Musings on decisions and factors that drive them.

Rubric, purpose, context

Can we at least agree on what we are trying to achieve?

Thomas Friedman writes of the need for Obama to define a "a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics." Friedman refers to this needed statement as a "rubric" (a statement of purpose or function).  It is this latter label that reveals the true value of such a statement.

A context or purpose is essential to a plan or strategy.  As a framework for suggested actions, it allows one to see clearly the actions' relative value in terms of achieving higher level objectives. It is more than just a means for "spinning" messages, or of preventing the possibility that actions will be "easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists."  Although these may be some side benefits of having a clear purpose to frame one's actions, they should not be the primary intent.

Friedman has actually roughed out a good starting point for organizing the thinking in Obama's national plan.  Its purpose (depicted on the left in the illustration), the broad brush strokes of fairly high level objectives (in the mid section), and a general reference to tactical actions suggested to achieve the objectives (depicted on the right).

This outline should be taken a step further.  The key would be to weight the objectives (those in the middle).  Many people would argue that "All are needed.  They are all important."  This is not disputed. All objectives are on the list because of this very truth...they are all needed.  Health care, energy independence, education, infrastructure, national competitiveness.  However, there is still a relative priority, a relative importance to undertaking improvements to them.  Determination of this relative importance comes by comparative analysis of each against all others, in terms of the context and additionally considering in that comparison the current known status of each as well as the time frame of the plan.

Once relative priority of the objectives is defined, the next step is to assess the more tactical actions being suggested against all objectives.  Typically, one action will have been developed in terms of one objective. However, an action could serve multiple objectives. The critical nature of any action is determined by its influence upon supporting the achievement of more than one objective, factoring in the relative importance of each of those objectives.  It is the cumulative merit that makes some actions those that are the "king pins" of one's plan.

Most persons might think that this type of prioritization work would take days.  It doesn't.  It can be done in hours. Others will argue that politics will never allow this to work.  One can understand the frustration of Senator Evan Bayh leading to his recent resignation.  The key is of course, to have a willingness by a group to commit that time (hours), to be open for reasonable discussion, and to be respectful of others' thoughts.  We have seen the most divided groups find common ground, and elevate their work because of their ability to serve a greater purpose. Agreement on purpose is the beginning of the execution of a plan in which everyone is functioning as a team, which is why having such a statement is vital.

Robo candidate

Thank you for not calling.

A quiet evening. One is settling into a good book. Maybe even trying to watch the news or a film.  The phone rings.  As a registrant of the National Do Not Call Registry, and but a few days out from an election, one is pretty much assured that this interruption will be a political "robocall."

One wonders if the candidate's campaign strategist has even thought through the ramifications of this method of "solicitation of votes."  If a constituent registers for the National Do Not Call Registry, does the candidate's strategist think that receiving a phone call (even if legal) is going to thrill this constituent?  Do they think that the fact that the "voice" on the other end of the phone is a robot is going to delight that person even more?

The irritation of these calls surpasses that of pop up messages on the internet blocking what one is reading.  Are these candidates actually so deluded to think that they can irritate a vote out of someone?  And a vote in their favor?

Legislation has been introduced to "outlaw" this type of campaigning.   I imagine there are many who are asking "Why wait for legislation?  Vote for the candidate who does not call."   Surely, if one could simply anticipate this reaction, a smart candidate will discontinue this annoying mechanism of "communication."

After the fires are out...being ready

It is impressive to see the financially pinched world of non-profits offering the commercial sector some valuable, spot-on thinking expertise, as found in a commentary on how the arts are surviving this current economic crisis. I particularly resonated with the description of "crisis thinking" leading to organizations becoming "even sicker."

An economist acquaintance of mine from Europe used to remind me that economic recessions were a time of cleaning house, making things leaner and better. A time of innovation. Of finding new and better ways to survive, in the long-term.

