Consistency vs. inconsistency

Consistent behavior, delivered consistently, is looked upon by your clients as a good thing. Even if your consistent behavior is patently customer antagonistic (yes – such companies do exist), at the least, the customers who continue to tolerate such behavior will know what to expect from you. On the other hand, inconsistent behavior consistently drives customers away. Think about your favorite restaurant. Why is it your favorite? Is it because the food is sometimes hot, sometimes cold and sometimes just right? Is it because the service is sometimes friendly, sometimes unfriendly? At your favorite hardware store, is the staff helpful on some visits and inane / incompetent / ambivalent during other visits?

Why does consistency matter?

Customers like a predictable outcome. They provide comfort when customers aren’t comfortable. This is particularly common when they are out of their element – such as during travel to an unfamiliar place. You’ve been flying all day, you’re tired, and you’re famished. You have a big day tomorrow. You may want some comfort food, but you also want a high level of assurance that you aren’t going to end a long travel day with a bad meal or an disconcerting experience.

One of the primary reasons that franchises do well (and that customers revisit them) is that they have an operations and training program that’s consistent across all locations. This includes a common and frequently updated operations manual that documents each job process in the business. However boring they may seem, you can generally depend on the consistency of behavior, service and product whether you’re visiting a franchise location in Springfield Illinois, Springfield Missouri, or Springfield Georgia. Franchises don’t have sole rights to having documented operations processes or a consistent training regimen for their teams. Your small business can create and use those things as well.

Over the past 20 years, there are two places where I have seen the most obvious differences in these areas:

  • the employee on-boarding process after a new hire
  • process documentation for day to day jobs.

Interestingly, these are connected, since one of the first things a new hire often encounters is a lack of process documentation for a job they’re expected to do. This doesn’t mean they don’t receive training, but without a documented process, the training they receive will be inconsistent from trainer to trainer. Each employee is likely to perform the task with slight differences and train differently as well. One of the best things about documenting a process is the discovery of nuance and surprises that occur when producing the documentation. The process being documented rarely manages to fail to produce something that the person documenting it will not be told by anyone who performs the task. There will be dependencies on materials, staff and/or timing. There will be gotchas, both known to management and most likely unknown as well.

Left undocumented, these differences in business process performance and execution become dependent on the attitude, experience and wherewithal of the staffer performing them. Consider your business. Do processes exist in your business that, when performed differently, can substantially alter customer experience? Does that experience depend on performance trifecta of attitude, experience and wherewithal of the staffer? I suspect it does. What tools or systems (even a checklist counts as a “system”) do you use to assure that quality standards are consistently achieved by your staff?

These things don’t have to be perfect on day one. Start small and implement incremental improvement, both to your processes and the documentation and training intended to improve them.

“Without a leader, there are no standards. Without standards, there is no consistency.” – Chef Gordon Ramsey

Remaining: On-boarding

One of the single biggest differences between most small businesses and high-performing businesses is their new employee on-boarding process. One of the best assets for your on-boarding program is the process documentation discussed above. While it shouldn’t be the only component of on-boarding, it’s a critical one. On-boarding needs to include delivery and configuration of work equipment, internal IT systems, mundane work space gear like phones and staplers, facility familiarization, emergency training, process training, culture (which should have been part of hiring), and how to deal with various human resource-related functions. You can probably think of others. If you’ve ever held a job working for someone else, think back. What made joining a new company stand out at the best companies? What made it regrettable at the worst of them?

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

Paradise by the dashboard light

As a business owner, you have so many numbers to keep track of and take action on. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by them and find yourself at a point where the forest and the trees blend together into a big, green, meaningless smoothie. When all you have is a “pile” of numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s far more difficult to communicate to others what your numbers mean, where they are going, and how they’re related to one another.

If you use open-book management, it’s even more important to be able to convey your numbers in a clear, simple manner so that you and your team can start to see the engagement and ownership that OBM promises.

A dashboard is a simple, visual way to bring clarity to your numbers.

What info belongs on a dashboard?

That’s up to you, because you decide what’s important enough to display on your dashboard. Like the indicators on the dash of a car, the things you most want to be aware of on a daily basis should be on your business dashboard.

