I recently took a short business trip to Southern California. I conveniently missed out on the single digit and sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds that chilly Montana week. As if winter was following me, my hosts found ice on their lawn furniture one morning during my visit. While there, my host served a really nice Cabernet Sauvignon. When I got home, I called my local wine specialist to see if they could get it – it was that good. When the salesperson answered, I asked if they carried the particular winery and vintage of the Cab. They replied, “We don’t have that one, but we have plenty of other cabs.” I then said, “I understand, but right now, I’m looking for this specific one…” – and before I could finish my sentence to ask if they could custom order it – they hung up.
While I appreciated the “we have plenty of other cabs” portion of the salesperson’s response, it’s a weak effort to fulfill the role of a salesperson: Help customers meet their goals / needs and if your goods / services fit those needs – sell them. If your products / services don’t fit their needs, think long term: Send them in the right direction so they still get some value from your employer. You might think that when Macy’s Santa in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” sends customers to another store it’s simply sappy old movie scripting. Perhaps it is, yet it’s also exactly what’s customers want and appreciate.
Customers value when your experts share their expertise to help them solve a problem. It’s exactly why Ace Hardware has (and promotes) the presence of “helpful hardware” people in their stores. When we enter a wine store, we expect the employees to know more about their wine (if not most wine) than we do. If you’re a local restaurant’s sommelier that won’t be true, but most of us aren’t.
Why do we enter a particular type of business? We’re fond of the product / service. We’ve gained more expertise than most over time & enjoy sharing it. People come to experts because they don’t have the time and perhaps funds) to become one – or they need expert advice soon. We have a problem to solve or a need to fulfill. Most of us are happy to exchange payment for that expertise or purchase advice. That’s why I called the wine store.
The problem with the wine store call was the answer I didn’t receive, not the answer I received. I wasn’t asked if they could try to order it for me. They didn’t offer to check with their distributor and get back with me. They didn’t even finish the obvious part of “we have plenty of other cabs” with “such as this, this and this.” I called them because the store doesn’t have stock on their website (with or without pricing). Sidebar: At first, I thought it might be illegal to list wines on your website in MT, given our love/hate relationship with our sometimes inane alcoholic beverage laws. Nope. I eventually managed to find a Montana wine store who listed specific in-stock wines on their website.
Wanted: A well-trained salesperson.
These days, the difference between a great salesperson and a good one doesn’t really matter in most situations – including this one. It’s tough to hire great salespeople because they can work anywhere. In some environments, they’ll make more than the CEO / owner. At a retail store, a passable salesperson is one who knows the product. A good one knows the products (maybe loves the products too) and makes an effort to help the customer solve the problem that brought them to your store. This doesn’t happen simply by having people fill out a W-4.
It takes training. Not one day. Not a sheet of paper with a checklist, though that can serve as a cheat sheet in the early going. Hire people who like the game you’re playing, and like the people you’re playing it with. Make them more valuable to you by training them to be better salespeople of what you sell. They should know the goods and services better than most customers. They should know why people should choose this over that. Sure, they might move on someday. In the meantime, an untrained or under-trained salesperson reflects on you and your store, not on them. You know what breeds loyalty in your customers? Knowing that there will always be a considerate well-trained expert in your store.
Can you help your customers too much? Have you ever wondered where to draw the line when providing support / customer service to your customers? Or how to react when support starts becoming the focus of every waking moment, much less the thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night? Consider the question below. Once again, the context is software, but these business model structural design failures can just as easily face your plumbing firm, Crossfit gym, or mortgage brokerage.
I have a question about supporting my end users of my software. How do you take care of users who call about their printer not working, or they can’t get the software to open up because of a networking error? Do you charge for these things? Do you somehow let them know it’s not your problem but do it nicely? I feel like we are getting way too many calls that have nothing to do with our software. Just today a customer wants to print to a different printer and I asked if it was installed on her computer. She answers “I don’t know how to check that.”