During tough economic times, the first things to be cut in many large businesses are personnel, training and travel. Also, though not often revealed, is the fact that activities related to long-term planning, are typically postponed or dispensed with entirely. The rationalization has been that these activities are "expendable" at a time when there is "serious fire-fighting" underway "just to survive." Contrary to the sage advice I was given, this "crisis thinking" does not bode well for innovation, or becoming leaner or better. What truly are the chances for survival following multiple cycle swings if this type of thinking dominates?

Economic cycles are reality. Tough times will continue to occur. Long-term planning, if done correctly, accounts for survival during present and future tough times. Tactics pursued for immediate survival, however, don't necessarily position for the long term.

Short-term thinking, because it is a problem-solving mindset, is typically reactive. Long-term thinking incorporates both reactions and proactive actions. It can be about survival, but it is also about positioning. If one's competition maintains this long-term view, it is the competition that will be ahead at the end of each downturn, when one is only regrouping and starting to "plan again."

Therefore, critical to the decisions one makes is a perspective in terms of time. Is one judging one's options in the context of the short-term or the long-term? The simple act of framing a decision in terms of time, would elevate the quality of judgments being made. Finding solutions that satisfy the short-term as well as benefitting the long-term position are better than those serving only immediate survival. And a separate exercise to think in this manner is not required.

In gratitude...

A few months ago, the internet carried quite a few angry reactions to Comcast's ongoing program of "enhancement" to their delivery of cable television services, one that requires yet more equipment. Some, while spot on, were also entertaining, such as Runner Girl Knits' blog. She wrote:
"I also don't believe that your company [Comcast] has seen any televisions lately. Calling this huge piece of equipment a 'set-top box' is ridiculous. The top of my television is about 3" deep. Trying to balance a 'set-top box' might be good for an initial giggle, but impossible to do."
On the other hand, TV news coverage, expectedly, decided to frame the issue as one in which "seniors" just don't understand the ins and outs of high tech, the "digital revolution" or how to put together assorted pieces of electronic equipment. But, this is not about high tech. Nor about confused seniors. It's about a business decision to make more money. And it's about a clearly successful marketing campaign. The Federally-mandated transition to all-digital broadcasting was merely a convenient and timely catalyst for change. It has nothing to do with this "enhancement." Nor this "enhancement" with it.

From all the articles and brochures I've now read, it appears that Comcast's "enhancement" strategy starts with the removal of access to cable channels currently available. Comcast offers a "free" box so that one can then receive these now-scrambled channels. While unscrambling, the box degrades signals from all channels, including those broadcasting in high definition (HD), to standard definition. If one wants to see what is being broadcast in HD (currently possible without the box if one has an HD TV), one now must acquire, for a fee, a different signal converter box. Additionally, one must subscribe to the more expensive "upgrade" to Comcast's "high definition" offering. Additional costs will also be incurred as one tries to overcome the introduced inability to record shows without first getting other new equipment.

I confess I've always felt a little captive in having to accept the incremental increases to my cable bill over the years. I once looked into satellite TV, but discovered I am "treed out." So, I must thank Comcast for creating a significant enough disruption [something all robust strategies must consider] to cause me to pause and think about what is important to me. I decided to examine my options. I thought, at first, in terms of which television package would be best for me. In all our decision work with our clients, the better starting point is to state the context, the purpose for doing something. One has to get beyond statements about the activity itself, such as "selecting a great TV service," to thinking about what selecting a great TV service would do for one. If I had the best TV service in the world, what would be different about my life? OK. It was a bit of a struggle. What was the reason I even had a TV? So my purpose, after a good deal of thought, was "to enhance the quality of my life." (For those of you who are also exhausted by reality TV, please don't laugh just yet.)

I then wrote down statements of qualities that enhance life for me. Broad brush stroke statements. What were the characteristics of things that have made my life richer, more meaningful? I went on to determine their relative importance to me.

After that, I put down all sorts of options that I was considering, expanding the list to include more than just TV service packages. I ranked all these options in terms of how much they satisfied each of the things in life that enhance its quality for me.

