Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Action Plan

One very useful tool in overcoming inertia is an action plan.  This has been given a hundred names (one of them – the First 100 Days – might almost be said to have become institutionalized among politicians).  But the idea is useful as something to grab the imagination of all involved and jump-start the organization (company, crew, city, state, country, etc.) as it moves in a new direction.

In simple terms, the action plan is nothing more than the translation of the strategic plan into specific actions for each department or division or section of the organization.  And constructing an action plan is actually fairly simple, except for one thing: it requires hard decisions.

Imagine a large industrial firm with a good deal of competition.  For the sake of the discussion it might have the following major departments

And one other division: Plans (and Competitive Analysis)

The strategic plan being complete – and specific timelines identified, each department is now given individual goals.  This should be done as a round-table effort between the executive and the department heads – mixing aggressive performance and wisdom – moving fast, but not too fast, balancing the entire organization so that one department doesn’t move too quickly or too slowly relative to the others.

With various time lines or performance gates clearly established, each department now identifies what they need: in personnel (specific types (engineers, architects, welders, drivers, carpenters, secretaries, etc.)) and levels of experience, and specific training – for each location of the organization); what types of equipment, what types of facilities, how much additional money, IT support, etc.

It is during these sessions – at which the Boss (be he the Chairman, President, CEO or whatever other title is used – the Boss is whoever gets to actually make binding decisions) must make the final decision on who will do what, when.  As each department presents its proposed timelines and requirements (in manpower, material, etc.) the Boss needs to make the final call that will bring everyone into a coherent package – that makes it a team solution, while providing the details that turns the strategic plan into specific tasks for each department.

It is during thing development that each department will establish performance standards – metrics – by which progress will be measured.  These too are presented to the Boss for his final approval.

Each department then will spend a few days – at most several weeks – developing the individual tasks for each office in that department – within the assigned timelines.  These are presented to the Boss – and once approved, these are compiled by the planning team and become ‘the Action Plan.’

The one element that needs to be mentioned it the Planning Team, which also takes on the role of the Competitive analysis team; simply put, their job is to watch the competition and to watch the market place and to ensure that as the plan is developed and implemented that it remains relevant to what is going on in the world around you.  That is a huge task stated in a single sentence, which is why your brightest people need to be on your planning team.

Finally, all this is then packaged into a presentation to the entire organization – giving everyone an overview of each of the steps being taken by each department, and an overall review of the goals and plans of the organization as a whole.  Then, unless you are in a fairly small organization, each department will break off and present to its people their specific departmental action plan.

And once that is done, as soon as is humanly possible – Begin!  Do not hesitate, sooner is better than later.  One final word of advice: place some ‘low hanging fruit’ in the plan for the first 30 or 60 or 90 days, things that can be done that are only moderately difficult, so that each department can show progress; establishing and maintaining enthusiasm in the initial phase of the plan is essential for success.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pirates, Putin and the Mid East

Early in Act 1 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘the Pirates of Penzance’ the Pirate King tells us that:

“Many a King on a first class throne,
If he wants to call his crown his own,
Must manage somehow to get through
More dirty work then e’er I do.”

That little piece of wisdom – painful wisdom, but wisdom none-the-less – Keeps coming to mind over the course of the last five or six weeks.

The first instance involves history: 78 years and a few weeks ago the Emperor of Japan announced the surrender of Japan.  This followed, as I suppose (hope and pray) everyone knows, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (6 Aug 1945) and Nagasaki (9 Aug 1945).  In the years that have followed those bombings there have been countless arguments made about ‘what Truman should have done’ and further arguments that there was in any case no reason to drop the atomic bombs on those two cities.

I’ll begin by stating that I am not a big fan of the concept, as first postulated by General Giulio Douhet and later BG Billy Mitchell (and Gen. Walther Wever and Marshall Hugh ‘Boom’ Trenchard, et al), of strategic bombing; the idea that large scale bombing of civilian populations will so undermine morale that it will force any nation to surrender.  For one thing, the idea has been shown to be fallacious in almost every case: the German bombing of the British in World War II, the British and American bombing of Germany in World War II, the American bombing of Japan in World War II (with an important ‘footnote’ – see below), the US bombing of North Vietnam; in each case bombing served mainly to stiffen the resolve of those being bombed.  Certainly, the bombing had other effects, many of them supporting the military aims of those dropping the bombs, but the central concept of undermining morale, and thereby bringing an early end to the war, never panned out.

