Every Problem Should Have a Simple Solution

Monday, September 24, 2018

Delray Beach, FL – On August 15, I published an essay titled “Growers and Tenders” in which I suggested that there are two kinds of employees. I wrote:

This is an exaggeration, but I like to say that, in business, personalities can be divided into two camps: those that value growth and those that value order.

Those that value growth (the growers) want to make everything bigger. Those that value order (the tenders) want to make everything better. And you need both to enjoy unstoppable success. But the ratio depends on where in the business lifecycle your company is.

This idea is, of course, a simplification. But there’s nothing wrong with that. In business (as in almost any context), simple ideas are almost always better than complicated ones because:

* They are easy to explain.

* They are easy to understand.

* They are easy to remember.

* They benefit from Occam’s razor – i.e., they have a fair chance of being true.

Today I want to talk about a particular set of simplified business ideas: those that mean to solve problems by putting (some might say shoving) employees into two or three personality/proclivity boxes.

Growers and tenders are one example. Over the years, I’ve conjured up many more. One of the most useful is this:

Growing an entrepreneurial business requires three core skills – (1) the ability to produce products/services that can sell, (2) the ability to sell those products/services, and (3) the ability to push everybody and everything in the business to produce a profit.

If you are lucky enough to have three people with those skills when starting a business, success is likely to come relatively quickly. Most startups aren’t so lucky. It’s more typical for the founder to play two or even all three roles. But eventually, if you want your business to achieve its potential, you’ll need to find different people for each role.

This particular simple idea has been very helpful to my partners, my protégés, and me in solving early problems and moving things along.

Another example:

Employees tend to organize themselves into three groups – frontrunners, muddlers, and laggards.

The frontrunners need to be at the head of the pack – and they will do whatever it takes to get them there. The muddlers (most people are muddlers) like being in the middle of the pack. The laggards like being in the back.

And here’s the interesting thing: The desire to be at the front, middle, or end of the pack has nothing to do with how hard or intensely an employee wants to work – which is why most theories about employee motivation fail. They are based on the idea that employees have an inbuilt proclivity to apply a certain amount of energy to their work, whereas their inbuilt proclivity is really about where they feel comfortable in the pack.

In other words, you can’t motivate an individual muddler to step up to the front of the pack. You can only move the entire pack ahead or, by neglect, let it slow down.

A third example:

When it comes to coming up with new ideas, employees can be sorted into two groups – those that like ideas that are safe and sensible and those that prefer ideas that are contrarian and even disruptive.

We’ve heard so much about the value of disruption that you might be forgiven for thinking that you should populate your business entirely with contrarian thinkers. But that would be a formula for chaos. In fact, you need both. A good mix would probably include two safe/sensible thinkers for every contrarian.

I could go on. And I will in future essays. But here’s a fourth idea, one that I came up with very recently after struggling with a few businesses that have been floundering (not foundering) for several years:

When it comes to profits, there are two kinds of employees – those that give a shit and those that don’t.

By giving a shit, I mean caring enough about the bottom line to get worried if it’s not positive. I mean understanding that the future health of the business depends on profits and that, therefore, their future as an employee does too. I mean being willing to work long hours if necessary to produce profits. I mean spending their spare time thinking of profit-producing ideas. I mean feeling personally responsible for the profitability of the business. I mean waking up in the middle of the night thinking about profits.

Employees that don’t give a shit are not necessarily bad employees. In fact, they may be very good and very able workers. But realistically, you can’t expect most of the people you hire to truly care about profits. They will care about getting paid for their work. And they will want the company to continue to issue paychecks. But their priorities in life are not connected to your bottom line. And there is little or nothing that you can do to make them care about it.

Employees that do care about profitability are rare birds. The more of them you have, the better. But no matter how hard you try to recruit them, just a small portion of your employee base, at best, is likely to be comprised of such people.

That’s okay. Unless you make the mistake of having someone like that in senior management. In most cases, that means your head product person, your head marketer, and your CEO. No matter how good these people may be at what they do, if they don’t give a shit about profits, your business is in trouble.

Think about it.