Out With The Old

I’ve been meaning to put together one of those “What’s Out, What’s In” lists.  Recently I was speaking at an event and I came up with an abbreviated list of outs and ins that I thought I would share.  You know the list I’m talking about? The Washington Post usually puts one in the Style section in the week between Christmas and New Years…probably because all the highly-paid writers are off on holiday, so the hoi polloi stuck in the office get the task of putting one together.  Lately the list has served as notice to me that I seem to have lost track of what’s hot and what’s not in the world these days.  Here’s a link to this year’s list.  I got about 10% of the items.  Swedish Death Cleaning?  What’s that?  I did think the “Plastic Bags Stuck in Trees ⇒ Cardboard Stuck in the Gutters” was pretty funny, given the huge number of Amazon boxes in circulation.   You could spend all day clicking on the links to try and understand the humor, but why bother when I’m about to give you a much easier to understand list?  Feel free to send me some more and I’ll put them in.  Here goes:

 

What’s Out

LPTA

R&D

Big IT Buys

Servers

Desktop

Single Awards

Last of the Boomers

Office

Multiple Services

Service Medical

Audit Prep

Pokémon

Continuing Resolutions

Fires/Floods/Hurricanes

2016 Presidential Election

Service Dogs

National Security Strategy

What’s In

Performance Based

Innovation

Agile

Cloud

Mobile

Multiple Awards

Millennials/Xers/iGen

Flex

Shared Services

DHA

Audit

Poke

More Continuing Resolutions

Meteors/Earthquakes/Zombie Apocalypse

2020 Presidential Election (Already?)

Service Ducks

National Military Strategy

 

 

OK. That’s all I could come up with on short notice, but it’s a fun exercise to think about what seemed to be so critical 365 days ago is all but forgotten now. Every time I do this exercise, I am reminded about the progression on leadership themes I have seen in the Navy since I was a midshipman. Let’s see if anyone remembers: Day-long Sensitivity Training, Management by Objective (MBO), Total Quality Management (TQM), Lean, Six Sigma, Navy Enterprise Model, Accelerated Learning, Business Process Reengineering.  I can still see the TQM workshops with the red and white balls in my mind as well as watching videos of Demming droning on.  I remember when it was declared that all SES and Flags should be at least a Brown Belt. I’m not quite sure what management fad we are in now, but if you have some ideas, please comment.  By the way, I hope this page looks decent.  It taxed my knowledge of HTML to get columns into the article…And harder still to get them to stop.  By the way, for all you retired Flags and SESers, I will be happy to collect your brown belts and sell them on consignment.

 

 

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“Where you stand, depends on where you sit.” Miles Law and related Maxims

I attended an evening affair recently with a well respected leader who reminded me that the old maximum “Where you stand, depends on where you sit” was actually memorialized by Rufus Miles of Princeton University back in the 70’s.Sit Stand Anyone who has ever been in a bureaucracy knows exactly what he means.  I myself am a slave to Miles Law.  And not only when I was lurking around the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, but even afterwards in my second career.  It’s not a bad thing, by the way.  In fact, if  you are to be a loyal member of any organization, you will be dealing with the outcomes of the Miles Law.  I recall my first job on the OPNAV staff as the Deputy N81 (Assessments).  At various meetings in the Pentagon the inevitable “What are they thinking in the Fleet?”, was heard time and time again.  We were sure they just didn’t understand the problems we were dealing with and their solutions seemed untenable.  Then I got back to the Fleet, and at just about every meeting I would hear, “What are they thinking in the Pentagon?”  And so it goes.  The point is ones perspective is always shaped by the environment, business or otherwise.  Once I retired from active duty and become a “contractor”, within a matter of a few months I just couldn’t figure out what my former colleagues in the Pentagon could be doing….They should be doing it our way!!!!

So remember when you are in the next meeting where you think your organization has the market cornered on the thinking on some issue, there are others out there just as passionate (and probably just as right) as you are.  Where you stand indeed depends on where you sit. Realizing that might make things go a little smoother.

Now for the six maxims related to Miles Law.  As you read them, I think you will find that they offer some invaluable insights into how to deal with your superiors and those who work with and for you.

Maxim #2.  The responsibility of every manager exceeds his authority, and if he tries to increase his authority to equal his responsibility, he is likely to diminish both.  The lesson here is don’t worry too much about matching power with responsibility.  It’s the way the system is designed and if you attempt to twiddle with it, you are asking for trouble.

