The Remote Office

“Could you please organize a conference call tomorrow morning to discuss this?”

This one statement perhaps exemplifies today’s office better than any other description. Welcome to the world of the remote office!

One of the most significant and visible results of the revolution in communication technology in the past two decades is the concept of people at all levels in any organization working from home or out of any office location of their choice – fondly referred to as ‘the virtual office’ in corporate jargon. This, in turn, has resulted in the proliferation of the ubiquitous conference call (companies who identified the need for this early and invested in the business of connecting people are laughing their way to the bank!). Let us get inside such a call and enjoy the fun.

The COO of Company-X, a consumer products company, is informed by his executive assistant, Jane, that monthly reports from various departmental heads are not arriving in time. In the erstwhile world of simple organizations, the COO would have walked across the floor to his direct subordinates’ offices and told them to be prompt in the future – or sent out a one-paragraph, paper memo to the relevant executives. But, this is the connected world where there is no place for simplicity and therefore the COO asks Jane to organize, yes you guessed it right, a conference call.

Thus starts a 2-day process of ‘synchronizing’ calendars while Jane jumps through multiple hoops and systems to scan through the calendars and schedules of people – including calling the secretaries of several executives who either don’t maintain or share their calendars. After much effort and nail-biting tension, Jane strikes gold! There is a precious slot of 30 minutes 3 weeks from today when all the concerned people have no engagements, I mean, other conference calls! Of course, being a ‘virtual’ company, the time slots extend anywhere from 4 AM to midnight in their respective time zones but the executives are anyway expected to be time-agnostic.

If by now you are heaving a sigh of relief and saying ‘mission accomplished’ to yourself, you obviously have no clue as to how these things work. Over the next three weeks, there is a flurry of phone calls, emails and other modes of communication between various parties trying to rearrange the time for the call to accommodate more pressing emergencies such as, yes you guessed right this time, attending calls on more important issues such as rearranging office furniture and finalizing the cafeteria menu. Finally a compromise is arrived at by moving the start time of the call by 2 minutes and some executives agreeing to the supreme sacrifice of excusing themselves 3 minutes early from their previous calls. In the meanwhile Jane, the COO’s assistant, of course, has had no time to attend to mundane matters such as getting her boss to sign customer contracts.

It is D-day and D-time minus 10 minutes. Jane has initiated the call and is desperately trying to have the COO get off the previous call. She is petrified that if for any reason this call should get canceled by the COO, she would have gone back to square-1, like going down the largest snake in a game of snakes & ladders. She is lucky and the COO gets on to the call just one minute late.

The call then proceeds as follows:

COO: Good morning everyone …….

(loud noise)

Exec-1: ….sorry folks, I am at the airport boarding my flight; I will put myself on mute now.

COO: That is OK – safe travels. How are the others doing?

(….detailed descriptions of various school games and charity events……)

15 minutes later……

COO: OK, let us get down to business. Why are the monthly reports not coming in on time?

Exec-2: I always email it one day ahead of the deadline.

Exec-3: So do I.

Exec-4: What is the deadline? I thought it was the fifth of the month. I always email it on the 4th evening.

(……. more chatter and explanation of when the report is sent by various other executives….)

Exec-10: Isn’t the information in the monthly report the same as the contents of the flash report that is sent at the end of the last week of the month?

(…..murmurs and shuffling of papers….)

Exec-1: Sorry I need to drop off now, as the flight is ready to take off. I will catch up later. Bye.

COO: We are almost out of time and I know that many of you have other calls to get on to. Let me ask Jane to organize a conference call to review the flash report. Thank you all.

Thus concludes another chapter in the endless book of communication that defines the world of remote offices!

The Project Manager – Jack of all trades!

The position titled ‘Project Manager’ is the manna from heaven or the kiss of death depending on whether or not you are the one holding that position. Moreover, since this is usually a temporary (though not necessarily short in duration!) job created and destroyed as needed, no one in the organization is immune from becoming the victim – I mean, being asked to be the Project Manager!

