Taking Steps

Barbican steps

I don’t know if you’ve ever endured a presentation by a vendor’s senior account manager when your company is trying to set up a project which will cost a significant sum, but if you have I bet it was like the ones I used to attend. The vendor’s team includes :-

    • A techie (sometimes more than one), who is not allowed to answer questions directly in case he makes some kind of implicit commitment that the vendor can’t fulfil, or inadvertently admits that you are being sold soon to be obsolete kit. He takes notes and actions to respond later via the account manager.
    • Your account manager who will shake everyone’s hand, introduce people, take notes and pay the restaurant bill for lunch.
    • The senior account manager who is to give the presentation. He (It is usually a man) has no technical knowledge but has the authority to take down your concerns and come back with an improved price. He will wear an expensive suit and speak nicely. His presentation will incorporate lots of fashionable biz-speak.

On your side will be some techies (Who sit at the back sniggering at technical gaffes and playing buzzword bingo) and you and your boss who will be sleeping with your eyes open.

These meetings are an almost complete waste of everyone’s time and resources except that on the client’s side they show the correct degree of rigour has been applied to the CAPEX proposal and on the vendor’s side that they can correctly follow the form of the elaborate courtship ritual that major sales require.

The only one of these I can remember with any clarity was for some software we wanted to introduce to improve administrative processes between companies and locations. Since this was in the 1990’s it was of course going to further our progress towards the “paperless office” (How’s that coming along with you?). It is only memorable to me because the senior account manager had seemingly compiled his presentation using one of these “30 minute MBA” type books but without actually having read it properly. He constantly confused, conflated or interchanged his use of the term “step”. At the time two step concepts were very much in vogue, stepwise refinement and step change.

Stepwise refinement is the habit of constantly making small improvements in products and processes so that whatever you are doing becomes better, more reliable, cheaper, more profitable etc. as you go.

Step change is discontinuous change, i.e. the sort that produces a graph with a step in it, a major leap forward, game changer, quantum shift etc.

Now both of these are desirable but they are not the same thing and are not done by the same people. Stepwise refinement is a process and step change is a resultant. You should aim for stepwise refinement always and everywhere, by and with everyone. You may choose to aim for step changes but these are projects and you may need to implement several to have one come off. Good organisations should always be looking for the next step change, either introduced by themselves, their competitors, or by changes in the fundamental technology they use. Without step changes you end up like a diagram for Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, the best you can do is ascend to a plateau. With them you can scale new peaks.

This is what Neal Stephenson calls “Crossing the valley”, giving up short term position for long term gains. I think he is right, we all need a strategy to cross more valleys.

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