Second, if you have ever seen a city or town that has been burned out, it is not something that you would want to have happen to anyone, to include your enemies.  War is a brutal business and once you are in it you have to do extreme things.  But all in all, if you can avoid it, and particularly if it isn’t necessarily working, I’m more or less against the idea of carpet-bombing cities.

The footnote or exception of course, is the outcome of the two bombs – atomic bombs - dropped on Japan.  Their immediate effect was to destroy the two cities, and immediately killed perhaps 140,000 people total.  Tens of thousands more died over the following years.  But, more importantly, it forced the Emperor’s hand and he surrendered – with conditions – but the war was over.  (It is worth noting the discussion on how much this bombing affected German and Japanese wartime production – until early 1945 their production of war materials climbed each year, as they learned how to do more, under more extreme circumstances.  Also, while there is the oft repeated argument that this bombing deprived tactical forces of all the various air defense assets, that blade cuts both ways; US and British et al investments in the strategic bombing campaign were massive and arguably would have been as productive if not more productive if used elsewhere.)

What is often forgotten in any discussion about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the actual situation Truman faced: the war was dragging on; bond drives in the US were coming up short, after 10 years of depression and 4 years of war Americans were tired.  Truman had several options: he could continue the conventional bombing of Japan and hope that they would eventually surrender – nothing that we knew of the Japanese suggested that would happen.  All experience during the war had shown, as mentioned earlier, that bombing of cities only made people more determined to resists.  Second, he (Truman) could order an invasion.  The casualty estimates of an invasion were staggering: US intelligence in fact suggested that the Japanese were hoarding weapons for a vast national spasm of violence to save the homeland from the invaders, and casualty estimates for the US assault forces ran from a low of perhaps 30,000 dead and 90,000 wounded for the initial assault (Codenamed Olympic – a landing on the island of Kyushu), to a high of approximately 250,000 dead and another 1 million wounded – US personnel only.  Japanese casualties were estimated to be at least 3 times US casualties.

The second – follow-on – invasion of the main island of Honshu would occur almost 6 months later.  Casualty figures for this invasion (Operation Coronet) – an invasion that would be twice as large as the D-Day invasion – were several times greater than those for Olympic.

In short, the invasion of Japan would cost the US more casualties then it had suffered in all of the World War up to that point.  Japanese casualties would be in the millions.

The third option was to drop the bombs and see if they ‘pushed the Japanese government’ to surrender.

Truman thus found himself in the situation that any leader – like the fictitious king referenced by the Pirate King above - often finds himself: facing a series of at best very unpleasant options.

Truman could continue wide-scale conventional bombing, which was killing tens of thousands of Japanese every week; invade and kill millions – and suffer hundreds of thousands of US casualties as well, or use the new weapon and see if they could force the Japanese to ‘quit’ early.  If they chose to continue fighting, then he would probably have ordered the invasion.  He had nothing but bad choices.  He chose the bombs, the war ended early, and, as unpleasant as it was and unlikely as it may seem, he probably saved hundred of thousands of US lives, and probably millions of Japanese lives in doing so.

The point in all this is that the real world is never like the discussions held in academia, where there are clear choices and the results are definitive and final.  In the real world no decision is final and few if any choices are clear.  Add to that the simple truth that most of the people you are dealing with in ruling circles around the world aren’t really very nice.  They are not altruists, and though they do sometimes have their nation’s best interests at heart, at least in some sense, they are often also quite willing to keep their people on tight leashes.  In a world where many nations face the choice of anarchy or police state we often find ourselves dealing with governments that choose police state and government controlled societies.

There is a natural tendency, particularly among Americans, who have grown up in a blessedly free country, to bridle at the thought of dealing with such governments.  But before we make the choice to back some revolutionary movement, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: what is the real US interest?  In short, we need to first look out for the US.