Let us analyze this hapless creature in some detail. First, the Project Manager (PM for short, from now on) holds responsibility for everything under the sun without a clue as to what even one ray (of the sun) is. The PM is expected to rely on a host of subject matter experts (fondly referred to as SME’s) to assist him/her in navigating the project jungle with a bewildering array of trees, I mean activities. These SME’s naturally treat the PM, at best, as a necessary nuisance and show scant respect. Updating the PM is the last thing on the minds of project team members and the clueless PM is often seen chasing and begging them for updates around the water cooler.

The project plan (often pasted together from multiple printouts and other color coded pieces of paper), charts, tables, spreadsheets and other documents act as the companions for the otherwise lonely PM. He/she is constantly grappling with tallying the list of outstanding issues and incomplete activities across multiple spreadsheets knowing fully well no one is ever likely to bother about or agree with any of the lists anyway. The day before the project review meeting is perhaps the worst nightmare for the PM. Depending on what is at stake and who is attending the review, the meeting could be variously referred to as a Checkpoint, Gate, Go-No-Go or other imaginative terms. More often than not, the PM is expected to present at these meetings what the powers-that-be want to hear rather than the project facts as they are. Huge problems may need to be carefully camouflaged or completely hidden while minor problems are highlighted with great fanfare, only to be solved with a flick of the wrist, figuratively speaking.

The complexity of the project management game increases exponentially based on the number of ‘other’ PMs, representing various factions/vendors/customers/ stakeholders, participating in the game. This situation while, on the one hand, ensures the longevity of the profession that produces and nurtures PMs, also vividly exemplifies the utter lack of control the PM experiences in today’s corporate world where just one person is never in charge of any one thing.

Amongst other benefits, the PM offers a one-stop shop for directing blame. While every issue on the project manager’s tracking sheet (a coveted and aggressively guarded asset of any PM) can be analyzed ad infinitum, with various participants having widely varying opinions regarding what worked, what did not and why, the universal judgment, especially from senior management (which would include anyone and everyone above the PM’s pay grade), would be that the PM is to be blamed for not ‘managing’ the project properly – a responsibility the job title amply exemplifies. And, after every project meeting where he/she is blamed for the dozens of items not going well on the project, the PM is forced to work on coming up with corrective actions which in reality sets the scene for more items to be added to the failed list in forthcoming review meetings.

No wonder the species called PMs often choose to give themselves a distinct identity in the form of the Project Management Office. The PMO in the organization serves the important purpose of being a target for everyone else to hate and point fingers at. Long live the clan of PMs!

The Hurry-up-and-Wait Game

This game never gets boring or outdated – the popular hurry-up-and-wait phenomenon. It is like driving on a busy city road with endless traffic lights each one of which seems to punctuate your progress with a well (ill) timed pause. The difference in the corporate game is perhaps the fact that your act of ‘hurrying up’ is directed by someone else.

At the basic level, this game looks like a harmless prank, played on one’s subordinates and colleagues, where you set unrealistic deadlines for completing a task, knowing fully well that the next step is weeks, if not months, away from being started. And, if you arm yourself with project plans and other ammunition to chase people up, your performance is all the more impressive.

It takes considerably more experience and skill (read, skullduggery) to take this game to the next level. Let us act out this corporate drama:

Scene-1:

It is the senior executives meeting for new product introduction at the corporate office of an automobile parts retailer. The Vice President of Sales, armed with data from extensive market research, has come up with a plan to introduce a unique new design of seat covers and other accessories for the new model of a car from a leading manufacturer. The manufacturer has planned to have this car on the market in the next two months and the VP is keen to take up the position of being the first retailer to offer these accessories to the discerning buyers and hence reinforce the company’s position as the provider of innovative solutions to its customer base.

The Director of Merchandising, known for his draconian ways of getting things done by hook or crook, to seemingly impossible time scales, jumps up and shouts, ‘This is a great idea; we will get these accessories ready in time for our stores to sell when the new car comes out’.

Scene-2:

The Director of Merchandising calls his team on the following Sunday morning for a briefing. He has already canceled the vacations of two of his team members. He announces to his team, ‘Folks, we (not I!) have accepted an interesting challenge. We need to design, source and get on the shelves of our stores new accessories for a new model of the car (….) in 4 weeks (he is already hurrying up!). I know this is normally a six month process but, hey, you are all smart people, aren’t you?! So, let us get this done. We will have review meetings every other day (read, ‘out of the already compressed time scale, I am going to take away valuable time through these reviews which will add zero value to the process’).

