Thoughts on Making a Living

Category: Consulting

Doing Business Versus Project Management

I think Stuart Hamilton gets this right. I work with a lot of start ups that are looking to grow fast. I can normally tell if they are going to make it when they make their first few Project manager hires. If they are widely experienced (not even deeply experienced in many instances) and can make things happen day in and day out and can explain themselves in multiple, daily “hallway” discussions, they’ll be fine. However, if the first hires are documentation buffs who avoid discussions by pointing people to the voluminous project documentation, the organization is normally doomed.

The IMF, Foxes, and Hedgehogs

This article about the recent failures of the IMF in relation to the Greece/Euro problem is instructive about a lot of modern bureaucracies and civil service “expertise” capture, I think.

Groupthink and mechanistic analyses based on principles that are not widely understood and ground out with singular variables are common in modern bureaucracies of all types. Those variables that are politically influenced are especially problematic. How many states and cities in the USA are facing insolvency based on a single pension fund return assumption?

There is such confidence in the layer upon layer analysis that every bureaucrat is trusting 10 expert analyses to be right when only one being wrong is enough to scuttle the entire project. Has anyone else ever seen an entire business case fail/succeed with the slight change of the discount rate?

I think this problem is roiling across many areas of our society from government to business to public policy to education.

Increasingly, I feel less like the Fox and more like the Hedgehog.

Image credit –
By attributed to Johann Friedrich Grooth (1717-1806) (Dorotheum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Deep Work and Meetings

Here is a good article from Help Scout on How to Sabotage Any Meeting. In reference to my previous post on Deep Work, the work that gets done at meetings is normally bad too, because everyone is flitting about on the surface with too many distractions. Number three on How to Sabotage Any Meeting,

Do synthesis work at the meeting

…. I’ve learned the hard way that while meetings are useful for outlining what can be done, they’re god-awful for putting paint on the canvas. Feedback becomes relevant when The Thing has taken shape—even if it’s just a fragment of the final result.

Collaboration has its limits. Use meetings to chart the course, to get visceral reactions along the way, and to push past the finish line. Don’t use them to synthesize on the spot. Create alone, decide together.

I couldn’t agree more. Rather than spending the time to do the Deep Work and bring a thoughtful proposal to the table, most people are either too lazy, distracted, or scared. Lazy, because they are trying to get others to do their work or don’t want to do more than one iteration. Distracted, because they have lost the discipline to do Deep Work. Scared that their Deep Work would look amateurish. My advice on this last one is to not worry. If you really do think about the issue deeply and consider the situation, you will almost always out-think the distracted rest-of-us at the meeting.

That article about The Collaboration Curse from The Economist is a good one too. Good fodder for another post.

Photo Credit:

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Harlem branch, Boys club meeting” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Beautiful Questions in a Target Rich Environment

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” ― ee cummings

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger makes the case that in a world full of easily accessed knowledge, the real skill is to pose better questions. I like the title wording of Warren Berger via ee cummings. Our new world is not bereft of questions. I get tons of them. Most of them could be solved by the person asking them with a DuckDuckGo search.

In fact, our new world is full of answers and full of questions. However, the answers often have no context and people don’t often frame the questions well. Part of this ties in with what I wrote last week in Deep Work and Self Education. The ability to think of a really good question is often what separates true understanding from mere collections of fact. What keeps us from formulating a good question is often not thinking about it deeply, because we are busy and awash in information. Its a vicious circle, but one we must break.

Elegant questions are what make our work meaningful and give us real priorities, rather than artificial deadlines to do something. Taking the time to answer the basics, understand them, help others understand them, and put them in context before posing an intelligent question is what separates the professional from the amateur. Insightful questions are also what gets the attention of the experts you may be seeking to involve in your project or cause. The best way to be ignored in professional circles, and social circles too, is to ask simple questions that show no understanding or empathy for others’ time or concerns. What intrigues people is when you ask something that shows you spent some time trying to understand the subject and you are looking to them for a deeper understanding.

Berger’s theme is that more beautiful questions are what is needed to increase innovation. To tie in Steven Johnson’s assertion that good ideas are derived from the chaos at the edge of current knowledge, the glut of information and lack of good questions present a target rich environment. For those who can grasp the context and continue to push out the knowledge with perceptive questions, the adjacent possible comes into view.

