01 October 2019

What's the Problem?

"A problem well-stated is a problem half solved.

--John Dewey

I took on a complex restructuring engagement several years ago and needed help.  A telephone appointment was arranged with Dr. Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus, Work and Organization Studies, MIT, Cambridge, MA.  Dr. Schein, who is credited with founding the field of organizational culture, is one of my favorite authors. (See "Organizational Culture and Leadership" 5th edition.)

He listened politely to the proposition.  I said to think about the offer and I would call back in a week for his response.  Thankfully, Dr. Schein signed on and thus began a 36-month professional relationship with one of the great minds in strategic management. 

Dr. Schein's initial advice came in the form of a question--"What's the problem?"   He kept probing to make sure the client was thinking carefully, not rushing to find solutions.  Why that approach?  Because teams, and task forces, under pressure often try to solve difficult problems without proper judgment.  

Or they try to solve a problem when in fact it's a "polarity" to be managed. Sample polarities or tensions include short term vs long term; centralization vs decentralization; and growth vs consolidation. (See "Polarity Management" by Barry Johnson.)

Defining the problem

Regardless of your position or the nature of the enterprise, problems are ever-present.  They vary in degree, form, and come from all directions.  Some are resolved quickly by drawing on previous experiences.  Others require more time and study.  

Since problem-solving and decision making goes together, what can we do to improve the process? 

For an intricate, unsettled question involving corporate strategy, you could begin by asking this question--

"What prevents us from reaching our goal?"

You may need to state the problem in broad terms since the exact problem may not be obvious.  This is due to a lack of information to define it or you confuse symptoms with underlying causes. 

Prepare a statement of the problem and find someone you trust to review it and to talk it over.  If the problem is a job situation, review it with your supervisor or another appropriate person.  

Consider these questions

In reflecting on the situation the right questions are helpful:

o  What is the problem?
o  Is it my problem or someone else's?
o  Can I solve it?  Is it worth solving?
o  Is this the real problem, or merely a symptom of a larger one?
o  If this is an old problem, what's wrong with the previous solution?


o  Does it need an immediate solution, or can it wait?
o  Is it likely to go away by itself?
o  Can I risk ignoring it?

o  Does the problem have an ethical dimension?
o  What conditions must the solution satisfy?
o  Will the solution affect something that must remain unchanged?

Restating the problem

Dr. Schein recommends taking your original definition of the problem and periodically updating it with new insights.  Seeing intuitively comes by observing a complicated issue from different perspectives.  It's also possible to come upon new facts by remaining open-minded and not giving up too soon.  

How often do you restate the problem?  

That depends on its nature and urgency.  Some research on this topic suggests that in almost all cases the conditions and constraints affecting the problem and its possible solutions change over time--sometimes dramatically--changing both the problem and the range of options designed to address it.  

And don't forget

As some questions have no answers certain problems have no solutions.   

*Study Guides and Strategies contributed to this post.


© Bredholt & Co. 

01 September 2019

The Hollowing of an Organization

"How did you go bankrupt?  Two ways.  Gradually, then suddenly."

--Ernest Hemingway, "The Sun Also Rises"

This summer saw the removal of a nearly 100-year old, 100-foot sassafras tree from the property in Michigan.  During a recent inspection of all our trees arborist, John Wardlaw noticed a "cavity" in the side of that particular tree (see picture below) indicating probable damage to the center of the trunk.  He said it was possible for the outside to look okay while the inside was deteriorating.

Sassafras tree in Michigan.  

After two very large branches fell this past year we decided to take down the tree.  
The combination of shade and sassafras fragrance paled in comparison to the dangers of a falling tree causing bodily harm, or worse.

How a tree hollows

Our research into this topic shows that trees suffer injury just as humans do.  That was news to me.  When limbs break it sometimes creates an opening through the bark exposing the sapwood.  Being attacked by fungi and bacteria forms a cavity.  

Stress happens through wind, fire, heat, and lightning. We've had lots of rain this spring in Michigan and that's a contributing factor as well.

