that although the imaginary mean center still resides in the South, a very large and disproportionate part of the population (as well as commerce) has settled in the West in general and California in particular. And there is a clear movement (though not a net loss) from California and the Southwest. The economic and sociological reasons for this would be very interesting to explore.

Procrastination: An Overwhelming Sense of Dread

Sometimes when I procrastinate, I find it is out of a sheer overwhelming sense of dread.  This dread is knowing what needs to be done, and for whatever reason, perhaps outside pressure, truncated schedule, the mental or physical output of energy needed, or maybe all contribute to coming up with any and every rationale for not concentrating on the most important thing to be doing right now. An article that appeared in the Journal of Psychology from a decade ago asserts that this “self-regulatory avoidance reaction” or our inability to exercise the willpower or self-control needed to concentrate or direct our energies to the right task, is “core central to procrastination.” It is suggested that part of the resolution to procrastination is associated with understanding the behavior and then avoiding it. In other words, admit it with the intention of quitting it.  

In my early college years, the need for self-control in time management was self-obviating, and I regularly admitted it.  And the discovery of the to do list was nothing short of revelatory.  This was first suggested to me by a professor my very first finals week when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed.  The reasoning was, “get all these items you are thinking about ‘out of your head’ so you can concentrate on the most important task right now, then, move on to the next one and so on.”  The very practical (and in some ways original work in modern time management), How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, outlines various tests and exercises for coming up with goals, objectives, and prioritization, and listing them out in different groupings, with each group having a special purpose, a similar method. Followed by the addition of monitoring safeguards similar to those set forth in the Journal of Psychology. 

For everyone within the organization from the admin to executive leadership and everyone in between, these principals are important. But for the executive leader, self-control in one’s use of time has tremendous implications. And this is our leverage: prioritization, improvement and innovation for the purpose of actually working smarter, rather than longer and longer. It’s one or the other. I have observed many over the years who put in excessive hours and sadly, this does not automatically translate into a great team builder, great leader, or someone who really takes advantage of the of the resources available to them, just someone who seems to be defined by long hours. I have also worked in these environments and have put in excessive hours myself because the whole culture and system required it, and I really do not think it has benefited me at all, besides reinforcing my work ethic. Learning to leverage available resources (the most significant by far being people) is critical to success. Time has it’s limitations – 168 hours per week – leverage is potentially limitless. As Alan Lakein encouraged his readers forty or so years ago to answer, “what is the most important thing to be doing right now?” Stop procrastinating and do it now.

Population Shifts After Ten Years: 2002-2003 and 2012-2013

According to the U.S. Census, population shift has occurred for the following reasons:

Spurred in part by growth of the energy sector, some metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas in North Dakota and west Texas are now experiencing rapid population gains, while growth has slowed or halted for some formerly fast-growing areas in the South and West.

What you immediately notice are the dark green shaded areas (representing 3+ percent growth), many of which that were, of course, where the height of the madness was occurring during the real estate boom. Some of these areas were the southwest states and especially California (generally anywhere east of the San Andreas Fault). As well as selected areas in southern states, and even a few high-growth inland areas that saw a tremendous ramp up during the early to mid-2000s such as Idaho.

The last ten seconds of the video shows a contra trend, practically wiping out growth area by area in the same manner that it appeared ten years prior. Corresponding to the quote above regarding the impetus for the current migration in recent years, you see 3+ percent growth in North Dakota as well as the current popularity of Texas. Another very interesting shift is from the north western, Reno area of Nevada to the north eastern area of the same state. What was driving that growth?

At the risk of sounding a bit like Pudd’nhead Wilson for pouring over such things, additional data sets and customizable maps for metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas can be found here, the interactive map here.