What numbers represent those things? Sales YTD? Sales YTD vs last year’s sales YTD? Number of leads this month? Revenue this month? Percentage of budget for sales, specific expenses, and/or raw materials?

You might find that each department has a number that’s most important to them.

Marketing might want to see average cost per lead, cost per new customer, churn rate or new leads this month vs last month. Sales might monitor some aspect of their pipeline, or new customers so far this month vs last month, or vs this month last year.

Manufacturing or programming departments may want to display backlog size, cycle times, days till a big milestone, and/or defects over a specific period of time. Shipping may wish to monitor mis-ships, damage claims, and/or returns.

Accounting will want to monitor things like total accounts receivable, the average age of receivables, or at a startup, the number of days of cash flow on hand. They may change their mind on that last one if things aren’t going well.

There will likely be some numbers of broad, across-the-company interest, such as monthly recurring revenue (MRR), number of customers, and sales YTD vs this time last year.

Having different departments “suddenly” seeing what’s most important might provoke some conversations that make everyone take more ownership.

It’s not critical that all of this comes together on day one. Your dashboard might start as a weekly email until you figure out all the pieces and parts to include and how to get that data into a tool that will help you display it for the entire company.

Dashboards don’t have to be difficult

While you can get plenty “sexy” when it comes to dashboards and technology, it isn’t necessary. The data is what’s important, not the tool used to convey it.

A whiteboard and dry erase markers is a good next step after a weekly email.

Once sunlight is shining on this data, provoking people to ask questions and talking about the data and their impact on the company’s numbers, you may wish to ratchet up your game a bit with a real-time dashboard.

Getting fancy with dashboards

If you want a dashboard that’s connected to your company’s data, there are a lot of tools out there to help with this effort. I suggest checking out the paid-for and open-source dashboards before building your own.

If you have software people or skills, you may want to check out open-source dashboard tools like Re:DashDashing or Freeboard, as well as dashboard / data collection APIs like Keen, Mixpanel, Amplitude, and Segment.  Paid dashboard systems include Geckoboard, Datadog, sassmetrics, and Klipfolio.

Most of these systems have built in features to make it easier to present the data on a large screen digital monitor or TV. This can be useful in the common areas of a shop or office – making sure the data is available no matter what an employee’s job duties involve. When you consider placing these displays in a common area, keep in mind who might visit that area from outside your company. Open-book management doesn’t mean showing your numbers to anyone who stops by.

When your team can easily wrap their heads around the numbers critical to their department, it’ll change their behavior. A dashboard can help you get there.

Photo by Paul Jerry

Three things or seventy three

How many projects does your company focus on at a time? For many companies, the number of active projects is often related to team size. How do you control, or at least manage this? What does that process look like? Do you use a tool, software, a manager, or something else?

The benefits of keeping control

What happens if you keep projects under control? While control is relative and may seem to consist of things not moving as fast as you’d like, it’s still critical.

“Control” does not demand a state where that things that look static, never changing, not growing, etc. Instead, we’re likely to see active projects where the mental headroom is available to thoughtfully consider the next step, much less the current one.

When that kind of space is available to teams working on a critical project, they tend to make fewer mistakes and overlook fewer things. These same things will be painfully obvious in hindsight.

A mind allowed some breathing room is less likely to work in a semi-constant distracted state where they’ll make mistakes, get injured, and / or overlook what will later seem obvious.

While it’s happening, it’s difficult to measure the cost of task switching and frenetic activity that comes having too many projects and too few hours / people to tend to them. What I tend to see from this is “doing 100 jobs poorly”. While your team might not be doing 100 jobs, they might be trying to do so many things that they don’t do any of them well. This damages your satisfaction with the quality of their work as well as theirs. These situations cause your team to do things a second time because they didn’t have time to do them right the first time.

Some iteration is a good thing, as our ability to provide a contextually accurate solution increases as our initial plan gets tested against reality. However, when the first iteration is almost always an attempt to check a box, the box really doesn’t get checked. That first iteration tends to be a solution that doesn’t satisfy your team or the client (internal or otherwise). Once you’ve trained your client not to bother implementing 1.0 of anything you create, it’s a tough place to battle back from.

