Operations problems

A good bit of what we discuss here relates to day-to-day operations. While a lot of operations probably seems simple and obvious, it’s the number one issue I see in companies. I suspect you’ve experienced, owned or worked at a company whose operations are a disorganized mess. Common problems shouldn’t be common at all, right? Let’s see if we can chip away at a few of these and get your operations polished up.

The under-performer

Somewhere in your company, there’s someone who is “under performing”. Not doing their job, not doing it well, It might be that they’re not doing the work in what their peers would consider a normal amount of time. IE: They’re slow. Slow can be OK for some work, but sometimes it isn’t.

As managers / leaders, this is your responsibility. The cause doesn’t matter. If they aren’t doing their job, it’s because their direct manager isn’t finding out why, attempting to fix it and circling back to hold them accountable. Is their direct manager isn’t doing those things? Ultimately, that manager’s performance is your responsibility. Does the under performer work directly for you? If you aren’t finding out why this is happening and you aren’t holding them accountable, it’s your responsibility. While this may seem like a difficult source of hand-wringing and drama, it doesn’t have to be. 

Sometimes, an employee doesn’t know what is expected of them. Not kidding. You might find this surprising, but a list of duties, deliverables and responsibilities is useful to an employee. Nothing says “This is what you are responsible for. I will be looking these things when I assess the quality of your work.” better than a list. 

Maybe they need training. When you discuss that list of responsibilities with the employee, make sure they are confident that they can achieve those things and have the right skills to make them happen. If they can’t, find training for them.

Training didn’t help. Nothing did.

If training doesn’t improve their performance, a new role might. They might hate some aspect of their work – work that someone else might love to do. Guess who’ll do it better?

Find them a new role that fits who they are, what they can do, what you need, etc. If you can’t do any of that, help them find a role somewhere else. Few “bad hires” are bad people that you’d never recommend to someone else, but they do exist. It takes too long to find and hire a good candidate to simply discard them because you put them in the wrong role, or didn’t train them well. 

EVERYONE else in the department (probably in the company), already knows this person needs a new role, more training, or a different job at a different place. They know you aren’t doing anything about it and they’re not happy about that. They know it affects the security of their job, among other things. They’re right to be disappointed.

Disasters in advance

We’ve all seen these. A big project is coming. There are obvious bumps in the road. No one says a word because predicting disaster is “not being a team player” or similar. To a point, that’s correct. Predicting disaster is of no value, but preventing them is huge. 

There’s a better way. Ask everyone: “What could go wrong? What could cause this project to fail?” Make it clear that it’s a positive thing to produce this list, as you want to avoid the “team player” baggage. Discuss this for each step of the planning, creation, deployment, and ongoing (if any) operational stages. 

Once you have that list, discuss each one. Not only will you be better prepared (and perhaps plug a hole), but you may end up figuring out an issue no one saw when the conversation started. You’ll also help everyone think about hardening their part of the project, no matter what that means. You may find that items on the “What could go wrong?” list end up as a standard task in that kind of project. Would your company benefit if everyone was thinking about these things earlier in the project timeline? 

You may get some responses that make no sense, or that seem silly. Don’t let the crowd shout them down. Imagine that delivering a product is critical to your process and someone suggests that a possible fail point is “MegaSuperBigCo can’t deliver our packages“. Something like this might seem a waste of time, but give them their due. Look back far enough and you’ll find instances where shippers or customs people went on strike. When that happens, packages sit in limbo for weeks or months. If your shipping is international, it can get complex in a hurry. 

Don’t ignore the smallest items on the “What could go wrong?” list. History has proven that the tiniest thing can create a small failure that cascades to a massive one. We don’t always know which tiny thing will disrupt operations, but we can review each one, make note of what prevents that item from causing problems and move on. If it isn’t handled, the affected team should be expected to take care of it and report back when it’s been handled.

Follow through. Few do. 

Have you ever noticed that you get a bunch of work done just before leaving on vacation? Obvious hint: Deadline. Or that your “do this before leaving on vacation” list is essential to making sure that you pack your swimsuit, turn off the stove, and take the dog to the kennel? Obvious hint: Checklist.

Follow through works the same way. You have to be careful that it doesn’t become micro-management, which no one appreciates. 

If someone knows they’re expected to provide a status report every Thursday afternoon, they’re more likely to make better progress on the work involved. Work is a funny thing, it expands to fill the container provided. As Stephen Covey made famous with his four quadrants, it’s easy for urgent and unimportant work to fill the day and displace important work. 

