Musings on decisions and factors that drive them.

Black, Black Friday

The business of making a nothing day into something "special"

Today is "Black Friday."  Once an ordinary day, business decided it was "an opportunity." It was bestowed with a special name, and a good deal of hype.  ("Cyber Monday" is another day recently given a business makeover.) "Black Friday"-- the moniker alone drives me crazy.  "Black" is not an adjective that conjures up joy or happiness.  The are but few applications, outside the world of accounting, when "black" is considered "good." I'm old enough to remember when the term "Black Friday" meant a financial disaster on the stock market. Yet, the implication is that businesses are going to financially move into the black -- reportedly by selling "cheap goods cheaply."   It is so blatantly commercial.  It truly is "black" in my mind.  The worst sort of "black."

Also disturbing is that this trumped up shopping frenzy is becoming even bigger than the holiday of Thanksgiving, which itself used to be centered on "thanks giving," and was not synonymous with a day to gorge oneself.  The focus on two days of excessive consumption speaks volumes.  And our nation, according to most news stories and polls, will apparently be in peril if we don't consume enough!! (We'll be hearing how "well" the country is on the news tonight when the "numbers are in.")

Perhaps the slowdown in the economy is giving us a chance to take stock of what we really value. All the stuff in the world is not going to bring happiness.

If each of us were to list the attributes of a perfect holiday, how many of us would list the need to feel obligated to spend money?  Must we be timed as to when we wish to be generous?  as to when we wish to say we love someone or are thinking of them? ("Tis the season!" --  It seems more a command to "Buy now!")

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, we come to know the "un-birthday."  There is something extraordinarily special when one receives a gift that comes out of the blue, that has not been purchased due to some either overt or subliminal sense of obligation.  How delightful is the gift that has been purchased or created and given free from commercial pressures!

In the Looking Glass world everything is "backwards."  In reality, I think this economic slowdown is showing us that things are backwards on this side of the mirror.


Political Polls and Popularity

Chasing the numbers vs. doing the job

My hat is off to David Axelrod for stating that the current administration won't be worrying about polls re Obama's popularity. Many cable news pundits are saying ignoring the numbers shows "lack of political savvy." Consider, however, how many Americans would say they admire "politicians?" Most people would prefer seeing some positive tangible results after an election. They want to see a job get done. It is annoying to elect someone who then cares more about focusing on re-election than on the job they were elected to do. Take heed, Congress.

The desire to prove worth through attaining position, as opposed to having our deeds create value (even if at some personal expense) permeates our culture. How often do persons in business seem more worried about advancement to a subsequent job (on a upwardly mobile "career path"), than in accomplishing positive substantive change in the job that they are in? What is the typical description of these types?  "Political." This word has evolved to become anything but a positive adjective.

Numbers do have value, in their place.  They can reflect the relative merit of choices under consideration.  They can assess the results of actions, and allow one to steer a better course.  Yet, to chase numbers in and of themselves is not wise.  The key is to know when and which numbers will help you toward a goal, and which will distract you from that purpose. One's purpose, of course, must be more than something self-serving.  Thank you, Mr. President!  And you, too, Mr. Axelrod.

Senate Health Bill

House reprise, variations and all without needed clarity

On Friday,  I downloaded the Senate's 2,000+ page version of their "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," and began reading.  As with the House's reform bill,  key aspects of its structure make it difficult for various constituencies to ascertain effects on them of the proposed system.

Bureaucracy is in evidence from page one, literally. I actually downloaded the Bill twice because, after the first download, it seemed a completely unrelated bill was somehow substituted. The confusion stems from the apparent need to utilize an existing totally unrelated bill (about first-time homebuyers for members of the Armed Forces) as a "work around" to get the actual health care reform bill onto the floor of the Senate.  So, the unrelated bill was used, striking out the bulk of its contents, and substituting in their place the terms for the health care reform bill.  It is tough to admit that for such critical legislation our current system of government required a "work around" from the get go. Not an auspicious start.

For the curious, here is that beginning on page one:

H. R. 3590 
To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to modify the first-time homebuyers credit in the case of members of the Armed Forces and certain other Federal employees, and for other purposes. 
Referred to the Committee on _________________ and ordered to be printed 
Ordered to lie on the table and to be printed 
AMENDMENT IN THE NATURE OF A SUBSTITUTE intended to be proposed by Mr. REID (for himself, Mr. BAUCUS, Mr. DODD, and Mr. HARKIN)  _________________
Strike all after the enacting clause and insert the following: 
(a) SHORT TITLE.—This Act may be cited as the 'Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act'. "

In general, much of the Senate's bill contains the same annoying legalese, lack of page numbering and lack of clarifying footers that are in the House's bill.  There are references and substitutions of fragments of other legislation without full context. If one enjoys reading IRS instructions for doing taxes, one will have the same pleasure in reading this legislation. As with taxes, if this system goes forward, I'm sure an entire industry will evolve to handle explanations, exceptions, processing claims, and requesting subsidies under this new system (begging the question: how will someone afford this help if one actually qualifies for a subsidy?).