The common objection to this roughly follows the argument that supporting a revolutionary movement that advocates political freedom and representative government IS in the US interest.  But, while it is preferable to pursue long-term vice short-term interests, the simple fact is that the US has a difficult enough time pursuing short-term interests; trying to chase down long-term interests when it involves the actions of other nations is nearly impossible.  And sometimes you just can’t make all the pieces fit together.

Two different thugs have made the US look foolish in the course of the last several weeks: Vlad Putin and Bashir Assad.  Assad in particular, in his interview with Fox News and Dennis Kucinich (tip of the hat to both of them for that effort – it is always good to get a look at the evil around us) made a mockery out of the US foreign policy community, turning their language back on top of them.  He did at least demonstrate for another generation just how smooth and slick is real evil.  Putin of course, continues to play the US leadership for fools.  The US may be in the right, but our leadership isn’t playing in the same league as these two.

And so we arrive at the questions of the day: What of Egypt?  What of Syria?  What of Iran?  For that matter, What of Russia and Vlad Putin?  What is the US to do?  The answer is simple: act in the US interest.  The problem is more complex: what is the US interest?  And here is the great failure: we can’t really identify the US interest.  We are back to the same old chestnut: what are US goals?  ‘Goals’ is the impolite word for ‘US interests.’  And what we need to ask ourselves is this: what do we want Egypt (and Syria, and the rest of the Mid East, and Eastern Europe, and Asia) to look like in 1, 3, 5 and 10 years?  And what are we willing to commit – what assets – to make that happen?  This requires that we take off rose-colored glasses, and more importantly, that we refrain from getting too wrapped up in our own moral high-ground and look at the world through what might be called a ‘Machiavellian squint.’

Take Egypt, which we have conveniently ignored for the last several weeks.  What is the US interest in Egypt: is it the Suez Canal and World Trade?  Is it the security of Israel’s western border? Is it general stability in the Middle East?  Is it the rise of democracy in the Arab World?  Is it prevention of the rise of another Sharia State in the Arab World?  Can the White House and the State Department put those – and any others – in order of importance?  What is it that we are trying to do?  What are they willing to commit to achieve these goals?  Money?  Equipment? Political or economic pressure?  Force?  Troops on the Ground?  They need to accurately answer them – and soon.

None of this will be easy, and assuredly, none of this will yield pleasant answers.  Like the ‘king on a first class thrown,’ the folks in the White House keep finding to their dismay that a good deal of this is dirty, unpleasant work, difficult work, and that in the end everyone ends up with a little ‘stink’ on them.  And it doesn’t ever end, and it will never end.

(There is a pedantic argument that some will enter into about ‘vital US interest’ vs simple ‘US interest.’  There is a simple way to settle it: consider two cases – defense of an ally from foreign attack – say Canada.  And, US desires to see international sports free of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).  Both are, strictly speaking, matters of some US policy.  In the first case the US is willing – over and above any and all treaty obligations – to defend Canada with US lives.  There is no question: Canadian security is in the US interest.  In the second, the US is – I would hope – probably unwilling to spend more than some hot air to further that issue.  Simply speaking, while it is something we would like to see, we have many other things that warrant concern before we get to the issue of PEDs in international sports.  If it will directly affect the lives of average Americans and we are willing to commit US forces, it – whatever ‘it’ is – is ‘in the US interest.’  If we are not willing to commit forces, then it really isn’t in the US interest.  We are only willing to expend hot air.  (The point is not lost on many; arguments inside trade organizations about this or that price point for this or that commodity may sound important – and they are – but unless it actually threatens the US standard of living or US security the simple truth is the US will be more likely to ‘roll over’ to preserve the trade agreement as a whole then to harrumph over one particular issue inside the trade treaty.)) 

Overcoming Inertia: Changing the Rules

Overcoming Inertia: There is perhaps no single facet of any organization where inertia is greatest – where you stare more clearly into the face of the problem – then in the process of dealing with ‘the Rules.’

