Blaming Bill

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Blaming Bill Gates makes sense. It's all his fault, and here's why. 
In Days Gone By

It’s clear that Bill Gates and Excel have a lot to do with the current pace of organizational and business change.  Before the Excel era began, business seemed to move a lot slower than at today’s warp speed. In that now distant world, analysis and implementation activities surrounding major decisions were constrained by manual processes.

My gosh, you would have thought moving an employee from one cost center to another took an act of Congress. Consolidating departments required a Papal Blessing. Consolidating general ledgers? Well, you’d better add loading dock personnel to meet the trucks when they brought the boxes of paper, tapes, and floppies. You know, floppy as in diskette.

Even getting IT involved in confidential what-if modeling was not a clear-cut winner as it took time, resources, and widened the necessary circle of trust.  There were definite constraints as to what even the most visionary business leaders saw as possible and/or practical.  At some level, there’s no doubt that these constraints mandated a relatively slower pace.

Fast Forward to Present

All this stuff is now at once much easier and more routine. In many cases, it happens with just a few mouse clicks, file links, or excel commands.  Entire payrolls, sku catalogs, and trial balances move back and forth regularly through the air as file attachments.  The result is a near-magical ability to process and manipulate huge amounts of data right on our desktops.

Accountants, analysts, and managers alike have all become very comfortable sifting through 10,000+ row files linked to other similarly-sized .xlsx’s to perform their own sumifs and vlookups – quickly able to draw conclusions and hatch plans about moving parts, people, and P&L’s. This computational access and numerical facility allows countless strategic initiatives to quickly and simultaneously move forward rather than wait in the queue or never see the light of day. For this, we are blaming Bill.

Game-Changing Power

Excel spreadsheet software was obviously a game-changer, but who really knew its potential?  Yes, Bill probably had an inkling, yes some idea, but did he even realize the impact that his product would have?  At first, this innovative new Microsoft tool was just a time-saving way to add a column of numbers together.  “Gee whiz, this is really cool!”, said the assembled accounting masses in their enthusiastic but characteristically muted tones.  IT was slow on the uptake, still too busy with System 36’s, AS400’s, and mainframe software to join the parade. So off we went on our own, building our excel knowledge and the accompanying data structures in a decentralized manner.

But then excel became something much greater.  It became the heavy equipment of modular corporate change action. It became a powerful engine that allowed an entire professional legion of corporate accessory (aka accountants, analysts, and more recently FP&A types) to move entire buildings while simultaneously rearranging the individual bricks, in nothing short of the maximum number of permutations and combinations.

This enabled big-thinking business leaders to implement a greater number of strategically significant projects, plans, and ideas.  It is truly amazing what has come to define the new normal in financial and business analysis.  IT folks even use excel now!  For all this, we are blaming Bill.

Excel Jockeys

To a very significant extent, excel jockeys of the world in various functional disciplines (most notably Finance), have become the heavy equipment operators of corporate change. They do the heavy lifting and are the earth-movers in corporate America.  Proficiency in using the relatively simple but programmatically-intelligent commands within Bill’s product makes for greater speed in analysis and implementation. This directly contributes to a faster pace and broader scope of targeted bottom-line improvement.

While business decisions will always carry risk, these same skill sets and tools enable near-commensurate ability do the analysis and implementations to avoid and recover from bad decision outcomes. And that’s the beautiful irony at work.  Everything is instantaneously changeable.

Decide that it might not be the best idea to close that plant, downsize, realign responsibilities, or rationalize those skus?  Don’t worry. Yes, it’s right here…. on the gear shift…rather toolbar…right there it is….yes, the one with the little arrow on it.  It’s called “undo”.  Hit it a few times,  and all of the parts, people, and P&L’s go back to being just the way they were.  For all this and more, we are blaming Bill. He’s the one on the right in the picture below.

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Same Team!

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“……And I scream at the top of my lungs.  What’s going on?” – 4 Non Blondes

What goes on regularly down in the business hood and out in the suburbs of life should make us all want to scream at the top of our lungs. If we’re paying attention to what’s going on around us and how people interact in the workplace, we’d scream “Same Team!” more often

Team Lessons

Derived from youth team sport coaching instructions that not enough people seem to have carried forward into their adult lives, “Same Team!” is something that coaches would say when two or more players wearing the same colored uniforms would fight each other for the ball. After all who didn’t want to make the catch, take the shot, or score the touchdown?  That’s where the glory was and still is.

The symbolism of the single ball should be metaphorically apparent as people in business regularly seem to fight their teammates for a greater slice of limited reward systems and top management recognition.  And some teammates will even tell you and others that this is what they’re doing and accordingly attempt to justify throwing a co-worker “under the bus”.  Others are more subtle, cunning, and even passive-aggressive, but they are equally as divisive and potentially even more destructive to the team. Of course, this is nothing new and goes back as far as the days of abacus-enabled bean counting.

Team Concept

Part of the issue lies with the concept of a team.  When we feel a part of a team, we commit to something bigger than any one individual. We practice good team behavior by deferring achievement of individual goals, considering alternative solutions, going the extra mile to assist and develop teammates, and ego-adapting to situational leadership needs.  We don’t try win every point, catch every nickel, or be the shining star at every meeting.  What motivates effective team behavior is clear communication, shared sense of mission, and getting the best overall results for the team.

