Transcript – Heuristic Podcast w/ Carol McLaurin

Below is the transcript for Heuristic Podcast #15 – Sometimes there’s one right way. Probably not this time.

Alicia Parr (AP): Hi this is Alicia with Performentor and this is another Heuristic Podcast and today we’re talking to Carol McLaurin. She’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships at the SBTDC in North Carolina, and she’s also an executive and personal coach. Anything you’d like to add to that Carol? Maybe share a little bit about what the SBTDC is?

Carol McLaurin (CM): I will because I think it’s relevant to this heuristic and many of the others that you have. And your really wonderful book. SBTDC stands for Business and Technology Development Center. That’s a mouthful, but it is a statewide organization that provides no-cost business advising to small and midsize businesses. We help people at any business stage, whether they’re growing or their succession planning or they’re new to exporting or government contracting. We work in any area from finance to operations to start up. 

We’ve been around 35 years and we are federally funded. That also feeds into some of the examples too because we work with a lot of– it’s a funny mix– we work heavily with bureaucracy, and we work heavily with entrepreneurs and small business owners. You couldn’t get two different frames for this particular heuristics. So that’s really the lens I’m coming from. I’ve been there for over 20 years so I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of clients and we see thousands of clients each year. I’m kind of drawing from that bank of what I see thematically across small and midsize businesses. 

AP: What a contrast your world is! (laughter) That’s so neat.

Well, the heuristic that we picked– and we don’t have to stick with this one– we can wander around if we want. It’s sometimes there’s one right way. Probably not this time.  

I created this to remind myself and others that very often, a best practice might not be exactly what we want here. So this is the iteration of another one I’ve said before, best practices aren’t always best, because every situation’s a little different. Certain principles are in place. Yes. But there’s a lot of stuff when it comes to people, it gets very complex and you really have to adjust to the situation. And it’s a nice reminder because our poor human brains want to make things simpler. So what was your first thought when you read this heuristic? 

CM:   It was funny I was surprised that I was surprised by it because I thought well, of course, there is no one right way. Part of that is my own personal style. I’m much more of an out-of-the-box kind of person and had to train myself how to follow rules and be compliant around some things. 

Really so much of what we see in the work that we do are people just figuring things out. they own their own business they own their own business for a reason, they often don’t want to work for someone else. And so they’re always kind of making things up as they go along. A lot of business owners are. 

And the other thing though is that they also can get also get into a bubble, where there’s sort of that day-to-day pressure and running very quickly and so they don’t always have time to stop and think differently about things, so I don’t know that they’re looking for the one best way, all of the time, but they might be looking for the like an expedient way. They’re not taking that time to kind of learn and see what others might be doing that because you have to stop and pause to do that. We can drill down into that a little bit more because I do think some of that reflecting and learning is a big piece of this.

So my first reaction was really surprised because but that’s partly from the environment, I’ve been in virtually here,

AP: It’s so obvious why is it not obvious to everyone? 

CM: Yeah, well, and then I got thinking about like who would that apply to, and I had to spend more time with that. I’ve come up with some ways in where I see that in our own organization. I see our clients doing that but it just was funny that me personally, and again, some of it is my own style, that I just didn’t think, surely no one thinks there’s only like one good way to do things! But I can see that, that there are, and I do think some of it is personal style too. We can talk about that too. Some people are more conservers and compliance and I don’t know if you know anything about the change style indicators, but people have preferences, and depending on what role you have in the organization I think that all feed into it. 

I’m getting a little ahead of our conversation but those are some of the things that occurred to me when I first read that.  I’m curious. How did you come up with that? Why and how has that developed to be one of your words of wisdom that you have to drop on your clients. 

AP: Well, I think about a couple of things, one being in human resources. I run an HR firm. I’m an entrepreneur and I used to do HR I guess you could say I run a business now. And there’s been a lot of compliance focus, constraints focus, is really a mindset that HR really traditionally has emphasized.

So, I do hear a lot– a LOT– of people saying they will help you put in the best practices. Some clients will say, I worked with this other firm and they gave me this cookie-cutter thing and it doesn’t feel like it fits. I realized that needed to be said.