You might be wondering how you’d get into a situation like this. Maybe you don’t clearly define what your business does and what it doesn’t do. Perhaps it happened because we’ll often do “whatever the customer asks” during the early days when you’re clawing for business. In that mode, you’ll do (almost) anything to please a customer & get/keep a sale. Trouble is, you may eventually find yourself trapped because this kind of business model doesn’t scale well. Even if you’re being paid for the help, it can create a large support infrastructure. Is that the business you designed?
Once you’re in this situation, the far more important question is “How do I get out of this mess?“
Help! We already do too much.
There is some good news. If you’re being asked to help, it usually means they trust the advice you’re giving them. The challenge with this is that you’re often doing this for free, which is another reason they’re asking you for help. While you could start charging then by the hour for help that is not directly related to what you do, is that the business you’re in? Looking forward, is that the business you want to be in?
Let’s rewind a bit. When you selected a market to enter, did you also consider the type of customers involved? Did you consider what sort of help they would expect? Consumer users need a lot of help. Most of them aren’t tech people. They depend on tech to remove problems, not create them. When the latter happens, it usually coincides with use of other technology, like yours. It’s the nature of the beast.
Your consumer users need your products / services to help them, heal themselves and when that fails, communicate all pertinent details to you as automatically as possible. Anything else creates a situation where you’re buried in a pile of conversations with frustrated users who don’t know how to answer your legitimately nerdy questions that your software should’ve already figured out.
Understandable. It’s not difficult to get buried by consumer or small business support / service. The consumer issues are noted above, and the small business ones aren’t much different. Few small businesses have an IT staff. Some have their brother-in-law the IT guy (translation: maybe a gamer, maybe a real IT person somewhere), and a scarce few actually have a professional firm contracting this sort of help. Even for the latter and most proactive group, this help can be quite expensive. Result: They’ll still try to get you to help before falling back on the external IT group.
So how do you fix it without aggravating your entire user community?
Most likely, you don’t. There is no shortcut here. Admit that you can’t do it any longer and decide what you will do, then communicate the situation to your users. At the very least, you have to communicate it to the ones who are consuming the most time on things that are ultimately not “owned by you”.
What you can’t do: Continue being your customers’ service desk for HP, Microsoft, Dell, etc. There’s too much hardware changing too fast that’s affected by too many things. Remember, this isn’t the business you’re in (unless it is).
No easy answers
This support / service load has a cost – sometimes a substantial one. You have a few choices, including these:
Shoulder all of it and raise prices across your entire customer base.
Shoulder none of it and take the heat. Probably a lot of it.
Choose a solution somewhere in the middle and stand firm on the things you simply can’t afford to do without being paid, if you do them at all.
If your software demands hardware (such as point of sale devices), then choose a very short list to support from specific vendors, certify it with your product – and support it very well with your hardware partners’ help. Make it clear prior to purchase that you cannot support other hardware, unless you’re willing to accept the cost of doing so (You probably can’t).
No matter what you decide, you MUST communicate your decision and new support policies / approach to your users. This is not the time to “get all corporate” in your communication. Be clear and real about it. Small businesses may not like it, but they’ll understand that you have to contain it. Enterprises will likely begrudgingly accept it – knowing that they’ve been getting a screaming deal for some time. Consumers won’t like it, but you simply can’t replace vendor support for every piece of hardware &software ever made – much less whatever you sell. It’s not feasible. It’s time to stand up for yourself – and the future of your business.
Overwhelmed by the enterprise?
Enterprise customers usually don’t need help with printers and other rudimentary things. The exceptions are those with an IT team that’s difficult to deal with. They’ll call you first because you actually help them. You have to be crystal clear (in advance, on paper) about the details of support / service with enterprise clients or the sheer volume of questions can bury your support team. Badly structured pricing of support can create severe pain and impact your ability to support the rest of your customers.
This is the situation “shadow IT” ultimately grew out of. It happens when a department gets fed up with IT & rolls their own solutions. They go to this trouble because they’re fed up with the inability to get help. You might end up being a part of a department’s shadow IT solution. Is your sales process designed to detect how purchasing and support are delivered to internal customers at your prospective customer? If you’re part of a shadow IT solution, your price better reflect the real needs of that department.