Narcissists are the antitheses of teammates.  In fact, it can be said that they don’t join teams.  Their inability or unwillingness to commit to something bigger bolsters their own distorted sense of self. How can they be expected to be accountable to the team for good team behavior if they do not see themselves as part of any team?  It’s an easy out. As someone once actually said to me, “I don’t believe in teams. They don’t accomplish anything.”

Toward Team Understanding

In their own minds, these folks are bigger and/or more important than any team.  Team dynamics and the group process just slow them down. Ironically, narcissists frequently talk about “the team” but may more accurately be assessed to regard the team in utilitarian fashion. That is, the team and its membership are nothing more than a place to get what’s needed for their climb to the next summit.  In their own minds, they are rapid climbers getting their provisions at the base camp PX.  Many do get pretty far up the mountain.

Not everyone who fails to practice good team behavior is a narcissist.  Most defendants who land in team violation court can probably to some extent blame the system. Unlike the narcissistic offenders, these perps probably do not suffer from undiagnosed mental illness.   Their breaches are rational behavioral reactions to organizational ambiguity, conflicting objectives, and poorly designed incentive systems.   In reality, good team behavior requires understanding and adjustment to the fact that these factors may create situations that run counter to the best interests of the overall team. With poorly designed incentives, some conflicts along these lines may be irreconcilable.  However, good team behavior can still remain SOP if team members hold these values.

Team Perspective & Consequence

Having the opportunity to co-author several published articles with a retired Navy SEAL Captain Randy Albracht provides a useful perspective on teams.  In SEAL biz and with special operations, failing to practice good team behavior carries with it severe life and death consequences.  Look no further than the SEALs for what teamwork and commitment to one’s teammates is all about.   In Corporate America, the risks and rewards that most of us have with our teams are by comparison almost as little league as the orignal settings for the sage “Same Team!” coaching mantras. 

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Randy Albracht SEAL picture

Freeze Framed

 

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got. Till it’s gone  They paved paradise . And put up a parking lot.”  – Joni Mitchell

freeze frame 

Don’t Blink

No one ever wants to miss something big, and to be sure, only a handful of freeze frame moments happen over the course of a career. Distinguished by their greatness, these moments allow us to catch that proverbial lightning in the bottle. Unless we miss them, that is, because we are not paying close enough attention to what is happening around us.

It actually turns out to be pretty easy to miss these moments because we are all increasingly very busy people, and all too often high achievement personality types take success as a given.  Stay focused as we head out of the gates into yet another Corporate New Year, and just maybe you will get to see one.

Pleased be advised that these moments have a certain “now you see them, now you don’t” slight-of-hand quality, as these days, something always seems to come along to shake up our Shangri Las. This is the inevitable and escalating sense of disruption and change that abounds in today’s corporate world.

Dream Team

In a newly formed manufacturing unit, a plant manager had the luxury of pretty much handpicking his entire management team.  The composition of the team was the pure genius of this situation. The well-balanced chemistry of this team provided the freeze frame moment.  Of course it didn’t last forever, but while it did, it was impressive.

What caused the fade and the change to something not as good was a gradual confluence of personnel changes, union-management issues, and external factors that were in reality much bigger than this dream team’s value to the company.  With specific reference to our opening lyric above, part of this manufacturing facility really has since become a parking lot.

Hyper Growth

Another freeze frame moment involved a small but fast-growing company.  There was a tremendous amount of low-hanging fruit for any functional or business leader who could recognize the opportunities and manage toward them.  As enough capable and similarly minded leaders assembled and built much-needed infrastructure, the company’s freeze frame moment was defined by the phrase “printing money”.  Of course this didn’t last forever either, but while it did, it was impressive.

What caused the fade and change here to something not as good was a classic soap operatic tale of ego, greed, and lack of down side planning.  The company’s ownership and its once very successful leadership team in a few short years became a very dysfunctional set of sub-optimizing fiefdoms.  Undermining its own success became so routine that its entrepreneurial spirit and goodness became fully engulfed in a flame of blame.  As a result, the company was not as well-positioned as it could have been for the hugely recessionary conditions that loomed just around the bend.

Boys & Toys

Technology companies with cool products tend to attract some bright and talented technical folks as employees. This third and final freeze frame moment involves a case of huge energy and enthusiasm around new product development. Of course, new products of any kind require innovation, money, a certain latitude within which to create. Given all of these, a boys and their toys culture that intersects with market or segment growth is hard to beat.

What can cause a fade and change to something not as good in this technical example is the same recessionary environment referenced in the Hyper Growth scenario.  The reality of near historic down market conditions is disruption that forces technology and other companies to do things differently.  Everyone’s world changes, at least temporarily. Reorganizations, spending cuts, leadership changes, etc…..However, true innovation underlying a freeze frame moment will regenerate itself as conditions improve.

After all, this is the essence of an innovative culture – not losing sight of the longer-term rewards of a beneficial culture when times get rough.

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