Many people will look for new jobs in 2021. Here’s the one thing to look for if you want to be happy.

🎹 Music for this post:

Happy 2021! I’m not much for ado, so here is that one thing:

Work for a good private company.

Not a bad private company. Not a good public company. And certainly not a bad public company, even though those are a dime a dozen.

No, a good, private company.

Why is that?

Well, there’s the obvious: public companies have to spend too much time satisfying shareholders rather than their customers (let alone their employees).

Good private companies are driven through the vision of a passionate owner and leadership. They believe that the best ideas take time, and are driven by creative people who take risks, make mistakes, and learn.

Really good private companies also know that a healthy employee culture can never be achieved when satisfying transient shareholders is the number one goal.

Look around at your friends. Which of them really enjoy their jobs, and are content with the culture that they work within? Which of them are encouraged to create change through their personal perseverance and vision? Which of them say, “I work at a pretty good place, maybe the best place I have ever worked?”

Of those friends, do any work for a public company?

2021 will be a year filled with job changes. People who have lost their jobs, who have relocated to a city that they don’t care for, who need to get out of a city that isn’t what it once was, who were treated poorly during the pandemic, or who are more or less burned out, will all be eager for change. 2021 will be a year filled with an incredible number of people switching jobs.

Throughout your career, you will hear a drone of advice about how to climb up corporate ladders, prove your worth, persuade others of your vision, “achieve success,” blah, blah, blah, blah, puke, puke, puke. If you have to play games to achieve recognition for the work you do, then you don’t work at a place worth working for. And game playing is what working at most public companies is all about.

What to do? Get out. Find a private company that is interested in you as you…you as a mistake-maker…you as a learner…you as a person who cares about other people…more than you as a “resource” whose only value is a function of your current output.

Here’s a simple fact of life: “shareholder value” is a terrible destination, because shareholders are stupid. That includes you and that includes me, even as unwitting and passive shareholders of mutual funds in our 401(k)s that are run by “expert” shareholders who are also stupid, although perhaps — just perhaps — a little less stupid than we are.

Shareholders generally don’t truly understand the companies they are investing in. They can’t. Otherwise, they would be insiders. In other words, we can’t help but be stupid compared to those who work within the companies we invest in.

I’m going to share two illustrations of this with you, from two different perspectives.


I once held stock in a great company called athenahealth. I had the fortune, through a friend, of meeting athenahealth’s CEO, Jonathan Bush (nephew of George H.W. Bush, FWIW). I had the benefit of a first-hand tour of their headquarters. Jonathan, and those who worked there, knew that their true value lay in a piece of software known as athenaCollector. This software helped medical providers get paid by insurance companies much faster than they ever could be paid before, solving one of the most pressing problems that doctors have. How did they do this? athenahealth had experts inside the organization who studied the idiosyncratic ways that health insurers would reject claims based upon expected mappings between diagnosis codes (ICD-10) and treatment (CPT) codes. Doctors only get paid once they submit the right combination of these to your insurance company. I would say that athenahealth’s magic was that they really listened to what doctors needed most: to get paid, as quickly as possible, with as little administrative game playing as possible, so that we can get back to what we do best.

On Wall Street, where athenahealth was known as ATHN, this little company became known merely as a player in the Electronic Medical Records (EMR) space. Sure, athenahealth developed an EMR, because, well, it’s the nature of a public company to do things that “grow” revenue (as if revenue were some kind of plant). That’s what shareholders expect, and what the analysts who are the designated shoppers for shareholders are trained to find for them.

But shareholders do not care to understand the details of how ICD-10 codes map to CPT codes, and how health insurance companies try as best as they can to ensure that they do not have to pay whatever they can possibly reject (or at least delay accepting – time is money, after all). Shareholders and analysts understand, well, EMR! Yes, Electronic Medical Records! That sounds modern and cutting edge – just like plastics used to be! I’ve heard of Epic! Those Epic-ans are filthy rich out there in Madison, Wisconsin! Let’s invest in an underdog like athenahealth so that we can make money because, sure sounds like this place makes a good EMR with all that technology stuff! And people say they are advanced! Let’s take a look at their earnings per share and P/E ratio! Wow, count me in!