The other way it shows up, which is consistent with what you said, is very often I’m selling either to a business owner and/or a CFO. If it’s a CFO, they might be a little more inclined to use phrases like best practices and get some like standard things into place, which of course really yes absolutely they can do that. What I emphasize more with the entrepreneurs is that we know there’s not one right way but we’re going to make sure it works for you. We’re going to co-author with you. And that usually resonates with the entrepreneur. Why would somebody start their own business if they’re a rule follower?

CM: Well 100%. I mean, that’s where my reaction came from but you’re so right in that. I think for the work that you do where you’re customizing what you provide to people, and it’s so important to be able to do that when I think of the work that is done in our organization. We have such a weird structure. And in your book you mentioned that best practices can be a great starting point, because it is helpful to see what are other people doing. How have they faced a challenge? Sometimes looking at how they worked through the challenge is just as valuable as the solution they came up with.  You don’t have to take the whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel that they created.  What were they confronting and how did they come up with the solution? There’s probably just as much to be learned there than there is what their final output was in terms of their best practice if that makes sense. And so I really appreciated that.

That part of what you wrote, I’m a big triangulator personally, I like to look at a couple of different things and notice what’s cross-cutting here, and what really applies to us. I can’t think of a single time really in our organization where we adopted a best practice from someone. We learned from it. But then we had to apply it to our unique situation. But boy, it’s wonderful to gather examples. I love gathering those examples. I’m kind of like a boundary Spanner and like to go collect that stuff. It’s very easy for me to sort of see the synthesize through it and see the pieces that fit or work. I think that’s a fun part of the project.

AP: Do you think that’s partly due to your role? I mean your role is to draw from different things and to connect the dots and come up with a path. That’s my interpretation, anyway. 

CM:  I would say it is. I’d say it’s my role, and it’s also my personality. And back to what you were talking about, about your sort of roots in HR, the places where I see folks kind of maybe clinging to are looking for the one best way is usually more in those compliance heavy functions. Maybe it could be an industry that they’re in or it could be their function within the business. It might be the HR people or legal, and sometimes even operations.  

Within those functions, sometimes those are the most creative people. You think of people in engineering. Well they want a system and a process, but boy they really want to come up with something new. I think when, when the stakes are high in terms of repercussions. Legally or compliance wise, that’s a little bit different than maybe taking a sales hit, or something like that. I feel like if you’re in marketing or some other place where you are supposed to be pushing boundaries a little bit, there is more permission to fail.

And it’s just even encouraged. You need to innovate come up with something new and will work from there. I think when you’re in that kind of keep us out of jail kind of role that it attracts a different kind of thinker and performer. The work is different. I do think that looking to see how other people do things, that just takes on a whole different lens and importance. And I am definitely not that is not me I’m not that person. I’d be a terrible HR person, so I just appreciate the people that have those skills and that mindset. 

The other places that it kind of comes to mind for me to are things that might, we have a lot of clients and businesses that are in like the technical or say, behavioral health, or a clinical setting. They come very much from a mindset of an evidence-based approach. So everything has to be evidence-based. That whole mindset just flows through the business. I think that lends itself more to what is the one best way to do this? What is the one approved or sanctioned way? 

The other kinds of settings where I think that this might apply…we work with some other state agencies. They’re kind of legacy agencies– like the Department of Revenue for example– we did a project with them. The people there need deep, deep technical knowledge. I mean, some of the some of them have been in their jobs for 20 years and they need that. The tax code is just so elaborate and there are so many exceptions and things like that. There are activities that require that mindset.

But the kind of sciences or behavioral health where there’s that evidence-based approach and even somebody who comes out of academia. Maybe it might be social science or something like that. I think, didn’t Amy have a history degree or something? 

AP: Amy has a Ph.D. in genetics.

CM: So Ph.D. in genetics! I don’t know where I got history. But for someone who has more academic training, you always have to go back to all of the work that was done previously. And if you’re not going to cite a person, you have to make all this justification about why you’re trying a new theory or hypothesis. I see that in some of the types of clients we have, because we have everything from manufacturing and construction to professional Technical Services, etc.  So I think those are some of the things that influenced that kind of thinking. 

