Episode 42: How To Make Good Business Decisions With Limited Information

Description:

The tax code recently changed forcing everyone to make tax-planning decisions with limited information. An agile approach to navigating the unknown reduces risk. Leo Tilman joins Tom to discuss the best ways to build agility in tax preparation, investing and business.

SHOW NOTES: 02:35 – What Is Agility? 04:24 – How Do Create Agility Throughout A Business? 09:51 – How Do You Decide What’s Relevant? 11:59 – How Do You Determine If Your Advisors Share Your Relevance? 14:37 – Know Yourself In Order To Navigate The Unknown. 17:57 – How Do You Determine Opportunity With Limited Information? 25:15 – What Are 3 Steps To Take To Determine You Are Agile?
Transcript

Announcer:
This is the WealthAbility® Show with Tom Wheelwright. Way more money, way less taxes.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
Welcome to the WealthAbility® show where we’re always discovering how to make way more money and pay way less taxes. Hi, this is Tom Wheelwright your host, founder and CEO of WealthAbility®. Making decisions with limited information can be very risky and very frightening. So, today we’re going to discover how to navigate the unknown. This is such an important topic to me because, for example, we recently had a major change in the tax law, and there was lots of unknown, and there’s still lots of unknown because we don’t have any court cases, anything like that. What we’re going to discuss today, and we have an expert on this on the line, which I’m so excited to have him. We’re going to discuss, how do you deal with that when you don’t really know what the answers are, you have limited amount of information. The reality is we always have limited amounts of information. How do we make those decisions? How do we be agile and keep moving, when I think the logical tendency would be to just stop and not do anything.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
Today we have Leo Tilman. He just came out with a new book Agility. Leo, if you would just give us, it’s so great to have you on the show. Would you give us a little bit about your background and why you’re talking about agility?

 

Leo Tilman:
Well Tom, first of all, it’s great to be here. I’ve heard great things about the show so I’m excited to speak to you and to your listeners. I spent most of my career in business and finance, growing up at BlackRock when it was still a very small firm. Then becoming the Chief Strategist of Bear Stearns, the advisor to the Stearns clients globally, and then running my own firm. So, I have seen these issues in a variety of settings from very large businesses, very small entrepreneurial businesses as an executive, as a consultant. Your raising all the important sets of questions and I think we’re going to have a very interesting conversation.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
So let, let’s start out. Let’s get everybody on the same page. When you talk about agility, what are you even talking about?

 

Leo Tilman:
Sure. Everybody talks about the need to adapt to change. The change is all around us. It’s accelerating. It’s actually even more profound than we see on a day to day basis. Everybody talks about artificial intelligence and robotics, but in fact, every single area of knowledge, every single area of technology is going through a profound transformation. Same applies to geopolitics. The same applies to our societies. We really are in an unprecedented environment of change where we need to A, conceptualize what’s going on, and B, decide what we’re going to do about it. Decision-making under uncertainty, trying to really, deeply study the environment is all about it. Of course, agility is a term, first of all, has never been formally defined, and also is very frequently confused with other things like speed or adaptability. What we needed to do, is to really formally define what we mean by agility. What we mean is, the ability of individuals and organizations to detect, assess, and respond to change in ways that are purposeful, decisive and grounded in the will to win.

Tom Wheelwright:
Okay. Well, it’s nice to have that definition. Thank you for that. We know that some people seem to be naturally able to adapt, and to make decisions without as much information as other people. How do you actually set this up in an organization so that it’s basically part of your organization? I mean, the leader may be able to do this, and the leader has to be able to do this, but how do you actually drop this down through an organization?

 

Leo Tilman:
I think, first of all, we need to really question the assumption that it’s some disability to make decisions under uncertainty, or to be agile broadly is some sort of inborn quality that some people have and some don’t. Some organizations have and some don’t. It’s actually, with the influence of my coauthor, a general Chuck Jacoby, who was the commander of NORAD in Northern command, that I came to appreciate the notion that it is not an inborn quality. It’s something that can be taught and learned, and really cultivated in any leader, any businessperson, in any organization. That is why having a definition of what it means to be agile, but with respect to both making decisions and processing information, but also acting, as well as putting plans in action is so, so important. It is a creed, and one of the deepest beliefs of US Army that you can cultivate these types of leaders and train them to make these decisions.

