Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rationalize Relentlessly ... or not.

Core to General Electric's strategy is the concept of being #1 or #2 in any business. If they aren't at the top or don't think they can be at the top, they prune the business. A more simple and straightforward strategy doesn't exist. It has also proven to be incredible effective. But the question becomes: can other organizations use this approach? Can they translate such relentless rationalization into a workable strategy?

Last week I was thrilled to be part of our institution's academic strategy planning session.  As I listened carefully throughout the day I wondered if a GE-like strategy could work.  After all, we are facing a constricting economic forecast. If you applied traditional market-driven logic, then a strategy of competitively focused changes could benefit the institution.

However, all strategies are about making choices and accepting the positive and negative consequences of those decisions. A competitive business strategy would certainly improve our future prospects in terms of market share development. Focusing on the academic programs that attract the most students would create growth. But we are a university. Pure grow comes at high cost in terms of our other commitments such as breadth of education and community support.

So is there value to be extracted from the GE strategy?  Can we apply lessons from corporate models to other types of organizations like universities or hospitals or governments?  Or is just not worth it - do we simply accept the fact that strategies cannot translate across different worlds.  I suggest we can learn, but we have to look at it from two different views.

One view is that maybe our currently strategy is actually wrong. Maybe the corporate strategy would make sense. Maybe we do have to rationalize programs to create better focus. Perhaps we should consider only offering degrees in programs where we are the #1 or #2 ranked school. To compete with privatization forces that have made University of Phoenix a success, we may be forced to consider this strategy in the long term.

Alternatively, maybe a literal translation isn't the lesson we should glean from GE.  If we look deeper into why the GE strategy was a success, we might find the intent of the strategy to be more important than the specific strategy statement.  For example, being #1 or #2 was a game changer for GE when it was first announced.  Subsequently it changed the way they managed their portfolio of business on a sustainable basis for decades.

For us, the real lesson might be the concept of treating our organization as a portfolio. To learn from GE we could consider thinking about our academic programs as a portfolio of educational offerings to students. The portfolio transcends the individual courses and becomes an integrated learning experience. With an integrated portfolio, courses from across disciplines can be offered in a seamless manner to help students learn in more innovative ways and to help researchers create in more innovative ways.

Maybe the key lesson is not to necessarily rationalize relentlessly, but to think differently about your product or program offerings. Visualize your organization as a portfolio of related initiatives, not splendidly isolated silos.  


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Long Live the Crowd

We seem to idolize solo heroes. We feel they are even more special if they act like a cowboy (i.e. Bruce Willis in Die Hard) or if they have a rebellious streak (i.e. James Dean). The solo hero makes a great story and an exciting movie. Somehow this attitude seems to creep into management thinking and the popular press doesn't help the problem. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both receive the celebrity manager treatment.

They're both talented guys and clearly a force unto themselves. But if we scrape just below the surface, their success was never a solo effort. Initial wins for both were based on partnerships. Mr. Jobs with Steve Wozniak, Mr. Gates with Paul Allen. Even in pop music, the longest and most enduringly successful franchise is Jagger/Richards.

I teach an executive education course a few times each year. When I talk about emphasizing teamwork, the one statement that draws the most agreement in every session is "help the crowd stand out, rather than stand out in a crowd." In other words, good managers build teams and partnerships; they don't focus on their personal profile. They develop relationships, nurture partnerships, and feed friendships. They build a network of mutually supportive links that acts like a crowd moving cohesively in one direction.

Despite what we read, we should not confuse popularity with effectiveness. Managers exist to convert resources into goals. They don't exist to draw publicity to themselves. Getting things done extremely well is not meant to draw attention.

Nevertheless, celebrity managers exist because we need simple ways for the popular press to explain extraordinarily successful organizations like Apple and Microsoft. It's much easier to say Microsoft was a success just because of Bill than it is to explain the intricate web of complexity drawn by market conditions, personal circumstances, and technology innovation that helped to fertilize and grow Microsoft.

All I urge is a sense of caution the next time you read about a superstar leader. Don't try to emulate a simplified notional sketch of a successful manager. Dig deeper. Understand all the reasons for success. I'm pretty sure it was not because the manager was a rebel cowboy.

The solo management genius is a myth. Long live the crowd.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Sometimes you see a status report where the author claims a project is 99% complete.  Usually the author is trying to convey the impression that everything is almost done, just about finished, the end is in sight, and it's all over but the cheering.  But very seldom is the truth so rosy.

What usually happens next is that the subsequent status report also says 99% complete.  As a manager you might raise an eyebrow.  But since the project is so close to the end you don't ask any questions.  You let it slide and the author feels like she/he dodged a bullet.  Then the next report is still at 99% done.  You start to feel uncomfortable, but you might be afraid to address the issue.

Now you and the author are both turning a blind eye to the problem.   In reality, if the manager doesn't react early, the manager is becoming complicit with the author in a conspiracy to hide an incomplete job.

One of the reasons the 99% problem is so seductive and can't be solved easily is because no one wants to address the issue.  Managerial avoidance behavior is reinforced by the fact that no one feels compelled to do anything about it.  After all, the project is almost done, so the team must have done a good job.  Right?  Wrong.

