Framing Disruptions

Simple approaches can focus the mind. When thinking through the means and mechanisms by which disruptions could affect my business, my community, or the economy, I often ask two simple questions rooted in economic fundamentals[1]:

  • Big or small? In other words, how impactful, whether positive or negative, would we expect this disruption or change to be on local infrastructure, needed supplies, or aggregate demand? 
  • Long or short? What is the likely duration, whether positive or negative, of this disruption or change on supplies or demand in the community, market, or industry?

As an example from my work in the forest industry, consider the impacts of natural disasters on timber markets. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 event, struck the Gulf States, brutally affecting homes, forests, and infrastructure. As a disruption, how would we provide context to its impact on timberland owners? Consider these two questions to organize our thinking:

  • Big or small? Big event locally; devastating to some forests and damaging to many. 
  • Long or short? Short-term increase in supplies; negative impact on timberland value.

Using Frameworks to Make Decisions

Simple frameworks add value to the extent that they prove useful. This analytic exercise supports decision analysis. Using experience, knowledge, and available data, it screens and ranks the relative importance of potential disruptions on lives, businesses, and markets. We can then probe assumptions and, while there may be no “right” answer, develop operable approaches to establish priorities.

With family or colleagues or neighbors, the resulting discussions can clarify how much control we have. Some disruptions, like a zombie apocalypse, get thrust upon us from the outside, while others, like new internet providers or car technologies, offer choices. And a big impact or opportunity for an individual, family, or single forest owner can be small for the overall market and community. 

With respect to applying this approach with executives and other decision-makers, I think in terms of “tactics” (operations) versus “strategies” (capital allocation). Disruptions that get handled on the ground via operations tend to qualify as shorter or smaller in this framework, while anything that requires a board meeting or act of Congress reflects longer-term disruptions affecting investments and strategic advantage. Given this approach, how do we develop strategies and assess exposures across multiple disruptions for these situations locally?

Time as a strategic idea remains malleable. Discussions about potential disruptions reinforce the arbitrary nature of the “short” and “long” term. The space and time required for impacts to realize themselves can extend beyond today, tomorrow, or next year. 

Conclusion

Regardless, we succeed by prioritizing in the name of preparation. My working assumption is that a person or firm that is ready for everything is ready for nothing. We avoid personal and organizational paralysis through taking positions on what matters, on where we have control, on eliminating the gnats and knots to go after the disruptions that threaten survival or offer outsized opportunities. 

In March 2020, I posted “Thinking Through Risk and Uncertainty: Contemplating the Coronavirus” and am returning to these themes as ideas and questions related to risk, disruption, and stability have become more frequent in my conversations. For those interested in a further discussion of strategic thinking (and how the coronavirus affects the forest industry), click here to read a five-page white paper.


[1] These questions are a variation on the frequency-severity framework used for insurance and risk management applications. In forestry, I have found it useful to think through duration – how long something lasts – rather than, or in addition to, the gap in time between occurrences. 

Developing and Hiring Managers: Values Come First

A new manager, whether promoted from within or hired from abroad, must learn to communicate and model the values and expectations of the organization. For the internal hire, that person has the advantage of in-house experience and a demonstrated potential to manage. (That’s why you promoted them.) 

For the hired manager, it’s unreasonable to plug them in and expect that they will seamlessly adhere, model, and reinforce the “core values” of your firm. Sometimes, yes, you simply need to get that newly hired manager onboard and rolling because everyone is working overtime, the wheels are falling off the bus, and the barbarians are at the gate. Regardless, close support and explicit nurturing improve the chances for success for the manager and the team.  

In an earlier post – Train or Hire? Both – I wrote about the importance of continually looking to upgrade the skills of a team through developing younger talent for future roles within the organization. In this post, I focus on a few priorities and approaches for helping newly hired and promoted managers succeed.

Values Come First

Your new manager must, first and foremost, share the values of the team and then also have the aptitude and interest in building the skills needed for the role. In my experience with human beings, it simply does not work the other way around. Values come first.

When someone becomes a manager or executive, the allocation and use of his or her time changes. Making this transition is hard; I struggle with it to this day. You spend more time managing and coaching and less time doing and analyzing.  In football, the head coach cannot run out onto the field and catch the ball, but in a business a manager can easily inject themselves into the process, so this is one of the hardest things to avoid and manage and develop. Know when to step in and when to step back, and this becomes easier when the person aligns with the values of the team.

