Monday, February 1, 2010

Pyrrhic solutions

The cost of bad behavior
For the past month, I confess that life, as depicted by the news, began to feel too much as if it were "looping." The subjects and even the actions seemed all too familiar: bankers' bonuses, stalled health care "reform," natural disasters with delays in help arriving, partisan politics as usual, even debates over multi-millionaire TV talk show hosts.  The formulaic daily dose of greed, politics, and pain, "offset" by one "feel-good" story a night, was almost too much.

It is difficult to listen to all the pundits' "interpretations" of what everything means, especially when such interpretations rarely get to the heart of the matter.  A colleague of mine once told me how she had a boss who would continually say (after she had commented on something in a meeting), "What Sandra means is..."  Finally, she turned to the group and said, "No, what Sandra meant was..."  (Yes, she left the job shortly thereafter.)  I wonder that the news media, speaking to the public, does not see that they are interpreting the public to the public?  We don't need to be told what we are feeling.  And there isn't just one set of feelings that the nation collectively feels.  A poll that determines who is simply for or against an action or person does not reveal the motivations or the feelings around that judgment.

The recent winning of a Republican Senate seat in Massachusetts became a boon to all sorts of interpretations, one of which centered on "why the American public is angry." As if there is but one tangible or tactical "reason," such as "Obama should be focusing more on job creation." [A simple test of the validity of this singular conclusion: How does one explain the large number of employed persons that are angry? How many persons with jobs have put job creation at the top of their lists of priorities?]

For some of us, anger is not as much about the surface issues, as it is about how those issues are being handled in terms of behavior.  We have watched an enormous waste of time and money by our so-called representatives, in accomplishing nothing.  We have watched our hard earned dollars be given to those who have no compunction about taking from us, but not giving back.  Issues themselves (such as health care reform) are overshadowed because of manipulation by some, and the weakness of others in pushing back against such manipulation, with at least a reprimand.  Nor does it sit well when attitudes are clearly dismissive of the public's intelligence (yes, there is always the "low end of a bell curve," but even at that end no one wants to be belittled). No one likes to be told that they can be "sold" (in a PR sense) something they are being forced to buy.

Defining issues, prioritizing them and seeking tangible solutions are all important.  It is behavior during the process of finding the solution that becomes more important. Courtesy. Respect. Civility. Any decision that involves more than one person depends on these behavioral qualities. How one felt, how one was treated, will be remembered long after a problem has been resolved.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Disfiguring a Queen

Many of us love large ocean liners. United Arab Emirates' real estate developer Nakheel purchased the venerable and long-serving Queen Elizabeth 2 from Cunard Line with the intention of creating a "stationary hotel" in Dubai. The original Queen Mary was converted in such a manner and now rests in Long Beach, California.

For those wishing to experience some of the luxuries of a time gone by, this type of hotel with a nautical flavor definitely appeals. One can feel a part of the many who journeyed across oceans in this particular type of splendor. She looks like a ship, floats like a ship and really is a ship.

So why buy a ship, a true maritime icon, if one plans to lop off a critical piece of its distinctive appearance, (in this case, her majestic red funnel) and replace that with a "glass penthouse?" Other than for one nightly occupant to boast to his friends and colleagues that his personal wealth enables him to stay in "the most exclusive hotel room in Dubai," this dismembering move certainly will not attract other potential visitors to the ship. And for that "lucky" person who stays in a part of the ship that was never intended to be any aspect of its accommodation, just what is the point?
It is clear that criteria of attraction to this formerly great ship becoming a hotel simply have not been examined from the majority of potential customers' points of view:

  • Seeing and experiencing the ship just as she was in her glory.
  • "Cruising" with none of the dangers encountered at sea.
  • Being where so many celebrities and world-famous people have enjoyed themselves.
  • Being part of the thousands who walked the same companionways, sat in the same lounges, and dined in the same restaurants.
  • Having an experience that cannot be equated to anything a land hotel can offer.

Of course, these criteria will be in addition to experiencing the numerous luxuries found in land-based hotels.

The key comes in determining which are more important in the context of attraction to a maritime icon. It is perhaps the lack of knowledge of relative merit of these types of criteria from a customer viewpoint that has led to the proposed sad disfigurement of this particularly beautiful ship.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Economic Recession: Chicken or Egg?

Which came first, global warming or the tsunami?

Thomas Friedman in the New York Times writes of the "two tsunamis" that have hit the U.S. economy: The Great Recession and what he terms "the Great Inflection."  His article confirms the insight of my European economist colleague (whom I have mentioned in previous posts):  over the long term, recessions and depressions make a country better, leaner, and more efficient.

This current difficult economic period is definitely "sweeping the past away."  The technological advancements are less than a tsunami, however.  Changes in technology have been evolving over decades. The rapid pace of technological changes has long since become accepted.

The economic depression, however, is the "tsunamic" catalyst that has turned more persons and businesses (those otherwise not inclined to embrace technology) to now grasp technology as if it were a life ring.  Software and the internet have entered our world in a parallel to the mechanization of the industrial age.  Many facets of doing business (labor, travel, hotel stays, car rentals, paper, pencils, bricks and mortar, etc.) are simply better done (or done without) using fairly mainstream technology at this point.  There will be no turning back.

We are experiencing a final "clearing of the landscape." Rather than seeking to rebuild an old order, rather than clinging to the past, we must now move forward developing different ways to thrive in this brave new world.

When a frame of reference changes, actions we choose to pursue obviously will differ.  Once a structure in which we must decide is confirmed, as is this new post-tsunami world, then we can move ahead with some confidence in our chosen actions.  Instead of using the phrase "creation of jobs" with an emphasis on "jobs" (in which the vision of those jobs is based on the past), we need to shift emphasis to that of "creation."  The types of work that will exist in the future have been redefined.  The structure for jobs may not even be corporate.  We may, in fact, have redefined the entire structure of business.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Amanda Knox: "Americanism" on Trial?

Arrogance Abroad

Was Amanda Knox guilty?  Was Amanda Knox innocent?

Maria Cantwell, the U.S. Senator from Amanda Knox's home state of Washington, questions the justice system of another country and declares that "anti-Americanism" may have been the cause of the guilty verdict.

The problem, as with many decisions or judgments, is in understanding the definitions of terms, as well as how a differing venue can change them.  Americanism.  Acceptability.

The American-produced post-verdict analyses of Amanda Knox's trial, show Americans saying "I look at her, and it could have been me." The truth is that the rest of the world could easily be saying, with disdain, "We look at her, and we see 'typical Americans abroad.'"

Europeans have told me that many Americans seem to think of Europe as just another "theme park." A "playground" into which Americans bring their vulgar behavior, coupled with disdain for others' culture and values. Attitudinal issues are not limited to Europe alone. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has accurately described the U.S. view of Middle Eastern countries purely as "a gas station," overlooking those countries' cultural contributions to humanity or their potential as a highly educated work force.

Before we self-righteously declare "anti-Americanism" as some sort of defense, we need to look at ourselves from others' points of view.  Is the trial of Amanda Knox revealing something about ourselves for which we may feel guilt? and for which we may actually feel some shame?

For many Americans, Knox's actions (despite the acknowledged illegality even in the U.S. of smoking dope) apparently seem "normal" or "acceptable." The assumption by Americans that other cultures would adopt an American definition of "normality" or "acceptability" reflects yet an additional deficient element of "Americanism" -- a parochial world view. Any expectation that the world should play by our rules and our values (and then crying foul when it does not) is either the most basic form of stupidity or arrogance. The crux of the matter is not whether Amanda Knox's actions are accepted at home, rather it is whether her actions were "acceptable" in her host country.

Any citizen of any country is an ambassador of their home country when abroad, in most cases traveling without diplomatic immunity. Any actions in which a person engages contribute to the image of one's home country. The collective image that evolves over time, is and will be used by others as a frame of reference for judgment. Foreigners in the U.S. are equally stereotyped by the actions of their compatriots. Have we not seen judgment of a culture be based solely on a person from that culture whom one has met or perhaps has seen as depicted only in films? Can we, ourselves, unequivocally state that such a "framework" or "profile" of a culture has not influenced a judgment of an individual in our system of justice?

As I traveled abroad, well before Amanda Knox, I often was received in terms of a stereotype of "American women," which at the time assumed promiscuity and wealth. The saga of Amanda Knox has only contributed to that image. She is guilty, even if not of other crimes, certainly in terms of contributing to that repulsive stereotype of all women in our nation.  In this she is certainly not alone: films and music videos continue to project an image of American female promiscuity.

The "Americanism" of smoking dope and having casual extramarital sex are not values that all Americans support. Do we think that any person, anywhere, would wish their children to adopt these behaviors? Yet, the American "entertainment" industry continues to export that image as being representative of "American values." "Freedom" has been redefined in terms of self-centeredness and self-gratification, without the need for responsibility for the effects of one's actions.

