Checklists delegate a process, not a task

One of the things that tends to plague solo business owners and managers in smaller companies is delegating complex tasks as the company grows. In “E-Myth” fashion, the owner and technician (whatever that means in your line of work) is faced with the choice of delegation or overwhelm as their company grows. Sometimes there are skills issues that slow this delegation, but I often find that the complexity of a simple (to the owner) task contributes to the challenge. Consider a task that is taken for granted by someone who has done it for years. Being able to take it for granted depends on experience and the benefit of having the mental version of muscle memory to perform these tasks. The delegating party doesn’t have to think hard to remember the steps, even if the steps are challenging, technical or difficult. Where things get interesting is when you delegate a technical task such as diagnosing a SQL problem.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what SQL is – it doesn’t matter. Replace my references to SQL with a relevant and challenging delegation subject. The subject can be any detailed topical area (technical or not) in your business, whether it’s international legal contracts, electronic ignitions or chainsaw chain sharpening. The WHAT doesn’t matter. The process is what we’re getting at.

Checklists build confidence

When I had to turn over some detailed SQL troubleshooting to folks who weren’t super experienced at SQL diagnosis, the area that tended to stop them wasn’t the individual tasks performed during diagnosis. The problem was determining (or knowing) which step to perform first… and why. This created a mental roadblock at first, even though these folks could perform each of the steps that I would perform while diagnosing a SQL problem. Their biggest challenge was not performing the troubleshooting tasks, it was knowing which tasks to do and in what order to perform them.

I solved this challenge (and some similar ones) with simple checklists. The solution is an obvious one to solve the roadblock that held up productive delegation of this work. Once I provided a checklist with some description of why I perform the steps at the time I perform them, things changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting questions about which step to try first, or “What should I try next?”. The checklists were taking the one remaining confusing thing off the table: What to do, when to do it and why to do it at that moment.

When you talk to someone who is experienced in diagnosing problems or performing similar tasks like this – they have an experience-based, innate sense of what to try first, next and next. While some of it is Occam’s razor, a good bit of what to do when comes from having been there before. The checklists helped fill a good bit of that experience gap simply by giving folks a sequence to follow even though it was simply sequencing tasks they already knew how to perform. Eventually, their own experience fills in the gaps and they start adding their own checklist steps and notes for why that step is next.

One of the things I noticed when providing a checklist is that the skills improved quickly once they had the list to follow. Rather than facing the blank page of “what do I do first” and the mental overhead that creates, these folks were using the checklist to help them learn the progression of steps. This eliminates the overhead and provides the mental headroom to improve their SQL skills while the checklist provides a framework or a process to work from.

Checklists – Not solely for the owner

The benefits of delegation checklists aren’t limited to owner / manager delegation. The often-missing (or incomplete) but sorely needed process documentation across the entire business is tough to get rolling. Rather than looking at it like the great American novel, start with what helps right now. Who has the next vacation? Who was recently out sick? Start with their tasks. Once you get rolling, it’ll be easier to step into the job and identity the types of tasks that demand a checklist. The priority of need for these checklists will start to become more apparent with each vacation, sick day and checklist creation.

Inauguration Week, a time to stay focused

I have written on this topic several times over the last 12 years: Inauguration Week. More specifically, what happens to the business world after Inauguration Day. When Bush 43 took over in 2001, there was hand wringing. Before Obama took over in 2009, there was hand wringing. And now, with Trump’s takeover days away, the sound of hands (w)ringing, toll yet again.

The problem? That new President-elect. “He / his policies / his party’s policies will ruin my business.” . Doesn’t matter which President-elect, even though it’s hard to imagine that the last three or four president-elects could be more different from one another. Even so, I hear the same refrain I’ve heard every four to eight years.

I can’t start a business with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

My business is in trouble with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

Sure, there is some impact

I don’t mean to say there won’t be some impact. This time around, like every time, there is likely to be some impact on the energy business, on taxes, on healthcare, etc. Thing is, they’re impacted seemingly all the time by legislation from both parties, by world events (war, finance, technology changes, OPEC) and more. Is the price of gas / diesel different than it was before Obama? Before Bush 43? Sure. And it will be pretty much every week for years until some point way off in the future when technology matures past the use of those fuels.

