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Money is time

December 22, 2011

I woke up last night with unusual clarity in recall of a dream. No dancing sugar plums, I promise. Be warned, though. This one's out there a fair distance and may offer little to no resonance for many. Life's like that. Vive la différence!

In this particular dream, I found myself wrestling with an assignment from Chris Bart. Chris was my professor of Policy while I pursued my MBA at McMaster University. Only 32 at the time, he had then already been named both Undergraduate and MBA Professor of the Year… more than once. I expect he'll be appropriately concerned to learn that I've been dreaming about him.

Chris has since developed international following as a leader in corporate mission and vision. He founded and is the lead professor of The Directors College. Created jointly by The Conference Board of Canada and the DeGroote School of Business (McMaster), the College delivers an accredited corporate director development program leading to the designation Chartered Director (C.Dir.). Every once in a while, I'm amazed at how small our world is and how paths intersect at different points in our lives.

As many people as I have met in the past 30 years, none have matched Chris Bart in the capacity to gather a complex set of data points across disciplines, and to articulate in simple terms a clear path forward. His course was called Policy – I saw him as an exceptional strategic thinker. His consultancy centres on corporate governance and leadership, with an anchor firmly lodged in mission and vision. Many times, I've stolen one of his favourite lines, "If your mission statement is more than fifteen words, it's not a mission statement. It's an essay." So lasting was the impression that I even hyphenated my own mission statement so as to remain true to this dictum.

Though now an esteemed FCA, Chris Bart did not present in any way close to the clichéd image of a bean counter. Have you heard the one: You know how to tell if a car belongs to a Chartered Accountant? The rear view mirror consumes the entire front windshield. Chris could count, and of course he did, but his strategic analysis reached well beyond the cliché. While rich in quantitative reasoning, Dr. Bart's class introduced the notion that there is no single solution and that the world of business decisions is plenty gray.

More importantly for me was the confirmation that you could and should apply some form of analytics to what seems on the face to be non-quantifiable. I'm not talking about Ouija boards or women's intuition here, though the latter may be not far from the mark. What I'm talking about is an acknowledgement that our frames of reference in decision making are constrained not so much by what we are looking at but rather by what we see. What we see is filtered too often by what we can measure. Witness the old adage, "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." This is a nice and neat little saying, one to which I've defaulted innumerable times. Sitting back to ponder the matter, however, a number of questions bubble upward. Is it true? Are there some things we are tasked with managing which we find ourselves unable to measure? If yes, are these matters really immeasurable, or have we just not yet found the metric for lack of ease in use?

Back to my dream… this might just come together by the final stroke. Dr. Bart's assignment in my dream (does this make me a stalker?), which he never gave to us in real life, and one which I suspect he may find excessively esoteric (or maybe he wouldn't), was to "define success."

For most people, this assignment would pose no great difficulty. The world is black and white. Everything has a narrowly defined compartment. Life is simple. Life is good. KISS.

I say, "not so fast." If this were so, our world would be in much better shape. Our hospitals, psychiatric wards, and prisons would not be so full. Our pharmaceutical companies would not be so successful. Membership in the Fortune 500 would not turn over with such regularity. Something's not quite right here.

No doubt, Dr. Bart would argue that we cannot define success without reference to our mission statement. In turn, as I recall, this statement must be singular, unambiguous, and emotionally resonant with all stakeholders. Everything must flow from that (less-than-15-word) mission statement. Key objectives must be entirely consistent with the mission. All strategies and tactics must be traceable back to the mission statement – conflict is otherwise inevitable. Finally, the organization must be guided by a short list of principles and values. In times of stress and upheaval, this articulation should provide everything needed by which to carve out a path forward.

So far, one might argue for a passing grade with the answer that: Success is the achievement of named objectives in service of a mission and by way of strategies and tactics that satisfy and reflect listed principles and values. I haven't run this by the good professor but will certainly take the opportunity to do so when we next cross paths (March 2012, I hope).

I would contend that the single most important factor in the failure of an 'organization' (and I'll come back to that word momentarily) is in the selection, development, framing, and articulation of mission. With this, I suspect Chris Bart will take no issue. Where we may part ways (or maybe not) is in describing the source of this failure.

Okay, folks. You had to know this was coming. Here's where I'm going to get all artsy-fartsy on you… and I certainly have not run this by Dr. Bart.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will define organization as any unit tasked with decision making. This would include a business, a non-profit, a trade union, a government agency. It would also include governments at all levels, and across national borders, as in the EU, for example. Going the other direction, it would include schools, neighbourhoods, families, and each of us as individuals.  I say this only to make a point… my main point, by the way.

Organizations and individuals that consider the mission question from within a closed system will eventually find themselves with an abundant inventory of buggy whips.

Organizations and individuals that fail to think outside of traditional quantitative measurement are doomed to the failures of Taylorism.

All organizations are comprised of people. Failure to take into account the 'people' aspects of an organization (both inside and out) when crafting mission and its supporting framework will necessarily result in failure of the whole.

We… people… are social creatures. We derive our value from the social context. I'm not talking about the water cooler here. I'm talking about everything we do. In the end, we will all end up defining ourselves, and assessing our lives, in how we have touched others. In the end, nothing else will matter. For this reason, I'm afraid, there will continue to be empty souls, frankly, rocking away on a porch in Mississauga wondering whatever happened. Providers for their families perhaps, but not participants. Successful as measured in dollars and cents, perhaps but failing to fully consider the means. As suggested very recently by my friend, James, having traded self-respect for some other agenda. Famous or infamous… it matters not.