And then you have folks that are just scrappier. They think of a product they wanted to make and they just started making it and they learned all the other stuff as they went along. They’re just again kind of improvising a lot and, and again, depending on who they are, they only have to answer to themselves. Outside of compliance and stuff, the owner of a smaller or mi- sized business are their own boss. So, I’ll stop for a second there and see if there’s anything you want to peel off there.

AP: The behavior science angle is pretty interesting to me because, Performentor does bring in folks that have that background. Because a lot of the principles that you learn in behavior science working with an at-need population, well, they work with all humans. So it is interesting and what I’ve often heard, best practice this best practice that. I talk about this idea of like people science and, and the science can give us– like I said in the book– can give us a starting point. It can give us a hypothesis, to start with, but it doesn’t tell us exactly what to do.  

That’s usually one of the things that folks that come from that little bit more academic behavior science, organizational development, from an academic standpoint, background that come in. I’m like, well I appreciate that you have an idealized notion of how things ought to be, but this is the real world and this is small business, and it’s going to be messy and we’re going to figure out what we can do in what order.  And not get wound up if we aren’t in an ideal scenario. But the kind of thinking and the knowledge that you have should inform it. Right? So it’s not like we’re saying throw away all best practice, I’m saying that when you identify it, don’t stop there.

CM: You are spot on because I think small businesses, especially when you have multiple clients, each one is different. So it’s not like a behavioral scientist…so you get to use your own heuristic in your own organization because some of the kinds of people on the team. They are going to confront, like you said, messy, disorganized, chaotic, kind of understaffed.  Just idiosyncratic small businesses that don’t get to structure themselves with a lot of resources like maybe a larger company does where you took a little more rational approach and say wow we need five more people in accounting and we need more people here. There’s just a lot of glue and paper clips and can people kind of putting…

AP: Bootstrapped!

CM: Yeah. And so encode is a perfect, perfect example so it really is only a starting point. And I think the starting point and the processes that you learn are great, but then it’s apply, apply, apply, apply and iterate. I think that’s what’s so exciting about some of the academic programs that are much more sort of field-based or application based. I just think it yields a much more useful human being that then goes off into the world. But, yeah, so, yeah, interesting.

AP:  I almost ended up pursuing PhDs a number of times and the world thankfully intervened. I think I am happier with the practitioner route because it’s just more like an engineer. An engineer has to build something that works. Yes, we’re going to use the science. We are going to use math and use their knowledge of how the world works. But in the end, if the thing that worked in their head doesn’t work in reality, it didn’t WORK.

Very often when that’s in the world of things, so what can happen is in the world of people,as you see this happen a lot of policy level. You set a policy and then, based on a belief on how things are going to work, and then you fail to consider all the unintended consequences that might emerge. Because human beings are human and we’re all a little different and we’re going to react in different ways.  And not in the way that you want them to. Very often when people say “well this is the policy and here’s how things ought to go” and then things don’t go the way that they imagined them. It wasn’t that their design was bad– is that the people didn’t do it right!

CM: 13:30:55 You’re in HR so you’re probably seeing a lot of stuff around COVID compliance and the vaccine mandates and stuff like that.  I was talking with my son’s partner, and they work for a large multinational company. They are requiring everyone to have a vaccine, and they said that’s great. That’s fine. The person is an attorney. But it’s a global company. So what do we do someone has a vaccine from another country and there’s all these exceptions. Like you said, the broad brush policy might make sense to someone and they want to adopt it. Then the application is where it just gets really messy.  That’s probably not a good example, but I just keep thinking of all these quickly made policies that are happening now and then there’s all these implementation that are going, oh my god.

AP: One thing I really love about working with smaller businesses is that nobody gets too far removed from the purpose of the business and the customer– whatever or whomever the customer might be. That shows up, I think.

Yes, absolutely. 

My team and I are working through vaccines and all sorts of COVID questions across our clients. We work with all the industries, just about, at this point. Many are less than 100 employees, so it just depends so much on so many different factors and..

CM: Like how much contact are people going to have? Are more people going to an office every day? Or are people with customers all day? Are they with 2 customers or they were 200 customers?  All that context makes all the difference and how people adopt a best practice. 

