Air, Water, Food

AstronautThere’s no time like the present to set goals. Here’s a framework I use for myself and those I manage or advise.

I generally try to classify projects into three levels of priority before I consider adding resources to anything on deck: Air, Water, and Food.

In the unlikely event everything classified under Air, Water, and Food is done and behind us, I might move onto the next realm of importance, but generally, if it’s not Air, Water, or Food, it is going to get a very low priority,

I’m stealing broadly from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but suppose you were an astronaut in orbit and the red light in the capsule appeared. How do you set priorities? Largely by survival.

Without air, you have seconds to live.

Without water, you have days to live.

Without food, you have weeks to live.

Everything after that is discretionary.

Whether you are setting high-level goals or project priorities, try ranking your options into these categories.

What is Air?

In a services business, it might be customers.

In an e-commerce business, it might be secure uptime.

In product development, it might be an innovative, competitive technology solution that is worth marketing because it will surprise and delight customers.

“Air” initiatives are the items on your to-do list that if not attended to immediately may cause a business to be gone very soon. Sometimes they are obvious. Take the examples above. If you don’t protect your customers in a services business, you don’t have a business. If you don’t have a product worth selling, you don’t have a business. If you are selling online and you are not safely live to the world, you don’t exist.

It’s relatively easy to see the obvious examples of Air, but sometimes they are counterintuitive. I often write about People, Products, Profits—in that order. Are people, or the talent that drives your company, Air? The answer is absolutely yes—we cannot accomplish much of anything without the right team, but none of us has the unlimited capacity to hire everyone we want. It is precisely because talent is Air that it takes discipline to know which people you need now and which may have to wait. Your budget will always create some constraints, as will the availability of people you wish to recruit and the forced ranking of your priorities.

Of all the choices you make, Air should be the least subjective. When you feel it leaving the room, you know you are doing something vitally wrong. Don’t let Air get away from you, or the next two points won’t matter.

What is Water?

In a services business, it might be tailoring what is offered to individual customer needs.

In an e-commerce business, it might be sufficient variety of differentiated listings to attract and retain customers.

In product development, it might be the process management that lets you create a dependable schedule.

“Water” initiatives are what you need to build the business once you are certain the Air around you is sustainable. These are the projects in your organization that are essential, the ones that cannot be postponed unless there is an Air-eliminating crisis to address. Of course, if there are too many crises in an organization, you will never get to Water, and that will only keep you going slightly longer than losing Air.

Consider the example of product development: Air is ideation, the vision that will set your offering apart from those of your competitors. Water is the ability to deliver it. If you can’t create a project plan and product development schedule that you can actualize within your financial means, the concept won’t have any value. You need to be demanding about Water, but you also need to be realistic.

How important is knowing Water when you see it? Take the metaphor to its extreme: Suppose you have an abundance of Air, but you can’t get to Water. How long will you last? That’s how important Water is. It’s not Air, but it’s not far behind. Use discipline when you deem something Water. Everything that isn’t Air can’t be Water, or you’ll never have enough.

What is Food?

In a services business, it might be referrals, reputation, or word of mouth,

In an e-commerce business, it might be reliable customer service.

In product development, it might be the parsing of features and benefits to plan generational updates that improve upon each other.

“Food” initiatives allow you some discretion. You can live a relatively long time with just Air and Water, so you get to decide what constitutes Food and how to procure it creatively. If you make a mistake anointing something Food, perhaps prioritizing one product feature over another, if you’re wrong it probably isn’t the end of the world. That doesn’t mean you can be cavalier about determining your alternatives, but at least you’re out of the realm of immediate time pressure and into a set of choices where course correction is possible, even if you make a sizeable error in judgment.

I often suggest to people that one of the common elements of Food is time. Some people will think time is Air or Water, but a ticking clock is not the same as a clock that is not wound or has no power source. Time is something we all have to navigate, and we never have enough because of the deadlines we establish for ourselves or the demands of meeting customer needs. I prefer to manage time the way a good sports team works the game clock. There is an element of urgency with a game clock, but not desperation. You can use it as a motivational tool, or as a way to outsmart competitors. Time is always critical, but when it is too critical, innovation can take a hit.