We discussed the loss of trust a week or so ago. This is another type of trust – can your clients trust your new products, new services, new releases of software, new salespeople, new service writers, new mechanics, etc? When your project management and controls create a level of comfort for any or all of those new things / people / projects in your business, it creates a higher level of trust with everyone you work with.

How would your team benefit if they trusted each other more than they do now? How would your business, clients and partners benefit if your clients trusted practically anything or anyone new that you exposed them to? Same question – if your partners trusted practically anything or anyone new that your company exposed them to?

It’s not just a matter of quality and consistency. It’s a matter of what those things create. When you pay bills on time, people assume you’ll keep on doing that. When you don’t, it’ll take a while before paying them on time allows them to trust you.

What happens if you lose control?

While control is a bit of an illusion, seemingly out of control, frenetic behavior is fairly easy to see. If you aren’t careful, you’ll start seeing activity just so people can show that they’re doing something. Look at what’s being accomplished.

Inefficient activity often results from these situations. Have you ever gone to the grocery store without a list and found yourself bouncing all over the store as you think of the things you need? I remember as a kid that my mom grouped her grocery list by department, i.e.: produce, dairy, etc. While I’m not sure it sunk in while I was a kid, the benefits of that little effort on “elapsed time in grocery store” became obvious later in life.

Imagine a plane that gets to 80 knots on the runway and then decides to stop, change runways and take off again. It wastes a lot of energy starting and stopping, while getting little accomplished in the way of actual travel. Think of your projects in the same manner. Avoid changing runways.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kija_kaji/

What halftime advice would you give your staff?

If you look back at recent comeback victories in sports, you have to wonder about the halftime advice those teams received. In Super Bowl 51, the Patriots were down 21-3, yet came back to win. The second half performance of both teams looked nothing like their performance in the first half. What did it take in the locker room to get the Patriots to turn that around? What was said in the Falcons locker room? After weeks of preparation, what can be said and done in 20 minutes that can radically turn around the performance of a team of professionals to such a degree that they overwhelm another team of professionals?

Halftime isn’t just about comebacks. It’s a chance to review and adjust, which we all should be doing after a positive or negative outcome to most business activities. For a football team ahead by a lot (as the Falcons were), what has to be said to prevent that sort of letdown? Teams come into halftimes needing to be reminded that they deserve to be there, that they can come back, that they are capable of doing what got them there, and that each individual is a piece of something bigger.

It’s no different in your business. The concept of a game’s halftime doesn’t necessarily align well with the events on the timeline of a company’s life, but that doesn’t matter. There are always turning points in projects, products, careers, marketing campaigns, etc. Projects and products both have natural “halftimes”. They look like points in time where it makes sense to stop, assess, adjust and re-engage.

Team and company are interchangeable concepts. Whether teams win or lose, the best ones get together afterward to review what happened, both positive and negative, and what can be learned. Military units review after action reports (AAR) for the same reason. They ask the question: “How can we improve upon what just happened?” regardless of whether it was good or bad.

Looking back to Lombardi

Every Vince Lombardi speech covers fundamentals. He knew he was dealing with professionals. Their performance occurs at a level most never reach. They see and understand parts of the game that amateurs and “mere TV viewers” cannot. For the very best, the game “slows down” as if everyone else moves in slow motion so they are able to arrive at a critical location on the field with perfect timing. Lombardi knew this, yet repeatedly returned to fundamentals.

Is there a lesson in that for your team? Do your best staffers remember and execute fundamental behaviors more frequently than everyone else?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a great month?

Your team had a great month. Now what?

What changed month-over-month that made last month so great? What performances stood out as the keys to making that happen? What short list of behaviors or tactics can be identified that were essential to the month’s outcome? What should be focused on so that your team can reproduce that performance? Who learned something that they leveraged into a successful outcome? Who stopped doing something and noticed an improvement as a result? What systemic changes can we implement to make this month’s success more easily reproducible?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a bad month?

Your team had a terrible month. Now what?