If that image is "Americanism," then yes, I myself feel a sentiment of "anti-Americanism." Knox is a product of a culture that allowed her to believe in the acceptability of such behavior. She has thereby contributed to a depiction of Americans that is going to make them misunderstood before they even speak or act for years and years.  Who is guilty?  Perhaps Amanda. But the fault, dear Brutus, lies not just in Amanda, but in ourselves.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Gatecrashers: What's Missing in Your Life?

Many lessons from a search to suppress emptiness

There seems to be a desperate hunt on in America for the missing piece in one's life.  Money.  Fame.  Power.  A reality show.  Examples recently have included Balloon Boy and in her own way, Sarah Palin.

The latest manifestation of this pitiable desperation came in the form of more seekers of their "15-minutes of fame" -- the White House state dinner gatecrashers. Was this couple not happy with their Virginia spread of land, their vineyard, their millions? each other?  Apparently not.  A lesson to remind us that contentment and happiness are an internal journey.

What is the good news in all of this brouhaha about failed security? This is an opportunity for the Secret Service to improve.  Let us hope they heed the knowledge of Dr. Deming.  Deming demonstrated that multiple inspections in a row in any process will actually have the reverse effect than the one intended.  Quality suffers more with more inspections. Each "first" inspector assumes that if he/she fails, then other inspectors to follow will catch any error made.

Those "downstream" in the process take comfort in the fact that they are in effect redundant, and that someone else has already checked, or will check again.  All inspectors, therefore, do a less than optimal job at inspecting.

The knee-jerk reaction at the time of a system "failure" when it is related to "inspection," is to add yet another "inspection."  This only increases the potential for a future failure.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but the aim should be to reduce numbers of inspections or checkpoints in a process.

Stress will increase on the inspector who is the only inspector in a process.  But, stress can be managed. (One could change out an inspector at the inspection point more frequently, or automate some methods of "inspection.")

In designing or re-designing a process as a part of a greater system, each step must be designed specifically in light of the greater purpose of that singular process, not the purpose of some other process. (Multi-tasking is overly rated as being a good thing. How well is each specific task performed when doing many at once?)

system itself can have several checkpoints. However, each checkpoint should reside in a different process in that system, and must be acknowledged as not checking the work of another process. One process might relate to ascertaining eligibility (do you have an invitation?), another to security (ascertaining presence of weapons), another to appropriateness of attire and demeanor, etc. It is the singular responsibility for the action that heightens the quality of that action.

Deming also stated that faults are always in the process, and that humans in the process are subject to the faults of the process design.  In the decisions that lie ahead for the Secret Service, let us hope they focus on process, and not on the easy and potentially more dangerous path of blame in their "full review."

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Monday, November 23, 2009

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.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

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.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

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...

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Monday, November 16, 2009

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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Friday, November 13, 2009

Poets and Inventors

Still life with art

Some comments against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)'s support of the arts -- a recent subject of Seattle's Jim Tune's arts blog -- were painful to read.  Those commenting seemed unaware of the many documented studies showing the interplay between the arts (as a form of creativity, expression, listening, observing, inspiration, or understanding of what it is to be human) and what those commenting were implying was "life."

Specific comments ranged from "The NEA should be removed from the National Budget... It should not be a function of our government." to "Fund education! We need people with practical, productive skills that this country can really use."

There is an acknowledged positive effect of involvement in the arts on students' higher overall academic achievements.  Arts are critical in learning to listen, observe, write, think, imagine, invent and create. The ultimate selected "medium" for utilizing these skills in one's life can be in the arts themselves, or the sciences. Yes, there is a "spillover" effect of honing these skills into other academic pursuits.

Ironically, on the same day that I read these anti-art comments, Russia celebrated the 90th birthday of Mikhail Kalishnikov.  An interesting man, who confessed that as a young man he only wished to be a poet. However, he deemed himself a "bad poet," so he gave up on writing and went on to invent the AK-47.  Thereby, in exemplary fashion, pursuing the "practical and productive."

The juxtaposition of articles seemed so much more than just serendipitous!  A key example of a creative and inventive mind.

At its founding, our government retained the right to use tax dollars to wage war. It also made a critical decision -- to use its powers and scope its responsibilities to support aspects of life that those wars defend:

" Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." 

The arts are most definitely a part of our "Blessings of Liberty." And "securing" them does not just mean at the point of a gun.   And, for those still having doubts, who knows whether or not some would-be-poet will become our next great inventor, or even a general?

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reform: House built on a weak foundation

Is health care a right?
In Monday's post, I wrote about the need for clarity and simplicity in the structure of any "document" that organizes elements of a decision. All decision-makers need to be able to quickly and readily access information, so that they can make an intelligent decision.

Perhaps of more importance, is reaching agreement on the objective of the decision that one hopes to achieve. Clarification of this ultimate objective must precede detailed descriptions of actions which may or may not help achieve that end.

Although the House Bill starts with the statement "To provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans and reduce the growth in health care spending, and for other purposes" this statement starts well, but ends poorly. The last clause obscures the purpose by referencing undefined purposes.  The tiny little word "all" (in reference to "all Americans") is dwarfed by the other verbiage.

Fundamentally the question that must first be answered:
Is health care a right of citizens of the U.S.?

Secondly, if so, is this Act affirming that right?

Thirdly, if the second is true, why is anyone still speaking about "acceptable levels of uninsured, or underinsured" Americans?

There has been a good deal of drifting away from the original purpose.  The criticism by some persons that this "reform" is more about insurance than about health care stems validly from the fact that most actions are now dealing with insurance (even the White House site defends this reform as "Health Insurance Reform"). This reform is not being framed in terms of "rights" to health care.  The Act, itself, adopts a short name referencing "Affordability" but nothing about "Accessibility" in its title.

Affordability is but one factor in terms of Accessibility.  Insurance is but a means to make health care accessible to some.  Ironically, it is also a factor that has resulted in health care becoming inaccessible to others.

As the focus on "options" has shifted to types of insurance, we need to ask why.   Investigators always say to "follow the money."  Who benefits more from focusing on the ins and outs of insurance than in clarifying the rights of citizens?

A simple vote by every member of Congress to answer whether health care, not health insurance, is a right of a U.S. citizen or not is needed.  Once we have the answer to that question, it would be infinitely easier to create a system relating to funding it, alternatives as to how it could be provided and if and what type of "industry" will be needed and structured to support it.

The Bill refers to "building on what works in today's health care system."  "What works" is never enumerated. Perhaps there is nothing to point to specifically. More likely the statement is a euphemism for not letting go of a system.  But this system has allowed some to amass a fortune from the misfortune of others, and those same entities are now strategically keeping the question of "rights" of "all" citizens out of the discussion.

A clear statement of context will always clarify the better actions to take.  And some must be very concerned that, if that context were to change, "building on what we have" might not, indeed, be the best move.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

No decision?

"The dog that did not bark in the night."

There has been criticism lately of President Obama's delay of a decision to add troops, or not, to those already in Afghanistan.

The criticism is leveled by those who see action as the outward evidence of having made a decision. A delay signals inaction, which means to some, no decision. Consider, however, that there may have been thought about the consequences of not acting, as well as acting.  In which case, a delay is a strategy.

Our difficulty stems from the fact that we are a nation conditioned to having things happen. And we are impatient when they do not. We are a nation in which TV has shaped our thinking to expect problems to be both created and resolved in thirty minutes, including commercial interruption.

Both Dr. Rebecca Jankovich and others have written about "no decision is a decision." [See also the post to this blog of October 14, 2009, "Avoid the Rush...".]

In using our software with clients, we typically recommend that they enter the "status quo" as an option. It provides a point of reference, especially when weighing choices that are future possibilities. Typically maintaining the status quo is not chosen, but it will always be an option.  If it is chosen, the reasons for it will become evident.

It is a little like Sherlock Holmes' "the dog that did not bark in the night." Sometimes things that are not seen, or heard, or acted out, become more important, than things that are. What doesn't happen can often have as much, if not more, impact than a more hastily put together action undertaken to appear to be doing something.  Deliberation may not just be deliberation. It may, in fact, be the "action" itself.  Consider the consequences, and one will be more able to determine when a non-action is an action.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Waiting for change at the banks

Or will the banks be "ever thus?"

In 1905, George Santayana gave us the aphorism that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Couple that with his remark that "To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight of the blood," and we have a pretty fair picture of the banking industry and the general public's response to the news about it.

Once again, we are confronted with reports about bankers and their bonuses, underscored with the old rationalization by that industry: "the need to prevent talent flight."  Matt Frei wonders if America is now becoming a nation less of "aspiration" and more of "resentment."

It is not surprising that attempts abound to re-ignite the old "fears" re government action to curb executive bonuses.  These actions are termed "meddling" in the "business of business," or worse representing the encroachment of "socialism."  Nor is it surprising that these statements are typically made by those in business.

