Trading Off Capabilities

My experience has been that net expense reductions in a mature organization almost always result in a loss of longer-term operational capabilities.  They rarely produce a net efficiency improvement.  Usually, there’s a corresponding reduction in value, quality, or capability.  It’s a trade-off.  The key is whether you understand the trade-off or not. If you understand it, fine.  But if not – if it manifests itself as an unintended consequence – then not so fine.

I saw an article recently in the Navy Times that captured the same idea.  I’ll post the link below, but here’s the paragraph that really caught my attention.  It’s an excellent example of what I tell my students.


“However, the cumulative effects of well-meaning decisions designed to achieve short-term operational effectiveness and efficiencies have often produced unintended negative consequences which, in turn degraded necessary long-term operational capability.”


Soft Skills or Complex Skills?

I’ve written previously about that aspect of professional development that focuses on the so-called “soft” skills, like being able to effectively lead, communicate, and work in teams (to name three of the most commonly mentioned).  And when you research these things – digging through news articles, for example – you generally find two common themes:

  1. These attributes are highly valued, but in very short supply.
  2. These attributes are very hard to “teach.”

I’ve said before that I don’t know if these skills are truly in short supply.  I have no data.  But my professional sense is that it’s more likely that they are being overlooked (if not by people, then certainly by algorithms), and that, in practice, the “hard” skills win out over the “soft” skills for any number of reasons… none of them, in my view, satisfactory.

As for whether or not they are hard to teach, I think they are.  I have been trying to teach them in my courses for a very long time, so I have some personal insights on this – enough to know we can do better.  And I’ve spent over 40 years in industry, so I know the importance of these skills (and they go beyond the three mentioned above, but that’s another discussion).

We need some fresh ideas on how to make greater progress in this area.  These are not soft skills, they are complex skills.  This is not a methodological problem, it’s a paradigmatic problem.  We need a new model.

And, keep in mind, this is a multi-disciplinary challenge.  We would benefit from collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines.

Quick Ways to Structure a Talk

What could be more enjoyable than being called on to speak with no advance warning?  If you’re like me, the answer is probably anything.  But sometimes you do get called on, so what can you do?

The good news is that, normally, in situations like that, you’re given the topic.  Your challenge is simply to work out a way to approach that topic.

One approach that always helps me is to quickly break the topic down into a set of structured elements, either a 2-point structure or a 3-point structure. Here are some examples:

Two Point Structures:

  • Pros and cons.
  • Thesis and antithesis.
  • What I know and what I don’t know.
  • Opposite poles (or opposite extremes).

Three Point Structures:

  • Past, present, and future.
  • Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
  • What I know, what I don’t know, and what I wish I knew.
  • Two extremes and the golden mean.

The beauty is that these structures are familiar to us because we use them in our everyday lives. I’m sure you’ve often considered something in terms of, say, its pros and cons.  So, if a topic lends itself to that approach, you already know how to develop it. The structure challenge is solved. Now, focus on content. The talk practically writes itself.

I’ll give you some examples.  Let’s start with a two point example.

“Good morning. I’m going to spend a few minutes with you this morning considering the issue of whether we should paint all of the houses in our neighborhood the same color. I’ll begin by suggesting some obvious advantages of doing so and then we’ll look at some potential disadvantages. So, what are the advantages? I see three…”

Pros and cons, right?

Here is a three point example.

“Good evening. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you this evening about something vitally important to all of us: the future direction of our organization. As you all know, we face a number of challenges. I have some thoughts on how we might move forward. But, to be sure we’re all on the same page, let me briefly review where we are today and how we got here…”

Past, present, and future!

It’s like a game to me. Give me a topic and a structure and let me see if I can quickly meld them together into a coherent message.

I’ll add one final comment. If you find yourself in one of these situations, and you can’t quite settle in on a structure, I suggest using “What I know, what I don’t know, and what I wish I knew” as the default. It’s simple and it’s easy to remember.

The Consultant’s Objectivity

Clients use consultants for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes, they seek specialized expertise that is not readily available in house.  Sometimes, they prefer to work with an external resource to help maintain confidentiality and prevent internal leaks or rumors. Sometimes, they use consultants to serve as catalysts for fresh thinking or to gain a measure of objectivity (or at least the appearance of objectivity).

