Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

“Be who you are, said the Duchess to Alice, or if you would like it put more simply, never try to be what you might have been or could have been other than what you should have been.”

     – Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898), children’s fiction writer, most notably of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The neighborhood knuckleheads just finished our Fantasy Football draft.  I’m projected to finish last.  I will wear it as a badge of honor, thank you.

But, that’s not the point.

As we sat here, at our computers, with a glass of brown or a bottle of beer as our guide — it occurred to me how little we really know about football.

Sure, we’re fans, and we “know” all sorts of things that may or may not be true.  For example, I just know that my favorite team is going to pound their cross-state rival into submission Saturday.  I just know it.  Except, I don’t know crap!

Sort of like when we criticize the boss.  Or the CEO.  Or the surgeon.  Or the airline pilot.  Or the general on the battlefield…  You get the point, right?

Unless we’ve sat in the chair, we simply don’t know.  We.  Simply.  Don’t.  Know.

The movie Draft Day is a wonderfully romanticized version of what it must be like to be an NFL General Manager — in a room with a bunch of other stale, pale and male middle-aged dudes hitching your career wagon to a small group of 22-year-old kids.

Picking talent is hard.

Developing talent is hard, too, but it’s an investment worth making.

Here’s how it works:  Once the team puts on your jersey, it’s your team, and you’ll get out of it something along the lines of what you put into it.  Of course, talent matters.  But if talent was the only thing that mattered, Duke would win every NCAA championship, Alabama would win every BCS Championship and UConn would win the women’s national basketball championship every year.  The Yankees would have won 87 World Series’ in a row and the British would have beat our butts back in the 1700’s.

“Woulda, shoulda and coulda” are the vocabulary of losers.

“I woulda hired Pat if I’d have had the budget!”

“I coulda hired Sal if I’d have altered the PTO policy!”

“I shoulda hired Robin, if only I’d have known then what I know now…”

In business, fantasy football, picking a foursome for the golf match — we simply don’t know.

So, in the moment, we do the best we can.  We teach, we mentor, we listen, we invest in the people on the roster.  We make cuts if we have to, and we pour into every member of the team right up until they ain’t on the team any more — and maybe even beyond that, depending on our wiring…

That’s the stuff of difference makers.


It is not lost upon me that the Fantasy Football analogy is flawed.  I can’t develop my talent, seein’s how I will never meet most of the players on my roster (I’ve met three of them, which is probably why I drafted them, which may be why I am projected to finish last…) and even if I do, they’ll understand pretty quickly that I ain’t no Vincent T. Lombardi.  It’s a set-up to the point.  Play the best game you can every day with the roster you have on that day — and make a difference for the players, fans, families, clients, customers and shareholders you serve.

Perfect vs Probably

In a perfect world, I’d have remembered the two-hour time difference during Daylight Savings time – the one that made me miss my publication deadline every day since Monday this week.

In a perfect world, I’d have had a plan for the uncontrolled intersection where family, work, Client, and my own expectations all came racing at one another without so much as a glance left or right.

In a perfect world…

Turns out, though, it ain’t a perfect world.

So why plan for perfect?

Why not plan for probable?

We moved what seemed like a large house worth of stuff into a small dorm room this week.  It made us all tired.  Why not plan for the probability that I wasn’t going to be up at my usual time, let alone my usual time Pacific Time?

There were literally seven deadlines all sprinting toward Tuesday at midnight.  Why not bump five of them – which was doable in plenty of time to beg permission instead of hoping for forgiveness. Until Wednesday AM, when I was left hoping for forgiveness.

In the real world, we have to focus on one thing at a time.

At least I think I got that right (for the most part) this week.   “The Great College Move-In of 2021” was executed with singular focus, relatively little conflict, and great success.

The Tallest of The Three is settled into a dorm room 1400-miles away from home – and as I type this post (from an airplane returning to a quieter home) – I am pretty sure we managed it well; he, she and even me.

It’s probably going to be all right.  It’s definitely not going to be perfect.

