Framing our AI approach: Establishing professional policies

What does a comprehensive yet digestible AI policy look like for a professional services firm?

Geoff Wilson

I’m going to continue this article with the same starting statement I will use with all AI articles:  I’m still learning. We all are.

The question I and our team at WGP have been wrestling with is this:  Now that Generative AI (GAI) is in the popular lexicon and is beginning to permeate academia and some workplaces, what is an effective and flexible policy statement that informs our own practices around it?

My current answer is basically four points.  And, I would appreciate any reactions or feedback on how these policies might satisfy you as an executive or your customers if you are in similar professional services.  I’m also genuinely curious to understand what this leaves out.

Our emerging AI policy for WGP is encompassed in the following four policy points:

  • Be Human-Centered – Because no generative artificial intelligence will replace understanding and judgment required when navigating organizations, cultures, and individual relationships; we will always have a human-in-the-loop when it comes to content, recommendations, and basic communications (yes, even automated emails, which we will never use). This means our people must be expert at understanding what AI can and cannot do.


  • Be Secure – Generative AI will have the potential to “see” very complex data associations through even basic user provided data.  No proprietary data will be shared with generative AI platforms unless those platforms are trusted and certified as proprietary, walled, or otherwise data-safe. Otherwise, if we are feeding a GAI platform data or querying a GAI platform, we should treat those actions as if they were posted to social media.


  • Be Transparent – Use of AI as a force multiplier is quite possibly a general good. However, because it is not yet clear that generative AI platforms are reliable as to background facts, we will disclose when we use such tools to generate any content in a given document.  This communicates the risks associated with acceptance of such output, and it prevents our professionals from misrepresenting their own capabilities and work behind an AI shield.


  • Be Ethical – Every deployment of complex technology has ethical use questions.  We must remain independent in our recommendations on our and our clients’ use of AI in general as to its benefits, its risks, and its overall impact on society.  We will not recommend uses that, in our judgment, create net-negative impact when private and public benefits and costs are considered.

I will expand on these topics and why they are important in a later post.

I will reiterate that I am a learner in this space…it’s just too critical not to comment on.  I would be curious your reaction here.  What does this policy set leave out?

Framing our AI approach: The ethical conundrum

In a dog-eat-dog world, it’s important to know when you are the dog.

Geoff Wilson

I’m going to write this one with the starting statement that I think all articles on Artificial Intelligence should begin with:  I’m still learning.

Much is written about the disruption that is happening right at this moment due to AI and the quickening pace of AI development in everyday life.  A recent Forbes poll shows that 97% of CEOs and key decision-makers see AI playing a large role in their future operations.  And, if I’m really blunt: I don’t think 97% of CEOs and key decision-makers even know the scope of what AI is today or could do in the near future.

The implications are large and broad and the ignorance is real.  So, with that said, I have a distinct thought that we are going to be starved for ethical frameworks to manage through the emergence of AI.

This will be true a the macro level, where nation-states and overall political ideologies are going to wrestle with how to assimilate and regulate what’s coming (which for all intents and purposes looks to be an AGI–Artificial General Intelligence–that is far and beyond anything currently contemplated); and it will be true at the micro level where companies, households, and even individuals will have to re-orient to a world that can be engineered in the blink of and eye toward some exceedingly negative outcomes.

I liken the world we are entering to the late 1800’s and the emergence of industrial monopolists and trusts. Some of the builders of our modern world were in many ways economic predators who captured power and wealth by pillaging livelihoods and social structures–even if unknowingly.  Regulatory frameworks had to catch up.  Ethical frameworks had to catch up.  And the benefit the world had “back then” was that the world generally moved at the pace of the telegraph and the locomotive.

We are emerging into a world that not only has a similar lack of readiness in our regulatory and ethical frameworks, but that also moves at light speed. 

In the annals of competition, one of the more glaringly instructive contests was the race to the South Pole undertaken between dueling expeditions led by Robert Falcon Scott (the “Terra Nova” Expedition) and Roald Amundsen (the “South Pole” expedition) in the early 1910’s.  Rather than recount the full story here, I’ll merely offer an anecdote.