Source: Stephen Covey – 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It isn’t that this work shouldn’t be done, it’s simply that it isn’t as important as a team has agreed to previously. Otherwise, why would you be expected to provide a project status report next Thursday?

What’s even better than a status report that you ask someone to provide? The status report they provide without being asked.

When you provide a project update to your manager / leader / owner without being asked, you make it clear that you know that work is important AND that you know it’s important that the manager / leader / owner knows how things are progressing. Most managers / leaders / owners don’t want to nag – they simply have to because no one is volunteering the information. Result: They don’t know the status of the operations they’re trying to manage. 

Unknowns make people nervous, especially as deadlines approach. Make sure your team understands that and that you appreciate follow ups so that you can do the work they expect of you.

Post-mortem your disasters

One of the best times to prevent something from happening again is by taking some notes while it’s happening. An in-disaster post-mortem, for lack of a better term.

Oh, I know. You’re too busy wrestling the fire hoses to stop and take a note for 30 seconds. Really though, you’re not.

If this bad thing happens regularly, put a recurring reminder in your calendar for a few days / weeks / months before the event. A simple reminder to deal with that one little thing that defuses a minor disaster is pretty valuable. Example: Before a trade show or big marketing push, contact your credit card company (merchant card processor) and alert them that you might be processing (much?) higher volume than usual. A five minute call is much less hassle than having your merchant account temporarily disabled in the middle of the business day. 

Perry Marshall once mentioned a question his company uses – and I love it: “What system, if fixed or implemented, would have prevented this problem in the first place?” Important for leaders: Don’t ask this question after stating your answer to the question. If you do, you’ll likely miss out on some good ideas that you probably didn’t have. Let someone else get this win – one of them is likely to have the same idea. Listening to the discussion will be far more valuable than showing how smart you are.

What a post-mortem isn’t: A process for assigning blame. Blame has zero ROI, at best. Improvement has a massive ROI, particularly when it prevents future disasters, even minor ones. We can’t always see the future well enough to avoid disaster, but we can convert them into a positive by learning from them. Make disaster avoidance part of your creation, operations, deployment process. 

Where subscribers hide: Pt 2

We talked last week about the benefit of being a little flexible with subscription offerings. The payoff is adding subscribers who might otherwise fall into the gaps between your offers. A key to increasing your subscribers are making it easy to buy. 

You want to make it super easy to buy. I mean E-A-S-Y. An example would help. Let’s talk about the wine store I mentioned last week. 

When resubscribing to the monthly wine selection, we had to re-enter every bit of personal info and card info. It’s tedious. It’s annoying when you know that info is already in their system. It isn’t E-A-S-Y.

How would you improve the process? Examine each step.

Re-entering the email address should have given us the opportunity to restart the subscription, or at least avoid re-entering a bunch of info. It’s possible the system was capable of this, but the salesperson pressed us to fill out the whole thing again. Thanks to a prompt on the screen, my wife asked about logging into an existing account in their system. She was told to ignore the prompt. Unfortunately, the CRM allowed her to create a new account with the same email address – without any warning like “we found an account for this email”.

Sidebar: Credit card data is very rarely stored locally in small retail these days, so re-entering that info isn’t terribly surprising. It should have been swiped or inserted into a chip reader – but that wasn’t an option. That there are still businesses taking cards without chip readers is disappointing – particularly given that this business has a reasonably new CRM / POS system. Security is important. Think about how you feel every time you hear of another credit card data breach. Now think about how you’d feel if the next breach happened at your business. Finally, consider how your customers would feel about you and your business after that event. 

The pause that refreshes 

One key to retaining subscribers is making it easy to resume. Resume? You can’t resume without the ability to pause. Few subscription plans have a pause button. 

A limited number of subscription plans provide the ability to pause your subscription. In plans where there is a consumable and/or deliverable product, like wine plans or subscription boxes, having a pause button can prevent losing a subscriber. Once you lose one, getting them back is real work. 

As an example, Audible (the audio book division of Amazon) allows you to pause your subscription. Sometimes, life doesn’t let you consume all the audio that your subscription provides each month (sounds like wine, eh?). Even before Amazon bought them, Audible recognized this and allowed you to temporarily pause your account. They understand that life happens or that their plans may not fit every person’s consumption model all the time.  

Don’t sell junk subscriptions

While not every business can be focused on subscriptions as their primary revenue source / sales mechanism – quite a few can be. Even if you sell something that doesn’t lend itself to a subscription model, it’s pretty likely that there is some component of the business that is ideal for subscriptions.

Subscriptions are great for businesses for a number of reasons. One of the best reasons is that they fill in the dips caused by things like seasonal markets & unexpected dips in sales. They add a certainty component to cash flow that many businesses have never had.