You could even be within the restaurant industry and have such a different business from someone else– rom another type of restaurant or something like that. So that’s been fascinating to watch.  The impact on how some businesses really grew, because they just maybe happened to be manufacturing the right thing or could adapt and manufacture something that was really needed, and then others

were completely obliterated or had to change dramatically. 

So it’s been exciting to watch and just have a lot of compassion for the people that are running those businesses. And they care so much about their staff. 

AP: But yeah, a business owner has to make a decision that works for them.

CM: Yeah.

AP: And it’s our role is to inform them on the risk profile and thinking through human nature and how people might react but, in the end, it’s not for us to say what they should or shouldn’t do.

CM: One of the things I was reading in your book is that you’re asking people first. It’s not just what is the best practice but what’s your goal? What are you aiming for? And what’s your timeline? What are you hoping to get out of this? 

We were asking some of our clients, “do you want to stay open?”  Do you want to survive? Do you want to run a business through something like this? And some people said no, this isn’t worth it to me. So you don’t just run out and blindly adopted best practice. You’ve got to ask yourself those hard questions like “what are we really trying to accomplish here?” And it completely changes how you look at a quote unquote best practice. 

One of the things I touched on a little bit earlier was just having the opportunity to reflect, to stop and ask those hard questions.  Usually people are moving very quickly, there’s a lot of pressures a small business owner faces. It’s one thing after another the days can be very long, and they may not have like a team of peers that they can always ask. It might be just sort of them at the top. Maybe they’ve got a couple other people or a small management team, but you can get isolated and not really know who to turn to or who to ask. 

I think of this in a way as sort of strategic planning or even annual planning. How do you carve out time? Do you take the risk of asking questions that then make you question even more deeply,   you can kind of just keep setting goals and moving forward but once you really start to ask harder things. Well, more nuanced things like what are our values.  What is our mission really? What are we doing?  That is a whole different kind of energy and a whole different kind of pace than just like setting a goal and then figuring out what our strategies and tactics that we need to do for that. Looking for best practices is just kind of a shortcut for figuring it out and getting it done, rather than looking more deeply at what is the problem here we’re trying to solve. If that makes sense. Somehow, best practices are going to be a magic bullet, when there are maybe deeper things that need to get addressed in the business.

AP:  The asking of the why and the purpose and the direction, whether it’s emotional and or strategic or hybrid is a lot more of a complex question and than how do I get from A to B in the most expedient way possible. Without introducing undue risk in the short term. Which is a lot of words to say that this sort of long view thinking is harder, is harder, it’s more complex. Most people don’t necessarily like pausing to do it. It can be anxiety producing.

And as you talked about I I realized maybe this heuristic actually points in that direction. Okay, you’ve got your right way you think. You sure? You want to think about it? That’s a good thing.  I’m business owner of a growing, small business so I know exactly how it feels when you’re just running from one thing to the next thing. And getting to the end of the week and I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow. Right?

CM: Right. Yeah, I mean you’re kind of tapped out. I do think people operate differently. Some people really like to go within. They want their own answers. They just want to trust their gut. And there are other people who say, wait a minute, I don’t know, this is new to me so let me go start asking people. Again I think that’s sort of a personal style thing, I don’t know, maybe there’s some gender differences there possibly or age depending on how experienced somebody is in a particular field.

I think we probably know more than we realize we do. I told you I’m a big triangulator, but one of the things I coach myself to do is write down what I think the answer is first. I just write down what possible solutions are first, and and then start the research. It’s surprising. It’s like wow there were nuggets of the right path sort of within me, or even within our own team. 

You’ve written before about asking people that have skin in the game. It’s going to be a lot different than what an external consultant or somebody that doesn’t. They know your business kind of but not as deeply as you do. I think we really do a lot of strategic planning facilitation or management team facilitation. That’s something we’ve done for a long time. 

I do it individually with people when they’re kind of creating an annual life plan for themselves and we asked folks to look at what’s working, what are you already doing well, what do you want more of, and then what’s not w rking. it seems so simple. What the third question to ask is, “what do you want to continue doing?” Again, it seems so incredibly simple. What’s not working, what is working, what is working well, let’s reverse that what’s working and what do you want to continue. 

