Crisis Management

Business and Politics: Avoiding Your Organization's Fiscal Cliffs

One of my areas of expertise is tracking how business and politics intersect in the ways they operate - and, most importantly, what we can learn from both. Over the years, I've written strategy papers on the subject as well as having advised senior members of United Kingdom political parties on how business strategy can be applied to create political party success.

With all that's been going on in US politics recently, I've decided to begin posting on the subject - only in this case, focusing on what business can learn from how politics operates, at its best and at its worst.

There are important strategic, operational and profit-related lessons to be learned and applied to your business, so, no matter where you live or what your political affiliation might be, put it aside and just look at the process.

I'll look forward to your thoughts and comments.
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On January 1st, 2013, a few minutes after 11 pm, the United States House of Representatives voted to accept the Senate's bill (approved some 21 hours earlier) averting the so-called "Fiscal Cliff."

As markets around the world opened for their first trading day of the new year, they upheld the conventional wisdom that a global economic catastrophe was averted. Markets and futures were immediately up and could well stay that way. At least until the already known next 'cliff' occurs in two to three months.

So, good for Congress. They did their job. They saved the world. For the moment.

They should also be ashamed of themselves.

The reason why they deserve real scorn is because it was this exact same Congress that agreed to the "cliff" in the first place. That was in December, 2010.

Twenty-five months ago.

Why did they create the cliff? The logic was that it would motivate the elected officials to work together to solve the debt and deficit problems the US is facing.

From then until now - while those twenty-five months passed with the cliff always looming - they weren't willing to do what needed to be done for their own country as well as those world markets and economies. Right up until the last minute - and only then because it was the last minute.

Okay, so that's the politics of it. What does this have to do with you?

Like it or not...admit it or not...but you have your version of a cliff playing out in your organization on a regular basis.

It's those things that you and your employees at every level see and know and recognize out on the horizon that you'll take care of later. Some day. Soon. You're sure of it.

Only those 'things' - both little and big - grow to outrageous proportions the closer they get to whatever time limit within which you're working.

Maybe it's when your customer needs an order filled. Or you've got a new product or service launch that needs that one more thing to make sure everything goes smoothly. Or there's an expert you know you're going to need to hire to make sure that the strategy you're currently working has a chance in hell of actually succeeding.

It's anything that escalates from knowledge to emergency - simply because you or someone in your organization let it get that far.

And it gets worse.

You may well have someone you trust who has made a success of their career swooping in at the last moment to save the day.

That's all well and good when the emergency is a true emergency - not a manufactured one. If it's the latter, then whoever is playing 'hero' is anything but. In fact that person - man or woman - is the equivalent of an organizational sociopath...allowing that particular cliff to loom and get ever closer for their own purposes, frankly, not caring how it might impact others.

Including you and your business.

Because if the 'thing' escalates far enough for long enough - at least to suit your local sociopath - even with a save, you'll lose your reputation as a trusted provider. There go the orders, customers and jobs. And there goes your business.

So, as this year begins, spend some time on your own and with your leadership team to:
  1. Take a look back over the past six to eighteen months
  2. Identify those situations that escalated into crises
  3. Determine how those crises occurred (real or manufactured)
  4. Define how long in advance the problems were known
  5. Determine in each case how long it took to get from knowledge to action
  6. Specify the outcomes in each case - including but not limited to impact on operating costs, revenues, profits, customer relations, market share, reputation, etc.
  7. Identify the specific functional areas and their respective managers/team members involved in each crisis
  8. Determine whether there is a trend of occurrences by any of the people or functions involved.
As well, if you have a Lean initiative going, take the time to review the teams' measures to identify any trends from the data that show highly risky levels of variation in your processes.

Once you have the information in hand - as uncomfortable as it might be - you'll know what to do. Do it. While you still have the time.

Because the biggest difference between business and politics is that the politicians who took the US to the edge of the fiscal cliff have at least two years before there is a remote possibility of being held responsible and accountable.

For business...for your business...you don't have that luxury. 

Figure out your cliffs now - and then manage your organization so that you're designed never to get close to them again.

Accountability and Being Thrown Under the Bus

It's fascinating.  Depressing, but fascinating.

As I sit and watch the UK Parliamentary hearings of the Home Affairs Committee, it's amazing to watch the genteel way that those who know how to play the game so willingly throw their colleagues - and others - under the bus.

The former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (aka Scotland Yard), Sir Paul Stephenson, did so by implicating - but never directly, of course - two of his former subordinates and, oh, possibly, the Prime Minister's senior staff.  Which, of course, keeps that key question alive of what the Prime Minister knew - and when - about those whom he chose to surround himself.

