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.

_______________

Photo: 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.

But We’ve Always…

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things:

  • We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals.
  • In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones.

That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends:

  • Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics.
  • We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction.

How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position?

It all begins with three wretched words:

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before:

I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day.

I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.”

I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon.

I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins.

I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget.

Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for doing what’s right.

Earlier this year I attended the third-annual ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas. It had grown 50% over 2017 with more than 8400 attendees. Ecommerce remains an escalating magic buzz word. There were two types of presentations:

  • “People may think our proud, established, vastly well capitalized legacy brand can’t adapt to new technology, but we’ve always been a customer favorite and there’s no reason anyone should bet against us.”
  • “We’re a new brand and will lose our jobs if we don’t succeed, but our investors are betting that if we brainstorm new experiments and focus on customer behavior, the results will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Which bet would you place with your own money?

Let me restate the choice:

  • “We’ve been around more than fifty years, we know exactly what we’re doing having coined a business model for hard-won success, we’re a household name, and we’ll still be a household name fifty years from now.”
  • “We have no idea if we’re going to be around in two years, but we’ll take whatever runway we have to figure out how to do what’s never worked successfully before.”

Don’t bother answeringit’s a trick question. The truth is you need some of both to win the long game, some of the newbies and some of the dinosaurs. Yet too many people convince themselves there’s little downside to a buy-and-hold strategy with “forever” companies like GE or GM. They won’t invest in a risky start-up with a funny name and an unproven business model like Amazon or Apple until it’s a fully valued blue chip.

No one knows what companies are going to win in the future, whether cemented or emerging. They all have unpredictable choices to make. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s how new companies are born and old companies die, or old companies are reborn through reinvention. It’s called creative destruction.

My point has nothing to do with improving your stock portfolio. My point has everything to do with recognizing the death knell of an established brand and bringing life or invigoration to a challenger brand.

It can be a fair fight. An established brand can be a challenger brand when it acts like an underdogwhen it stomps out the status quo and humbly looks to customers for confirmation or rejection of any working thesis.

I am willing to bet few employees at Amazon or Apple wander the halls uttering the words “but we’ve always” as a response to why they aren’t trying something new. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they are becoming slow, cynical, and comfortable that they know what they are doing. I doubt it, but if they are, an opportunity for a challenger brand is out there for the taking.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Sears.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Toys ‘R’ Us.

When was the last time you said it? Still feeling good about that?

This year’s holiday shopping strategy is already behind us. There’s nothing we can do with history except study and learn from it.

The new year awaits all big ideas, particularly those focused on truly delighting customers with a sustainable business model and a resonating brand promise.

My advice going forward in whatever you are doing?

Eliminate the phrase BUT WE’VE ALWAYS from your company’s vocabulary before it eliminates you.

Erase those three words entirely from all conversation.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS is defensive, uninspiring, and telling.

Try something instead that hasn’t worked, something that you think might work because you have reason to believe in a thesis. Measure the results. If there’s promise, hone it with precision. If it starts to work, stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Question the potential interpretation of every collected data point. Remember that every successful idea has a life cycle, and a bad idea yesterday might be reformed under changing market forces as a good idea tomorrow.

When an idea works dependably and someone questions it in a future review, just don’t say BUT WE’VE ALWAYS done it that way. You haven’t always done it that way. It had a beginning. It can have an end. What can’t end is innovation.

_______________

Image: Pixabay

Act Two Begins When You Say So

F Scott Fitzgerald“There are no second acts in American lives.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon, 1941

“I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City, 1932

Like many everyday admirers of American literature, I grew up only hearing the first use of Fitzgerald’s famous quote, which in fact was published posthumously. And like many people who misinterpreted that quote due to a lack of context, I grew up confused, conflicted, and even angry every time I read it. Fitzgerald the social observer worried about the American Dream, but he also celebrated idealism and courage. Would he want to be remembered for an inaccurate observation that is not only untrue but damaging? I doubt it.

