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When it hits the fan!

I’ve heard a number of people say that they “don’t like X”, only to discover that their only exposure has been some “pop culture” version which doesn’t even come close to representing the genre.

For example, I’ve heard people who “don’t like jazz”, and then learn that they think that artists like Kenny G ( are representative of the “best” of the genre.

<I’ll pause for a moment, to allow any jazz aficionados to stop gagging.>

Probably fairer to say that they are not familiar with the broader range of the genre, and hopefully will take the opportunity to learn more. I generally just respond “you probably haven’t heard much good jazz”, but that often doesn’t go over very well.

I wanted to comment on what to do when things “hit the fan”, and tried to learn a bit about the origin of the term. I didn’t find a definitive source, but that’s not really very surprising for such a colourful idiom. It appears to have been used in print by the 1940’s, and presumably post-dated the invention of the electric fan in the 1880’s (, so it seems reasonable to assume that the phrase originated in the 1930’s.

When I started searching, though, I found the song referenced above. I was not familiar with Obie Trice, and cannot consider myself an expert in rap, though I have heard a lot of rap that I really like, ranging from more “traditional” rap I listened to growing up, through to the way that rap has filtered into many different genres. I actually had a lot of fun looking up “rap” and “history of rap”, and listening to examples from a variety of artists – endless amounts of great music!

Back to the fan, though, and the results of fecal matter striking it.

When I commented on Process Zombies (, I noted the need for triage. That’s a good place to start, but there will always be unexpected issues, and new challenges, and situations requiring quick thinking and decisions. And many of those issues will require process changes. But they key question is around how you deal with things in the heat of the moment.

We should always try to understand the higher-level strategy for how an organization operates, or at least have a strategy for managing what you can actually influence. If we do that, we can more easily decide how much effort we should devote to “one-off” work, and how much we should devote to building new processes or updating existing ones.

Let’s say that the cat video business run by our friends Alice and Bob has been so successful and grown so much that they are looking to expand their business into dog videos and possibly even rabbit videos. While they could work to expand their existing company into these new markets, another option might be to merge with (or buy) one of the small companies which would otherwise become their competitors.

After much discussion, Alice and Bob decide to approach a company with which they had collaborated previously when creating a set of videos on cats and dogs.

But before starting, it’s important to think about how to manage the process, both to protect themselves and to ensure that they stay organized. One option would be to build a one-off process to manage everything. This might (arguably, potentially – possibly something to comment on in future) be the simplest option, and has the advantage of being extremely flexible and adaptable to any changes they might want to make, but wouldn’t really help much if they are ever planning to merge with (or buy) another company at some future date.

On the other hand, developing a fully-featured Mergers and Acquisitions ( process would be a major project in itself, and would certainly change dramatically as they learn more about the process and gain experience in actually implementing it.

What to do?

After a long discussion with the leadership team, and some basic research on the risks and benefits of different approaches, Alice and the team make a decision. One of the main questions was around whether they thought this was a one-time project, or something which they might want to do again at some point.

While there are no immediate plans to acquire other companies (this first attempt would probably be a multi-year project in itself), the team agreed that this could be an important part of their long-term strategy, so they decided to develop a process that was as generic as possible.

Wait, what? Isn’t that a cop-out?

Not really. At this early stage, most of the impact will be to take a bit more time on documentation, and add placeholders for possible future activity. As a trivial example, the team would create an “M&A” folder on their network, with a “general” folder to hold their general research and policies and procedures, and a “project-specific” folder for work directly tied to this current project. They would then use a “template-based” approach to developing any documents, such as contracts.

So, the “parent” contract document would include the “standard” clauses they would want to include in all contracts, while any clauses specific to a given project could be managed separately and then merged into the parent.

If this seems simple, it’s because it really is. Just by thinking of things a little more generically, and putting in a little bit of extra work, the team would be able to both manage their current project in such a way that it was more carefully planned and thought out (and thus more likely to identify potential issues), but also set the groundwork for future projects by capturing as many lessons as they can from this first project.

On top of all of this, any future projects could expand the initial approach so that the process can be refined and will improve with each new project. For some companies, M&A activities never occur and require no effort, while others have a reputation for gobbling up other companies like candy – Cisco comes to mind ( The answer for Alice and team will depend on the success of this first initiative.

But this all gives us the answer to the question: “What do you do when it hits the fan?”.

Sweep it up, package it, and sell it as fertilizer. (With thanks to Robert Heinlein



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