In our workaday lives, we’ll be faster, more nimble, easier to work with, and more successful if we plan for probable – and leave perfect to He who can actually pull it off.

The Commute

If you are seeking creative ideas go out walking.  Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.”

–  Raymond Inmon, as quoted by Roy H. Williams in a recent Monday Morning Memo

There are times when the best way to find something is to look for nothing.

“The commute” has come to mean the time we spend getting from home to work, and from work to home.  With more and more people either not working, working from home (WFH) or working from “anywhere” it might be a good time to re-evaluate the commute and reassess its value.

I started my career in radio advertising sales.  “Drivetime,” the commercial blocks sold during most people’s commutes, were the most expensive ads one could buy, because (allegedly) more people would hear them.

The key to standing out in those ads was creativity – lest you sound like all the other ads and fade into the drone of the road noise.

One thing missing in these times is creativity.  Never before have more lemmings been incented to become more lemming-like, and that’s not a fertile environment for creative ideas.  As Immon says, and as The Wizard quoted in the MMM — angels whisper to us when we go for a walk.

This week’s DD’s will come through the filter of an extraordinary commute.  Later on Monday, we’ll begin a 1,400-mile commute with The Tallest of The Three.   His embarkation on a college journey will affect other commutes – one less driver for The Youngest She of The Three, fewer drivers to break up longer trips — and more importantly, one more topic to ponder whenever we’re out walking about:  “How’s he doing?”  Two of The Three are now “adulting,” or at least “college-ing” — and while it’s a stage we’ve long considered, planned for, and dreamed about, it is, in fact, a change.

In Heston House, these are times of great change.

In our businesses, yours, mine, and everyone else’s, these are times of great change — and times in need of creative ideas.

Let’s use our commutes — whether from home to work, from home to campus, from home to the grocery store or wherever we may wander — to listen for the angels who will whisper to us, if only we’ll listen.  And let’s deploy the ideas we have from those whispers to make a difference, in our homes, on campuses, and in our businesses.





On Average, Still Dead

“We must keep in mind the story of the statistician who drowned while trying to wade across a river with an average depth of four feet. That is to say, in a culture that reveres statistics, we can never be sure what sort of nonsense will lodge in people’s heads.”

     –  Neil Postman (1931 – 2003), American writer, critic, and philosopher

Yesterday on over-reliance on data, today on an equally dangerous pursuit…basing strategies on averages.

The use of averages denies context.  Not just the failure to acknowledge the human element — any context at all.  Averages are numbers used by procurement teams — probably seein’s how the procurement function seeks to strip all the differentiated value out of a buying decision.

Especially in the profession of selling, we have to be very careful with averages.  Perhaps Pat closes 25% of the deals in which Pat engages.  What if they’re the smallest deals?  What if the problem isn’t the number of deals Pat closes, but the number in which Pat engages?

Postman’s perspective sums it up well.  We can use averages (numbers, stories, lots of things) to rationalize what we want to believe, or we can dig until we find out what really matters.





Death by Data vs Deciding

“The inherent flaw in analytics is that data don’t take into account the human element.”

–  Brian Ferentz, Offensive Coordinator for The University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team, in a superb long-form HawkCentral podcast with Chad Liestekow

Data is a tool — and used correctly it’s a dandy tool.

It’s not an end-all, be-all — and with the exception of God, I’ve not found an end-all, be-all in my life or career.

Ferentz has been a polarizing figure of late, magnified by the fact that he is the son of the head coach at Iowa.  He’s a really smart dude, like many major college coaches, however, and he approaches his job in many of the ways we should approach ours.  Remembering, of course, that we’re human, too, and subject to a mistake here and there.

This quote / part of the conversation occurs at the 83:85 point of the podcast and the context is set around a decision made in a game by a legendary NFL coach, under whom Ferentz (dad and son) have mentored.  The data said, “Do this!”  The human element contradicted the data.

