BEDMAS Your Business

Having children affords one the “opportunity” of being able to revisit school lessons from one’s own childhood. It is a welcome experience to come across a lesson that remains familiar so that help can actually be offered. One lesson that has remained useful as I revisit it on my fourth time through math is BEDMAS. You may recall this acronym relates to the Order of Operations. In what order should we seek to do a math sentence? BEDMAS is the framework which answers this question. The order in which we do things matters. We can’t just randomly decide in what order to manage math. BEDMAS offers us the path forward. We must solve what is contained within Brackets first, followed by Exponents, then we tackle any Division or Multiplication, and, finally, we can Add or Subtract. BEDMAS – Brackets, Exponents, Division, Multiplication, Addition, and Subtraction. A straightforward, universally applicable approach to tackling a math problem.

Order of Operations matters in life as it does in math. An order of operations offers clarity as to what to do when. Too many of us major in minors. Without specific direction, we flounder. If left to our own devices, we either default to what’s fun or easy. We do what we like to do. Or, we passively sit back mindlessly pulled by any distraction. Neither approach leads us to generate much forward progress. There is an optimal order of operations to various aspects of life. You don’t put on your pajamas when you get out of bed. We typically, eat our salad before we eat dessert. Most of us don’t binge watch Netflix before our work day. As a high level guideline we’ve been told to do what we need to do before what we want to do. Save 10% of your earnings before you spend anything else. Earn your sins. Hit the gym before you drink some gin. Go for a run before you have dim sum. Deep down we recognize that there are more constructive ways to behave. Are we selecting what’s easy and fun or what will help us make progress? Author Brian Tracy has written that “Life is like a combination lock; your job is to find the right numbers, in the right order, so you can have anything you want.”

Order of Operations and BEDMAS even applies to society. Our governments should be prioritizing their activities across certain areas before others. For example, BEDMAS in a governmental context could represent: Borders, Economy, Democratic rights, Medicine, Academics, and Services. This framework, besides fitting the acronym BEDMAS nicely, could offer guidance to prioritize distributing scarce resources. It would provide a structure around which leaders could make consistent decisions. A government’s primary responsibility is to protect and control its borders. We see this clearly during COVID. Countries that can fully control who goes in and who goes out have been able to limit the spread of the virus better than those with porous borders. Border control incorporates a military of some kind. Strong borders offer citizens inside security. This is the start of any society. From having a secure place to live, countries and their citizens benefit from an economy. People need something to do and a way to provide for themselves. Most importantly, it is only where citizens are safe and able to provide for themselves that tax revenues can be generated. Without businesses being created and individuals working, governments don’t have much to tax. Once the economy is looked after, perhaps democratic rights are next. Trying to ensure the government exists for the people and is as open as possible are big, noble goals. Democratic rights would include a legal system that is seen as fair or “blind.” It would ensure citizens are allowed to vote. It would limit the amount of power a government could influence over its citizens. From democratic rights we could walk into medicine (or healthcare). Healthcare depends on a tax base and is helpful once citizens are safely protected by borders and can operate within an economy. In any society created since humans began spending time in groups, healthcare followed an economy. A government can’t provide what it doesn’t have. It needs to have resources and revenues generated from its tax base before it can provide any kind of programs like healthcare. Beyond healthcare we have Academics. Building a strong education system that ensures the next generation is able to keep moving society forward becomes the next priority. Finally, the S in our governmental BEDMAS is for services. Everything else falls after our first five identified priorities.

This BEDMAS isn’t set in stone. It’s not universally agreed upon like that for math. There’s plenty of debate by reasonable people to come up with different versions. The difference between math and life is that in math BEDMAS is THE right answer, whereas in life there’s no single, THE right answer, there’s just YOUR answer. Our goal is to determine our own BEDMAS to apply to our lives in order to create direction. It becomes a guide to help us determine what to do (or what not to do). Our order of operations serves as a framework or focusing filter. Our BEDMAS helps us act constructively on our worlds while weighing what’s important in a decision. Even for government, if our leaders had an order of operations that we didn’t agree with, we would likely have more respect for them. If they had a publicly declared order of operations around which their priorities laid that they adhered to for decision making, we could at least respect that they stood for something. It would be an improvement over leading by polling. Though we don’t know what issue we may be presented with today, with a personal BEDMAS we can be more confident that we’ll be in a position to determine how to handle it.

Just because our approach may not be objective doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have one. It means we can try something and always change it. The right approach is the one that you’ll commit to that brings you the results you’re after. The right BEDMAS for you or your business is one that answers favorably the question, “does it serve?” Your Order of Operations should be the one that at least “gives you a chance.” It implies spending time determining what your values are. The Stoic, Epictetus, in Discourses is quoted “When the standards have been set, things are tested and weighed. And the work of philosophy is just this, to examine and uphold the standards, but the work of a truly good person is in using those standards when they know them.” As Epictetus suggests, the first step is setting the standards. That’s crafting your BEDMAS. Then, once your standards are in place, your job becomes to make decisions factoring in the context of your circumstances against your BEDMAS.