99% is one of the biggest and most seductive lies in management.  Who can get in trouble if something is so close?  But without diving into the reasons for the missing 1%, you don't really know if the project is actually done.  The last 1% may represent the most difficult, or most unpleasant, or most complicated part of the project.  Or, it could be the one part that the project manager doesn't want to address.

The next time you see a status report with a 99% complete status, all the alarm bells need to ring.  As a manager, you need to start asking questions right away.  Don't wait for the problem to slip through the cracks and don't assume that the reported 99% complete represents 99% of the work and time and cost.  The last 1% may hide a nasty roadblock that can't be solved easily.

Now that I've written this post I'm going to keep an eye out for 98% complete status reports.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Value of Storytelling

One Saturday afternoon more than a couple of decades years ago I was at work writing software for a difficult project.  The software wasn't difficult, but the user certainly was.  I heard someone walk by and it was the VP of technology for the organization.  I asked him what he was doing there ... and he asked me what I was doing there.  So I told him all my woes about how unreasonable my user was being.  He responded with one simple line "non carborundum illegitimus."

My former VP's advice, roughly translated from Latin, means don't let the b*stards get you down.  Good advice to keep your opinions to yourself and get the job done.  His advice may not have changed the issue one iota, but it helped me to manage my own emotions around the situation.

I had completely forgotten the incident until this evening when one of my staff complained about to me about an unreasonable client. I decided to relate the story of my similar situation from the past.  The story may have been simple, but the message remains consistent and useful over time.

If I had just said "don't behave that way" I'm sure the impact wouldn't have been the same.  But a simple factual story resonates more effectively.  I'm not sure the advice was particularly brilliant, but the parallelism over the decades was strikingly interesting.

The value of storytelling as a management technique is in the power of conveying a simple and effective message without lecturing.  In this particular case, it is reassuring to know that no matter how much the technology changes over the decades the same fundamental issues remain.  Technology is easy, people are complicated.

I still don't know why the VP was in the office on a Saturday afternoon ...


Tuesday, January 11, 2011


If I spend more than half my day talking to clients, my day was a success.  Today I'm happy to say that many days seem to fit this criteria for me.  But it didn't used to be this way.  When I first started in my current management role five years ago I was busier than I had ever been in my entire life.  Every day was a struggle to find the appropriate time balance between internal management issues and external client relationships.  Because they were more immediate and urgent, the internal issues usually got the upper hand.

Slowly over time I began to get more personal control and flexibility into my schedule. The reasons for getting time to do what I want to do stem from several sources such as improved processes, better organization, whittling down the project backlog, and so on.  But the single biggest factor in freeing up my time has been building a brilliant management team.  Today I have a series of direct reports I who I can trust to handle the boundless complexity of directly managing the business of a large organization.

Over the period of several years we have built up a world class management team.  With precision, insight, and compassion this team leads the core components of our organization.  Their excellence frees me to deal with the strategic issues of my job and gives me the luxury of spending more time with our clients.  A great management team gives you freedom - freedom to focus on the truly challenging and exciting aspects of your role.

Gosh, I even have time to write a blog!


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Victims of History

All managers inherit an organizational history.  In any human institution, outside of new start-ups, someone came before you.  That someone designed processes (consciously or not), molded culture, hired staff, and made decisions.  These were not your ideas.  You may not have made similar choices given the original circumstances, nonetheless they are now yours.

Being a victim of history is neither bad nor good.  It is simply is a fact of life.  The trick is whether you want to behave like a victim or not.  Managers who accept what they have inherited as inevitable become victims of history.  Managers who challenge every aspect of the past create the future.  They accept nothing as status quo and make a difference by denying the tyranny of organizational history.


Monday, January 3, 2011

And now for something completely different ...

I have a collection of books about management that I've accrued over the years.  From Peter Drucker to Tom Peters to Jim Collins, the shelf covers several decades of management theory and practice.  As I look at the shelf I realize one consistent feature across most of those books.  Each one attempts to create a simple unified theory of management.  Many of the books attempt to boil management into a few guiding principles.  These simple clear principles can then be applied by the reader in a general-purpose manner to solve most management problems.

What is interesting is how convincing each book's ideas can be.  For example, no one can read "In Search of Excellence" without developing a passion for culture.  Consistently across each of these books there are a few key messages containing extraordinarily compelling management advice.  The only problem: although there is some overlap and some consistency, most of the messages are quite different.  Each author has her or his separate message.  So, who is right?  But if one author is right, then someone has to be wrong.

Maybe what is missing is the realization that you cannot boil management down into a few key guiding principles.  Maybe management is so circumstance based that there can be no grand unification theory.  Maybe each instance of applied management requires specific and unique skills.  Maybe the case study method taught in business school is the right way to go - teach managers how to react to unique circumstances rather than attempt to to teach them how to apply management theory.

In management there are no silver bullets.  There is no single theory or idea that solves every management problem.  It may be human nature to look for ways to simplify our lives.  We may cling to the idea that a single brilliant idea will solve all our challenges and issues.  However, with so many brilliant authors providing so many compelling ideas, I suspect they are all right to a certain extent.  Our challenge as practicing managers is to undertand when to apply the material we've learned and when to just throw the book out the window and try something completely different.

Maybe I should throw out that dusty bookshelf.