Infrastructure
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2/25/2005
03:16 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: Adjust Expectations To Maintain Greatness

When things are going well is the time to look ahead and plan ahead, says Lou Bertin.

Had a typically terrific dinner recently with one of my dearest friends. During the three or so hours we were together, the topics ranged, per usual, from the idiotic to the sublime. But one particular exchange struck a resonant chord with me and in its utter simplicity made a powerful point and delivered a lesson for any of us who allow ourselves to believe, for reasons real or imagined, that we're somehow permanently locked into existing professional behaviors.

A bit of background: At his shop, my pal is in a position to shift players around and, more important, he's the first to take the heat from the powers that be if things don't quite work as planned. He's the boss of his operating unit and he's very, very good at it.

More important, though, he's one of the most skilled readers of people and assessors of talent I ever expect to meet. Those talents, combined, have led him to consistently be able to assemble organizations and assign roles that nearly perfectly match talent to needs.

In the particular case we were discussing, he casually mentioned a realignment he was contemplating wherein he was going to assemble an intramural collective to tackle tasks typically handled by individuals working solo. Moreover, he was going to allow that collective nearly free rein to poke its nose into anything it found interesting, going counter to the prevailing thinking in his business that individuals work best when they are asked, individually, to tunnel into "line" functions.

OK, Bertin, we're with you so far, but what's the point here? Lots of outfits form task forces. Lots of "empowered" managers go against the book and fulfill traditional demands in untraditional ways. What's the big deal here?

The big deal is that the change isn't being undertaken for the sake of change. The change isn't being effected to appease disaffected individuals or as a sop to the powers that be. It's being undertaken because it's the right thing to do at the right time and, most important, because my friend's outfit knows that while currently it's riding pretty high, there's nothing in writing that says it won't ever face a competitive challenge.

The bottom line is that my friend, like any superb manager, knew that the time to shore up any inevitable inefficiency is when things are going well, not when things begin to go badly. He also knew that the smoothest way to initiate that change wasn't by scrapping big portions of his current personnel roster but, rather, by reassigning responsibilities, adjusting expectations to set the bar higher and, critically, making sure everybody knew his thumbprint was visible on the moves.

At a time when enterprises are comfortably settling in with their sourcing and services partners, the object lessons my pal reminded me of take on particular importance, I think. No need here to re-hash the hard-earned wisdom contained in the "ABC's of Establishing Successful Sourcing Relationships."

Rather, those relationships now are well into the post-honeymoon phase, the phase where real dangers begin to appear. After the months spent establishing operating parameters; working through the inevitable personnel issues; dealing with the rough edges that need sanding as corporate cultures are forced to coexist and, generally, getting things sailing smoothly, conventional wisdom would have it that now is the time to sit back and take pride in jobs well done and working relationships well aligned. Wrong!

Now is the time to prepare for the next phase, whatever that might be. Now is the time to decide what needs are going to be a year from now. Now is the time to make sure that the sourcing and services relationships that are working so well today are going to be sufficient (or aren't going to be suffocating) in the future.

The excuses one might offer for not acting on the above are easy to conjure. "We're locked into the contract for the next year. We have plenty of time to work things out." Or: "Things finally are going well and I know that together, we'll be able to make sure the relationship will continue to work into the future." Best of all: "We've been doing sourcing for years, we know the signs to look for if problems might arise." None hold water.

Whether it's sourcing and services, personnel, or partnerships, the reality is that nothing is a constant, nothing is a given, and nothing works forever. Too, the reality is that the time to work the hardest is when the sailing is the smoothest. Waiting for a problem to arise is a desperately bad way of dealing with that problem. Better by far to follow the example of my pal and to make change happen long before the difficulties descend.

As the incomparable Branch Rickey once said: "Industry is not the expenditure of shoe leather. It is having ideas--ideas about the job you hold, how to improve it and yourself." Nothing is rarer than common sense.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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