Ordinary people are merely tiring of being condemned to witness the repetition of questionable practices. We are tired of arrogance. We are tired of being played for fools, and of funding those who have caused our current misery and who seem adroit in manipulating the system.

It is wise to remember that when one is tired, decisions made are not always the best.  We've heard the maxim to "sleep on it" before making a big decision. Not always a physical sleep, this can also mean simply stepping back from an issue to give it a rest. However, if each morning, the wounds are cut afresh as one picks up a newspaper, there is no respite from the indignation of being violated again and again.  For many people the mental weariness and the sense of powerlessness to effect positive changes grows. One's thought processes in such a state become less rational. Babies are likely to be thrown out with bath water.

The elected or appointed who assumed positions of power need to heed this rising anger.  "Resentment" is not quite the right term.  We are beyond bitter indignation.  We are feeling the hostility of raw anger, rooted in powerlessness and evidenced by lack of change.  On February 11, 2009 and August 5, 2009 I hoped that the banking industry might "cross off the list of reasons for bonuses" this constant reference to "preventing talent flight." The expression just does not sit well with those who can view only the incompetence that led to the current economic crisis in the world.  And the only flight we see is one from responsibility.  I now implore...can we just simply kill use of the expression altogether?

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Friday, October 16, 2009

No liars, please...!

A matter of unexpressed desires

A real estate agent I know often quotes a motivational speaker she heard at a real estate conference: "All buyers lie." This saying is apparently embraced by real estate agents to explain why clients "make lists of things they want (e.g., features of houses: "x" number of bedrooms, "y" number of baths, fireplace, swimming pool, game room, home theater, etc.)" and then, when they actually decide to buy a particular house, the final choice doesn't have many of the things they listed as "important."

The buyer behavior is not surprising to me.  It does make me flinch to have it deemed "lying." It isn't at all.  The client has been asked for a list of things to describe deeper desires, but even they don't know that.  And, it is the deeper meaning of the features they might list that forms the basis for their decision or judgment. A buyer is looking for intangibles as represented by features.

In all practicality, a real estate agent needs a definitive starting point to find housing options to show to a client: a ball-park size in terms of bedrooms and baths, and perhaps some other features.  After that, the relative importance to the buyer of the intangible factors will be the real drivers of their final decision.

A list of these underlying intangibles emerge from questions such as: "If you had the features you describe, how would they make you feel when you are in that 'ideal' home?  How do each of the features you list, as you envision them in your head, make you feel? Describe the 'tones' or 'feelings' of that 'ideal' home."  [More critical than being driven by a list of features is understanding that other, completely unthought of, features might be able to satisfy these underlying desires.]

Examples of types of intangible statements are listed below:
  • Feels cozy and warm.
  • Gives a feeling of being connected with nature.
  • Is peaceful.
  • Is distinctive.
  • Imparts prestige/importance.
  • Showcases our personalities. (specifically, e.g. arty, intellectual, powerful, efficient, orderly, extroverted, introverted, fun-loving, etc.)
  • Gives our children a cultural advantage.
  • Gives our children an educational advantage.
  • Feels luxurious.
  • Provides a welcoming atmosphere.
  • Provides privacy for all inhabitants.
  • Is affordable without strain on our current/expected financial means.
  • A place where we could stay for years. (e.g. this would cover a variety of more specific statements: "has space for growing family, or "could accommodate aging needs")
  • Will provide us with financial stability/security. 
A buyer can weigh their relative importance, resulting in a "profile" of a "great home." All houses (the collection of their tangible features) would be weighed against these intangible attributes.  Every person on the planet tries to juggle multiple variables in their head.  However, when mentally juggling, it becomes more difficult, as more and more housing options or features are added to the mix.

At some point, cumulatively, more of these intangible needs will be met in the buyer's mind, until one housing option outweighs another.  This "build" of the internal assessment against components can be arrived at over time, or it can be done in a flash.

In any case, the buyer didn't lie.  They just described their "needs" by using features as examples of something deeper that they really wanted.  That "something" is a set of intangible, but completely valid, factors having relative importance.  It is the cumulative assessment against those factors that can make it seem as though a final decision was arbitrary.  I guarantee you, it was not.  The client has remained absolutely true to his internal set of intangibles and his personal assessment against them.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Avoid the rush...

Don't become a cliche, or worse, a joke

Earlier this week, Seth Godin, business author and self-proclaimed "agent of change," published a short and sweet blog about decision-making.  A former colleague called my attention to statements Godin made in that post.

We agreed that Godin's statement "'no decision' is a decision" is absolutely correct.  However, Godin over-focuses on rapidly reaching the moment of deciding.  By doing so he implies that speed in deciding, and volume of speedy decisions made, are more important than thinking in advance about robustness or implications, thereby decrying these very important aspects of good decision-making.  To ignore them is extremely hazardous (at least if we are speaking of decisions having some import). Godin's attempt to preempt such a criticism with "it's risky and painful" is simply too blasé.  In fact, urgency in decision-making for all the reasons Godin suggests has already been soundly criticized by Thomas L. Friedman in his analysis of Bush's decision to go to war.

The call to "Doooo something.  Anything!" is not a particularly level-headed approach to decision-making.  And level-headed decision-making does not require inordinate lengths of time. Godin's statements are a somewhat binary view of thinking/deciding, that seems somehow connected to timing.  Implied are:  "One has to act, and act quickly, to have meaning, to make a difference."  "Thinking wastes time."  "Never mind the consequences."

Intended or not, such statements encourage a "shoot-from-the-hip" mentality.  To deem this approach "a rare and valuable skill" is just not true.  Rare?  No, indeed.  This attitude prevails.  Why do we think the altered phrase "fire, ready, aim" to describe this behavior became an overnight cliche? And valuable?  Does increasing risk and liability ensure enhanced value?

There is no question that Godin's statements will indeed have great appeal to many managers that most of us know or have known over the years.

Its allure will not be for any deep insights, but for its applicability as justification for potentially highly damaging behavior. It appeals to a sound-byte mentality that is prevalent throughout the business world, a world that is obsessed, at least in America, with speed.  "Swift" decisions.  "Rapid" conclusions.  Speed, now with the safety net of Godin the Business Guru's statements in one's pocket, will demonstrate that the decider is not rushing blindly, but has brilliance.

There have been other sound bytes that have traversed the business world over the past decades. "The data will set you free" was bandied about to counter the approach Godin has again promoted. The term "analysis paralysis" came into being to counter the prolonged searches for data that caused paralysis.  All seem to take "a turn in the barrel" of business aphorisms. Eventually these maxims find a place in a much more insightful arena.

Imagine for a moment we hadn't read this on Seth's Blog, but in Dilbert.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Back to the Sixties

Who's whiffing now?
In a BBC article about Obama and his strategy for Afghanistan, Paul Adams reports on a small anti-war protest as "a whiff of the Sixties" with "some way to go."   Unfortunately, the main subject of his article is somewhat lost as he goes on to describe "elegantly coiffured Ms. Pelosi" and her "Senate colleague, the Majority Leader Harry Reid" who "put an avuncular - perhaps even patronizing - arm around her shoulder."

Ironically, the attempt to show sexism as alive and well in Washington was made in the first half of Adam's remark. In the comparison of the two, Pelosi is described in terms of her looks, Reid by his title.

Occasionally we can expect a relapse in perspective from the now-retiring or already-retired generations who needed awakening (yes, in the Sixties) to this type of verbal patronizing of women in the news.  But Adams is young, relatively speaking.  Astonishingly, it is both males and females of his generation that are perpetuating the demeaning of women's ideas and stature through frivolous reporting.

The Sotomayor hearings, as covered in the New York Times, fell victim to this same manner of reporting. Apparently some female reporters think they are still relegated to writing articles for the Style section: Kate Phillips': "Ms. Sotomayor wore a cobalt blue pants suit, a color often worn by Hillary Rodham Clinton." Sheryl Gay Stolberg's: "her flaming red jacket" and "her manicured nails painted a pale pink."

Judgments are decisions.  Decisions need to be made with facts that are relevant. Options, and even people, should be assessed against all facts deemed relevant.  Applying criteria to only some and not to others being judged is always seen as unfair.  It is the definition of "double standard."  It is also true for descriptors that cause judgment.  Not only are the judgments questionable, but the persons putting forth the case for and against are doubted as to their ability to be fair.

These reporters do not remember that this same issue, of having two standards for judgment based on gender, was brought forth during the Sixties. Overcoming this double standard allowed women reporters to move more easily from the Style section to the front page.  Reading this type of reporting...well, it is definitely a whiff of the Sixties, if not the Fifties.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Poetry, music...

Back in the Sixties, while doing practice teaching for my degree, I taught an English class, covering poetry. The course was based on a given typical outline for poetry in high school, covering simple, beautiful poems from decades before.

