Dream Business

Ellendene detailEverything that surrounds us was once a dream that someone made real. What do we call the people who turn such dreams into reality? Leaders.

When we bought our house, our lawyer found an old envelope in the conveyancing paperwork. In it was an ordnance survey map of the local area. On the map, someone had drawn a small block and an ‘X’, in pencil, in a field, by a farm lane.  In the margin, they had written a word: “Ellendene”.

In 1938, the original owners had marked where they would build their house. They imagined it enough to give it a name.

It had been their dream. Someone made it real. And now, after many years, their dream was now our house.

All houses were once dreams.  Not all of them have such stories, but for every house ever built, someone had to imagine what it would be.

Then someone had to build it and turn this dream into reality.

For every house, someone did.

It’s not just houses.

Unless we are standing naked in the wilderness (and, perhaps, even then) everything about us was once someone’s dream.

The office I am sitting in? Someone dreamt what it should be like.

The shoes I am wearing? Someone dreamt these up.

The coffee I am drinking? Someone dreamt how it would taste and how they would serve it.

The electricity that lights the room in which I am writing this? Someone dreamt how to generate it. Someone dreamt how to distribute it.  Someone dreamt the design of the lamp that lights my desk.

We are surrounded by dreams made real.

Sometimes, our dreams are world-changing. Eradicate polio. Create the iPhone. Replace horses with automobiles. Stage the Olympics.

Sometimes, our dreams change our own lives and those around us. Build a house. Open a restaurant. Choose a university. Launch a fund-raising campaign.

Most of the time, however, our dreams are pretty mundane. Remodel the store-room.  Grow sales revenues next year.  Launch a product in a new way. Treat more patients than last month. Have our team work better.

It’s ok if they are.

They are still dreams. We have to imagine them. And then we need to make them real.

What do we call the people who make dreams real?

Leaders.

Leaders envisage what could be.

Perhaps what should be.

Then they help the people who work with them to understand the dream, to have them want to make it real, and to understand what they can do to help turn the dream into reality.

Because dreams are about what could be, they are about the future. Leaders help others to shape that future.

Most of us may do so only in small ways, but when we do, we are leading.

When we don’t, we let other people’s dreams shape our future.

If we want our dreams to happen, we need to work to achieve them.

Perhaps we all need to be leaders.

If so, maybe the first step is to ask ourselves: “what dream do I want to start making real today?”

We Need To Talk About Metrics


Cart-before-horseThe cult of metrics can get in the way of delivering value.

A little while ago – 1988, according to the OED –  people started using the word ‘metrics’ in the way we use it today.  Businesses took up the term, motivated by a belief that they needed to measure things if they were to manage business performance.

Of course, businesses have always measured what they do. But the advent of lean thinking, global competition and, most of all, the growing adoption of computers and spreadsheets all about this time meant that an organisation that lacked firm control of their business would be (and were) killed off by competitors who had learned to run tighter ships.

So, metrics.

And since then? On the back of Kaplan and Norton’s balanced scorecard (a good thing), Key Performance Indicators (KPIs*) (via Mack Hanan in 1970), Statistical Process Control (SPC) (also a good thing), Six Sigma (a good thing in the right place), Management Information Systems (MIS), Business Intelligence (BI), data analytics, dashboards and now, Big Data, metrics have become an industry. Many businesses employ phalanxes of analysts and banks of computers to ‘crunch the numbers’.

Now in many organisations, the first response to a proposal to do something new or better is “…how will you measure it?” (And not, you’ll notice, “…why do we want to do this?”)

This is a shame.

In business, the things we do, we do because they are important and will make a difference: to our organisation, to our customers, to our people. What we want to achieve, the value we are aiming to get, is much more important than how we choose to measure it.

Yet too many organisations put the metrics cart before the value horse.

Important things get slowed down – or stopped – because we can’t agree on what metrics to use, or we need to wait to set up a reporting mechanism, or we are waiting for our technical people to “…set up the system” so it can measure and report.

The effect is that important things get lost, or are delayed, and the cost of doing business goes up.

Worse, we end up delivering projects that meet their metrics but miss their goal.

In extreme cases, metrics can become a madness that infects almost every business conversation. I once found myself working in an organisation that had 43,000 metrics in place.

Yes, they had the madness so badly that they had measured their metrics.

*Sigh*

Yet here’s the thing.  The purpose of metrics isn’t to measure something. Their purpose is to give decision-makers a way to pay attention to something important in our business, over time.

But people can only pay attention to about seven things at a time. Any organisation has a core of a few things to which it needs to pay attention just to keep things going. Money, for example, or customers, or the amount of work we need to do, or quality, or risk.

If we can only pay attention to seven things, we have only a little room to pay attention to anything else: the things we need to change or make better. We need to pick these things to which we want to pay attention very carefully if we want them to succeed.  They need to be important.