Seriously, people, that is about as deep as a typical investor gets.

If you want to read what happened to athenahealth, well…it’s a sad, sad story.

Remember: I was lucky enough to visit the company, meet with its CEO, and go for an on-site tour. How many shareholders —or even analysts — get the opportunity to do that?


Here’s the second illustration, from another perspective:

From 2006–2010, I worked as part of the incredible software team at Xerox Global Services.

In 2008, pure play document consulting and management services contributed $3.5B of Xerox’s $17.6B in revenue. Nearly 20% of Xerox’s revenue came from these services. That was also 27% of Xerox’s “post sale revenue” (which included toner and maintenance) and 41% of Xerox’s $8.585B in “Service, outsourcing and rentals.”

Xerox 2008 Annual Report

I remember watching the annual shareholder meeting that year. I don’t have a transcript at hand, but if my memory serves me, there were a lot of very old – maybe even elderly – people asking Anne Mulcahy questions about copiers and toner. There was no substantive discussion of services whatsoever. You can see from the annual report that services were an increasingly important part of our business — $3.5B is no small potatoes; it’s about half of today’s Xerox’s trailing annual revenue.

What happened between now and then? What were the shareholders missing?

Well, in 2009, Xerox announced that it had acquired a services company called ACS for $6.4B. This was in response to Xerox’s competitors making similar moves, like HP acquiring EDS in 2008. However, the acquisition was trumpeted with headlines like

…transforms Xerox into a services company that can focus on business process management and outsourcing.

c|net: September 28, 2009: Xerox buys ACS for $6.4 billion

As if Xerox wasn’t already en route to that.

If you read the materials from the time, they don’t take any care to mention that Xerox was already seriously in the services space. Read this article from The Wall Street Journal, for instance. Do you want to know what I think the choicest bits of that are?

With the purchase, Xerox is the latest big hardware vendor to buy a services company, as tech giants try to find more consistent revenue streams to offset shrinking profits in their hardware businesses. Last week, Dell Inc. agreed to buy Perot Systems Corp. for $3.9 million. H-P last year bought Electronic Data Systems for $13.9 billion. International Business Machines Corp. has been building a huge services business for 15 years.
There’s a strong strategic rationale for the deal. Customers want to do more things with fewer providers, and there are too many companies in’ the services space, said Peter Bendor-Samuel, chief executive of Everest Group, a Dallas company that follows the services industry. Adding services to a hardware company helps retain customers.

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 29, 2009: Xerox Takes Gamble in Bid for ACS

In particular, these two tidbits are what really stick out:

“IBM has been building a huge services business for 15 years.”

Xerox Global Services was founded in 1996. Why no mention of this anywhere?

“Adding services to a hardware company helps retain customers.”

No kidding.

So what happened? I will say it once more:

Shareholders are stupid.

Buying ACS was a mistake for which Xerox paid dearly. They lost their way. They eventually split and divested themselves from that portion of their business. Along the way, they lost who they were, and they are trying to get back there…12 years on. I hope the best for them.

Let’s share a simple fact about companies: the most important ideas in any company are trade secrets, and these things are reserved for employees, not shareholders.

What shareholders understand about a company comes — 100% — from whatever the people inside the company are willing to share, and how they are willing to share it. You’ve undoubtedly played the game of telephone before. The result? Shareholders invest in companies based upon whatever they are able to understand from this limited set of information, and they share that with one another, all of which becomes, simply, a personalized and remote distillation of the truth.

Saying that shareholders know what’s going on in a company is like saying Scotch is barley. A lot happens between barley and Scotch.