Although we diligently covered the selected poems, per the plan, they were too distant from the lives of many in the class, who would be headed straight to a war when they finished school that year. Poetry, they thought, did not fit in with their reality.

An assignment followed to go seek and read the poems appearing in the "underground" newspapers in Boston, penned by vets returning from Vietnam. Friends from the drama department came and did a reading of war poems spanning centuries. It had the students completely riveted as they felt the power of soldier-poets. Poetry didn't have to be pretty. Poetry's "beauty" was its power to evoke, to conjure and to capture the essence of various aspects of life.

Not too long ago I stumbled across an NPR broadcast about Brian Turner's collection of poems from his tour of duty in Iraq, "Here, Bullet." I don't know how I missed this book when it was first published in 2005. It is powerful. It immediately reminded me of the reading so many decades before. I was torn between the fact that the poems add to a body of brilliant war poetry and the very fact that yet another war was being chronicled.

Another truth, however, came to mind. The New York Times touches on it in its review of "Here, Bullet:"

"The day of the first moonwalk, my father's college literature professor told his class, 'Someday they'll send a poet, and we'll find out what it's really like.' Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon - the war in Iraq - and deserves our thanks for delivering in these earnest and proficient poems the kinds of observations we would never find in a Pentagon press release."

In all things worthwhile, one cannot disregard emotion. (A fact also more objectively put forth in the book "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer.) Our better choices, or decisions, are made when there is recognition of, and allowance for, the emotional drivers that are undercurrents. Eliciting and understanding the nuances that are driven by emotion are critical.

In the film "Mr. Holland's Opus," the protagonist argues, quite wonderfully, that music class is the one place where students are focused entirely on listening. Add to that the study of poetry, meaningful poetry, where students seek to understand nuance and emotion and relevancy. These are the types of studies that truly prepare one for life.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nation of Fear

Swimming with Sharks

A number of my friends from Europe and South America have remarked on the culture of the U.S. as being "fear based." From their perspectives, most TV advertisements surrounding the news center on fear of succumbing to disease. The news, itself, seems a compendium of real, or worse, merely potential disasters. We fear terrorism. We fear job loss. We fear disease. We fear snow. Stir the pot of fear, and then it's "News at Eleven." Fear is the great "hook" for attracting "viewing audiences." The great marketing mechanism.

Recently, the New York Times wrote an article on the manipulation of a prevalent fear about Medicare being diminished during health care reform. We've all heard the ignorant shout of "Don't let the government touch my Medicare!" Let us add to the litany of fears, fear of our own government, the hand that feeds us, in this case.

Decisions are clearly influenced when one has been reared in a culture of fear. A few years ago, I took a colleague through use of our software to determine what he sought in a new job. He started by listing everything he did not want in a job. His statements evolved from unpleasant situations that he had experienced in the past in other jobs. For every negative statement he made starting with "Well, I don't want..." I worked with him to rephrase the statement to be more what he would be looking for, and less about what he was worried. So a statement such as "I don't want to be in a dead end job." became "The job will have potential for growth and advancement." "I don't want to wind up giving up all my free time, working weekends, etc." became "The job will respect my personal life, allowing me my own personal time."

Re-phrasing negatives to positives helps. However, this can go only so far. One still is framing a future based on fears about the past.

Steeped in a culture of fear, it is hard NOT to frame one's future based on overcoming or avoiding perceived problems. But doing so is not choosing a destination. It is merely "winding up somewhere," having been pushed into that position by fear.

Focusing on a desired destination can prevent this "backing in" to one's future. No matter how unrealistic positive desires may sound at first, state them. This may seem much harder to do, than to bow before a future not chosen, but which appears inevitable. It may take time to do this.

Life will never be trouble free, of course. But, overcoming troubles can be put in better perspective if one knows where one is headed by choice. It is the difference between swimming with sharks, and swimming through sharks to a better destination. Yes, one could be eaten in either case. But in the former, one will die in a miserable state of fear. In the latter, one dies with hope. The smell of fear can invite being preyed upon. Manipulators count upon it.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

F***ing Tennis Anyone?

I just read the articles on Federer being fined for audible obscenity, Williams being fined for her obscenities and outbursts, and countless others grunting on their way to or from tennis stardom.

A few decades ago, I spied a license plate with the number 10SNE1. It took me awhile to "get it," but I did, and I thought "how cute." It was in an era before tennis bracelets, and, to be frank, before tennis was considered a sport for "NE1." The opening up of tennis to other than the upper classes has not been a bad evolution. It has enriched the sport to include a wide array of talents who are more than just competent. I am a believer in sports that are not elitist. But cannot sport elevate more than one's earnings alone?

Gone are the days of watching films or stage plays in which a WASP-ish, ivy-league, white-shorted, cable v-necked, dashing twenty-something asks an ingenue and her entourage about the possibility for a set. Okay. I can live without that contrivance. But, does everything have to be gritty, and vulgar, to be "real?"

I think I gave up on sports when my TV set became filled with various sports that centered less on the aspects of the games themselves, and more on spitting, crotch-grabbing and vulgarity. I missed just hearing the solid "thwack" of a well hit ball without any attendant screeching of the person who had hit it. I loved tennis for its fluidity and the fact that, unlike American football, it had a fairly rapid pace to it. It did not seem bound to infinitesimal measures, nor overblown theatrics.

This brings me around to identifying the types of programming I like to watch. I can list these characteristics, prioritize them, and then weigh the programs offered against them. This exercise led me to acknowledge that most TV offerings were not geared to my viewing pleasure. I would need to create my own entertainment, and not accept the "LOP" ("least objectionable program") or the "most objectional programming" then being broadcast by corporate giants. TVNE1? Don't think so.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

A Tough Personal Decision

Some decisions are harder to make than others. Career decisions are some of the most difficult. There are many diverse criteria. Job satisfaction. Intellectual stimulation. Camaraderie. Remuneration. Opportunities for growth. Even sticking with the status quo is a type of decision.

As a child, I was convinced that I was going to have a career in music. But when I was in college, I realized that I enjoyed studying math more than practicing my violin. So a career in engineering would give me more satisfaction and stimulation than music. And the average career in engineering pays much better than the average career in music! So the decision was quite simple - and I am still completely satisfied with my choice. (I still get satisfaction as a part-time musician, but it's hard to be a part-time mathematician.)

After college, I went to graduate school to study operations research - applying scientific methods to decision making. After obtaining my Ph.D., I worked several jobs in optimization: finding the best solutions to complex decisions involving thousands of decision variables and constraints. After 10 years, I needed a change, so I joined Dwaffler to work on high-level, strategic decision making. Decisions that involve fewer choices, but complex, non-mathematical relationships.

However, I recently had another difficult choice: an opportunity to rejoin the field of optimization with an exciting new company called Gurobi Optimization. The founders of Gurobi are long-time friends of mine - including a classmate of mine from graduate school. And they made me "an offer I couldn't refuse".

It was a difficult decision. I've enjoyed working with Dwaffler customers - seeing a different perspective on decision making. And I was very stimulated by the vision of my talented partners at Dwaffler. But I couldn't refuse this offer, so I am leaving Dwaffler to join Gurobi Optimization.

I believe that the rest of the Dwaffler team will continue writing on this blog for a while. If you also want to follow my writing, I post frequently on Twitter. I plan to start writing again on my personal blog: Greg's Rants. Compared with the Dwaffler blog, my personal blog has more opinion and more emphasis on technology.

This was a difficult decision. Dwaffler has a great approach to decision making, supported by some useful technology. I still think it should be used nearly everywhere. And I plan to do so.

Image credit: gingerpig2000

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Flavor of actions

The "cash for clunkers" program stimulated the Asian automakers more than our own. Although the nation gave 700,000 people a break on a car purchase, did the program meet the objective of creating American jobs? Was significant progress made towards the objective to eliminate the nation's dependency on foreign oil? Has it helped the U.S. economy get back on track for sustained growth? Did this bit of news surprise anyone?

Actions that are undertaken without assessment in terms of a complete set of weighted objectives, usually have a small positive effect for a few, often for merely the near term only. Rarely do they live up to the expectations of the many.

At this juncture, it would be wise for the Big Three to document and weight the criteria by which automotive customers decided to buy Toyotas over American-made cars. Additionally, these customers should be asked what their criteria will be for their NEXT purchase five years from now. The manufacturers need to align their processes to produce with an eye to satisfying such criteria, as weighted by the customer.

Of course, this should have been done decades ago (the 1980s) when "Japanese manufacturing" was the buzzword rage and American CEOs from all industries were heading to Toyota to personally "drink from the well." The pity has been that the returning manufacturing pilgrims seemed to have learned new buzzwords, and merely "talked the talk." Programs were implemented instead of needed cultural changes in thinking. Each succeeding generation used but a new name for the same good ideas, countering their actual effectiveness by inadvertently causing them to be viewed as "flavors-of-the-month." "Quality," "CQI," "Lean," etc. With "spin" being manufactured, the products themselves fell behind.