However, when it comes to most businesses, the impact is usually trivial and the concern overblown. How you serve your customers and how effectively you sell and market to them has a much bigger impact in most cases than anything some randomly chosen President can do.

Sure, there is a lot of change in Washington. There will be, as always, a lot of pieces moving around on the chess board, and there will be plenty of drama in the news. As there always is.

Little, if any, of this has anything to do with the success of your coffee shop, sandwich store, plumbing business, clothing store, software consultancy, etc.

Don’t let Inauguration Week and a new President distract you and your team. Stay focused on your plan and your goals.

Step away from the drama

There is plenty to look at in the news that can make you take your eye off the ball. Don’t let it win. There is plenty to distract and worry your employees and contractors. YOU have to maintain momentum and leadership. not the TV news. It’s your job to make sure your team doesn’t get distracted and lose confidence over whatever’s going on in the news.

Use all the change as a reason to refocus and stay focused. Use it to rally your team. Remind them that no President has ever had a dramatic effect on your business. Be sure they know that you believe that the group of people working there now will not be the one to allow this (or any) President to be the first to negatively impact your business.

I know this might seem silly to some, but the thought processes are out there. People are always worried about their future when these kinds of changes occur. It’s easy and the news doesn’t help.

You have a plan for the year, right?

I’m sure you have a plan for the year. We’re already halfway through January. Remind your team of where you are toward your January and 1st quarter targets. Given the lack of likely impact by the changes in DC, it’s an opportunity to show your team what early trends look like.

Your team and your market has had over two months since the election to settle down. If your business is down since that time, I hope you know why. It might be normal for this time of year. If it isn’t, determine the cause and share it with your team. The last thing they need is to let the belief that four or eight years of that is inevitable.

For the same reason, if your business is up over the last two months, be sure to explain why. Your team needs to know why and how their work is affecting results and not that something completely out of their control (like political change) is driving your business’s performance.

Keep them up to date on the plan, its progress and course corrections you’re making. Keep your eye (and theirs) on the ball.

My business is too small!

It may seem that the strategies and tactics we talk about here that are intended to improve your business might relate solely to bigger businesses. A company with lots of staff, a big office and plenty of cash can make these things happen easily, right? And these things apply only to those bigger companies, at least, that’s what you might be thinking. Thing is, that really isn’t true. If your first thought tends to be “my business is too small to do that“, give yourself a chance. Step back a bit and look deeper at what we’re trying to accomplish and let the complexity fade to the background. The key is to pan for gold: find the fundamental outcome that these discussions are about.

A small company will almost never implement things the same way a bigger one would. That doesn’t mean that the small company shouldn’t implement them. Both have the same fundamental needs, like more sales, better leads, faster delivery (or something), and so on.

For example, the discussion might be something that seems complex, like a marketing calendar or lead curation. Both of those things may seem like overkill for a small company – but neither of them are. If we drill down into what they’re trying to accomplish, I think that will become evident.

Let’s talk about what lead curation really is. Why? It’s a great example of one of these “bigger business” things can be implemented by a small, or even one person business… Even if you think “my business is too small”.

What is lead curation?

Leads come into your reach in different stages. They might be ready to buy. The late Chet Holmes said his experience showed that three percent of your market is always ready to buy. The other 97% might be researching, recently decided to investigate, may have determined that their existing solution isn’t doing what they need, and so on. Out of 100 or 100,000 leads, you will find natural groupings like this.

If someone is ready to buy, your sales team (even if the entire team is you) needs to know they’re ready so that someone can start a “ready to buy” conversation with that lead. If someone from your team (or you) have an early-in-the-process kind of conversation with them, you may lose them.

A lead who has recently started researching solutions like yours will likely be put off by a sales person who opens a “ready to buy” conversation. Someone else (or you, if there is no someone else) needs to have the kind of conversation with that lead that will help fulfill their research needs as it relates to your product. This might be the time to provide them with a comparison form (ie: buyer’s guide) that helps them make a purchase decision.