What does matter is the mark we leave on those around us. The organization or individual that fails to incorporate this very human need into its own mission is in flagrant disregard of the 'heart of the matter.' In consequence, the organization/individual will necessarily fail to achieve its potential. In consequence, the organization/individual will necessarily begin its journey heading in a wrong direction. In consequence, the organization/individual will necessarily be at risk of a limited life span.

Closed system thinking is not necessary, structurally limiting, and wrong-headed.

Organizations and individuals will and must define themselves by their interdependent interactions and impacts with and on others within their own systems and, in fact, with and on other systems. We must all understand and act with the understanding that we are each a part of something larger than ourselves. Failure to do so foreshadows collapse and failure of the whole.

This notion underscores the critical importance of character and shared values both within an organization and without. Yes, we're back to values and character education once again, folks. No matter where we may wander in conversation about success, be it in employment, in business, in personal matters, in politics, or in investment, it always comes back to values and character. If what we're assessing does not include reference to integrity and shared values, all the measurement in the world buys you nothing… nothing.

For some (I expect many) of you, this gets into an uncomfortable zone of touchy-feely stuff. Again, you may say, if we can't measure it, we can't manage it. Too often, we focus on what we can measure… and to our peril, disregard those things which we cannot measure. I'm reminded of these insightful words: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

I've spent the past fifteen years of my life putting numbers beside so many items previously thought to be immeasurable. It's not easy, but it's possible, and very gratifying when it works. We naturally choose the path of least resistance, narrowing in on what is most easily measured. Here's another one from Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

I'm as guilty in this as the next person. When my daughter comes home from school, she often enthusiastically shares her experiences – about student council activities, French class, a book report she got back. Invariably, though, I ask about Math. I can see Math. I can hear, touch, taste, and smell Math... I can measure Math. Far too often, I'm afraid, our children's self-esteem is measured by the Math department… and that's nothing but wrong.

When your child comes home from a hockey game, do you ask, "Did you win? What was the score? Did you score any goals?" Or… do you ask, "Did you have a good time?"

What we can put our finger on… what we can measure… we value. What defies concrete measurement, we conveniently set aside. Even though, when pressed, we acknowledge its importance, we don't know how to measure it, so it falls to the side. It may be far more important than everything we can count and understand, but in the absence of this understanding, we fall back on what we can count. For the men out there, you need only to witness the mystery of woman to see my point. "You're not supposed to solve her problem. Just sit there and (pretend to) understand." For the women, just picture a man shopping. "You don't have to understand this one, ladies, 'cause we really don't care."

In business and in pleasure, our error is too much focus on the 'end'. What is the end, anyway? To my way of thinking, and I have no idea what Dr. Bart would say to this, a mission statement that focuses on 'an end' is wrongly crafted. A mission has no end. A mission is a journey. A journey well planned and executed will be a successful one, I say.

Money is not the mission. Money is merely an enabler of the mission.

My personal mission is to seek out, create, engage in, and support relationships with others so as to leave more than I take, and in so doing, to take much. This is my journey. I am one of the fortunate few for whom money has enabled active pursuit of my mission… my journey. Don't get me wrong. I do hope to be even more enabled in this pursuit, but it's not an overwhelming driving force for me. The journey is the thing and the journey is currently a joy. I, therefore, deem it a success.

This journey is not incompatible with traditional business models of mission and vision. Rather, the interdependent journey concept augments, rounds, and I think, completes the traditional model. To consider any organization or individual as a closed system, with narrowly defined quantitative ends, in my view, is inadequate. As such, it is contextually incompatible and doomed to failure. This is true for individuals, for profits and non-profits, and for society at large. Wall Street, the EU, D.C. (both Washington and in Mississauga… hmmm…), Western Society as now configured – all are, therefore, doomed.

Business ends are not in contradiction to social purpose ends. Doing the right thing is always the right thing to do. Ask Johnson & Johnson if they referred the 1982 Tylenol scare to their accounting department for resolution.

Profit is not incompatible with social purpose. Those who think so are seriously in error. As long as there are stakeholders willing to blend these two ends, there is a place in the continuum for social entrepreneurs. This new type of organization is merely one more placeholder in a spectrum that already sees funds restricting themselves to 'ethical investment.' With raised and continually raising awareness of the need to leave a mark, why can one not envision making an investment in an organization with a mission created to answer a social purpose?

In my view, there's too much talk here about conflicting bottom lines. Remember… money is not the end but rather, a means to the end. Too often, people say, "Time is money." That's the kind of thinking that enslaves doctors and lawyers to billable hours. That's the kind of thinking that distorts the means in service of an erroneous end. Rather, I say, "Money is time." Money is no more than the time it can buy. If money were my end, I'd be working seven days a week. Make no mistake of it. Money has played an important role in freeing me up for my current and next adventures. That's my point. Money is an enabler, not a mission.

In the closing days of our 2011 journey, I hope that you find yourselves personally enabled for active pursuit of the next leg. Without a doubt, enabled individuals and organizations will be well poised to enjoy adventurous times ahead in a market of great uncertainty.

With that thought, I will close by wishing for you and yours a safe and happy holiday and a joyous journey going forward. Enjoy the journey. It's all you've got.

Oh, and… pleasant dreams.


Kevin Graham

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