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 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.

Book Review – Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life

Take ChargeDon Maruska and Jay Perry have written a very timely message to managers at all levels, as well as those aspiring to leadership and everyone in between. The book contains a timeless principle that relates to personal accountability and responsibility: do we frame the “story” of our professional lives by what is happening to us, or do you, as the title suggests, Take Charge of Your Talent? Having read this book I am writing this as a rhetorical question. But many readers who intuitively sense the premise of the book simple are not sure where to start. That is where many years of pioneering work in the field of coaching lend itself to this study. And best of all, it is written in a concise manner that includes depth of insight and prompts the reader to action.
In Take Charge of Your Talent there is a course mapped out that will have any motivated reader engaged, excited and challenged to take a healthy stretch. Yet the reader may also be surprised to find authors who suspend judgment and point out how to discover that many of the answers to moving forward are already available. In the chapters that follow, they offer helpful guidance and tangible steps to work toward attaining personal and professional desires and aspirations. One final note, if you simply read the book you will certainly benefit, but its purpose goes beyond that to the emphatically practical. This book really gets traction when you participate in the Talent Catalyst Conversation outlined throughout, so plan on this activity as you discover insights to help you and those around you move forward with your hopes.

Moneyball Clip: Challenging the Established Orthodoxy

When Moneyball was released few years ago, it popularized what Michael Lewis had researched and wrote about more than a decade ago with the subtitle, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Of course, those who read the book years ago realized what became so overwhelmingly popularized in terms of statistical analysis and the ultimately, the search for value. I think there is a real connection between this principle and the message of Benjamin Graham’s classic, Security Analysis first published in 1934, as well as many other lessons that can be applied to business and organizational leadership.

For me, Moneyball is a film you watch over and over for one reason or another. And there is a lesson I had not heard articulated (at least in this respect) that I found remarkable that took place in one of the final scenes. It speaks to the difficulty that all organizations face when there is the challenge of change taking place, which is pretty much the spirit of our age and for any foreseeable future. In a previous post I addressed the issue that all attempts at organizational innovation lead to: the difficulty of people adapting whether the motivation is fear, protection of turf, perceived livelihood or any other concern whether rational or irrational. I think the dialog is worth the price of admission:

Drucker on the Human Side of Leadership

“Human organizations rather than just as sources for economic data”

There are so many topics that could be explored about Peter Drucker’s perspectives on leadership (and of course, management as he tended to call both), and part of that is the timelessness of many of his writings, observations and analysis. One clear thread in his writings is the humanness of the organization, and a re-reading of this article from a decade ago underscores this point. Drucker was known not only as the father of management, but in one author’s opinion, he “was also an apostle for management” – due to the humanism that ran through all of his thought. It may have been human capital that was being managed, but it was human beings, with their inherent value that needed leading and was never disconnected from management.  “He treated companies as human organizations rather than just as sources for economic data,” and remarkably, he was able to tie this to the needs of an organization, and use the tools of “objectives and hard measurements.” To use his own words, he wrote that “management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”

These methods of making people capable remain relevant to this present time.  For example, instead of trying to put a square peg in a round hole, Drucker would ask, “what needs to be done?”  And then advise, “do the things you are good at, and embrace and utilize the strength of others around you.”  Both aspects of this philosophy need to be embraced: strategic time management, beginning with a proper sense of priority and asking, what is the most important thing that I need to be doing right now? And being surrounded with the best people available at things we might not be particularly good at, or even interested in.

To make intelligent, discerning use of management tools, financial and statistical data, but not lose sight of the human side of business is the holy grail of great leadership. Again, Mr. Drucker’s own words from the same essay on this point are remarkable where he draws the connection between business and the humanities,

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art – “liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is also concerned with practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences – on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on ethics – as well as on the physical sciences. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.

I believe this idea – the thoroughgoing understanding and care about people is one of the reasons that Drucker was considered “the world’s greatest management thinker.” See the two articles from five and ten years ago, both worth a re-read:

(2009). Remembering Drucker. Economist:

Karlgaard, R. (2004). Peter Drucker on Leadership. Forbes:

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.

Innovation and Finance – Making the Connection Part 2

In the first post on this topic I cited a recent article in Strategic Finance titled, Innovation is for CFOs, Too, and I’ll use that article to highlight what I believe to be some very relevant points to the operational aspects of financial reporting. The article begins with the comment that financial reporting is grounded in a 500 year-old system, and that is remarkable. It actually gives pause to the effectiveness of such a system. After all, how many of us could codify a system that would remain a functional model for centuries? I don’t know if introductory accounting texts still include this history but I was fascinated with it when I first read it twenty years ago. But the trade-off for a system that works well in times of stability is its inverse relationship to innovation and forward movement. This is a well-known topic of strategic planning. That is, a highly systematized organizational model that follows a highly structured hierarchy worked well in a marketplace where change was gradual, incremental and even somewhat predictable at times. But in a global market with an avalanche of information available to many, the model simply does not facilitate the rapid response that is needed in a post-industrial era. So while many of the processes involved in financial reporting have been accelerated and automated as a result of technology, this is really is only part of the solution. The goal, as outlined as a major premise of the article is for senior finance executives to “drive improved results by making significant innovations in the finance function.” The challenge for leadership is that most financial staff do not think in these terms. This is likely due to the detail oriented nature of the average functional operational area within finance. So how can details translate into value?