What historically key success behaviors are still valid and were not achieved last month? What happened that threw us off our game? How do we correct those things? What systemic changes can be made to automatically prevent those problems from reoccurring? Who needs help meeting performance expectations? Who needs a mentor? Who needs coaching? What fundamental behaviors fell off last month and need to be improved? How can we remind each team member of fundamentals that we assume will be performed? What distracted us this month? Has everyone’s performance fallen off, or only certain groups?

Call a timeout

Halftime provides a natural break in the action to reflect, assess, adjust and re-engage. For a company, use them like a timeout. When things aren’t heading in the right direction, don’t wait. Call a timeout. Step in, discuss what’s going wrong (and well), share what you’ve learned, advise and re-engage. Are the staffers who are failing following the plan? Are the staffers who are succeeding following the plan? Is the plan failing?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usaghumphreys/

Sidewalks, groundhogs and accounting

A couple weeks ago, Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow. As the legend goes, this indicated that we’d have six more weeks of winter. Given the kind of winter we’ve had so far, I expect more shoveling before April and May get here. Yet we’re not here to discuss the weather, at least not specifically. As I’ve roamed Montana this winter, I’ve noticed a pattern that struck me and made me a bit curious. Is the condition of the sidewalk and parking lot in front of a business an indicator of how things are being run inside the building?

Have you have heard the theory that the condition of someone’s car is a reflection of their home and/or their life? You may have heard the same about someone with a messy desk. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an interesting parallel to the pattern that I referred to earlier. The pattern is that businesses that I know to be well-run, well-executed “tight ships” always seem to have parking lots that are cleaned up quickly after it snows – and the sidewalks in front of them in almost every case is routinely spotless, salted and kept free of ice.

I don’t have internal knowledge of all the businesses in this pattern – ie: the ones who fit and the ones who don’t, but it’s quite accurate among the ones that I have internal operations knowledge of.

Broken windows

Years ago, there was a book about crime called Broken Windows, which was based on an often argued theory that doing things like immediately fixing broken windows and removing graffiti soon as it appears sends a message to the community that the area is cared for and monitored, so the criminal element goes elsewhere. New York City applied this during its well-known (and successful) battle to reduce crime over the last couple of decades.

Crime is a complex thing when you’re looking at a large urban area. First impressions, however, are not. When you arrive at a business and notice broken windows, dirty bathrooms, dirty floors, messy work areas, a sketchy parking lot, etc – it’s difficult not to wonder how things are going in the back room. How well is that business run? What sort of initial and ongoing training to the employees receive? Are their books a mess? You may not care about how under control their accounting is, but if they can’t seem to do a good job of recording your payments, you’ll start caring.

All of these things can be indicators of bigger, deeper or widespread problems. You can’t necessarily assume – everyone has bad days or makes a mistake now and then. It’s tough to keep up with the snow when you get 48″ of snow in three days.

Why does it matter?

How businesses deal with these things tends to be an incredibly accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere in the company. Some have well-thought out plans for what happens on days when roads are all but impassible. For some, it doesn’t matter. For those who you need to go to the hospital, I’ll bet you’ll want them to have a snow “disaster plan” that makes sure the hospital is staffed regardless of the intensity of the weather.

You can see similar things when working with employees. It’s crystal clear which businesses invest in their staff and which ones leave them to learn by the seat of their pants. While experiential learning is often a good thing, training and reinforcement gives everyone the same foundation, and sets minimum standards within a company. Without those things, the customer-facing experience and work quality can differ substantially – the last thing you want.

Why is that important? Consistent experience is everything. People don’t want to worry about which version of your business they’re going to experience today. Why else would someone repeatedly visit the same franchise restaurant as they travel the country? They know they will have a consistent experience. They know how long it will take, what it will cost and what the food will be like – regardless of the class of fare that restaurant serves.

A consistent experience is critically important to customers. The expectation (and history) of a known-to-be-consistent experience is frequently the deciding factor when “all else is equal”, even when it isn’t.

Keeping that in mind – What kinds of signals does your business send?

Structure becomes infrastructure

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the value of checklists. Checklists provide an obvious memory support mechanism and a sequence of events for work processes, but their value extends beyond that. They’re one of many tools you can use to provide structure to work processes, a comforting “I’ve got your back” to new employees or employees new to a role. In addition, they’re a means of creating some standardization of what you do. While your team doesn’t need these things for the same reason that a young child benefits from a structured life, the benefits to your business are at least as important. Structure becomes infrastructure.

