I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Potential and Motivation

When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

-- Warren Buffett

For a business to have "potential", it needs opportunity, money, willingness, talent, and aptitude. Yes, a business without all of these things still has potential: it might be poorly funded but have knowledge-acquisitive people and a clear opportunity; it may have weak capability but good cash flow. But somebody agreeing to lead or acquire a business because of its "potential" still needs to compensate for deficiencies in any of these areas.

Potential needs a wake up call if it is to be realized. Sometimes, our source of motivation is external: new competitors, or a threat to our business model. It can be internal: an activist investor on the board forces the CEO to accept new operating targets.

Potential and motivation are both the purview of leadership. A good leader creates potential where there is none: putting someone in a stretch role, freeing capital for reinvestment through a restructuring, diversifying the product line by acquiring a business, hiring a strong product team to engineer and market new offerings. A good leader motivates with incentives and rewards, culture and risk-taking: define business objectives that require cleverness and innovation and not just operational efficiency; flatten and simplify the organization, distribute authority and responsibility; recognize team behaviors over individual heroism.

The intersection of motivation and potential is never as far down each axis as we hope because they're constrained by our ambition (or lack thereof), and by fear. We can't imagine things any different so we fail to define an opportunity. We see competitive threats developing but we lack the will to act. We are reluctant to make difficult staff cuts to free up money. We don't recognize the outdated skills of our people, the absence of abstract thinking, the dearth of current technologies and practices, so we do nothing to upgrade our talent base. We're afraid of offending our current employees by changing the compensation structure. We are more comfortable micromanaging, demanding commitment, and promoting people through hierarchy than we are giving people autonomy and rewarding them for innovation.

Worst of all is when we simply talk ourselves down: of course we want to get to such-and-such state someday, but we can't possibly make so much change so quickly. This amounts to regulatory capture of a leader's ambition - and by extension, of a business' potential - by the business itself.

The difference between a change leader and a caretaker isn't lofty vision or inspiring words, it's the ability to create maximum potential within the organization, and the motivatiors that drive people's behaviors and actions to realize it.