Among the competing choices made by Scott and Amundsen were different choices of transportation. Scott famously attempted to deploy “motor sledges” (essentially early snow tractors) and horses.  Amundsen went with dogs.  The choice seems mundane at first, but the implications are astounding.

First of all, after the motor sledges failed Scott as internal combustion engines were prone to do in the early 1900’s, he became dependent on horses, which were not well adapted to the cold (horses sweat when working…sweat freezes).  Not only that, but the Scott expedition had to carry food for the horses, which was heavy.  Add to that the human attraction for noble horses, and its accompanying emotional burden felt by the men not willing to let their horses suffer, and you end up with a real logistical and emotional (dare I say ethical) conundrum.  Scott’s expedition ended up “man-hauling” their sleds and supplies hundreds of miles to the pole, and even farther back–and yes, this is as terrible as it sounds.  In the end, all of the members of the team who reached the South Pole starved and died.

Charming story, right?

Amundsen’s expedition did something entirely different.  They chose skis for the men, and dogs to tow their sleds. And, they used the fact that dogs are one type of animal not revulsed by cannibalism. In other words, when the going got tough, Amundsen fed his dogs to his dogs.  He sacrificed the weaker animals for the survival of the stronger ones and their masters. For most of us, this strategy sounds gruesome.  It was also an ingenious solution to a massive logistical challenge. Amundsen’s expedition skied and sledded to the Pole–arriving weeks ahead of Scott– then returned without loss of life or even relative difficulty.

Amundsen won because this and many other of his choices–no matter what you think of the stomach they took–ultimately were better that Scott’s.

Now, why do I bring up this anecdote in framing up the ethical conundrum we face in our march toward AGI?

It’s because of this:  At this moment, we view choices that require strong stomachs with some admiration, and even when we do not, we admire those who make such choices as “impressive” humans.  John D. Rockefeller made many, many predatory decisions in building Standard Oil into possibly the largest store of wealth in the world during the 1800’s.  He was vilified by some, and admired by others.

Without doubt, though, he was the “Amundsen” of the story.  He was the winning master who pitted dog against dog. We lionize JDR for his wealth and philanthropy, even today.

In the future, though, we have real reason to fear that the “master”–the Amundsens of future competitive arenas–will be non-human.  And that, my friends, means we stand a good chance of being merely the dogs.

In a dog-eat-dog world, it’s important to know when you are the dog and not the master.

I was recommended Lex Fridman’s podcast from April (#371) with Max Tegmark.  Tegmark is a physicist and AI researcher at MIT who is decidedly negative on the likely outcomes of the AI revolution. And, he has many compelling views. One that stuck with me is that, in his view the first mass deployment of AI into the human world has been within the social media space…and we humans have lost that battle in spades.

In other words, when it came to deploying AI into social media, AI models keyed in on our human habits of tribalism, sectionalism, and hatred; and they had us eat each other alive.  All of this was ostensibly because the AI was “only” looking for a way to increase “engagement” on silly social media sites.

So what happens when an AI is not only making marketing and entertainment decisions (some of which have already led to massive social dislocation, strife, suicide and death), but also decisions on transportation, health, governance, corporate strategy, and social policy?  What happens when humans are no longer the Amundsen?

I’ll continue this line of thinking.  I firmly believe we will need not only fantastically facile management of how and when to deploy AI–which will change our world further than it has already–but also exceptional judgment and guidance on why we deploy it and how we can test and refine it to avoid unintended consequences.

This will be true for executives, and it will be true in spades for political and social leaders whose power is, by definition, even less regulated than business executive power.

Watch this space for more, and please…share your comments.

I will reiterate that I am a learner in this space…it’s just too critical not to comment on.  Now it’s your turn…what do you think about the ethical implications of AI deployment?

When it comes to being great, the secret is in the dirt

Is the secret to success really just about being willing to get into the dirt?

If you have spent more than a few minutes with me, then you likely have heard me chatter on about my passion for the game of golf dating back to when I started playing seriously twenty years ago.