Next came Dick Fedorcio, the Director of Public Affairs and Internal Communications for the Met.  He's not famous or powerful so the Committee members felt free to make sure he stayed under the bus under which he had already been thrown.

Now, we have the previously highly regarded John Yates (aka, in his heyday, Yates of the Yard!) saying that he was no more than a "post box" in order to take himself out of the firing line from the previous two witnesses.

So much for having been seen as a hero.

In Britain, their use of the language is an art form.  Argumentation and debate, in particular.

But it doesn't matter.  Because throwing under the bus is throwing under the bus - and that's what everyone is doing to everyone else right now.  Which doesn't serve justice at all.

The phone hacking allegations against Rupert Murdoch and his News International organization are bad enough.  They caused this hearing to be necessary.  As a result of their reported too close relationship with the police, everyone is implicated.

Granted, a lot of people who should have known better made bad decisions - both public and private sector players.  But the decisions were made - and they're the ones who made them.

It's a sad fact that in the guise of "remorse," "hindsight," and "lack of knowledge" what we're really seeing is a lack of accountability by everyone involved.

And that makes trust harder to establish and maintain than ever.

Krugman, Politics and the US Economy: A Slow, Downward Spiral

There are a lot of reasons why executives call me in to help them with their enterprises.  From changes in strategy to disasters, they want my eyes to take a look and help them guide their organization toward the success they envision.

That's great.

But, sometimes, by the time I'm called in, it's too late.  There's nothing that can be done.  The slow, downward spiral has gone too far.

It starts with a decision.  The decision is executed.  Then, even though there are many who know that decision isn't the right way to go, no one is willing to step up and say what needs to be said.

The slow, downward spiral has begun.

Not only does everyone keep executing on the same decision, but the bad decision is expanded.  Nothing happens in a vacuum.  Everything - and every decision - touches everything else in the organization.

The downward spiral has gained velocity.

That means that the decision - which now even more people know is the wrong thing to do, but still aren't talking or taking action - is being manifest in even more corners of the organization.

The spiral is gaining depth.

For those who see that things aren't going right - many of them the decision makers and their supporters - the focus shifts from the original decision to how it's being incorrectly executed.  That's the problem, they're convinced.  In fact, they think, if the organization would just do more and a better job of executing on the decision, everything would be fine.  Just fine.

It's everyone else's fault.  Not the decision that was made.

And so the spiral continues.  Faster and quicker - until there comes a point that the spiral is irreversible.  The organization has gone too far along a path that is designed to fail to be able to turn back.  At least not in the form that the organization had previously existed.

Too often - and most unfairly - the manager or executive who made the decision, leaves the enterprise before the full scale of destruction left in his or her wake takes hold.

"Hey!" they say.  "It wasn't my fault.  I wasn't there when the company went down.  In fact, that's part of the reason I left!"

Yet, for those staying behind - trying desperately to do the fix - all that's left is the hope that they can either find another job or that the company that is left will still have a place for them.

This scenario isn't one that is limited to down economic cycles.  In fact, it is just as prevalent when it's a good economy.  Because bad decision making is bad decision making - but the refusal to take action against it is death.

Interestingly, Paul Krugman in his NY Times Op-Ed piece applies the same thinking to the US economy, its politicians and the Fed.  If he's right, then the US is in for more long-term problems than it has experienced, possibly in its history.

I don't know if that's going to be the case for the US.  What I do know is that, in your own organization, it's time for you to stop and take a look at what decisions are and have been made and how they're working for you.

Are you getting the results you wanted?  Do you get the challenge and discussion and debate that's required to ensure that your decisions are well founded and that there aren't any hidden potholes you didn't consider?

Are you getting the best information - all the time - that you and the organization need?

If you've got the right brains and the right culture, you've got it nailed.  You'll have the information you need.  If you've got the courage to listen and act, you've got a company that will succeed.

And then, you'll never see any downward spirals - slow or otherwise.

BP and Corporate Responsibility: Avoiding Present and Future Tragedy.

What's going on in the Gulf right now is a tragedy.  There are few other ways to describe it.

It's a tragedy because of the human lives that were lost and the lifelong grief that the families and friends of those who died will endure.

It's a tragedy because of the devastating impact it is having - and will continue to have for years - on the environment into which the oil is spilling.  The death it brings and suffering it is and will continue to have on the animal, bird and plant life - due not only to the spill but to the actions being taken to address it - is incalculable in any currency.

It's a tragedy because of the livelihoods of those who live in all the areas impacted.  Generations of fishermen for food and sport, the associated industries - from hotels in the vicinity to manufacturers of parts for fishing boats that may never be needed again, the many and varied members of the supply chains that have supported the movement of the fresh food caught to the worldwide audiences who enjoyed them.  All and more will suffer for years to come.