Every organization has them; from the most basic three man fishing club to the US government rules are the daily guidance that ensures everyone acts ‘according to the wishes of the organization.’  Rules (and regulations and policies and all the other categories) are the guidance, the minutia, that keeps every person and every office and every department, every ship, airplane, fleet and army, acting in the ‘right way.’  The old saw from the military that there is ‘a right way, a wrong way and an Army way’ is accurate: there is, there must be, an Army way.  And to succeed in the Army you must do things the Army way.

But if you want to change the Army (or your fishing club), you really must change the rules.  And the larger and more complex the organization, the larger and more complex are the rules.  More to the point, if you are trying to change your organization, but you do not change the rules, and certain rules in particular - rules that govern selection and promotion of people, standards of performance, standards of behavior, rules that truly guide the people in how they act and who they are - then all the other rules can be changed and you will have little long-term impact on the organization.  You can grind through dozens of strategies, vision statements, guiding principles, ‘town halls’ to talk about change, slide presentations, pages and pages of social media releases and all the rest; it won’t matter if you don’t change the rules.

On the other hand, change how the organization defines its people – its real rules - and you will affect substantial change.

As a general rule for changing any organization, and overcoming organizational inertia, the following rules – at a minimum - should be changed:

Hiring and Firing rules: as mentioned earlier, the power to hire and fire and promote needs to be taken out of the hands of ‘the organization’ (also known as the Personnel Department or Human Resources, etc.) and placed in the hands of the leadership – so that those who hire and promote, etc., are clearly known, and when they succeed it is evident and when they fail to promote the right people it is also evident.

Paperwork and Reports: Reporting requirements should be constantly monitored, eliminating those reports that are redundant or do not clearly support ‘the  mission.’

Ethics and Standards: These must be kept to an absolute minimum.  There is a large and complex society that already defines morals, ethics and standards.  There are also a wide range of professional organizations (the ABA, the AMA, the FAA, etc., etc., etc.) that define behavior.  Do you really need another layer?  Only if you intend to set substantially higher standards should there be any effort in this direction.

Culture: the rules that act as the ‘grease’ to the organization; (young and small organizations try to avoid these rules (though they are present), older and larger ones generate them by the score).  Many of these rules are unwritten, but in as the organization matures, they become more and more important in defining the organization.  Before you attempt any change, you need to understand these particular rules, and you need to have an understanding of which ones need to be addressed if you are to change the organization.
In the final analysis, in any organization the Rules need to be changed if you hope to have a meaningful impact.  You may find many rules are protected by law or contract or corporate governance agreements – some of this is good, some of this are signs of nothing more than institutional inertia.  One way to start this process is to begin with the simplest rules: periodic reports – which ones are needed, which aren’t?  Procedures for dealing with customers or filling orders, work schedules, etc., etc.  Take a hard look at your organization’s rules on the ‘little things: schedules, report formats (not the reports themselves, just the formats), appearances (titles on doorways, types of stationery, etc.), everything should be considered.  Begin with the trivial and items not focused on in the major goals of the organization and work ‘up’ from there.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Abandon Ship!

Well, there was another horrific event in the nation today: the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.  For those of you who have not been there, the Navy Yard is a fairly small base that has occupied that piece of land for more than 200 years.  There are any number of lessons to draw from this horrific event, and I have already written about it on my other blog.  But there is an leadership lesson that also needs to be drawn.

I heard today, as I listened to this even unfold, that the Chief of Naval Operations (the CNO as he is known in the Navy) was at his house on the Navy Yard when the shooting started.  (There are a number of old, beautiful houses on the base that are used for houses for admirals stationed in the Washington; perhaps the largest and most beautiful is designated as the CNO's house.)  The report noted that as soon as the shooting started the CNO was moved off the base.


Everyone take a second and re-read that.  The CNO is at the pinnacle of the US Navy; while he technically is not in command of anything - chiefs of the various services are really administrative positions, responsible for providing advice to the Service Secretaries (the Secretary of the Navy), the Secretary of Defense, and the President, and for assisting in the preparation of the annual budget.  But service chiefs have all been in command, they are supposed to be the exemplars of leadership, they are supposed to at the minimum act like they are in command.

Here's what should have happened: on being informed that there was some sort of shooting going on in the Navy Yard, and then being informed by his security detail that they wanted to move him,  the CNO should have said: 'This is my base, I am staying right here.  And I want to see the Commander of the base.  We shall stay here and work with the police and the SWAT team, but we are NOT leaving.  Now empty out the rest of the base as best you can.'