For each stage a lead is in, the conversation that the lead needs to have with your sales team (or you) is a conversation that helps them come to the conclusion that it’s time to move to the next stage. Bear in mind, they don’t necessarily think in these stages, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

That is but one example of “something your business should do”. It’s a good example of something that a bigger company might have software or some sort of system to manage.

You may not have or need those things, but that doesn’t mean the process isn’t important to your success and growth.

“My business is too small for lead curation”

Based on this description of lead curation, it’s not a size thing. It’s all about having the right conversations with people based on where they are in the process of deciding to buy. The smallest company needs to do this – and in fact, the smallest companies are both awesome and horrible at this. You’ll either see them having the same conversation with every lead (horrible), or they will cater very specifically to each lead (awesome).

For a small business, figuring out how to perform lead curation and keep track of what has been done to move your leads through each stage of buying is still important. It isn’t important how the smallest of small businesses does this. It isn’t important how the bigger business does this. It isn’t important that the bigs and the smalls use the same tools or techniques.

What’s important is that it gets done.

Brainstorming your 2017 Business Roadmap

It’s a hair after five am on January 2nd. 2017 is barely underway. Have you started working through the first task on the detailed 2017 business roadmap that you painstakingly carved out last month? I’m referring to your checklist of all the things you want to get done to grow and improve your business this year. I suspect that list includes a number of tasks that execute on the strategies you worked out to improve your finances, marketing, sales process, and customer service – all while edging your way into adjacent markets, right? If that’s you, I hope you stay the course, crank through your roadmap and make some great things happen.

If that isn’t you and you’re beginning to consider what aspects of your business need your focus for 2017, maybe this 2017 business roadmap brainstorming discussion will help.

What’s your business roadmap expected to accomplish?

Without knowing your specific business, it’s tough to focus on the exact challenges you’re facing. So what do we do?

Experience tells me that you likely have one or more of these four things on your todo list for 2017:

  • Increase sales.
  • Reduce expenses.
  • Improve profitability.
  • Improve quality

While those are all good things to accomplish, let me first suggest that you nail down exactly what you want to accomplish with this list.

What does “Increase sales” mean to you? Does it mean double or 10x your sales? Does it mean sell one more car a day? Does it mean that each salesperson will sell $1000 more a week?

Until you decide what “increase sales” means, it’s going to be pretty hard to hit that goal. The same goes for each of these targets. Once you’ve decided, then there’s more drill down to plan each project that moves you to these goals.

You may tire of this process, but it’s exactly what you need if you’re looking at a 2017 goals list that looks like the four item list above. You need to know how far (and where) you want to go and what is involved in producing with the increase you’re striving for. Not advisable: Wandering off in a goal’s general direction and hoping you’ll get there.

What’s hiding inside “Increase sales”?

As an example, the first item can and should be broken out into multiple goals even if each one of them isn’t applicable to your intent to triple sales:

  • Get new customers. (What kind of customers? From what lead sources?)
  • Keep more existing customers.
  • Sell more to existing customers (selling more frequently, selling more expensive things, or both.)
  • Find new products to sell to your customers. (things that make sense in the context of your relationship)
  • Find new services to sell to your customers. (ditto above)

These can be broken down as well. Drill down until each goal’s first step is obvious. You’ll have to delegate. Delegation won’t go well without specifics.

Now you have a bit of a template for breaking down annual goals so that you can start executing.

What’s involved in tripling sales?

Let’s say you sold $340,000 last year and you want to triple sales this year. A 300% increase is a tall order, but it isn’t impossible. The big question is “What makes this possible?”, because the effort is in the details.

If I ask for explicit details on what you need to do, you need to know what it’s going to take because there are resources that must be invested to make that kind of growth happen.

Let’s say you have two sales people and each of them sold $170,000. To hit $1.2 million, you’re either going to have to hire four additional sales people capable of selling $170k a year, or have your existing sales people work *at least* four times as hard, or some combination thereof.