And it is most of all a tragedy because it was avoidable.

We do not know the full facts, yet, of what led up to the blowout preventer's failure.  While that is and will be important, what's far more important is what the now consistent drip, drip, drip of information that is coming to light means for corporations and the governments who regulate them.

Each time Tony Hayward, BP's Chief Executive, makes another statement, the trust and belief in everything from business success to corporate R&D is eroded that bit further in the public's mind.  Globally.

Worse, deservedly.

As statements such as his financial breakdown to BP shareholders reporting the very small percentage of the cost of the Gulf Spill to date on the company's profits are made public to a much wider audience, the lack of care that is perceived for the human race and the planet becomes palpable in the public's mind.

BP, like Enron and others, become the name-brand entities that neither can nor should be trusted.  They become the public watchword for how corporations aren't simply uncaring.  They are destructive and dangerous.

From an organizational perspective, this has incredibly and increasingly large implications.

Those internal memoranda and reports as well as the witness testimony being provided in the early-stage hearings simply dig a deeper and deeper hole into which BP, Halliburton, TransOcean and Cameron are falling in the public's mind.  And as they should also in each and every corporation's mind.

Because those data show a continued focus on cost and time.  Not on safety and care.  The arguments and pressures that are reported - within and across the organizations involved - make a compelling case for profit.  Not safety.  The deals cut and pressures put to bear - even on regulatory agencies, which, on many more human levels, deserve distrust and contempt - show that speed was the thing.  The fastest speed to profits.

Back to the corporations, they made promises to regulators which those same companies involved now seem to be saying - and demonstrating - couldn't be kept.  Even whether the disaster-recovery plans that were put forward in case of an emergency were adequate or workable weren't known to be workable.

In effect, prior to drilling, 200 feet was the same as 5,000 feet.  Now that a disaster is in play, there's a really, really big difference between 200 feet and 5,000 feet.

Somehow that wasn't the case just a few months earlier.

But we have what we have - and it becomes a lesson to executives, if you're paying attention.

Pay attention - because on everything from a smaller to a same scale, this can happen to you.

First and foremost:  Never put profits before safety.

That means that, no matter what your organization does, you make sure that policies and procedures in place are designed to ensure the safety of your employees and of the end-users.  Then you make sure that those policies are enforced.  Always and consistently.

Think about it.  From Toyota having to recover its reputation as the highest quality automobile manufacturer to Chinese manufacturers of toys and toothpaste to BP and its now much-publicized "safety" record of deaths in their operations, more time, money and reputation (the three most valuable corporate currencies) is spent on the fix after the fact than would ever have to be spent if the problems had been addressed from the first - when they were identified.

As well, the fix isn't a fix in the eyes of the public.  Toyota will always have a question mark over its name now.  Chinese manufacturers are actively distrusted.  And BP is becoming known as a death-trap for employees and the planet.

That's not going to go away.  In fact, every time any industry in the same sector does something wrong, these examples - and more - will be brought up again and again.

Second:  Suspend disbelief and plan accordingly.

Ninety-seven percent (yes, that's 97%) of what happens in an organization is predictable.  It may not be what you want but you can predict it.

That means that there is only 3% that you can't imagine ever happening.

What that also means is that, because there have been oil spills and drilling disasters in the past, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was part of the 97%.  It was predictable.

Even the failure of the blowout preventer was predictable.  After all, they, too, had failed in the past.

As an executive - and with your executive and management team at all levels - you have to look at what is to determine what can be.  You may not like it, but it's predictable.  And that means that, sooner or later, it's going to happen.

The only 3% component of this disaster is, possibly, its extent.  Possibly not.  After all, BP knew what the oil reservoir was that it was drilling into.  Their scientists also knew the pressures and temperatures at which the drilling would be taking place.

All of that was known prior to any of the consequences that are now in play.  That means that the disaster recovery plans were knowingly inadequate too.  And that's a corporate decision.

Third:  Take the hit.

If your organization does something wrong - from a mistakenly filled order to creating a human and environmental disaster - own up to it.  Not just in pretty words - but, consistently, in your actions as well.

BP seemingly continues to try to game the system for its own and its shareholders' purposes.  From using a dispersant known to be illegal for use in the company's home country to requesting a specific judge to oversee all the future cases brought against the company to trying to settle the early and current cases out of court as quickly as possible, all it looks like is that - even while Hayward continues to say that it's BP's responsibility and it is taking all the actions it can to stop the leak - behind the scenes, all he's trying to do is do further damage to and cheat the people most impacted by his company's actions.

If, on the other hand, you take the hit and own up, customers know that when something goes wrong, you're on their side to fix it.  That has a value far beyond any immediate or mid-term gains - because rather than being remembered for what you did wrong, your organization will have the invaluable reputation for one that is committed to making things right.

