Jeremy Eden and Terri Long: An interview by Bob Morris

Jeremy-EdenJeremy Eden and Terri Long are co-founders and co-CEOs of Harvest Earnings Group, Inc. Jeremy has decades of consulting and performance improvement experience in business and government including at McKinsey and Company. Terri was in the corporate banking world for eighteen years before joining Jeremy in 2000. They met in the mid-90s when Terri was the client and an SVP at what is now U.S. Bancorp. Jeremy was the consultant assigned to work with her on the bank’s earnings improvement project. Terri-Long

Jeremy and Terri quickly realized that they were in lock step about how companies could grow earnings and improve the customer experience. Company insiders, not outside consultants, had the answers. Employees when given the right tools have hundreds of ideas to help their companies succeed. But, senior executives needed a well-designed process to get those answers. Furthermore, the process should result in ideas that grow revenue and improve the customer experience not just ideas to be more efficient. Jeremy and Terri have built that process. Big believers in “two heads are better than one”, they are often asked how it works to be Co-CEOs. Their answer? It works perfectly. Mostly simpatico, occasionally they are the yin to the other’s management yang. Their clients benefit! Jeremy and Terri are considered two of the most practical and straightforward business thinkers in the field.

Jeremy and Terri co-authored Low-Hanging Fruit: 77 Eye-Opening Ways to Improve Productivity and Profits, published in March 2014 by Wiley Publishing. Before all this started, Jeremy earned his B.A. in History at Yale University and his M.B.A. at Yale School of Management. Terri earned her B.A. in Finance at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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Morris: Before discussing Low-Hanging Fruit, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Eden: Without a doubt, my parents have been the greatest influence on my personal growth. The values that they live, the love they share, and the endless support they give. Just as an example of the latter, my father who is 90 and my mother who is 89, carefully read our manuscript and then gave us rave reviews combined with detailed suggestions to make it better. Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Long: I have been fortunate to have had several wonderful mentors through the years. Mike Clawson, who was President of Firstar Bank in Illinois, made a huge difference in both my professional career and at how I look at business issues. Specifically, in terms of career, he gave me incredible flexibility after I gave birth to my first child which kept me sane and kept me in the workforce. As if that weren’t enough, he put me on a very special project that resulted in me meeting Jeremy!

Eden: I would have to say, again, my parents. My mother was an advertising copywriter (during the Mad Men years!) who taught me the awesome power of carefully using words to persuade, argue, and motivate. My father was an engineer who ignited my passion in math and science at an early age and who showed me that the key to those passions lay even more in boundless curiosity than in logic and rationality. Of course, your question probably was meant to elicit a professional and I would say that McKinsey & Co, though not exactly a “who”, had the greatest impact as it was my first experience in business and showed me both the power of disciplined problem-solving and the big gap, that hopefully we are now helping to fill, between the goal and the achievement of employee engagement.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Eden: Well, funny you should phrase the question that way because I usually say that when I was at McKinsey, I “had an epiphany – probably over a couple of beers”. The epiphany was that big companies did not need advice from newly minted MBA consultants or even from seasoned partners. Big companies already have more expertise than they know what to do with. What they needed was a process so that they would know what to do with all of the expertise they had. In particular, a process built on the problem-solving skills that McKinsey was keeping to itself. I had a chance to test this theory out when I was at McKinsey while constructing a process for a client. Instead of them trying to teach me about their business, I would teach them about a much more effective way for them to use the knowledge and insights of their employees. It worked incredibly well and that led to the decision to create a business and a career around helping big companies create the process and culture that took seriously the oft-said and equally oft-ignored claim that “our people are our most important asset.” That really is true if they are allowed to be.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Eden: I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Yale College and Yale School of Management so clearly having a great formal education has been important. But I actually feel that the reading and math learning that I did on my own was even more valuable as that is how I learned how to learn which is the most important life skill we all need. I’m not sure that our formal education programs teach that effectively. In addition, I believe that formal education also focuses far too much on giving good answers rather than on asking good questions.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Long: On the one hand, if I had known how big the world is, how many incredibly opportunities are available, and about how utterly impossible it is to know the consequences of any career decision, I would probably worried a bit less about those first career choices. On the other hand, if a cake is to bake for an hour and you pull it out sooner you just wind up with bad cake. The timing of events has been great, if completely serendipitous, and I wouldn’t change anything. For example, if a project Jeremy led had started just a few months later I would not have met him and there wouldn’t be a Harvest Earnings or Low-Hanging Fruit!