The Myth and Romance of Los Angeles – Available at Last

What is ostensibly the best documentary on the City of Los Angeles (and a 95/90 Tomatometer) has at long last, been scheduled to be released on DVD. If you had not heard of the film, there is this, and little else according to IMDB,

In this documentary, Thom Andersen examines in detail the ways the city has been depicted, both when it is meant to be anonymous and when itself is the focus. Along the way, he illustrates his concerns of how the real city and its people are misrepresented and distorted through the prism of popular film culture. Furthermore, he also chronicles the real stories of the city’s modern history behind the notorious accounts of the great conspiracies that ravaged his city that reveal a more open and yet darker past than the casual viewer would suspect.

In addition to being an excellent descriptive paragraph, that’s the kind of stuff myth is made of.

But what is really driving the cult status is the film’s elusive nature as noted in a post today:

Los Angeles Plays Itself is a story of how L.A. has been portrayed on screen, its thesis unfolding through hundreds of iconic film clips. But the biggest reason that Thom Andersen’s legendary documentary has reached a near-cult status is that, due to copyright issues, the film has never been properly released in theaters or on DVD. Until now.

In a remarkable statement, the post goes on to punctuate just how interesting this film is, “it’s probably the most important media study ever conducted on the city—maybe any city!—and no one has been able to see it.” It’s remarkable that business and legal wranglings could eclipse something like this, for a decade.

 

Improvement, Interdependence, Innovation

A cardinal principle of Total Quality escapes too many managers: you cannot continuously improve interdependent systems and processes until you progressively perfect interdependent, interpersonal relationships – Stephen Covey

 

I have always believed in continuous improvement, even before I knew of the technical origins of the concept. Appropriate stress in the form of a stretch for the improvement of the mind, reaching for goals and working hard is what keeps us going. And it makes life and work interesting, because our work is an extension of ourselves.  Do I really want to reach a point where I’ve gone about as far as I can go in terms of learning, working and improving? Frederic Wheelock quotes Roman satirist Juvenal as suggesting “the highest good in life is, mens sana in corpora sand - “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” ASICS company, maker of my favorite running shoe (used while struggling through a few marathons) adopted this phrase which comprises an acronym, and uses this as a guiding principal in its mission, translating to “concept…ideas…and innovation…to create the best product.”  I personally want to be continuous taking a healthy stretch, reaching for a challenge, and will this always find its context in moving beyond ourselves and where we are in our present state. More Wheelock’s can be found here, see ASICS mission here.

 

The Future of Problem Solving

In our time, there is a new requisite skill set: being a futurist. A futurist was once only an avocation among the best of thinkers, and somewhat of a novelty and a subset of sociological and economic studies. It is very interesting to read authors like Alvin Toffler or Peter Drucker (along with a number of others) and observe how they saw things sometimes dimly, but often very clearly that were seemingly hidden to others. But it has been decades now since the advent of the information age and the decline of the industrial era. What this has created is an environment where it is no longer an option but to take charge of one’s future, in terms of actively, deliberately and even aggressively engaging in activity that is inherently future in its benefits. To a certain degree, success means understanding the future is simply not an option.

Problem solving has always been a core skill of leadership, but increasingly, this skill as a requirement has migrated to the average employee. To make this even more complex, the motif we hear regarding the next generation of leaders is the ability to solve problems that do not yet exist. Just to name a few, an article from futuristspeaker.com from several years ago cites:

Alternative Currency Bankers – According to Javelin Strategies, 20% of all online trades are already being done with alternative currencies. The stage is being set for next-gen alt-currency banks.

Waste Data Managers – To insure data integrity in today’s fast evolving information storage industry, multiple redundancies have been built into the system. Achieving more streamline data storage in the future will require de-duplication specialists who can rid our data centers of needless copies and frivolous clutter.

Privacy Managers – If you think you have lost most of your privacy already, we’ve only scratched the surface. We are all terminally human, and as such, we do not always make good decisions. Striking the perfect privacy-transparency balance will require far more than amateur insights. It will require a privacy professional.

Government Agency Dismantlers

See the full post from 2011 here. Some of these ideas might have seemed absurd a few years ago, but have already come began to be put into practice. Years ago Alvin Toffler warned,

Perhaps the greatest cost of wave conflict in America will be paid by the millions of children currently compulsorily enrolled in schools that are attempting to prepare them – and not very successfully at that – for jobs that won’t exist. Call that stealing the future.