Can a tree be hollow and still live?

Indeed a hollow tree can be alive--and fruitful.  

Emily Stone, a naturalist, and educator at the Cable Natural History Museum says, "All of the growth and water transport continues in the outer shell of the tree--the sapwood--even as the center rots away." 

"In order for a tree to become hollow, though, it must start the process while it is still alive," she added. 

How a business hollows

In the same way trees stay healthy and avoid hollowing out, businesses require the right conditions to grow and be strong.   

There's a corporate soul (purpose, beliefs, and values) that resides inside an "organizational tree."  That core is strategic to the enterprise and therefore needs constant attention.   

Author Lim Lay Hsuan observed, "If leadership fails to nurture the soul, like a deprived garden, it will eventually die."

Nurturing a company begins with nurturing oneself.   Leaders who are clear about their own purpose and goals have a head start in that process.  

What else should have our attention?

"Why" the business; hiring decisions; who is the customer; developing associates; the quality of being special; ethics; changing environments; and exemplary performance or execution, not just what's required. 

Those ingredients, which necessitate maintenance, contribute to a healthy corporate culture, the most overlooked competitive advantage.  


-What comprises the soul of your business and what is its current condition?

-Who are the guardians?  

-Do the company's beliefs and values matter to a new workforce?  

-How do you keep, and strengthen, the soul during periods of significant demographic change?

Circumvent the hollowing

While there are no guarantees it's worth trying to safeguard what's important to an organization.  A short checklist suggests ways of impeding the hollowing process--

1. Identify what matters most to your business and communicate it frequently.

2. Apply your beliefs and values consistently, especially in decision-making.

3. Be aware of the stresses that can do long-term damage.

4. Businesses, like trees, need trimming to stay healthy and flourish.

5. Hire for corporate culture.  There's nothing like a good fit.  


(C) Bredholt & Co.


01 August 2019

The State of Your Business

Best and worst states for business in 2019:


1. Texas
2. Florida
3. Tennessee
4. North Carolina
5. Indiana
6. Nevada
7. Arizona
8. South Carolina
9. Ohio
10. Georgia
11.  Utah
12.  Colorado
13.  Virginia
14.  Wyoming
15.  South Dakota
16.  Iowa
17.  Wisconsin
18.  Oklahoma
19.  Idaho
20.  Nebraska
21.  Arkansas
22.  Delaware
23.  Kentucky
24.  Missouri
25.  Alabama
26.  New Hamshire
27.  Montana
28.  North Dakota
29.  Kansas  
30.  Louisiana
31.  New Mexico
32.  Michigan
33.  Pennsylvania
34.  Maryland
35.  Maine
36.  Rhode Island
37.  Minnesota
38.  Mississippi
39.  West Virginia
40.  Alaska
41.  Vermont
42.  Hawaii
43.  Washington
44.  Oregon
45.  Massachusetts
46.  Connecticut
47.  New Jersey
48.  Illinois
49.  New York
50.  California

Source:  Chief Executive Magazine


(C) Bredholt & Co.

01 July 2019

Brené Brown--TEDx Talk on Vulnerability

Best-selling author, Brené Brown, studies human connection -- our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.
This talk, viewed by over 40 million people, was presented to a local audience at TEDxHouston, an independent event. 
See what you think.


(C) Bredholt & Co.

01 June 2019

A Nightly Logistics Ballet

There's an up-close look at the increasing speed of the logistics business in the May/June issue of Chief Executive magazine featuring FedEx, founded in 1971 as Federal Express by Frederick Smith.    

Rising expectations for immediate commercial gratification, especially among younger households, are pushing logistics and supply chain management to new levels of performance--aided by robots doing repetitive tasks.  

"Organizational culture contributes to FedEx success," Richard Smith, CEO of FedEx Logistics is quoted as saying.  "You must be able to pivot quickly and nimbly shift strategy to delight the customer in the face of inevitable surprises," he added.  

