Managing Yourself: Business Thinking at its Best

More than a dozen years after his passing, the legacy of famed business writer Peter Drucker looms large in strategic thinking. Here is why.

Peter F. Drucker (1909-2005)  invented modern management; because of his work we have accepted the idea that being a manager is a viable career choice, worthy of the same consideration given to law, medicine, engineering or architecture. The difference that Drucker brought to management can be summed up in a single phrase – he focused on human relationships, not on numbers alone. Keep in mind that Drucker was also the author of that famous dictum “what gets measured, gets improved”. How did he reconcile such two apparently contradictory approaches to the art of management?

He came to believe that organizations had the potential to bring out the best in people, and that employers would benefit from the win-win situation of fostering a workplace that brought dignity and a sense of community to the human spirit. With his unique combination of analytical observation and empathetic insight, he might be said to have been a pragmatic liberal, or a capitalistic humanist.

Such ideas were revolutionary in their time. Not long before Drucker arrived on the scene companies such as General Electric and Ford Motors had embraced the business model of efficiency experts. Under his influence those same companies began to manage their employees in more productive ways. Drucker found himself besieged with consulting offers from companies who sought competitive advantage.

In 1999 Peter Drucker wrote a seminal article for The Harvard Business Review, called “Managing Oneself”. It’s now a slim 70-page volume available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle form. This book is a fine introduction to Drucker’s ideas and why those ideas will continue to matter for decades to come. Central to his thesis is  that each of us learns in diverse ways. This is something known to every elementary schoolteacher, but for decades this idea had never occurred to business managers. Some people, Drucker said, can learn by reading. Others by hearing, and others only by doing.

Considering the mountains of memos, manuals, emails and correspondence produced by the average corporation these days, I believe Drucker’s message is even more  important today that when he wrote it. The entire concept of customer focus might be said to have emanated from Drucker. If one knows how to manage oneself (by truly understanding how you learn), then you are on the road to appreciate how others learn, and how to communicate with them.

Drucker believed in action and results. He also believed in communicating in a jargon-free manner at all times. Consider this excerpt from Managing Oneself:

“It is rarely possible—or even particularly fruitful—to look too far ahead. A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific. So the question in most cases should be, Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half ? The answer must balance several things. First, the results should be hard to achieve—they should require “stretching,” to use the current buzzword. But also, they should be within reach. To aim at results that cannot be achieved—or that can be only under the most unlikely circumstances—is not being ambitious; it is being foolish. Second, the results should be meaningful. They should make a difference. Finally, results should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable. From this will come a course of action: what to do, where and how to start, and what goals and deadlines to set.”

One final word from the pioneer of business strategy, who was known not only for his business acumen, but also for his innate modesty and sense of humour. As a famed business consultant, Drucker disliked the term ‘guru”, though it was often ascribed to him. He once told a reporter this:

“I have been saying for many years, that we are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”

Classic Business Quotes #2

Photo of Michael Dell by Jana Asenbrennerova | Reuters

"The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it." ~ Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

"Forgive me if this letter is too long. I didn't have time to make it short." ~ Mark Twain

"You can take in information with your eyes much faster than any other sense... You can't hear information nearly as fast as you can see it... you can't touch it, smell it, taste it. There's no sense that takes in information faster than your eyes." ~ Michael Dell

"If your words aren't truthful, the finest optically letter-spaced typography won't help." ~ Edward Tufte

"It would seem unlikely that a manufacturer of short-lived paperboard boxes could make the slightest cultural impact upon his time. But the facts show that even if the humblest product is designed, manufactured and distributed with a sense of human values and with a taste for quality, the world will recognize the presence of a creative force" ~ Herbert Bayer

"If a client comes to you and says that they're not really sure what to do, that's one of the best relationships you can possibly have - when there's  an acknowledgment of a goal but the path to the end product is unknown, and they're open to the collaboration." ~ Abbott Miller

"Once you've mastered the rules, you can do anything, even abolish them, but without structure it's impossible to get started." ~ Ed Fella

"A man needs a cage in which to be free." ~ Graham Shaw

"My dream is to have people working on useless projects. These have the germ of new concepts." ~ Charles Eames

"It's not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem. It's just a waste of energy." ~ Jan Kaplicky

Classic Business Quotes #3

"It's not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem. It's just a waste of energy." 