I also think that stimulating questions make for better plans. What I really like about the Minto method and the Army Operations Order is that you start with a fully acknowledged Situation and Complication before you decide what you should do and how you should do it. Using modern Army parlance, “The enemy gets a vote.” By making this understanding explicit, one gains the confidence of the people one will eventually ask to do something. With that confidence and an expectation that those involved will also be expected to ask compelling questions, the network mind is activated.

If you are looking for your next professional read, I highly recommend Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

Deep Work and Self Education

In his new book, Deep Work, author Cal Newport goes in to detail about why the ability to focus on work that requires deep thought and multiple levels of inquiry has become a competitive edge. No doubt, this type of work has always been relatively rare. However, it is more so these days due to the much discussed proliferation of technologies that nip at your attention like a pack of hyenas trying to pick off the weak in the wildebeest herd. Sadly, in our world, the attention-hyenas have grown fat and don’t even have to give chase. We sit in our chairs and wait for them every morning.

I think Newport’s thesis is correct. The ability, not the time, is actually what is missing. Lots of people say that they just don’t have the time to set aside and think deeply on things that are important to them. However, I don’t need to quote specifics –about the billions who use social media all day long or the people who respond to emails in seconds like it is some lab experiment to grab pellets when the bell rings– to make the point that we are not using the time wisely. (yes, I see the irony in this article… get back to work 😉

Because we have been doing this now for one or two decades, many of us have lost our ability to do the deep work even when we have the time. Stare at a blank document or project plan for twenty minutes, meet the first obstacle, and freeze. Send an email to Fred to see if he got that new data. Text Mary for an update on how the meeting went. Read our “professional” newsfeed for the fourth time this morning, etc. We are all talking about talking about talking. We’re just doing it on new and different platforms.

The ability to think deeply and present new ideas on how to tackle problems is now the rarest of things. I often see this in the board room. The conversation flies around, but nothing is tackled in depth. No one brings deep critical thinking to the table. Every one just brings the latest data, report or presentation. None of it sticks to the walls and becomes deep conversation.

I agree with Newport on career development too. If a person wants to make themselves valuable to themselves or to an organization, they need to develop the ability to go into a quiet room, think deeply on an issue, and come out with either a new option on the issue or deep analysis of which known options are better and actionable. Either output is far more valuable than anyone else is likely to bring to the table.

When one ties this ability with the other rarity of the modern world which is the ability to self-educate, a person will have a formidable set of skills. In fact, I’ll go further. Teaching yourself to A) work deeply and B) self educate is the whole education that most should be seeking. If one develops the discipline and skill to work deeply on any topic and develops the skills to educate themselves with the near-universal amount of knowledge available today, there is no need to predict what comes next. One with these two capabilities doesn’t care. They can analyze any market, make deeply considered choices, and educate themselves to tackle what they choose. If they are wrong, they can start again. They are not one-trick ponies. In other words, strive to be adaptable, not prescient.

Finally, I think this is New Yeoman territory too. Any trade is susceptable to improvement in these skills. Don’t waste time in the truck on Facebook before the next customer call. Read the trade journal and come up with new ideas for your customer. Consider how your invoices and receipts may help you convert more sales. Develop that nagging idea you’ve had for a new specialized tool. Think deeply, turn it into digestable chunks of work and take action.

Turbo-charging with Customer Service

Cross posted on LinkedIn.

In my first and second posts, I wrote about how to know if one’s organization is belching noxious customer service fumes and how to clean up the worst of them. In this post, I’ll discuss how to use those remaining, hard-to-clean-up emissions to drive your organization forward. This will not only improve one’s customer service, but has the very real potential to improve products and operations to the point where customers quit antagonizing the organization over poor customer service, but actually promote one’s products to their network.