With only words changing, did anyone really expect something different?

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Monday, August 24, 2009

The cost of being different in a green world

In general, we seem more conscious today of environmental ramifications of our decisions. Yet, we may find moments when novelty takes not only our breath away, but sometimes our good sense as well.

The new LCD advertisements beginning to appear in printed magazines are an example. It seems that the novelty of technology took precedence over many other aspects of the decision. Touted to have a 40 hour battery, each LCD advertisement is designed to be recharged. How many of us look at an advertisement for hours? Why would we wish to recharge an advertisement to view it for more than the initial 40 hours?

Did the decision to use these LCDs for advertising include an analysis of end-user behavior at the end of life of the product? Studies are currently being conducted on recycling LCDs, but it does not appear that all the waste from them is currently recyclable.

What will happen to all these tiny magazine LCDs when the magazines no longer can be disposed of along with regular paper recycling (a behavior itself that took time to be adopted)? Will the magazines be pitched into recyclable papers regardless of this introduced toxicity? Will they wind up in landfill-destined trash? Did the decision-makers believe people would make the effort to remove the LCD advertisements from their magazines for separate special recycling?

If the purpose of this decision to utilize the LCD advertisement was "to differentiate in order to boost sales," the decision-makers seemed to have passed over some other important criteria and risks surrounding the decision. Novelty is but one criterion. Being environmentally responsible probably should have been another. Risks associated with novelty that were overlooked included the short period it would exist as a competitive advantage before being copied, and the effect of putting additional "work" onto the consumer for the disposal of the end-of-life product.

Without having identified a full set of criteria and risks, without understanding the relative importance of all criteria, as well as the relative degree of harmful impact in combination with the probability of risks, the greater danger is that one's purpose may never be achieved.

Curiosity about these LCD advertisements may cause a brief boost to sales. However, the "work" of disposal may offset that novelty shortly thereafter. After all, if the competition to printed magazines is the internet, well, clicking a window shut on the internet doesn't require much work in terms of "disposal." Especially when it is an advertisement.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

When smarts aren't enough

On Wednesday, John Poppelaars wrote about the strategic value of operations research. If you're not familiar with the field of operations research, it uses scientific analysis to help organizations make decisions.

Poppelaars asks the question: "if and when Operations Research offers added value in boardroom decision making".


On one hand, firms like Dwaffler already provide analytic methods for boardroom decisions: which projects to do, how to allocate money, what are the strategic threats, etc.

But the more interesting question is: why don't more boards use analytic methods for decision making?

I don't know the complete answer, but one thing I know is that the typical analysts are so focused on the math that they often overlook the human side of decision making. And when you get to the top echelon of management, these decisions are highly political.

Saying you have a "better solution" can be a direct challenge to the authority of the board or senior management. How dare you question their intelligence! After all, if you were so smart, you would be charge, right?!

Jokes aside, no one questions that it takes powerful math and computers to figure out efficient plans to manage thousands of products, trucks or airplanes. But when you're looking at a handful of alternatives, opinions and politics play an important role. Different voices need to be heard, and people need to feel a part of the decision-making process. At the same time, you cannot ignore the chain-of-command.

Great human skills are at least as important as great analytic skills. It's more than just being a great speaker - it's about being a good listener. As far as I know, this isn't taught in analytics courses. Maybe it should be.

Image credit: Mick Wright

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Farewell free on-line press?

The BBC and the New York Times recently reported that well-known newspapers may start charging (by subscription or pay-per-story) for their on-line publications, as has been the strategy of the Financial Times since the start of its on-line presence. Oft-cited reasons are the decline of on-line advertising revenue and the need for revenue to assure quality. Certainly, when one hears about the latest analysis of most Twitter "tweets," one would concur that "free" could be seen to promote "pointless babble."

From town crier, to print, to radio, to television, to online news access, the platform for news delivery continues to evolve.

On-line news providers' strategies must consider differing parameters and expectations of the Internet from print or TV. And certainly more criteria exist than "revenue generation" for making decisions. Objectives that pertain to quality, availability, accessibility, reach, differentiation and scope should be clarified and weighted.

If the ultimate purpose of an Internet news provision strategy were to "Expand influence through a growing readership base, while securing sufficient revenue to continue highest-quality operations for the long-term," the following questions, could become the basis for further disciplined analysis, and a more robust overall strategy:
  • Why would a person prefer to obtain news from the Internet rather than by print or TV?
  • What captures on-line reader loyalty? How might this change in five years time? What will be the factors that drive that change?
  • What differentiates the provider's coverage of news from other sources, from the reader's viewpoint? What is their relative weighting of these factors of differentiation? ("Quality" is a nebulous term. From the readers' perspectives (grouped by type), what are the reasons why they choose one news source over its competitors? Elements that comprise their definition of "quality" must be delineated and weighted.)
  • How well does each type of group deem that the provider satisfies those qualities? Where do qualities the readers deem most desirable need strengthening?
  • Where does advertising fit into the users' (readers') view of value of the provider's product? Is advertising more valuable than the absence of advertising, from a user's perspective?
  • What barriers to reporting does the provider currently have, which may be caused by existing revenue generating avenues? If any existing revenue generating method were removed, what benefits might occur?
  • Are there means other than reader-paid fees or corporate advertising that could be pursued to generate revenue, i.e. methods completely outside these traditional areas? Would these new approaches enhance abilities to report the news, in addition to supporting the achievement of the provider's full list of objectives? How will each reader type react to each of these types of new revenue generating avenues?
Understanding what one's customers value, how they see the relative importance of those elements and how they see one's performance against those elements are essential to any decision-making. Organizing, exploring and assessing alternatives in that context then helps one move to a new paradigm.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Health Care Reform as weapon

The subject of Health Care Reform, no matter what one's personal views on it, has provided us with depressing insight into a greater issue that faces our nation: A divided culture that is compelled in all matters to take "sides." A situation in which a real and serious issue becomes but a ruse for advancing underlying disharmony. A culture in which "winning" is more important than advancing quality of life for, and as, a people. A climate in which victory, even Pyrrhic, seems to be sought for the momentary satisfaction of watching someone else being "defeated." A milieu in which a victory for one's "side" will justify whatever means are employed to achieve it . Where "spin" is more important than truth. It all seems a very far cry from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Rather than railing at each other, rather than fanning flames of discontent, rather than spending resources and energy in trying to prove that one view is "right" and all others are "wrong," it is possible to take a more systematic and disciplined approach to discussion and planning. A means of honoring and respecting diversity of opinion and needs.

Each key constituency should identify the essential qualities of a health care system that it is seeking, and separately list its concerns. It is typical to find at least a few items on each constituency's list that are similar to items identified on others' lists. Some items would be unique to each constituency. That is absolutely as it should be. Each constituency should independently ascertain the relative importance, for them, of the items on their own lists. Any judgment of other constituencies as to the merit of their lists, or their resultant weighting should be politely withheld. Differing values, and differences of opinion, are to be respected, not attacked. (Something cable news and talk radio have yet to learn.) Reaching common ground is neither a matter of convincing nor coercion. The best solutions evolve from listening, and a mindset of respectful willingness to understand, while perhaps still disagreeing.

Once each constituency's individual judgment "structure" has been created, each potential option for a health care reform plan should be listed and weighted, again by each constituency on their own, against their own criteria.

Finally, the results of all constituencies' weightings can be integrated into one graphic picture. It is entirely likely that results will not be as far apart as we have been led to believe. It may even surprise some people. The disciplined integration of independently structured viewpoints would further allow discussions of differences in a way that allows meaningful and cooperative resolution.

Applied to the health care reform issue, it is possible to resolve the key issues in a civilized, respectful, cooperative manner... which, I am told, is exactly why such a method probably would not be adopted. Health care reform is currently being savored as but a means to sabotage the other "side." As an issue deeply affecting everyone in the country, health care reform has become too great a temptation to use as the tool to foment outrage for self-serving ends.

As Pogo said decades ago, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

Over the weekend, I was catching up with a friend whom I haven't seen in months. He owns a small computer consulting firm in the Seattle area. We were talking about business, and he said that business was slow. He recently had to layoff two employees. One employee wasn't a good fit, and he won't be rehired when business improves. The other employee was doing a great job, and my friend agonized over letting him go. However, he said that this employee was simply too expensive. My friend said that the remaining employees aren't as talented, but he couldn't afford to keep the expensive employee.

I've heard this sad story before - especially in the current economy. Education, experience and talent are relatively unimportant. Cost is the top priority.

But I also wonder when it's better to let go of the better but more expensive employee. Would the better employee be willing to stay for less money? What about working reduced hours for reduced salary? (In my first job, I worked a schedule where I had off every other Friday. I miss that!) Is the better employee more productive so that the real costs are lower?