Use Milestones and Timelines

The successful onboarding and (initial) performance of the manager is on you or me or whoever hired this person. Provide structure to this by working off of a clearly communicated plan with systematic support. Put your mentoring on a timeline, and let it work for both of you, as a source of reinforcement, and as a path for the new manager to reach back for feedback and ideas.  

In the early days, you guide and reinforce and advise; in the latter days, the manager updates and communicates with you. In addition to technical and business-specific skills, areas you may explicitly cover during the onboarding phase may include values and business priorities, business metrics and scorecards, and approaches to coaching and mentoring. Throughout, your best path is to role model the behaviors expected from the other managers, and then follow-up to ask questions and confirm understanding.

This “short” term investment explicitly reduces risk and increases the probability of a strong hiring ROI and well-functioning team. 

Conclusion

It is tempting, as the experienced veteran or senior executive or company founder, to show everyone how their jobs should be done and to push them to keep up with you. However, at some point, you must decide whether you want to “serve” the team, or glorify yourself as the leader and alpha dog. Remember, it takes a team to build a rocket ship and get to the moon. Finding ways for the team and for everyone to get better and succeed has a compounding effect. Ten individuals each getting 10% better outperforms you getting 20% better. Prioritize values, mentor and onboard with a plan, and role model what you want to develop and help others become productive managers and colleagues. 

Brooks Writes Stories: How Did It Go in 2023?

In mid-2017, I started submitting and tracking my fiction writing, and have since posted updates in 2018201920202021, and 2022. How did it go with my short stories in 2023? Meh.

  • In 2023, I submitted versions and revisions of 32 stories 108 times to 54 different outlets. This included one contest.
  • Between January 1 and December 31, 2023, I received 88 rejections (including one for a story submitted in 2021 and five for stories submitted in 2022) and five acceptances (5.4%, which includes two acceptances for stories submitted in 2022).
  • Select comments from editors included:
    • “…The writing and stylistic choices in this piece are very strong.”
    • “The story is well developed for the length, but…”
    • “If the premise is to point out that odd mindset, maybe having the narrator realize how weird it is might help.” 
    • “…brimming with comedic potential…but…”

Stories Published in 2023

Five stories were published by five different venues in 2023.

On February 3rd365tomorrows published “Use for the Humans” (324 words, 2 minute read). A video of chainsaw-wielding robots working in forests sparked the idea for this dystopian flash.

On February 5thThe RavensPerch published “No Big Thing” (601 words, 3 minute read). Life can be tough. At times, this means owning our situation and choosing to move on. The title came from a story told to me by a taxidermist friend of mine, while the rest of it took a while to work out as the story was rejected and revised 19 times before finding a home. 

On April 26th101 Words published “Smell Sweet Dreams” (191 words, 1 minute read). Inspired by an AirBNB stay in Miami after my daughter asked, “hey, Dad, what’s that smell?”

On June 20thApple in the Dark published “Aliens Want Space, Too” (386 words, 2 minute read). I credit my Mom for teaching me about the importance of space and the power of chocolate chips cookies.

On July 3rdAphelion published “Aliens Making Plans” (401 words, 2 minute read). My third story published by Aphelion includes actual aliens and a nod to Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Happy New Year and thank you for reading!

Data, Technology, and Judgment

We homo sapiens seem overwhelmed by information, technology, and choices. We sadly struggle to manage the daily deluge, cycling through frustration, indignation, anger, and melancholy. A simple scan of news headlines, op-eds, and online comments can fuel a sense of despair, even on the brightest, sunniest day during this era of peak human achievement and prosperity.

Now that I’ve cleared my throat on our societal condition with a sweeping generalization, I will transition to a few practical matters intended to ground our thinking and even the score.

Data

Data, like a socket wrench, is useful if you have something to do with it. The value of data increases with a framework to apply or basic question to answer. How we collect and analyze data, and ultimately communicate results, profoundly affect understanding and insight. In The Effective Executive, the late Peter Drucker wrote about the problem of production data getting averaged out and “translated” for accountants:

“Operating people, however, usually need not the averages but the range and the extremes….”

This applies to investing, medicine, rocket science, and research. In forest economics, for example, there is no such unit as an “average timber market.” Timber markets are uniquely local, though the inputs for analyzing them, as with the ingredients for baking bread[1], are basic and known. Since having the necessary data and knowing how to apply it are two different things, we sometimes look to frameworks, models, and technologies.

