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When Good Enough is Excellent

My Dad would be so ashamed if he could see how this has turned out.

So stated the email to me from my friend, emotionally exhausted after another round of negotiating with siblings about the fate of the family companies*. In my friend’s family there are three enterprises: the family business, the real estate company that owns land where the business is located, and a family farm unrelated to the business.

My friend’s father died unexpectedly but having loved his children. He didn’t intend to cause his children problems. Yet he left many things undone – no functioning board of directors for the business, no real decision-making framework for the real estate company, and a farm with sentimental value as high as its financial worth. He did not deliberate with his children about how to handle these issues. Now his children must figure it out for themselves. Things are not going as well as any of them would like – hence my friend’s frustration and embarrassment.

When families contact The Family Enterprise Office, often they raise the same initial concern.  They fear that once they begin addressing how they make decisions together about shared assets, they won’t be able to finish. Specifically, they fear they won’t be able to bring all the “key” family members into the planning process. They fear not all the key figures in the family will support the concept of revamping how decisions are made.  Without buy-in from the key people, they reason, the family’s planning will be shown up to be a failure. And since they’re afraid they can’t finish together, they don’t try to start together.

Obviously this fear is self-defeating. It leads to circular reasoning instead of good ideas, wheel-spinning instead of forward movement. But it’s real. And the result is predictable. Families who do not take the first step, due to this fear, end up like the family of my friend. Eventually there is a death, followed by uncertainty, disagreements, and difficulties.

What is the better way? 

To identify who are the family members central to the ongoing health of the enterprise, and invite them to participate in the process of planning for the future. Which people are in this category? On the list belong owners who are family, management members who are family, family members who own the same asset, and trustees integral to ownership. Depending on the family, there may be others. You simply ask them to participate. You focus on beginning together.

But, the question usually continues, how do we know we can attain success? Many of us are anxious, and all of us have high standards. Won’t an excellent outcome require perfection?  How can we attain the perfect result when all of us in this family are imperfect?

A basic tenet of The Family Enterprise Office is that of course families are imperfect. 

Every person who inhabits a family enterprise system is imperfect. That’s why conflict in the system is not something to be feared or avoided at all costs. It simply is. It’s part of the landscape. Anxiety, even disagreement, about whether or how to begin together is to be expected.

Hesitation about beginning must not obscure the larger point about outcomes, though. For any family, an excellent outcome in reworking the family’s decision-making is the outcome that is good enough. 

The excellent outcome is the one that is good enough. 

By this we mean: if the proposed adjustments to the decision-making are good enough that each person who wishes to be involved in the family enterprise’s system views the adjustments as an investment in his or her future, and not a sacrifice of it, then they are the right ones for this family. Specifically, each person at the table needs to be able to answer “yes” to these four questions?

  1. Does the proposed plan fit this enterprise?
  2. Does it fit this family?
  3. Is it feasible in the real world? 
  4. Is it right for me individually?   

Remember, we are looking not at the family down the street or the family that owns your most formidable competitor. We are focused on this family – your family.

Once a family views the end in terms of the “good enough” standard, the beginning becomes much less daunting. After all, who wants his or her deceased parent to be ashamed of how things have turned out? The better way is simply to begin, to begin while all the key people are still alive, and to begin with the “good enough” standard in mind.  When this happens, “good enough” becomes “excellent.”

* Email excerpt used with permission.  The family in question is not a client of The Family Enterprise Office, LLC.