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Business is slowing down

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It appears the top executives of many businesses didn’t get the memo about the need for speed.

By Bob Lewis | March 14, 2016
Topics: App Dev Methodologies, Leadership, Organizational Effectiveness, Strategy and Tactics | 4 Comments »

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News flash: business is speeding up.

Okay, maybe it isn’t news. But if it isn’t, why are so many businesses slowing down?

No, it isn’t your imagination. Read “The Hard Evidence: Business is Slowing Down,” Tom Monahan, Fortune, 1/28/2016). Among Monahan’s findings, using 2010 as a baseline:

Like all statistics, these are open to alternative interpretations. IT Projects might, for example, have become bigger and more complex over the five years covered by the study.

Or maybe it’s due to Agile: Emptying a dynamically managed backlog might take more time than finishing waterfall projects that exercise tight scope management. Completion is one thing. Agile’s shorter time to first value is something else.

For hiring, with 2015’s lower unemployment rate, open positions might have become harder to fill. For purchasing … I’m sure we can come up with something if we put our minds to it.

Or not. Monahan’s data match my experience — the average business errs on the side of caution, never mind the impact on velocity and agility.

What if Amazon made decisions this way? Google?

A better question: What will you do if Amazon or Google decides to invade your markets?

This sort of invasion isn’t always apparent, either. For example, do you think the folks at Dex realized Google Maps was an invasion when it first appeared?

Truth in advertising: Neither did I, until I realized that’s where I was looking for nearby sellers of what I wanted to buy, leaving the Yellow Pages on my kitchen bookshelf.

But then, nobody was paying me to realize it, so I don’t feel all that bad about missing it.

Here’s a guarantee: If your business sells physical products, it’s at risk of invasion from competing products with embedded intelligence and connection to the Internet of Things. If you sell some form of services … see Google Maps, above.

Justifying delay until flank attacks appear by claiming a “fast follower” strategy is a losing proposition. Among the reasons: fast followers are rarely the companies that know how to be fast.

How does a business become fast? Getting rid of everything that makes it slow is a good place to begin. Start with decisions — things politically-driven business managers avoid like a rabid weasels, by the way, so a business speed-up artist is operating in a target-rich environment.

And there’s no richer set of targets than the variety of governance and steering committees that pervade most enterprises.

Maybe you’ve avoided this infestation. But probably not. The bigger the decision, the more likely it will be governed by a committee, specifically to give decision-makers political cover should something go wrong.

Here are five straightforward steps for scaling back committee decision sclerosis:

Populate your committees based on expertise instead.

Do something radical: Insist that all committees meet weekly instead. Don’t worry about this congesting the company. The effect can be the exact opposite: Committees that meet four times as often ought to have meetings that only last a quarter as long.

Unless, that is, your company makes a habit of hiring and retaining employees and managers it can’t trust to make good decisions. If that’s the case, fix your staffing practices.

Then make culture your new governance.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Sure, most members of most committees will run away screaming in terror.

But that’s a small price to pay.


4 Responses to “Business is slowing down”

  1. Dave says:

    Well put Bob. I’ve watched different types of projects in my company for a while. Those that meet more often with less people always outrun the large monthly teams. Weekly meetings can be very short, but the touching base is worth the time to understand when obstacles may be approaching.

  2. Richard\ says:

    I agree with most of this, but not so much regarding your point on composition. By including different business constituencies, you are ensuring that any potentially affected party is part of the conversation. Of course expertise is needed, but it is rare that someone or two has the expertise to be sure that all the areas that might be affected by a process change have been identified. And expertise on an issue is not confined to the area promoting the change — involving other areas might bring other expertise to light. And I’m not sure how bringing silos together actually endorses siloization — it seems to me that’s like saying integration fosters segregation. Of course, once the project parameters have been established and it is clear who needs to be involved, then there is no need to continue to include those that do not.

  3. David says:

    Purchase decisions are taking 22% longer.

    In local government, decisions are taking longer for several reasons:
    A. Projected tax revenue isn’t matching actual tax collected. Since budgets must balance (unlike federal deficit spending), all proposed purchases are being prioritized and subject to several more levels of review and approval before a purchase order is cut.
    B. Due to budget cuts and staff reductions (layoffs) in prior years to balance budgets, purchasing staff has been reduced even as the work load has stayed the same or increased. Less staff means longer time to process purchase requests.
    C. Continuing/ accelerating rate of retirement. Experienced purchasing staff is retiring, government is slow to replace and/or having recruitment difficulties (low pay, pension changes making government jobs less desirable, etc). New purchasing employees have to learn the complicated rules/procedures to follow in buying – their productivity will hopefully improve with experience assuming they aren’t hired away by non-government companies.
    D. Increasing number of rules and regulations (stipulations of funding sources, rules for competitive bidding, bid protests, etc.) stretched time to issue a purchase order.

  4. Donald Welker says:

    There is only one active queue in a human being at any given time. If I’m on the phone, I’m not typing in IM (whatever happened to IM?) If I’m in IM, I’m not reading my emails, and if I’m reading my emails I’m not logging ticket responses. Or maybe all of the above in the reverse order, depending on organizational priorities.

    Every additional channel requires context switching, too.

    Then we get into platforms that are actually intended for knowledge sharing, like wikis…

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my photoBob Lewis is a senior management consultant with Dell Services. He has published these columns once a week in one form or another since 1996.

Disclaimer: All opinions, statements, representations, allegations, images (if published) and anything else that appears here is the sole responsibility of the author. Dell has and had nothing to do with it, other than saying it's okay to continue publishing KJR.

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