What We Do, A History — Part I

August 31st, 2006

I must admit that the need to write about what I do amazes me, since it is now a 30-year history. The process also intimidates me. It throws me back 50 years to when my academic reputation placed me in the lowest group. It was especially true in writing. I had one sure anticipation: I would do it wrong. (Even as I write this Microsoft Word keeps squawking.)

Back then I just thought I was not smart enough. When instructions were given, I didn’t hear them. My mind had wandered off to the question of why. If thus–and-so is the right way to do a thing, surely there must be some explanation. It was rarely offered and the derision that attended my asking was something I learned to avoid. Ask why sometime and you’ll see why. Why makes people mad.

There is nothing wrong with learning by rote and much that is right. The outcome is a tool bag of prescriptions for how things are done. But one thing is clear in business, and almost everywhere else: when reason, the why, is divorced from the tools, things start to go wrong. Doing something the prescribed way but detached from why eventually brings all the work, little of the reward and ultimately, scathing indictment. Why matters.

In a business crisis it is safer to ask why. It is foolish not to. The way I approach crisis is not to find what rule for how things are done has been broken. Rather, I assume that the rule or series of prescriptions has become so thoroughly detached from why that things stop working. Detachment always happened well before the breakdown.

Back in 1979 I got it in my mind we needed our own computer. Timesharing and service bureaus were too restrictive and service too slow. I did my homework. I was going to spend more on the initial system than our total capital. Among other things, I went to a conference in Chicago on the subject.

The speakers at one session were executives and department managers. They described what they did. I was intimidated. It sounded sophisticated, complex and required employees with specialized skills. Then they broke it. Making a huge capital investment, hiring and managing expensive and alien-talking technicians added up to 10% returns, they said. Forget it, I said–work, more work, impressive status–for crummy returns. (I never did learn the merits of low margins at high volume and more work.)

In these sessions I started to ask my why questions. Based on their chuckles, everybody else knew. I didn’t. I was no longer excessively inhibited by the idea that something accepted was therefore the right or only way. I hired a nationally recognized consulting firm. They tried to me convince I was wrong. One element of what I wanted was a system that didn’t required specialists– wanted one on every desk. It had to handle everything from telephone messages to economic modeling. There would be no separate department. I asked them to find and configure a system including software. I didn’t want to computerize what we were doing, I wanted to change what we did.

It blew the budget. But what are budgets for anyway? I thought business was about finding ways to spend as much money as possible. I had found it. I won’t reveal what it did to 10% returns, except to say exploring why is very profitable.

Why is very powerful. It is curiosity. For me it is that I am paralyzed if I don’t know why. I just didn’t, and mostly still don’t, get it. My grandmother was an immigrant Norwegian. Kindly but by her hard life suspicious, she would challenge. My dad would send me over to clean her house. I was met with “Why are you here?” “My dad said I should.” “I didn’t ask him, who does he think he is?” she said. Then she would smile, slightly. And ask for a whiskey, which at seventeen, I didn’t have. So it went. Maybe it is in the blood.

I used to think that I got into crisis work because I was available. In 1977 one client put me on to something else. We had spent 2 years on a difficult and contentious acquisition bound up in a simultaneous split-up. The parties were brothers who, as the stories floated, used to settle disputes by fistfights on the shop floor. I was asked to handle the negotiations alone. They were successful. Later my client asked me how many children in my family. I said six. He said, “You were a middle child, weren’t you.”

The middle child is caught between power and rights, between the oldest and the youngest. With neither power nor rights, you are left with reason (or is it jawboning?). What is reason if it isn’t the oddity of bringing in facts to shift emotion, memory and intractability? You learn to grab facts to provoke and to deflect. Reason driven by facts is especially effective in the form of why questions.

The middle became natural for me.