Balance the Elements

Have a look at all the conflicting priorities around you. Force yourself to rank them into Air, Water, and Food. Chances are you’ll discover you are trying to solve for Food when you should be trying to solve for Air or Water. That might be why you are going in circles or nowhere at all. I have taken part in some heated constructive conflict about how to classify any given task in an organization, but I have seldom seen the framework for this kind of healthy argument fail to create a productive dialogue.

Agreed priorities are empowering. When you achieve consensus around Air, Water, and Food, you are making critical progress in your team building and goal setting. Measurable success is often lurking in meticulous editing.

Most important, if what you are working on is beyond the scope of Air, Water, Food and you’ve left these priorities behind, stop what you are doing immediately and rethink your course of action. If you haven’t got Maslow working in your corner at that basic level, the battery in your clock may be about to take away all your choices.

Own the clock. Always own the clock.

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Photo: Pixabay

When a Mess Is Not a Mess

True story: When I sat down to write this blog post, immediately after typing the title, I spilled a glass of iced tea on my desk.

How appropriate, pointedly ironic, I thought. I am about to write an article saying that a mess is not always a mess, and then I make a mess.

Or did I?

It’s probably not lost on you that the next thing I did after spilling my iced tea was to clean my desk. Save for the few papers that were soaked and had to be tossed (ah, well!) it gave me the long procrastinated opportunity to eradicate some clutter. Where there was long-ignored dust between books and computer cords, there are visible patches of polished wood. Who knows when I would have gotten to those desktop dust bunnies?

And so a modest mess immediately became an opportunity, precisely the story I wanted to tell.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Hot Mess is a contemporary descriptor gaining momentum. I’m not sure I understand its full colloquial application, but it does seem to roll off the tongue.

Has the global pandemic complicated by contradictory expressions of strategy and uncertain leadership left us of late in a hot mess? It would be hard to argue the contrary.

Facts and opinions are muddled. Too many hospital intensive care wards are filled. Families are losing loved ones. Jobs have been wiped out in record numbers. Businesses are told they can reopen only to be told to close again. No one is quite sure whether schools should be attended in person. We’re even arguing with each other about whether mandated mask safety constitutes some violation of personal liberty.

Yes, that is some hot mess. It lacks leadership and accountability. It’s chaos that has been largely disowned rather than harnessed for cohesive transformation.

What’s the difference? When can we throw our hands in the air with rage and declare a hot mess, and when is it an opportunity? Better asked: Aren’t we always better off trying to convert a mess into an opportunity?

Having faced a lot of business messes in my years—and largely knowing that every time I have been able to do something I believed mattered it was because I was asked to unpack a mess—here’s where I think healthy optimism is warranted.

Customers are your best bet at keeping your business alive. If you have a growing base of profitable customers, give thanks; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Cash flow is essential to keeping your business alive. If you have access to enough cash to remain current on payables, rejoice humbly; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Talent and teamwork are the secret sauce in keeping your business alive. If you have motivated colleagues who share your challenges, bump an elbow; almost every mess can be mopped up.

Customers, cash flow, and collegial partners all create the runway we need to address our messes. Lose those, and a spreading mess can swallow up the best of us.

A runway buys you time. That time is precious, and it’s what you need to convert a mess into an opportunity. If you have runway, you’ll be surprised how much you can fix. Think runway, and if you are fortunate enough to have some, stop beating yourself up over ordinary obstacles.

It’s easy to get frustrated, angry, even demoralized when faced with mountains of deferred maintenance. Anyone coming into a challenging situation would prefer to focus on productive reinvention over time-consuming tasks that were swept under the rug by their retired predecessor. The temptation to declare a catastrophe is often strongest when critical progress appears to be at a standstill. You might be missing the dawn lurking beyond darkness.

A failed product? Not solely a mess, but perhaps an opportunity to build a much better product.

Too much infighting among your team? Certainly an uncomfortable mess, but perhaps an opportunity to foster consensus-building or ultimately reconsider some difficult personnel decisions.

Poor choices in back-office systems creating endless administration? Often cited as a mess, but truly an opportunity to bite the bullet and wipe away the information systems that are holding back progress.

An onslaught of unfair legal claims against the honest work you are pursuing? No one likes lawyer messes, expensive as they are, but there remains opportunity in learning from outside actions and readying yourself against future burdensome attacks.

Data accumulating in bulk without the proper framework for analysis or tools for funneling it toward well-reasoned responses? Little can create as much of a mess as terabytes of randomly collected data, but once you wrestle that data into programs for decision making, you will be hard-pressed to find a higher value mass of opportunity.