In my experience in the professional world, I am often struck by how many of the lessons I’ve learned playing golf apply to the work I do on a day-to-day basis. One quote from the famously ornery golfer, Ben Hogan, sticks out to me the most when considering lessons learned. Someone once asked Hogan to explain what the secret to golf is and he curtly responded that

“the secret is in the dirt.”

At first glance, this statement seems like a vague piece of golfing jargon, but following a bit of deeper consideration, there are several valuable lessons to be gleaned from Hogan’s words that can be relevant for professionals in any field.

For me, the most important (and apparent) lesson from Hogan’s quote is the implied value of hard work, perseverance, and persistence. Like a golfer who spends countless hours on the range refining their swing, professionals in any field must be willing to put in the time and effort to improve their skills.

In business, this “digging of the dirt” may come in the form of working long hours to finalize a grueling contract negotiation, taking on an extra workstream that stretches your capabilities, or expanding your comfort zone through taking a public speaking course. These actions may feel like you are digging your way out of a never-ending hole, but when you’re able to reflect on them with some distance and perspective often prove to be the most instrumental in career advancement and growth.

Another important lesson I’ve taken from Hogan’s quote is the value in paying attention to the details.

In golf, a seemingly minor change to your angle of attack, grip pressure, or ball position can make an enormous difference in a shot’s outcome. What would appear to be two identical swings can result in vastly different results and it takes a trained eye to be able to detect the nuanced cause. Similarly, in business, small changes in a marketing strategy, product design, or updated process flow can produce an outsized impact on overall success. Things that make major differences are not always accompanied by major adjustments, so paying attention to the details in the dirt is vital.

For me, the secret in the dirt can be and can manifest as an innocuous second review of an upcoming presentation during which I find an embarrassing typo or as extreme as digging into a 40,000-line data set. The more I take the time to understand the details of an analysis or project, the better the outcome tends to be.

The “secret in the dirt” also represents the reality of failure and the fact that this can spur on future success.

High-performing professionals understand that failure is an essential part of the overall learning process and that it can provide valuable insight into what works and what doesn’t. By embracing failure and framing it as an opportunity to learn and grow, professionals can develop the resilience and perseverance necessary to achieve their goals. Tiger Woods, considered by many to be the best golfer ever, has only won 22% of the tournaments he has competed in; this means he fails in nearly 4 out of every 5 tournaments he enters. Keeping this winning percentage in mind helps me contextualize my own failures, whether that be an analysis that leads to no relevant insights or a working session which was not as productive as I hoped it would be. Realizing how to objectively assess the outcome, regroup, and internalize the lessons learned has been an important part of my professional development.

At its core, Ben Hogan’s secret in the dirt is that there is no secret in the dirt. Success requires hard work, persistence, the willingness to focus on fundamental details, and the value of failure. It is easy to believe that business lessons only come from education, books, or work experience, but I have learned just as much from unconventional sources (like a 70-year-old quote from a grumpy golfer).

Now it’s your turn: What secrets have you learned from digging it out of the dirt?

AI and the emergence of the centaur imperative for professionals everywhere

If the future of knowledge work isn’t now…it isn’t too far off.

Geoff Wilson

We’ve seen a lot of press recently on the launch and adoption of OpenAI’s ChatGPT client.

Suddenly, you can ask for an essay on any commonly covered topic and it will be written, in the voice that you choose; and you can receive it in seconds.

Suddenly, you can ask for a summary of research on almost any topic that is commonly covered, and with a couple of iterations and refinements spanning minutes, you can get a fairly well-structured list of facts…in seconds.

Suddenly, you can ask for a limerick on a dog eating dog food in las vegas, and have it instantaneously.

Ok, so that last one is true, but maybe less useful.

This technology, basically a natural language-enabled interface with the publicly available knowledge in the world up to about 2021, represents a change, a threat, and a massive disruption to knowledge workers everywhere.

At WGP, we often discuss a hierarchy of professional capability that goes something like this:

  • Produce process:  Get clarity on the steps to take if you have nothing else.  This is the most basic professional function.
  • Produce data:  Gather the facts, get the numbers in place, and provide the foundation for analysis.  This is the next level of professional function.
  • Produce insight: Analyze the data and produce higher-level insights that range from the mundane to the blinding.  This is the expectation of good professionals of all sorts.
  • Produce synthesis: Combine insights, draw implications, and deliver orthogonal thinking that re-sets direction and creates truly new thinking.  This is professional nirvana.  When you find someone who does this well, cherish them.