The takeaway? Try something new as an antidote to paralysis or as Toffler also warned,“if you don’t develop a strategy of your own, you become a part of someone else’s.”

Training Versus Preparation

In the last post, Inspiring Progress From Current Resources to Future Aspirations, the address I had heard was based on the story of a new executive’s struggle after his rise to the top spot with an all too familiar story. He described what many face as they ascend the ranks of an organization: that what they did previously, even very successfully, did little to prepare them for the challenges of their new position. Note, this was not due to a lack of technical knowledge. Leaders who have been very successful in their previous roles clearly possess the full range of skill set that helped fuel that success. The problem is that ascending the ranks requires a different skill set that may, or even likely builds on that previous technical knowledge but no longer engages in that activity as there is simply not enough time at the higher level.

The point was made that many people in business today are thrown into leadership positions with very little training. I’m not sure this is as common as it used to be and have a slightly different take. Consider the context of our present time. There are an estimated excess of 14,000 new business titles are published annually – many of which are available on audio and, or summary form. What are we to make of such a volume of information? Is is possible to actually say something radically and essentially new? At a minimum, we are repeating many topics over and over. Another example is the popularity of leadership and management as a blog influencer categories. There is an astonishing flow of information from these very popular topics as seen here, or the Google Ngram Viewer below charting the last century:

Combine this with seemingly unlimited online educational and certification outlets and it would appear that training opportunities are at an all time high. So with all the availability of preparatory material, what is the problem? What I would say is that many are thrown into leadership, not without an attempt at training (probably just the opposite), but with very little actual preparation. I think all of the above stated options (with the possible exception of extreme excess number of books published) represent wonderful opportunities and a golden age of sorts that we are living in in terms of what we can do with the availability of information. But the training must come alongside actual preparation.

As an anecdote to the current employment market, we frequently read or hear that there are open positions (especially at higher or more technical levels) that cannot be filled. How is this possible? One reason for this is likely due to the reduction of much of the middle in most organizations in the last two decades. Is it any wonder there has been so little preparation in terms of succession planning? This is especially true in leadership. This trend is not only unlikely to change, but will probably continue its current direction for many years to come. So where does this leave someone who is trying to move forward but feels stuck? It leaves them in the same place we were warned of decades ago at the advent of the information worker. The difference is, we are for years now, in full swing of the information-service delivery workplace, but we simply have not adjusted well to a post-industrial job market. The situation is not hopeless, but help at an institutional level is not on the way, and that is a very significant distinction to a job market in decades past. You have to take intentional steps to move forward, if you are going to move forward. I have some ideas, as do many others, but that is for a subsequent post.

Inspiring Progress From Current Resources to Future Aspirations

This post is my exposition of a keynote address at a conference for finance professionals I attended earlier this year. The context was interesting because the audience was made up of municipal finance leaders, many of whom have spent much of their careers in the context of local government. The speaker is a very successful corporate entrepreneur and leader whose keynote was aimed at addressing the challenges of bringing about the best within an organization during times of great change, limited resources and all subsequent challenges. The challenge was, how do we reach our aspirations? From one professional to another, here are what I considered to be some excellent points along with my thoughts:

What Matters Now in the Era of Post-Revolution – We have experienced the industrial, information, and now the vocational revolution (so to speak). This creates a radical and essentially different set of challenges that are particular to today’s leader. Some things (such as human nature) have not changed, but among those that have are fragility in the financial markets, globalism, technology, sociology and now most particularly, the rapidity of change. Change management has always been a struggle, but what has intensified is the speed at which things occur. We have to be mindful of this, ahead of the curve and ready to respond.

We Need CREATIVITY to Solve Problems – Every leader must provide a certain level of inspiration to bring about this creativity. My takeaway: every person (position) needs to be inspired. This is OUR job as leaders. Some years ago I was watching an interview regarding getting accepted into a business related doctoral program at Stanford. I was surprised to hear that one of the things they look for in a candidate is creativity. But this makes perfect sense and it is no different in the daily grind of business. Creativity in financial or business operations does not mean a lack of compliance with laws, guidelines or other controls. But it does mean viewing operations considerably different, then applying innovation, sometimes within the scope of the same resources already available.