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like the idea of stable / consistent /  dependable / predictable cash flow. Most folks are keen to the idea of subscriptions when discussed in that context.

The thing is, they have to mean something to your customer. Watch a few commercials over the weekend and you’ll be inundated with offers for frivolous “monthly boxes of stuff”. Most of it is, quite frankly, crap no one needs. 

That’s what I mean by “don’t sell junk subscriptions”.  Sure, many of these companies are making big money selling them right now. Will they be around in five or ten years? Doubtful. Are they essential to their subscribers? No, they’re frivolous luxury purchases. They have many thousands of subscribers but their subscription base is fragile because of the nature of the product.

Make it meaningful & simplifying

Create your subscriptions from something your customers already need or want from you. A subscription should simplify their life, whether you sell to consumers or businesses. Sell them something they don’t want to forget, or that they should keep up with – but it’s tedious or a hassle to do so. It may not make sense for yours to be weekly, monthly, etc – but it may. Figure out what works and make becoming a subscriber a no-brainer purchase. 

Where subscribers hide: Pt 1

Watching my wife shop / interact with salespeople is always a refresher course. Gaps in customer service & sales training / tactics always reveal themselves. This is the missing piece of “Secret Shopper” type services – no audio / video. The report is fine, but you don’t get to see and hear what happened – that’s where the gold lies. We’re going to go over an experience we had while shopping in a local retail business that has a subscription model. Yes, a local retail business (a wine store) with subscribers. All too rare, but I see more of them than I used to. Bear in mind that there have been wine subscriptions by mail / via internet for decades. 

My wife is an intermittent repeat shopper at this store. They have a good selection. The sales people know their wines – and at least one of them is a standout in that department. She’s the one who really knows their point of sale / CRM (customer relationship manager) system. Isn’t it interesting that the product expert also happens to be the CRM expert – and she isn’t the owner. She’s “just an employee”, right? 

Working with the expert

A couple of weeks ago, the Mrs. sent me to pick up a white wine to go with some smoked fish sent to us by a friend in Michigan. She didn’t remember the brand name, but she did say that it was the white she thought she’d bought most often. So, being the CRM nerd that I am, I asked the salesperson “My wife wants a white wine but I don’t know the name. Can you tell me which one she’s bought most often?

In some stores, I might get a shrug or a “We don’t collect that info.” In this store, I got exactly what I came for.

Turns out that I was fortunate to be working with the standout salesperson there. She knew their CRM like a pro. She quickly found my wife’s purchase history, identified the most frequently purchased item, grabbed a bottle, and I was out the door in less than five minutes. That’s my kind of shopping.

Not working with the expert

Yesterday, we went back to this store. The expert had moved out of state, apparently for a new opportunity. My wife asked basically the same question I had asked two weeks earlier. Our salesperson, who was in the store when I was there two weeks ago, didn’t know how to find purchase history.

A promo sheet at the checkout counter mentions their monthly subscription program. Two bottles, four bottles, etc. My wife was in the four a month program a year or so ago. She quit because bottles were piling up. Four a month is too many for her.

The selection in the four month program fits her tastes better than the two month program, so backing off to two per month didn’t work. The promo sheet prompted her to ask if she could get the four bottle program every other month. 

The response: “No.”

There are plenty of possible answers to that – and most of them are questions. “No” ends the sales conversation. 

The owner questions

The owner overheard the conversation from the backroom. He steps out asks why the four per month every other month works better than the two per month. The point of curiosity is obvious – it’s the same number of bottles. She explained that high tannin wines make her feel bad, so she likes the four-per-month subscription’s selections. 

The owner says “We can handle that. Let us know when you pick up your monthly selection. We’ll be happy to swap out wines that’ll bother you.” He continues, saying that they can do an every other month plan, but will need to look into the details to make sure she isn’t charged every month.

This flexibility matters because it gets them a subscriber. She liked the previous plan she was on, but it wasn’t clear there were substitution options. Result: She cancelled. There was no follow up to ask why. Knowing why helps you keep more subscribers longer and learn about gaps in your plans.

Obvious reminder: Subscribers are sales you make every month, often with little sales / marketing effort. You have to fulfill well, regardless of tannin, to keep them. More next week. 

Finish more. Then start.

Seems that everyone has a book in them. How many of these books actually escape the mind of their author? I’ve had several percolating in different stages for years. Outline. Concept. Key points. I wrote a very rough draft (isn’t that what drafts are?) years ago – for one of them. I need to get back to them, but other things are (or seem) more important. The same goes for that project you need to get done. Or that new product you want to develop. Maybe even that new company you’ve considered starting. There’s a key to all of this: finish the task. Simple, right?