But that’s not all.

Four more sales people will need four times the leads. Customer support will be affected by a 300% increase in sales, as will delivery, storage, accounting, supplies (and suppliers) and finances.

You need to think about exactly what it’s going to take, map it out and then start implementing your plans. Then you get to repeat the process for each goal.

Running off the roadmap

What if you miss a month? Or a quarter? How does that affect your execution of the impacted areas (service, delivery, etc)? Have a plan B figured out in advance so that you don’t have to figure out plan B while plan B is being executed. Last minute, panic or fear-driven planning seldom works out well. Think about contingencies for each aspect of your plan that has risk of failure. Communicate early and often if it happens.

Who on your team is wired for tough situations?

In every sport, a team’s best players want the ball when the game is on the line and nothing but an amazing performance will help their team win the game. Regardless of the potential cost to them personally, the risk of failure and the pressure of the moment, they take charge during tough situations.

In your business, you likely have staff members built the same way. These are typically the folks on your team who step up in tough situations, probably for the same reason. It’s how they’re wired.

How’d they get wired that way?

I haven’t ever explicitly asked someone what makes them “want the ball late in the 4th quarter” but I suspect they would answer one of two ways:

1) In the early / formative years of their career, they had responsibility thrust upon them by virtue of the work laid in front of them. As a result, they’re become accustomed to tough situations.

In this case, it’s a matter of training and familiarity. Once these situations become normal, their confidence in handling them grows over time to the point where stepping up is simply part of what they do. They don’t see it as a big deal because being the one who deals with these situations is just part of who they are. One of the things that gives them this confidence is time spent in tough situations in the past. Be sure to include your up-and-comers to participate and observe so that they also gain this experience.

2) Leaders and peers have always shown confidence in their ability to perform under pressure, under deadline and in other tough situations.

This demonstration of confidence comes in several forms. It shows in team members asking not simply how they can help, but by taking on specific tasks that they’re confident your “crisis players” can trust them to handle. It shows in leadership asking if they can help (and if so, how) rather than yielding to the temptation to check for progress so frequently that it becomes an interruption. It shows in everyone asking questions that provoke the team to think a little differently about the problem, and to question and discuss every assumption.

How do you find more people like that?

Ask.

Prepare interview questions that provide your candidates with the opportunity to explain their experiences during crisis situations. When your team nominates someone for an opening at your company, discuss your “interview crisis” questions with the nominating employee. Your goal: to gather their viewpoint of candidate’s ability to handle crisis situations, and their observations of the candidate’s behavior under pressure.

Here are a few generic examples that will help you create better, more specific questions that are more appropriate for your business: Would you want to work with this person when trying to solve a problem that threatens the life of the company? Why? What about this person’s behavior under pressure impresses or concerns you? How do the peers of this person react to this person’s crisis behavior?

How do you help in tough situations?

Ask any crisis player you know what kind of help they need most when dealing with these situations. It may take them a while to mentally step back through the process. This should encourage you to plan on a discussion after the crisis abates. It’s not unusual to have these meetings so that we can, as we are famous for, make sure this never happens again.

Reacting to what happened so that it doesn’t reoccur is important, but what’s desperately needed is getting a lot better at prevention. Ask your crisis players what would have averted this situation. Ask them if they saw this coming. Ask them who else saw the oncoming problem. Ask them who listened to those who raised the alarm and who didn’t. For that matter, did ANYONE listen?

You’re not asking for names so you can have a witch hunt, but so that you can identify those who see things before others do. Some people have a sense about these things and ask questions or notice issues long before others. These folks need to know that management has their back when they think they see something.

One way you help your existing crisis players is by identifying players in the making and by giving all of them the resources and ear they need.

Adding value to gathering feedback

Being obsessive about the customer-facing activity of your business requires some discussion about the company’s process for gathering feedback.

Ironically, these systems and processes for gathering feedback tend to be at their worst when the customer would benefit most from being heard. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the process for responding to feedback typically trails a company’s collection of feedback.

Why is feedback broken?