If we think about the implications for professional services of AI tools like ChatGPT, it’s easy to see that suddenly machines have gone from repositories and accelerators of process, data, and insight generation approaches to a very viable resource (more than a tool) for actually generating these things.

I have never looked at MS Excel and said “create for me a 3-statement financial model structure” and had anything happen.  That has been the realm of analysts and experts.  AI tools are going to do this in no time (if not already).

I have never looked MS Project and said “create for me a basic project plan in 50 steps to deliver a market research report on the stick whittling industry.”  That has been the realm of consulting managers and associates.  AI tools are going to do this in no time (if not already).

Machines are quickly going to overtake people in generally acceptable process, data, and insight generation.

It wasn’t too long ago that these things were only done by people.  For years, consulting firms have silo’d and offshored research capabilities to low-cost countries.  For years, law firms have hired lower-cost labor for legal research.  These lower-level professional functions are unlikely to survive the evolution of AI resources.

So what’s the imperative?

We’ll explore it further in other posts, but I’ll summarize it as this:  The future average professional will have to have the skills of the best professionals today…that is, the ability to critically assess vast amounts of available information, to provide proprietary insight not generally available or acceptable, and to generate unconventional synthesis.  

This will be true across all legal, medical, consulting, and executive services.

The future professional will be a centaur:  The head of a powerfully insightful and resourceful human on the body of a powerfully informed AI resource that provides available world knowledge at fingertip reach.

The age of summarizing Bureau of Labor Statistics data and saying “AHA!” are over.  We are entering the age of professionals delivering on what most consulting firms claim they deliver on:  Proprietary, differentiated, confidential insights.  We are also entering the age of human interpretation of machine-driven insights.

In short, we’re entering the age of the centaur professional.  If you hire professionals, demand a centaur.  If you are a professional…time to upgrade.

What do you think?  How do you think AI resources will alter the way we work in the coming years?  What’s the right path to “best” in this new world?

I want (you) to believe

Change management strategies are fundamental to strategy implementation.  How are you doing?

Geoff Wilson

Quick, think of a time that you made a really fundamental change in your life.  What did it take to do it?

Maybe you changed jobs or started a workout regiment.  Maybe you did something more drastic like ending a business or personal relationship.

Chances are, you made the change after thinking through the why, the what, and the how.  Chances are you didn’t make a fundamental change by leaping before you looked.

And, that’s the topic of this post.  Many of you who read this blog are leading change efforts.  You are hoping to implement new strategies (or retooled versions of old ones).  You are looking for fundamental change.

So, the question is this:  Have you looked before you leaped?  Have you set in place the fundamentals of change itself while seeking fundamental change?  The fundamentals of change can be characterized as the why, the what, the how, and the by how much

In other words, if you want to establish change in your diet, you have to convince yourself that the change is worthwhile (the why), that you know what needs to change in your diet (the what), that you know how you will feed yourself differently (the how), and how that difference gets quantified (maybe in calories, or in hours of the day you are allowed to eat).

These four elements are essential to change, and to management of change.  All too often “strategic” leaders fundamentally understand all of these aspects of their desired changes, but forget that other people can’t see inside their heads.

This is where going from believing in a change to leading change actually happens.

Let’s say you want to install a new way of managing customer accounts.  You know that doing so will lead to higher sales, can be done via basic templates, will be reinforced through monthly reviews, and can be measured in terms of completion and sales impact.

Simple, right?

Except, when you jump directly to templates and reviews with your salesforce, your organization subtly rejects the change.  Why?  They don’t have all of the fundamental elements of beliefs.  You are feeding them the what and how, but not the why and how much, perhaps.

In our strategic planning and implementation practices at WGP, we think about strategy implementation as depending on tried and true methods of change management.  T’hey include:

  • A very strong narrative or story (the “why”),
  • A very clear outline and ideally role modeling of the change required (the “what”),
  • An understanding of the skills and tools required for change (the “how”),
  • And an understanding of how change will be measured and reinforced (the “how much”).

