The Unwritten Rules of Management

Unwritten RulesYou can’t polish a sneaker

I was 30 mins into an incredibly boring presentation when that phrase caught my attention. It’s catchy, I thought, but what the heck does it mean?

A little Internet sleuthing unearthed that the line is from the Unwritten Rules of Management, by William Swanson, former Chairman and CEO of Raytheon. Apparently, when Swanson was growing up, he and his friends tried to polish their old sneakers to make them look new but, no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t disguise the wear and tear. Translated into business speak: don’t waste effort putting the finishing touches on something that has little substance to begin with.

It’s good advice from a book that contains lots of other useful aphorisms including:

  • Beg for the bad news
  • Don’t be known as a good starter but a poor finisher
  • If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much
  • Treat the name of your company as if it were your own
  • It is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it

In 2005 when these 32 principles first came to light, they were so compelling they were called the CEO’s Secret Handbook. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that many of these were already included in the 1944 book, The Unwritten Laws of Engineering by W. J. King.

Despite the controversy, there’s plenty of useful advice. Some of my favorites include:

  1. Look for what is missing. Many know how to improve what’s there, but few can see what isn’t there.
  2. Practice shows that those who speak the most knowingly and confidently often end up with the assignment to get the job done.
  3. You remember 1/3 of what you read, 1/2 of what people tell you, but 100% of what you feel.
  4. Work for a boss to whom you can tell it like it is. Remember that you can’t pick your relatives, but you can pick your boss.
  5. However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best efforts.

If there’s one single piece of advice worth following, it’s this one:

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person

It’s the most accurate test I know of to determine whether you should hire someone. And a great way to follow the no-asshole rule.

An Aerospace Engineer’s Guide to Winning Tennis

Extraordinary TennisSimon “Si” Ramo is a remarkable person.

Ramo is a world-renowned scientist and engineer. He was the chief architect of the US intercontinental ballistic missile system. He was the ‘R’ in TRW, the multibillion-dollar aerospace company now part of Northrop Grumman. And last year, at the age of 100, he became the oldest person to be awarded a patent.

As remarkable as all of that is, his insight into tennis – and perhaps all sports – might be even more remarkable. Ramo authored two books, Tennis By Machiavelli and Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players, which showed that tennis is played completely differently by professionals and amateurs. Of course, both types of players use the same rules and scoring. Sometimes they even use the same equipment. However, there is a fundamental difference: professionals win points whereas amateurs lose them.

In a professional game, players – nearly equal in skill – rally the ball back and forth until one of them hits the ball just beyond the reach of the opponent. Rallies are long and it’s literally a game of inches. On the other hand, rallies are short in an amateur game. Many balls are hit into the net or out of bounds. Double faults are more common than aces.

Ramo discovered this effect by ignoring conventional tennis scores (Love, Fifteen All, etc.) and examining individual points. In expert tennis, 80% of points are won while in amateur tennis, 80% are lost. Charles Ellis, the renowned investment consultant, explained that avoiding mistakes is the way to win a “Loser’s Game” – in amateur tennis and investing. The professional game is generally determined by the actions of the winner and the amateur game by the actions of the loser.

As an amateur, once you know this insight, your strategy is clear. Be conservative and keep the ball in play. Don’t try to win points. Let your opponent lose them. Since he’s an amateur, your opponent will play a losing game and not know it.

As Ramo said, “tennis players, as they slow down, must smarten up.”



Vision vs. Mission

Mission Impossible“Your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

It’s been nearly 25 years but I still vividly remember those words from the television show Mission Impossible. At the time, I didn’t realize it was a remake of the original show which aired 25 years before that. I also didn’t realize the two series might have contributed to the long-standing confusion on what a mission is.

People are constantly interchanging the words mission and vision, as if they are the same thing. When I point this out to them, I’m often told I’m being too pedantic. I disagree – words matter.

A vision statement is the summary of how an organization would like to be perceived in the future. It should be written from an outside-in external perspective so that it attracts people who do not work for the organization, not just employees. As such, it should be stated in ‘visionary’ colorful terms.

Consider the vision statement for CVS Caremark:

We strive to improve the quality of human life

It’s simple and inspirational. However, I prefer vision statements that are differentiated and not easily claimed by other organizations. This one could work for a hospital as well.

Despite what I learned from the TV show, the mission statement explains why an organization exists, usually from an internal perspective. It often describes the financial or customer results the organization wants to achieve over the mid-to-long term. An organization’s strategic objectives should be tied directly to the mission so that it guides day-to-day operations and decision-making. Good mission statements improve alignment.

Coming back to CVS Caremark:

Above all else… our mission is to improve the lives of those we serve by making innovative and high-quality health and pharmacy services safe, affordable, and easy to access.

Personally, I’m struck by the phrase “above all else.” It’s powerful. In fact, the entire mission statement reinforces a focus on patient needs much more clearly than just saying customer-centric. Some people might quibble it’s not specific enough but that issue can be handled through corporate strategic objectives.

Vision, mission, values, and strategy. I believe careful definition of each of these items matter. However, I haven’t seen any quantitative research that proves it one way or another.

So, readers, do you know of any concrete evidence? It’s your mission – should you choose to accept it.