In the end, TV service, no matter which type, fell far short of the other options I had put down. (Of course, each person doing this exercise, would have their own qualities, and their own ranking.)

In looking at my results, I wondered how much Comcast has examined the role of the Internet as a threat to their own video offering. And would Comcast care that adopting a stray pussycat would be better in my life than any of their TV service offerings? Probably not. Maybe they would care if a substantial number of people also cancelled the video portion of their cable service, keeping only the Internet. In that case, what are the chances we'll see some sort of "enhancement" to that offering?
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Feeding the nanny state on the Fourth

I'm not a real fan of the Fourth of July. Not since my university days when I worked evenings and weekends in a big city hospital ER to earn tuition money. A parade of disasters would occur each and every Fourth. Facial injuries, burns, blindness. A great many were self-inflicted injuries. But not all. Most resulted from the "it-won't-happen-to-me" mentality of not just children, but more reprehensibly, of adults who insisted on showing off with fireworks. It's been decades since my ER days, but my general attitude towards fireworks handled by amateurs hasn't changed a whole lot. Perhaps the only significant shift is my viewpoint. I worry more about the persons on the receiving end of others' negligence or bravado.

Nine houses were set ablaze in the Seattle area this Fourth due to mishandling of fireworks. Last year there were two houses near my neighborhood that caught on fire. In this region, some types of fireworks (much more explosive than sparklers or Roman candles) are "legal." And, legal or not, they can be deadly if mishandled. TV coverage of this past weekend's tragedies indicated that this "legality" somehow excused those who set off the fireworks from any responsibility for the injuries to others and their property. [I don't know how true this is. We drive cars, which are legal. But when we drive irresponsibly, we are liable for our manner of handling the car, i.e. the legal item.]

Many argue the "remedy" to these Fourth of July debacles is simply to ban fireworks. While initially inclined to support this direction, I also wondered why we must always pass a law, a regulation, or a fine to instill a sense of responsibility in persons for their actions. My English friends refer to this as "the nanny state."

We come round to the overarching purpose of what is hoped to be achieved by our actions. If this purpose is not the purpose of all those involved or affected, then actions pursued or suggested will not be "owned" or respected. It is imperative to integrate differing viewpoints into a simple, clear framework for discussion of possible options. Hence, we combine "to allow festive pyrotechnic enjoyment" with "while ensuring the safety of persons and property." A ban is but one suggested solution. A ban on unlicensed pyrotechnical amateurs could be another possible solution. Penalties for mishandling fireworks is another. Stiffer penalties for purchasing illegal fireworks. Penalties on persons manufacturing and selling illegal fireworks. Training in the proper handling of pyrotechnics. Working a few shifts in a big city ER. There are more possible solutions and there could be a combination of actions providing an even better approach. But it all starts with working on the overarching framework for the decision. Then one would weigh the options in terms of how well they address the purpose. It many not altogether prevent our becoming a "nanny state," but there will at least be some thought to selection of more viable "nanny" actions.

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Strategic Priorities

These two words are often seen together. But if you search "strategic priorities" with Google or Yahoo, perhaps along with the name of a country, a state, a company, or an organization, the results are universally disappointing. Give it a try sometime. Seldom is any sense given of which priority is more important than another. Surely some must be more important than others.

Why can't the relative importance of each strategic priority be displayed? (with, say, all of them adding to 100% total)

blog image  What's important?

We are often also shown "Tactical Actions." Tactical actions in support of strategic priorities seem to be frequently confused with the strategic priorities themselves. What if a tactical action supports more than one strategic priority? What if resources are limited? Which tactical actions should be endorsed, and which should be dropped?

This confusion seems to be the result of:
  • Unwillingness of those in charge to be held accountable for their decisions (hence no indication of relative importance of the "priorities").
  • Political obfuscation.
  • Misuse of both words "strategic" and "priorities" to imply "important."
  • Incompetence of those responsible for facilitating strategic planning sessions.
Please let me know if you see some group that is clearly stating its strategic priorities, and I will applaud.
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