If I’m a leader who believes in a desired change, I’ve convinced an important stakeholder–me.  The difference is I want you to believe.   No…I really need you to believe.

What do you think?  Are you using fundamental change management tools to drive your organization’s strategic change? 

Revenge of the microeconomist in the real world

We are in a world of opportunity and hurt.  Demand is high, spirits (and prices) are up, and supply is constrained.  What’s a leader to do?

Geoff Wilson

When I was a young man I learned microeconomics on the back of a simple diagram with two lines…one for demand (always downward sloping) and one for supply (this one goes up).

Turns out, the microeconomists were right.  Mostly.

We are living in a fever dream at the moment.  It comes with the pleasure fog of rising demand for…well…everything as people regain the confidence that they can interact and transact with one another without threatening lives. It also comes with the tormenting nightmare of not being able to hire, source, or build the products and services that they need.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The most plausible explanation is that we are simply mired in the midst of a massive supply chain bullwhip that is synchronized around the world for once. As positive and negative information trickles out across industry chains, individuals firms attempt to adjust…and they do so badly.

Add the labor-market distortions brought by extended unemployment benefits, extended school and family support organization closures, fear of the unknowns around coronavirus reoccurrence, and general inflation; and you have a multi-faceted political and commercial game that would make George R. R. Martin blush.

But all of this is couched, at least for the moment, within a massive environment of opportunity.  Demand is popping for most of the economy, and poised to pop for much of the rest.

So (as I’m often wont to ask), what’s a leader to do?

Here are a few ideas.

  • Embrace, but prioritize, the opportunity: George Patton’s theory of war was “violent attacks with everything, everywhere” and, while Patton was certainly an effective field general, that theory won’t get you far when you have more opportunity than fuel (yeah, Patton ran out of fuel, too).  Reinvigorate your opportunity analysis approach.  Sometimes, in the cold light of day, an opportunity to serve an existing customer more deeply is actually a massive drain of resources that should be deployed to new customer demand. Sometimes, the opposite is true.  How will you know until you’ve actually thought about it?


  • Take the opportunity to actually, really, innovate: Your cupboard is almost bare and your stove is almost out of gas, but the customer is ready to eat. Sure, you’ve always cooked the meals in-house, but perhaps now it’s time to try something new.  Innovation is a funny thing.  We all “talk” about being innovative, but–as the old saying goes–necessity is the mother of invention. Use the constraints to identify new ways of serving customers and allocating resources.  Maybe it’s time to look more closely at your portion size controls, or your fueling strategy, or your staffing policies, to see if a habit of “just a little bit extra” for customers who are “in”  is creating a reality of “just a little too little” for new customers.  Maybe it’s time to look at your inventory (or talent) pools in Pacoima, Paris, Prague, and Pune and think about them more globally.  Innovation might just be the act of ensuring your organization has the tools necessary to allocate and reallocate resources. It might also be investigating whether your current models of working are overbuilt for accomplishing the task at hand.


  • Explore new supply chain structures and mechanisms: Your suppliers haven’t performed, so what do you do?  Hammer them. Am I right? Penalties, complaints, responsive declarations of force majeure, and just plain angry talk abound right now.  Maybe it’s time to think about how to partner differently.  I have no doubt that new, enduring partnerships will be forged from the fever fire of the current environment.  I also have no doubt that a lot of relationships will be broken in ways that won’t be forgettable in the near future.  Take the time to look your suppliers in the eye and solve problems with them.  Look for new ways of partnering.  Look for new economic models (maybe incentives vs. penalties). Look–most importantly–for the priorities you need to set.  Oh, and if you are the one getting hammered, it’s ok to partner more closely with those customers now…and then fire their keisters later.  An elephant never forgets.


  • Get rid of taboos: There’s that group across town whom you’ve never worked with because, well, you don’t like them. Maybe they stole your cookies once in the lunchroom in 3rd grade. Maybe they fired you once. Maybe they based their operations in China (or California) and you just won’t go there. Taboos can relate to suppliers you work with, customers you would never put on allocation, places you’d never recruit from, or any number of other things.  Your proverbial elephant maybe hasn’t forgotten a bad experience.  Maybe you need a new elephant. Challenge those old taboos.  We are in a time of supply creation.  Think that way.

