Monthly Archives: December 2020

Be Proactive: Look to the Past

As we look to begin 2021, how will we approach the problems we are going to face?  Will we be caught off guard, or will we prepare ourselves by taking a moment to realize that most problems, in their essence, are not new.  That we can have a plan. 

How can looking to the past be proactive?

Let’s look at it in reverse.  News, articles, and books written today are produced to sell.  They must be interesting, and to be interesting they need to be something people are thinking about now. 

Here is a virus and a host of public policies – how do we react to them?  Here is a market downturn – how should we react?  Here is a terrorist bombing – what will we do?  The event, the thing, happens first, then we think about it, then we form our plan to deal with it.  This is reactive thinking. 

We try this, we try that, looking for anything that “works”.  In our search we feel inundated with different stories and strategies. I have heard more than one frustrated person say, “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”  Without a map we can easily become lost or, worse yet, convinced the road we’re on is the right one.

Effective reaction requires a map, a map provided by context.

Context provides coherence to our actions and ensures we are not working against ourselves instead of solving the problem.  We, as people trying to do our best, need to bring that context to the problem.   Current events reporting, modern surveys, and the latest updates in our field, will not provide us with context.

Context frames how a problem is similar to others and is the foundation of why we can seek help.  We can find this similarity by reading those who have thought about it before us or lived through something similar.   

Here are some examples.

Waffle House

Waffle House has a proactive plan for hurricanes.  They are so good at this, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created an unofficial “Waffle House Index” to judge Hurricane impact severity.  

How are they able to do it? Recognizing the difference between risk and uncertainty, Waffle House does not treat each storm as a completely new event.

 A completely new event has no comparison. This is uncertainty.  Once a hurricane is plotted, though, risk comes into the picture.  Risk is being able to assign probabilities to events.  It’s how insurance works.  It’s why disaster plans are effective. Waffle House turns what others see as uncertainty into a context of assessing risk. 

The difference between risk and uncertainty can be found in Frank Knight’s “Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit” (1921).  A nearly 100 yr. old book that provides business with an essential difference between what can be planned, and what cannot.

Bar Rescue

In the T.V. show Bar Rescue, Jon Taffer does not look at each bar as totally new and different.  The intro to the show tells us “Running a bar is not just a business; it’s a science.  No one knows more about bar science than Jon Taffer.” 

Seriously, Bar Science?!?!? 

Yes, and I believe it.  Why?

Because in 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.”  Central to this managerial science is calculating the time it takes for employees to do the different parts of their job: A time and motion study. 

Every episode of watching Bar Rescue is like watching a time and motion study in action.  His context is seeing each bar as an opportunity to apply the same method.  His context is also using the principles of a more than 100 yr. old book and theory not to just to make bartenders more efficient, but to create his own entrepreneurial brand, Bar Rescue.  That’s being proactive, and incredibly successful.

Ryan Holiday

Finally, looking to the past is the genius of such current writers as Ryan Holiday.  Holiday draws on the Stoic philosophers to show us how in journaling, meditating, and reading about Great Persons Like Marcus Aurelius, we prepare ourselves for life’s future obstacles.  We place ourselves in a mental frame of mind that understands the recurring nature of human problems, contextualizes them, and assigns them meaning within our broader life. 

He has also built a very successful brand on looking to the past.

Be proactive, look to the past.

#strategy #management

Photo: New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library. (1935). Great Kills, Shelves and stool Retrieved from

Why You Should Read Business Success Stories

People talk of cabin fever, but more and more the worry is over what we might call “cabin despair.”

There is more outside than we realize.

Winter cold usually keeps us in, and Covid restrictions have taken away our remaining options to get out and expand our world.  As our world shrinks we experience fewer of the people and things we value.  This robs us of inspiration, motivation, and hope.  Without this fuel we start to wonder how tomorrow holds anything worth the effort. 

There is no single solution to the effects of increasing isolation.  Friends and family are most important, of course.  But since this is a blog about business, I’d like to take a walk in that direction.   

In, “On the Nature of Things”, Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius tells us “There is nothing that exists so great or marvelous that over time mankind does not admire it less and less.” 

Lucretius’s insight is that looking only at the present restricts our world.  We see only what is in front of us, like the four walls of our room, we take things for granted and rob ourselves of the values we could find.

We tend not to think much about the businesses that provide the things we want and need.  We pay.  We get. We go on to something else. There’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s how life usually goes, but life is not going usually these days.  By looking at the story of a business we can see the innovation, the struggle, and the courage it took to find the business solutions we now take for granted. There are even clues for how to do better business today — how to bring value into the world.

We can access these stories from home.  Two of my favorites have been “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” by Marc Levinson and a small book about the rise of a regional gas station/convenience store in Western Pennsylvania: “Made to Order: The Sheetz Story” by Kenneth Womack. 

And this is the point: we’ve all seen shipping containers and gas stations.  We got the things we ordered.  We bought gas and candy.  So what?  So read the stories and see how these are human creations and you may well find something of value in the world beyond the four walls we seem trapped in today.  

The Nature of Business

“Ask yourself, what is this thing in itself, by its own special constitution? What is it in substance, and in form, and in matter? What is its function in the world? For how long does it subsist?” Marcus Aurelius

After teaching business ethics for many years, I realized that a person’s view of what business is affects their view of what business should do just as much as their beliefs on morality.

The thought struck me as I was watching the film Goodfellas. In this segment a restaurant owner has willingly partnered with the mob for “help” with his business. Watching the movie, we may sympathize with the owner, but we also need to realize (as the owner soon does) the essential difference between business activity and criminal activity is trading for value.

This is the distinction criminal characters deliberately ignore throughout the movie. For example, in this clip, between 24 and 42, the narrator explains how the mob boss can use a legitimate business as collateral, the restaurant, to take out loans he has no intention of repaying. The narrator explains this is how you buy a 200-dollar case of booze on credit and sell it for 100 dollars and keep the cash. The punchline? “It doesn’t matter, it’s all profit!”


Profit is a value adding activity that takes place through trading. What this clip is describing is no more profit than mugging an old lady and claiming the quarter you got was pure profit.

Consistently in conversations, films, and novels, business is equated with immorality or downright evil.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is misidentifying the nature of things. It makes a good thing look bad and a bad thing look good. When criminals use the phrase “I’m just doing business” it morally elevates their actions while simultaneously degrading the moral value of business. It tempts those in business to view criminal activities as port of their skill portfolio. This is not the road to success.

Those who think there is no difference between business and crime, as long as it makes money, risk making the same mistake the restaurant owner makes in Goodfellas. Spoiler alert: It’s not a good ending.

To succeed and thrive we must know what we are doing. Our goals and purposes are not determined independently, so too should our choice on how we pursue those goals. Business is a way of pursuing our goals and the goals of those we serve. Business is solving problems – that’s the value creation. The solution is valuable enough that other people are willing to pay for it – that’s the trade.

Creating value others are willing to trade for is the essence of business. This should be repeated to owners, employees, customers, governments, and society. If it is not, there is the real risk they will believe business is like crime, and act accordingly.