I had the good fortune to be employed by in its early days (1999-2001) as a logistics manager, a project manager, a technical facilities manager, and finally as its Head of English Customer Services (CS) in Europe (three of those all at the same time with three separate bosses… ahh, the life of a start-up). To my good fortune as a consultant, I have been contacted by many companies that say they want to be the “Amazon of X.” Normally, what they mean is that they want to be as ubiquitous and forward-looking as Amazon in customer services and operations in their chosen field. Unfortunately, many of the people I speak to really don’t want to do the hard work to become the Amazon of their field. They are looking for shortcuts and tricks of the trade. is the king of “real CS” in taking CS problems to organizational fixes. The best way to fix the problem is to fix the source of the problem which, by the way, often fixes more than the evident CS problem. In my ongoing analogy, Amazon uses its exhaust as a turbo-charger. (It also uses the forward momentum that these actions create as a super-charger too, but that is for another post)

Turbocharging means fixing the underlying problem and not just providing a palliative to the customer for that particular situation. Providing a palliative (installing a catalytic converter in my previous post) may be required when you first find out about a problem. However, if pain relief is all one is providing and leaving the pain-causing situation in place unaddressed, the problem will continue to occur. That normally results in the following; customers appreciate the palliative (or not), but grow to expect that kind of pay-off as part of the deal. However, they still post on social media their problems and your palliatives. You may gain a reputation for fair-play, but that is also the new expectation. Eventually, and I have been in more of these meetings than I care to recount, the company will eventually focus on the high cost of CS relative to Revenue. This leads to the all-too-predictable responses of never-ending phone-trees, poorly designed self-help pages, and other cost-per-contact “fixes.” They bury the problem in a maze of confusing and misdirected KPIs that mask the problem. These frustrating technologies and processes inevitably slow sales, new and repeat, and are a veritable breeding ground for customer antagonists.

When I enter these situations, I often see the frustration on executives’ faces when their CS team is telling them that they are meeting all of their KPIs, but the Net Promoter Score (NPS) is falling, along with sales. Other departments are pointing to how bad CS is in dealing with customers. The CS team is doing their best with a limited budget and tool-set. They aren’t lying. They are measuringsomething. They may even be making headway in cleaning up the exhaust. Multiple meetings to address the issues result in a ton of actions for the contact center. New KPIs are proposed. However, the underlying problems never seem to get resolved. Where to begin?

Here is my take. To start, the organization’s product director, program director, and operations director need to be at the solution meeting. The focus needs to be on the reasons for customer contact, including customer search terms on the self-help pages. Convert the organization’s language to customer language. Look at the top 10 reasons one-by-one and determine, with the responsible people in the room, what actions would improve the customers’ situation. Then, quantify the total cost to the organization in time, effort, and lost sales. Yes, in simple cost terms, a problem may cost you $2.43 X 936 contacts a week, but what about lost sales from customer abandonment and countering social media meltdowns? What about improved reviews and recommendations? Once the key problems are identified, quantified, and total costs calculated, do the same with the proposed fixes. What would be the total cost to fix the problem, technically and/or operationally? Finally, make the CS projects report through the normal program management channels. Give them the visibility they deserve.

At this point, I often hear howls of protest from the also-busy product, program and operational teams. “But, we have our own problems and budgets!” That is why the leaders of each need to be in the room. CS is not the product and operations, but it is a good indicator of their health. All cards need to be on the table and organizational decisions on time and resources need to be made. This gets to the nub of my analogy. If the organization is spewing noxious exhaust, fixing the muffler is a start, but it cannot be the end point. If the CS total cost does not compete favorably with an honest assessment of other projects against the organization’s strategy, so be it. If they are competitive, they go on the list like everything else. Trust me, this outcome will happen sooner or later, through one means or another, many of them unpleasant. The question is whether one makesit happen or it happens to one.

Finally, there is often another, unspoken, problem. The CS leader, either by organizational design or professional experience/development, is not the equivalent of the operations head, the product head, or the program management head (especially in technical organizations). This is deadly. Ironically, this often comes about due to the CEO or COO making a junior CS Manager report directly to them as a way of showing that CS is important to the CEO/COO. Often, the CS manager is in meetings with Director level appointments and simply does not have the knowledge or courage to be a forceful advocate for his department or, more importantly, the customer. I’m not saying promote them to make it even. If they are too inexperienced, that will make things worse, not better. I’ve also seen some pretty savvy CS Managers hold their own in a room of senior directors. Each organization is different, but in one way or another, the CS head needs to hold his own. As an executive, if your CS head is not senior enough, either in rank or actions, get him a competent boss who is. If the CS lead has the title/authority and experience, but is not holding his own, get yourself a new one.