Although geared toward a for-profit model, the authors cite principles than are applicable to any organization, with their first suggestion under the broad heading of change to the business model. That seems simple enough, and it is with the right mindset. It is suggested that leadership should consider what is being currently offered to customers, yet emphasize those things that are “critical in the value they currently offer customers and consider how they can enhance that value by offering it in a different or a better manner.” This may take the form of expanding product or service offerings, or as is the case with  many successful models, reducing them in order to deliver exceptional performance. I recently spoke with a software provider who was recounting the history of their success as a firm, and what I was struck by was how many things they decided against pursuing, in order to produce an exceptional core business that is unique to their industry. Another interesting modification is to the target customer. Specificity in customer base has been a topic for decades, but from the perspective of innovation, this may be a moving or changing target. This is frequently seen in the re-branding of products that historically appeal to one gender over another, but are then flipped with little more than a change in emphasis. But integral to the previous two are changes in technology. Breakthrough or significant changes in technology can offer the benefit of an immediate pop that can be leveraged, but many other times, existing technology available to an organization can be used by simply changing the approach, mindset and culture of an organization. I have experienced this firsthand with the conversion to paperless reporting using technology that was already in place.

But most significantly for financial leadership are changes that are often the least noticeable to those outside the organization, “enabling technologies, such as information technologies, can be very important because such changes help ensure better decision making and financial management.” I have frequently cited the tension between time that is chewed up looking for the right data, rather than its ready access resulting in thinking and influence for the organization and its strategy. I think this is the most significant contribution of technology and innovation for financial managers as their roles interface with the operational leaders. This changes the financial reporting functions from an inherently backward looking exercise, to energy that is spent engaging in the ongoing process of innovation.


Davila, T., Epstein, M. & Shelton, R. (2013). Innovation is for CFOs, Too. Strategic Finance.

Possibilities at the Local Level: Coding a Better Government (TED)

This TED Talk delivered by Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and Executive Director of Code for America, was inspiring for a number of reasons. It was far more about collective solutions than about technology and shiny mobile apps skinned with our local government branding. The concept of collective solutions was applied to public connections and discussions that provide a platform (not necessarily in the sense of technology) to engage and provide everyday solutions at little or often no cost, simply by the availability of this platform, framework and mindset.

A powerful theme within this discussion is the idea of change management in ways that may have been previously unheard of. Consider the comment that, “politics are not changing, government is changing.” Could this possibly be better illustrated by the current Federal gridlock, contrasted with the possibilities at the local levels of government, with real solutions being provided not simply by technology, but innovative thinking and ideas that leverage available technology in very simple, solution-oriented ways. An example of how this is accomplished is the public nature of requests for information. If a question or concern is available for a number of people to see and engage in, the possibility for a solution is multiplied many times over. Imagine this idea expanding from one local government to another, sharing informational or other resources at reduced, little or sometimes no cost at all.

I thought the “application” section was remarkable, where ideas were put forward for actually engaging in the hierarchy that is inherent in any governmental system. Rather than sitting back as a distant critic of all forms of bureaucracy, it is possible to be a part of real and essential change within that mechanism. Thus changing the term bureaucracy from an inherent negative to one that exists for specific purposes, and that can be improved thanks to the advent of the social era, technology and sociological shifts that have come about from an entire generation that has grown up on the Internet.

Hiring Differently: Learning to Hire at Any Organization

Learning to Hire at a Growing Company is a great post at the New York Times Small Business that touches on a number of issues that are recurring themes on LinkedIn and employment related blogs, namely, that the traditional way candidates are attracted and selected is completely wrong-headed. In one example, entrepreneur and founder of Thinking Caps Group mentioned the responsibility of seeking “those who can grow into roles with greater responsibility.” The post continues:

“My job is to figure out how to either groom people who will run things, or how to hire them.” To make the right decisions, she knows she needs to determine what motivates people in various roles. One thing she is sure of: She does not want to micromanage. She said she has found, “I can either not do anything, or I can micromanage, and neither of those works.”

Future posts in this column are expected to address just how some have looked into “hiring differently.” See the full article here.

Institutional Innovation: White Paper Overview

For more than two decades now we have been trying to adjust, sometimes unsuccessfully to a changed market place that in many respects does not reflect its predecessor, The Industrial Era. Some have labeled our present time the Social Era, which is a sociological outworking of a surge forward in the information age, a service based economy and global business. The dilemma for many organizations is that what worked in the past era is failing to get traction mainly due to an inability to adapt and respond in a timely manner and this results in negative effects on earnings, cost containment and an inability to innovate. This holds true in the sectors of non-profit, for profit, governments and virtually any other organizational type. Authors John Hagel and John Brown with Deloitte Center for the Edge have written a white paper, Institutional Innovation, Creating Smarter Organizations to Scale Learning that addresses a contrast between these two epochs of economic history with a focus on the historic benefits of “scalable efficiency” (benefits of economies of scale) and a new and requisite organizational characteristic, “scalable learning.”

A compelling hook at the very beginning of the paper describes the organizational structure that seeks to govern scalable efficiency: command and control. To the average person who has read any degree of managerial trends in the last decade (or two), the very term, command and control bristles against almost anything considered effective in our present time. When I say effective, I don’t mean can it exist or can you get away with it. What I mean is, does such a structure really translate into organizational value and draw out the best in people, or does it cause people to become professionals at observing the boss, and avoiding them accordingly? The upside of this structure is that it puts systems in place (assuming managerial competence) that create predictability, which worked out well when social, political and economic trends changed more slowly. The problem is, this is no longer the case. The compelling resolution that the authors suggest is “a new rationale of ‘scalable learning’.” The result, they argue (with examples), is that smarter organizations actually benefit from radical and essential change, rather than be harmed by it. The key to this is “increased learning and adaptability” that will result in coveted product and process innovations through the advent of “creation spaces,” which is not a new concept, but may be better suited than ever for addressing the future challenges of organizations of all types. Get your copy of this excellent paper here, or if you would like a quick reference copy with highlights and a note or two, drop me an email.


Hagel, J. III & Brown, J. Institutional innovation: Creating smarter organizations to scale learning.