Leaders, particularly military leaders, must accept risk.  They also need to accept the fact that they are just men.  If somehow, unlikely an event as it might be, the CNO was killed, we could - honestly - replace him before sundown.  That's the way it is supposed to work: no one is irreplaceable.  We don't want irreplaceable men in command, and we don't want them thinking they are irreplaceable.  More to the point, we want them setting the example of leadership we expect in a combat force.  The CNO did not do that.

When the ship is in extremis the senior man needs to set the example.  There are many things about a base that make it vastly different from a ship.  But the example of leadership under stress should bring similar answers.  In this case the CNO let himself get bundled into a car and hustled off to safety.  It is true that there was little in fact that he could do.  But there was little he needed to do elsewhere.  And the example he set today was a miserable one.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Overcoming Inertia - Your People

-->While there are five major facets of change in any organization, the one that really is the hinge upon which turns the execution of any change is people.  As a friend I know said many years ago: a ship without a crew is just a hunk of steel.  So it is with any organization.  At the practical, day-to-day level people aren’t your most important asset, they are your ONLY asset. 

And that translates into some simple rules about People:

Hiring – whether you are changing the organization or not, you – the boss - should be in charge of hiring: you should personally approve standards for the various positions, you should approve all key hires, and you establish the rule that for those people who work directly for you, you personally hire them – that applies throughout the organization: everyone hires their immediate subordinates.  If you promote someone to general manager of a site, from that day on he is responsible for hiring all the people who report directly to him.  Not only does that ensure that he will get the people he wants, it also allows you – as the general manager’s boss – know exactly who is responsible for hiring ‘the new superstar’ in sales or engineering or whatever the case might be, you will also know which of your general managers is not good at picking people.

Moving and Firing – In every organization people will need to be changed.  Any time you are making a major change in an organization, and arguably many minor changes, there is a need to shake up the personnel.  This can true even in the most basic scenario for the simple reason that all people get into habits of work as much as habits of behavior.  If you want people to do different things, or do the same thing differently, but you don’t change anything around them, you are making it that much more difficult for them to change.

Some people may need to be let go, some will need training or education, nearly everyone will need to move.  In one of the most brilliant examples of getting everyone involved – and aware of real change Robert Townsend told the story that he once led the change of a large business in which he announced a series of dramatic changes on a Friday afternoon and then told everyone to assemble in the parking lot on Monday morning.  On Monday morning he then sent everyone into the building but everyone’s office and desk had been moved; not only was the structure of the company – the ‘line and block’ diagram different, many had different jobs, and everyone was working at a different place in the building.  The message was clear: everything is changing.  And that change made people a bit uneasy, forcing them to pay attention to their new tasks.

Training and Education – Do you know why Navy SEALs are so capable?  Because they practice some really simple rules: they take the best people available, they set incredibly high standards, and then they train to them – endlessly.  As much as is possible, every organization should do the same: set high standards, and then provide the tools and training so that the people in the organization can achieve those standards.  As a general rule no organization provides enough training.  Obviously, training and education can be very expensive.  But whenever possible it greatly benefits any organization to train its people.  And in particular, if you are changing the organization and the tasks that each individual has been assigned, some training is warranted so that people can be comfortable with, and proficient at, their new role.

Performance evaluation – Finally, you need to take performance evaluation out of the hands of everyone other than you and your managers.  Keep all your people informed, but start adjusting your performance evaluation system so that it actually works for you.  This will take time and is by no means an easy thing to accomplish.  But the goal should be to identify what people are doing well, where they can improve and how to do so, where lie there particular strengths and weaknesses, and where the organization is not supporting them.  Remember, the purpose of the performance evaluation should be NOT to punish people but to figure out how to improve someone’s performance and to improve the overall organization.  There may well be a few people who simply don’t fit with the organization, and the performance evaluation system should also be able to identify them.  But the key is that you – the boss, and your management team need to spend real time honing the evaluation system so that it becomes something that helps you, helps the organization as a whole, and helps your people.