 

Leo Tilman:
It involves in number of important steps and important competencies. First of all, in the word of Clausewitz, who is one of the greatest military theorist of all time, we’re all surrounded by fog, fog and friction. Fog is this lack of knowledge. We don’t quite see and don’t fully understand what’s going on around us. And secondly, you have this constant uncertainty, where things go against you, and adversaries work in unforeseen ways and new laws come around that are not fully tested and so on. The ability to penetrate this fog, meaning carefully study our environment, our business, our risks that we are exposed to, and then really, deeply thinking about what they mean is all about a very concerted effort to understand the environment in which we operate our own business, our marketplace, our competitors. Then. Intensely analyze and debate what it means before we start acting.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
How do you do that in an organization? I mean, most of our listeners are smaller organizations and even in small organizations, I think that’s a very difficult thing to do. How do you go about actually making that part of who you are?

 

Leo Tilman:
When we talk about understanding the environment, this applies to any entity. It applies to us individually. It applies to our team, our organization, very larger organizations, right? First of all, it’s important for organizations to decide what is relevant for them in the environment, right? Part of the conversation always is for leaders to articulate to the rest of the organization what information is relevant, what are we looking for in our environment? So for instance, in the book, we depict our conversation with General Michael Hayden, who was the Director of CIA, about the interaction between senior government leaders in the intelligence community. For the intelligence community to go into the world and understand what the environment is, and what the adversaries are doing, they need to be primed by senior government officials about what is relevant for decision makers, what information are they looking for, in terms of understanding the environment, what types of decisions they wanted to make.

 

Leo Tilman:
That essentially, primes the intelligence community. In addition to saying to people what to look for, there’s also a separate conversation about encouraging them to look for the unexpected. If you do these two things, first of all, you explain to the organization what information is relevant to us in terms of understanding our environment, our competitors, our marketplace, our customers. Then you also encourage them to look for the unexpected, because if you see something that doesn’t make sense in the environment, in how customers are behaving or what types of products they’re consuming or something that adversaries are doing that may or may not make sense, these are important market signals. They may not mean anything, but they can be also incredibly profound. The information gathering and processing is a very first step in making well-reasoned decisions on the path to agility.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
That’s actually really interesting, Leo, because one of the things we’ve talked about on this show before, is that we really have to understand who we are as an organization in the first place, and that’s what I’m hearing from you. Tell me if I’m getting this right. We really have to know, we have to know what’s relevant. As leaders, we have to know what’s relevant. Even if you take this to an investor, what’s relevant for the investor in their environment? Let’s say they’re investing in multifamily homes. Okay. Simple situation. We have a lot of multifamily home investors in our, among our listeners, and within that environment, then it sounds like we have to decide what information is relevant to us and what, because until we know that we can’t possibly share that with the rest of our team members. Does that make sense?

 

Leo Tilman:
Tommy, you’re zeroing in on one of the most important questions, and it’s been fascinating to first of all, observe it in action, and then described in this book. A broader version of the question that you’re asking is this. What business are we in as an organization? It seems an absolutely trivial question that everybody says, “Well of course we know.” But the moment you start asking it from different perspectives, in terms of what business that we in, in terms of products, in terms of services, in terms of what risks we take in the process, how we treat our stakeholders, it becomes an incredibly complex question, and there is a great deal of ambiguity within almost any organization about this question. The more rigorous and explicit we are in answering this question, really what business are we in? Are we in the business of innovating? Are we in the business of scaling?

 

Leo Tilman:
Are we in the business of taking business as usual risks or not? All of this conditions, the organization of thinking about what in the environment is relevant to them, but also creates cohesion and understanding and unity of efforts internally, about what we are trying to achieve. It’s a great deal when you transition agility from individual level to an organizational level. This common understanding of the business we’re in, what we are trying to achieve, how we do business, broadly speaking in terms of longterm value creation, business decisions, treating people both internally and externally, are all very important components of creating a cohesive agile organization.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
You’re talking about this and talking about what business we’re in. It seems to me like when we’re looking at outside advisors or vendors, people that we’re going to rely on, that maybe we need to ask what business they’re in, because maybe the business they’re in is not the business that we’re looking for.