Another way I’ve learned to do it is what did we accomplish? It could be this past month this past quarter around a particular project. What are the disappointments? Where did it not work? There may not be one lesson for every accomplishment or every disappointment, but they might group together. There might be a theme or something. When you take two or three of those lessons that you think if we lived by these going forward, what difference would that make for us?  Then kind of translate it into a guideline because sometimes lessons can be negatively stated. You just want to rephrase it so that it’s positive and short and memorable. 

I think for a team, it helps a lot because everybody goes through that process together, and then they also have these little mantras. This is our guideline for the year.  We’re going to ask for help or something like that, whatever it ends up ends up being. And they’re created from within so they tend to stick with people a little bit more.  I realize exactly it’s not quite best practices, but it just gets to that point around stopping and reflecting and trusting the wisdom of the team. Then you can go get other data and see where it lands in there too. But we all know more than we realize. Even with complex situations.

AP:  Intuition is very often knowledge that we have that we can’t really articulate. Yeah.

CM:  Yeah, well, yeah. You make those drawings– the artwork that accompanies your book. And there’s…gosh, that’s her name? Amy? Amy Mann (Amy Herman)? There’s a woman.She’s given a TED talk or two. She teaches classes at Harvard and other Ivy League schools on seeing. I think she’s an art historian. I remember reading about her in the New York Times, a long time ago where they actually take their clinical staff– people that are studying to become doctors– to the museums and teach them how to look at art. What are you detecting? What are you noticing? Because when you’re talking to a patient and all you’ve got are your 10 questions, you’re missing something. So how do you take something in. And so how do you take something in. I’m not doing it justice, but to me, I just think there are unnamed things in our landscape and within ourselves that we doesn’t always fit when well into the business language. When you start to tease it out, it’s like wow like there’s there’s a thread here that   I can apply or pursue. 

AP: It’s relevant after all. That is so interesting. There’s medical diagnostics, and diagnosis is one thing. I can imagine, I don’t know how it’s taught normally, but I imagine that sort of like here’s your checklist. And you’ve got your measuring devices, probing and prodding the human. They’re reporting things. You ask them questions and they report things. And that’s the body of your diagnostic criteria. Well, guess what, you have access to all this other information if you learn how to regard something through an artist’s eye. And that’s fascinating. That sounds like a really great idea. 

CM: Yeah, I’ll send you the link to her work later because I do think it’s interesting and you may, you may have experienced this too as someone who consults with businesses. We can hold zoom calls and we do a lot of our counseling business advising in our organization via zoom now. And our staff by and large love it. But they said nothing compares to a site visit until you go to someone’s facility, and you see little things like how well things are maintained and do they have safety posters up. There’s just so much data that comes from being able to see a whole situation rather than just reading about a best practice. It’s very different to say hey can I come to your organization and see what your shop floor looks like or how your operations are done. Iit’s just a completely different experience. 

I think that’s the other thing about just talking to someone by phone or seeing something that was written up in a trade magazine or Harvard Business Review or something, it really is taking in a much fuller picture that sometimes you can only get by engaging more in a visit. The solutions are right there sometimes. That’s interesting to a lot of our staff who are really wanting to get to see their clients again in person. 

AP: I mean, it’s nice. It’s not just like am I seeing things. It’s like how does it feel.  I’m intuitive but I’m also very analytical. So I had to teach myself early on that, if I got a gut about something to not just dismiss it because I didn’t understand how it worked. I realized that very often, it worked quite well, even if I didn’t understand the mechanics of it. 

I’m sure you put it into practice every day. So, if I’m engaging with a client, even if it’s on video, I’m getting the sense that you might be frustrated with that or, et. It’s just all these different ways that you can explore by paying attention to what is happening inside of us. If we’re really in that present and listening place. That’s going to help us get a good read. Or at least propose a question that could maybe help the other party good a good read on what’s going on with them.