Start, then finish. Then start another something. You could get tangled up in “finish the already started stuff first“. Maybe, but that might ignore the priorities you’ve already been ignoring. Decide what’s important. Do that. If you happen to wander back into some unfinished task that’s become important, great. If you don’t, and that project languishes for years – it probably wasn’t important anyway. 

We prioritize what we can finish

Prioritization is a lot of this. Trouble is, prioritization is tainted by ego and courage and all those touchy-feely things we claim to be irrelevant. We start things we know we can finish by the end of the day, week, or month. We don’t like to fail. Leaving things unfinished feels like failure, even though it isn’t.

Not all work fits conveniently into a day, week or month. We know this. Still, we use that to prioritize work. If there’s no chance of finishing a task by Friday EOD, it’s likely that task will be put off. It’s easy to skip that task in lieu of one we can finish. It’s a built-in confidence builder that our brain uses to “protect” us. 

The irony is that this “protection” system is exactly what causes us to fail at important things.

Remember that Federal law that says you have to have tasks completely finished by the end of this week? Neither do I.

Procrastination as leverage

In the last few months I’ve incorporated procrastination into how I schedule tasks. It’s painfully easy, and the rewards are addictive.

Here’s how it works: When you schedule your tomorrow or next week, identify at least one thing you’ve been putting off. Make sure it’s part of your agenda for the day / week. It doesn’t matter why you’re procrastinating on the chosen task. Just choose one. Pick an easy one, if you wish. Make that thing happen. Repeat. Maybe add two of those items next week. Do what works.

You might be thinking “I’m not procrastinating on anything.” Uh, yeah. Sure.

Stop anyone on the street and ask them “What are you putting off that you know you should get done?” and they’ll have an answer instantly. They don’t have to think about it, or look at their phone, or pull out their planner. They know. 

So do you. Really. 

If the “lizard brain” in your amygdala is hiding these things from you, ask a peer, friend or significant other. They’re bound to have a suggestion. 

You may not be able to schedule your entire day / week like this. That’s OK. You decide how much time you can allocate to those procrastinated items. The key is to keep making progress. Finish them. Finish another. Repeat.

“Finish him!!!”

Our brains love to finish things. Have you ever put an item on a checklist simply so you could check it off? While it seems silly, checking off completed tasks is a cheap way to release dopamine.  Finishing stuff “takes weight off our shoulders”. Mental weight. Cognitive load. “Stressed out” or overwhelmed. Call it whatever you like – it’s there. 

Ever been on a diet? There’s a constant food-related cognitive load on your mind. Do you encounter more food-related ads when you’re on a diet than when you aren’t? Probably not, but it feels like they’re everywhere.

Cognitive load is a weight your mind bears every moment. Sometimes you notice it, sometimes you don’t – but it’s always there. A five pound bag of flour doesn’t seem heavy unless you already have two armloads of heavy groceries. 

Unfinished, procrastinated tasks have the same effect as that bag of flour. Finish something today. Check that box. 

Compelling reasons to buy

One of the vendors I’ve used for the last 20 years or so recently shipped a new release. With that comes a close-to-$1000 invoice. As always, the discussion in the community of users of this tool is “Should I upgrade?” Some will upgrade because they think their failure to buy will somehow cause the company go out of business. Others buy because there’s something important in the new release that they need. The bottom line to me is: “What’s the compelling reason to buy?” I mention this because YOU need to give your buyers a compelling reason to buy. 

Whether you sell software, cars, gaskets, chainsaws, yachts, bow ties, or meat & meat by-products. Your chances of success are better when you meet someone’s needs and/or wants with a compelling offer. If you don’t, they’re as likely to do nothing as they are to buy what you sell. 

I tend to talk about software – or at least use it for context. Don’t let that throw you. Think about your product / market when I mention software.

What does compelling mean?

When trying to figure out what’s compelling about your product or service, try these angles:

  • What improvement will repeatedly save money / pay for itself?
  • What will save a substantial amount of time? An hour a week? 15 minutes a day? 5 minutes a day?
  • Does this new thing protect my work, make it harder for me to make mistakes, or streamline a process? 
  • Will it transform a particular outcome in a way that makes it faster, more dependable, or otherwise “better”? 
  • Is it smaller, bigger, faster, slower, or more efficient?
  • Has a long-standing flaw been fixed?
  • On a 38 degree evening in the middle of a blustery rainstorm, will it get you off the couch & into the car to go buy “the thing”, despite the fact that you’re watching the last 10 minutes of a close ballgame or your favorite movie?