As with consumer solutions, a self-healing, self-diagnosing solution will save a ton of time, money, and frustration for everyone. These self-healing, self-diagnosing solutions don’t have to be perfect. If they can handle the most frequently reported issues, it will give your team breathing room to make headway on the rest. “Oh, that’s common sense” you might say. Yes, it is. Does your product do it?
Avoid doing too much for too little
Think hard about the future of what you’re building. How will your team, product, service, delivery, operations, & accounting look when you have 100 or 1000 or even 10000 clients? When you’re scraping for revenue, it may seem silly to consider how your business model will look at 1000 clients. Do it anyway, as it’s much easier to design a model that works at any size while your office is the kitchen table. The investment in time and thought will pay big dividends 9999 customers from now, if not before. You can get by on seat of the pants management when you’re small, but that sort of business model will create pain well before you’re ready to redesign it.
Operations will look different at 10 clients than at 1000, but the business model doesn’t have to. You can do it, but it’s hard to change your business model while 1000 customers are on board. Invest even a little bit of thought up front to make sure things make sense five years from now.
You may not remember 10, 15, 20 years ago when software companies provided perpetual licenses and never charged for support. The boldest proudly offered “lifetime support”. What most customers didn’t consider was that it was the vendor’slifetime, rather than theirs. Vendors suffers the same shortsightedness. Their business model flipped over when their ninth year sales pace didn’t match that of their second year. Suddenly, they had updates and support to provide to more people every year while revenue slowly dropped off. Their market penetration rose, but their annual revenue didn’t.
Decide what your business model will support and price accordingly. Communicate clearly what you do, what you don’t do, and how you charge.
We joke, perhaps uncomfortably, that some people “don’t play well with others“. Others are considered average at being team players. Finally, there are the folks who seem to mesh with any group. The best of them thrive at team dynamics and seem to improve the team, rather than simply becoming a part of the team.
While this is obvious, we often hurry to hire someone. Every time you get in a big hurry to “get that hire done”, there’s a pretty good chance that you & your team will pay for your impatience. If you’re in a hurry for a critical position, look internally for a solid team player who can grow into the open role. Showing that people with these skills get good opportunities sends a message to both the person getting the role and their peers. The upside is that you get an existing team member with known skills into a (presumably) more important position. The role they leave open is presumably a less important role, or perhaps a role that’s easier to fill.
What do team players look like?
It’s easy to say “hire team players”. Getting consistently good at finding them from a pool of candidates is another story. The real work is in identifying them during your interview process. During your interviews, everyone has their persona “all shined up”. Be sure to dig deeper and find signals that indicate what they’re really like when the shine wears off. What does a team player look like? How do you get them to reveal their true selves and reveal what they aren’t?
Much is revealed through conversation. So what do you do? Start by asking people about teams they’ve been on. What do they think makes a good team member? Why? Why are those things good indicators? How does the team benefit from those characteristics? Why do you think that’s important? Channel your inner four year old: “Why? Why? Why?”
Knowing what a candidate values in a team member is good, but it’s critical to know why they value them. Their answers reveal their maturity as a team member & team leader.
Do you know your team’s “human whisperers”. If you don’t – ask around. Your team knows who can read people well. They might not be the senior managers who normally interview people. Involve them anyway. They’re the ones who can read what others cannot. They’ll often pull stories out of a candidate that they’d never typically share – both good & bad. They might be less assertive than your “typical” interviewer, but don’t cut them out of the process. You need to know how a candidate communicates with people who aren’t hard charging extroverted managers. These “shy” or “quiet” folks are often very good at assessing what’s behind someone’s “interview face”. Let them meet the candidate off-site for lunch or coffee at a place that has table service so you can see how they treat wait staff.
What about those who aren’t team players?
Regarding the folks who “don’t play well with others”, you have two choices. Give them a chance to change, with milestones and a timeline, or help them find their next career home. Some people are convinced that they can’t work for someone else and that the only way for them to be happy & thrive is to work alone. Only a hermit lives & works alone. Even the most fiercely independent loner will eventually discover that, along with customers and vendors, they must work together as a team – even if they otherwise work alone.
