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Applying Business Best Practices to Relationships

Metrics money managementI ran across a blog the other day singing the importance of relationships in business. Fair enough.

As I recall, it started by saying:

“Let’s start with some undeniable facts. What gets measured gets managed.” ‘Uh oh,’ I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to write about this one.’

All right, let’s trot out the whole set of logical fallacies.

1. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it
2. If you can measure it, you can manage it
3. If you can’t manage it, it’s because you’re not measuring it
4. If you can manage it, it’s because you are measuring it.

Not one of those is true.

First, there is management by fear and intimidation; by shared values; by guilt-tripping; by walking around; by praise; and so on. None of which require measurement.

Second, the act of measuring per se does nothing to cause “management” to happen.

Of course, just because something is illogical doesn’t mean people don’t assign meaning to it. But why do so many people insist so strongly on connecting management and measurement?

I can suggest two reasons.

Go back to “what gets measured, gets managed.” What that really means is, “I’m the kind of person who, when someone measures me, falls into line and behaves according to the desired metrics.”

This view is the choice of the one being measured; it’s not a trait of the measurer, nor an outcome of the act of measuring. It’s a rather passive choice by the measuree: it doesn’t require much thinking, and doesn’t invite challenge.

Which is exactly what most managers intend measurement to do: to communicate desires from boss to employee, in narrow, quantitative, often financial, terms.

But most of all, “what gets measured gets managed” reflects a belief that measurement is good, and that more measurement is better. Break it down to the elemental levels, let’s really manage this puppy.

Well, let’s test-drive that idea. Go ask your wife how you’re doing as a spouse (or reverse, etc.). On a scale of 1-10, please.

Now, that might get you into a pretty good conversation. It might even be so good that your actual performance as a spouse improves as a result.

Suppose further that you work in a company that believes “what gets measured gets managed,” and decide to apply this “obvious fact” to your home life as well. So you ask the wife the same question next month. Scale of 1-10 again, please.

Your spouse says, “didn’t we just have this conversation a few weeks ago?”

“Why, yes,” you say, “and it was really useful, and I want to be an even better spouse, so I figured I’d starting taking regular metrics readings so I can establish a benchmark performance level and track my improvement. I learned that technique at work. Do you think monthly reports on my spousal performance will be enough? Maybe I should ask you for weekly ratings?  And let’s be s ure to talk about rewards for achieving and exceeding my metrics.”

Now, if your spouse has any relationship skills, and any self-image to speak of, you’re gonna be sleeping on the sofa for a while.

And while explaining these new arrangements to you, you may hear something like, “and by the way, thanks for ruining that great conversation we had a few weeks ago, because now I see you never meant it, you were just in it for your own ego-gratification, and I feel like an idiot because I actually thought you might have cared, but now I see not only are you a jerk, but I deluded myself, and I now don’t even trust my own assessment skills, I was so far off in even thinking we had a good thing going, now I feel even worse, etc.”

This is the emotional equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You have just proven that the act of measurement can alter the thing being measured. (And by the way, who cares that you meant well, anyway?)

I have a friend who works at GE designing sophisticated fluid control measurement tools used in the oil industry. Crude oil doesn’t much care how often or how precisely you measure it. Unfortunately, spouses do.  As do people in general.

Which is why the unthinking, inane concatenations of measurement and management so often fail when applied to people.

Best practices aren’t universal. The management of capital and hydrocarbon resources doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the management of human “resources,” aka people.

Sacred Cows, or Goals Gone Wild

Personally, I love seeing sacred cows sacrificed. Maybe it’s that contrarian thinking helps learning. Maybe skepticism came with studying philosophy and doing strategy consulting.

Maybe I’m just a little bent. Whatever.

Let’s take goal-setting. That’s about as big a sacred cow as you get in business. Googling “goal setting” gets you 5.6 million hits.

Jack Welch praises it. Scottie Hamilton and Michael Phelps get cited as examples of it. Martial artists swear by it. Management by objectives is built around it.

I’m not sure there’s any more common theme in self-help and business success books. It’s just so, like, obvious. Goal-setting may be the secret behind the success of Motherhood and Apple Pie. I’m pretty sure it explains the Boy Scouts.

