Sustained Growth

The Icing on the Nothing

My brain is wired to always be thinking about how to differentiate a business through adding value. A breakthrough that transforms the entire space would be nice, but often the value-add consists of integrating a very high level of service (with the emphasis on reliability and responsiveness, for starters) around the core product or service. Recently I have observed a number of instances where the value-add is great, but the core service is badly deficient in the minds of customers. Think of it this way: what do you do when you want to put the icing on the cake… and there is no cake? What’s the market for iced nothing? [Beyond college student eating habits, that is, which often include fried nothing and nothing parmigiana.] Right.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a mentor. His perspective was that 70% of people (or organizations) never advance past the core definition of a business, never see the way to add value, and so never make an impact. The next 20% can advance to the next level, but forget or forsake the core of the business and fail any way. Only 10% get to the next level of delivering the core consistently well and take the product or service to the next level.

You can argue with the percentages, but he made a great point. Maslow taught us the concept of a hierarchy of human needs. Businesses have a hierarchy of needs too, and I do mean hierarchy: don’t try to skip over rungs on the ladder or you’ll probably suffer a bad fall. There are lots of me-too businesses that can make money, but they are unlikely to be very successful, nor make an impact, nor create a legacy that endures, unless they differentiate themselves. But better/faster/cheaper has become table stakes in the marketplace.  When you come up with a great idea for the icing, you better be great at baking cakes, too. And if you’re not, fix that fast.

The Answer Is In: At Apple, It's What We Feared

In my May 20 posting, The Leader or The System, I referenced a Fortune magazine cover story on Apple, which gave some insight into how the place works. Now Adam Lashinsky has written Inside Apple, and given us the answers we feared: despite its unparalleled success and impact, there is not a lot about how the place operates that you might select for your own organization. I recommend that you read Bob Sutton's blog for great insight into the book, but especially what Lashinsky's findings tell us about organizations. Give AAPL credit for making it work, but don't hope to be successful by copying their environment.

A New Model for Management

I wrote in my previous blog (sorry for the long lag, but those pesky Holidays have me putting family over work) that a new management model was needed to make management relevant to a new economy, one characterized by most workers performing knowledge work. [Even knowledge work is under pressure as knowledge itself has become a commodity; knowledge work in service of value creation is our focus now.] So what does the management model of the future – or today – look like?

  • It’s systematic, an integrated way of enabling the full enterprise to generate sustainable results.
  • It provides transparency for all participants and stakeholders. In this context, transparency addresses both metrics and processes. Manufacturing has long provided visibility into work-in-progress, but knowledge work has often deferred until process completion to determine the outcome. The unit of knowledge work is a project (or similar structure by another name). Projects take on different characteristics depending upon the circumstances, but they all have a plan, which the best performing organizations use to drive the work. Our visibility into projects in progress is too often reduced to Microsoft Project (great for planning, OK for tracking, lousy for reporting) or status reports that say nothing or too much.
  • Managers have a new role description, one where they are expected to be great at managing and not only subject matter experts. Managers will carry no (or at most, very little) effort to complete the work… they will be eyes-on/hands-off. They are great coaches, observing performance, providing feedback, and demonstrably committed to the success of the team and all its members.
  • The fundamental responsibility of managers is to create the conditions of success for their organizations. Managers see to it that their people have the core skills (business knowledge, alignment with the core context, understanding of processes and systems) and domain skills (practicing the latest expertise for their field of work: accounting, marketing, engineering, service, production, etc.). Managers also provide tools to scale and sustain a growing business. These include capabilities as workflow, collaboration tools, and above all, the freedom that enables front line workers to act to serve customers and innovative continuously.
  • The last aspect of the management model is actually the first. In fact, it is so fundamental that I call it the zeroth, as it becomes before everything else and only then is everything else possible. It is communications. Communications are needed to include people in the process of generating and articulating the mission, vision, values, and goals so that people are enrolled in the beginning rather than struggle to buy-in after the fact. Communications are needed to set expectations and take accountability, so that everyone knows what the team is counting on them to deliver. Communications are essential to providing safety to experiment, fostering fast/cheap failures that accelerate learning. And communications are the prerequisite to fostering a customer-focused culture in which the enterprise’s value is acknowledged and rewarded by those who count most.

The manifestation of management practices will be different in all circumstances, but the underlying attributes will have these in common. What else do you think managing in the future will require?

And lest we forget, with change ever accelerating, the future is now.