Better information

Structure can take many forms in your business. A simple example is a gain in structure when you move from a cigar box to a cash register. Likewise, when you replace the simple cash register with one that’s integrated with your customer relationship management (CRM) system. These improvements increase your ability to share information and leverage it when making decisions of all kinds. Normally a CRM is viewed as a tool for sales and marketing, yet the organization that it brings to transactional data tends to improve service and your company’s understanding of client needs. Any time you can integrate data from multiple parts of the company, you’re almost certain to make the data more valuable. Put simply, having more complete information should yield better decisions.

That transaction data now takes on a behavioral component, since you’re better equipped to recognize order / re-order patterns, capacity expectations and the like. Seems like a sales thing on the surface, and to an extent it is. When you are the business who knows exactly when to refill a client’s supply of a critical component of their business, the trust and comfort level with you improves.

Clients will recognize this and start to depend on your routine fulfillment – whatever that means for your relationship with them. Whether it’s a load of sand, a dozen bags of coffee, or a courier pickup – when they see a consistent, timely behavior develop, they’ll start to depend on as if it’s part of their own infrastructure. Eventually, they’ll build upon it. That’s not just sales – it’s service. While it may seem like a little thing to know that your coffee cup is always refilled in time, that same type of fulfillment isn’t a little thing – it’s worth time and money to your clients. You become part of their business – and perhaps a part that would be increasingly painful to replace.

Being painful and time-consuming to replace is a good goal, but don’t take advantage of it. Being ingrained in their business is sufficient advantage. Don’t make it the kind of pain of change that they’ll suffer simply to gain the pleasure of getting rid of you.

What tools and/or processes can you wrap around your existing checklists and other means of process control to make them more valuable? What two systems, tools or processes can you integrate to make each more valuable? Your people are often the best resource of this info. They’re in the trenches every day and frequently have just the insights needed to make their work more productive, more valuable and more efficient.

But you have to ask.

What structure isn’t

It isn’t control, at least in a negative form. Structure changes that increase your ability to get, stay and be organized are often looked upon as ways of increasing control and decreasing employees’ ability to use their imagination and creativity. While that’s possible, those are what I consider the wrong kinds of structure. Be sure your team understands the benefits you hope the company will gain from these changes. It’s far too easy to assume the wrong thing if you don’t tell them the intended outcome.

Tools and processes that increase the level of organization free your people to expend their energy on the things that require their intelligence and experience. If you use structure to control them and limit their ability to create and deliver solutions – you’re cheating yourself and your clients. Unless the controls you’re putting in place are intended to reduce / detect internal theft or similar problems, I suggest discussing proposed improvements with your staff so you are aware of possible downsides that you may not be aware of. Finally, deployment always benefits from front line feedback and of course, testing.

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.

A well-armed minutiae: Urgent, not important.

Yes, I said “minutiae”, not “militia”. The similarity and power of these two words struck me, so I thought I’d substitute one for the other. One of the most dangerous things in your (and your team’s) day to day productivity is the “crisis of the unimportant”. IE: tasks that seem important only because someone interrupted you with them. Minutiae are the little things that, left uncontrolled, will consume your day and leave it unfulfilling, perhaps annoying and almost certainly empty of substantive accomplishments. Stephen Covey spent his career preaching about preventing these tasks from consuming your day – categorizing them as “urgent, not important”.

Eliminate minutiae with systems

As the owner or a senior manager, it’s critical to get out of the “interrupt me early and often” mode as soon as you can – but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the needs of those who interrupt you. You simply need to find a way to deal with them and set boundaries for them. A system helps.

Back in the days of Photo One, photography studio owners asked me to solve this problem for them. To the studio shooter, the most valuable revenue-creation time was in the camera room – ie: behind the camera time with the client in a room full of props, lights and other tools of the studio photographer. When they’re in that room with a client, the value they’re creating can create revenue for years, so the last thing they want to happen once they have “warmed up” the subject is to have the rapport / groove interrupted by someone asking where the coffee filters are, or how to process a refund for a charge split across two cards, or similar.