The bill mentions implementing a system for rebates when an insurer reports excess profits. Rebates! A system that has scammed many Americans, enough to make the 5 o-clock news on several occasions.  Businesses have made huge profits through the rebate system. Does anyone believe this purchasing ploy would not be here today if it weren't profitable? What is our comfort level, our trust in an industry's reporting system, when we know it would not serve their profit motive?

Reports. This bill has extensive reporting requirements of not only insurers, but of care providers. One wonders who will do all the report preparation as well as the reading of these reports.  Existing personnel?  Or additional hires?  All this reporting will surely not be done without expense.   And who is going to bear the burden of that expense? (Directly or indirectly.)  Perhaps we can take heart in that more jobs will be created, however tedious and time consuming they may be.  And, we may experience first hand the expression "death by a thousand paper cuts."

There are references to platinum, gold, silver, bronze and yet another plan that does not even get a "medal" rating.  Perhaps, as my father used to say, it won't be worth "a plug nickel." More disturbing than this built-in class structure for care, we, as individuals, cannot determine where we might be in this picture or how we will navigate through the system.  One cannot specifically determine what will be available, nor what it will cost.  Or, if the full system will become for each of us (depending on our geographic location) simply irrelevant.  One might live potentially in a State that could refuse to have an "insurance exchange."  Yet, the one thing we can be sure of is that participation will be mandated or we shall be penalized.

As one reads this bill, one experiences a jarring reminder that those who are legislating on our behalf have lived in a privileged and moneyed world.  There is reference to $2,000 and $8,000 deductibles, as if average Americans would deem this type of yearly expenditure "reasonable" in addition to whatever are "affordable" premiums.  Again, "affordability" in the bill is something that will be determined based on "reviews."  The Senate's bill, indicates those who are older can "only" be charged 3 times what a younger person is charged.  (The House's bill, as you may recall, "limited" this ratio to 2 times.)  The lack of definition of what the lower amount would be limited to, however, leaves these ratios on equally nebulous and dangerous footing.

The Senate bill, as with the House's, contains details at a highly specific level for many areas, but conspicuous by their absence are specifics on the details most critical to the average American.  It does not allow an individual to determine, even as an estimate, "What will this cost me?" and "What will I get for that?"

Our clients know that before priorities are set or decisions made, it is imperative that specific understanding be gained about factors or elements of a decision.  Terms, such as "affordable," must be clarified specifically so that all understand and agree with its definition.  Clarifications must go further to ensure that "those who are not in the room" are also able to understand.  "Reasonable" must be defined in terms that are clear, either through references that are clearly understood, or by an example.

Without such explication, there will always be an open invitation for subsequent "interpretation." The arguments that then ensue are guaranteed.  If we could only be assured that this needed clarity would be determined during the three weeks of expected debate in the Senate!  Ah, but this is unlikely. In politics, vagueness is a means of protection.  For politicians, not for the people served.  Obscurity is introduced to "reach agreement across the aisle." A most dangerous maneuver. Vagueness is not a solution.  My Irish friends often quote a saying that when one tries to sit on two stools, one falls in between.

Kraft-ing Sweet Dreams from the 1800s

What could bar success?

In the news is the potential acquisition of Cadbury, England's famous chocolatier, by Kraft (with possible alternative offers by Hershey and Italy's Ferrero).  This acquisition provides a classic example of the need to examine what is at stake beyond merely the production of a product and how it is marketed.

There is no question that the name Cadbury, and the dreams that started at Bournville in the mid 1800s, resonate with more people than those who are just lovers of chocolate.  The Cadbury philosophy differentiated a business and was integral to its product's becoming iconic.

It is not unusual during such a purchase that focus turns to branding and the potential fallout of clashing cultures.  Most people foretold that when Schweppes entered the Cadbury picture in the late 1960s, the business would be more focused on pure business than the dreams of its founder.  Yet the components that are behind the iconic status of the Cadbury brand cannot be completely ignored. It is more than the taste of chocolate that is behind that name.

At the time any acquisition decision is made, multiple factors are at play. All participants need to understand the relative importance that image has alongside any other factors in the judgment.

A corporate suitor may be appealing for a number of differing reasons:

  • Brings financial strength
  • Brings management expertise
  • Brings a cache in terms of image
  • Opens up new market segments
  • Has a culture supportive of the original founder's purpose

Those statements are all from the perspective of the party being bought. The potential acquiring entity might have similar, additional and/or differing desires that it hopes to gain by an acquisition.  They should also be elicited and weighted.

There are also concerns that each party will have about a merger or acquisition, and those concerns need to be uncovered and weighted, in terms of potential harm were they to occur, and in terms of probability of occurrence.