I will give shareholders some credit: they do try to get the gist of what is going on. But they are stupid principally because they are willing to convince themselves that they truly understand what’s going on in a company, in order to rationalize that they are making a good choice with their investment.

These sorts of shareholders wind up steering most all public companies. Steering a ship without understanding its construction, its engine, or the crew operating it (particularly the crew in way down in the engine room).

Do you think these investors really care about the individuals working within their ships? Which investors (or, more to the point, insurers) of Cunard thought to ask if Titanic had enough lifeboats? Lack of curiosity and imagination is a longstanding feature of human nature. Sure, curiosity and imagination is often in sufficient supply to design, build and dispatch a magnificent ship, but at some point, people often simply telescope just to get the job done and the profit made, with less focus on the lifespan of that ship and those who will live aboard it.

There are some very good things about working for public companies. Access to resources. Many brilliant people — oftentimes the best in the business — whom you get to interact with. A name that your friends and families know, and are proud to mention in the same breath as your name. Most of all: experience understanding the dynamics of a public company.

If, today, you work at a public company, another essential practice you can make toward a fulfilling career is: focus on the happiness and welfare of the people around you. Ask questions that cultivate curiosity and that inspire people to think and to put their imagination to work. Create a sense of safety for them in the riskiest of situations. Do your very best to have compassion for them and solidarity with them.

The path to perseverance with this practice in a public company is strewn with boulders of many sizes. You may well quit, or maybe you will be terminated. But! Even though you will not likely find a lasting, fulfilling career, two very important things will happen:

  • You will have done good things for good people, who will remember you for what you did to help them, and that will come back around someday.
  • You will develop compelling experience and stories that will make for incredible interview material at your interview with a good private company.

Why do you suppose so many leaders of public companies leave to start their own private companies? Because they know these dirty little secrets all too well.

If you happen to find a job in 2021 working for a public company — or you work for one already — be sure enjoy your ride. Learn as much as you can. Take it all in. But the lessons you need to survive and grow within a public company are merely that — survival tactics. They will sap your energy, and they may even condition you with poisonous behaviors that you will have to shed in order to have a glowing obituary.

The lessons you need for a truly fulfilling — and, dare I say, peaceful — career are among these pages. Empathy. Trust. Compassion.

In a company worth working for, you don’t need survival skills. The skills you need to feel satisfaction and progress are basic human skills. Focus on developing other people and helping them develop themselves. Focus on nurturing your skills in emotional intelligence (these are skills you can develop!). Focus on nonviolent communication. Create safe spaces for your teammates to express, explore and articulate their uncertainties. Make mistakes together, and pick each other up when you fall. Develop trust in one another. Care about your customers and what they need. Spend time with them. You have the time to develop quality relationships with your customers, because there are no shareholders to rush you.

Friends, I wish you a very fine 2021. As an early boss of mine — Eliot Subin, the CEO of ThrottleBox Media — once said:

Every day, you should live by the ELF theory:
And have Fun.

— H. Eliot Subin

Those are a lot easier to do when shareholders aren’t driving your company.

Happy new year. Peace to you and yours!

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Enterprise Surgery

🎹 Music for this post:

I apologize for the large gap in my writing. I’ve been focused on a large-scale ERP and WMS transformation that has been in the works for the past five years, and which was successfully launched about a month ago. This was neither a phased or parallel deployment; it was a “big bang” approach, and while it had its share of expected issues, we are all justly proud of how it went.

It inspired me to write this piece. I hope you find it useful.

There have been countless reflections about what’s important to focus on in ERP & WMS transformations, but after decades being involved in these events, I have my own take: an initiative like this is a lot like major surgery. I’ll do my best to show you what I mean in the paragraphs that follow.

With our most recent transformation, we didn’t do all of these things perfectly. But we did enough of them well enough to make a positive difference.