These are ideas.  They might not apply to you, but then again some might.  I encourage you to look at your own situation for what it is, and choose accordingly.

The economists have us in their thrall at the moment. We are waiting for the invisible hand to rise up and do its work. In the meantime, we see opportunity, and we see constraint…and in between the two is the imperative to act.

Now it’s your turn:  How are you thinking about tackling the current supply / demand imbalance?  Punching an economist is not a valid answer. 

Your lack of takt is showing!

The faithful delivery of services and product on time is a challenge, maybe it’s time to apply more production-floor common sense to services.

Geoff Wilson

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before:  An executive hires a consultant to solve a problem.  The consulting agreement is for a lot of work–maybe redesigning the way an organization is structured–in a little time (and for a lot of money).  The consultant comes in, does the work “on time and in full,” and drops off the report at the end of the engagement.  The executive’s team hardly notices the consultant was there because, well, the consultant moved really fast and the organization didn’t.

The executive is left with a book, a recommendation, and a confused organization.

Sound familiar?  I suspect it does for those who have worked with any high-powered, high-fee consulting firm.

What’s the issue?

Well, let me unpack a notion from the world of lean manufacturing, and then come back to this example.

In lean manufacturing, one of the critical sources of waste is overproduction.  That is to say that making too much of a product and sloshing it into inventory is wasteful.  It wastes valuable production resources, not to mention valuable capital.

The solution to this type of waste is to align production resources to “Takt Time.”  Takt is a derivation of a German word that means “pulse.”  Takt Time, then, is the pulse of an operation or a business.  And, what is the actual pulse of a business?  It’s the demand for products and services within a given time period.  If demand for my product is thirty units per month and my organization is open every day, then my effective Takt Time–the time I should take to make and deliver a product–is roughly one day. Making more than one per day is wasteful.

There are many nuances to this line of thought, and it’s certainly possible to get too “lean” in your thinking.  Many companies have.  But the notion of Takt Time is super useful for an executive trying to balance strategic initiatives and daily business activities.

Let’s revisit our executive at the beginning of this post. Our executive has agreed with the consultant on the pace and delivery of a work product, but the organization is focused on daily management activities.  The strategic organization work falls into the category of important but not urgent.  In the end, the pace of the delivered work product is too fast for the organization to engage around at its current pace, leading to a far less than optimal delivery of the consultant’s product.

The product could be a total waste.

So what? Well, I bring this up because while Takt time is a concept that is well known in production environments, it is not well applied to services environments. And this is a tragedy.  Why?  Because products can be inventoried and eventually liquidated.  Overproduced services (like our consultant’s report above) are typically wasted.

To probably feel the result of a lack of service “Takt” in a lot of parts of your life. How often are you overserved “all you can drink” beverages by an overly enthusiastic server?  Maybe even more poignant in today’s economy:  How often do you find that your “subscription” service (for meal kits or pet food deliveries) ends up piling up wasted products, time or energy?

Often, I’ll bet.  And it’s because nobody actually aligned your real demand for the beverages or pile of meal kits in your kitchen with the actual pace of delivery.  When buying or selling services, consider the actual pace of consumption or the actual ability of the service to be consumed, and plan accordingly.

It’s all about Takt.

Now it’s your turn: How does matching service pace and demand fit with situations you are dealing with? 

Don’t forget the sales!

The sales function far too often treated like an impenetrable combination of personalities, voodoo, and tradition.  It’s time for that to stop.

Geoff Wilson

I have a theory when it comes to sales.  It goes something like this: Along the way in their executive development, a lot of really smart people develop a disdain for sales as a function.  In some cases, they view sales as “dirty” or “basic.”  They might view sales as risky . . . why would a smart person ever subject themselves to the risks of not making a sales quota.

As that prejudice against sales develops, this particular sort of executive tends to think of sales and the people and systems that enable sales as a sort of mystery.  It’s a realm of knowledge that is best left to the salespeople, who take those risks and drive the relationships necessary for the business to thrive.