There are many specific techniques that fill in the gaps of what I discussed, but it is certainly the core infrastructure of what I have done many times. Good luck with your own turbo-charging.

Cleaning up the Exhaust

Cross-posted at LinkedIn

Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way. – Booker T. Washington

In my last post, I described customer service as the exhaust port of an organization. Every organization that is doing something of value produces some kind of exhaust. Most organizations know this fact of life and have instituted a way of working with their customers. Running the gamut from mediocre to good, these organizations have found some level of equilibrium, some below and some above average. There are some excellent organizations that work very hard to stay well above equilibrium. I’ll speak of those organizations and how they work in later posts. For this post, I’ll discuss the organizations that through one means or another find themselves belching smog and don’t know where to start in the clean-up effort. The steps below may sound obvious, but I assure you, I’ve seen some well known companies at this stage looking like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Every potential action seems to have a drawback and inaction becomes the norm. An award winning design firm with a highly desirable and trendy accessory business, that could not deliver their product on time and could not answer a customer email within a week, comes to mind.

As with an internal combustion engine, the first place to start is to quit using the leaded fuel. The leader who faces the problem must face facts and stop doing the things that they know are only creating customer-antagonists; those customers who feel so wronged by sub-standard service that they make it their personal mission to inform the world of your faults. The organization must stop shipping inferior products that they know are not going to meet customer expectations or at least honestly manage the customers’ expectations. If all of one’s data say that shipping times average 4 days, then stop guaranteeing 2 day delivery, until the logistics system can be fixed. If the routine phone queue wait time is 25 minutes, don’t put on a service message that says you are only performing badly, because you are “currently experiencing high volumes.” It is dishonest, the customers know it, and they treat the offending organization accordingly. If one knows their self-service website results in 65% of searches ending up with an email or phone call, then don’t send your customers there just to experience search hell. I’ll discuss how to fix these issues in later posts, but to start, stop forcing the customer there when it is a known pain point. These are tough decisions and may even result in things getting worse before they get better. However, with clear and honest communications, along with an honest attempt to turn things around, a new trust can be built. Think of Dominos Pizza admitting its old-recipe pizzas tasted like cardboard and building a world class online ordering system for a customer base that was used to getting busy phone lines.

The next step is to install a catalytic converter. The organization may not be able to completely stop all of the polluting habits immediately. Therefore, the actions need to be focussed on remediating the most noxious fumes. A quick survey of the most numerous contact types from the phone, email, and web will identify where most of the biggest and most persistent problems lie. Once identified, examine what the customer calls these problems, not what the organization thinks they are called. I had one client that had a ~20% usage of its self-help pages, merely because the relevant knowledge base article used the company’s technical language for the problem rather than the problem the customer was searching to solve. A quick re-write, using the customers’ search terms, and more prominent placement increased self-help usage to ~65% and resulted in a huge reduction in the daily volume of frustrated customers on the phone. This action is key, because it reduces the chaos in the contact center. The next action action of the catalytic converter is to streamline the contact methods and access to answers. Now is not the time to demand information that is not required, just because it may be of use. If the customer is already in a pickle with your product, the organization needs to remove the long contact form and replace it with – 1. What is your problem and 2. How can we contact you to help.

Depending on your product and customer profile, there are other similar actions, but there is one increasingly common type that I’d like to address. If one has a “freemium” business model, focus on the paying customers. I know this freaks out some purists, but, simply put, contract law is the best guide. A consideration paid for services demands timely service. Staggeringly, I worked for a large freemium product company that could not distinguish incoming contacts between paying and free customers. Our first order of business was to find an inelegant and blunt tool to identify the payers as they presented themselves in the midst of the 95% who were not paying. Additionally, we began to track the increased satisfaction of these customers to justify the ROI for the permanent-fix project. [Coincidentally and initially unrecognized by us, this had the added effect of reducing fraud which also reduced the chaos dramatically. Fraud thrives in customer service chaos.]

In summary, if you find you are a customer service polluter, take action immediately. First, conduct a quick, but brutally honest analysis of why you are emitting noxious fumes. Second, confirm the guiding principles that you want to be known for. Finally, begin acting coherently with those principles. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

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