Part I: Mise En Place — Things You Need Before You Even Start

1. Ensure a Healthy Culture Is in Place.

When you’re having major surgery, you want to do everything possible to keep well in the days and weeks leading up to it, because it will take a toll on your body, both physically and mentally.

I believe all good corporate cultures are built upon the eight foundational values we focus on here:

You will not be able to have complete and honest conversations if these values are not practiced. Additionally, culture requires hygiene; you must have pathways in place to review and nurture these values on a regular basis.

2. Why Are You Doing This?

Is your surgery elective? Or do you have a specific illness that requires addressing?

There are many reasons to switch enterprise systems, and too many of those reasons are not terribly sound. You’ve probably met people who want to bring a system from their last position to their new employer, with assurances based upon their “first hand experience.” But one person’s comfort isn’t a foundation for progress.

Senior leaders benefit from exploring this question every once in a while: What does it mean for our business to perform well? It’s good to follow this with: “How do our current systems support that?”

Even if your organization is not actively considering switching systems, teach your organizational leaders the skills to develop well-written user stories. This requires them to nurture their ability to think functionally, rather than technically. The third blank in every user story is the hardest to write…it is the most critical…and it is where you will best discover the answers to the questions we ask ourselves above.

Assemble your user stories into a backlog, and review the backlog often. If you find those stories are achievable with your current systems, it’s a strong indicator that a system change many not be in order.

3. For a Risk Like This, There Has to Be a Big Reward.

Is surgery the only option? Is it the best one?

Apart from familiarity for your newer recruits, another common rationale for a system change involves a hunger for something sexy and new. If your primary concern about your current system is its age, pour some water on yourself and read Things You Should Never Do, Part I by Joel Spolsky. Here’s a teaser:

The idea that new code is better than old is patently absurd. Old code has been used. It has been tested. Lots of bugs have been found, and they’ve been fixed. There’s nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t acquire bugs just by sitting around on your hard drive. Au contraire, baby! Is software supposed to be like an old Dodge Dart, that rusts just sitting in the garage? Is software like a teddy bear that’s kind of gross if it’s not made out of all new material?

Old software doesn’t rust. It may, however, not be able to handle the volume of business that you currently have. It may run out of memory and resources, and hardware upgrades may not be enough to address that sort of thing. The people who wrote it might have employed languages or technologies that you are hard-pressed to find experts in. The combination of both of these dynamics is a good example of a situation that calls for consideration of a system change.

4. “Buy-In” Is Deeper Than You Think.

Who will take care of you in the days surrounding your surgery?

A lot of writing on ERP implementations focuses on “Executive” or “Top Level” buy-in. That’s critical, but what does it mean? I’ll touch upon that in item 5. But buy-in from the next level of leaders — those who report into senior leadership — is as important, if not more so.

These leaders are the ones who are most actively engaged in moving your business forward on a daily basis. Their need or desire for change is the nucleus of any sort of organizational transformation. These are the folks who should be engaged in recording user stories as a part of their job. If there is a clear blockade in their backlog, they will know it before senior leadership does.

5. What Does Senior-Level Buy-In Really Look Like?

What specific things do you need from the people who will be taking care of you?

In preparing technology teams for ERP transformations, CIOs and other tech leaders are used to spending time helping the technology teams absorb a lot of the anxiety of the organization. After all, they are at or near the top of the support chain, and what is support, if not a friendly and responsive ear?

In our implementation, the president of our organization made clear that it was the senior team’s responsibility to own and manage the day-to-day anxiety of the people within their departments. This means that the senior team members were required to engage their people, to understand their fears, and, more importantly, to help them navigate those fears. In turn, this involved ensuring that each associate’s voice was heard, and that they stayed involved and trained and aware of the current state of things at all times, participating in the ongoing dialog.

In practice, that’s what senior buy-in really means: true ownership of the anxieties surrounding the change.

6. Do You Have Business Analysts?

Who is advocating for you in the days surrounding your surgery? Are they qualified with the right mindset to really look out for you, even if you wind up in critical condition?