Maxim #3Managers at any level think they can make better decisions than either their superiors or their subordinates; most managers, therefore seek maximum delegations from their superiors and make minimum delegations to their subordinates.  As a leader, you will be pulled in many directions and in order to be effective, you must delegate….the trick is knowing your people and their capabilities so you can delegate the right things to the right people and keep you focus on what you should be focused upon.

Maxim #4:  Serving more than one master is neither improper nor unusually difficult if the servant can get a prompt resolution when the masters disagree.  Boy can I relate to this one…In the military, we are often “Dual Hatted” or holding down more than one job with more than one boss. In fact, even with one job you can easily find yourself with more than one boss.  Keeping #4 in mind will help you in managing the expectations of both (maybe even several) bosses.  Communicate early and often with your bosses and make sure they all have the same version of the truth!

Maxim #5Since managers are usually better talkers than listeners, subordinates need courage and tenacity to make their bosses hear what they do not want to hear.  My observations are that managers have a monopoly on talking without listening.  Force yourself to listen…you will be surprised at what you hear.  This is true no matter the circumstances; whether you are on a cold call with a prospective client, or sitting in a community association meeting.  Too much talk, talk, talk…My advice………listen for a change.

Maxim #6:  Being two-faced–one face for superiors and one face for subordinates– is not a vice but a virtue for a program manager if he or she presents his or her two faces openly and candidly.  I have no idea what this means, but it sure sound profound.

Maxim #7: Dissatisfaction with services tends to rise rapidly when the provider of the services becomes bureaucratically bigger, more remote , and less flexible, even if costs are somewhat lower. Of all the maxims, this is one which is applicable in almost anything when it comes to bureaucracies, or even companies.  You have to constantly keep yourself in tune with your clients….refer to Maxim #5….., listening to what they have to say.  Ice Cream Cone Be vigilant that your organization is not morphing into the ubiquitous “Self Licking Ice Cream Cone”, existing not for providing services to clients, but for its own pleasure.  By the way, by far, my article on Self Licking Ice Cream Cones is and continues to be the number one article people view when visiting my web site.

 

So there they are…I thought it worth putting to paper because I think they are things that leaders need to be aware of as they go about leading from day-to-day.  If nothing else, I’ll bet each and every one of you Govies reading this have experience in all of these (even #6, whatever it means)

If you would like to read the famous paper by Professor Miles, here is a link to a site that will allow you to purchase a copy ($25).

 

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Small Business Risks and Aerodynamics 101

I had the honor to participate on a panel recently at an event sponsored by the Reston Chamber of Commerce focused on the challenges faced by small businesses as they become “big” businesses. It was titled, “Breaking the Barrier: Launching Government Contracting Businesses Through the Small Business Threshold.” We discussed a variety of challenges faced by small businesses as they become successful and graduate into the “regular size” world of competition. LoverD a good topic for you small business owners to consider because the Small Business Administration cites unexpected growth as a major reason for small business failure. This is something that CCA has focused on as we developed our market strategy. Take a look at some of my thought on “Breaking the Barrier” on this web site in the Small Business Transition tab. I won’t rehash it here, but in a nutshell, as your business grows and is facing the loss of advantages of being small, you have to think about things differently.  That’s what “Breaking the Barrier” is all about……thinking about your business 2 or 3 years from now.  As a small business owner the temptation to remain focused on the current task order or the next deliverable is powerful, but you have to pull yourself above the fray and think about the future.  That’s hard to do!

I like analogies and being an aviator I frequently rely on my aviation experience to explain things. That’s why I think comparing the small-to-large transition as breaking the sound barrier is appropriate on several accounts.

First of all, breaking the sound barrier just doesn’t happen.  It required countless amounts of energy, money, blood, sweat and tears to get Chuck Yeager to nose through the Mach 1.0 barrier in the Bell X-1.  X1 It also took some sophistication because  we discovered that more power was not the answer in breaking the sound barrier.  Turns out something called the Area Rule is the key to supersonic flight.  The Area Rule basically states that in order to go supersonic, an airplane ‘s fuselage must be shaped like a Coke bottle.  Who knew?  I flew the venerable A-6 Intruder and no matter how hard we tried ( and believe me we tried) we could not hit “the Number.”  Breaking the small business barrier also requires more that just “more power (contracts).”  It requires the owner to look at his/her business in a different way.  How do I need to look when I become a $50 Million business? I guarantee you it’s different from how you look now.