Because feedback is a multi-faceted beast, it tends to be broken in any number of three ways, including these:

  • No one is collecting it.
  • Someone or something has made it incredibly difficult to share.
  • When it’s collected, it goes nowhere.
  • When it’s collected, it isn’t tracked (no source, no situation, no financial impact etc).
  • When action is taken on it, there’s no effort to follow up.
  • When action is taken on it, there’s no communication to the rest of your customers.
  • It isn’t used to improve the rest of the company.

Feedback has four parts

Feedback is a four part activity, so be sure that none of the pieces are broken.

The pieces are: Collection, Valuation, Action and Communication.

Collection is a matter of letting your customers be heard. Many times, simply giving them an outlet for their feedback will satisfy them. In some cases, people simply want to vent and may not care if you respond (you should). Finally, feedback often comes in the form of a suggestion, and in many of those cases, people don’t expect a response.

Collection is more than simply saying “Thanks, we got your comment”, but that should be the absolute minimum if that’s all you can manage. There’s always time to improve, since every day is a good time to improve something.

Valuation is an often ignored part of the collection process. It’s easy to take a complaint, tell someone you’re sorry and give them a coupon for next time (or some such), and then move on. Unfortunately, that wastes the value and opportunity that hides deep inside the feedback.

Valuation

Valuation assesses the feedback and its impact on your clients, and your company. For example, you may get feedback about certain things which only come from the customers who buy your most expensive products, but only during third shift on the weekends. The when and where both matter since many businesses function a bit differently during “off-hours” or non-prime shifts.

Sometimes feedback points out “reaching demand”, a client behavior (doing something, hiring someone and/or spending on something) that identifies a need that should become a part of your offering. Other times, feedback points out a failure point in a product or service that needs attention. It could be about quality and workmanship, or a lack of clarity in marketing materials or sales processes that creates a disconnect between expectations and reality.

Valuation helps you assess what parts of the company can be improved by the feedback, beyond the context of the complaint.

Taking action

If your company’s feedback loop ends at “Sorry, here’s a coupon for next time“, who misses out the most? Your management team.

That eliminates an opportunity to take a high-level view of the problem for further action. Nordstrom is famous for its empowerment of employees to make things right in these situation, and their feedback loop doesn’t stop at the employee.

While these complaints might seem to be “employee failure alerts” that a line employee might want to hide from their manager, they often point out where management needs to provide better support and/or infrastructure to their staff.

Without complaint awareness, it can be difficult for managers to see trends that (going back to valuation) can be incredibly wasteful and expensive. This is particularly true when there are lots of part-time people involved across changing shifts – negating the ability to see such trends.

Communication

Many times when you file a complaint, you get a response indicating that the company isn’t staffed to respond personally to each complaint. If you can respond to each one, I suggest doing so. If you have thousands of clients and get a lot of feedback, it can be overwhelming to respond individually.

However, individual responses can often be avoided if you respond in a way that serves many. Use your website, email list or text subscriber list to discuss complaint resolution, including the actions taken. Share internally with your team as well.

Preparing your business for sale, or not.

As you get a little older, one of the natural things you start to think about is “What am I going to do with this business?” While you might find a buyer (as many do), or you plan to involve your family in some way. Anyone else might have to search for a while. While you’re considering that (family or not) and dealing with the day to day, it’s worthwhile to spend some time preparing your business for sale.

One of the ways to do that is to start thinking about what happens the day after closing. In many cases, your buyer is likely to request some sort of financing, which often comes as a revenue split payable to you. If you have to (or want to) do this, you’ll be a lot more interested in the buyer’s success.

Leaving a road map

Leaving the new owner a road map can’t hurt, no matter how experienced they are.

What roles will have to be filled to take over your business?

  • Daily operations
  • Product management and development
  • Finance
  • Infrastructure management
  • Marketing
  • Sales

You may have others, depending on your business.

What do these things involve?

Daily operations

In brief, run the business day to day, relieving the owner of all tasks. Making sure everyone on the team is communicating and is being communicated with. No mysteries, no surprises. If you had to be replaced tomorrow, what would it REALLY take?