It's hard to make good choices under pressure. I hope that business improves for my friend.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Needed: new rationale

Yet again, we are being hit with news stories geared to practically nurture public outrage. Once again, the subject: executive bonuses. This time the recipient in question is Andrew Hall, head of Philbro, up for a bonus in the millions. I don't know which is more irritating: the large amounts in question, or the fact that these stories are becoming all too familiar both in stylistic construction and content. Big bonus. "Talent flight." Connections to "bail out" dollars. John Q. Public foots the bill.

If we are to move beyond outrage to acceptable solutions, more comprehensive thought about this compensation issue is necessary, if not by journalists, at least by the Pay Czar. Lack of clarity as to criteria for how "merit" is determined is typically at the core of any outrage related to compensation. If the public were given more than "talent flight" as the sole reason for bonuses, it would be a good place to start.

More reasons than one determine worthiness. These reasons have a relative importance. In addition, the Pay Czar must understand the full set of concerns from the public view. He must delve into the below-the-surface reasoning that drives the perceived point at which a sum of money given as pay or as a bonus switches from being reasonable to being considered "obscene" or morally reprehensible. These perceptions and concerns, too, have relative perceived levels of impact or pain.

Each potential recipient, now and in the future, should be assessed against the established criteria. The assessment must, with transparency, drive the amount granted. Additionally, integration of that merit assessment with the analysis of public perception will make decisions have a better chance of being deemed "reasonable." They will be defensible.

Without this discipline, the public will create their own myriad sets of criteria for judgment, not only for compensation granted, but for judging the Czar himself. We can then expect the focus of outrage, the topics of the articles, to shift from amounts of compensation to the capabilities of the person making the decision, in this case the Czar. And have we not heard and read similar stories in the past as well?

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

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.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

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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Friday, July 3, 2009

What's the real question?

For years, Tom & Ray Magliozzi have answered car questions on NPR's Car Talk. They also have a column that is syndicated in various newspapers. Yesterday, their column answered a question from Kate, who wants to be one of the first to own a Flybo electric car.

Kate writes: "I'm tired of waiting for the American auto industry to come up with an affordable all-electric car, so I'm looking seriously into buying a Chinese-made Flybo. I know it has a top speed of 43 mph, and lacks a lot of basic safety and comfort extras (no air bags, no heat ...) but the same is true of the '87 Dodge Raider I'm driving now. I want an electric car not only because of the price of fuel, but also because of environmental issues. My question is, how easy (or difficult) will it be to service this car? I will need to have this auto shipped from Michigan to Wyoming. And I don't know of any Flybo dealerships in the U.S. What could go wrong with this car, and how can it be fixed?"

Tom responds: "We admire your environmental ambitions, Kate. And we agree with you that electric propulsion is probably where cars are eventually heading. But it's very difficult to be an early adopter. Especially when you're adopting something that has no serious support network.

And Ray adds: "Here's what we'd recommend instead. Adopt the best available, widely supported current solution. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius, and Honda Insight and Civic Hybrid are getting 40-50 miles per gallon. And they're doing it with all of the latest and greatest safety equipment."

I admire how the Magliozzi brothers reframe the question. Kate asks about an electric car; the Magliozzi brothers realize that Kate is really looking for a green car. They provide some alternatives that are green and also safe, comfortable and reliable.

This is a reminder that sometimes the right answer isn't the answer to the question - it's the answer to the underlying question.

Photo credit: Richard Howard, ©2002 Dewey, Cheetham & Howe

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Beneath the surface

"Everything in this world has a hidden meaning."
--Nikos Kazantzakis

Bernie Madoff sentenced to 150 years. His lawyer asked for 12. Actuarial statistics give men his age perhaps 8.

Ruth Madoff is allowed to keep $2.5 million. A "deal" with the prosecution. (One wonders: Was there something that they couldn't prove in order to get an additional ten years thrown onto a sentence already greater than the years he would likely live?)

This case is troubling on so many levels. Sometimes it is difficult to understand that our judicial system "satisfies" rather formulaically, in terms of years and dollars. Most of us have come to believe a theatrical depiction of "justice." However, real justice is typically wanting in terms of emotional satisfaction or at least some emotional catharsis, the trump card of Hollywood.

In the Madoff case, the emotions of the victims may be satisfied early on with incomprehensible numbers when it comes to designated years of penal servitude. In reality, with the chances that Madoff will not live out more than 8, are the victims hoping that at least those years for him will be a miserable eight?

Disturbing, as well, is the fact that the Madoff victims want "restoration of their losses." The unrecoverable loss is always tough to accept. There are no guarantees in life. Certainly not for private investment decisions. Yet, it is tougher to accept one's own loss if one reviews the deal for Ruth Madoff with her guaranteed $2.5 million. Should we add another criterion in our hypothetical quest to provide the victims' "long-term satisfaction with the final judgment?" Perhaps a better deal would have been if she had been only guaranteed an annual stipend of the same amount as received by the poorest person affected by her husband's scam. If that individual's income is deemed sufficient for them to live, it should be sufficient for any other individual. More important than this suggested action is the criterion to which this solution is alluding. Shared pain.

The criteria, we find, are not about numbers, either years or dollars. The real issues are centered on degree of misery. Suffering. And the need to know that the convicted experience a similar, if not exact, pain. There are obviously many other criteria that are at play.

In any decision, it is always important to keep delving into the wording of factors to be used in the judgment. There are often key issues lying beneath initially suggested wording. These initially obscure issues are, in reality, the real factors by which judgment must be made. These need to be elicited and put front and center. Without doing so, the long term outcome of a decision, and the acceptance of that decision, will remain in question.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

To ban or not to ban... that is not the question

When arguments ensue, it is often not due to a specific action or idea, but rather is due to various interpretations of the intentions behind the action/idea.  A key to conflict resolution resides in the ability to listen for assumptions about, or interpretations of, any specific.  

Nicolas Sarkozy recently stated his support for a parliamentary commission to look at whether to ban the wearing of burkas in public. France has already outlawed the wearing of veils in state schools.  The deeply felt reactions to this announcement are rooted in the various interests' differing assumptions.  These assumptions are both about the intent behind the action of banning, as well as about the clothing as a symbol of an intent.

The BBC suggests focus be put on whether these articles of clothing are being worn voluntarily or not. (As difficult as that might be to determine, this is a key point, but not the entire issue.) One needs to delve into the values not only of free will, but of social responsibility, and moral obligation.  Rights guaranteed by "the state" to its citizens and those living within its borders must also be considered.  Groups and individuals are obliged themselves to not act at odds with the laws of that state.  In every aspect, individually or collectively, these are matters of choice, decisions and the balancing of values.

Defining and openly expressing what is hoped to be achieved by an action, i.e.,  intent, is the best place to start in a case of conflict.  Understanding and agreement as to the value of that intent must then be attained.  From that point, one can go on to elicit and examine all values that underpin the judgment, of all involved perspectives.  Only then can a "best" action emerge and be discussed in terms of supporting both that intent and those values.  The final choice will then be less susceptible to an immediate outcry based on assumed intent and values.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Judgment and forgiveness

"Company, villainous company, hath been the spoil of me."
Falstaff, Henry IV

Condemnation can come swiftly, from a single act.  Forgiveness takes almost an eternity and is webbed with complexity.  The NY Times reports on the overt "shunning" of Ruth Madoff by her former hairdresser, florist and others.  The similar plight of several other wives of convicted white collar criminals are discussed comparatively.  These other wives seem to fare better in the comparison.  A distinguishing factor in their redemption seems to have been their level of repentance, as exemplified by actions and attitude, something of which, to date, Ruth Madoff has shown little.

There are facts that bluntly seem to discourage any sense of forgiveness for Ruth Madoff.  She wasn't just on the periphery of the crime.  She worked for her husband's company, and also took the time to transfer jewelry and other assets to her family, once his Ponzi scheme and the extent of its harm to charities and others, were revealed.

Comparative analysis, the ability to separate and distinguish, and the ability to balance subjective and objective factors are key to reaching decisions with which we are comfortable. Emotions need to be integrated into any analysis leading to a judgment/decision. What we feel in our guts during the making of decisions is key to the conclusions we draw. We are human.  The subjective, the emotional, will always be a huge element in our "thinking."