So–what an unexpected delight to find a balloon-pricking, mellow-harshing, skeptical piece of inquiry in, of all places, Harvard Business School.  (Actually, it’s in the HBS Working Knowledge series, which does a fine job of exploring quirky ideas. They’re just not usually so big as this one).  A little bonus: the smirky title, "Goals Gone Wild: the Systematic Side Effects of Over-prescribing Goals Setting."

The paper is summarized here and co-author Max Bazerman is interviewed here:

From the executive summary:

• The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.

• Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.

• The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.

• In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.

But surely, you say, this is a case of excess, of bad apples. Goals are not the problem, people who use goals badly are the problem. (You remember–guns don’t kill people, people kill people).

No, says Bazerman. When the adoption of goals so predictably and systematically produces negative results, it is fair to say it is goals themselves that are the problem. (Are you listening, NRA?)

Well, you might say, if goal-setting is so dangerous, how’d we get to use it so much and so deeply?

Says Bazerman:

It is easy to implement. It is easy to measure. It is easy to document successes. And in laboratory experiments, it has been shown to be extremely successful at improving the measured behavior. [we] simply argue that goals have gone wild in terms of their impact on other unmeasured outcomes. When we factor in the consistent findings that stretch and specific goals both narrow focus on a limited set of behaviors while increasing risk-taking and unethical behavior, their simple implementation can become a vice.

Bazerman and his co-authors are not saying goal-setting is bad per se; they’re not raving nut-jobs. They’re just asking a question that doesn’t get asked nearly often enough.

They have taken a sober, holistic look at one of the most pervasive, unchallenged, unexamined mantras of business—and brought some welcome fresh air to the issue.

Bravo.

We’ve All Caught the Detroit Disease

Ward’s Automotive was for decades a major US auto industry trade publication. Each year, Ward’s published a yearbook, with a one-page market share table near the center.

Each year the book detailed share stats for not just GM, but Chevrolet, and within Chevy, Impalas and BelAirs. Plymouths, Dodges, Ramblers—all got detailed at the model level.

Except for one line.

Imports.

From the late 50s until the late 80s, the industry lumped together Rolls Royces and Volkswagens and Toyotas in one simple category. Imports.

Not until the late 80s—when “imports” finally exceeded 25% of the US market—did they get broken out. Last week, BusinessWeek reported that GM’s US market share was at 22.6% A reversal of fortune (in 1963, GM had 51% of the US market).

Over the years, Detroit came up with dozens of excuses. They blamed “deathtrap” used cars (whose only real threat, of course, was to prices of new cars). Roger Smith blamed technology. Detroit blamed fashion quirks in California. It blamed excise taxes. It blamed Japan, Inc.

As recently as May 8, 2005 (on George Stephanopoulos’ ABC News show), none other than Jack Welch blamed labor—high health care costs, “negotiated at a time of no competition”—and argued for a break. Welch conveniently forgets who negotiated all those contracts—Detroit. Without a gun to its head.

The truth is, Detroit had—and still has—an American disease. It has a few key symptoms:

• Belief that we are the biggest, standalone market—immune from global competition—and that the Big 3 had dominant market share

• Belief that GNP growth drives auto sales, that growth means growth in market share, and that buyers are price-driven

• Belief that, in the immortal words of Lee Iacocca, brought back a few years ago from the taxidermist to re-appear on TV, “the most important thing is—the deal!”

The Japanese in particular always believed it was a global market, far bigger than the US, and that they—including Toyota—were small players on a global stage. For them it was always about growth, not share. And for them, price was not something you jacked up with leader models and white-walls and radios—it was something you set low, for growth, and built in all the quality you could, until you earned the right to sell at higher price points. It was not "the deal"—it was, profoundly, the relationship.

They were—oh, what’s the word?—right.

So, perhaps we should go outside Detroit? Maybe tap the American zeitgeist and come up with—private equity, and an industry outsider!

And so we have Bob Nardelli, late of Home Depot fame, coming in as CEO of Chrysler for Cerberus Capital, Chrysler’s new private equity owner. According to Newsweek, Detroit insiders say they expect Cerberus to shake up the moribund American auto industry. Private equity has a lot going for it—but long-term thinking tends not to be part of it. Industry expertise isn’t all bad—and Nardelli has none of it. Pardon my scepticism in this case—I don’t see this ending well.