Next, one wants to blast through the sound barrier as fast as possible. Airplanes can do screwy things in the trans-sonic phase of flight.  Controls act funny, engines sputter, sonic booms scare the bejesus out of the “earth-lubbers.”  In short, it’s not a good place to be or stay.  So when flying supersonic aircraft, pilots tend to want to blast through it and not deal with all the goofy things that happen….And guess what?  The same is true for the small business owner as the dreaded revenue limit is approached.  You don’t want to hang around at that limit….either stay below it or blast thorough it, but don’t hover around it.

Someone asked about the risks associated with transitioning from small to not-small and I think the risks can best be described as a stall in aviation terms.  When flying, stalls are bad, especially when near the ground.  Just look at what happened to Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco….they ran out of airspeed and stalled straight into the seawall. So here’s my take:

Small businesses sometime stall when approaching the applicable revenue limits for the same reasons airplanes do:

  1. Lost of lift
  2. Loss of power
  3. Too much drag
  4. Too much turbulence

Loss of Lift.  As a newly joined member to the “not small” club you will lose some of the factors that gave your small business “lift.”  The big primes will no longer be seeking you out in order to satisfy demographic requirements or take advantage of your lower rates.  You are now on your own and must do the seeking yourself.  There are also no set-asides for formerly small businesses.  That perk has vaporized, forcing you to go toe-to-toe with the big guys.  You have to anticipate that loss of lift in your business plan as you contemplate life as a “not small” business.

Loss of Power.  Power in the business world is what drives your business forward.  That power comes from the strength of your pipeline and the relationships you have.  Small businesses tend to not pay attention to pipelines, lead qualifications and where to focus business.  As you become bigger, you have to focus your attention on what will power you through the barrier, and that means re-thinking your market strategy, tailoring a pipeline process that supports it and developing a process that allows you to focus limited resources on what matters most.  The value of relationships in the marketplace can not be over-stated.  As a small business, chances are you had a pretty small universe of contacts because you didn’t need to spend a lot of time figuring out whose team you were going to be on. Your probably have a go-to prime (perhaps even a mentor-protoge relationship) and you don’t have to go shopping around for primes.  Now you are the prime in many cases and if you don’t have a robust contact file, you just might be SOL (technical term).

Too Much Drag. There are many factors which can be a drag on your business’ profitability.  I submit the most significant ones are:

  • Doing too many things.  In my experience, many small businesses are a “mile wide and an inch deep” because they have tended to try and be all things to all people in order to avoid turning down opportunities.  At my old firm we had just a handful of NAICS codes, but many times when I look at a small business they may have a dozen or more.  That’s not going to hack it when you are no longer small.  You are going to have to figure out what three of four things you are going to focus on and let the others go.
  • Overhead increases.  As you get bigger more and more overhead begins to drag your profitability down.  You have to bring on people to handle the tasks you used to do yourself….finance people, proposal people, people people…All of these put a drag on your ability to blast through the barrier.  A wise owner will think ahead and develop a plan to accommodate theses requirement. You may not have to hire people.  Why not outsource your finance function for a while?  do you really need to buy a very expensive software bundle to handle your finances or could you go to the cloud?  These are all things you need to think about before you get to the barrier, not after.
  • People.  Another drag on your business can be having the wrong people doing the wrong things.  They were hired for one purpose, but as contracts changed they were repurposed.  This may or may not be a good thing.  Small businesses tend to hang on to people too long and as an owner you need to constantly evaluate your personnel situation.  The last thing you want is inadequate or mediocre staffing as you blast through the barrier.
  • Lack of process. The final drag can be the lack of repeatable processes within your organization to handle the transition to big business.  The pipeline discussion above applies here.

Too Much Turbulence. The final reason you might stall is too much turbulence over your lifting surfaces.  Turbulence in your business can come from many sources.  The competitive environment can overwhelm some firms if they are not expecting it.   Proposals become more difficult to write.  You are not just completing a couple of sections for some prime, you have to write it all.  That can be a real disruption if not properly managed.  Remember that you are now in the wake turbulence of the large company business development machine and that most likely, wherever you go they have already been.  I can tell you from experience that the last thing you want to do in your little airplane is to land in the wake of jumbo jet.  You will find yourself in the BD wake all the time and need to plan for it, or avoid it all together.

Horizon
that’s my pitch for the day.  Think about your business in aviation terms and anticipate  the risks that are out there just waiting for you.  They can be predicted, avoided or dealt with.  But only if you go in with eyes open and scanning on the horizon.  As the proud owner of a successful small business about to become large, your scan needs to move to the horizon of your business not right in front of your nose.  If you aren’t scanning the horizon then you are a candidate for failure.