The person who refuses to learn how to become a team player simply has to go. You aren’t doing someone a favor by keeping them around when they are unhappy and/or don’t fit well with your team. These changes feel difficult, if not horrible, but not as bad as things will be if you do nothing. Making these changes through training and/or departures is what your team needs and deserves. It’s also better for the person who isn’t a team player and doesn’t show interest in becoming one. They deserve a chance to get it together, or find a place where they do fit. Some take to training / mentoring and transform themselves. Some don’t. Sometimes a change helps them figure out the sort of team they need, or that they need to make some changes to become the sort of person a team benefits from.
In Silicon Valley, “exiting” means a company you started / invested in went public or was bought by another company. It’s a time of celebration, reward, & anticipation of the next big project. When you are selling your company, it’s often different. For some, it’s an escape. For others, it’s the achievement of a long-anticipated goal. Are you prepared for it?
Is your company ready to sell?
The process of getting a company ready to sell is really about getting it running smoothly. It’s easy to think of it from the “E-Myth” perspective & focus on “systematizing” your business, but there’s more to it. Put yourself in the shoes of a buyer during due diligence.
They’re looking for proof. Signals that provide assurance.
They want to see data that indicates how your company performs. If you have good, verifiable data, you don’t need to make big claims. Let the data talk. For example: You can probably predict gross revenue over the next 90 days with a fair amount of accuracy simply by gut feel, but can you show data that supports your prediction? How you do this will vary, but many use some form of leads-per-month and conversion rate.
Sidebar: One conversion rate calculation is the number of leads who buy during a period divided by the number of leads you gained during that same period. If you get 1000 leads a month & sell to 520 of them that month, your conversion rate for that month is 52%. Sales cycle length & other factors can complicate rate calculations. Keep it simple.
Selling your company requires leading indicators
Measurable business performance can be difficult to extract solely from financials, which produces trailing indicators. Income history over time is good to have, but it’s a trailing indicator. A trailing indicator is one that documents how the company did last week, last month, last quarter, last year, etc. What about the future?
Buyers want to see leading indicators. Data that accurately predicts future performance.
A leading indicator uses verifiable data to reasonably predict how the company will perform next week, next quarter, etc. Restaurant reservations are a leading indicator: You can predict on average that 78 people will show up for dinner if you have 100 dinner reservations for next week.
Lead counts (inbound phone calls, website opt-ins, etc) function both as a trailing & leading indicator. Imagine you got 100 new leads a day on average over the last two years. Let’s say your close rate on sales hasn’t changed during that period. If your average sales cycle is 60 days long, you should be able to predict income quite accurately for the next 60 days. Why? Because the lead count is steady and so is your close (conversion) rate. While this ignores changes in prices & costs, it reasonably predicts future gross income.
Why are you selling your company?
When someone approaches you about selling your company, it’s often done without provocation. You haven’t listed the business for sale. You haven’t indicated that you’re ready to retire. “I’m not ready“, you might think.
They see opportunity. Sometimes they see synergy with their existing business. Maybe they want to buy more customers. Their reasons are theirs. What are yours?
When you ask owners in this situation what they really want, they’re often unsure. There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t always know what the next step beyond business owner is because you haven’t thought hard about it. You’ve been focused on running the company, growing it, & taking care of customers. It’s OK if you haven’t put serious thought into what a sale really means – even if you always knew you’d sell someday.
“A big check” is too simplistic an answer for some, because the business is a big piece of who they are. Some want a role in the company after the sale. Many don’t. Some care what happens to the company, the customers & their team. Some don’t.
Owners often have a number in mind that they would take. The first number I hear is rarely based on hard numbers, desired ROI / payback period, etc. Remember that a buyer is purchasing assets (most likely) as well as an income, whether they’re an individual or a company.
When it comes to selling your company, your “why” is as important as theirs. Think about it and get your business ready.
Several times over the last month or so, I’ve suggested refocusing on important work. I’ve suggested paying attention to long-procrastinated tasks. There’s high value in moving on to bigger things and relieving your mind of the self-persecution of procrastination. All of this tends to demand that you do four things: Prioritize. Delegate. Outsource. Focus. We’ve focused on prioritize and focus in recent weeks. Today, let’s talk about delegation.