If you aren’t sure what your customers find compelling about your product, ask. Even if you think you’re sure, ask. Every conversation you have with your customers about where they see the value is golden. They’ll tell you what others like them need & want. Best of all, they’ll use language that’ll resonate with those people.

What isn’t compelling? Guilt.

I don’t want them to go out of business.” or “I haven’t sent them any money in a while.

Did you ever make a sale because one of your customers worried that you’d close without them buying something? Has one of your customers sent you a check because they hadn’t sent you money in a few months or years?

Look, I get it. I find it hard to walk past the older Eastern European grandmas selling veggies at the Farmer’s Market without buying something. Call me a sucker for grandmas. Guilty as charged. Of course, then it’s back to the car to get the bag. Then you have to fill the bag… but I digress.

And sure, I’ll buy popcorn, candy, or coffee from a kid who comes to the door and musters up more nerve than many adult salespeople have in the last year – mostly because they’ll explain WHY they’re selling. Otherwise, buying out of obligation or guilt doesn’t resonate with me.

You might wonder why I feel that way in the context of all the things I write here about creating a community of your customers, building a relationship with them, if not a co-dependency, etc.

Easy.

Long-term customer success

Those things are focused on creating a better long-term experience for the customer. ALL of it is about serving the customer. Making things easy for the customer. Helping them find others like them so that together they can do more than they could individually.

While such things make life better for the company once they get momentum / critical mass, there’s a dichotomy. Until the customers get more value, meaning, fulfillment, productivity, etc – the company creating those relationships, community, etc gets little or nothing. Loving your customers and their success is an important part of such efforts. The long term benefits to your company come from curating that success of your customers. 

It isn’t that you’re making your customers become successful. You’re simply creating an environment where the ones doing the right things can find the people and tools they need to get more from their efforts. 

Politics in the workplace

Politics and work – do they mix well? As political communication seems to approach something resembling “say nothing or go psycho“, politics can become tougher at work. I love intelligent conversations with people I don’t (and do) agree with. But finger poking, red-faced, screaming rants? I’m gone. I’d rather watch hot dogs being made.

That politics and work don’t mix well does not mean that the mix is unavoidable or unmanageable. Employees whose politics are a mix of “us and them and them” can get along & be productive as a team. That doesn’t mean the company isn’t going to have to deal with conflicts. Avoiding these problems requires some care when hiring, and that still won’t guarantee you’ll avoid problems related to political differences between employees. 

The mission is rarely politics

You may prefer to hire people who are very serious about their political views, particularly if they match your views. That’s OK.  No matter where your team members align themselves politically, they need to understand what really aligns them as employees. There’s a single thing to align with when they’re at work and/or when representing your business. That they’re “invested in delivering upon the mission of their employer in the service of the employer’s customers.” 

Every business has a culture, whether it’s intentional or not. If you hire people who are incapable or unwilling to adopt that culture, they probably won’t be around long. How politics is handled in the work environment is a part of a company’s culture. Part of delivering upon the employer’s mission is taking care of their customers in a way that is defined by the employer. Some employers are better at defining this than others. All companies define this by example & through their culture, if not via training.

Leading by example

You’ve probably heard about people being fired because of public actions / statements. Sometimes these are political in nature, sometimes the person is simply being a jerk (or worse). I wrote a few weeks ago about an executive chosen for a job who lost it the next day. Online posts that were incongruent with the role of being a senior leader in that industry were costly.

While everyone has a right to their views, how they are communicated in public may reflect upon their employer. It isn’t always that simple. Our political views tend to define how we work, in whole or in part. They can be at the core of who we are & how we got there. Still, we must lead by example. 

What leaders say

Imagine hearing the CEO of a national fast food chain publicly stating “Our food is gross. I can’t believe our employees make it, much less have the gall to serve it. What kind of people are they?” Who at that company would feel motivated by their work after hearing that? If that person was named CEO at a different company, how would the new company’s staff react?

Would you expect that CEO to have your back in a situation where a CEO should have your back? How would you like to be one of that company’s salespeople after hearing that quote? What would your response be when a prospect repeated the quote to you after you finished your highly-polished sales pitch? 

How does that situation not become all about that leader?

Losing sight of the mission

Politics creates problems in the workplace when someone has not only chosen a political viewpoint, but defines themselves by it. It ceases to be about issues and candidates. It won’t be about how they should respond based on their experience / training. It could become about how someone with their views should respond to work situations. 