The point is not to confuse basic management problems with crises.

It’s a problem if parts of your business are broken, but those broken parts don’t necessarily constitute a crisis.

Not having enough loyal customers to buy you runway is a crisis.

Running out cash and not being able to secure enough to extend your runway is a crisis.

Not being surrounded by talent that can work your way out of a mess can easily become a crisis.

These kinds of messes often can’t be addressed soon enough to allow for a rebound. You have to decide if a mess is really an endgame or an obstacle to be navigated,

I remind people all the time: If there were no problems, then a business wouldn’t need management. The mess before you might be job security. It also may be opening the door to a brighter future you can’t yet anticipate.

We all spill iced tea on our desk now and again. Some of us get pissed off and spend the rest of the month complaining about the size of our desk and the lack of room for a proper drink holder. Others wipe up the mess and begin the next hour with a clean desk and a fresh perspective. Each mess is there either to consume us or let us transform its remedy into the hidden opportunity hiding under the wet towel.

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Photo: Pixabay

Opinions That Matter

Be cautious with the advice you seek. Be more cautious with the advice you offer.

I enjoy and appreciate seeking business input from all kinds of people on all kinds of topics, but lately, I’m noticing that much of what people offer is too off the cuff. I usually know a problematic opinion is coming my way when I spend several minutes framing the complexity of a souring issue, and the assessment I receive is preceded by this phrase:

“Why don’t you just…”

That warning prelude is often followed by a very simple response in a sentence or fragment encompassing very few words. Some examples of confounding suggestions:

“Why don’t you just reduce your overhead?”

“Why don’t you just hire someone else?”

“Why don’t you just find a new supplier?”

“Why don’t you just change the value proposition to your customer?”

“Why don’t you just worry less about your brand?”

All of these phrases were spoken in earnest, in a neutral tone without any particular agenda or adversarial intention. I said my thing and they said theirs.

There’s another warning sign that preceded these suggestions—the words were delivered quite quickly, the “Why” being initiated almost instantly on the period ending my lead-in sentence.

There is a word to describe this kind of give and take. It would best be described as “conversation.”

It could also be described as “bar talk.”

There’s nothing wrong with conversation or bar talk, as long as we realize that’s what it is. Banter is entertainment, not problem-solving. Words that pass the time are not thoughtful solutions. In matters of consequence, I find chit-chat troubling traveling in both directions.

The easiest response to a “Why don’t you just…” suggestion is probably the obvious: “Uh, yeah, we thought about that and ruled it out… months ago.”

A less polite response might be: “Buddy, can you take this discussion a bit more seriously?” If you are in a bar in the midst of bar talk with someone who has been drinking a few hours, be careful in selecting that response, or at least judicious in the tone you use to convey it.

The lack of thoughtfulness in idea-sharing may come down to a matter of confidence and overconfidence. I applaud you for having a quick response to my nagging torment. It is possible I missed the obvious in the fog, but when I hear my problems so easily solved, what I really hear is someone who might not have failed enough. We all fail and to some extent learn from failure, but where is the empathy in our counsel when it comes to someone else’s dilemma, where we are less likely to lose anything if we are wrong?

Some call that having skin in the game. There is nothing that will slow down your response rate quicker than putting your own money or success at risk. You may be confident in making an investment, but when it starts to flounder, overconfidence should have already left the building.

Opinions can be interesting, but when they fail to embrace consequences, they can undermine trust in relationships.

When I am sharing a problem with you, I am not simply venting. I am seeking an improved outcome. If you want to help me, try getting me to rethink the problem in areas I might be stuck. Try some of these approaches on me and you’re likely to catch me listening more intently:

“What is the data telling you about changes in circumstance?”

“When you made that choice, what were the key factors that led to your initial decision?”

“Are your competitors in the same boat, or is this unique to your company?”

“Is the situation temporary and likely to reverse with more usual market conditions, or have the market conditions fundamentally changed?”

“What other advice have you received on the topic, and how was it helpful or damaging?”

If I share a problem with you, I don’t expect you to have the solution. Unless I have gotten ridiculously lucky, you probably can’t solve my problem. Yet if we work through a set of abstracts together, it is possible you might cause me to look at the problem differently and start me on the path to identifying a new solution. Dialogue like that in times of trouble has infinitely more value than a spitball suggestion.