~ Jan Kaplicky, architect (1937-2009)

Something as common as house paint can be exciting when polished to a mirror finish.

~ Tod Williams, architect (1943 - )

CFO asks CEO : "What happens if we invest in developing our people and they leave?"

CEO:  "What happens if we don't and they stay?"

~Peter Baeklund, leadership coach

"Give me a good script and I'll be a hundred times better as a director."

~George Cukor, film director (1899-1983)

"Well, there's no such thing as a good script, really."

~John Ford, film director (1894-1973)

"Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together."

~ James Cash Penney, founder, JC Penney

"Play by the rules, but be ferocious."

~ Phil Knight, founder, Nike

"The only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks."

~ Mark Zuckerberg, founder, Facebook

"Out of your vulnerabilities, will come your strength."

~ Sigmund Freud, psychiatrist

"To be successful, you have to have your heart in your business,  and your business in your heart."

~ Thomas Watson, Sr.,former CEO, IBM

"It's very easy to be different but very difficult to be better."

~ Jonathan Ive, Chief Design Officer, Apple

Classic Business Quotes

"You can't do the same thing for five years. You have to get rid of it. It doesn't matter anymore. Just let it go, even if it's your signature. Even if everybody expects you to do it. Try to find another way to walk."  ~ famed designer Paula Scher, pictured above.

"Successful innovators use both the right side and the left side of their brains." ~ Peter F. Drucker in Innovation and Entrepreneurship

"Some problems cannot be solved; they can only be replaced." ~ psychologist Carl Jung

"The need to grapple with the accelerating demand for more content and more types of content, as well as the imperative to create that content with greater speed and lower cost." ~ Rich Stoddart

"I never use any ideas again. Once I've used them, that's it." ~ architect Arthur Erickson

"Eliminate unnecessary words! Eliminate unnecessary words!" ~ William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style

The Customer-Focused Strategy

How will leaders drive revenue growth, keep top talent and retain profitable customers in the face of global competition and an unprecedented rate of technological change? We suggest a review of your mission statement and your  actual business model. By the way, you may want to wander among your staff to learn what they are thinking; they often know more about where your business is headed than the leader does.

The three basic business models

The manufacturing model

In-house products and services determine what the company will produce and sell. Examples of this model are the old-line enterprises filled with 30-year-old printing presses, or automobile makers with expensive production lines. Nothing changes quickly. Attracting new talent to the business is a daunting task. This is your typical sunset industry.

The sales model

Sales and marketing determine which markets will be pursued and which solutions will be offered. This model was popularized on the vertical markets approach. It has been further entrenched by CRM software. Conflicts inevitably arise between sales and production, both believing the other is working at cross-purposes. In reality there is little different between the first two business models - both are internally driven.

The customer-focused model

This is a business approach centered on strategic thinking, primarily this question: what's happening with your customer's clients? This may sound as though we are stating the obvious, but consider a thorough study conducted by The Harvard Business Review.

Between 1988 and 1998, seven our of eight companies in a global sample of 1,854 large corporations failed to achieve profitable growth. Yet 90% of the the companies in the study had developed detailed strategic plans." ~ The Office of Strategy Management - Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton


Elephants in the boardroom

Here are a few unmentionables that prevent most suppliers from communicating effectively with their customers:

  • The business review process of performance measurement is frequently irrelevant: most reviews look backward.
  • Running a corporation "by the quarter" for the stockholders is a recipe for disaster.
  • Carl Jung said it best when he said " some problems cannot be solved; they can only be replaced".
  • You cannot transfer production capacity without giving up your intellectual property.


How to develop a customer-focused strategy

  • Stop telling your story at customer presentations, no matter how compelling or well-crafted that story is. Instead, tell your customer what you have learned about them. This requires focused research and humility.
  • Plan for the complete displacement of every product and service you own to take place within the next five years - because your clients are planning for this.
  • Plan for the complete turnover of your customer base - again, your clients are planning for this in their own operations.
  • Dare to ask your clients about the most important issues facing them. Then determine how you can apply your resources to solving their business issues. This is the real application of mass customization.
  • Plan for the complete displacement of your employee base, which will include your own evolution.