Believe it or not, some businesses have never heard of the business analyst role. If yours is one of them, work hard to change that as soon as you can. In many cases, you will find that they exist in practice if not in name, scattered within departments across the organization, and you can create a career path for them by providing the title and career development support that will clarify their work and energize these individuals.

Many ERP implementations take key people out of each department for a period of a few years to temporarily support this function, but those people are typically important to the success of the business in other ways, and this can be quite disruptive. Plus, a good BA is a permanent role, and not a transient one. A good, well-empowered BA who enjoys the role will reduce the burden on individual departments throughout your ERP transformation, and beyond.

The best BAs have a lot in common with another job that is typically only seen at high-tech organizations: the systems engineer. A systems engineer is responsible for the engineering of a system of systems, which, no doubt, your organization is. Good BAs are familiar with all of the inner workings and departmental idiosyncrasies of your organization, and work to mediate organizational process change and compromise. No organization has written with as much passion and experience about the art of systems engineering than NASA, and of you want to know what to look for in a good BA, read Valuable Systems Engineering Traits and Behaviors at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Here are some key traits:

  • Willingness to work with people with different views, goals, and objectives.
  • Sets clear system objectives.
  • Holds the vision of what the end product should be, and communicates the objectives by being appropriately directive.
  • Patiently makes sure that everyone is heard, including any dissenting opinions, before a decision is made.
  • Builds trust by getting out of the way of team members so they can do their jobs.
  • Gains professional respect by respecting others and building positive relationships.
  • Willing to probe and ask tough questions, even if doing so reveals a lack of knowledge or understanding.
  • Remains calm under pressure.
  • Doesn’t over-react.
  • Patiently listens to each team member or discipline expert in to assure that everyone gets heard and that all diverse opinions are considered.
  • Frequent communication — daily, hourly, whatever it takes to keep the project on track.
  • Welcomes divergent opinions by creating an atmosphere where team members feel the freedom to openly express their opinions.
  • Looks for answers that may not be readily apparent.

7. Strong Leaders Know That Patience and Realism Are the Keys to Success; Lazy Leaders Lean on Deadlines.

Surgery is only a part of the solution. Are you prepared for the pre-op, the post-op, and the physical therapy? Are you OK with the fact that your body is unique…that all of the predictions are guesses…and it may take longer to get to a place where you are comfortable than you had planned?

Getting your organizational culture right — so that there is plenty of user story writing and regular conversation about backlogs — might take as long as two years. The process of selecting a vendor using this information might take another 6-12 months. Your subsequent implementation could take 2-4 years, depending upon a variety of things.

Too often, deadlines are arbitrary, and an easy way for people to set others up for “failure.” Our organizations have no tolerance for these sorts of deadlines. Shooting for a specific deadline on any of this is a fool’s errand, because the lowest common denominator will always be people, and if you have good people, you need to listen to them and honor their concerns.

If you don’t have good people, please go back to point #1. Doing things right is always preferable to doing them within an arbitrary timeframe.

Part II: Finding a Surgeon, and Establishing the Relationship.

8. People Matter

Take plenty of time to find the best surgeon for you. They not only have to be competent; they need to show you that they understand you and what you really need.

Software is more than code. It is the people supporting the code that matter even more. For each of your finalist vendors, make time to visit them to articulate your culture, and make time to have them visit you as well. Make ample time for this step; it matters. People who break bread together get to know each other better.

9. Care for Your Master Agreement & Statement of Work

Understand every aspect of your relationship with your doctors.

There are many things you will want in your Master Agreement with your ERP vendor. Many of those will be dictated by your organization’s vendor management standards, so I won’t spend too much time here. But others may not be so obvious.