And if we have to pick our way through hundreds or thousands of metrics, then we can’t focus on these one or two important things.  Or if, by some monumental effort of concentration, we can focus on these one or two things, we can only do so for a moment, before we are distracted by something else.

This is one reason why so many important initiatives hit the sand; why ‘Top Management attention’ is so transitory; why we lose sight of our goals in the middle of projects – because too many things are competing for corporate attention.

This is not to say that we don’t need metrics. On the contrary, having the right metrics against good standards with effective, practical and timely mechanisms for reporting them, is more of an imperative than ever.  The argument for keeping tight control of business essentials is much stronger now than it ever was in 1988.

We have to begin the conversation about metrics differently. Perhaps we should start by asking what do we need to pay attention to, and why do we need to do so? If we can only play attention to seven things, what are the seven in which we want to invest our time and attention?

The dirty little secret of metrics is this: if they don’t help us to pay attention to the things that are important, then they are a distraction, and are stopping us from running our business properly.

For the key to getting things done in business isn’t to measure things – it is to pay attention to them.

 

*(For those of you interested in this kind of thing, the first recorded use of the term “Key Performance Indicator” (KPI) that Google can find is in a book called Wholesaling Management: Text and Cases, edited by Richard Marvin Hill in 1963 – then nothing until 1974…  (Google Ngram Viewer: cool or what?))

No-one Knows How

suit-673697_1280 reverseIn Toulouse on a quick, one-day assignment to work with the WW management team of a tech company. I dined out last night when I arrived at an open-air bistro by the leafy cobbles of the Place Wilson. Outstanding food, a half-bottle of a ’98 Medoc: a pleasant evening – even if I was dining alone.

I’m here because my client, a multi-billion dollar company that led the world in its field, has lost its way and is looking to set a new direction – while trying to make enough money to stay in business while it sorts things out. In short, they’ve been losing money and need to get better at making it. The problem is: they know what they need to do – they just don’t know how.

They are not alone. It’s an epidemic.

No-one knows how.

Cut costs in rational, practical ways that reduce deadwood and improve efficiency? Absolutely. Identify new markets and develop new products to meet the new demand? Damn straight. Create a customer-centric organisation that delivers ever-better products with consistent speed and quality? Ohhh yeah….

Knowing what to do? That’s the easy bit. How to do it? That’s a different question.

If I am the CEO, I can read the books and go to the business schools and pay the consultants their big fees but I’m worse off than when I began because now I know what I should do, I really do. But thinking about how we can do it is much harder – and it’s a wet Monday morning in February and the numbers are down and the Finance director is quitting and the IT guys are telling me that our great white hope of a CRM system is becoming a great white elephant and there’s a quality problem in Kuala Lumpur and I know that my North American Operations Director is bucking for my job and my inbox tells me I have 223 unread emails and I’m late for the plane to Osaka and any hope I have of thinking about how I solve my real problems is washed away by this daily torrent – and I know Tuesday will only be worse.

I don’t need people to tell me what to do – I need them to tell me how, because I don’t have time (or, often, the capacity) to work that out for myself. And almost all the consultants out there offering to help don’t get this.

Most offer ‘solutions’ – like a new computer system has ever saved a company. (Has one, ever? I’d be delighted to hear about it. In my experience, a new system is more likely to kill, not cure).

If they can’t offer me an IT solution, I can always rent their brains, because they’re so much smarter than me about my business, aren’t they? (huh?) After all, I’ve outsourced everything else, why not outsource my thinking? They’ll write the reports, make their slick presentations, then leave me to get on with it (But I still won’t know how, because they don’t know).

And if this doesn’t work, they’ll offer to do the job for me. Good grief, if I’ve outsourced my thinking, I may as well outsource my role while I’m about it. So they flood us with lots of green, smart-suited graduates with condescending smiles who run around analysing here and workshopping there and (if we let them) eventually running the show with their procedures and their metrics and their systems.

And I still won’t know how to change the business to make it better. (And you know what? Neither will they. If they really wanted to run a business, they would be managers, not consultants…)

The only sustainable way for a business to succeed is for its people think better, more efficiently and more productively about the things that matter – and to do so in ways that drive effective action.

It’s hard and it hurts and most people and most organisations will do anything to avoid to doing it. But it is the secret to cutting through the daily noise and stuff.

To think clearly about issues and, even more importantly, about how to resolve them is, I believe, one of the biggest challenges of leadership.

But if we do it and – better – if we help our colleagues to do it, it’s also among the most enjoyable, interesting and valuable things we can do in business.

And today it is Toulouse.

A bientôt.

Image credit: Ryan McGuire (https://pixabay.com/en/users/RyanMcGuire-123690/)