 

Leo Tilman:
It’s absolutely true. This question is universal. What business that we in, in terms of our own business, in terms of what services we provide to others? The wealth management industry that I’ve known for a very long time, and I’ve spoken to a number of large events, and also individual large players is a great example. There, when I, when I gave some of those speeches, I focused on the change in the business that this industry is in over the years, because many years ago it was all about managing someone’s asset portfolio. You give me a bunch of stocks and bonds. I’m going to generate as good of returns as possible, provide you some reporting and that’s it. Then it became asset liability management, when you start thinking broadly about how someone’s investment portfolio fits into their balance sheet, their personal balance sheet.

 

Leo Tilman:
Then it became even broader in terms of lifestyle advisory and longterm planning, et cetera. The wealth management industry is a great example of how the business in which personal wealth advisors are in, changed dramatically over over time, and expanded dramatically over time, and those who didn’t essentially lost market shares and lost relevance. The same applies to pretty much any service provider.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
Yeah, we’re seeing that in our industry, in the CPA industry, where you have actually a large portion of the industry, which really the business they’re in is filling out tax forms. That’s a business that’s going to go away. As you know, with AI and blockchain, I think we’re going to lose a lot of that manual labor that we’ve been relying on people for. Now we’re going to have computers do it, which I think is actually a good thing for the profession. But what it means is, is that when we’re interviewing advisors, we talk a lot about team members, and whether it’s your financial advisor or your legal advisor, your tax advisor, your business advisor, when you’re interviewing advisors, understanding I think, what business you’re in, but then understand what business they’re in is going to be important.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
Because, you need to look at, okay, here’s what I need in order to be able to be agile in my business, I need people in these different disciplines that are also doing … first of all, they know what business they’re in and second of all, because they know what business are and then they can be agile with respect to what I need from them.

 

Leo Tilman:
Absolutely. I had a fascinating conversation with one of the senior executives of a very large and well-known audit and accounting firm. We talked about agility and he said, “Look, we have teams of six to eight people going into client offices, and they have checklists and they have lists of documents that they need to review and there’s a very predefined set of things that they need to do. How agile can they be?” Well, from that perspective they most certainly won’t be. If that’s the mindset, then they will like robots come in, do the checklist, review the documents, and then eventually be displaced by artificial intelligence. But from a different perspective, think about it. They are on the front lines, talking to the client, seeing the information that nobody else sees. They’re in a position to detect very important trends both for their firm but also for their clients.

 

Leo Tilman:
If they are in the mindset that they are actually on the front edge of risk intelligence, and they’re there detecting the most important things that are happening with their clients, that’s huge value added to to say to a client, “Have you noticed this? This could be important.” And the same with their own firm. They could see trends that the clients are going through. They can see what clients are reacting positively and negatively to. It really depends on the mindset, which is one of the keywords in the book, which is the mindset after you make a choice, to make your organization more agile in your acquired knowledge and capabilities and you train people. It really boils down to the culture and the mindset, and if the mindset that we will actively look for opportunities and discover threats, and it’s everybody’s job to do that within our organization. It transforms. It transforms how we operate and how we deal with each other.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
No, I can see that. I was speaking to an AI expert not too long ago, and he was basically saying the same thing you are about, what AI is going to do for our profession, CPA profession, is we’re going to have tools, so we’re going to have the tools when we do go in there on the front line. We are looking at tax returns or we’re looking at a financial statements, whatever. We’re going to have tools now with that artificial intelligence that will allow us to analyze like we’ve never been able to analyze before. To me, I see this as a huge opportunity. It’s certainly a threat. At the same time, I think most threats are really opportunities.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
I love your idea that it’s the mindset that we get into, what is our opportunity here and whether it’s investors or whether you own a retail business or an online business, it seems to me that looking for those threats and opportunities, and really both recognizing that they’re threats, but also recognizing that there’s opportunity within those threats, can really be a way to transform our business, even on a daily basis.