One thing that I’ve learned over time is that it’s good to have a defined conflict escalation path in your Master Agreement. Consider three levels:

  • Your Project Manager : Project Manager at Vendor
  • Your IT Director or CIO : Executive at vendor in charge of delivery
  • Your President/CEO : Senior Executive at Vendor

Beyond this, make sure you have a conversation about source code escrow. Depending upon the vendor, this may be off the table. But if your organization’s revenue is larger than your vendor’s, it’s especially wise to put some effort into this.

Also: consider a time & materials approach to your engagement. This is, in my opinion, the best way to ensure transparency in your relationship. There will be customizations that are more complicated than anybody imagined during the proposal phase, and your vendor won’t feel pressured to skimp or otherwise creatively shift resources in order to provide what you ultimately need…which is what happens all too often in fixed price engagements. After all:

If you’re having a tumor removed from your body and the surgeon needs an extra unanticipated hour to do what’s needed, do you want her to stop at the time she planned…or get it right?

10. Make Sure That All Key Resources Agree to Visit Your Business in Person.

In an ERP transformation, bedside manner matters.

While the COVID era proved that distributed teams are incredibly effective and happy, your ERP vendor won’t be effective if their resources don’t see your business operate in person…often. This includes everyone from professional services to software engineers. Watch out for ERP vendors who believe otherwise. They are wrong. See #8. Work this expectation out in your master agreement, or ignore it at your peril.

Part III: Some Things That Aren’t Like Surgery

11. What They You Do Versus What You Do.

One lesson I’ve learned over my years: The big guys (SAP & Oracle) are worthy of consideration for the areas of your business where you simply strive to be industry-standard. But if you have an area of business that is a distinctive innovation, you should plan on internal ownership of the software engineering behind it.

12. APIs.

Speaking of internal software engineering, make sure you carve out significant time to articulate your needs for APIs. Will they simply be access to stored procedures? Or do you want something more modern, like JSON? Make sure you set clear expectations in your master agreement or statements of work.

13. Take Time to Define Time.

You’re over a dozen items into this. Thank you for being a serious reader. Those of you who gave up before this will miss one of the most important points: the temporal aspects of enterprise software are given short shrift all too often.

Between dashboards and mobile software, there are areas of your business where you want your employees to have “real-time” data. Make sure that your vendor has a clear understanding of what that means, because data changes quickly, and it’s easy for the parties on both sides of the table to have completely different ideas of what “real-time” means. Work hard to get it right.

14. Teach it Right.

While your vendor might have some standard documentation that you can use as a basis for training employees, every organization is different. Consider adding an instructional designer to your team, for the long haul. This person can create training that is specifically geared to the idiosyncrasies of your business, including right-sized lessons and quizzes that fit into people’s work schedules. This learning can be programmed into a learning management system as a durable part of each employee’s human resource record, to help track and guide personal growth objectives.

Part IV: The Pre-Op & The Surgery

15. Your New System Will Never Be Like Your Old System.

Surgery has a profound and typically permanent effect on your body. Get ready for that.

Software is codified process, and when you replace your software, you’re replacing your codified processes. Unless you have an entire organization of people with OCD, you will never remember and appreciate all of the hidden codified processes your organization has. If you did have an entire team of people with OCD, you probably would never get anything accomplished anyway.

So remember that your new system will not only be different from your old system, but if you thought sufficiently about #2 and #3, it should underpin some key organizational transformations that you want to take place.

This is why….

16. You Will Experience at Least Some Disruption.

Surgery is not a cakewalk. That’s why we need anesthesia.

When you transform your organization, it will be uncomfortable, and in some places, you will not have thought about everything in advance. That’s perfectly normal, but you must plan for it and talk about it regularly in the years and months leading to your “go-live.”

Be honest with your fellow employees: change stinks. If you sugarcoat this, you will lose credibility. Create a collective understanding that there will be pain, and the more we work together as a team, the higher the chances we can absorb the pain.

If you don’t experience some discomfort, then you probably did something wrong.

Make sure to keep your business partners posted on the changes as early as you can. They may get paperwork and/or data from you, and they need documentation and time to prepare for the change as well. They will appreciate you being proactive.