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Eden: Important business principles are not about spreadsheets or strategy or business models – they are about human behaviors. When Harry Met Sally dramatizes two critical behaviors that our work and our book bring to life. Harry and Sally met … and then ignored each other. Even after reconnecting they took a long time to see the great qualities each had. Even when hired with great fanfare and enthusiasm, the great qualities that employees have are too frequently ignored until the relationship between the company and their employees withers away. Companies must learn new behaviors that enable them to see, cherish, and give expression to their employee’s talents. At the end of the movie, Harry proposes to Sally by saying, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” That sense of urgency is a behavior that seems so right for the scene but which is lacking in so many businesses. Yes, everyone is stressed out and busy, but that is different than feeling an urgency driven by an overwhelming desire.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Eden: Well, this may be an odd answer, but I have always loved and studied math – even to this day – and the math books I use have taught me two valuable lessons about business. The first is that problems that initially seem impossible for me to solve usually do have solutions and often ones that are easy to understand once found. In business we find that even the slightest resistance to finding a solution often convinces managers that there is no solution, or at least none worth trying to figure out. Managers set expectations far too low because they cannot quickly and easily see a way to solve the problem of meeting much higher expectations. The second is that problem-solving is rarely a matter of logic and straightforward thinking. Initially one doodles, daydreams, or tries to get a different perspective before the solution snaps into place ready to be verified by logic.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: “Learn from the people Plan with the people Begin with what they have Build on what they know Of the best leaders When the task is accomplished The people will remark We have done it ourselves.”

Long: We love this quote! We use the last part about the best leaders in our training. When a great building is built all you see for a long while is the scaffolding that holds it up. We have designed our firm and our process so that we can be the scaffolding which is taken down as soon as the building can stand on its own. Everyone can admire the architect, the builders, the building – but the scaffolding has long since been torn down. When our projects are over, the teams of employees are truly the architects and builders who can take pride that “we have done this ourselves.”

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Eden: We wrote our book so people will steal – well, let’s say “borrow” – our ideas!

