The Two Most Overlooked Opportunities in Corporate America

7 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

"Why should the business pay for that? How will that impact top line revenue?" Although it may have been a while since you asked or have been asked either of these questions at your place of business, I bet you are familiar with them — and just as familiar with the goat rodeos that arrive when the questions are asked.

Opportunity Knocks

These perfectly reasonable questions are typically the starting point of a downward spiral. The casualties of these questions are many, but we usually mourn the physical losses most because the opportunity they represent is easier to see. 

There are, however, two ideas that beat out any physical products as the biggest missed opportunities in corporate America (which are not to be confused with the two hardest tasks, the two biggest mistakes and the two biggest time sucks in corporate America). One of these opportunities is one that so many teams claim they neither need nor have time to do. The other is the one everyone agrees with and admires from afar but so few actually practice.

These two ideas and the rhetoric that is used to shut them down are present in so many corporate settings that a majority of readers have probably personally been involved in the very debate described.

The why and how of these opportunities being overlooked may vary in the exact ways they occur, but they each have the same root -- a belief in the universality of cause and effect. In this article, I will give concrete examples of how to best counter such arguments and help you overcome the barriers to reaping the rewards of automated processes and clarity of purpose -- the two most overlooked opportunities in Corporate America today. 

Overlooked Opportunity No. 1

Automating the Automatable:  Choosing not to automate tedious, error prone manual tasks in medium and large enterprises is the first overlooked opportunity we will be discussing. Executive management is fond of directing their staffs to “pour more monkeys into that barrel" (this is an actual quote from a CIO I once worked with). This style of leadership is a direct result of a hierarchal culture in which distance breeds contempt.

You may be unaware of the IT shops that religiously automate everything that is automatable and the benefits that they derive from it.  It is very unlikely, however, that you are unfamiliar with the consequences that arise when your shop chooses to remain manual. 

How many times have you been told that a new product or service cannot possibly launch within your time frame because the QA process takes 6 weeks or more? How many times have you been told that you can't spin up a new market experiment because the environment setup process has to be scheduled and requires anywhere from weeks to months depending upon the current workload of the operations teams that are required? How many times have you been told that once your experiment is live it will take days to weeks to capture and analyze the data necessary to gain even the beginnings of insight?

While the inflation of cycle time is a painful consequence of non-automation, the bigger concern is when the barriers to iteration become enormous. Iteration is most effective when the power of automation is brought to bear. When QA cycles shift from weeks to days or from days to minutes that’s when you start to gain serious momentum from project teams. When releases and deployments take minutes rather than hours, that’s when you can start to fail forward rather than roll back.

From the point of view of someone who has worked with a team that automates to the point of obsession, the frustration of working in an enterprise caught in the trap of manualism is akin to being a race car driver watching his pit crew use manual wrenches and jacks to change his tires rather than pneumatic tools. What’s worse for the automation savvy person is that when he asks the pit crew to start using power tools, quite often the manualists say they’re too busy changing the tires to look into that and it probably wouldn’t work anyway.

The most challenging aspect of the manually driven IT enterprise is the task of remaining patient and calm when dealing with the individual and enterprise responses to calls to automate. The responses of the manualists vary depending upon the context, but tend to fall into one of the following narratives: “We don’t have time to manufacture time”, “That task is too complex to be automated”, “The consequences of a mistake are too high for that task. We prefer humans to do that”, “That task is so small, it’s not worth it”, “That task isn’t done often enough to make it worth it”.

These narratives can be deadly for automation obsessives because the instinctual response can tend towards emotional drama which kills the credibility of the person asking for a change in philosophy and ultimately strengthens the position of the manualists.

Learning Opportunities

Overlooked Opportunity No. 2

Clarity of Purpose: The lack of adherence to clarity of purpose is the second most overlooked opportunity that we're going to look at. It has been a long running joke inside IT shops that the publishers of airline magazines are the secret masters of corporate strategy. This joke stems from the scenario where an executive steps off a flight and tells his staff about the wonderful products he read about within the in-flight magazine. According to the advertorial (cleverly designed to look like an actual product review) a software product was so cheap and painless, that any company not using the product was just plain foolish.

It is no wonder how this joke got started, given that the scarcest commodities in corporate america are perseverance, lasting commitment and consensus. The lack of singular and consistent focus seems to plague every company not named Apple. Project teams of every discipline feel the regular pain of dropping everything to chase whatever white rabbit just entered the field of vision of one executive or another.

This is such a common occurrence that I’m surprised nobody has yet written a caveat to the law of diminishing returns. The law of diminishing returns states that after a certain point in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower per-unit returns. The caveat that seems obvious when looking at the ever shifting ground inside most corporate enterprises is that just the presence or absence of a singular focus can accelerate or inhibit returns by itself.

The lack of a clear priority model to execute against keeps teams in a constant state of trepidation and forces individual contributors to second guess themselves on an almost every day basis. What’s so frustrating about the lack of a singular purpose is that nearly everyone from top to bottom universally decries it. Everyone wants a simple priority model with a qualitative concept on top to break all ties, but so few seem willing to put their individual ambitions and metrics into the discussion to help make substantive progress against the deadlock.

How Can You Deal With This?

The secret to being able to capitalize on these often overlooked opportunities is this: Learn how to play the long game.

Neither of these cultural norms can be turned around in a day and the idea that you can change your enterprise’s belief system in anything less than three years is destined for a disappointing end. If, on the other hand, you look to make meaningful progress in three to five years, you can embark on a mission that can yield big long term gains.

While this strategy seems tough to stomach, remember that all truly big things start small while things that start big usually flame out within a short amount of time. Targeting small visible and tangible victories as a starting point while simultaneously collecting strategic visible setbacks will begin to set you up for real leverage in subsequent years.

From little acorns, mighty oaks will grow. 

About the author

Stephen Fishman

Stephen holds a M.S. in Management from The Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering also from Georgia Tech. Stephen has worked as a practitioner and leader across business, design and technology domains for enterprises and brands like PepsiCo, AutoTrader, Cummins, Chick-fil-A, the American Cancer Society, the CDC, Macy's, GM, Home Depot, Lowe's and others.