“I can do it faster than I can delegate it”
The pervasive thought, *particularly for a founder/owner*, is that you can complete a task faster than you can describe it well enough for someone else to do it. That might be true the first time. It’s probably true the first few times. After that, you’ll know one of three things: Your instructions are ready, or they aren’t. You chose the right person. You chose the wrong person. Those are easy to fix.
Delegated tasks are usually needed more than once. They tend to happen repeatedly. The first few times, you’ll want to check their work. Who wouldn’t? They’ll want you to do so as well. You’ll probably need to refine the checklist / instructions you created. Soon, they (the person you delegated to) will be refining it. After the first few times, you’ll want to take a quick glance to make sure things are done right. But the 11th, 20th and 42nd time? You’re out of the loop. Intentionally.
That first few times, you aren’t going to gain any time through delegation. Just as you expected. Even if things go very well, you have to circle back. After those first few times, you’ll gain time every time this work needs to be done. Not only are you no longer having to prioritize and find the time to do the work, in many cases you won’t even have to think about it. Unless your company is very small and has no other managers, let someone else follow up and monitor quality / completion time, etc.
If you don’t have anyone else to do that oversight, give the person you delegated to a process to confirm the work’s completion to you without interrupting you. While you can use whatever job / process / project management system you use for this, don’t over complicate it. This can be as simple as an inbox, an email or a text. Prefer old school? Put an old Amazon box on a table outside your office so they can drop things into it without interrupting you. Hang a clipboard on a nail and let them check off the things you’ve delegated to them.
The keys to delegation
The stickiest thing about the delegation process is how you document the work. Yes, the very thing you don’t want to take time to do. That’s the thing you must do well. Several things are obviously critical. The complexity of the task could require covering things you normally take for granted. Things “built in” to you. This may make it even more tempting to avoid delegating the task, but don’t give in. If it can be delegated, do it.
There are several questions to consider. What raw materials and tools are required? Where are they? Are instructions required? Other team members? Are interim approvals or reviews necessary? When should the work be started? When must the work be done? What milestones exist between the start of work and completion? Do we need lead time before delivery for oversight, review, rework? If so, how much? Does the job require outside resources? (contractors, services, materials not already in-house)
Completion and delivery: What specifically indicates that the work is complete? What specifically defines completed delivery? Paperwork in a specific folder? Files in a specific Dropbox folder? A pallet in a certain rack? A delivery to a customer? Is a customer sign off required?
These things are always on an owner’s mind, but might not be on the delegated person’s mind until you share them. Even though the person doing the work isn’t an owner, they’re still important. They include: Why is this work being done? How does it tie into the big picture? What are the stakes of failure? Is a customer depending on this work? Is this work critical to keeping a customer?
The first few times, this process won’t be enjoyable. As you refine your delegation process – you’ll end up with a form, or an email template, or something to make it easier. Give it time to work – because you need it to work.
With the start of the new year, many will be looking for ways to reboot lives, businesses, and whatever else they’re disappointed about the state or progress of. We’ve all been there. The cure for many of these disappointments is to finish procrastinated, meaningful work as we discussed a few weeks ago. With the new year starting, it’s tempting to put that unfinished work aside and try to start something fresh and exciting to ring in the new year. You might even create (yet another) ginormous list of items to knock off because everything magically changed on January 1st. Or did it?
Important work makes big changes
Everything will not magically change the week of January 1st. It didn’t last year, remember? The only way to make “magical” change happen is to do more important work. Making things happen changes you and your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you have to work 14, 17 or 19 hour days. It’s not complicated. Focus, execute, repeat. Consider this: If, during each month this year, you could identify and complete the most important work on your to do list, would that make this year better than last?
Of all the unfinished things on your to do list, identify the ones that absolutely must be finished. Some of them are busy work. Do you really need to finish them? Can they be cancelled or delegated? Either way, take them off your unfinished list if they aren’t important enough for you to spend time on them instead of doing ANYTHING else you should be doing. Unfinished doesn’t mean important. Important means whatever it means to you and your business. Your time is likely the most valuable time in the business – why waste it on tasks that can be done by someone else? That doesn’t mean that work isn’t valuable. It simply means you don’t have to be the one to do it.