It is then, that the various potential corporate combinations can best be viewed.  Understanding each party's relative weighting of their own desires and concerns, along with each merged entity's collective ranking against both, would lead to the most robust final decision as to which is the "best" combination.

This exercise would benefit not only the party being acquired.  Any party doing an acquisition, who may also have other targeted acquisitions, would have a much more robust roster of potential purchases.  That buyer would also clearly know, and be able to plan for, the strengths and weaknesses of any particular acquisition.  More importantly, they would know that actions were being properly focused, based on relative importance.

Palin and Balloon Boy

16 minutes of "fame"?

At times one worries that one can merely become a contributor to another's "15 minutes of fame (infamy)" by commenting upon whatever led to that infamy.  Where is the demarcation line between being horrified at the self-promotion of a Balloon Boy & Family and becoming part of their further promotion? That, of course, is the "producing genius" behind reality TV. The more horrific something is, the larger is the audience that it attracts.

Given that, the decision to watch Sarah Palin on Oprah was difficult.  Was it important that I watch a potential 2012 political candidate spread out a "wish I coulda thoughta this earlier" re-write of history?  Or was I merely contributing to the ratings for the show?  To watch, or not to watch? That was the question.

In this era of "makeovers" and "reality TV," Palin criticized McCain campaign handlers for her "makeover." An ironic criticism, given that her book tour and promotional interviews are part of yet another makeover. This time a makeover of history. Was it this that bothered me?

During her interview with Barbara Walters, Palin stated that her family seemed to be becoming a "reality show." (Oddly, this was the aim of Balloon Boy's father.) Demurely feigned disparagement of this idea (or similar ones) might actually hide delight. During her interview with Barbara Walters, Palin held the overtly happy view that Letterman will only increase her book sales by his jokes.  Was it my being so easily lured into this hype that bothered me?

The Balloon Boy saga and Palin's book are both about the spotlight, making money, and about the potential that money would allow for achieving something else.  Content in the Palin book is secondary to that end, which is why it doesn't matter if it is true or not.  The controversy and the hype about the book matter more. Center stage is better than being in the wings.

Just as the staged loss/recovery of Balloon Boy was only a means to an end, so the debate around this book serves another greater aspiration. A clear purpose ensures a greater chance of success.  Knowing another's purpose makes their actions easier to understand.

What is the ultimate aim of Palin's book?  It has less to do with "setting things straight," or what is past.  It is a piece of a strategy that is focused most clearly towards the future.  Just think about all the things that Sarah Palin would like to "make over," given the money and power that she might gain from sales of the book.

Keeping in sight these potential end "realities" will determine whether one purchases the book, or gets in line to read one of the many library copies already purchased.  And remember, those purchasing will not even have to read it to have served the greater purpose.  Just as my watching Palin on Oprah already contributed to that show's ratings.  16 minutes of fame, and counting...

Reaching Agreement without Homogenization

Valuing differences
Growing up in a highly rural area of a territory of the U.S., I'm old enough to remember when homogenization and pasteurization of milk were introduced at our local dairy.  Somehow we were led to believe that both processes made milk "better" for us.  I didn't realize for many years, that while pasteurization was the health-related process, homogenization was a cosmetic food "make over." We fervently believed in "Grade A Homogenized." We falsely assumed that both processes were irrevocably intertwined in producing the final "acceptable" product.

Over time, the word "homogenization"  has come to evoke conformity, being insipid and mediocre, and with the overall "bland-ing" of America. Ironically, in a nation in which individualism is touted as a hallmark, we have slowly become populated with uniform strip malls dotted with fast food chains and "big box" franchises.  One can move 3,000 miles and feel one is still in Anywhere, U.S.A.   This surface conformity cannot disguise significant underlying differences of opinions.   For many, the sense of a loss of individuality and the need to reaffirm it can surface at any time.

In our work supporting decision-making, we often see the combination of a strong desire to maintain separateness as an expression of individuality even when a group has acknowledged the need to reach agreement.  Often voiced is a fear that a decision will become "homogenized."  Fear that the result will be a bland choice, because the decision was made while "trying to satisfy everybody."

It is possible to find common ground, or reach agreement at a higher level, while at the same time seeking out and being respectful of differences.  Differences between us should not be masked, but unveiled.  Whether the subject is health care, going to war, choosing financial institutions to support or not, our differences when voiced are critical to finding better answers to our problems.  Our individual thoughts, when weighed and accounted for in terms of what is important to each of us, will surface more robust solutions than those developed from just one perspective.

A decision reached through consensus is not one that is homogenized.  A team of mature individuals soon recognizes that one should not strive to achieve individualism through stubborn, singular, inflexible disagreement, a sort of one-dimensional thinking.  Each voice, as one facet in an approach, contributes by helping produce a multi-dimensional solution.
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