Without diving into a diatribe on American literature, let’s just lift from the earlier interpretation of Fitzgerald’s quote and bury the latter forever. To the complete contrary, I assert with full confidence that it is entirely the DNA of American lives to reignite with second acts—in many cases, multiple second acts. In fact you can have as many acts as you want. Your life’s work can be singular, dual, multifaceted, multithreaded, a sine curve of milestones, or a pastiche of overlapping landmarks. If anyone tells you otherwise, run away as far as you can as quickly as you can and clear your mind of the naysayer’s rub.

Our economy is a place that celebrates reinvention. Our democracy is a place where resilience triumphs over cynicism. I believe these things not because I am a Pollyanna motivator (quite the opposite if you know me), but because I see these traits in winners who repeatedly defy the odds. Entrepreneurs, respected leaders, creative professionals who challenge the status quo—they all have to be good at what they do, but they all get knocked down for believing that change has to happen. They seldom bring change to the world on their first try, and when they win, they seldom win once. Why is that? Because before Act One is over, Act Two is in the works, and probably Act Three.

There is only one thing that can prevent an Act Two curtain from rising: Your own decision that a failure is too much to bear. The Information Age has turned that notion wholeheartedly on its head. As long as there is learning extracted from failure, failure is a pit stop, not an endpoint. As long as risk is sufficiently mitigated to bypass a cataclysmic wipeout of resources, you are not failing if you are learning. You are on a path to where you need to go. You are on your way to Act Two.

Read Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. We all know Jobs founded Apple. Then he got kicked out of his own company for being an uncontrollable rebel, the very thing that put Apple on the map. Jobs gets fired around p.206 in Chapter 17. He is personally devastated, emotionally crushed. That’s when his Act Two begins. The book ends on p.571 in Chapter 42. Through it all, Jobs’s Act Two is fueled by a spirit of resilience and a commitment to personal reinvention. He lives an arc that resonates.

Read Neil Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. Disney Bros. loses control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit around p.109 in Chapter 3. Mickey Mouse is born in Chapter 4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—which simultaneously almost crushed Disney’s financial interests and then put the Disney name into American lore forever—arrives in Chapter 6. Disneyland doesn’t even make an appearance until Chapter 10. The book continues until Chapter 11 is finally exhausted on p.633. If you’re looking to count second acts, start early.

Reinvention does not only apply to the famous. When I personally decided to return to writing after a twenty-five year hiatus, a lot of people made snide remarks, both to my face and behind my back. I had enjoyed a respected career in management at the intersection of entertainment and technology, but I never wanted to consider that my whole story. Starting over and writing a novel with a half-century under my belt seemed absurd to almost everyone around me. I would be competing with established authors who had amassed a lifetime of credits. I would be doing it for a fraction of the income I earned previously. There was absolutely no way to predict critical or commercial success of any kind. Critics can be harsh, public evaluation even more ominous. It was a challenge filled with possibility, a path to sharing ideas with authenticity and voice that was mine. That sounded like a decent Act Two to me. I wonder what Act Three will be.

In my new book, Endless Encores, a seasoned CEO spends an entire evening stranded in an airport executive club talking with a rising young manager who is about to hit the wall on his first failure. The less experienced leader is terrified that all he has ever wanted to achieve is about to be lost in a single product cycle. It’s a business parable, with only a few simple plot points, yet it encompasses a Socratic dialogue around what it means to learn from failure. Daphne, the veteran, has survived a seemingly infinite number of product launches, enough of them successful to keep her in the game. Paul, the rookie, comes to learn what it means to embrace resilience and reinvent himself to form a career of linking “acts” that over time reveal the arc of his personal development.

Neither Daphne nor Paul would ever buy into the idea of a terminal Act Two, let alone Act One. That’s a driving factor in the purpose that underlies their lives. Products have to sell, but more importantly, teams have to work well together and values have to emerge as shared conduits to satisfaction. Few of us get this right the first time. No one gets it right every time. You don’t have to get it right every time. You just have to know that potential for improvement always exists, recognize the aspiration for excellence as a mandate, and approach the ideal with unbridled enthusiasm. The curtain goes up on Act Two when you commit the passion to ensuring that it happens.

Don’t misquote or misunderstand Fitzgerald. Don’t tell me there are no second acts in our lives. As long as you are learning and readying yourself for what comes next, you can start anew any time you want. The courage to pursue that can only come from you.

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.