Complete more of the important work no one else can do if you want to make big changes.
Eliminate the unimportant
With all that busy, cancelled, delegated work removed from your unfinished to do list, what’s left? Which of these started, but unfinished important work items is the most important thing that you can finish in January? This shouldn’t be hard. If it is, then you may need to decide if your to do list contains anything important. I mean, come on – it’s early January. I’ve only asked once, so this should be the easiest choice of them all.
Repeat the process. When you’re out of meaningful, unfinished tasks, start the most important new task on your list. Don’t start five or 12. Start one. Now finish it. Maybe this takes you all month, but if this is the most important thing on your plate – it’ll be worth it.
On the other hand, if out of all the not-yet-started and not-yet-finished things you need to do, you can’t identify an important piece of work, two things come to mind. One, all that unfinished work can be delegated. Two, why isn’t there important, business-critical work that no one else can do on your to do list? Are you extricating yourself from the business? If so, great. If not, have you let yourself stop taking on important, business-changing projects because you weren’t getting them done? This process should have freed up a lot of time for that work – including the time needed to conceive it.
What about new tasks?
What about all the new tasks that come up this month? Don’t let them distract you. If something comes up that is super important – more so than your in-progress most important task, then you’ll have to decide whether you’ll hit pause and get that super important item done. Typically these are urgent tasks, not important ones. Know the difference.
For anything else, add them to your list, but only if they are important. Give the rest to someone else, or put them off. If they aren’t important, it’s unlikely that status will change. Put them on a list called “To delegate” and do it during your weekly planning.
Why are we doing this? Because getting more of the important (to you) things done is the most impactful change you can make have a better year than last. Consistently getting important work done builds your confidence and capability. As those two grow, so will you and your work.
This past weekend, my wife & I shared a cold one at a local brewery while discussing the shutdown. Pundits and others wave off the shutdown’s impact as “a small percentage of the Federal workforce”, as if it’s trivial. Trouble is, the headcount of furloughed Federal employees creates a butterfly effect that ripples outward to almost every sector of U.S. business.
Shutdown data & families
800,000 Federal employees are currently going without pay. Slightly fewer than half are furloughed – meaning they aren’t allowed to work. More than half are “essential workers” – required to work during a shutdown. Those working will receive back pay once the shutdown ends, but furloughed employees have no “guarantee” of receiving back pay.
The shutdown affects about 3.2 million employees & family members. My non-scientific extrapolation assumes four members per Federal employee household. There’s income flowing into those households if they have two employed people if one isn’t a Federal employee… maybe. Perhaps the two jobs depend on access to childcare. If one is unpaid, can they still afford childcare? If one employee is “essential”, both still have to work. Result: childcare is necessary. It’s not uncommon for both family wage earners to be Federal employees. I know a number of couples who both work for the USFS or Park Service, having met at work when they were single.
Federal employee families have mortgages, eat in restaurants & go to bars. They get oil changes, rent movies & purchase medical care. These families own businesses (like a favorite local brewery), buy raw materials, & employ people. They buy gas, clothes, donuts, firewood, cleaning services, plumbing / electrical repairs, groceries, etc.
This economic activity creates revenue for all local businesses. If you run a restaurant, bar, or other business near a Federal building – it’s likely that a lot of your business comes from Federal employees. TSA folks get a coffee/meal at an airport business. I suspect that activity will shrink at every U.S. airport.
Tax refunds often pay for vacations, bills, & down payments on large purchases. Loaning the Feds money at zero interest may seem unwise, but the economic impact is undeniable. The IRS does not pay refunds during shutdowns.
The now-closed IRS income verification service will eventually impact home purchase closings. Mortgage approvals use the service for income verification. Home purchases affect local banks, real estate agents, closing firms, home inspectors, and home repair contractors, among others.