All Roads Lead to Change Management – We NEED disruptive innovation, this is where progress is made. This is a required flexibility that does not have a shelf life; it is ongoing and continuous. Speed, efficiencies and breaking down orthodoxies – these are the requisite skill sets. Failed organizations fail by change outstripping their strengths (which then becomes their liabilities).

Think Lean – Distributed leadership means ownership and FORWARD contributions by every employee, not simply a dictate by the hierarchy. We want employees to think, not just do! Those in leadership need to accept ideas, respectful input and feedback. Organizations will move forward with a creative, rule-breaking mindset, not the construction of hierarchies, which is how our systems worked in the past.

Pursue Greatness, Whatever Your Interests – Encourage your team to pursue personal greatness in terms of learning, interests and what motivates THEM. This motivates greatness as an organization. We need to believe the extraordinary is possible. The trick is understanding how a support function (such as operations in a finance department) may not directly experience radical innovation (versus incremental service innovation since accounting rules must be obeyed, for example), but how we may contribute. Leadership is about defining our organizational culture for this type of greatness and the ability to be adaptive. The obvious hesitancy is that an employee will pursue education and training, then apply it somewhere else. Are we sure about this? It may inspire creativity, problem solving and innovation. We can only know for sure if we try it out.

Thoughts on Relevance, Change Management and Effective Leadership

In the industry where I work, a recurring theme is the application of change management, and how frequently it appears more difficult to make a best decision, versus being hamstrung by paralysis and resistance to moving forward. It might be tempting at times to think resolution is simply not possible. In other words, that things can’t change or will occur so slowly it won’t matter. But I don’t believe this, and I refuse to give in to this kind of cynicism that is right out of the Peter Principle. It is possible to be fresh, relevant, effective, adaptive to change and full of life at nearly any age, or stage of career, if the mental and physical health are present to do so. I am writing this as someone who is not a young person and I am more convinced of it than ever. Deficiencies or strengths in these areas are really matter of one’s determination to stay engaged and current (for whatever purpose or specialization) through continuous learning, then apply the mental energy to implement such things. Resistance to change can also be equally present in the young. We tend to miss this observation because frequently, age often compounds the problem of resistance to change, so we automatically conclude that one presupposes the other. But this too is simply not the case. A person can be narrow minded and adverse to innovation, technology, improvement and change at any age. This is a critical point of understanding for leaders since it is people who make up the team, and they are the leverage to accomplish anything.

In The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, the authors discuss the importance of  the “vision of building tactical capacity in a team” - that is, the ability to span between vision and execution, and the need for building loyalty, trust, and commitment. Tactical capacity is a tremendous discussion in itself, but I will limit the quote to a short, but excellent imperative for leadership,

[Tactical] capacity — this flexibility, energy, and skill — comes first from leadership. Your goal as a leader is to build it in each and every team member. This kind of leadership is far from intuitive. And the lack of it, in the end, is a fatal stumbling block for many leaders of new ventures. The entire process needs to be driven by an awareness of the kind of leadership that ensures success in the challenging circumstances of a transition.

This is great advice for accelerating a transition, but is is also guiding principle for ongoing process innovation of any kind. This will sometimes involve hiring and fully utilizing managers who are more skilled at given aspects of leadership and/or various areas of expertise than they are. Focusing on transformation and inspiration, and not being afraid of these skill sets, even if the senior manager does not fully understand them is key to personal and organizational success. Frequently though, there is a fear of competence, or what is simply a stylistic difference, which is rooted in human nature. The motivation could be jealousy, fear of being upstaged or even replaced. But the opposite should actually be true. If a senior leader has enough vision to identify the right talent, managing and implementing such people should only strengthen their position of leadership and produce the very best results for the organization. That is an expression of effective leadership.