Long: I think most people actually love a great new idea faster than this quote implies. Think about the success of infomercials! People love clever new ways to solve problems.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Eden: Often true (of course sometimes a dangerous idea is just a dangerous idea!). We are somewhere between yesterday and today with our Idea Harvest! Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’” Eden: One of my favorite quotes (and growing up my favorite author by far). It is not the “Eureka!” answer but the “that’s odd” curiosity that drives all progress whether in science, business, or anywhere else. Long: Jeremy actually says “that’s weird…” all the time. This is so true but of course, the stereotype of “Eureka” makes for much better storytelling. Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Long: There’s a reason that Drucker was a leading management guru and this quote captures it. Part of our Idea Harvest™ discipline is to follow a checklist and the very first item is to eliminate things that shouldn’t be done rather than to improve them. It is astonishing how many things in business live on far longer than they should. The IT version of this quote is “don’t pave the cowpaths” which is another way to say that we shouldn’t automate activities that shouldn’t be done in the first place. Companies can save a bundle on IT if they followed this rule.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Eden: I do agree that in many cases the collective capacity of an organization exceeds any individual’s capacity – for example collective knowledge as exemplified in Lew Platt’s famous quote, “If only HP knew what HP knows we’d be three times as productive.” However, in many cases the collective capacity to make good calls is very low because consensus just leads to the lowest common denominator. We believe that the five words that are keeping a lot of good leaders from being great leaders are: “I want everyone on board.” Sometimes a leader is in a much better position to make a good call and wide move and they should make that decision. Their team will get on board when they see the decision is working out well.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Long: This idea that big results require big risks is a big myth. We agree that the search for truth requires organizations to challenge their deeply held assumptions but not by making big mistakes. Facts, analysis, and testing are much safer and work much better. Many companies believe that big results can only be achieved by taking some big “out of the box” step which necessarily entails some big risks. Other companies have proven that there is still so much low-hanging fruit that they can actually grow earnings faster by implementing many low-risk smart ideas then taking risk. We love Warren Buffett’s description of risk management: “I don’t look for 7 foot bars to jump over, I look for 1 foot bars I can step over.” Finally, there is another big problem with the idea that corporate cultures should embrace mistakes. Invariably managers who overpromise aren’t held accountable since, well, they just made a mistake.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Eden: All successful people feel two pressures not to delegate. The first is that we can get the job done faster, better, and more to our liking than a subordinate who doesn’t have our skill and experience. The second is that we don’t really want to give up tasks we’re really good at just so that we have more time to do tasks that we haven’t yet mastered even if it is in the best interests of the company for us to do the tasks we haven’t mastered but which only we can do.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Eden: Well, it reminds me of a story! There was a group of young campers huddled in the dark around a big campfire. Each breeze felt like the wispy hand of a ghost sending shivers down their backs. In a deep and creepy voice, the counselor began his story of terror by saying, “now children, as you can see here on slide 1 I have outlined the agenda for today’s ghost story ….” Yes, great storytelling creates the emotional response needed to lead people to do great things while just describing facts does not.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Long: We think it is a bit lazy to rest on the old canard that by nature people resist change per se. What people resist is bad change and being changed. We see a lot of change initiatives fail because they are rife with bad change and with changing people from the top. We know people are all for good change – has anyone ever turned down a salary increase because it was a change? People date, go to college, try lots of jobs, vacation in foreign lands, have kids, and do many, many other things that entail changes to their lives. People actually like change when it is good and when it isn’t imposed on them. That’s why we designed our Idea Harvest approach to be change that is designed by the people who will be affected – it ensures that the change is something that is being demanded by the people rather than imposed on them and it ensures that they will see why the change is good. Our change initiatives set extraordinary expectations and then significantly surpass those expectations.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Eden: I currently serve on the Yale School of Management Board of Advisors and my observation is that Yale is leading the way to meet some of the greatest needs. The prestigious business schools all do a great job offering a rigorous approach to problem-solving by discipline – finance, accounting, marketing, and so on – which is quite different from the environment that led to the Ford Foundation’s and Carnegie Foundation’s seminal reports on management education in 1959. Fifty years ago it was important to build strengths in different disciplines. But today, many companies become very inefficient and ineffective because they create the oft-mentioned silos that act as barriers. CEOs need people who are adept at problem-solving across disciplines. This is an urgent need in all but the smallest companies. I think it would be terrific if other M.B.A programs followed Yale School of Management’s lead to address the need for much broader problem-solving. They have an integrated core curriculum, strong connections to Yale departments across the whole university, and access to a network of some of the best business schools around the world. They are helping their graduates see things in a much more global and broad-minded way. That is extremely important in today’s world. .

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Eden: For the foreseeable future, Fortune 1000 CEOs’ big challenge is the challenge of being big. Companies are getting bigger every year which means they are getting more complex and harder to manage. As companies get bigger they have more people and more brainpower to find and fix problems, more employees to find low-hanging fruit. Ironically, however, as they get bigger most companies do not have the processes to actually use all of the brainpower that they have on their payroll so they actually use proportionally less as they get bigger. The big challenge of CEOs today and in the future is putting in place processes like Idea Harvest™ so that they can actually full use what they all agree is their biggest asset – namely their people.

Long: By the way, growth by merger is the most challenging kind of growth to manage because a company quickly absorbs a lot of people who have a different culture, different nomenclatures, different knowledge of different customers and products. The complexity from a merger is mind-boggling but often ignored. But with all of the complexity comes a tremendous potential if a CEO can figure out how to use it – namely new perspectives and new ways of doing things. CEOs who just impose the buyer’s way on to the seller’s company lose out. CEOs who figure out how to spread the best of either company across the whole entity win.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Low-Hanging Fruit. When and why did you decide to write it?