Product management and development

Managing employees, consultants, their projects and the quality of those projects. Planning and executing testing so that quality meets or exceeds both your own and your customers’ expectations. Working out ongoing product plans, deployments and deadlines so these projects can be coordinated with other parts of the business.

Finance

Monitoring AR / renewal rate / renewal speed, keeping the bills paid, updating metrics, etc. Making sure your financial records resemble something a buyer and their people (banker, investors, etc) expect to see.

Infrastructure management

What infrastructure do you currently have to manage and care for?

Marketing

Planning, design, development, and execution of marketing efforts per your marketing calendar. What prospects are you not reaching? Are there prospects who need what you do, but simply aren’t exposed to your company because of (what, exactly)? When you have churn, what is the cause? When someone declines to purchase, what are the reasons? The answers to these questions change over time, so they must be asked on a recurring basis. This includes lost customer re-acquisition.

Sales

Improve, manage and document the sales process. If there isn’t one now, develop one. It’s “easy” to take a company to two times current revenue by doing more of what you’re doing now, the same way you’re doing it now – throw “bodies” at it. However, it’s all but impossible to 10X a company that way.

Investigate expansion into adjacent markets

Are there closely adjacent spaces you aren’t yet addressing? Do the people that work with the people who work with your products and services all day need your help in a way that relates to your existing business?

Identification of partner and cross-marketing opportunities

Investigate partnering and cross-marketing opportunities where you can leverage your reach to help your partner and where your partner can do the same for you.

Standardize and organize company finances

Investors, angels and prospective buyers expect (hope) to find well-organized finances in forms they’re used to seeing. I don’t mean to say that your finances aren’t organized now (are they?), but they may need to be more formalized. What you want is something that wouldn’t raise concerns when an investor and their professional finance team sees them. Being able to provide such numbers to them on relatively short notice sends a message.

Other benefits of preparing your business for sale

Everything here is about ultimately about preparing for exit. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t focused on customers, in fact, it means just the opposite.

Everything you do to prepare a company for sale prepares it to withstand market challenges, slow months or quarters, while also making it more attractive for purchase. In particular, the road map makes it easier for you to “replace yourself” in the event you decide not to sell and instead, decide to become a passive owner.

No matter what direction you go, making the business stronger benefits you and the new owner.

Understand anything and everything

On this Armistice Day, I’m reminded of the wisdom of the Vets who influenced my life. Typically, this means lessons learned from my dad and father-in-law, who both served as B-52 mechanics (Presque Isle, Carswell, etc). Seems that the harder the lesson was to understand and learn, the more value it holds.

Watching the election returns come in reminded me of an old joke that a successful landing is any landing you can walk away from. When the context of survivors is “political parties who do things the way they’ve always done them”, it’s too early to tell if anyone survived Tuesday’s landing.

For those who didn’t come here for politics, have no fear, we’ll circle back to a place very much in context with you and your clientele.

I have often noted that anything you do is everything you do, and Tuesday was a world-class illustration.

Hearing what you want to hear

After the Presidential votes are counted, everyone’s a pundit. We know what happened through the view seen from our own window on the world. Some saw it as a shocker. Some as a GOP mandate. Some as a long overdue rejection of the political establishment. You can count me in the third group.

It’s like the “crazy” family member at Thanksgiving dinner. If you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you.

Collectively, the RNC couldn’t believe they had to run with Trump until they had no choice. Likewise, the DNC couldn’t believe their “luck” that the RNC was stuck with Trump. I suspect the RNC couldn’t believe their luck when Hillary was nominated.

Neither party realizes they’re the crazy family members at the table.

Each party’s echo chamber remains in pre-election condition. Before long, I expect you will start seeing signs of “not getting it” in each party’s behavior. I’d like to be wrong about that, but it’s difficult to change organizations of this type, particularly when they say what they say so they can hear it again.

Listen to, understand and know your clientele

Neither party seems to understand one of the messages the election sent: “Stop sending us the same old candidates who do whatever the party wonks say while delivering nothing the candidate promised“. That it was delivered to both parties by the same candidate is noteworthy.

