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Passion, People and Principles

Fat Smoker Principles: Surviving a Short-Term Environment

post # 435 — September 19, 2007 — a Managing, Strategy and the Fat Smoker post

I have been discussing the fat smoker principles here in Australia: that we don’t do what’s good for us because we are unwilling to incur short-term discomfort to get even a massive long-term benefit.

As is normal, people come up to me at the breaks and say, “I believe this, and I’m willing to invest for the longer term, but it’s my bosses who don’t get this. The entire culture and environment is built on getting ever demanding short-term results!”

They then go on to ask two questions:

a) How can I convince my bosses to take the longer term view; and

b) How should I operate if I can’t?

I’m not entirely happy with my current answer:

There’s no way to change your boss except to deliver great results – preferably by managing superbly, thereby winning permission to keep doing it your way.

In a bad environment, you get two choices as a manager: pass on the pressures coming down upon you (thereby being a participant – no matter how unwilling – in sustaining a climate of “it’s a;; about the short term”) or, somehow, you try to protect your team from the pressures upon you. You pass some of it on, but not unfiltered.

The second choice involves managing with an air of “We’ve got to produce short-term results, but let’s do it OUR way – with standards, mutual respect and mutual support. We can create our own culture for our own group, can’t we?”

What do you think? Is there a better way to (realistically) avoid being a particpant in a short-term culture?

CAN you influence your boss(es) to change?

CAN you protect your team from the S*** coming down from on high?


Joel Head said:

The question it seems to me really revolves around how you view each situation — from a perspective of resignation and acceptance which leaves two choices — leave for greener pastures or become part of a bad process. Or, conversely, you could view the situation from the perspective of possibility which opens up a range of alternatives. While it may n ot be possible to have a one-size-fits-all answer, it is possible to look at each situation from the perspective of possibility and ask your self, “what could I do to change or influence this situation?”

posted on September 19, 2007

Ed Kless said:

David, what timing! I was speaking yesterday and the Fat Smoker subject was one of the themes I used (full recognition of your work, by the way) and this exact question came up.

My answer was a slight variation on your second choice – “skunkworks” it. Develop and implement stragegy in your area of influence, assimilate the evidence that it is working, then bring it your boss. At this point, the boss will have two choices: ignore it and look foolish or allow it to continue.

posted on September 19, 2007

victoria crawford said:

This is a challenge. I work with CEO’s that believe in their values and want their people to grow, but the bottom line results is always, from my expereince the driving force. I think it comes back to trust. Each situation is so different that’s I don’t believe there is a pat answer. Yet, I do believe that when trust is high that creativity, problem solving and productivity are high as well. I have come to believe that alot of my role is remembering just that and then having the courage to have the difficult conversations, create the space that’s needed and to be aware and pay attention to what meaning for this CEO, company and it’s people. Then, of course, the willingness to let go of attachment and yet, stay open to what is possible.

posted on September 19, 2007

Joseph Heyison said:


You and your commenters assume that all of the challenges are internal — it’s just a matter of mobilizing people to do the right thing (difficult as it may be). There are significant external, environmental impediments to long-term strategies.

1. The markets for your services may be so volatile or cyclical that long-term planning is unlikely to pay off. For example, IT consultants to Wall Street firms know that sooner or later the financial markets will decline and demand will evaporate. As their clients believe, it’s better to get it while one can.

2. Rainmakers notoriously want to see the money “now.” If you need to grow by lateral hires, it will be tough to take a long-term stance.

3. The risk-adjusted returns from “building to flip” may exceed the returns from “building to last.” Innovative tech services companies can often sell themselves for a more reliable return than hanging on and building the business themselves.

4. Mobile junior professionals, enlightened (or embittered) by churning and the hard fact that most of them cannot make partner, may insist on learning immediately transferable skills and making a high wage (at least compared to their peers).

5. Professionals may swear on stacks of Bibles that they don’t care about a few dollars more in absolute compensation. But if they make $1K less than their peers do, watch them grouse or leave. The relative compensation rat race enforces short-term thinking.

In short, what is seen as the high risk of failure in executing and succeeding in a long-term plan causes us rationally to opt for short-term-ism. Hectoring us about lack of moral fiber ignores the real motivations.

posted on September 19, 2007

Victoria Crawford said:

Joseph, I hear you. I think all of the points you made are significant and real issues. And I do wonder if the idea of long term planning for goals in our often short term world is the answer. But I’m also wondering if it’s either /or. Either a long term planning or short termism. It seems the more driven first and foremost by bottom line, the higher the stress, lower the productivity and problem solving abilities.

posted on September 20, 2007

Charles H. Green said:

David, it’s a tough one. My best take on it is to remind people that “the best short-term results come from long-term management.” What’s wrong is not the act of measuring short-term results; what’s wrong is managing on the basis of them.

To the subordinate who pleads exoneration because of his boss, I’m increasingly saying, “I don’t buy it.” If you really believe that a long-term action is better in a given case, you ougth to be able to explain it, prove it, defend it and argue for it. If someone can’t explain to someone why a long-term response isn’t better in a given case, I think we should not discard the hypothesis that that someone hasn’t understood the implications and the logic deeply enough.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the boss in question is stupid, fear-based, etc. But in my experience, by and large and for the most part, I have found that bosses tend to be better at things than their subordinates.

I think we’re a little too quick to jump to the “blame the boss” solution, and accept that as an endpoint that must be worked around. Maybe we need to ask the employee to develop an airtight case for longer-term perspectives.

In fact, developing such cases may still be a good way to become a boss.

posted on September 20, 2007

David Brewster said:

A very interesting discussion and salient to me also as I am often asked this same question when I advocate making things more simple inside organisations. “How can I make things more simple when my boss continually makes them more complicated”.

In theory it should be as you suggest Charles, and that’s pretty much the advice I offer, but, like David, I am never entirely comfortable with it. In the cut and thrust of getting stuff done, rational arguments seldom get the look in they deserve.

Worse, and perhaps this is the key, there are so many other pressures. The ‘boss’ in question has his or her own boss who is also under short term pressures – whether internal, or external of the sort Joseph describes so well. And so does their boss, etc., etc. This continues right up to the top where the ‘boss’ is the board and the market.

In the end, my view is that there is little escaping the fact that the ‘fish rots from the head’ and that a broad sustainable change to a longer term outlook won’t happen unless the most senior executive is willing to take up the challenge.

That’s not to say that nothing can be done. I do encourage people to do what they can locally – within their sphere of influence. And of course to make sure they remember these lessons when they get to the top themselves!

posted on September 20, 2007