But they also leave a lot on the table.

Some of the most complete business strategies I have seen have also completely ignored the processes and tools that accelerate sales. Why?  Because, as noted above, it’s a mystery. It’s rumored to be personality- or relationship-driven.  The thinking goes that we can control our product.  We can control our operations.  We can control our cost structures and our hiring and our marketing messages.  But we can’t “control” our salesforce.

This thought process is dangerous since there are process losses in sales just as there are in a manufacturing operation.  The difference is that in a manufacturing operation if something is left by the wayside it gets calculated as a cost.  It’s a known quantity.

In sales, if a call doesn’t get returned or a meeting is botched–and millions of dollars of sales are lost as a result–the cost never gets really quantified.  Sales process losses are far too often an unknown quantity. . . and a lot of people have incentives to keep it that way. Sales leaders who make their number don’t really have to own up to unforced errors.

On the other side, there are also plenty of elements of focus and efficiency that can be missed within a salesforce.  Poor lead qualification can lead to salespeople spending a lot of time on dead ends.  Poor account planning practices can lead to salespeople spending a lot of time selling the wrong things, or at the wrong value.

Imagine if your manufacturing plant consistently produced the wrong product.  You’d likely be mystified and perhaps furious.  Now imagine how often your salesforce might be selling to the wrong customers, with the wrong products, and at the wrong times.  Do you know?  Can you possibly know?

In most environments, you very much can know these things. But, your attention must be focused on sales as a function, as a process, and as an integral lever for strategic management success.

What do you think? 

Systems vs. goals in your search for success

Much is said about whether success is better framed as a goal or as a system…I think it’s both, but at different times.

Geoff Wilson

Have you ever had a question posed to you that made you think more than it should have?

A team member recently asked me if I was a goal-oriented person.  My response was that I was far more interested in having systems that enable success than in distilling success into specific goals.

I’d rather have a system for serving clients than the goal of serving a certain number of clients or projects.  I’d rather have a system for developing people than the goal of developing a certain number of people.

Like many, I’ve read plenty of blogs on the systems vs. goals dichotomy that was probably best laid out by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame in his book How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big:  Kind of the Story of My Life.

Here’s a 2013 blog post from Adams on the topic.

In short, the thesis is that goals are self-limiting and sometimes counterproductive, while systems often perpetuate success by building habits that are perpetual.  The diet analogy Adams uses is a good one.  Which one would you rather have:  A goal of losing 10 pounds (which is often met but rarely maintained) or a system of eating more healthily?  Most people would agree that a system of healthy eating is a much better all-around approach to success.

But it’s only half right.

As with many things that relate to economics, tradeoffs, and incentives, the reality is very different depending on the time scale and existential realities one lives within.  For instance, economic systems of different types fit best at different societal scales. Pretty much every household is a miniature communist dictatorship of some kind (a goals-based economy where the head of household allocates resources to needs from abilities). Whereas countries do much better under mixed capitalist economies (which are much more about setting systems and guidelines).

And just like this, the systems vs. goals quandary is best viewed not as a dichotomy but as a matter of context.

To wit, if you really need to fit into your old tuxedo, then a goal of losing 10 lbs is worth a heck of a lot more than a system of healthy eating. And, if you want to develop a system for success, then setting incremental goals for development can actually be highly effective. Likewise, if your highly systematic business model that has delivered value for many years suddenly hits a snag, then you’d best start achieving some specific financial, customer, and operational goals, or else your business won’t survive long.

Where systems and goals get most confounded is when the goal is confused for the system.  In our strategy practice, we often see companies setting financial goals and calling them–at least implicitly–strategy.  This is very common when financial sponsors are involved in companies. The question of whether a business model should earn a given EBITDA margin is often subordinated to the fact that it simply has to.  

That’s a failure of goals dominating systems.

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this?  I think it’s that it is perfectly fine to manage life to goals in crunch times, crises, and during transformations.  Goals aren’t the problem, but as Scott Adams implies, they are also not the end. Goals, by definition, can be met.  And that’s where systems come in.  Systems should be perpetual.  They should be molded and shaped, but never “met” or “achieved.” Use goals, but don’t let them crowd out the need to develop systems.