This happens after decades of not listening to your clientele (yes, voters are a clientele). It happens after decades of telling your clientele you’re going to deliver, but you never do. Not that they delivered two days late, or two months late but NEVER.

With that, let’s start to tie these events to your business.

Circling back with understanding

Until it happens, it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand what it’s like for a factory to close in your town. Most politicians think they understand it because they’ve seen photos and spreadsheets, talked to the former plant manager and toured the factory. You can’t really understand it without living it. Unless you worked there, live in the town, know the people, know their kids, see them them at ball games and grocery stores, it’s difficult to understand. Even then, unless your job is one of the ones that was lost, you don’t really get it.

The business owner has a parallel. They’ve lost customers, or lost or closed a business in the past. They understand that every day, their business is up for re-election.

If I asked your clientele to vote anonymously for your business’ survival, what outcome would you expect? Every stop or visit to your website is a vote of confidence. If they’re tired of your place or want a change, it’s a vote in the other direction.

Like a politician, you have two choices. You can depend on your echo chamber like those political parties, or you can get nose to nose, toes to toes with your clientele and learn what really makes them tick, what makes them worry, what takes away their pain and why they like (or don’t like) you. It’s hard (sometimes exhausting) work much like campaigning.

When you know your clientele better than anyone, it changes anything and everything. Your behavior, service, team, products, marketing and reaction to events that affect your clientele – they all reflect that knowledge.

If you’re a politician… it works roughly the same way, notwithstanding the votes you get simply because you’re a member of a particular party.

Decisions with numbers

Business is Personal” has been a thing for almost 12 years now. While many things have changed in that 12 years, the nature and impact of good and bad decisions remains the same: the difference between success and failure.

“So says Captain Obvious”, you might say. Perhaps, yet your decisions continue to be the single most powerful (or weakest), positive (or worst) impact you can have on your company and your team.

The information and process you use to arrive at those decisions makes all the difference.

Demonizing the numbers

On a number of occasions, I have suggested that you start gathering metrics – even if you start with a single number and a yellow pad. Your data gathering might be more sophisticated than that, but it won’t matter if you aren’t using the data to make decisions.

It’s easy to demonize the numbers. They make it easy to make “impersonal” decisions, right? They tell us that Marta (who has only been here for two years) is producing twice as much as Jenny with fewer quality problems. Yet Jenny has been here for 10 years and must be loyal to the company.

The impersonal numbers say Jenny should be sent packing, or should find another job, or should be moved to another role in the company. Should we ask her if she’s bored, or needs a new challenge or is struggling with (whatever)?

Maybe Marta has more ambition and bigger goals than Jenny, who may only be here for the paycheck and is happy as long as that continues. Or maybe Jenny doesn’t realize her volume and quality are down and would change whatever is necessary to improve her numbers if the data told her about the problems.

Numbers don’t lie and don’t care about circumstances. They’re demonized because they seem to provoke decisions to be made without regard for the people impacted by them.

Data provokes questions. Is the data misinterpreted? Is there more to the story about why Jenny’s volume and quality are down? Is the data incomplete? Is the analysis incomplete? Like any tool, metrics can be used badly.

Ignore some of the numbers at your peril

The data indicating Jenny’s apparent lack of productivity and quality might be affected by the machinery she’s using. Is her equipment operating at full speed?

Do the metrics take into account that she is the subject matter expert in her department? Does whoever evaluates the numbers know that thanks to new hires in the last quarter, much of Jenny’s time is spent training new employees on her equipment?

Do the metrics reflect that her machine was down for 12 hours last week and that while her machine was down, she made service calls to pick up the slack for a sick staff member?

You want to know these things when you make a decision about Jenny’s performance numbers.

Decisions are personal and impersonal?

What data often does is reinforce decisions that you’re afraid or unwilling to make. Sometimes data tells you things you weren’t the least bit aware of, but be sure that these surprises are well-researched. There are often multiple factors affecting a single metric, and some are not always obvious.

