Beyond Abracadabra Management

Communicating in the midst of uncertainty
is helped by the right framework

One of the articles in Living Business (IC#11)
Originally published in Autumn 1985 on page 20
Copyright (c)1985 by Context Institute

One of the most difficult transitions in the life of a small business is the addition of major new people. We’ve been dealing with that step here at IN CONTEXT, and are fortunate to have had some of Judith Winter’s help in the process. Growing out of her work as a business planning and management consultant, she has two books in the works: Planning For Uncertainty and Stopping A Snowball: 10 Tools For Directing Business Growth. She can be reached [updated in 1997] at Box B, Greenbank, WA 98253. © 1985 Judith Josefa Winter.

WHEN I HIRED my first assistant, I had limited patience for the process of logically explaining what needed to be done. ("Can’t you figure it out?") Furthermore, I didn’t want to "bark orders" at someone. I wanted to say:

ABRACADABRA . . . You are able to read my mind and know exactly what I want this business to become over the next several years. I do not need to take the time to explain it to you. Nor, do I need to tell you what to do. You are a capable, competent, honest person. I trust you. I trust your judgment. You are being paid a reasonable salary. For that salary, I expect you to take your talents and your understanding of my vision of the business’ direction – then take the initiative to do what must be done. So that – by your presence and actions – this company succeeds more quickly than it would have if you hadn’t been here. ABRACADABRA . . . ALAKAZAM!

It didn’t work.

At first, the ABRACADABRA communications style seemed adequate: It was obvious what needed to be done. The initial job description was:

Your job is to do anything that can’t be done by only me. At times you’ll feel like my secretary, colleague, boss, and devil’s advocate. After the dust settles, we’ll get more specific.

The dust had to settle quickly, however, for it soon became apparent that my assistant wanted and needed clearer instructions. The process of learning to communicate effectively with my assistant helped me to develop a series of communication and planning tools that I continue to use and refine in my work as a business consultant.

The process of getting more specific began with "setting priorities." One of the priorities became "we’ve got to be able to develop a way to work together ‘more smoothly’." That meant less ABRACADABRA communication and more real communication. That meant allocating time.

More important than allocating time: I had to be willing to clarify my thinking. I had to be willing to simplify how I communicated my ideas. I had to see my assistant not as an annoyance, but as a catalyst for provoking me to "take my head out of the sand" and make decisions that I’d been delaying.

A voice in the back of my mind said, "But, my strength is seeing the pattern of complex interrelationships of ideas – seeing ‘the big picture.’ I can’t be bothered with explaining the details of each task." Another voice answered, "Too bad. You’ll have to learn how to do it efficiently. There’s got to be a better way. Find it."

If I’d had a magic wand, I would have wanted to confide:

I know that I don’t know exactly what results I’m trying to produce. I’m heading in a certain direction, and as I learn more about the territory, I’ll become more specific about where I’m headed next. The image of how a sailboat tacks back and forth describes my pathway. The image of "the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line" does not describe my business. Perhaps, it does not describe any business – but many people act as if it does. I can’t. I won’t.

I knew that my business was to be a combination of writing, research, teaching, and consulting (with the expectation that which was most important would change, repeatedly, through the years) about a variety of social change issues, particularly about the ethics of business decision-making. What I had yearned to do was "applied research." My burning question, at the time, was "How are business decisions (really) made?" I deduced that: while profit might be a motive, it’s not the basis of decisions.

At a Buckminster Fuller gathering, one of the speakers said:

While many of you (environmentalists) are trying to pressure the so-called "bad guys" (the corporations) into becoming "good guys," some of you had better direct your efforts towards learning how to help people learn how to communicate about these tough, ethically-based decisions.

I was hooked. I knew what I had to do. At that time, I was in the early years of setting up a consulting practice. From then on, my consulting, teaching, research, and writing have been directed towards developing the tools that facilitate decision-making and communication regarding subjective and ethical issues.

But, how could I stop the world and say, "This is my plan." And not be a liar? And not look inconsistent? ABRACADABRA! Where’s the magical power that will help us communicate in this constantly changing world?

There had to be some way to talk about business decisions – while they are evolving – without confusing or alienating the people around us. What was this way?

Rather than analyzing quantitative data, I chose to find effective ways to aggregate and synthesize qualitative data. What I discovered is that the process of communicating what is most important on any business day is based on a number of distinctions. The first set is: "Of the things that you are telling me, which ones are for immediate action? Which ones are pieces of information – or tasks – for the future?" These distinctions are CURRENT FOCUS and FUTURE FOCUS.

Depending on the nature of events, CURRENT FOCUS could mean now, or today, or this week, or this month, or whatever time period is useful for defining "now."

The second distinction is: "Of the things that are to be done now – CURRENT FOCUS – which are most important?" These distinctions are usually called PRIORITIES.

There are many systems of setting priorities. "A", "B" and "C" priorities is a good place to begin. However, if I have to take the time and thought to label each task an "A" or "B" or "C", the system isn’t working as well as it could. So, "A" priorities became shorthand for "tasks that generate income for the business soon." "B" priorities became "essential and immediate tasks that don’t generate income – and may require an expenditure." "C"s became "the tasks that seemed important" – but might not be. "D" priorities are the "wonderfuls." Wouldn’t it be wonderful if . . ., but it might have to wait until later.

With these basic distinctions, one side of the ABRACADABRA necessity was eliminated. We now had an effective way of communicating about the relative importance of specific details. My assistant’s desire to have a clear understanding of "what’s expected of me?", at least initially, was met.

But this still didn’t cover the whole picture. My desire – for "ABRACADABRA! Look into my mind. See what I am trying to build. Decide how you can best contribute. Go to it!" – remained unfulfilled.

Of Necessity was born the next concept: making the distinction between: 1) "What Business Are You In?" – The "external identity" and 2) "How Are You Going To Do It?" – The "internal infrastructure."

The WHAT (external identity) was further divided into the four major categories of Purpose (what business are you in & for what reasons), Marketplace (to what markets will you sell and for what benefits), Products & Services (what you’re going to sell), and Community & Communications (with what image).

Four HOW (internal infrastructure) categories completed the picture: People & Personnel (how many people and how will they work together), Finance (how much will it cost and how much will we profit), Work Environment (how will we arrange schedules and facilities and production), and Administrative & Legal (how will we structure the ownership of the company and other basic questions).

These eight areas provided enough detail to insure that all the significant aspects of the business were considered, yet they are simple enough to allow the whole picture to be viewed at once. At last! I finally had my magic wand – a language: a coherent business planning methodology – through which I was able to transmit my vision of a business’s changing future.

This allowed me, first in my own business and later with clients, to deal with the (very common) question of, "How do you figure out a HOW for a fuzzy, continually changing WHAT?" There are a lot of books and courses and lawyers and accountants to help you figure out the HOW for a clear and fixed WHAT, but in my experience every living business has an uncertain, a continually/complexly shifting sense of purpose. The lesson is to expect that both the WHAT and the HOW will evolve over time. We then have to learn how to communicate clearly about both the WHAT and the HOW – the necessary information and the decisions to be made – AS THEY EVOLVE.

Particularly in times of "unplanned change," these distinctions – Current & Future Focus, A&B&C&D Priorities, and the 8 Areas of Business Decisions – have been useful in bringing clarity, order, simplicity and efficiency to the process of making both business and personal decisions.

In addition to providing a framework that places quantitative information in a more meaningful context, I expect that you will find that this "language" makes it easier to include qualitative and other factors – subjectivity, perceptions, intuition and all sorts of "strange" (as well as "ordinary") information – in the process of making, communicating, and implementing practical decisions.

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