The Ruth Madoff story can serve as an example of an emotional "decision," although in reality our personal judgment is rarely analyzed quite so transparently or deliberately as will follow.  First the greater context would be established: "to determine 'forgivability.'"  Viable comparative analysis depends on apples-to-apples structure.  Our category for comparison could be scoped to "criminals' spouses."  We follow by listing characteristics that are currently being expressed that show redemptive qualities. These criteria can be highly subjective, objective or both.   Here are a few:
  • Exhibits a sincere attitude of remorse.
  • Has taken actions to rectify injustices directly.
  • Has performed services to offset injustices that cannot be rectified directly.
  • Has been authoritatively determined to have had little or no involvement in the crime itself.
  • Has distanced from the convicted criminal ("the company we keep").
  • Has returned or shed ill-gotten gains (but not to family).
Each of these criteria has a different level of importance to each of us. Determining that relative importance, and then assessing each person against all of them will confirm and lay out visually what our guts tell us.  We will be able to see precisely how we view each person relative to the others.  

Decisions are the end point in the process of judgment.  Precise and bearing finality.  The ending of consideration.  The end to deliberation.  The process of deciding will always be influenced by both emotional and objective factors.  Both types need to be recognized as valid.  We can be sure that many influences will be at play when we judge, or, are judged.  And if, when, and how, we forgive.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Always check your work

My calculus teacher in high school had very high standards. He told us that an answer to a math problem was simply right or wrong, and that "careless errors" were still errors. He made a speech that "careless errors" in real-world math can lead to collapsing buildings, crashing airplanes and other mayhem. Thus, he was strict when it came to grading our work, and he was stingy with granting partial credit to incorrect answers. It was a difficult class, but the students learned to be careful, and we were successful.

On Friday, a very troubling story hit the news: construction workers in Georgia demolished the wrong house - they claimed they were given the wrong GPS coordinates. This is exactly the kind of mistake my teacher warned us about.

Carpenters are taught to "measure twice, cut once". In my calculus class, I learned that I always need to check my answer. This is true for any kind of business decision: it is critical to check the recommendation carefully. Great tools and processes are worthless if you make a "careless error" in your analysis. "Garbage in, garbage out."

When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I gave the "careless error" speech to my students. They hated it, and it helped make me a very unpopular instructor. I wish I could have shown them this sad story where the wrong house was demolished. It's a great warning - that we should always check our work.

Photo credit: sarflondondunc

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cultural differences and decisions

The Hungarian writer Sandor Marai (who lived in the United States for many years), makes a key observation in his book "Memoir of Hungary." He noted that there is a significant consciousness in both Russia and what he termed "the East" (Asia) of one's part as an individual in the greater "mass" of one's countrymen. Success of one's people in those countries is honored, appreciated and focused upon by each individual far more than in the United States, where emphasis is on the individual and individual achievement.

We can see the effect of individual vs. collective consciousness as we look at the shifts in centers of economic and political power in the world today.

Corporations and individuals in the U.S., as is their right in a free society, made decisions that inured to their individual benefit. Production and manufacturing (and the economic and political strengths that are associated with those endeavors) went elsewhere. Certainly, the image of a collective exodus of almost the entire manufacturing base from the nation was probably not part of each individual decision. Yet, cumulatively, over time, this happened. This is the effect of the lack of a collective consciousness. Now, with diminished economic health and clout to influence the world's direction, we, as a country, are less formidable, and are viewed primarily as a voracious consumer society.

Economic strength now centers in the countries that took on the manufacturing. Of note is the fact that these countries operate culturally with a high level of collective consciousness,with a collectively understood and embraced long-term vision of a future in which they will continue to dominate. It is unlikely that the mistakes we made will be repeated there.

The question is therefore begged: as we exercise our rights to make individual decisions, what is our responsibility to the greater mass, to the nation? To have concern for the larger "mass" while making decisions is often depicted with a negative spin as a form of socialism. Others would argue that those who profit at the expense of the organism of which they are a part, and hence contribute to its demise, are a form of economic or societal cancer. Some would merely say that an understanding of John Donne’s Meditation XVII (“No man is an island”) would be incentive enough to adopt social conscience.

Having a collective consciousness is not un-American. "We, the people." Not, "we, each as individuals." "Of the people." "By the people." "For the people."

The bottom line is, it is simply good planning to set decisions in a greater context, combining a long-term view, societal awareness, and an analysis of potential long-term effects of individual choices.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

What if your partner is now your competitor?

There was a significant merger yesterday in the computer industry: Intel is purchasing Wind River Systems. Wind River Systems isn't a household name, but you may have seen their work: Wind River provides operating systems for embedded computers such as sophisticated video devices and car GPS. Wind River Systems is also used for high-tech military equipment.

Wind River Systems competes directly with Microsoft, which offers Windows Embedded for embedded systems. But Microsoft is tightly linked to Intel, which provides the processor chips for most desktop computers. And most desktop computers run Microsoft Windows.

Voila, another example where a partner is also a competitor.

Microsoft has a number of these partner/competitor relationships. Two prominent ones are Apple and Sony: Microsoft provides software for both Apple and Sony computers, but Apple Macs compete with Microsoft Windows, while Sony Playstation videogames compete with Microsoft Xbox.

I'm intrigued that Microsoft seems to work through these ambiguous partner relationships. Personally, these relationships bug me: they lead to situations where one team makes decisions that negatively impact another. For example, Microsoft Office for Mac makes Apple computers better able to compete with computers with Microsoft Windows.

To make it work, it takes a wise manager to weigh the competing teams. Looks like that job just got a bit more difficult at Microsoft.

Photo credit: Jonathan Yong

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Making Transparent Decisions

Prior to joining Dwaffler, I worked at a software company that provided business rules technology. Business rules are used to automate business logic, particularly in banking and insurance. For example, business rules can be used to determine whether someone meets the eligibility requirements for auto insurance.

A business rules system separates the business logic from the rest of the software application. One benefit is that it makes the business logic much more visible. James Taylor covered this in a recent article called Using Business rules to add decision transparency. Taylor writes: "Decision transparency means being able to take any particular decision - what price to offer a specific customer, what collections approach to use, what supplier to pick - and understand exactly why it was made.... How would your compliance reviews be if you could do this for every decision? How about regulatory inspections or internal audits? What about the court case you fear? If you had decision transparency I think you would be more relaxed, don't you?"

Funny, I could say the exact same thing about making a management decision using a process like Dwaffler. In fact, it sounds remarkably similar to what Carol Burch wrote earlier this week.

Photo credit: Capture Queen

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In defense of decisions

An interesting comment was made to me at a recent gathering: "The problem is not making a decision, it is in defending the decision one makes."

In yesterday's New York Times, two articles underscored the need for framing the context of any decision so that it is not undermined.  The first article commented on the selection of Sotomayor for Supreme Court justice, and the other critiqued the decision to close to traffic several portions of Broadway.  Both critiques (judgments of decisions), started with the details of each decision.  

In the Sotomayor article, not unexpectedly, the immediate criteria under scrutiny, and depicted as her "qualifications," were that she is Hispanic [note: my "Hispanic" friends have told me they prefer to be referred to as "Latino" or "Latina," a term Sotomayor herself uses], and that she was raised in poverty.  

It is only further into the article that we hear a better phrasing of the context of the search.  Obama’s intent, the author states, was to "add diversity of background to the panel [the Supreme Court]."  Still, such a statement depicts but a means to achieve something else.  A better criterion, against which all candidates could be assessed, might have been "Will strengthen the Court's collective ability to represent the full spectrum of persons that are subject to the laws of the United States."  This broader criterion, of course, does not preclude the need to identify other criteria, such as "Is well versed in Constitutional law,"  "Has significant experience in matters of appellate adjudication,"  "Has exceptional educational qualifications in the law," and so forth.  It is essential, as well, that the relative weight of all criteria be determined.

Being Latina, or coming from poverty, are specific characteristics of one person being assessed.  How these specific characteristics support broader criteria is the more appropriate judgment as to their merit.

Broader criteria form a framework for any decision.  Without first building this framework, specifics of a decision are then subject to attack by critics in terms of after-the-fact development of any framework of their choosing.

In the article regarding closing of traffic, criticism also focused on details, framed in terms of the author’s attempt to create the larger picture. Allusions as to the decision's purpose were "an attempt to create a greener city," or "to create a genuine social space."  A desire for a grand plan is voiced while criticizing the apparent haphazard disconnection of closed-off blocks: "Until the city commissions a plan for a more detailed design, we won’t know what they will become.” The author is skirting the heart of the matter, i.e., the fact that the big picture, "the grand plan" is still an unknown.  A plan is not just a series of specifics.  It is the combination of specifics supporting a larger set of objectives.

In both articles, those judging the decisions critiqued specifics and did so in terms of assumed purposes.  If persons have not been told what is trying to be achieved, they will instinctively come up with what they, themselves, believe is the purpose.  People instinctively have a desire to frame an argument.  The same is true for a defense.  