Technology

Recalling what the dog said when dating the skunk, with technology “you gotta take the good with the bad.” Technology, like all things human-borne, can prove miraculous and curative or horrific and destructive. Consider technology a two-sided coin: nuclear bombs and nuclear energy; carbon emissions and carbon capture; radiation poisoning and radiation treatments. 

While technological applications support accessible education, they also facilitate misinformation conspiracies, and hate speech. In this dizzying relationship, we use technology in ways that create problems, and then we return to technology to mitigate and solve those problems. Ultimately, technology is an agnostic tool; its use and consequences depend on judgment.

Judgment

Judgment, like trust and good relationships and bonsai, takes time to nurture and develop. Mistakes are okay. Bad judgment, however, is a virus that never leaves. Bad judgment leads to bad decisions and poor results. As Jim Rohn said years ago, 

“Failure is a few errors in judgment repeated every day.”

Across professions, from medicine to education to consulting, the assessment of competence, whether qualitative or quantitative, tests versions of, “Do you have the experience, knowledge, and judgment to improve the situation or help us make a better decision?” In other words, and in the end, do you know when or how to apply the information and technologies at hand?


[1] For reference: flour, yeast, water, and salt, in addition to and quoting a good forest economist friend, love. “Got to have love. Most important ingredient, Brooks.”

Brooks on Books: More on Tennis

In September, I was in Corpus Christi, Texas watching a tennis match and taking notes, when a smiling, clear-eyed gentleman in tennis clothes sat next to me. We chatted about the game and tennis strategies, and then introduced ourselves.

“I’m Bobby Hagerman, the tournament director here,” he said, as we shook hands. A Texas native, Bobby played tennis on scholarship for LSU from 1972 to 1975. After college, friends and neighbors asked for tennis lessons, and this started a 40+ year coaching career. “I love it.”

Later that day, Bobby texted me a few book recommendations. This post, another in the periodic “Brooks on Books” series (including “Interested in Tennis?”, which reviews four influential tennis books), reviews two of the tennis books suggested by Bobby. Both provide practical guidance and strategies for improving our tennis games.  

“Keep the Ball in Play”

William “Big Bill” Tilden, the first American to win Wimbledon, published “Match Play & the Spin of the Ball,” a slim guide of tennis skills, strategy, and training. Published in 1925, the fundamental messages on stroke production, tactics, and psychology on the court have no expiration date. This book reminds us to focus on the things we control and make the most of what we have. As Tilden writes:

“…it seems a shame to me to pass up the ability to do anything well, simply because the effort seems tedious…If there is a hole in your game, plug it by intensive practice…”

This book emphasizes the critical, unequivocal importance of keeping the ball in play. Not only is hitting the ball over the net and within the lines with confidence joyful, but it also puts pressure on your opponent, and Tilden takes particular satisfaction in getting his opponents out of position. Firstly, though, he disdains unforced errors:

“I consider that double faults, missed ‘sitters’ (easy kills) and errors on the return of easy services, are absolutely inexcusable and actually tennis crimes.”

Tilden played during the early days of professional tennis, and he profiles the strengths and weaknesses of many contemporaries. While the names didn’t resonate for me, the descriptions helped me picture the application of Tilden’s recommendations to always have an idea of what you’re doing out there on the court and why. Concluding with another quote from Tilden:

“The two greatest things in match play are to put the ball in play and never give the other man the shot he likes to play.”

Visualize Successful Shots

Michael Zosel’s “Vision Tennis” (1994), written as the story of a high school tennis player, teaches approaches and strategies for developing a positive and tough mental game. This includes, for example, the benefits of “confidence chanting” short positive statements when playing to feed your subconscious. He also advocates visualizing the specific path and success of your serve before tossing the ball. As Zosel notes, your internal process is “hungry for vivid and positive images…”

The book provides a structure and plan for developing a personal philosophy about your tennis game, which is relevant to players of all ages. Bobby recommended this book as one to read with my daughter, and we have done just that. The book addresses the individual components of building a mental plan that includes your skills, strategy, training, and in-match self-talk. 

The reality is that no one plays perfect tennis, so it’s about doing the hard work of developing skills and managing your mental equilibrium that leads to success. To quote the author, “Playing great tennis is a moment-by-moment process, not an end result.