Harnessing Big Data

Companies that create capabilities for capturing, processing, analyzing, and distributing data in order to make better decisions in real time will likely be able to outperform their competition and respond more quickly to their customers’ needs. The data avalanche is coming from a number of sources, such as enterprise resource planning, orders, shipments, Weblogs, GPS data, radio-frequency identification, mobile devices, and social channels; and there is value to be created in all areas of a business by adopting a data-driven culture. ~ Alix Partners

The era of big data has arrived, and it is impacting every conceivable area of business: from strategy to operations, marketing, and through the complete business cycle to future planning. It has been estimated that 90% of all data in the world has been generated within the past two years.

Big data is defined as large sets of data that can be further analyzed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, giving companies a substantial advantage in the marketplace, when used effectively. Therein lies both the opportunity and the challenge. Analytics talent is essential to harness big data.

Tracking what could never before be tracked, predicting what could never before be predicted, and improving the interactions between supplier and customer: those are the tasks of analysts engaged in understanding big data and assisting decision makers in delivering value. Their responsibilities are ripe with potential, and the ensuing consequences of the analytics process can prove profitable or disastrous.

“What gets measured gets improved.” ~ Peter Drucker, management guru

Current and Potential Uses of Big Data

  • Walmart collects more than 2.5 petabytes of data every hour from its customer transactions. A petabyte is one quadrillion bytes, or the equivalent of about 20 million filing cabinets’ worth of text.
  • “Companies in the top third of their industry in the use of data-driven decision making are, on average, 5% more productive and 6% more profitable than their competitors. This performance difference remains robust after accounting for the contributions of labor, capital, purchased services, and traditional IT investment. “ ~ Harvard Business Review
  • Machine learning can help doctors diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases. Algorithms can analyze results from blood tests, the electrical tracings of a heartbeat (an electrocardiogram or ECG), images from a heart ultrasound (echocardiogram), cardiac stress tests, and genetic information. A complete electronic record is finally achievable.
  • Web behavioral data is able to predict consumers’ buying decisions, helping companies to reduce inventories and improve speed to destination.

What’s Ahead for Big Data Users

Data and analytics are powerless to make good decisions without human insight. What is ahead for big data users is the necessity to use every human faculty in the decision-making process. The predictive abilities of AI are becoming rapidly known, but without the human factor, and the accompanying insights into human relations, big data will never fulfill its complete potential.

In the near future, visionary CEOs will use the talents of every employee in the process of learning how to collect, disseminate, compare, and use data from multiple sources.

Canada's Expertise in Innovation

Innovators share … traits we are all born with—curiosity, courage, creativity, and a collaborative spirit—combined with an intense focus on discovering the truth. But discovery is only part of the equation. Equally important is using innovations wisely, for the betterment of everyone. ~ Neil Turok, Director, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Canada has long been a world-class innovator in scientific research and innovation, but as modesty and self-deprecation are also notable characteristics of the Canadian character, we haven’t received nearly the accolades we deserve. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate our national contributions (past, present and ongoing) to scientific and technological progress. The evidence may surprise you, and give you cause for celebration. It may even convince a few recent graduates to stay here rather than emigrate to other locales that are mistakenly perceived to be more receptive to research, development and commerce.

Here are just a few notable products, services and technologies that began in Canada:

  • the invention of the telephone
  • the discovery of insulin
  • the light bulb
  • the artificial pacemaker
  • the zipper
  • the electron microscope
  • radio voice transmission
  • the BlackBerry
  • cobalt-60 cancer treatment
  • the Canadarm

We could list literally hundreds more, such as the birch-bark canoe, the Wonderbra, and basketball - as well as hockey and baseball – we have a playful side to us too.

Thankfully our inventiveness and expertise continue to the present day, and we are powerfully positioned to add to our record of achievements.  Much of our creativity has to do with our abundance of well-educated and highly motivated individuals. Canada, as it turns out, has a stellar record when it comes to turning out graduates who go on to make a difference. Consider these statistics regarding Canada’s wide range of expertise (source Government of Canada website):

  • We are #1 in the G-7 for higher-education sector R&D performance.
  • The availability of qualified engineers in the labour force in Canada is greater than in any other G7 country.
  • Entrepreneurs make up 17% of our labour force.