Local breweries that can / bottle beer are stuck in line waiting to release new beers. The Federal agency that processes over 16,600 beer label applications per month is closed. Someone sells them hops, malt, yeast, bottles, cans, labels, & graphic arts. Someone manufactures & delivers them. Some puts that income into investments, savings, tuition, a home, etc.
Closed or limited Federal lands access can more directly affect local businesses. In West Yellowstone, Montana Public Radio reported that Xanterra and 13 other local businesses managed to arrange a temporary deal to pay the park to plow the roads & groom snowmobile trails in Yellowstone. While $7500 a day is expensive, the alternative is a lot of lost revenue & people out of work during winter peak season. There aren’t a lot of open jobs in West Yellowstone, so even one business laying off its entire staff could create a cascading nightmare for a small town and its families. A snowcoach business owner in the area mentioned that the deal keeps his 14 employees working. Businesses in the Mammoth, Cooke City and West Yellowstone areas are likely thrilled about the temporary deal.
That option isn’t available everywhere.
Butterflies & ripples are different
In a pond, ripples get smaller in height as they expand their reach toward the shore. When they reach the water’s edge, they might barely be noticeable. The butterfly effect works in reverse. Each wave is bigger and interactions create more waves.
As each of these economic impacts ripples outward, it affects more and more people & businesses. At first, the impact is small. Over time, these small impacts accumulate and start to push family & business finances over the edge. Not just those of Federal families, but everywhere. Want to help out? Buy local.
This highly scientific diagram is an incomplete and highly simplified representation of a part of this discussion. Note that it doesn’t include every Federal agency, nor does it include cash flow lines between families who own local businesses to other local businesses.
As the end of the year approaches, it’s a natural time to look back over the past year’s work. Did you make progress? Was the year a success? The source of our motivation has a big impact on how we perceive the year’s work. Did I achieve a financial milestone? Will I get the leadership position I want? Did we reach our sales goals? These are external motivations. Internal motivations may also drive us – such as a need to learn, achieve, better yourself, make fewer mistakes, etc. Neither driving force is the wrong one. Personally, I think a mix of the two serves us well. As we walk the trail through our careers and personal lives, the source and makeup of what motivates us often changes. About 10 years ago, a mentor‘s comment completely changed how I relate to the things I achieve.
The gap on the way to ideal
When we look at our goals or ToDo list, 100% “perfect” completion of every single one on time and on budget is the ideal “destination”. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s rarely realistic. It’s also rarely necessary – at least on the first completion.
“First completion“? Yes, exactly. Few of us knock off a project and find that it’s perfect and never needs another polish, tweak, or modification. Even if the only customer is you, it’s better to complete the job, gather feedback and make another pass to improve your work.
The trouble with 100% completion is we rarely, if ever, achieve it. If 100% completion of your goals is consistently achieved on time and on budget, it often means the goals were watered down. We might extend a timeline, ignore some portion of the budget or loosen quality standards. Doesn’t matter which one.
Looking back at the Apollo project, NASA was charged with getting men safely to the moon and back by the end of the decade. I remember watching the first steps broadcast on a grainy black and white TV at my grandparents’ farm. That was a late night for a young kid in 1969. Yet Apollo wasn’t 100%. An Apollo I launch rehearsal cost the lives of three astronauts. Apollo 13 almost did the same while traveling between Earth and the Moon. NASA achieved the audacious goal Kennedy laid before them, despite not achieving perfect execution.
The gap between perfect execution and your actual execution is quite often significant. Having the right perspective is critical.
Perspective and the gap
When we look at the ideal outcome, we’re almost certain to come away disappointed. We expect perfection. You won’t be happy or satisfied with your efforts when you assess where you are against where you expected to be when everything went perfectly. That space will be filled with regrets about incomplete tasks, tasks that weren’t started, things that didn’t go as planned, etc.
The comment from my mentor paraphrases like this: If you look forward to the difference between what you did and the ideal outcome, there will always be a gap. That gap will always bother you – and it destroys the ambition in some. However, if you look back from where you are to where you started, you’ll find great satisfaction and motivation to charge forward when seeing how far you’ve progressed.