Adapting when necessary

FedEx announced this month that it would begin Sunday delivery to most U.S. homes.  That decision comes amid significant changes in online shopping patterns.   

Additionally, FedEx said it planned to hire about 700 flexible part-time Express drivers in 160 residential and rural domestic markets, responding to mounting pressure from Amazon on traditional delivery services such as FedEx and UPS. 

While leadership and strategy get more attention, the daily routine shows what an organization is made of in terms of experience, processes, and results.

The evening sort

The next time you review internal collaboration to see if it's functioning properly, consider the following operational complexity . . .  

At the FedEx World Hub in Memphis, Tennessee, at what's referred to as the "evening sort," an intricate ballet is performed each evening.  

The sort involves:

-84 miles of conveyor belts

-150 cargo jets

-7,000 employees

-1.5 million packages

The simple goal?  Making sure your package, and mine gets to where it needs to go.

And 24 hours later FedEx crews do the evening sort all over again.

The next day

According to the FedEx website the company covers every U. S. street address and services more than 220 countries and territories.  Air-ground express service flows through 650 airports worldwide with just over 600 aircraft in the FedEx fleet.   

In addition to the late night staff in Memphis, it's up to more than 240,000 team members globally to make the pick-up and delivery cycle work every day. 

What's a key factor for success in prompt delivery?  An easy-to-read house or business address on the premises.


Ballet dancers make what they do look easy when in fact, it's one of the hardest tasks to perform.  Just ask any associate working the night shift at FedEx.*

*No doubt similar efforts are put forth by employees at United Parcel Service (UPS) and the United States Postal Service (USPS).


(C) Bredholt & Co.

01 May 2019

A Mind That Is Still

"Few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought."


It was announced recently that James A. Forese, current president of Citigroup, will be retiring.  After 34 years at Citigroup, The Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Forese, age 56, and also head of the bank's Institutional Client Group was leaving after spending nearly a decade helping clean up from the spending crisis that contributed to the Great Recession.

Tributes to the man

What caught our attention is the way in which some of Mr. Forese's colleagues described the man who had risen to the No. 2 position at the 3rd largest bank in the U.S.  

Keep in mind the context of the mid-2000s--it felt as though the business world, as we knew it, was coming to an end.  The housing bubble burst.  Credit markets froze.  Big companies like General Motors, Lehman Brothers, and Washington Mutual went bankrupt.   Nearly 700 hundred thousand people a month were losing their jobs.  

So how did Mr. Forese perform in a time of extreme duress?

"We would not be the company we are without his stewardship," Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat said in a company-wide memo.

Another person added, "He (Jamie Forese) is known for being even-keeled and willing to speak his mind."  

One former Citigroup executive, Tom Obermaier, offered that Jamie Forese was a "voice of calm" during the 2008 financial crisis.  "When everybody in many respects was in the classic Citi game of pointing fingers, Jamie got everybody in line, calmed everybody down," Mr. Obermaier was quoted as saying.

How executives are described in their departure says a lot about who they are as a person, not just their accomplishments.    

When your time is up, what will they say about you?

How we think

Mr. Forese's response to such a difficult moment reminds us of the writings of James Allen and the idea that inner thoughts determine outward behaviors.  Here is what Allen says:

1.  The calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.  It is the result of long and patient effort in self-control.  Its presence is an indication of ripened experience, and of a more than ordinary knowledge of laws and operations of thought.

2.  A person becomes calm in the measure that they understand themselves as a thought-evolving being.   Knowledge necessitates the understanding of others.  When we see more clearly the internal relations of things then we cease to fuss and fume and worry and grieve, and remain poised, steadfast, serene.

3.  Keep your hand firmly upon the helm of thought.  Self-control is a strength; Right Thought is mastery; Calmness is power.  Source:  As A Man Thinketh, James Allen

Connected with reality

A measure of one's temperament often overlooked in the hiring process contributes significantly to a leader's success.  With dissolving behavioral norms, and markets upended by technology and demographics, how important it is to have at least one person in the room with a non-anxious presence.