17. Start Converting Data From Day One, and Do It Often.

There are many things you need to do to be prepared for surgery. Don’t waste a day without doing some of those things. Exercise, if you doctor permits it. Eat appropriately. Listen to your doctor about medications you should be taking and not taking. Get plenty of rest. Keep your doctors informed about any changes you notice.

The best ERP vendors will ask you to work with them to extract your existing data for transformation and loading as early as day one. The more you practice this, the better your vendor will understand your business. Even more importantly, you will maximize the chances of uncovering sporadic business issues that could cause you a lot of grief if you discovered them after going live with your new system.

18. Your End-to-End Tests Are Important, and It’s OK to Do Them More Than Once.

We don’t simply hop on an operating table. The pre-op exam ensures that our blood, heart, and other systems are in good working order to ensure good outcomes. Sometimes we discover that our medications need changing, or that we need some other treatments before surgery. Listen to the results, and make the required changes. Get tested again, and make sure everything looks good before the knife hits your body.

This is where enterprise systems and surgery are identical.

19. How Do You Know You Are Ready for the Operating Table?

I once had a kidney tumor that required that my kidney be removed. On the morning of my surgery, I woke up with an unexpected feeling: the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to have my kidney (well, tumor) removed from my body.

The sure sign your organization is ready is the widespread (cross-departmental) desire to get the change over with. Until you have that feeling, you are not ready. See #7.

Another litmus test: Are your key resources able to take a vacation in the weeks before your go-live event? Or do you still need them there, every minute, to ensure everything goes right?

Hint: your key resources need a vacation before you go live, so that they are refreshed and have renewed energy to confront the challenges they will face. If this can’t happen, then you aren’t ready.

20. The Patient Needs Care, Feeding, and Physical Therapy.

Plan on some intensive care during and after surgery.

Your organization needs food, fuel, and love. They will need lots of round-the-clock care and feeding in the weeks following your transformation, which is why your key resources need a break before your go-live event.

21. It’s Never Really Over.

Your post-surgery body is different from your pre-surgery one. You’ll probably have to make some permanent changes to how you live.

One thing about software is that it’s designed to enable change. Otherwise, we would just build some hardware and be done with it.

Plan on doing a lot of listening to what your employees say in the months after you go live. If you did this for the right reasons (see #2 and #3), you did it because your organization needed to go in a new direction, and the emergent requirements that support that new direction will need evolution and refinement. Be cautious about requests to go back to the old days, unless that’s truly what you need.

But once the dust of your implementation settles, make sure your key resources take some time off. Vacations provide clarity, and the superheroes who got you to where you need to be deserve a break, and perhaps even a glass of their favorite beverage.


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Advice Priorities Read Other People’s Stuff

Three Things About Priorities

(And, Read Other People’s Stuff: 6)

🎹 Music for this post:

It seems that I’ve spent a large part of my life coaching people through prioritization exercises. While there are all sorts of formal methods to help people objectively prioritize things (like my favorite, the Kano analysis), more often than not, prioritization can be — and is — done intuitively. Frankly, intuitive prioritization is wonderful; I tend to save formal methods for times when my (or our) intuition starts to struggle.

I’d like to share three things about intuitive prioritization that are, however, not all that intuitive.

1. Your highest priorities probably aren’t as high as you suspect.

Say you have a list — or backlog — of 100 items.

And say you prioritize each one, 1 (highest) to 4 (lowest).

How many of them are 1s?

Of those, how many are you actively working on?

Subtract that number from the total number of 1s.

If the number is zero, you’re a superstar, and you should pour a glass of your favorite beverage, kick back, and…move on to item #2.

If not, read on.

Of the 1s that you are not actively working on, how long have they been hanging around with that priority?

How many of them really deserve to be 1s?

