I never read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (I bought the discounted version: Four Habits of Semi-Effective People). People I respect have good things to say about Covey. While I can no more remember all seven habits than all seven dwarves, all fourteen (habits and dwarves) seemed both useful and unthreatening when I first encountered them.

Covey has another book, Principle Centered Leadership. I don’t go in much for this kind of book, because its central thesis – that adherence to ethical principles is a prerequisite to leadership – seems more the stuff of pamphlets than of treatises. Still, I have no argument with Covey, who promotes old-fashioned virtues in eloquent fashion. Virtues are Good Things (to use the technical term).

I do, however, take issue with the people who heard about Covey and, harking back to Jordy LaForge, thought, “Being ethical can advance my career? You know, it’s crazy enough, it just might work!”

Here’s an opinion: It’s not ethics until it hurts. If you’re not taking a personal risk, not sticking your neck out, then you’re not sticking to your principles. You’re just enjoying a string of good luck.

The sorriest facet of this whole phenomenon is how it turned ethics and principles into management fads. Empowerment, which certainly has an ethical dimension, became a fad as well. The experts told us all to empower employees because of how much more profitable it would make our businesses. Regrettably, accounting systems have no way to determine whether empowerment creates profitability, so the fad has started to wane.

Here’s a different perspective: you have no choice but to empower your employees. They already have the power to wreck your organization, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them.

Employees can respond to requests for help with indifference, inflexibly quote policy in response to service problems, produce the minimum defined in your performance standards, and live down to your carefully crafted job descriptions. So long as they do their jobs as you’ve defined them your employees are safe, until the whole ship of your organization sinks to the bottom.

None of the tools available to managers can stop this kind of empowerment – not procedure manuals, job descriptions, performance reviews, or disciplinary processes. The more you try to keep employees from messing up, the more you make their failure inevitable, until the whole situation becomes completely ridiculous.

Don’t believe me? Look at the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) and Federal Acquisition Requirement Specifications (FARS). These two sets of documents detail how the government must buy information technology. FIPS and FARS try to make the process idiot-proof. Great theory. The paradox? FIPS and FARS are so detailed and elaborate that to learn them you have to be smart enough to not need them in the first place.

Empowerment is a good-news-bad-news proposition. The bad news: You have no choice about empowering your employees. You can’t prevent their wrecking your things. The good news: you can successfully structure your work environment so employees help your organization thrive.

The better news: it’s a whole lot simpler this way. Specifying goals and principles is much easier than dictating behavior. With few exceptions, employees want to succeed. If you’d only tell them what that means … how you define success … they’ll help you get there. They may not do things the way you’d do them, but that’s okay. Different golf pros have different swings, but they all hit the ball very well (and much better than I do).

Far too often, empowerment became a numbers game. Cost-justified by decreasing the manager/worker ratio, empowerment programs reduced interaction between managers and staff. Mistake. The point is to change how they interact, not to reduce the amount of contact.

At its simplest and most profound level, empowerment is about a change in perspective. Managers who don’t believe in empowering their workforce try to keep employees from failing.

Empowering managers help their employees succeed.

“Oh, &$@%#, not another &%^ing RFP!”
Requests for Proposal (RFPs) and runners have two shared characteristics. First, you see a lot of both of them. Second, nobody ever seems to actually enjoy either one. (To the runners I just offended: how come I never see you smiling?)
Clearly, we’ve become a nation of masochists.
But how else than an RFP to evaluate vendors and products? Form Follows Function. Your method of evaluation depends on the circumstances.
You generally face one of these three situations: (1) you fully understand your requirements and the market, and you need equivalent information from all suppliers; (2) you understand your business, have a general understanding that technology can improve it, and want open-ended suggestions on how different products can help improve or transform your organization; or (3) you need to choose a product from a well-defined category and need something that’s good enough. These situations call for different approaches.
When You Know Your Requirements
Here’s when you should write an RFP. Quite a few books (including my own Telecommunications for Every Business, Bonus Books, Chicago, 1992) provide detailed guidance. Three principles are worth mentioning here.
First, specify your design goals, not the means by which vendors should address them. For example, if you need a fault-tolerant database server, don’t say you need a system with redundant power supplies, backplanes, CPUs, and network interface cards. If you do you’ll get what you asked for (in this case, a system that frequently fails from software bugs). Instead, ask how the vendor ensures fault tolerance. Then you’ll learn one of the vendors provides mirrored servers with shared RAID storage for a lower overall cost and higher reliability.
Second, don’t withhold information. If you’re a Windows/95 shop, for example, don’t pretend to be open to other solutions. Just say so in your RFP. You’ll save both your vendors and yourself a lot of work.
And finally, if any vendor offers to “help you write your RFP” just laugh gently, compliment them on their sense of humor, and go onto the next vendor (who will make the same offer). Don’t take offense – they’re just doing their job. Don’t take them up on the offer, either.
Looking for Help
Sometimes, you don’t know all the questions. You know you want to phase out your nationwide SNA network, for example, but have an open mind regarding the best replacement strategy.
You can hire a consultant to help you write an RFP, I suppose … or, you can hold extensive conversations with a variety of vendors to learn what each has to offer. By doing so you’ll get a broader look at the market, and you’ll also get a wonderful education into the strengths (from each vendor) and weaknesses (from their competitors) of each approach currently selling.
In this example, you may find yourself talking to two frame relay vendors, a Transparent LAN Service provider, AT&T and Novell regarding their Netware Connect Services, and an independent systems integrator. You’ll benefit from an unstructured dialog in which each vendor can assess your situation in depth and describe a scenario of how their approach will work for your company.
When Good Enough Will Do
Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to select a new standard Ethernet network interface card (NIC). You could write an RFP or hold extensive conversations with sales reps, but why? Read a few reviews, ask a few basic questions, insist on a few evaluation units (to make sure they work and to learn about any installation glitches) and pick one. Flip a coin if you have to. It’s a low impact decision.
Oh yeah, just one more thing: very few of us make decisions based on logic. Salespeople know we make emotional decisions, then construct logical arguments to justify them. Don’t fall into this trap: recognize your emotional preference up front, figure out how much weight you should give it, and keep it from dominating your process.