Many of our businesses may have a list of values. That’s a good start. However, have we take the time to detail the order of those values. Do we consider them equal in value? How are we supposed to manage a decision where one or more of our values seem to be in conflict? How can we apply the idea of BEDMAS to our business? What is the primary driver of decisions? Will a business that puts profits ahead of its people make decisions differently than one that puts its people ahead of profits? How about one that is motivated by a particular cause instead of profits? Even if profits are a priority, is it profit today or a longer term target? Is the business more interested in growth (top line revenue) or profit (bottom line)? Is market share the goal or industry/peer recognition? Only when we know not just what our values are but also in which order we’re to prioritize them can we make decisions consistent with them.

One way to develop a BEDMAS for business (which can also be applied personally) is to start by listing as many possible values or drivers as we can. In business it could be profit today, profit tomorrow, revenue volume, revenue growth as a percentage, staff turnover, the number of customers, distribution of business across market segments, industry awards, contribution to charitable causes, the number of staff, diversity of staff, environmental impact, financial performance relative to industry benchmarks, and number of years in business. From whatever listing of values results, the next step is to then create an order of importance of these. This can be done by comparing pairs of values against each other. One “battles” against another and moves its way up the ladder of priorities. Slowly, the BEDMAS of the organization is sorted. Including different levels of staff in this conversation may help clarify and foster commitment to your organization’s BEDMAS. Staff that are clear on what the organization’s BEDMAS is can then use it to assist in making decisions. If they know either that the customer comes first or profits are prioritized, then how to handle customer service situations becomes clearer.

Perhaps an insurance brokerage adopts INSURE as its BEDMAS reflecting five values:

INdependence – we represent multiple markets which allow us to connect the most suitable coverage for our clients’ needs.

Security – our purpose is to provide protection for the priorities of our insureds giving them peace of mind.

Uniform – we aim to treat all our customers with the same high service standards.

Responsive – Speed is of the essence. We aim to be available when our clients need us.

Entrepreneurial – serving small businesses with an ownership mindset.

Alternately, consider a boutique chocolatier that details their values to fit the acronym CACAO. It’s not just the type of bean which forms the basis of their business but a lens through which to guide actions. CACAO may stand for Customer, Adaptable, Community, and Ownership. These four values represent both what’s important as well as the order of importance. Decisions focus on serving the customer first. Then the idea of being adaptable serves to guard against being inflexible. From here, the business has a focus on serving their local community. They seek to sponsor local events and maintain a charitable stance locally. Finally, they invite their staff to participate in being an owner in the business over time. Additionally, they connect their customer focus to ownership by asking customers to provide input as to what they would like to see. The customers also receive benefits from an awards program that makes them feel like they’re a part of the business. The four values provide structure to help all stakeholders understand where they stand and how decisions are made.

Developing a BEDMAS for your business helps all stakeholders easily see if they fit or don’t. It serves to both attract desired people and repel those that won’t see value. In The Minimalist Entrepreneur, Sahil Lavingia notes that businesses taking the time to detail the hierarchy of their values are creating a roadmap which guides. Lavingia writes, “their clear values enable them to grow knowing where they’re going and who they want to bring along with them.” Some firms even go the extra step of turning their list of ordered values into a song or a poem to help clarify exactly what a value means. For example, a dry cleaner may value a Bias for Action which they details as, “Hickory dickory dock, we don’t want to smell like used gym socks. Instead we work hard to rock by coming out fast from the blocks. A bias for action is our path to traction.”

Maybe there were some lessons worth learning in school? BEDMAS is a useful idea to apply to ourselves and our work worlds. Jeff Olson writes in The Slight Edge that “Your philosophy is what you know, how you hold it, and how it affects what you do. How you think about simple, everyday things.” Crafting a BEDMAS is detailing our philosophy. This, in turn, reflects our values which drive our choices as to what to do. Olson goes on to note “there is a natural progression to everything in life: plant, cultivate, harvest.” We need to ensure we plant before we can cultivate and cultivate before we can harvest. The order of our values drives productive decisions.

In their book, Simple Rules, Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt write, “Prioritizing rules can help you rank a group of alternatives competing for scarce money, time, or attention.” That’s right, rules aren’t for fools, they’re useful tools. Rules can help refine decision making and decrease the brain burden of evaluating options. Our BEDMAS becomes the basis of making decisions. It’s a higher level framework to guide actions. Martin Meadows writes in 365 Days With Self-Discipline, “Like pregnancy, some things follow a natural schedule you can’t control.” Creating an order of operations for yourself and your business is a characteristic of competence. It supports the ability to prioritize. It reflects a principled person. It shows someone that is trying to be purposeful. With a personally crafted BEDMAS you are someone that can reliably be counted upon to handle a variety of circumstances. This year, for Christmas, give yourself the gift of taking some time to define your BEDMAS. Merry Christmas.