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Business culture Customer relationships Entrepreneurs Management

Predictions, models, tramps, & thieves

I know, you weren’t expecting a reference to Sonny & Cher.

Technical people (programmers, doctors, scientists and the like) aren’t typically considered to be good communicators to the public at large. Good communicators like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson stand out because they’re adept at explaining very technical subjects in a way that’s understandable to everyone. Sure, they have time to prepare, but that doesn’t guarantee content everyone else can understand.

This is one reason why we’re so frustrated with the inaccuracy of “predictions” about things like weather, fantasy football player performance, stock market behavior, hurricane tracks, asteroid paths, and COVID impacts.

How many science-y people in these roles are saying something like… “This is a model. This is how models work. A model is not a promise. It is a set of results from a bunch of calculations based on the data we have today – and the data we don’t have yet. When the data changes, the results coming from the models will change.

The lack of this kind of communication causes modeling to be devalued by everyone else.

What you don’t know

Data changes rapidly – weekly, daily, hourly. Some of today’s data could be inaccurate. We may not know that until tomorrow’s data arrives, or a sensor fails.

Consider hurricanes. Hurricane models “predict” their path & severity. The output changes as variables are added /changed / deleted, and as varialbe importance changes. As the hurricane gets closer to shore (or as the time to make your third round draft pick nears), models become more accurate because there are fewer variables, & the possible range of still-useful variables shrinks.

What don’t we know?

When Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense, he was asked about then-recent discoveries about WMDs in Iraq. The questions were legitimate as was his answer, though he was mocked for it at the time.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Donald Rumsfeld (2002), speaking as U.S. Secretary of Defense

Anyone who has worked with business metrics, science, or fantasy football knows that he was right.

Despite this variability & the knowledge that tomorrow could look much different, we often have to make decisions using today’s data.

Predicting people performance

If you’re trying to predict the performance of a NFL player, it’s equally difficult. We know a player has a 44″ vertical, runs a 4.2 second 40 yard dash, and is a three year All-Star (and more), yet we still can’t accurately predict his stats for next game.

We don’t know that his mother is sick, or that a tiny injury is bothering him intermittently. We might not notice tiny performance differences that affect a game’s outcome. Perhaps only the player who covers him will notice.

After the game, the coach might tell the press that they called different plays “because he’s hurting a little bit” as a ploy to distract their next opponent. It’s Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknown” to most of us.

You don’t know when you draft a great quarterback that you’ll lose him for the season in week seven because he tripped over his own feet during practice. Likewise, if you don’t know your best salesperson’s mother has terminal cancer, you won’t know that (or how) it affects their work.

Will models help you?

How’s your team? Is anyone challenged by something that impacts them like a nagging injury? How distracted would you be in that situation? What would help you? What needs do your people have that they don’t normally have? How can you help? Can they help each other?

What aspects of your clients’ performance could be predictive? What data is indicative of their performance? What *was* indicative but has changed? What don’t you know? Have you checked in with them? How can you help? Can they help each other?

Can performance modeling help you see performance changes earlier? Can models help you make better decisions earlier?

What don’t you know?

Categories
Leadership Management

Be Prepared on Main St.

If you believe the folks randomly interviewed on the news, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s too worried about COVID-19 here in Montana. How they shop tells a different story: people want to be prepared. I recently found the TP section of Wal-Mart all but empty. Costco was out of TP except for the big public restrooms rolls. Same for the 20 pound bags of rice (Costco-wise). I mention this because ignoring the need to “Be Prepared” (the Boy Scout Motto) isn’t advisable in your business life any more than in your personal life – even if you weren’t a Scout. To that end, a friend sent me a link to a founder/CEO advisory sent by the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Sequoia Capital. Print readers, see https://medium.com/sequoia-capital/coronavirus-the-black-swan-of-2020-7c72bdeb9753

The Sequoia advisory was aimed at founders and CEOs of firms they’ve invested in, yet they kindly shared it with everyone. They called it (paraphrased) “guidance… while dealing with potential business consequences of the spreading effects…“.

If you read it, bear in mind that it’s targeted at founders and CEOs at startups, not necessarily at Main Street businesses. Still, much of the guidance applies to local business, so I used a little editorial license to adjust their guidance for Main Street.

Challenges being faced

They listed drop in business activity (sales), supply chain disruptions, curtailment of travel, time to containment, recovery time for the economy after containment. All of these things could impact Main Street. For non-tech businesses, the supply chain is the one that concerns me. Stay on top of this if you depend on Just-In-Time suppliers.

Cash runway – Most Main Street businesses don’t have a Silicon Valley style runway. They have receivables & payables and the only investor is often the owner. If you have a line of credit to smooth out the bumps, have a cup of coffee with your banker. No one likes surprises – and that goes for both of you. Two-way communication is critical.

Fundraising – Few Main Street businesses are concerned about raising another round of capital, but the thought of forging partnerships during difficult times is wise, even on Main Street. As the advisory noted, “Constraints focus the mind and provide fertile ground for creativity.

