It’s been interesting to re-examine some of the concepts we’ve discussed over the last four years. It’s truly fascinating, really, to be reminded about our timeless journey and our ongoing struggle to find the right balance to fulfill the lives we envision for ourselves.

 “To be or not to be that is the question.”

 I’ve always been intrigued by Shakespeare’s line … not only because of its famous lineage, but because so few know the words that follow and give the phrase its power: “Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.”

I recently sent a note to a few of my former partners, accusing Yo-Yo Ma of hijacking for his new album one of our frequently-invoked phrases: “Goat Rodeo Sessions.”  In those days, we applied it to all manner of things that appeared as a super-cluster of mayhem and chaos. What I’ve learned is that poor project planning and organization is the hallmark of many of the failed projects on which we have all served.

Making those tough decisions can turn a goat rodeo into something closer to a Balanchine ballet. Alas, it’s one of our greatest failings … we tend to dawdle over difficult decisions because we don’t like the choices … don’t like to terminate under-performers who’ve been with the company a long time … or to close a struggling plant that Dad built … or to sell assets, at lousy market prices, that we no longer need.

The past offers no forgiveness for current transgressions. We have to part ways with conventional wisdom and separate what’s good for our company today from what worked yesterday. Feelings may be hurt, past accomplishments diminished, former heroes kicked to the sidelines … but we have to make those difficult decisions to remain competitive. As we know, the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself, and as we lead our companies into 2012, we must focus on today … and what will work in the debilitating economy that has so many paddling in circles awaiting the next fair wind.

We’ll rarely be disappointed when we deal with issues as they “show up” rather than when they “blow up.” What’s startling is that we often know exactly what we need to do, but fail to “trust our gut” even though it is a remarkably reliable barometer of the right thing to do. We simply don’t like the choices and get wrapped around the axle, burning countless unproductive hours of executive time nursing an issue that we already know how to resolve. It’s time to stop the mollycoddling and make the right decisions now.

That’s why Hamlet’s second choice is always the right one.

 "As a final incentive before giving up a difficult task, try to imagine it successfully accomplished by someone you violently hate.”     -- Unknown

 I’ve often quoted Levitt and Dubner, authors of Freakonomics and their memorable tagline, Incentives are the Cornerstone of Life. While I tied some of these concepts to the egregious CEO pay scandals at JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs in a late 2008 column, I was more appalled then by the prospect of government intervention to establish pay scales for private sector executives. Today, much of this music is the bête noire of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a misdirected notion that if we somehow regulate executive compensation, those excessive salaries will find their way into our pockets where they really belong.

What we are learning  … what the Freakonomics authors uncovered … is that well-intended incentives often create disincentives toward the very goals they were created to stimulate. Levitt and Dubner’s stories about Chicago schoolteachers, Sumo wrestlers and drug dealers paint a vivid picture of how misaligned our incentive programs can become.

So, I invite you to pick the most important incentive in your organization and examine it with fresh eyes. Pick the one that everyone agrees is the foundation of much of what you do, and evaluate in a careful and objective manner, whether its guiding the participants as originally intended. I’m pretty sure that most of you will find that the incentive plan you chose to evaluate has become a staple of your compensation structure and company culture, taken for granted by most everyone, and contributing very little to stimulate the superior performance for which it was originally created. I’d love to hear from you about what you find, what’s working, what isn’t and what you might do to modify it so that it helps you achieve the goals you’ve set.

Amidst the hailstorm of relentless inputs coming your way, be sure to earmark some of these important principles to give them the attention they deserve. Don’t get dragged down by the undercurrent of constant interruptions. Stay focused. You’ll often find if you get the big issues right, you’ll be leading a convoy with most of the other nagging issues falling in line....

Lary Kirchenbauer is the President of Exkalibur Advisors, providing practical business strategies for middle market businesses. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership, finance and business strategy, and recently hosted a Cash Flow Workshop, “It’s Midnight. Do you Know Where Your Cash Is?” You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur web site at www.Exkalibur.com. You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.