Eden: We are always being asked how Idea Harvest™ works to create so much earnings growth from low-risk, smart, ideas. Our answers seem to resonate and in some cases to inspire. We also deeply believe that, particularly in this economy, companies that don’t use our approach leave a lot of money on the table. So we decided to write a book to share our thinking in the hope that more companies will join those who have led the way already.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain. Long: Our Idea Harvest™ is a very refined process based on two decades of constant improvements that we make. Our goal was to identify the key behaviors that make Idea Harvest™ work in practice. We knew we’d find many, but I think it was a revelation (maybe even a head-snapping one) that we incorporated seventy seven (well, really, more than that) behaviors into our process. We don’t tell clients, “Here are seventy seven things you need to do.” We say, “Here’s a clear, easy, fun, and powerful process that everyone can use just like they can take an iPhone out of the box and start using it.” Just like the iPhone has many engineering marvels built into it to make it easy to use, so it turns out that we have built many behavioral insights into Idea Harvest™ to make it easy and powerful.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Eden: The book came out as we envisioned it, but that is not by accident. We followed our own advice about value engineering products from the customer’s point of view. We read a lot of business books and we are disappointed in almost all of them – they waste our time with a lot of padding put in to make the book a traditional length, they are not very practical, and they have to be read from front to back in a short enough time that you can remember what the whole thing was about. We realized that today’s busy and distracted readers need short nuggets rich in substance, be able to pick the book up at any chapter and get something from it in just a few minutes, and need something fun and entertaining as well as practical. So we designed the book to be “tapas for the mind” – lots of tasty small plates which can be a little snack or a big meal.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of several passages. First, Ask “Why?” Five Times to See the Real Problem (Chapter 3)

Eden: Most problems initially appear as big, fuzzy, and very complicated to fix. Hidden from us are the causes of those problems that might be small, specific, and very easy to fix. By relentlessly asking “why?” we find lots of easy to solve problems.

Morris: Don’t Be Fooled by Misleading Metrics: Zero in on the Ugly and Rattle the Status Quo by Turning Metrics Upside Down (6)

Long: Businesses use lots of metrics to measure their performance – we have 85% customer satisfaction, 42% market share, 76 on-time performance, or a 13% return on equity among many others. These metrics seem like they are just hard, cold facts. But in fact, they almost always tend to focus on the positive achievement – 85% of our customers are satisfied rather than saying that we have a 15% customer dissatisfaction rate. You may think that it shouldn’t matter – after all the arithmetic is the same. But it turns out emotionally it matters a lot and changes how we focus our attention. So using 15% dissatisfaction forces focus on winning customer that aren’t satisfied rather than using 85% satisfaction which, inadvertently, focuses our attention on the 85% who like us. If you aren’t convinced, read the chapter and you’ll learn that the FDA and meat industry had a big battle over labeling meat 85% fat free vs 15% fat!

Morris: Use Brainstorming in a New Way: To Find Problems, Not Solutions (10)

Eden: It is hard to think of a more poorly designed process for solving problems than brainstorming – too many people in a room each contributing a little and sitting silent a lot, no judgment being used, no ideas are bad ideas (really!), no fact based structure, among other features. We’ve seen thousands of people spend time in hundreds of brainstorming sessions all yielding virtually nothing – so inefficient and ineffective! However, brainstorming sessions are terrific at finding problems – particularly problems too often hidden deep in an organization. With well-structured questions focused on “what frustrates you? your customers?” a 45 minute session with ten or fifteen people can quickly unearth a lot of problems worth solving.

Morris: Stop Ignoring Your Introverts (13)

Long: Research has shown that introverts typically are better problem-solvers than extroverts because they listen more carefully to other people, they persevere longer without reward, and they are more willing to challenge their own beliefs. Unfortunately, extroverts are better in most corporate settings at attracting attention, displaying confidence, and networking – all traits that help them get ahead faster and further than their introvert peers. Companies that want to improve their ability to find and solve problems need to stop ignoring their introverts.

Morris: Use a Checklist — It Works for Pilots and Brain Surgeons, and It Will Work for You! (20)

Eden: Even the most experienced and expert pilots, astronauts, and surgeons use checklists to ensure that they not only remembered what actions to take but also, just as critically, remembered the correct sequence of those actions. Why would highly trained experts need a checklist? Under stress it is easy for us to rush into some choice without carefully considering all of our options and better sequences. In business, where everyone is under stress, checklists can be invaluable to break old, bad, habits.