When an employee’s actions are no longer about the business or the customer, you have a problem. At that point, you get to decide what’s more important: that employee’s views, or your business. It won’t be easy, particularly if you share their politics.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want the person who did / said / wrote these things to manage the people I’ve put in place to care for my customers and the future of my business?
  • Do I want them interacting with my customers?
  • Do I want them representing me and my business in public in this manner?

Whether the answers are yes or no, make sure your people know.

Driving hard at stretch goals

A couple of months ago, I was driving to Banff to meet some friends in a rig we call the Scoutmobile. About an hour into the drive, the engine’s temperature started heading into risky territory. I was in an area where there was very little room to pull over, so I started looking for a safe, roomy place to get off the road. In management-speak, this would be a stretch goal.

While searching for a place to stop, I used common engine overheating delay tactics: turn on the heat, slow down, etc. I had a simmering suspicion that a blown head gasket was coming home to roost. This rig had close to 300K miles on it, so this wasn’t an outlandish possibility. As this suspicion moved toward reality, it was obvious that simple overheating delay tactics wouldn’t help for long. I needed to stop.

Stretch goals and context

Getting to a safe, roomy stopping place became a new and much smaller stretch goal because the context changed. Frankly, making the 400 mile drive to Banff and getting back without mechanical trouble was really the stretch goal. Given the rig’s mileage and concern about the head gasket, I had wondered for months if it would survive the trip.

Once the engine temperature started rising, my decision making context changed. Meeting friends in Banff was off the table. Finding an ideal place to pull over became the stretch goal. Getting off the road was possible, but not quickly. Leaving the road in a nice wide spot so I wouldn’t cause traffic issues became the stretch goal. 

As I finally rolled into a safe spot out of traffic, the engine lost the little remaining power it had and locked up. The first time it stranded me in 17 years turned out to be our last drive together. While I made the stretch goal even in the altered context, even that seemingly tiny stretch goal was too much for the situation. That’s the lesson here – attention to changing context is critical.

Stretch goals aren’t the problem

I don’t mean to say that stretch goals are bad. They aren’t, but context is critical. When my trip’s decision making context changed, so did my goals for the day. Looking back, it’s possible that stopping immediately would have prevented the locked up motor. I didn’t want to partially block a lane on a two lane highway. That as my justification to push a little bit further – a stretch goal. 

When you decide on stretch goals, be sure you aren’t going to drive your team too long at “redline”. Redline (in automotive terms) is the maximum speed at which an engine and its components are designed to operate without causing damage to the engine.

Making your monthly sales goal in three weeks is a classic time to give your team a stretch goal for the month. Adding requirements to the final days of a project that’s already behind will all but guarantee late delivery. Likewise, shrinking a timeline they’re already likely to miss is a good way to sour a hard-fought win.

Race drivers will repeatedly push a race car’s engine to or a bit beyond redline because that’s when they get the most from their engine. Thing is, they won’t do it for long. Pretty soon, they’ll shift or brake. They know redline is there for a reason and pushing the engine beyond normal operating limits for too long will end badly.

Running at redline

Prolonged running at redline has similar effects on people. Someone can work a couple of 80 to 100 hour weeks under near-term deadline conditions and some will do so willingly if they believe in the goal. 

Where this goes bad is when it becomes “normal” to work like this. Do this and some (probably all) aspects of their lives will suffer. They’ll not have (or make) time for family, or taking care of themselves. Eating and exercise habits will suffer. They’ll have less (or no) time for friends, the dog, yard, car, hobbies, etc. Rest will suffer, so their ability to focus, concentrate and show patience will be affected. Burning bridges at home combined with a drop in work quality / output can permanently create morale / attitude problems. 

Sometimes limits really are limits. Exceed them too often for too long and you’ll damage engines, people, relationships and before long, your company. 

Delegate being right

When you run solo business, you work in a bit of an echo chamber. Every decision is yours. You get used to being right, because the market is the only thing to tell you otherwise. Even wrong might not be all that wrong. Maybe you weren’t as right as you could have been – and perhaps market condition changes created that scenario. When you’re on your own, you’re the best at everything in your company because there isn’t anyone else.

Decisions change after hiring

As soon as you hire someone, that changes.

Presumably your first hire is better than you or smarter than you at *something*, otherwise – why did you hire them? Most founders / owners are generalists, but are very, very good at a few things. Hiring someone worse than you for any role outside of your sweet spot is crazy.