You know what, for those of you not interested in listening to a three-hour podcast with a coach — here’s the deal.  A few years back, in a game between New England and Indianapolis in the NFL, the Patriots were faced with a 4th down — and the play card, the analytics, the data — they all said, “PUNT!”  In fact, I think it might have been in the “Punt, you idiot!” column on the play sheet.  The other team’s quarterback though, was one Peyton Manning, who had already engineered a 20+ point comeback in the second half of the game.

“If we give the ball back to Peyton Manning,” head coach Bill Belichick said afterwards, “we lose.”

So, flying in the face of the data, New England went for it.  They failed.  Manning got the ball back.  They lost.  It was worth the risk to have a shot to avoid the inevitable.

The fact of the matter is sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.  The data will always be with us, but we also have to read the deal, the momentum, the market and the intangibles – and especially the people.  Remember, too, as leaders, we have to accept that armchair quarterbacks will second guess us, whether we win or lose.

Ferentz says, “You can put too much on the math, and also on the human element.  That’s a cop out for coaches, either way.”  His point?  Leaders get paid to decide — and we have to have the courage to decide based on all the inputs available to us – and then to own the outcomes.




Snippet Society

“I must be a mermaid.  I have no fear of depth and a great fear of shallow living.”

–  Anais Nin (1903 – 1977), American – French – Cuban writer

Then here’s to the mermaids!

Listening to sports radio on a short drive, a couple of the regular hosts were talking about how little depth there was in sports fans today — and then, they readily admitted they were part of the problem.  Difference Makers ought to ask, “Are we part of the problem?”

We live in a snippet society.  It leads us to think we know when we almost never really do.  We can Tweet or Post our way into the conversation, using confrontational or confronting language and hyperbole and feed the stupidity.  If we’re not careful, we become part of the vitriol and divisiveness that makes it more and more difficult to be productive and approachable.

The snippet society has created headlines without stories behind them.  The snippet society has made us sacrifice depth of understanding for the “rush” of evoking a response.

Why is that batter in a slump?  Millions of people who’ve never played the game pontificate on what he ought to do.  Why did that amazing gymnast shut it down during the sports’ greatest ten-days?  Millions of people who can barely walk on a sidewalk, let alone do a flip on a 4-inch wide slab of wood raised more than four feet off the floor.

Why did that Client cancel their deal?  Why did that prospect buy from our competitor?  Why did that customer stay with us even when we botched her order? Why is Pat always late on our assignments?  They must be dumb, uninformed, lazy or slow.  That’s what the snippet society tells us.

Here’s the truth…




Unless we’re willing to ask.  To go deep.  And, scary though it may be, even when we ask, even when we go deep, we still might not really know.

But we will have gone deep.  We will have exhibited enough caring and effort to try to know and we will be better for the effort.  We will stop fearing the depth and come to loathe the shallows.

Shallow people criticize the slump, critique the mental toughness and assume to know the reasons for someone else’s actions.  Shallow people are boldly, brashly over-confident without bothering to seek the truth.  Shallow people miss one fundamental truth that Difference Makers keep near the surface; Everyone has a story.

Difference Makers go deep enough to know — or at least have insight into — the stories around them.



Evolution in Negotiation

“Something is better than nothing to a purely logical mind. Give the problem to a human, and you must deal with three million years of evolution.”

–  David McRaney, in his book, “You Are Not So Smart…”

The “problem” in question is the old “Ultimatum Game.”  You win a million dollars in the lottery, but there’s a catch.  You have to offer a complete stranger a share of the money, and if they say no to your offer, you both get nothing.

How much do you offer?

It’s Chapter 20 in the book, and it’s base learning for negotiators.  We might make a completely rational offer from our perspective and get nothing in return — because we’re negotiating with humans.  The fallacy in the all-or-nothing approach to negotiation is behind why so many companies are trying to procurement-ize* everything. “If we can get to a completely objective analysis of the product or service, we’ll just choose the best deal.”

Unless whatever we’re buying is a complete commodity — most of which are ruled by standards, by the way — there is no completely objective analysis.