True, Detroit is easy to pick on. But you’d think the rest of US industry would catch a clue.

On Wall Street, a new phrase was invented only a few years ago—IBGYBG. I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone—so let’s do the deal and let the suckers pay for it.

Now consumers are suckered into no-income second mortgages (“hey they wouldn’t lend me the money if they didn’t think I could pay it back, right?”) which are then sliced and diced and tranched and resold and leveraged and omigosh, looks like a credit crisis! The spirit of Iacocca lives.

In Bentonville, they learned the volume lesson, but not the price/quality lesson. WalMart is teaching a nation that anything worth having is worth having at half the price and one third the quality so you can get more things worth having—to replace yesterday’s list. Planned obsolescence lives.

In Washington, the courage to face long-term financial issues is in short supply, and the belief that we stand alone—politically, militarily, culturally—is the reverse.

We’ve ended up with: here-now, cheaper by the dozen, do the transaction, no money down, quarterly earnings—and get your buyout package just before you default on the schnooks’ pension plans.

We’ve learned well from Detroit—the wrong lessons.

Update: "We”ve All Caught the Detroit Disease" is a featured post at the the Huffington Post.  Trust Matters readers may want to check out the discussion there as well.

Non – Linear Leadership Thinking vs. Behavior

Once upon a time, in the land of the business gods, an epic battle was fought. B.F. Skinner challenged Sigmund Freud to a duel, the winner to take the hearts and minds of business trainers and consultants thereafter.

Skinner, as we know, beat the crap out of Freud, and ever since then the behaviorist agenda has dominated the field of business advice.

Until, that is, Roger Martin, writing in the June Harvard Business Review, writes:

…this focus on what a leader does is misplaced…a more productive, though more difficult, approach is to focus on how a leader thinks—that is, to examine the antecedent of doing, or the ways in which leaders’ cognitive processes produce their actions.

Precisely.

What do I mean by the “behaviorist agenda?” I mean unthinking recitations of, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I mean training objectives statements that start with, “participants will learn the behaviors associated with…” I mean “just give me the tips and tricks, skip the theory part.” I mean coaching programs that define outputs entirely behaviorally. I mean, most definitely, the question “what are the behaviors of a trusted advisor?”

The behaviors of a trusted advisor, I can assure you, are the behaviors required to be trustworthy by the particular situation. It’s the mindset behind it that drives, else it’s a Skinner box.

Martin, dean at Toronto Business School, says most leaders with exemplary records

“have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then…they creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.”

“…the process of consideration and synthesis can be termed integrative thinking. It is this discipline—not superior strategy or faultless execution—that is a defining characteristic of most exceptional businesses and the people who run them.”

He readily acknowledges this isn’t news, citing F. Scott Fitzgerald. He could have gone back to Kant, or even Plato.

But it might as well be new for today’s business world. The idea that “A and not-A” could belong together drives the average manager, b-school prof or HR trainer nuts. "It can’t be. That’s illogical. It’s crazy."

Not to regular folk. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Or, “I was never so alone as when in a crowd.” This is common literary stuff. How about, “play the ball, don’t let the ball play you,” or “to hit the golf ball, don’t think about hitting the golf ball.” Common sports stuff.

In the trust realm, I suggest the best way to sell is to stop trying to sell. Sounds like a paradox. Drives most linear people nuts (“but you can’t do that, the whole point is to sell!”).

In philosophy, it’s called thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We had a great example in this blog earlier this week. Two well articulated points of view were put forth. One argued that honesty must serve empathy—another said empathy required honesty.

Which is right? This is not a “have you stopped beating your wife” trick question; there is an answer, and the right answer is “both.”

Martin contrasts the linear, causal thinking so dominant in business today with non-linear, holistic and tension-reducing approaches. The more complex the issue, the better the quality of answer to come from this process. Think Abraham Lincoln. Or Socrates.

What’s Martin up against? Linear regression, powerpoint, process mapping, KPIs, behaviorism, decision trees, compensation systems, and other business infrastructure du jour. Skinner. The rat guy.

I’m rooting for Martin. The human guy.