Morris: Give People What They Need, Not What They Want (22)

Long: Busy people – bosses, customers, vendors – often ask for what they want without really thinking about what they need. As a result, a lot of work gets done that isn’t very useful. So we recommend that before you just say, “yes, sir, how high, sir” you politely and respectfully try to understand what the person really needs. You are likely to discover that they haven’t really thought carefully about it and by being pushed to do so you will be able to be more helpful to them while having to do less work yourself.

Morris: The Five Surprising Words That Keep a Good Executive from Being Great (30)

Eden: “I want everyone on board” are the surprising words that good executives use way too often. Decades ago management gurus and corporate leaders all climbed on the bandwagon that “top down, command and control” management had to be replaced by “bottom up, team based collaboration.” Of course, too much command and control is bad … but we think the pendulum has swung too far and now too much team based decision-making is undermining great leadership. The goal is to strike the right balance between getting all of the facts you need (and yes, that takes very good team collaboration and a culture with the obligation to dissent as we will discuss later) and having the courage to make decisions once you have all of the facts even if you don’t have all of the team on board. Unfortunately, too many leaders are ceding their decision-making to anyone on the team that wants to veto an idea whether they have good facts or not. Morris: Executive Motivators That Demotivate Everyone Else (32)

Long: Here’s the iconic example: the CEO holds a town meeting with employees to announce that the senior team decided at their 3 day Phoenician hotel resort with spouses “off-site” that some tough cuts were going to have to be made to meet this year’s budget. Maybe the senior team was motivated but you know everyone else was demotivated.

Morris: Eliminate Corporate Whac-A-Mole (38)

Eden: Nothing kills innovation faster in a company than the slow, painful, decision-making we like to call Corporate Whac-a-mole. An employee makes a suggestion and, whack, are told to do a lot of analysis. They do the analysis and, whack, they are told to convince some other unit. They convince some other unit and, whack, they’re told the CFO won’t support the investment because he doesn’t believe the first analysis. They win over the CFO and, whack, they’re told the decision has to be deferred until after the strategic plan is done in the fall. Eventually, even the most intrepid employees just give up. When companies want everyone contributing they create easy and fast decision-making processes that will approve any idea that meets the criteria of low-hanging fruit – in other words, ideas that make money, will clearly work, and don’t pose any risk.

Morris: The One Monthly Meeting You Must Hold (46)

Long: If a CEO or division head wants to build a culture of innovation that produces hard dollar benefits every quarter, then they need to get personally engaged. Since they are also incredibly busy people, the most efficient use of their time is to create a highly structured monthly meeting in which teams present ideas which are ready for approval or where there is some corporate roadblock stopping a good idea from being ready for approval. The CEO or division head and their direct reports should meet with the teams to approve ideas or cut through the bureaucracy. These short meetings create essential collaboration, get lots of decisions made, and strongly reinforce the culture of innovation.

Morris: The Devil’s in the Details: Track Every Idea, Every Dollar, Every Month (55)

Eden: When leaders talk about how they will improve accountability, they often say that they need to increase transparency. We agree. We have built into the tracking of an Idea Harvest reports which give the senior team complete transparency into every idea – from those worth millions to those worth a just a few thousand. Because teams know that the senior team is tracking every idea, every dollar, and every monthly deadline the teams do not let themselves get behind on any implementation. Maybe even more importantly, because the teams know they will be tracked at this level of detail, they are much more careful about making realistic commitments that they can actually deliver.

Morris: The Golden Rule: Withdraw and Replace Ideas That Don’t Increase Earnings (56)

Long: Everyone agrees that accountability is essential to meeting goals but in practice it is very hard to create true accountability. There is a lot of talk about it, but surprisingly little action. Our golden rule has proven to be a very simple and powerful way to truly hold a team accountable. For example, during an Idea Harvest™, teams might get approval for 25 ideas which they promise will yield $3.7 million. As the team executes the ideas they find that 24 of them work very well, but due to some new regulations they can no longer do one idea. They now expect to only deliver $3.6 million. In most companies, that is acceptable behavior – they tried hard but an unforeseen situation arose preventing them for taking an action but they will still deliver 97% of the value they promised. Not bad. Actually, very bad – it sets up a slippery slope that overpromising and underdelivering as long as you have good reasons is acceptable. Using our rule, the team is allowed to withdraw the idea that no longer makes sense but they must replace it with a new idea that will deliver at least as much value. It is true that conditions change to prevent some ideas from being done, but those same changing conditions also open up opportunities for new ideas to be found. Our clients approve ideas worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and they always achieve at least 100% of what was approved – usually more. The golden rule is one reason why!