Which brings me to the fourth lesson - and it is a personal one.

Think about your legacy.

Within and outside your organization - public or private sector - you're going to be remembered for what you do.  It doesn't matter whether it's wholly internal or splashed all over the online and other media.

Did you keep your word?  Were you fair?  Did you bring an integrity to everything within the organization?  Do the people whose lives you touched - within and without - think well of the organization you led because of your leadership?

Corporate responsibility sounds like a typical "blah-blah-blah."  It's not.  It's all about you, who you are and what you stand for.

CEOs, of course, have a responsibility to their shareholders.  But as a corporate leader, executives and managers at every level have a greater responsibility.  That's to the much broader defined population your organization and its products and services touches.

So, when you think corporate responsibility, think your responsibility and legacy.  Think about what your kids would think of you - knowing everything there is to know.  Then think about how you want them to think about you:  honest, trustworthy, thoughtful of others and others' needs.

There's no reason that can't be your corporate legacy.  It can.  But to get there, you have to actively and conscientiously lead your organization there - every step of the way.

BP and Goldman: You Manage What You Measure

It is a truism that "you manage what you measure."

The reasons why are simple:

  1. The measures are deemed important enough to warrant the effort to manage directly - which means that the right information at the right time is required.
  2. What is being managed is deemed to be tied directly to the success - or failure - of the department/division/enterprise to warrant the effort.
  3. Someone's - or more than one person's - compensation and/or future existence within the enterprise are dependent upon how that particular area is performing - based on the measures.
In those cases, not only are those measures managed, but they are known by enough people to be usable for everything from strategic and operational decision making to succession planning or terminations.  

There is, however, an obverse to this as well.  Sometimes, you measure and you manage - but you don't tell.  At least not many.

Sometimes, that's necessary.  I'm a great believer in information management.  In fact, I think that not enough thought - and forethought - is put into either measurement decisions or the ways that the information from those measures are being disseminated (or not) in the enterprise.

Information just moves...as if it has a life of its own.  

(Just so you know, it doesn't.  Whenever and wherever information moves - or doesn't - there is a purpose on the part of the person making the distribution decision.  And that purpose is not always in line with what you want or are working to achieve.)

But when information - particularly measures - are seen as being purposefully withheld, more and worse questions arise.  In those cases, you're asking for trouble.  You may well deserve it.

You've entered into the world of "transparency" - and a murky, distrusted world it is.

We're watching this happen now - and you've got your choices of which organizations deserve to join the "Corporate Perp Walk Hall of Fame."  (This is the next iteration of the "Executive Perp Walks" so popular a few years ago.)

Right now, we have two major corporations tied for first place.

To start, there's Goldman Sachs not quite being upfront with their customers about what they know and when they know it - not least whether the firm is betting against what they're selling with as good as insider information.

That decision has led them to being sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for fraud - which has led to a 26% drop in their share value (to be fair, that includes a lot of other variables causing a market correction) and the possibility - if they can pull it off - of getting away with only a $1billion settlement.  (That's Goldman chump change.  In fact, they'd undoubtedly see it as a good investment.)

(On a side note, Warren Buffett has it completely wrong when he defends Goldman.  That's self-serving - he has a really big investment making lots of money from Goldman - and disingenuous.  This is an ethical issue and he well knows it.)

And, in a tie position, you've got BP - who are making a worse mess of their mess than they already created in the Gulf.

Because BP's executives are so concerned - now - with what will happen later when the litigation really hits, that their unaccepted, disingenuous replies range from:
  • "It's their fault" (not a good strategy in a Congressional hearing with the counterparts sitting next to you doing the same thing) to 
  • "It's only a moderate spill" (which is patently untrue - and sounds even worse to an angry American audience when it is said by the British accented CEO to a British television network) to 
  • "It's impossible to measure the amount of oil being spilled" (which has now been completely debunked by a quartet of scientists who figured out a way all on their own).
It doesn't matter what industry you're in - or, for that matter, what country or sector.  The problem that comes from all of this activity is that there is less and less trust extended to you by your customers.  In their eyes, they have no reason to trust you.  You're probably just like all the rest.

So, before you make your next set of decisions or as you start reviewing the most recent data being handed to you, stop and think for a moment.  Then ask yourself:
  • What are we measuring?
  • Are those measurements giving us the best, most useful information?
  • How do we know?  How are those data tied to strategic and operational goals?
  • How are these data being disseminated - and to whom?
  • Who else should get them?
And the seminal question:  What are we hiding?

Because you can count on it.  If you're hiding anything - then something is being hidden from you.

And you really don't want that keeping you up at night.