Ego gets in our way when we think the winning outcome of a discussion is to have the right answer. That kind of overconfidence is unrealistic at best and reckless at worst.

Our roles in listening to each other are about being helpful, about unlocking hidden secrets in our judgment and navigating safely around treacherous obstacles. Slam dunks may win bragging rights, but in my many decades on the job, I’ve never heard one that changed the landscape in real-time.

Our words have consequences. Noble advice requires discipline and credibility. If what you prefer is bar talk, let me know and I’ll tell you why I think the Dodgers lost the last two World Series. I can’t imagine anyone in Dodgers management asking my opinion on that. Why would they seek an opinion that didn’t matter?

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Image: Pixabay

Staying Alive

This will be the third post in an unintended trilogy following my last two on why companies that might appear to be “built to last” may suddenly evaporate before your eyes. In response to those stories (Gone So Soon and 8 Warnings That Your Company Is Toast), I received several inquiries wondering if there were ways to spot an imminent mudslide while there’s time to escape.

Executive turnover is something to watch closely, especially the C-suite. Either too little or too much turnstile rotation can be a warning sign. With no leadership change over long periods of time, a company might become entrenched in its plodding, convinced it knows how to do things so well no seismic shift in the landscape requires reinvention of the company’s ways. When executives are repeatedly jumping ship in under a year, the lack of stability in teamwork, embrace of new ideas, or core strategy might be signaling a torpedo crater in the ship’s hull that can’t immediately be seen underwater. Certain presidential administrations come to mind.

An escalating executive dump of equity holdings will usually light up an analyst’s eyes, but what about yours? If top management is seeking liquidity while proclaiming they are simply reducing concentration and balancing their holdings, ask yourself why now. It’s good to be loyal when there’s a reason to be loyal. Ignoring the siren to go down with the ship will never seem as noble when your colleagues have departed in first class and you are left treading ice water. Much of the dot-com bubble unraveled this way, with most of the stock prices dropping swiftly to zero.

Ever sit in a meeting, listen to a colleague or team of co-workers present an innovative, visionary solution to a core concern the company has long identified as critical to its survival, only to see the framers of the big idea summarily dismissed without adequate explanation? Sure you have, most of us have. Perhaps those framers then quit, go across town and put their concept to work for a competitor, of course without violating their nondisclosure or trade secret agreements, modifying their ideas to a variation on the theme. If you believe they are as smart as they think you are, consider following them. That’s how companies like Intel started.

Do you observe evidence that your company understands its core competency, protects it through a culture of learning, and openly admits its weaknesses as opportunities for improvement? When you go to an offsite, is the point of that retreat an honest evaluation of the company’s strengths and threats, or is the current leadership pontificating on how unlikely it is that your competitors can take your market share? Sears has been dying for decades. I wonder when in each of the past years they thought they were winning.

Are you building a project or a company? A lot of people aren’t sure. Most startups begin with a product offering, but if the company building that product defines itself too narrowly, it may soon cease to be a company when it is folded into a larger company with a lot of “synergies” found in the combination. If the word “synergies” doesn’t ring a bell for you in the world of mergers and acquisitions, it usually means overlapping functions that are removed as redundant costs, possibly you. Look at the string of product builders that companies like Microsoft and Google synergized throughout their history. How many of them can you still name?

Are analytics, diagnostic evaluation, empirical assessment, and primary research core to your company’s self-evaluation? Are key decisions made on gut instinct or debated with facts? Ask yourself if that’s what the top leaders in your company say they want to do or if it’s what they really do. That which gets measured gets done. That which gets quantified gets fixed. If you’re in the room where people are swapping stories rather than interpreting data, you’re probably better off gambling in a casino where the odds are at least known.

Another way to think about this is whether you believe top management in a company is truly focused on staying alive, and whether you can help overcome the challenges to a company you love or want to love. If the decision-makers around you are people you trust who are committed to vetting solutions, perhaps you can be as well. Too often when the axe falls, we acknowledge in hindsight what we should have applied in advance thinking. There are artifacts of knowledge all around you—both positive and negative—if you choose to pay close attention to the reality of your situation.

You can always be pleasantly surprised or devastatingly rocked by good or back luck on the job. Predicting the likelihood of an outcome is a learned task that is likely more tangible than you think.