Morris: It’s Not What You Start, It’s What You Finish (61)

Eden: One salesperson starts working on three deals at once and gets them all closed at the end of the quarter. That’s good. But another salesperson starts on just one deal and gets it closed at the end of the month and the money starts rolling in. Then they start and finish a deal in month two, and then the third one in month three. The second salesperson is making more money because they are finishing faster even though they are starting later!

Morris: Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is Entitled to Their Opinion, but Not Their Own Facts” (64)

Long: We love this quote and when we use it with clients it invariably elicits a lot of nodding heads and “how true” comments. As managers ascend the corporate ladder, their success breeds a well-earned confidence in their opinions and judgments and it also breeds an expectation from their bosses that they have become experts whose opinions can be relied upon. So naturally these opinions play a big role in making decisions. Unfortunately, a lot of times managers have conflicting opinions. So what happens? Some boss is forced into picking the opinion (or opinion-holder) they trust most which can be very political. Or worse, unsure of which opinion to choose, the decision dies from delay. Instead, if the culture requires that differences of opinions be settled by getting the facts then a lot of corporate conflicts just evaporate as opinions converge on a common and correct understanding of the decision.

Morris: The Obligation to Dissent (70)

Eden: Great problem-solving and innovation requires a relentless search for the truth that is easily and often undermined by politics. When a powerful executive exuberantly advocates for some idea it is very hard politically for most of us to challenge that executive … even when we are in possession of facts that would make the executive change their mind. So we sit silent, let bad decisions get made, and then later we say under our breaths, “I knew that idea would fail.” To overcome this strong, normal, human behavior of letting politics trump the truth, businesses need to work hard at creating cultures that create an actual obligation to dissent.

Morris: Here’s a hypothetical question. Of all the pioneers in organizational productivity and profitability, with which would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Long: I would want to ask Henry Ford a few questions! Did he really say “you can have the car any color you want as long as it is black?” He was clearly not going after the (then nonexistent) female market.

Eden: I do have a question for W. Edwards Deming: “Why did an American have such much success in a foreign land and so little at home? What would our companies look like now if they’d embraced you decades ago?” We have a hypothesis that the answer has to do with the fact that it is hard to be a prophet in one’s own land and that this same behavior makes it hard for companies to use the good ideas of their own employees.

Morris: If you were asked to speak at an [begin italics] elementary school graduation ceremony [end italics] and explain why innovative thinking is important to personal growth as well as one’s career (no matter what it turns out to be), that would be your key points?

Long: I would want to impress on the kids that innovative thinking is FUN and it comes from working on something they are so passionate about that they are also relentlessly curious about it.

Morris: Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Eden: We are not big believers in, as our 41st President said, “the vision thing” but we do know that awesome execution makes a lot of money and creates new opportunities for innovation. We agree with Edison as far as he goes, but we go further. We haven’t seen any company truly make money because of their vision or really even because of a strategy or a mission statement. Lou Gerstner is one of the greatest CEOs ever – having done a remarkable job with three wildly different companies in three completely different industries – American Express, RJR Nabisco, and IBM. You would think he must have been a master of strategy – particularly the way he saved IBM. But Gerstner wrote a wonderful article that essentially debunked the value of strategic planning. On the other hand, he has extolled the importance of culture – the basic behaviors essential to excellent execution ingrained into a company’s employees. We share his view. Almost always there is some basic idea and then a lot of great execution of that idea that just leads to more tactical ideas.

Long: As they say…an idea without action is just a wish! And an unfulfilled wish is a consistent frustration! Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Low-Hanging Fruit and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin? Eden: Idea Harvest™. No, really, that’s the best place to begin.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Low-Hanging Fruit, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Long: While the material about problem-solving is useful, we would say that small businesses should focus particular attention on finding ways to value engineer their products or services and ways to improve their customers’ journeys. Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t –and what is your response to it? Eden: We really enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss so many different issues raised by your questions and I don’t think there are any additional ones we would ask!

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Jeremy and Terri cordially invite you to check out the resources at their website. Here’s a link.

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