 

Leo Tilman:
One of the things that we talk about agility beyond skillsets and leadership practices and cultures, is this mindset of treating adversity as opportunity, and the mindset of treating change as opportunity. Because you can be rest assured that when we talk about the role of artificial intelligence in the future of professional services, to some, it’s going to be an existential threat. They will not be able to adapt. They will cling to the status quo. They will continue checking the boxes, and they will get extinct as organizations or professionals. But for others it’s an opportunity to outsource all the commoditized things to technology and artificial intelligence, and focus on really value added thing. Right? Because we don’t need to do certain things that are incredibly time-consuming. We can really think creatively about what our clients need and want and add value. Those are the folks who will take this threat, turn this into opportunity, and create enormous value for themselves and for their clients.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
Yeah, it makes me think of, because I run a small CPA firm along with our WealthAbility® network, and it makes me think about what, how much we could do for clients if we didn’t have to do tax returns. I mean, it would be a, free up, an enormous amount of brain power and creativity and especially, with tools to do that. I see it as a huge opportunity. I also see it as a huge threat to people who have advisors who are stuck and don’t have that mindset.

 

Leo Tilman:
Absolutely. But what an exciting conversation to have with your clients, and with your own team about what business are we currently in, and with all this new technology and advancement, what business do we want to be in? Right now, we’re in the business of 80% processing things and compiling data and checking boxes, but eventually it’s going to be 20% so what are we going to do with this 80%? What kind of new ideas and services are we going to introduce? How we going to spend our time. It’s an incredibly energizing conversation to have with people who again, treat change as opportunity.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
Well, and that’s where I think what, going back to one of the things you said early on, is that developing that culture of seeing those threats as opportunity, and actually having that be part of your entire team mentality can be critical to, it seems to me success or oblivion.

 

Leo Tilman:
in this culture, what we have done, obviously millions books have been written on leadership and culture from every imaginable perspective. We took a lot of these familiar issues, and we asked a very specific question, how are they relevant to agility? How are they relevant to making decisions when the information is incomplete or missing altogether? Of course, certain cultural elements like accountability and empowerment mattered a great deal. But there are others. One of them is engagement. So how do you create a culture of engagement where people are excited to come to work, when they feel excited that they are growing both as professionals and as individuals, when they are fulfilling themselves on many different levels? Part of it of course, is the loyalty to the firm, and great client service that comes out of it, but there is much more to it.

 

Leo Tilman:
We brought in some latest research in behavioral finance and psychology to say that when people feel this way, they exhibit what is typically called, special kind of engagement or exploratory thinking. They start thinking more analytically. They start being more creative. They are capable of taking greater risks but smart risks. All of a sudden folks are operating on a different level, almost irrespective of what business you in as a company. Creating that kind of internal atmosphere within your firm, is first of all, incredibly energizing internally. But clients will feel that too. They will feel extremely engaged, creative folks servicing them and offering new solutions. That’s very powerful.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
Oh, I think so. I actually think that’s where having millennials on your team can actually be specifically helpful. I’m a baby boomer, and a lot of my co-baby boomers, and I love the okay boomer that’s going around because baby boomers, it was always about money, right? It was about accomplishment and money and so forth. With millennials, they force this issue of we want to do something that makes us feel more fulfilled as individuals and as professionals. To me, that’s a tremendous opportunity. Frankly, my teams are almost entirely millennials, and part of the reason for that is that I love that energy of I want to be engaged, and they really do.

 

Leo Tilman:
I would question to which extent this phenomenon is generational or not. In the book, we go back in time to talk about Napoleonic Wars and how engaged Napoleon’s generals and soldiers were in the process of being empowered and being unified around a common purpose. Same applies to 1940s when the United States was turned into the arsenal of democracy. Then D-day is an ultimate example of empowerment and agility and commitment to a common goal. So I don’t think it’s generational. Of course, you need to understand the cross- cultural differences, and generational differences, and what different folks are naturally drawn to. But I think it’s a universal drive, a universal human drive to belong and contribute and be accountable. We see this across cultures, across generations. I think all of this millennial energy should be harvested the right way, and harnessed, and deployed, but we’re dealing with a eternal, innate human factors here.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
That makes sense. That makes sense. We’re going to wrap up here. If you could, would you just give us two or three specific things that you think our listeners could do to take action, so that they do know that they are capable of being agile, and capable of making decisions when it’s a really uncomfortable environment.

