Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stop the bleeding, connecting with Cassandra

I have always professed that organizational profitability is very easy once you embrace the three vital elements to any business. For a business to be successful, the product or service offering must make sense, the product or service must be sold at a price greater than its production, and there must be enough buyers for the product or service to continue into the future. If you apply these rules to products it is easily understood how some businesses become wildly successful and others fail. Compare the life of the garbage bag to the life of the famous Pet Rocks of the 1970’s.

Once an organization can get beyond the vital elements, then those savory terms of every MBA move the organization from a rudimentary business into a viable entity. The likes of decision making models and S.W.O. T analysis forms the foundation of strategic modeling which puts organizations on the economic continuum; which I have discussed so much in the past. However, somewhere at sometime organizations lose focus of the road they have traveled and other subjective approaches to management kicks in.

During a recent conversation with a senior partner of a global law firm, it became evident that management of the firm went from being objective through verifiable facts to subjective with ‘gut feelings’. This multi-million dollar organization prided itself on assimilation of the latest technology. In their eyes, it made them more efficient and effective in producing their services. In reality, however, all of the expected efficiencies were really masked by the atychiphobic behavior of the product evangelists.

It is in the fear of admitting failure that many of the firm’s project evangelists continue down the road of doom, pushing harder and more determined. These project evangelists drag their colleagues down a blood-letting experience of downward spiraling profits. David Maxwell contends that the signs of project failure are being read by the very people who are installing and often initiating the project; this is known as the Cassandra Curse. In his research of 589 project managers, the Cassandra Curse is alive and well. He contends that project managers often see the future, but are simply unable to convince others to change the course of action. It seems that saving face is more important than saving the organization, in the eyes of the project evangelist.

During lunch with this distinguished litigator, I came to understand how his firm had undertaken so many projects that either got stuck in the bureaucracy of perfection or never yielded the expected windfall professed when they were launched. I believe these emotional interjections in the decision making process leads to organizations losing millions of dollars. It is almost as if management gets caught up in Confirmation Bias (Plous, S. The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993). I believe it is the degree to which organizations allow emotions to alter their decisions, which roots them in their economic continuum.

A huge amount has been written on the decision making process. In a very simplistic view the extremes can be defined as subjective and objective. A purely objective decision model would be likened to automatic stock trading algorithms; when certain criteria are met, an action is initiated. Conversely subjective decision making can be all feeling based. In business, and most MBA’s are trained this way, the objective side of decision making is the mantra. Figures don’t lie.

Many years ago, I articled with an accountant who ultimately took a position with an oil exploration company. During our many conversations, I learned that these types of companies are run by objective decision making. The finance role in these organizations has a wealth of technology and very sharp individuals that are constantly reviewing the ROI of every project and proposed project. In their emotionless drop of the gavel these companies lose no sleep on cutting a project as soon as the ROI drops below their threshold, regardless of the money already expended.

In a recent contribution, I mentioned an interview with Sir Richard Branson whose advice to today’s company is “batten down the hatches”. I think now is the time organizations need to bury the atychiphobic, bury the ego and recognize that a project destined to failure will suck up more money and time than simply walking away regardless of how much has already been spent. Stop feeding the Cassandra Curse.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Knowledge Begs Action; Culture Alters Reaction

Unless you have been hiking through the Congo and trying to avoid cholera you would see that the economic landscape of the world is extremely delicate and changes erratically with each passing day. During an extensive tour of Western Europe and attending the CFO conference in Brussels I was plagued trying to internalize, why some organizations simply fail to read the indicators of change.

Almost two years ago, the indicators of today’s economic meltdown were already making the news. Interestingly enough, while dining with a colleague I speculated that the economic sputters of 2006 would manifest into a meltdown. As I reflect on that conversation I remain dumbfounded how the indicators were there and so many organizations simply continued along – status quo. What is even more surprising, I along with countless others began writing on the importance of organizational change as a means of weathering the pending economic crisis, yet so many simply continued on the road of status quo, not taking advantage of this powerful knowledge.

Today, the inklings (I had) in 2006 have manifested into a global economic issue where so many organizations are saying, ‘what’, ‘huh’ and ‘what now’. It is almost as if these organizations have been living on a different planet for the past 24+ months. Now in a state of panic, they are downsizing, rightsizing, and all other forms of sizing. What they are not doing is revising!

One of my most favorite activities is meeting with organizational leaders to understand how they view their market and where they see their business going. Although in North America the variations are large between organizations and market niches they pale in comparison to those seen around the globe. The focus of the Brussels CFO conference was on Working Capital Management. As always, I have found, these CFO conferences provide a tremendous opportunity for learning as they attract some of the most brilliant minds in the financial/economic sectors.

With the wealth of indicators and a plethora of insightful analysis of these indicators it is a wonder why all organizations simply don’t have their act together. As I have written in the past, all organizations find their resting spot on this economic continuum. Their position, from the extremes of wildly successful or bankrupt, is self regulated and is based solely on their culture. Although I have professed this for years, the concept gelled during Mr. Schaafsma’s, CFO Europe of Royal Wessanen, presentation on Sharpening Staff Focus on Working Capital Management. Here is a company that built a culture that focused on tying results to the generation of cash. Here is a company that read the market indicators and acted; based on facts. This was in radical contrast to the story told by a CFO of an electrical components supply company. During our conversation, Helmut, explained to me how his company was so focused on market penetration that they bought back, from their resellers, almost 2000 electric motors which had a street value of almost €200 000. As we talked about this ‘strategic’ move I realized here is a company that was driven by ignoring market indicators and working on an ‘agenda’.

There are many market indictors, those which impact globally, nationally and geographically. They are endemic in our everyday life; one would be hard pressed not to be impacted by them. However, so many organizations simply choose to ‘go it alone’. Through my numerous conversations with many people, I realize that it is the organization’s culture that will place them on the economic continuum.

As the world dances on the economic self-destruct button and as the $3 trillion cash injection has failed to make a difference toward economic stability, it has become very clear, at least to me, that survival in these times must be based on acting based on the market voice. [A phenomenal presentation on the current credit crunch and how a company was dealing with it was hosted by Rafnur Larruson, head of treasury of the Actavis Group.] We should not be reacting to what ‘we feel’, or what ‘we want’. This reminds me of a flow audit engagement I was part of almost two decades ago. Our audit senior made five recommendations to this large multi-jurisdictional organization on achieving an immediate positive effect on their bottom line. The feedback was:

“We have been doing business this way for the last 150 years, and we are not about to change now”.

That culture has, whittled that organization down by almost 30% in the last two decades.

As a leader of an organization, you can choose to read the writing on the wall or not, it is completely up to you. Leading with knowledge and insight empowers you with the abundance of action. Leading from a self-righteous attitude where you ‘think’ you know better than the market will force the organization into an option-limiting reactionary mode.
Options that come from Acting are limitless; options that come from a need to react are limited.