I remember a few decades ago when I was introduced to the Franklin Planner’s lucid prioritization system. My teacher colored outside the lines and explained to me that “A” priorities are best thought of as do or die. That is, if an “A” priority were to be neglected, someone’s life or job would be at stake. In that sense, in most situations, very few priorities are truly worthy of Franklin “A.” That’s good!

Let’s get back to your list of 100 items. Of those, how many had to be done by yesterday? This may be difficult to swallow, but the answer is always zero. The soonest you can get any of those done is today.

“Have to” is a funny, overused phrase, and we’re all better off remembering that.

The vast majority of our high priorities are likely a Franklin “B.” That is, things that we would like to get done today, but if we can’t, nobody will die or be fired.

2. Your highest priority may be to feel good. Either own that, or do hard things.

Here’s another test of your prioritization prowess:

  • You have a prioritized list of five items
  • The first four have been determined to involve a lot of complex work to address
  • The fifth is easy to address
  • During planning, you decide you want to do the fifth item on the list first, because it will make you feel good to get something done

You’ve just committed a common violation of the laws of prioritization: you’ve lied to yourself about your priorities. Here’s the thing: it’s perfectly OK to want to do item five and feel a “quick win.” It means, however, that feeling a “quick win” is your true priority. Is that OK? It sure is! But you have to own it; you have a grand opportunity to reconsider whether or not items one through four are indeed your highest priorities. Do that openly, in the moment, while the thinking is fresh.

Many times, our highest priorities are the hardest things to address. With finite resources, it takes discipline to stay focused on getting those done if they are indeed high priorities, no matter how hard they may be.

3. Your highest priorities aren’t even in your to-do list.

Why do we all forego so much of the above, so frequently?

The answer is: priorities are about choices, and choices are not naturally easy to make.

Here’s a maxim: There’s no such thing as a perfect decision or choice. If a decision or choice were that easy, there would be no decision or choice to make! You would, as we sometimes say, proceed without having to think too much.

Many things have an intrinsic priority: our families, our friends, our personal lives, our moments of joy, and our moments of sorrow come to mind. Beyond those, there are smaller things, like self-care and emotional fulfillment. We may be able to sustain short bursts de-prioritizing these, but trouble is nigh if this goes on for too long.

In the healthiest moments of our lives, these intrinsic priorities don’t even feel like choices.

You may argue that some of your business processes are similar; fulfilling customer orders, for example. Given a choice of an innovation or following through on a customer need, the latter should probably win.

What puts us out of prioritization whack more than anything else is feeling conflict in the process of tending to things with intrinsic priority over things without.

When you find yourself at this moment…

“I’ve got 10 innovations to work on. I can’t work on them, though, because I have customers to serve.”

…you have two things you can do: 1) Serve your customers and let your innovations wait; or 2) Serve your customers and de-prioritize a few other things to start working on your innovations. Both options involve some pain, but the latter requires deeper thinking. For that, my friends, in the spirit of Read Other People’s Stuff, I can’t recommend this highly enough: Deep Change, by Robert Quinn.

Postscript, October 14, 2023: If you liked this, there’s one more thing…

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Advice Priorities

Another Thing About Priorities

🎹 Music for this post:

Here’s something that I didn’t think belonged in Three Things About Priorities, but that is important nonetheless:

In a pure prioritization process, you should not consider the resources you have at hand to address your priorities.

Why is that?

If something is important enough to be your #1 priority, then it is…your top priority. Whether or not you have the resources to accomplish it is another matter entirely.

If that priority is truly important, then your next step is to consider how to get the resources to address it.

If that becomes uncomfortable, and your #2 priority seems more appealing as a result, then your #2 is, in fact, your top priority.

You might say that this concept is adjacent to “Your highest priority may be to feel good. Either own that, or do hard things” in my previous post, and I would agree with you. In fact, avoiding the work that you need to wrangle resources for your #1 priority may be a form of feeling good.

Whatever choice you make, own it.

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