In the areas of business and commerce, Canadians have done an exceptional job of developing world-class enterprises and solutions. We will list only a few:

  • Shopify – the leader in e-commerce solutions for small to mid-size businesses
  • CCL Industries – the world’s largest producer of pressure sensitive and specialty extruded film materials for labelling, packaging and display
  • Magna International – automotive parts maker for Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, GM and many more
  • Alimentation Couche-Tard – the hidden gem of convenience retailing, with more than 15,000 locations world-wide
  • BlackBerry – the clear leader in automotive software with their QNX offering, now present in more than 50 million vehicles

The demand for Canadian talent has never been greater, and the opportunities to bring Canadian innovation and business thinking to the world are limitless. Decades ago it was said “the 20th century belongs to Canada.”  In our view, the 21st century is when Canada will truly come into its own: our innovators, leaders and achievers will not only strengthen our economy, but also our national pride.

Workplace Design as a Talent Management Strategy

Above, the Queen’s Marque Project, Halifax, Nova Scotia ~ development and photo credit:  Armour Group

Talent management executives agree that the key challenges facing them these days are the acquisition and retention of top talent. Recent studies show that workplace design has a major effect on employee productivity and satisfaction and can be an effective component of your talent management strategy.

 “Buildings can improve overall productivity and performance by as much as 12.5 percent or reduce them by as much as 17 percent. That’s a 30 percent swing between employee performance in the best and worst buildings.” ~ Carnegie Mellon CBPD Building Investment Decision Support study of High Performance Buildings

What constitutes a well-designed workplace?

  • A productive workplace facilitates employee engagement and encourages collaboration.
  • Companies like Shopify, Google and Apple are providing flexible space for those who might be dropping in from other offices or departments, or for those who work primarily from a home office.
  • Lighting, colour and acoustics matter, so much so that they have been linked to health and wellness issues. For example, better workplace lighting has been linked to a 15% reduction in office absenteeism.
  • Bike racks, juice bars, downtime spaces, and flexibility in work stations are no longer just for high-tech operations hoping to attract millennials; these elements are becoming the norm in newly designed buildings, and in retrofits of warehouses and repurposed industrial settings.
  • Access to fresh air, outside amenities, and a choice of experience provides rest and stimulation that increase productivity and satisfaction.

Employee Engagement 

“In a survey across 142 countries, only 13 percent of employees reported feeling engaged in their jobs.

Disengaged workers — those who are negative or even hostile to their organizations — outnumber engaged employees by nearly two to one. Companies with disengaged employees experience 30 to 50 percent more turnover.

Financial losses due to absenteeism and “presenteeism” (a loss of workplace productivity from employee health problems or personal issues) account for 4 percent of operating costs.”

~ source Thought Leadership

The measurable benefits of workplace design

Benchmarking studies by research company Prosci have found that workplace projects with an effective change management component are six times more likely to meet their objectives and succeed.  Prosci, ‘Change Management: The People Side of Change’

“Sixty percent of employees with high access to workplace flexibility are very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 44 percent of those with moderate access and only 22 percent of those with low access.   ~ Ellen Galinsky, National Study of the Changing Workforce

Three Canadian Examples of Effective Workplace Design

The Queen’s Marque project in Halifax, Nova Scotia is situated on two hectares of waterfront and is scheduled for completion in 2020. It is a strategically designed development of office space, shops, restaurants, a boutique hotel, and 75,000 square feet of public space with a central plaza. The office environments will focus on the employee, with plenty of natural light, fresh air, bike racks and shower facilities.

The Lonsdale Quay development is adjacent to the Insurance Corporation of BC headquarters, and features ferry service from downtown Vancouver to the Quay in North VancouverYear round, office workers mingle on the docks and in the shops during their breaks.

The Granville Island Development in Vancouver is the most successful integration of workplaces, restaurants, hotel and public market in Canada, so much so that it has become a must-visit for any tourist or newcomer to Vancouver.

Both the Lonsdale Quay and the Granville Island locations were several years in the making, and continue to be vibrant, attractive meeting places and workplaces. The Queen’s Marque project holds similar promise.