The arrival of a new team member starts the process of discovery. As you learn their true abilities, you can begin to leverage their ideas, opinions, perspectives, and experience. You may delegate some decisions to them, while continuing to make the majority of them. At that point, discussions about decisions tend to take one of two directions:

  • I’ll make the decision and tell you what I’ve decided.
  • Tell me what you’re thinking, how you’d make this decision, and why. I will still make the decision, but I want to hear any insight your background, training and experience tell you. To me, hearing how you arrived at the decision is as important as the decision itself.

I suggest the second angle. For the decisions you begin to delegate, you can see from the second angle the importance of explaining how you’d make them and why. Their thought process may not be identical to yours, but they need to understand your decision making process and what factors you see as important. 

Delegate with intent

Delegating isn’t solely about making decisions. There are many ways to design something, setup a trade show booth, make a sales presentation, etc.  Once you hire someone better than you at a particular task, you should expect that some of your past work will eventually appear less than ideal. 

It’s difficult to delegate the work that you’ve always done. Your staff will do things differently than you, and probably better than you. Does this make you wrong? No. Should it put you on the defensive or embarrass you? Don’t let it. Celebrate it. They’re doing exactly what you hired them to do – relieve you of the work and the cognitive load related to that task. 

You may not realize that you become defensive when “wrong” or when your past work no longer passes muster. Be aware of your reactions to these events. If your team sees you become defensive when proven wrong or when your work is improved upon, people will avoid making those situations happen again. It isn’t worth it to them. They’re likely to agree with everything, or worse, add nothing. They’ll say things like “Nope, I don’t have anything to add”, “I’m good.”, or “That’s fine.

Losing decision / process trust

The pain you create when you’re proven wrong changes people’s input. When being right or better seems more important than good results, you lose their trust. You hired them because they’re skilled, yet you’re uncomfortable when they inevitably show it. 

They’ll change their interaction as they learn when & where you have to be right. They may downplay their opinions & work reveals, despite being better than you at certain work. They may suppress experience / data used to make a point during meetings. This won’t happen because they don’t like their work or want the best for the company, but simply to avoid stirring you up.

Over time, they’ll avoid expressing anything in public that’s counter to your position – even when you need it. They’ll censor themselves in private discussions with you. Eventually, they’ll have no input at all, and because this happens gradually, you may not notice the change. If it gets that far, you’ve probably lost them – particularly when it involves previously motivated, engaged staffer. 

It’s tough adding new people to the mix. Give them some rope. Let them prove they can handle the work you hired them for. The freedom they provide by taking work off your plate provides valuable time you can leverage on the work you’re best at. 

Focus time & cruising altitude

Earlier this week, I quoted a software developer who posted this comment on Twitter:
Surgeon: This procedure will take three hours. Manager: Ok, I can give you from 9:00 to 10:00, 11:00 to 12:00 and 2:00 to 3:00. The rest of the day you’ll be in meetings. Ridiculous, right? Now, imagine the surgeon is a software developer.” 

Someone on LinkedIn suggested that this was OK since the three hours needed (in the software context) were still available that day. I wasn’t sure if their assertion was serious or not, so I offered the following analogy to clarify why these two schedules are so different.

Not all three hour lengths of time are the same. If it takes three hours to fly from NYC to Chicago, you can fly non-stop. However, you can also get there if you fly from NYC to Buffalo, then from Buffalo to Cincinnati, then from Cincinnati to Chicago. You still spend roughly the same three hours in the air, but it’s far less efficient. Getting into the work (not the same as starting it), then stopping to change focus for the meeting,  then switching back to the focus work and getting into it again (twice) is much like the three sets of climb out, cruise, descend.

Three hours in a single block is a bit different than three hours scattered across a single day. However, there are a few other considerations for anyone doing work that requires focus.

Non-stop is better for focus

If you flew for three hours from NYC to Chicago, you might have two hours at cruising altitude to get some work done or watch The Office.

If you flew from NYC to Buffalo, then to Cincinnati, then to Chicago, each of those three short flights are going to consist mostly of climb out and descent. You’re going to have very little focus time thanks to the short flight length and the hectic nature of a rushed in-cabin service. It’s likely that you’re going to find that time useful for reading, light analysis and little else.

In addition, you have to spend time boarding, getting off the plane, changing gates, and waiting for the next boarding window. If things go well, you won’t have a delay caused by a mechanical issue, weather, or the lack of a crew (it happens). Even then, you still have to “prep” for the flight: get on the plane, wait, fly, wait a bit more, then get off the plane.

It’s a lot like going to a meeting. Exit current task, meeting prep, meeting,  debrief / summarize, move to next task / meeting. 

Focus killers only need a toehold

The other thing about these breaks between those precious one hour segments is that they open the door to chaos. In other words, someone pulls you into a meeting, or you get distracted by someone who needs help with a problem, etc. 

