A New Way to Think
Getting to Know Me IV
The Inspiration for My Writing
This is the fourth post requested by the Medium folks of one hundred of their regular authors designed to enable the Medium readers to get to know us better:
4. The Inspiration for My Writing
The Inspiration for My Writing
What I write about and how I write both come from a combination of three places, I think. First is a set of very deep influences from my childhood. Second is the influence of one academic mentor. Third is the impact of my advisory practice over time.
The deep background goes all the way back to my childhood growing up in a tiny hamlet (7 houses at the time of my childhood, though probably 200 people by now) in the middle of farm country. I was the second of five children of a nascent entrepreneur and an elementary school teacher. We didn’t grow up on a farm but rather served farmers. When I was two years old, before I could remember, Dad started an animal feed manufacturing company. Mom taught school until I was born and then became a stay-at-home mother for about a decade before going to college and graduate school and becoming a marriage & family therapist.
Dad is an intuitive businessman, but not highly educated. He only has a high school degree — and it was in the technical/commercial stream for students who knew from inception that they wouldn’t be going any further than high school. But he is a deep thinker and bets heavily on his convictions. I learned an enormous amount from him at the kitchen table as I quizzed him about the business. The answer was never: “I don’t know, Roger.” Everything that appeared odd in fact made sense when he explained it.
Me: “Dad on almost everything you are really cheap. You own the company, yet you don’t have your own office. The head office is a cinder block building beside the feed mill. You complain when Rick (my older brother who eventually took over the business) wants to buy a new computer. Yet you have the Taj Mahal of truck-washing facilities out back and you are constantly having the trucks washed, even if they aren’t very dirty yet.” Dad: “Well Roger, the farmers are extremely sensitive about ever running out of feed. If the animals miss even one feeding, especially chickens (our biggest business segment), they never recover their original growth trajectory. So, the last thing they want to hear is that their delivery will be delayed until tomorrow because the truck broke down. If our trucks always look pristine coming down the farmer’s lane, the farmer will feel complete confidence that Wallenstein Feed & Supply will always deliver.”
That was his answer, sometime in the 1965–1970 period. I didn’t learn about the importance of signals of value (a feature that is of no direct value but from which you can infer that there will be other real value) until after I graduated from Harvard Business School when I read a cool article about it — but Dad understood it intuitively.
That was the same with the price list.
Me: “Dad why do you insist that you will never sell a ton of feed at a price other than the one listed on the printed weekly price list? Salespeople hand out that list to every farmer, so it is easily available to every competitor, so they can easily undercut us, and we would lose the business. Why not be more flexible?” Dad: “If prices are negotiable, our salespeople will spend 90% of each sales call negotiating price. We have great prices, but we really want to sell on the basis of our feed quality and our technical service and support. If the salesperson hands the farmer the price list at the start of the visit and the farmer has full confidence that no other farmer buying that tonnage of that feed (the price list had different prices for different volumes and feed types) was going to be getting it for a penny cheaper, they would be happy to spend the sales call talking about service and support. And since we make sure that no competitor has a lower cost position than us, if a competitor underprices us, it is overcharging another one of our customers — and that is the customer that we should win, not the one that they underpriced.”
Again, there was a sophisticated understanding of the interplay between sales force effectiveness, pricing policies, and competitive dynamics. Maybe not John Forbes Nash quality thinking — but not that terribly far off.
Dad shaped my interest in the fundamental nature of business. My late mother, on the other hand, was deeply interested in the domain of people — how they worked and interacted. She almost never answered my questions — unlike my father who always did. She would answer my questions with a question. Me: “Why was Aunt Delphine so mad at Cousin Fred?” Mom: “Why do you think, Roger?” She always wanted me to reason from first principles and I never, and I mean never, got an easy answer back. But if I started with my answer, she would go back and forth with me building a better answer together — that always felt like it was at least partially mine.
Together they shaped my interest in understanding the subtle but important interconnections that shape how businesses and the people in them work. I always wanted to know why things worked the way they did and not some other way.
The final piece of my deep background is my Mennonite heritage. I am a purebred Mennonite on all sides at least 10 generations back. Three-quarters of my forefathers came from Switzerland to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the late 1600’s, and then to Waterloo County, Ontario in the late 1700s. A quarter of my ancestors went from Switzerland to Prussia to Ukraine to the Caucuses and, after the Russian Revolution, to Waterloo County. The relevance is that Mennonites are practical to a fault. Flourishes are bad. Everything ‘showy’ is bad. Plain is good — always. Humility with strong principles is the order of the day.
While one could read what I have said about my mother and father as having a pretty strong conceptual/theoretical bent, the Mennonite overlay meant that the theory had to have an extremely practical application. Theory is dangerously ‘showy’ without practicality.
Meeting Chris Argyris
Then I met up with Chris Argyris, the father of the field of organizational learning, while I was a strategy consultant at Monitor Company and worked with him for a decade. He had a big influence on me as I mentioned in the earlier post about the books that have inspired me. In the time between my childhood and meeting Chris, this country boy went to Harvard College for four years and Harvard Business School for another two. That environment took a toll on my Mennonite practicality as I was thrust into the world of ‘big city ideas.’ Chris re-grounded me in practicality. His view, which didn’t make him popular in the academy, held that knowledge upon which action cannot be taken is barely worth having at all. Chris, like me, liked nothing more than a good theory — but for theory, ‘good’ meant that you could take action on it. ‘Make smarter business decisions’ may be a sound theory but it is utterly unactionable. The person to whom that advice is given is not attempting to make stupid business decisions. The person is trying to make smart business decisions already and exhorting the moral equivalent of ‘grow taller’ is utterly useless. Chris always enforced a high bar with me on actionability.
Working with Senior Executives
Throughout the period from HBS graduation in 1981 to now, four decades later, I have worked with senior executives (less when I was a Dean, but I kept my hand it in because I didn’t want to be disconnected from this avenue of learning and developing) on their hopes, their dreams, and their most vexatious problems.
I am compelled to help them. It is what interests me. I always try to take a system dynamics view that connects the pieces of the puzzle. I am always interested in the human dynamics aspects of every business problem. I try to combine principle with nuance because in a complex world, there are no perfect answers, just better ones and worse ones. And I always aim for practical advice; advice on which action can be readily taken.
And writing is the mode that I have chosen. I just got another lesson in that. I have been talking to a client about a really tricky business challenge for the past six months — talking and talking but things seemed to be going in circles. Finally, instead of talking, I spent Saturday morning writing a three-page memo to the CEO (copied to the three others in the conversation) laying out my view on how to think about the issue and what to do based on that view. He didn’t ask for it or expect it. But the response was a breakthrough — some big decisions and a clear path forward.
I enjoy writing for those with whom I work personally. But I enjoy as much or more writing for those with whom I can’t work personally when I have figured out something that is worthy of general consumption. In the domain of business, that has been The Opposable Mind, The Design of Business, Playing to Win, Creating Great Choices, and now, A New Way to Think. I love the other eight books too, but they are for different domains (e.g., Getting Beyond Better for the social entrepreneurship domain, When More is Not Better for public policy, and Diaminds for academic geeks only!) In my heart, I feel that the business books are the truest expression of the knowledge I soaked up from Mom, Dad, and my Mennonite heritage, the focus I got from my time with Chris, and the topic areas to which I was guided by my work with executives — and are nearest to my heart.