The Wisdom of Those Who Went Before You

Being stuck on the past has always bothered me, particularly when "being stuck" is of the "...we tried that and it didn't work" variety.  I've encountered this attitude in pretty much every job I've ever had, and my instinctive reaction is to think "you guys just didn't do it right."

Sometimes that instinct has proven to be correct, but in most of my experiences it was wrong.  In a few instances, damned wrong.

That initial reaction is, I believe, one born out of arrogance.  It falls in the "I'm smarter, harder working, more insightful, more clever, etc." then those that came before me.  This almost always proves not to be the case.  Arrogance is NOT a business asset.  In fact, it sets you up for an even bigger fall than you would experience in its absence, and pretty much guarantees there will be people standing on the sidelines cheering when you stumble.

In reality, a failure to implement anything similar to what you are contemplating should be a giant, flashing, warning sign telling you to slow down and analyze things from every angle.

After all, maybe your version of the idea will actually work better.  Maybe barrier that previously prevented the idea's successful implementation has changed.  Maybe the previous implementation effort was done without craft or cleverness.

Yeah, and maybe pigs really can fly.

Most likely you'll be tripped up by the same things that caused issues the last time a version of the idea was tried.  Go forward, and you're just asking for problems.

But you're still convinced that you can do it, aren't you?

In that case, take the time to interview people that were around during the last go round.  Get a detailed download on exactly what barriers were encountered, and what ultimately led to the failure.  Don't assume you know, don't jump to erroneous conclusions, instead carefully listen.  Then plan, review, and really convince yourself that what you're doing is going to produce a different result.

The odds are good that you'll convince yourself, but the odds are also good it will be wishful thinking.

So you should test out your "revised plan" with some of the old timers, and see if they agree your changes will assure success.

I'm betting they will say "no."  At which point, you should go back to the drawing boards or punt altogether.

My favorite example of how NOT to benefit from the wisdom of those who went before you comes from a plan I once tried to implement, one involving the roll up independent distributors.

The logic behind the idea went as follows:  It is terribly difficult to get independent distributors to act in the way you want.  My employer wanted to emphasize technological prowess, and the distributors wanted to focus on product reliability.  If we just owned them we could make the salespeople behave the way we wanted.  Oh, and we could also capture the distributor's share of the value chain's profits, adding it to our own and making our shareholders happy.

This idea was wrong in so many ways that I can't, in the space available for this blog post, begin to explain the foolishness of the concept.

More to the point, however, the company had actually tried to do this exact same thing ten years earlier.  And the resulting distributor performance had ranged from mediocre to downright horrible.

I'd come to the job from a company with a direct sales force, however, and due to my frustrations with the independent dealers, I loved the roll-up concept.  So what did I do?  I brushed aside the previous failure.

In my opinion at the time, the project had failed because:  It was done for the wrong reason (profit enhancement rather than sales process control), it was managed inadequately (a part time leader versus a dedicated expert in distribution management), it was attempted at the wrong time (when the market was less mature).  Most importantly, I believed I would succeed because I was smarter and and harder working than the prior managers that had failed.

I was certain I would make it work.

But I couldn't.

The first few acquisitions were made with great fanfare.  I hired a very capable manager to run the unit, and he appointed top talent to manage the acquired distributors.  But results sagged when compared to the distributor's performance prior to acquisition.  Some of the problems were caused by the natural business cycle (we'd purchased near the market peak -- go figure), but many more were caused by the fact that we had MANAGERS running the businesses rather than OWNERS.  Costs rose, efficiency dropped, more capital was "required."  We took nice little businesses, and turn them into mediocre businesses.  That was, until something bad happened like a manager quit, or an employee was found stealing -- then things got ugly.

Funny thing was, these were exactly the same problems that had caused the earlier effort to stumble.  I'd completely failed to learn anything from those who went before me.

In the end, the entire episode could have been avoided simply by delving more deeply into the "whys" of the previous failure, and by realistically assessing how my plan would (or wouldn't) change the outcome.  Of course, it would have also required suppressing my arrogance, and taking a cautious approach.  This was a lesson I eventually learned, but one that took additional repetitions of the same process before it sunk in.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation, control your ego and learn the lessons of the past by listening, analyzing, and planning, rather than committing errors that have already once been committed.  21.1

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cover for Smashwords edition.jpg

To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, complete with a story about how a "deal" they are negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, everything is not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.