Otherwise, no one would buy Mercedes Benzes, Tiffany jewelry, or Rolex watches.  My accountant must be better than your accountant, because he charges double the hourly rate, right?  Or, maybe my accountant is better than your accountant because I got the same deductions you did for 30% less in fees.  Maybe we just like the way our car gets us to work, our jewelry sparkles or our watch makes us feel.  Maybe we like it that our accountant gets us a better table at the charity function or plays at a golf course we like better.

What matters is knowing what matters to the other party — and trying to get them as much of that thing as we can, without sacrificing too much of what we want or need from the transaction.

The person on the other side of the negotiation is human, just like we are, and they’re probably not a lot more or a lot less evolved than we are.  So, let’s ask one another questions.  Let’s connect.  Let’s collaborate.  Let’s keep logic in its place and seek deals that make us both better.


*If you’re selling a value-add service or product — and you’re dealing with procurement on the buyer’s side.  Run.  Don’t walk.  Run.  Get out.  Focus on someone who wants to buy value, not minimize it.


The Efficiency Trap

“The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important is that you definitely never will.”

–  Oliver Burkeman (b. 1975), in an excerpt (published in the Aug 7-8 Wall Street Journal) from his new book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals” 

If only I could get more done!  Talk about a trap!

More, it seems, doesn’t always equal better.  Sometimes, it’s the opposite.  Sometimes, we have to look at the thing and simply call it “the thing.”

The excerpt from the book closes with this:  “I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.”

Long-time subscribers see this coming a mile away…  Cue Dr. Tom Graff — “most things in life are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong.  Most things just are.”

When we stop labeling and stop striving for more at the expense of better, we start maximizing the gifts God gave us, and the time He allows for us to use them.

Difference-making stuff.

Dirty Hands, and Keeping The Clay In The Middle

“Every pot that is crafted requires hands to be spoilt.”

–  Unattributed

I saw a speaker Sunday who used a potter’s wheel analogy to make her point about authenticity.  It got me thinkin’ — which, I’m pretty sure is the whole point of going to see this kind of speaker on a Sunday morning…but I digress.

If we’re going to shape something meaningful, we’re going to need to get our hands dirty.  Even as leaders.  Especially as leaders!  Here’s the deal, though, it’ll take more than rolled-up-sleeves and dirty hands.  It’s also really important to keep the clay in the middle of the potter’s wheel — analogous to keeping our focus and priorities clearly built on the things that move us forward.

It’s one thing to get our hands dirty just staying busy.  It’s another thing to get our hands dirty doing some of the dirty work for someone in the team — at least that’s meaningful dirt under our nails.

But’s it’s a whole nuther thing for sure to get our hands dirty doing the things that we know are important but that don’t seem urgent right now.  Recruiting.  Correcting behavior of a team member.  Planning.  Doing a loss review.  Adding a “why” column to our to-do list, and only to-doing the things that make the most difference when we get them to-done.

Keeping the clay in the middle of the wheel, the pace of the pedals consistent and getting our hands dirty building that thing that occupies the center — the thing that is our “Why.”


Connecting Connections

“Call ________! He’s either got a guy, or he’s got a guy that’s got a guy!”

–  A member of my network, one of very few whose name everyone would recognize

In their book “Insight Selling,” RAIN Group positions “connecting” as one leg of the stool in today’s professional services selling model.  Connect, Convince, Collaborate.

That collaboration piece is sometimes simply connecting connections.

A Client was recently in capital raise mode.  “Steve, we’d really like to raise another $_______ million in capital, but we don’t want to bring in another 50 small investors…”  They needed a guy, or a gal, who had fairly quick ties into someone who could write a 7-digit check.  It wasn’t me.  It wasn’t anyone on my first circle.  But, I knew someone who knew someone — and the connection was made.

As we build networks, it’s important to know who the people we know, know.  (I was 100% certain that Grammarly would hate that sentence, and it does!)  At the same time, it’s important to know how readily they want to connect their connections.

Connecting and collaborating can go a long way toward convincing our Clients that we’re the ones to turn to in order to solve problems — even if they’re not problems that we can solve on our own.

It’s called relationship equity — and building it will make as big of a difference as anything else we can do.