You’ll be better for it.

What do you think? 

Are you measuring or are you moving?

Effective executives balance time spent moving vs. time spent measuring.

The case

One fine day at a backyard barbecue, a utility executive says to a cloud software executive, “I have found that a dashboard for my business helps me understand it.” The software executive says “great, what’s happening today?” The utility executive, a little exasperated, says “well, the dashboard is only updated monthly.” “So, when do you look at the dashboard?” says the software guy. “Usually in our monthly staff meeting on the 15th of the month. Our finance group prepares the dashboards, and they take about 10 days to complete.” says the utility guy. Software guy lets out a deep breath and says “Monthly? I can lose my entire company in a month.  We look at our stats at 5 PM every day, just to know whether there’s a customer issue that we need to tackle.  It takes 5 mins and we jump on any issues.” The utility guy says, “yeah, well, our customers can’t leave.” Software guy goes to get another drink from the cooler.

The question

Which one are you? Are you the utility executive, insulated from customer turmoil by a deep regulatory moat? Perhaps you are the cloud software exec, where daily action must be taken to ensure customer satisfaction. You’re probably somewhere in between. There are few businesses that move at a daily pace like the software business described above, but there are a LOT of businesses that spend a LOT of time compiling measurements of where they were last month when in reality those measurements are already meaningless. That’s right . . . it’s history.  In most businesses, dashboards are great for identifying issues and issuing some attaboys, but they are almost always out of date. Yes, yes, there are still industries that move at the speed of paper, but they are rare.  Your business likely moves faster than your account function, so you probably ought to ensure you match your “measuring” activities with the pace of your business.  Doing so allows your pace of operations to match the pace of change. Famous 20th-century physicist Werner Heisenberg–not the Heisenberg of Breaking Bad fame . . . the real one–famously established the eponymous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  The principle essentially says that there are real limits to what you can “know” at any moment about, in Heisenberg’s case, quantum systems.  One of Dr. Heisenberg’s principle’s essential assertions is that it’s impossible to know both the position and momentum of a particle precisely at the same time.  To know where a particle is precisely, you likely have to give up some certainty about where the particle is goingConversely, the more precisely you know where the particle is going, the less precisely you will know where it is. And, while it’s clearly malpractice to apply quantum mechanics to the conference room, allow me to do so:  The more time you spend trying to understand where your business is the less certainty you are likely to have about where it is going.

In short, you can measure, or you can move . . . so your balance of those two things needs to be matched to the pace of your business. 

It’s a rare business or organization that can do both measurement and movement at the same time, effectively.  You’ve probably felt this tension every time you’ve asked your salesforce to fill out surveys or to complete a CRM template. Your salesforce (if it’s worth its salt) likely told you the cost in terms of customer interaction, closed sales, or other value-added work.  You were pushing to measure, and the salesforce was pushing to move.  Such is one of the chief (good) arguments for sales support resources (measurement) to aid your salesforce (movement).

The opposite case can come into play as well. You’ve possibly felt this tension if you’ve ever asked your Program Management Organization (PMO) what results it has delivered.  The answer, if it’s typical, will look a lot like a count of meetings, dashboards, templates, and reviews. It’s less likely that you get a summary of business results.  The mission of a PMO in the typical sense is measurement.  Moving the business is somebody else’s role. Now, PMO dynamics aside–the art of the action-oriented PMO are for another post–you can see that there are tradeoffs to measuring and moving.

So what?

The takeaway here is threefold: First, just like Heisenberg, you have to know that measuring and moving tend to vary inversely–prepping for weeks for a board meeting (yep, I’ve seen it) fundamentally takes away from running the business.  Second, you have to know when you are measuring and when you are moving; and you have to know what elements of your business should be geared for movement (like sales) or measurement (like finance or the PMO above). And, third, you need to know the pace of your business and how much “measurement time” is okay given customer and regulatory dynamics. Our utility and software executives illustrate that at the start of this post. If you can combine knowledge of these dynamics and alignment of business pace with how you tradeoff measuring and moving, you’ll be well ahead of the game. Now, what do you think?