Got a minute?” never takes a minute – and there are plenty of opportunities for got-a-minutes on the way to/from a meeting. Even if you work remotely,  the fractured time between your focus sessions are subject to this. 

One way to avoid this during your focus work sessions (even the short ones) is to put yourself in do-not-disturb (DND) mode on your phone, email, etc. Not everyone can do that, but if you can, do so. Despite that, there will be occasions where something serious could require your involvement. The big ones are tough to avoid. The little ones that wait… those are the ones you want to defer / delay during focus time. 


Meetings aren’t bad, but…

Meetings are often essential to make sure everyone is well informed, “on the same page”, and / or coordinated for the next effort. Yet meetings are often looked upon by the attendees as unproductive, expensive, & wasteful of employee time. 

Effective meetings have these characteristics:

  • Have an agenda.
  • Have one person keeping the meeting on agenda.
  • Include only those folks who need to be there.
  • Begin on time.
  • End on time.
  • Allow a few minutes to transition to the next meeting if attendees have back-to-back meetings.
  • Are summarized at the end to make sure there are no misunderstandings, misreads, or “I missed that”s. 

If the meetings you call don’t fit this profile, see if you can improve them one characteristic at a time. Meanwhile, do what you can to help your team get blocks of focus time. 

Really bad advice

If you know people who have owned their own business for a long time (or maybe not so long), they’ll have lessons to pass on. What you’ll typically receive from these people is rarely (if ever) going to be bad advice. I suspect most of these folks will be happy to suggest things you shouldn’t do, as well as things they recommend doing.

Here’s the secret process to making this work for you: Find a business owner. Ask an open ended question, like “What do you think about (something)?” In the meantime, here’s some really bad business advice for you. You may detect a little sarcasm. Or a lot. 

It’s OK to fall behind in bookkeeping. No one really keeps up with it anyway, right? Also, never get a bookkeeper, even if you think you might only need them part time. You can handle it. 

Never guarantee your work. As long as you’ve been paid, the job is done. The consumer needs to do the legwork to figure out who does quality work and who doesn’t. They are expected to take on 100% of the risk of their shopping choices. 

Ignore your customers once you get their money. If they want something, they’ll tell you. Until then, leave them alone until they show up with more money. 

Customer service is a waste of money. Your customers are smart enough to figure out how to use your products and services. If they aren’t, they’ve already paid. The really stumped ones will pay again even if they haven’t figured it out. 

Be difficult to do business with. It gets rid of the lazy customers and those who aren’t willing to cater to your way of doing things. Or maybe you should be easy to do business with. You decide. 

Safety isn’t a big deal. If your existing folks get hurt, you can always find new people to take their place. 

Internet security risks are overblown. All the hype about viruses and hackers and stuff is mostly made up to sell software that probably doesn’t do anything. 

Never call references. There’s really no need to try and find out if a candidate is motivated, or lazy, or awesome, etc. Don’t call them. Just keep hiring people and replace the bad ones.  Calling them is a waste of time because it’s almost certain that their lawyer has advised them not to tell you anything. If they’re a smart person like you, they probably don’t have a lawyer and do it all themselves. Doesn’t matter. They still wouldn’t tell you because that airline magazine said don’t tell anyone anything if they call about former employees. 

Try to be your own lawyer or CPA. Everyone thinks this is a good idea. I know all I need to know about lawyer-ing from that Law and Order show (Whomp-whomp). Accounting and the law is nothing more than math and stern letters. 

Marketing is for losers. If your product or services are good enough, you shouldn’t need to waste time and money on advertising.  

People don’t need to be trained. If they didn’t know what they were doing, we wouldn’t have hired them. 

Salespeople rarely tell the truth. Even better, they rarely stick around for more than a few months, so it’s OK to pay them low commissions. Since they won’t be around long, it’s cool if they make up stories about your products and services as long as it closes a sale. 

Foster a dog-eat-dog mentality among your employees. If they’re competing with each other, they’ll either get better or quit. They’ll also be too busy jockeying for position to spend any time getting together and causing trouble.

Never assume that your clients are smart. Presumably you’ve never suggested that your work is easy enough for your clients to do without you. If they were smart, you wouldn’t make so much money specializing in cleaning up the carnage caused by do it yourself clients.

Databases and customer relationship management is for people who can’t close. Relationships with customers are something for people who can’t sell.

When in doubt, use sarcasm. Seriously, though… All of the items above are obviously (I hope) sarcastic suggestions, so do the opposite. Business is hard enough without taking bad advice, particularly sarcastically bad advice.