To underscore that point--in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression Citigroup seems to have benefited greatly from Jamie Forese's experience, and a mind that was still.     


(C) Bredholt & Co.

01 April 2019

Uncommon Friends

"One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives."


No matter where we lived growing up in Michigan our home was filled with conversations, mostly around the dinner table.  Even after the arrival of a black and white Silvertone television from Sears, Roebuck and Company in the late 1950s, talking face-to-face was a priority for our family.  

My mother had culinary gifts which were a draw for a host of friends, neighbors, and dad's parishioners, around an oft-crowded mahogany dining room table (which now sits in our Florida home).  On those special occasions, time stood still.     

That sort of table talk can best be described as story-filled exchanges among older adults who enjoyed politics, religion, and sports.  Those same topics still show up when three generations of our family gather during the holiday season.     

It's from the early years we learned the value of carefully sharing ideas among close friends.  

Sitting on the porch 

In March long-time friends and high school classmates, Dave and Linda Johnson took Chris and me to the Edison-Ford winter estates.  Nearly 25 years have passed since we were in Ft. Myers, Florida in that beautifully landscaped setting on palm tree-lined McGregor Boulevard, next to the Caloosahatchee River. 

Thomas A. Edison first visited this part of the Southeastern U.S. in 1885 and while there, purchased the site that would become his winter home and laboratory. 

Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, purchased the adjoining property in 1916.  

Image result for images edison ford and firestone in color
(L-R) Henry Ford, Thomas A. Edison, Harvey S. Firestone
on the front porch of the Edison laboratory in
Ft. Myers, Florida Circa 1930 (C) Edison Estate

Edison, Ford, and Harvey S. Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., whose winter home was in Palm Beach, Florida, became "uncommon friends" spending time together in sunny Florida.  Their f
avorite places to sit and talk were the Edison and Ford covered porches.  

Our tour guide pointed out that none of the three great minds were "inventors" as such, something I had not thought about.  Innovators, not inventors, may be a better word to describe these seasonal friends, the guide offered.   

To illustrate--

o In 1800 Alessandro Volta developed the first practical method for generating electricity--the battery.  English chemist, Humphry Davy, produced the first electric lamp that same year.  What Thomas Edison did in 1879 was surpass his competition by producing a practical and inexpensive carbon-filament light bulb.  

o Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile--that was probably Karl Benz in 1885 or 1886.  What Ford did was find a way to mass produce the Model T car and sell 11,000 of them in 1908-09, raising $9 million to secure and expand the business.   

o John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish inventor, first patented the air-filled tire in 1887.  Harvey Firestone saw the potential for marketing tires to automobile companies and started a company in 1890 to do just that.

One conversation during World War I led Edison to partner with Ford and Firestone to find a rubber tree plant that could grow quickly in the U.S. removing dependence on foreign rubber.  They each contributed $25,000 ($630,000 in current dollars) to organize the Edison Botanic Research Corporation and create a domestic supply of rubber. 

What did Edison find? After testing 17,000 plant samples he discovered a source in the plentiful Goldenrods, flowering plants in the aster family. 

If around today these industrial innovators would likely be talking about artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles.  Robotics and new sources of energy.  Or the unintended consequences of radial tires (they last too long).  

I doubt their conversations would be considered small talk.  

The wisdom of good friends

Who are your uncommon friends?  How often do you converse at length about things that matter most to each of you?    

Irrespective of Facebook's notion of "friending," real friends are few, and deep conversations rare.

You may not be able to sit on a porch in a botanical garden like Edison, Ford, and Firestone, but in a business culture where individuals tend to over-schedule themselves, there's wisdom in making time to be among exceptional friends.  The greater your responsibility the more you need to be around those who can be trusted, especially when thinking out loud.  

In the right settings, face-to-face conversations are sources of laughter, meaning, and encouragement.  Who knows, under those circumstances, a transformative idea could even emerge. 


(C) Bredholt & Co.