This change in perspective completely changed how I felt about the incomplete / untouched items taunting me from their comfortable home on my Trello board. Strive for 100%. Celebrate your progress, however imperfect. Use your progress as motivation. Keep improving.
When a team’s original goal appears to be within reach, managers often trot out “stretch goals”. Is this done to create a failure that can be held over a team? Stretch goals usually create morale failure from significant progress. Motivation is rarely the outcome. Managers should focus on the 90% your team achieved, rather than the 10% that didn’t get done. It seems natural to do this when you’re a software guy – since we often focus on what’s broken. As a leader, it seems like a great way to repeatedly chip away at the morale of your team by never letting them celebrate or acknowledge accomplishments. The time to focus on the 10% will come soon enough.
Not managing people (even if you have managers) is a common operations problem. How would you feel if you were hired and months later fired or disciplined with little feedback? Whether you deserved it or not (sometimes, the fired do deserve it) – most people would like to know what they did wrong.
In a good company, there’s a process for work quality feedback. A good manager would make sure you had the opportunity to correct your faults / failures before it got to the point of getting you fired. In the worst environments, it comes out of the blue, even if you think you’re paying attention. Imagine how you’d feel if you were never told what expectations were or what measurements would be used to assess the quality of your work? Not only is this unfair to the fired / disciplined employee, your company pays the price too.
Checkboxes aren’t enough
When you hire someone, the work starts when they show up. At many companies, the work of hiring seems to end once the offer is made. The employee shows up, is pointed at a desk, given a pile of work to do, and is expected to fill “hit the ground running” expectations. Their resume had all the checkboxes filled for this role. Shouldn’t they be able to show up and just git-r-dun?
Sometimes people figure it out, sometimes they don’t. At some companies, “I’m used to doing this, this and that – and doing it like this” will get the answers you need to produce work the way the company needs it. At others, it can signal that you aren’t the right fit. You know, because every company does everything the same way, right?
In some cases, the experience you thought you were hiring is different, even if it looks the same on paper. When that happens, what’s next? It might have taken four to six months to figure this out. Perhaps your company’s mentoring is weak, or non-existent. Maybe you don’t have the right work measurement / evaluation tools in place to detect that poor work, the wrong work, or “the right work someone else’s way” is being done.
Employees need more than regular feedback. We touched on that a little bit last week. Feedback, mentoring, training (including “this is how we do a-b-c here“) is all part of employee curation.
What is employee curation?
Visual art is made “better” by the right lighting, frame, etc. Curation puts the content in its best light, providing the consumer with an experience that’s richer than “Here it is.” Your people and their careers need the same sort of consideration.
Back when you were an employee, you may recall that people showed up & figured it out – even if that isn’t what really happened. You may not remember evaluations, training or mentoring you received (or maybe you didn’t get any). As a result, you might expect people to “just figure it out”. That’s great, until they figure out the wrong things, the wrong way, etc.
I don’t recall too many reviews, but I sure remember when companies made sure I had a mentor. At one company in particular, I think they intentionally skipped performance reviews with managers – but in a positive way. They used mentoring & small teams with hands-on leadership to set the example, train, mentor & model what they wanted. Yes, I’m talking about you, Randall and Kim.
Employee curation includes working with someone to help them grow career-wise, both for them & the company. When you need to fill critical roles with people who already work for you, they should be ready. The last thing most companies need these days is someone with 20 years of experience – and all 20 are from 1998.
Guesswork is bad
Even experienced people in senior roles need to know your expectations. Why make them guess? Senior people need to know what their boundaries are – and when to cross them. They need to know how you make decisions so that you know that they know what’s important to you when you delegate things to them.
In junior roles, your mentors & managers will spend more time on how-to-do vs. what-to-do. That will change over time.
Without explicit, detailed duties, expectations and specifics about “this is how you know you’re doing your job well”, guessing is what they’ll do. This may seem OK for a entry or junior level person learning your business (it isn’t). It’s a terrible choice for a new SVP. Be crystal clear about your expectations with everyone. You benefit as much as anyone when your entire team is doing what you hired them for.
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.
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.
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.