Any action will serve an unknown purpose; a purpose will be developed after-the-fact to justify the action.  To be sure, without actions, any conceptual idea will never come to fruition.  Both, therefore, are needed.  It is still best, however, to state one's purpose(s) first, followed by selection of actions or characteristics that are most supportive of the purpose(s). A defense of one's decision will be framed solidly.  It will not need to be manufactured later, when it will only be deemed a contrived justification.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The right team... representation, therefore acceptance

Since the last decade of my life has been focused on creating tools for weighing one's options and encouraging disciplined decision-making, I wondered at my own sense of delight in the rash action of an Irish pensioner in throwing eggs at a banker.  Allowing for and integrating the emotions of decisions has always been a factor in designing good tools.  But, any tool is only part of a larger decision process.  Egg throwing illustrates failure in a larger process.

Acceptance of decisions (and even the misfortune that may result from them), comes from a sense of participation in the decision, even if it can only be through a representative.  If persons do not feel listened to by their "representatives," and if their thoughts and feelings are not conveyed or assimilated, then resentment and frustration occur.  Eggs will fly.

The imminent retirees of America voluntarily contributed to their 401K plans. These plans, for many workers, will never (in the time these individuals have left) return to the needed levels for simply surviving their old age. (Single women, it is noted, will be particularly hard hit.) 401K contributors, however, knew that their funds were invested in the "private sector," and were susceptible to loss. As investors, we suffer their loss, yet we also remember that we participated in the investment choice.

On the other hand, taxes to support Social Security were not optional.  Neither the option to participate, nor the option as to amounts paid. Taxpayers simply met the imposed obligation of this social contract.  Now, as the rules for receipt of funds are being unilaterally changed, and as we learn that the use of the funds has been for other than social causes, the best we can hope for is that the right team of representatives is in place to make the decisions that will gravely affect us.  Given 1) the amount of money it takes to become an elected "representative" in this country, and 2) the age of key persons making the decisions (fifteen or more years from retirement themselves…time to recover), the necessity to add representation by someone without wealth and who is over 60 becomes more critical.  Decades ago, the then-aging population, also frustrated, found representation in the form of the Gray Panther movement, led by Maggie Kuhn.  Will we see its revival in these coming tough times?

We have often told our clients that no software tool produces an acceptable result if the right team isn’t in place.  Diverse viewpoints, varied experience, myriad backgrounds, education levels and wealth, differing cultures and a mixture of ages are but some of the many characteristics to be sought to comprise a team.  Only then can those they represent have the sense of, and confidence in, "participation" in the process.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

We practice what we preach, part 2

At Dwaffler, we regularly use our own software to make decisions. In Silicon Valley, this is often called eating your own dog food.

I wrote about this last year when I was checking into charting software. Last week, I had a new problem: selecting a service provider to host email and the website for Dwaffler.

Several incidents have made me very dissatisfied with our web host. I hit my limit last week following two periods when we lost access to web and email for several hours. I opened the Dwaffler application and determined what were the qualities I wanted in a good web host and email provider. As I revised the list, I learned more about my preferences. And I realized that someone may not be a good fit for both web and email, so I considered using two different providers for the two different technologies. Based on some previous experience, it was easy for me to pick a top-notch email provider. Selecting the right web host was more difficult. Separating the two also helped me realize that using several providers could also help our goals of managing risk through redundancy.

In the end, I did not automatically pick the top-ranked web host. Instead, I took the top 5 and sent them a set of detailed questions. Not only do the questions help me understand their product and services, but they help me see how they treat their customers. (The questions were technical enough that the average sales rep will need to contact an engineer, so I should get a good idea about how the engineers handle technical questions).

It's always good to try your own product. I enjoy it. It reminds me of why I joined Dwaffler.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rephrasing risks into rewards

The extensive media coverage of the outbreak of swine flu in its infancy underlines that, as a people, we ricochet through our lives, redirected by bits of bad news, if not anticipatory bad news. We revolve around the crisis du jour. Bad news and fear dominate the media: TV, print, Internet. More insidiously, this constant bad news barrage has “trickled down” to become a mode for how we go about making decisions in our lives and our work. Concerns typically dominate the factors that drive our decisions.

When first designing our software product, I was working with two completely different clients. In both cases they were trying to frame factors that were to drive making critical decisions for their existence. The first case: Selecting a technology from many to bring to market. The other: Entering into a partnership with another company. Both clients also had one other thing in common. All the principals could enumerate, in but a few minutes, a litany of concerns about the decision they were about to make. Concerns, worries, things that they were afraid might happen. Some were bold enough to label their statements as risks. All statements were negative. The driving factors were all fears. This would have been a clear case of garbage in, garbage out, and everyone sensed this.

Risk analysis is essential to all decisions. However, both clients understood that seeking a state of not having a negative condition is not the same, nor is it as beneficial in planning, as seeking a state that one desires.

To elicit the truly desired market and partnership attributes, following each expression of a concern, we rephrased the statement to be a positive description of the opposite condition to the concern. We asked if that re-description was, in fact, what they did desire. Both clients found that it was tougher to state what one wanted, than what one didn’t want. It required more work and refinement to synthesize a positive statement that they could definitely own as “true” for them. In the end, however, they both found the effort allowed them to make more informed and precise distinctions, resulting in clearer decisions. With a set of specific desired attributes (which they weighted), balanced against a list of key fears (which they examined in terms of harmful effect, as well as probability of occurrence), they were able to view their decisions in a richer context. They saw trade offs in terms of focus on gaining specific benefits, while dealing with specific associated risks.

We may be driven by fear. But, if we use it as only a starting point to drive out the full picture, one that balances positive and negative, the results of our efforts will be more robust and our decisions can be acted upon with greater confidence.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Changing the Game

On Monday, Oracle announced it had entered into an agreement to purchase Sun Microsystems. This is a mega-merger for the computer industry: Oracle is the leader in computer databases and is one of the top-5 business software companies, while Sun popularized UNIX computer servers and the Java computer language, and they are one of the top-5 computer server companies.

Oracle has profited from aggressive acquisions including BEA, Peoplesoft and Siebel. In contrast, Sun hasn't been so successful in recent years, so it's safe to assume that Oracle executives will be making some big changes at Sun. In a nutshell, Oracle executives face challenging decisions in terms of products and staff: which products to maintain, which products to merge, which products to eliminate, and which people can best serve the future needs. This is especially interesting for overlapping products such as MySQL, the leading open source database. Sun purchased MySQL just over a year ago for $1 billion, and it competes with Oracle's flagship database.

There's another interesting side to this merger: the customer perspective. We at Dwaffler are using MySQL for two projects, and I have doubts about its future, even in light of the public reassurances from Oracle. In fact, I identified MySQL as a technical risk several months ago, so I took measures to make it easy to switch to another database.

And so, this comes right back to Oracle: they have to understand that the success of a product depends not only on the quality of the product but also its perception. They need to decide quickly how much they want to support each Sun product and show this to the customers before they (we!) jump to conclusions.

Image credit: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, taken by Dan Farber

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Monday, April 13, 2009

What do you do with your top salesperson?

If you're the manager of a Zales diamond store, you fire her.

Yes, you read correctly.

Rose Camilleri was the top salesperson at the Zales store at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets in New York's Hudson Valley. Camilleri was the first person to reach $1 million in sales for the entire northeast region, and she received multiple awards from the national headquarters of Zales.

In March, Camilleri was diagnosed with a heart condition that required immediate surgery. The response from Zales management? They fired her.

(Read the full details in The Times Herald-Record.)

I can imagine the decision process: a low-level manager looked at her salary, the costs for her treatment, the lost productivity, and the chance that Camilleri may never return. Looking at costs alone is only half of the picture.

In my experience, salespeople who are consistently successful are rare and valuable. So long as the sales commission plan is designed correctly, if a salesperson is earning huge commissions, it means that the salesperson is generating huge sales for the company.

You'd think that Zales would want to maximize their profits, rather than minimize their costs. Especially considering the bad economic conditions.

Diamonds may be forever, but Zales may not last if they continue making decisions like this.

Photo credit: charlene

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Making the wrong decision

When writing on Friday, I started to think about what happens when you make the wrong decision. Some decisions are not difficult to change. Others are expensive or nearly impossible to change.

For instance, if you're unhappy with your dish in a nice restaurant, the restaurant is generally very eager to bring you something else that you will like better. Even if it simply doesn't suit your tastes. And with a recurring purchase, it is easy to try another product next time. Or with an inexpensive item, where you could buy a different one if you don't like the first one.

But some decisions are irreversible - sometimes you can't "put the genie back in the bottle". Marriage, parenthood, surgery. And larger decisions: closing a factory, launching a product, starting a war.

Of course you expect me to say that that these irreversible decisions need to be examined carefully. But how do you know when you're facing a decision that requires careful examination? Simply ask the question: what could happen if I/we make the wrong decision? If the wrong decision has small consequences, then go ahead and try something. But if the wrong decision has very bad consequences, then understanding these consequences will help you to understand what is needed for the right decision.

It's a bit like "learning from your mistakes". But sometimes that education is too expensive. Then you need to do your homework instead.

Photo credit: Rob Pym

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