One answer to this is a system that provides answers to “interruption questions”. A studio owner told me that they had an answer / procedures book to deal with this, but they didn’t like the maintenance headache that it caused. This book predated Google docs and wikis, so they edited everything in Microsoft Word (or similar) and then printed the answers / procedures and put them in a three-ring binder.

The process established in the studio was to consult the book if you didn’t know the answer, then ask your manager and only then could the shooter in the camera room be interrupted. That interruption was OK only if it couldn’t wait until the camera room appointment was over. Obviously, this becomes a training issue at first so that the proper habits are established. Beyond that point, the book should get updated with one-off requests quickly so that camera room interruptions fall off quickly.

Make sure your minutiae cure is scalable

The studio owner came to me because they had a big studio and one book wasn’t enough. They needed multiple copies, but managing all the changes was a chore. Since most of the users were lusing Photo One all day, it made perfect sense to include the equivalent of “the answer book” within our software. That allowed anyone to get to it, plus the answer book functionality in the software allowed them to print a copy of the book so there were always printed copies available.

Resources like this can provide answers to questions, as well as step by step checklists or processes that allow the owner and managers to get things done the way they want, even if they aren’t available. One memorable example was “How to arm the alarm at end of day”. Do this wrong and you have no security or incorrect security. Do it right and the owner / manager gets some slack and the employee builds confidence in their ability to close the shop for the day.

A wiki, a FAQ, anything

These days, a custom desktop software feature like that really isn’t necessary because it’s so easy to build something like this into the private side of your company’s website as an internal wiki or frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page. These assets are valuable not only for managers and your subject matter experts (SME) who get interrupted by such questions, but also for new employees or temps who come into your shop and need a resource other than “Ask Jennifer” umpteen times per week.

The last time I started getting overwhelmed by these things, I started writing down the context of the interruptions. That allowed me to see trends, identify what needed to be documented and get out of interruptionville.

Look beyond today, ourselves, our businesses

Recently, I read an article that provoked the reader to pay more attention to the big picture and look beyond the immediate meaning of day to day events. The premise of the piece was that “little”, seemingly unrelated events have repeatedly lead to regional or global events throughout history – such as the “minor assassination” of an Austrian prince ultimately led to World War I. It struck me that this premise also had business implications.

One of the core discussions in this piece was that we (as a species) often fail to see events coming, and that the path from point A to B seems obvious when historians examine them decades or centuries later.

While historians have the benefit of having the puzzle laid out before them, they claim that we (again, as a species) have been pretty consistent about three things contribute to our inability to detect these situations before (or as) they happen:

  • People tend to look at their present for answers, rather than considering the past or future.
  • People tend to look immediately around them, rather than analyzing how events connect regionally or globally.
  • People tend not to push themselves intellectually. Specifically, we don’t read enough, spend enough time thinking beyond the prior two points, challenge ourselves enough, and often tune out opposing views.

These are not accusations unique to today’s world, but observations noted repeatedly by historians dating back to Plato.

Look beyond the present

Let’s take that template of observations and use it to overlay our careers as owners, managers and employees.

When we look back, will we see some obvious signals that we missed over during our business career to date? For the things that stick out, would you do the same thing knowing what you know today? Do you feel you missed a signal or a piece of information that would have prompted you to do something else? Did you learn a lesson at the time that served you well? Months or years later, did a lesson hit you about those events?

Maybe there’s something to this, maybe not. Regardless of how your track record holds up under re-examination, the premise is worthy of consideration. How do the things that happened in the past impact current challenges? Do the methods being used to deal with these things hold up over time? Would your decision-making process or the execution seem naive, ill-advised, or not observant a year (or five) from now? If so, why?

Should that impact your execution and decision making processes? History says (in so many words) “yes, over all people and all times”, but everyone’s history varies.

Look beyond your immediate reach

Beyond your immediate reach, what is going on in your market? What’s going on in the markets that affect your suppliers (and their suppliers) and your clients (and their clients)? What events going on right now could affect you, your clients, their clients or your suppliers, even though they might be a layer or two removed from their day to day collective concerns?