Sales forecasts – While this paragraph is brief, it’s important. Customers may delay payments because they’re being paid slowly. Be prepared, communicate often, assume nothing.

Marketing – While I agree that care is needed (where the advisory says “rein in customer acquisition spending” and “raise the bar on ROI for marketing spend“), events like this cause some companies to freeze. Fear has them not marketing as hard (or worse, not at all). Fear-induced contraction can become self-fulfilling, causing business to soften because they took their foot off the gas. Even if your spending is curtailed, don’t stop marketing altogether. If you invest carefully, you could pick up some business you might not otherwise have gained.

Headcount – While it’s just slang, I detest this word and its cousin “Human Capital”. As if we’re thinking “Hey Buck, back that skid of human capital up to the loading dock, will ya?“. Let’s take a different angle at this. Your people are going to be scared, or at least, worried. They’re worried that you might cut their hours, or cut them loose entirely, much less that the business might fail. People don’t respond well to surprises. Communicate early & often. If you have an emergency fund or cash buffer that has you ready to make payroll despite a bumpy three or four months, tell them sooner rather than later. Their concern will impact their behavior. You don’t want that.

If it starts to look like making payroll could be tough a month from now, don’t wait to tell them. I know, I know, you don’t want to lose them, so communicate carefully and honestly. Be flexible & creative. Find a win-win to help them stay that helps you both, even if part-time. When things get rolling again, you don’t want to be the business who can’t hit cruising speed due to an inexperienced staff.

Capital Spending – As Sequoia noted, keep your powder dry.

Leadership – They hit this for a couple of paragraphs because it’s important. Depending on how things go over the next few months, your checkbook and your leadership could be tested. Your actions will send a message to your entire community.

Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

Categories
Community Leadership Small Business

When A Storm Comes To Town

Wall Street loves “events”. An event in their context might be a CEO saying something incredibly stupid that affects the stock price, gets the CEO fired, or both. A good example is the Lululemon CEO’s yoga pants comment back in 2013.

If something good happens, they usually see it as a reason to buy, except when odd Wall Street logic prompts them to sell instead. Likewise, they usually use bad news as a legitimate reason to sell.

Outside the context of Wall Street, the repercussions from an event can get a bit more personal. When these things involve (or appear to involve) a local business, people either flock to the place or abandon them as if they have a contagious and permanent disease.

Sometimes things get worse. What’s worse? When mob mentality takes over and a group of people decide your transgressions mean that you deserve to be forced out of business, or worse.

Dealing with the aftermath

No matter what happened, and no matter how at fault you and /or your business may be (including not at fault at all), you have two choices: tell the truth, or say nothing.

Why say nothing? Because your lawyer said so.

Why tell the truth? Because the whole story will eventually come out anyway and no matter how bad it is, lying about it to your customers, prospects, and community is always going to come back to bite you far worse than the truth will.

In these times, you might get the idea that there’s either no such thing as the truth, or that there are multiple truths for different people.

Which truth is that?

Clearly, there will be people who won’t believe you no matter what you say. They don’t care about the truth (certainly not from you, that is), so telling the truth isn’t about them. Remember, they only want to see you shut down, in jail, and / or publicly humiliated, so the real truth has a way of not mattering to most of them.

Even if you were right or not involved, you’ll take some heat. Nothing you say will mute the haters. Ignore them as much as possible, but always defend the facts. Leave the personal stuff alone and don’t make it personal. Make sure your family, friends, and employees stay out of it, particularly on social media.

Of those who eventually discover and recognize that you did nothing wrong (when that’s the case), history has shown that only a small percentage will acknowledge their discovery. The rest seem to be more worried about the fuss they made to their friends, family and others. That’s their ego and /or fear talking.

The truth is for everyone else.

Recovery and Communication

When these things happen, a timely response is essential. Do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and the more anger you’ll have to defuse. Inaction or procrastination both make it look like you don’t care. You have enough to deal with as it is (right or wrong) without an extended delay that makes you appear not to care about the situation.

If you were wrong or somehow involved, own it, make it right, and take the punch.

If you weren’t wrong or had nothing to do with it, own that too.

What does make it right look like? It looks like what you’d want someone to do when making it right to your grandma.

Who do you tell? A better question might be who don’t you tell. When the news starts to spread (guilty or otherwise), do you want other people telling your story? No. As with marketing, you need to be the one telling it, even if the story is bad news.

If new information becomes available, lead with it. Whether it’s good or bad, you need to take the reins on communication. If you don’t have all the information or even think you don’t, say so. Certainly the story can change in complex situations with confusing timelines and / or a lack of confirmable information.

A lot of this is common sense, but we sometimes need a formula to fall back on when we’re under pressures . These fallbacks are helpful for the same reason we use checklists and documented processes.

Remember, listen to your lawyer. Also remember that I’m not that person.

Categories
Leadership Small Business strategic planning The Slight Edge

Who on your team is wired for tough situations?

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

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

How’d they get wired that way?

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

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

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

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

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

How do you find more people like that?

Ask.

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

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

How do you help in tough situations?

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

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

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

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