When the numbers are ignored, decisions are delayed or not made at all because of a personal bias or a desire to avoid “hurting” someone. Meanwhile, the numbers keep telling you what you need to know to make the decision that’s best for the everyone.

When complete, a metric provides you with the information needed to make decisions based on what’s really happening in your company. Yet almost all decisions are personal to someone. How do we make personal and impersonal decisions at the same time?

We don’t.

Even if the decisions aren’t personal, the impacts usually are. Make sure the data used to make a decision tells the whole story. Make sure that both the directly and indirectly impacted understand the context of the decision. You might feel these things are none of the employees’ business, but that breeds the attitude that they shouldn’t care because, after all, it’s none of their business.

If the decision is best for everyone at the company, show them why. You’re responsible for making the company as productive, profitable, secure, and resilient as possible. Your decisions should reflect that.

Critical process testing: Both expensive and cheap.

How do you perform critical process testing? Critical processes are sensitive to any failure, not just the major ones we tend to worry about most. When your products get out into the real world, they encounter a mix of simple, complex and very complex environments. Likewise, they are often used in a mix of simple, complex and highly integrated workflows.

“Any failure” is often an easily overlooked, simple little environmental thing. These little things didn’t cross someone’s mind early enough in the design, creation, production and testing processes. The simplest oversight or miscalculation about the nature of environments can easily derail a complex product.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

A rather disconcerting programming-related comment I’ve heard for decades is “Works on my machine”, otherwise known as “WOMM”. In context, the full comment might be “I tested the program and it works fine on my machine.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean anything. As Mike Tyson has said, “Everyone had a plan until I hit them.” Likewise, every program has been “tested” until it has been deployed.

A WOMM comment implies that the program wasn’t tested in an environment more complex than the one used to create it. In other words, testing wasn’t anywhere near as comprehensive as it should have been.

Don’t be so quick to think that your shop is immune to this simply because my example refers to software. A marketing process or sales process is just as likely to suffer from a lack of proper testing. This is the classic “Can’t see the forest for the trees” situation. Those creating your products are often focused too close to the product’s development to truly understand how it is normally and properly used in the field.

Management has a testing responsibility too

Not understanding how your products and services are used in the field is a disadvantage for your creative team. A frequent problem with all testing (not just critical process testing) is that it occurs too close to the environment used to develop the process. I’ve mentioned that I often proofread a written piece by reading it aloud. I do this because the use of a second media reveals obvious problems hidden by familiarity with a piece. Adding environments to your testing process is a similar tactic.

An instrumental part of your testing is making sure that the shifts in environment are properly covered. If your teams aren’t exposed to the reality of the environments where your products and services are used, it’s more difficult to take them seriously – much less know those environments even exist.

Making this happen is management’s responsibility. Allowing your creative team to spend the money and time to experience the real world environment where their products are used is huge. Taking a step beyond that to allow time for testing in real world scenarios and environments will pay huge dividends. These investments pay off in both product quality, and with the vision of your creative team being more in touch with your clients’ reality.

Whose responsibility is multi-environment critical process testing?

Your creative types (programmers, engineers, etc) may feel the duty of testing on a broad range of environments falls entirely to your quality control team. After all, your quality control team is usually tasked with a mix of testing new changes and testing for regressions (ie: new problems created in existing functionality) across many different environments.

That might seem the same job as developing in and for multiple environments, but it isn’t. When complex environments are involved, your programmers, engineers or other creative folks might often think their time is too valuable to spend creating and testing on a number of different environments. They have a point, but that doesn’t mean their development has to occur in the simplest environment possible. Left untreated, product creation will occur on the systems and tools closest and most familiar to the creative team. This leads to WOMM but also to designs that don’t reflect the reality of the environments where your creations are actually used.

The real world is far more complex any single programmer or engineer’s work environment. If you aren’t providing a range of ready to use work environments for them, the natural thing is for them to use the tools that are already available. This isn’t ideal for them or for your clients.

Think about and invest in your creative people and critical testing process: Expose them to reality.