For example, if you have a small party store, there are a number of things in the international community that affect you and your clients. Currency. International logistics. Regional conflicts. Tariffs. Trade agreements. A strike on the Long Beach docks.

Can you do anything about these events that are out of your reach? Probably not. However, you can use your knowledge of them to take action to protect your business and your clients’ businesses. Like it or not, you’re in their line of work as well, so paying close attention to what impacts them is important, even when it has nothing to do with what you do or sell.

Look beyond your norms

This one is complicated: read more, challenge yourself more, think more and review things contrary to your opinion. Yet it’s also simple and can be summed up in one word: Grow.

The single most important thing we can do for our business over the long term is to make ourselves better. A better read, better trained, better prepared, better developed business owner is more likely to make better decisions. That business owner sets the example for their team’s growth. When we have a deeper understanding of all sides of the challenges we face, and a deeper knowledge of the issues that affect our businesses and our clients’ businesses, we’re prepared to make better decisions.

Accountability and tapdancing

You may have seen a recent video of a Senate Finance Committee hearing with the Chairman of the Board of a large bank. He was being questioned about his accountability for his company’s behavior regarding opening new accounts on behalf of their clients.

Form your own opinion about the hearing. We’re here to discuss why it was handled as it was by the Chairman and why you can’t do that.

What you can’t do

The infuriating things about the video:

  • The Chairman makes a few comments that give the impression that his company did no wrong.
  • He shows no sign of accountability for the whole thing (and nor do his managers).
  • He indicates that he can’t provide guidance to the board about the nature of the company’s future actions.
  • He asserts that the whole thing was about one percent of his employees, with a tone that implies it’s really not a problem at all.

What makes it even more aggravating is that the value of the Chairman’s stock rose about $200 million during the period discussed. This means that the value of the company’s stock was misrepresented during that time.

Bottom line, while the camera was running, he washed his hands of the whole thing and of his possible future role in taking corrective action, much less punitive action against the senior managers involved.

Yet, he had a decent enough reason.

The reason for his position is that anything he said during that questioning was likely to be used against him and the company. Whether he is a slimy cretin or not, he is an officer in the company and has a fiduciary obligation to protect the company. One might theorize that lying (if that’s what he was doing) isn’t a good way to do that, but I suspect he was advised well in advance about what he could and couldn’t say to avoid making things worse.

Unless you’re the CEO / Chair of the Board / officer of a publicly traded company, you can’t do that.

What you have to do

If something bad like this happens, the worst things you can do are exactly what he did:

  • Dodge questions.
  • Give vague answers or non-answers.
  • State that you have no responsibility, despite being the Chairman of the Board (or in your case, the owner)
  • State that you have no obligation to lead your board to a decision about making management accountable.
  • State that you cannot lead your board to a decision about making yourself accountable
  • Decline to comment about your level of accountability.

This guy’s customers have a choice. They can get over it in some form, or they can eliminate this company from their lives by closing all of their accounts and banking elsewhere. Moving bank accounts is not easy. Between the regulations that require a bunch of paperwork (in most cases) and a visit to a local bank branch, and changing any electronic bill payments (or similar), it isn’t fun.

Your customers will likely have a much easier time moving to a competitor – if that is their choice. Your comments to any questions about whatever you’re dealing with are going to set the tone for their response and reaction.

When you do these things, you likely won’t be scrutinized by the Senate. In your case, your clients will likely be judge, jury and (hopefully not) executioner.

It was only one percent of our employees

One part of this hearing stuck out to me. The Chair said (paraphrased) “it was only one percent of our employees“. His tone implied that they were bad apples and he had no control or oversight over them. He said that despite the fact that there was a senior manager responsible for implementing the program that created this mess. That senior manager worked for him. Management laid out the program these people worked under, created a bonus schedule for it, oversaw the program and made it expectations clear.

Whether one percent of your employees is 5000 people or five (or it’s just you), you don’t have the choice this guy made. You have to take accountability straight up and dole it out to your team as well. When and if something like this happens, the responsibility to all yours. Own up to it, take your licks, hand out a few as needed and make changes to prevent future occurrences. The rest of your business’ life depends on it.