Whatever the reason, every consultant will eventually face the necessity of expressing a contrary viewpoint.  Now, if that’s why they hired you, then well and good.  But, if not, then it’s important to learn how to express an opposing opinion in a positive way.

Here are some simple examples of how to express a contrary opinion in a thoughtful, professional way.  The first one isn’t very provocative, it simply introduces another perspective. The second one is more of a challenge, but it can be softened slightly by the use of we rather than you.  The third one is a forthright assertion that you disagree, feel compelled to say so, yet are nonetheless willing to move forward.

  • “I understand what you are saying.  Now, here is another way to look at it…”
  • “Have you considered the possible consequences of this course of action?”
  • “I value our relationship and I will assist you with whatever course of action you choose, but I am professionally bound to give you my honest opinion on this.”

An Engineer’s View of Strategy

When I’m discussing the complex, multi-faceted problem of business strategy development and deployment with my information engineering students, I have found it useful to have them think of the problem as a sequence of five discrete steps.

I define the steps this way:

  1. The strategic management problem – How do you create (or formulate) a business strategy?
  1. The organizational leadership problem – How do you communicate the business strategy throughout the organization and gain commitment?
  1. The operational management problem – How do you successfully execute the business strategy?
  1. The strategic analysis problem – What information sources and analytical frameworks are useful in evaluating results and improving both strategy and execution?
  1. The information engineering problem – What tools, technologies, and techniques can most effectively facilitate the creation, communication, execution, and evaluation of the business strategy?




In one form or another, I’ve spent most of my career doing consulting.  Consulting is integral to my role as a systems engineer.  In fact, I still kick off my systems engineering course with a lecture on consulting methods.

Consulting is also an important part of my role in marketing and sales as I offer guidance to my customers on the design of systems to best meet their business goals.  And, for a number of years, I ran my own consulting company focused on the design and development of graduate engineering programs having a strong emphasis on leadership and professional development.

Consulting has been an inherent part of just about everything I’ve done professionally, and I suspect that may be the case with many of you as well.  I’m in the process now of developing a course just on consulting.  I don’t know how much interest there will be.  Some, I hope.

We’ll see.

On Mission and Vision Statements

When I lecture on strategic management, I spend some time on what I call the existential questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we do?
  • What do we aspire to achieve?
  • What do we value?

These are the statements of identity, mission, vision, and values with which we are all familiar.

I have little to say about identity, because it’s a relatively straightforward matter.  I also have little, in this lecture, to say about values.  I prefer to address that topic elsewhere.

I focus primarily on mission and vision.  And, over the years, I have had much to say about these two topics.

To be honest, I consider mission and vision statements to be of limited value.  But I will concede that I have seen a few well-crafted statements that serve as useful guides in setting the direction and boundaries of the strategic management process.

For example, a mission statement might state in a very succinct way who your customers are and who they are not.  To whom are you selling?  That’s a key question and one that intersects directly with questions of image and branding.

A vision statement may convey something about your organizational culture, your commitments, your expectations, and perhaps something of your organizational philosophy or outlook.  These are also useful things.

Over the years, I’ve taken this lecture in a different direction.  I now offer more advice not on what to include in these statements but on what to avoid.  My goal is, again, to make them something thoughtful that guides the strategic management process – not something motivational to hang on the cafeteria bulletin board.   The answers to your existential questions should be statements that guide you in your strategic planning.  To that end, what should you avoid?

Things to avoid:

  1. Ambiguity – Be clear and don’t be wordy. A lack of clarity cannot serve as a guide to your strategic thinking.
  1. Insincerity – Mean what you say. Otherwise, you start from a false premise as you formulate your strategy.
  1. Hyperbole – Set rational, attainable goals. If everyone is world class, then no one is.
  1. Trying to be all things to all people – In effect, you’re saying “we have no boundaries.” But you do have boundaries – boundaries imposed by the reality that you have finite resources that prevent you from doing everything.  Strategy is about making choices.

To net it out, I would prefer mission and vision statements written to guide my strategic thinking.