CM: I mean there’s so many interesting passages. Think of somebody who does negotiation. People that all these attorneys that have done mediation through all of this, they’re like, I can’t look around the room and see somebody fidgeting or,  , rolling their eyes or something like this it’s very challenging to do the work that requires that more nuanced human interaction. But anyways, fascinating.

AP: Maybe we orient towards wrapping up here. So we have no one right way, probably not this time, we talked a little bit about diagnose before you describe, although I didn’t really say it exactly until until now. I think there was another one that you brought up with skin in the game, talk to people with skin in the game. They’ll tell you.

CM: Yeah, and we talked about that kind of triangulating like going to talk to other experts or people that maybe have something similar and I think that trusted peer or trusted advisor is so key. So, it’s interesting. There’s the difference between someone who’s got skin in the game, or someone that, just like a trusted advisor, may not have skin in the game, but they’re also objective in a way. So there’s kind of a balancing act. You don’t have people that have skin in the game sometimes don’t want to pick a hard choice either, so it can be helpful to get someone outside, maybe that runs a similar businesses you do, or they have a similar size business in a different industry or something like that and I think, even our counseling staff or advising staff, they usually have long fairly long term relationships with a lot of their clients. People might disengage for months or even a couple years and then they kind of come back, because they know that they’re not going to get told what to do. They might get asked a bunch of questions, have you thought of this or here’s a theme I’m noticing. We have the perspective of seeing hundreds and hundreds of businesses,  , throughout the year any any individual counselor does so i think   having having someone with skin in the game, and also having someone that doesn’t have any skin skin in the game. It seems counterintuitive but you, you kind of need both and to then synthesize it. I think people that are good at taking even seemingly conflicting ideas, or best practices, and then send the synthesizing it is important because you’re not going to hear the same thing from every person. 

AP: From every person you seek information for the synthesis. What you’re observing is key. And drawing from, I can’t remember which chapter, I was talking about getting a view of the house when you can only look through one window. You want to have other people looking into other windows and they’re telling you what they see. 

CM: Oh, that’s a great I always hear that the elephant one but I love house look like oh yeah there’s, there’s a kitchen. And somebody else is, no, there’s a bedroom.

AP: There’s a kitchen. Yeah.

CM: That’s a wonderful example.

AP: Thank you. I didn’t think of the elephant one that’s so funny. I don’t know where I got that from. But it’s true. We can continue because, like I would start telling you, you’re about the 20th person I’ve talked to about these things and so I’m hearing a lot of overlapping reactions between the different conversations which is fun and very cool.

CM: You got me thinking about a couple of really good things just for my own personal. It was really helpful for me to read what you had been thinking and how you talk to your clients and even your own staff. There’s a lot of good wisdom in here so I’m very pleased to be invited to come talk to you. I’m we’re really impressed with what you’re putting together. You’re going to help some people! 

AP: I certainly I certainly want to! This is one of, well I’ve got a bunch of drawings for the next one already. So there’s there’s more to come. and we’ll just kind of see where it goes. I’m doing this because I feel I ought to.

CM: Yeah. Well, as we’re learning, we need ways to think about things, not necessarily answers. We need to have frameworks that allow us to come up with more innovative solutions, and not just an end result. It’s really how we do things rather than what’s the thing to do. That’s really what you’re teaching people here and especially younger,  newer leaders that are not used to having so much responsibility, but also facing this complexity. It’s like, wait a minute, where’s the rule book for this? Or where’s the playbook? The answer? And it’s like no. 

AP: Here’s the process you can follow and here’s something you might tap into. And then you get to decide. 

CM: Welcome!

AP: It’s true You nailed it. Actually that’s it exactly. That’s exactly it. What’s the framework, rather than what’s the answer. 

CM: Yeah. How to think. Yeah. Very good.

AP: All right, well thank you it’s an honor. You’ve shared a lot of really interesting information you probably don’t even realize it just came out so naturally. And we’ll catch up again another time. 

CM: Yeah, I’d love to and if there’s anything I can do for you in the future I am happy to do it and I so enjoyed your sparkles thank you for for bringing a little joy and beauty to my Friday. I love it.

AP: You bet, fellow glitz happening today. All right, thank you. Carol. 

CM: All right, bye Alicia.

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