 

Leo Tilman:
Sure. A lot of this does not emerge overnight, and a lot of this comes from a deeper understanding of how we operate as an organization, what do we know, what don’t we know, et cetera. As a first couple of steps, I suggest taking a few Friday afternoons, and gathering your organization, and having a broad-based conversation on the following topics because I think you will discover a great deal about your own organization, but also your view on how you operate in in these types of complex environments of accelerating change. The question number one, which is one of the most important ones, is what business are we in as an organization? I think you will be fascinated, if you create a setting where people are not afraid to voice dissent, and their own opinions and views that could be different from what has been discussed internally.

 

Leo Tilman:
I think you’ll be fascinated with a richness of the discussion about what it is that we do as an organization and how we do it and what does it mean about the business we’re in? The second question is, do we really understand the environment in which we operate? What do we think we see, and what are some of the important parts of the environment that we don’t see or don’t study on a regular basis? Are there certain of technology that could really threaten us or our clients that we’re not paying attention to? Are there certain societal changes that we’re not fully aware of? To which extend, we as an organization understand the environment deeply enough, so that we can really see changes in that environment, and detect threats and opportunities. The third question is, are we decisive? Are we decisive as an organization? Are we decisive on the senior level, when big picture things come around deep changes in environments, big changes in client behaviors or competitors?

 

Leo Tilman:
Are we capable of detecting that, and really repositioning our entire firm to that new reality? At the same time, how about our folks on the front lines? Are they decisive? When they see something that is an opportunity or a threat, when they see something they don’t quite understand, are they decisive in reacting, in informing others, et cetera? On their own level. Again, I think you will be surprised with a very honest conversation about what we do well, and what don’t we do well and how we can improve. These types of questions in a very informative, free-flowing pursuit of truth group setting, I think you will find really useful on this path to agility.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
I think that’s terrific. I really appreciate that Leo. Sometimes you have a topic like agility, and you don’t come up with practical ways to deal with it. I think you’ve come up with three really good questions about what business we’re in. What do we understand the environment to be, and are we decisive? I know, I’m going to take that. I’m going to use that with my own organization. We’re going to take advantage of that. Before we conclude, Leo, what’s the best way for us to learn more about what you’re doing?

 

Leo Tilman:
Sure. We have is a website called theagilitybook.com. It’s one word or you can just type agility, how to navigate the unknown and seize opportunity in the world of disruption. We have quite a interesting social media campaign going on that tries to take specific topics about agility or the environment, and really explain them or have interviews about. I think we are trying to make this ultimately practical for managers of teams, leaders of organizations, large and small. Theagilitybook.com or Agility in Amazon. I truly hope that this will be practically useful to your organization.

 

Tom Wheelwright:
No, thank you so much, Leo. Leo Tilman, great to have you on the show. What a terrific conversation. Thank you so much, Leo.

 

Announcer:
You’ve been listening to the WealthAbility® show with Tom Wheelwright. Way more money, way less taxes to learn more, go to WealthAbility.com

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I have a new course that anyone who's remotely interested in reducing their taxes should watch.

Pay Less Taxes: How To Legally Reduce Your Taxes By Up To 40%

It’s available now on WealthFit – an amazing financial & entrepreneurial learning site. Inside the course, I’ll show you …

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This video is priceless, but don't worry kids and parents! Taxes can be fun and they can make you rich!
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Really enjoyed being on the Wealth Formula podcast. Check it out here: https://www.wealthformula.com/podcast/168-multidimensional-investing-with-tom-wheelwright/
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Tom Wheelwright, CPA shared a post.6 months ago
Thanks Kim Butler! Great group of professionals!
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https://www.accountingtoday.com/news/tax-season-2019-lessons-learned
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