Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Will You Be Mine?

Business is not war. In fact, I'm getting tired of the trope that relies on this analogy. I think it's destructive and counterproductive - just like war.

I can understand the attractiveness of the metaphor as business sometimes looks like its getting all Lord of the Flies. Companies come and go, apparently succumbing to the forces of competition. Profits are made and lost. People's jobs, like lives on a battlefield, are on the line. Kill or be killed. It all frequently feels like a zero sum game.

And war usually is a zero sum game. One side wins and the other side loses. Well, I'm not even sure that is entirely accurate. War involves losses on both sides, the value of which may actually exceed the estimated value of going to war. In the cases of so called Pyrrhic Victories, the victor simply cannot afford to keep engaging in excursions of conquest. Martial conquest does not guarantee profit.

But as similar as business can seem to war, business is not quite the same. Sure, competition is ever present. Contracts are violated. Deals fail to close or are lost to another offeror. There's espionage and subterfuge. But whereas war usually involves two fronts—red versus blue, Joe versus Charlie, Allied versus Axis—business involves at least three fronts: you, the competition, and your customers.

In war, the primary focus rests on the competition, and the goal is to eliminate them, either by all out destruction or by dousing their will to contend. In war, one side usually surrenders to the other. But this is really not the case in business. The primary goal is not to eliminate the competition (it may be counterproductive to do so), but to win the attention of your customers. The real goal of business is to make a transaction in which at least two sides mutually benefit more than if no transaction occurred. The competition is present, and possibly corrosive, but it's not the primary concern.

The competition itself may evolve and satisfy needs and preferences that your own offerings don't satisfy. And so, in this way, business works out to be something more like a complex ecosystem of niche partitioned agents who are seeking to sustain their ability to generate ongoing profitable transactions. And yet it's not so much White Fang as much as it is…well…Pride and Prejudice. (Do I lose my man card for saying that?)

That's right. I think the best metaphor for business is romance in which we as suitors vie for the attention of our beloved—the customer. Again, the competition is there, but it's not our primary concern. We have to learn to deal with it and respond to it; however, if our attention on the competition dominates our activities versus our attention on our customers, current and potential, we may wind up winning a fight but losing our reason for existence, like two boys fighting it out in the school yard over a girl who walks away in disgust.

There is so much more to long term success than revenue generation. But success doesn't happen because we have no competition. Success happens because we provide something that satisfies a need better than the alternatives, even if one of those alternatives is nothing more than what our customers are already doing. What those real needs and preferences are is often hard to identify, but we don't find those out by going to war. We discover them the way lovers learn to fulfill each other's needs. While war is dehumanizing and often provides the psychological barriers that permit actions against others we would normally never consider, romance is about fulfillment.

Let me close with this quote from Marc Hedlund's Blog, in which Marc discloses his thoughts on closing his company, Wasabi:
You can't blame your competitors or your board or the lack of or excess of investment. Focus on what really matters: making users happy with your product as quickly as you can, and helping them as much as you can after that. If you do those better than anyone else out there you'll win.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fooling Ourselves

For some peculiar reason, this NPR article brought back memories of when I was a math and physics teacher.  One of the several perennial questions my students used to ask me was, "When will we ever use this, Mr. B.?" Of course, there was always, "Will this be on the test?"

One of my standard responses to the first question (the second usually received a scowl) was that mathematics (insofar as it is actually useful) provides a great tool for determining if you're being cheated. Learning to use it effectively increases our ability to avoid becoming someone else's stooge.

But the NPR article serves to remind us that often the greatest threat to being cheated comes from within. We all need to learn the "algebra" that helps us overcome our own internal scam.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Incite!Sales: Sales Portfolio and Forecasting System

Sales forecasts are notoriously biased, which leads to misallocation of resources and financial surprises. Our sales portfolio & forecasting system removes bias from forecasts to give you a more accurate view of your sales reality so that you can make more informed decisions about opportunities to pursue.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

A Brief Explanation of Expected Value

When helping people analyze the risks they face in complex decisions, I frequently receive requests for an explanation of expected value, as expected value is a measure commonly used to compare the value of alternate risky options. I’ve found that by now most people understand the concept of net present value (NPV) rather well, but they still struggle with the concept of expected value (EV)*. Interestingly enough, and fortunately so, the two concepts share some relationship to each other that makes an explanation a little simpler.

NPV is the means by which we consistently compare cash flows shaped differently in time, assuming that money has a greater meaning to us when we get it or spend it sooner rather than later. For example, NPV would help us understand the relative value of a net cash stream that experienced a small draw down in early periods but paid it back in five years versus a net cash stream that makes a larger draw down in early periods but pays it back in three years.

EV is similar. By it we consistently compare future outcome values that face different probabilities of occurring.

When we do NPV calculations, we don’t anticipate that the final value in our bank account necessarily will equal the NPV calculated. The calculation simply provides a way to make a rational comparison among alternate time-distributed cash streams.

Likewise, when we do EV calculations, we don’t anticipate that the realized value necessarily will equal the EV. In fact, in some cases it would be impossible for that outcome to be the case. EV just simply provides a way to make a rational comparison among alternate probability-distributed outcomes.

Here’s a simple example. Suppose I offer you two gambles to play in order to win some money. (Not really, of course, because the State of Georgia reserves the right to engage in games of chance but prohibits me from doing so.)

In the first game, there are even odds (probability=50%) that you will win either $10 on the outcome of a head or $0 on a tail.

In the second game, which is a little more complicated, I use a biased coin for which the odds are slightly less than even, say, 9:11 (probability=45%), of your winning. If you win, you gain $15; lose, you pay me $5. Which is the better game to play? Believe it or not, the answer depends on how you frame the problem, most notably from your perspective of risk tolerance and how many games you get to play. If you can’t afford to pay $5 if you lose the second game on the first toss, you’re better off to go with the first game because you will lose nothing at least and gain $10 at best. However, if you can afford the possible loss of $5 and you can play the game repeatedly over numerous times, expected value tells us how to compare the two options.

We calculate EV in the following way: EV = prob(H)*(V|H) + prob(T)*(V|T).

For the first game, EV1 = 0.5*($10) + 0.5*(0) = $5.

For the second game, EV2 = 0.45*($15) – 0.55*($5) = $4.

So, since you prefer $5 over $4 (you do, don’t you?), you should play the first game, even though the potential maximum award is alluringly $5 more in game two than one.

But here's the point about the outcomes. At no time in the course of playing either game will you have $5 or $4 in your pocket. Those numbers are simply theoretical values that we use to make a probability-adjusted consistent comparison between two risky options.

In a follow up post, I will describe what your potential winnings could look like if you choose to play either game over many iterations across many parallel universes.

*To be honest, I think part of the persistent problem in understanding is contributed by the term "expected" itself. Colloquially, when people use and hear this term, they think "anticipated." In discussions about risk and uncertainty, the technical meaning really refers to a probability weighted average or mean value. Unfortunately, I don't expect that you should wait for us technical types to accommodate common usage. [back]