 

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Command Performance

I attended a two day session put on by The Performance Institute and Association of Government Accountants this week on the subject of performance management in government.  It was a great session ( and I managed to knock out 14 CPEs) with some interesting insights on measuring performance in Federal, State and Local agencies.  We heard from David Walker (former Comptroller General), Mark Reger (Acting Comptroller at OMB), Lisa Danzig (Associate Director for Personnel and Performance at OMB) and a host of other performance gurus.  I came away thinking that although there has been a lot of progress made in measuring performance of agencies, we probably still have along way to go.

So what performance is being measured?  Is it the performance of the organization or the performance of its people.  I suppose one could say it’s both.  Most of the conference was focused on the performance of the organization as far as I could tell.  As you might think, some organizations are more easily measured than others.  Take US Patent and Trademark Office for example.  It’s fairly easy to put into place metrics that not only are easily measured, but reflect the actual performance of the organization…..number of patents issued, length of time to issue, etc.  But other organizations are not so easy.. Take DoD for example.  So what do we measure to evaluate the performance of the Defense Department?  Here’s a possible list:

  • Number of wars won
  • Casualty exchange rates
  • Ratio of  of wars deterred/wars fought
  • Number of Humanitarian Responses and lives saved
  • Number of successful defenses of the Homeland
  • Numbers of allies gained vs. lost
  • Number of states which have a military base

The list could go on and on.  The problem is none of these things can be easily measured. So the Department must use metrics which are all about input, not output.

  • Topline Budget number
  • Amount of allocated budget spent
  • Numbers of ships, airplanes, vehicles purchased
  • Number of people
  • Number of audited financial statements
  • Amount of money allocated to anything

In the Navy, we were pretty good at the input part.  I had all sorts of models to help me figure out how much money I needed to ask for…Flying Hour Model, Steaming Day Model, Installation Service Level Model, etc.   But none of the models actually reflected reality.  We never went back to check and see if we modeled for 26 flying hours per month per pilot, that they actually flew 26 hours per month.  In fact, we discovered that instead of relying on a hugely complex flying hour model for the budget, in the end it’s just as simple as multiplying the number of airplanes in the inventory by average flight hour per model the previous year.  In the end it didn’t matter how many pilots we had, you could only get so many hours with a fixed number of airplanes.  The Chief of Naval Operations frequently uses number of ships deployed, number of sailors deployed and percentage of the fleet deployed as a metric.  Here’s a link to the current data.

A few years back, then Secretary Rumsfeld tried to put a pay for performance-based personnel evaluation system in place….the National Security Personnel System.  In the end, it failed because we were horrible at trying to link what Pentagon workers did to measurable performance criteria.  This turned out to be an impossible task.  How do you  measure the performance of a budget analyst, for example? Do you link the funding level given by Congress to the analyst’s work?  If his or her particular program is cancelled does that mean they failed?  The truth is most in the Pentagon work their tails off, but on things over which they have little or no control.  I remember the classic example of why the system was flawed.  The dialogue went something like this:

Boss: Joe, you just won a performance bonus of $10,000.  Tell us what you did to earn it.

Joe:  I was in charge of  XYZ grants to the field.  The goal was to deliver grants to the field elements by July 1st.  In the last 6 years the best we have ever been able to do is get them out by July 15th.  I set a goal this year to get them out by June 15th.  In fact, we got them out on June 10th, not only 5 days earlier that the goal, but almost a month better than we’ve ever been able to do.  For that I got the big bonus.

Boss:  That’s great work.  What did you do that made the difference.

Joe: Nothing,  In fact, the dates we get the grants out is solely dependent on when the Congress gives us the money.  This year we got it early! Thanks for the bonus!

The moral of this story is make sure that  your people have clear goals and that they are measured on things that they can control.  NSPS was a good idea.  Who can criticize paying people for performance?  The problem is in figuring out exactly what people do and how to measure it. Performance management is a great tool, but only to the extent that you can measure performance.  Think about the people who work for you.  What do they do all day?  Who uses their outputs?  Where do they really make a difference?  Set up your metrics around those questions and you will be well on the way to having an effective performance management system.

One Final Thought

Don’t let your infatuation with metrics become so great that you lose sight of your outputs or mission.  In the case of the VA it appears that people were so focused on making the metrics look good that they forgot why they exist…..to serve Veterans. People do funny and unpredictable things when they perceive their jobs are at risk.  In this case, people were tweaking something over which they had no control.  They would have been heroes had they pointed out that wait times at VA hospitals are not meeting the metrics, instead they are zeros for putting self above service to our Veterans.  Time for a change at VA!

 

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