The senior designer on the teams asks, ‘But, John, we need to first get the design details of the interior of the car from the manufacturer – this itself could take 4 weeks!’. John, the Director, already on his cell phone with someone else, waves his hand and says, ‘Don’t bother me with minor, operational details; you can sort this out without getting me involved’

Scene-3:

The car manufacturer has run into some production issues and the launch of the new car is delayed by three months. Wanting to avoid public embarrassment, their COO calls the dealers and in turn the retailers and shares, in confidence, news about the delay and seeks assistance in managing the perception with consumers. The news percolates down to the Director, John, who cleverly ‘pockets’ the information!

Scene-4:

John’s team members have been working non-stop for three weeks. They have exchanged acrimonious emails with their suppliers, had shouting matches with their subordinates and completely ignored their families. They have visited some of their stores and bulldozed the concerned store managers into rearranging their display areas to make room for the upcoming new accessories. The irritated store managers, after exchanging choice words with the ‘goons from head office’, have moved some of the (currently) fastest selling items away from their prime spot in the store to make room for the new dream products arriving soon.

Scene-5:

This is the (original) D-day, coming two months after the first meeting. John’s team members are a nervous wreck but by moving heaven and earth (not to mention the accessories, half way across the globe) have the designated items on the shelves prominently displayed in each of their stores. The store managers, by now aware that the launch of the car has been delayed by the manufacturer, have started firing salvos (email’s) abusing the head office team. In the meanwhile, John is getting his team into a huddle and telling them, ‘Guys, great job done on the car seat and accessories project. We have ……. another critical task that needs to be completed in the next 2 weeks ….. sorry you need to hold off on your planned vacations for some more weeks….’. The senior designer begins to ask, ‘How come we did not know about the delay in the launch of the new car till today?’ but John cuts him off in mid-sentence and eggs him on towards …..you guessed it ….. the next round of the hurry-up-and-wait game!

Art of Projection

A major weapon in the hands of the corporate manager is the art of projection. In simple terms, it is the skill to extend, extrapolate and project simple facts (and non-facts!) to project the desired image, often resulting in stunningly sensational impressions.

Anyone, and everyone, who has been part of the corporate world would have seen from close quarters how a manager projects his subordinate’s ideas as his/her own. Whether it is a simple but effective change to the design of a key product of the company or a brilliant improvement in the processing of accounts payables, the ‘savvy’ manager is quick to project that he/she is the brain behind the idea.

Then there is the leader who constantly uses narratives like, “we built this company from scratch”, “my team is my family”, “all my people are owners of the business” conveying an impression of equality in ownership, power and responsibility. The reality in the organization could well be that the power, wealth and decision-making power are fully centralized with the leader while the ‘family members’ are merely required to follow orders.

The ingenuity with which certain past events are projected by corporate executives is nothing short of spectacular. Take for instance, the Vice President who tells his (unsuspecting) audience at the customers’ meeting, “I was really at the cross roads 20 years ago – having to choose between pursuing a career in corporate law in New York versus joining a startup in Phoenix. I decided to forgo the lucrative law profession with a high, six figure salary in favor of following my heart and joined the startup, living out of a garage!”. The fact would have been that he had no job and his personal friend bailed him out by letting him work in his (the friend’s) company.

Another popular variation of the projection game is coordination. The task of coordination can be quickly turned into one of skillfully inserting oneself into various situations, projects and meetings. This is obviously easier when you are at a reasonably high level in the organization structure. You could place yourself into various committees, swat teams, governing bodies, etc., with the hope (and intention!) that there would be others who can and will do the actual work. Your main focus will be on how to speak out about the status and progress of work being done (by others) in front of people who matter, such as your senior management and customers. If you do this really smartly, your own team members will also start believing that you are actually contributing!

One of the most effective ways of projecting your prowess is to answer every question that comes up during a discussion (with customers, business partners and other external entities) and pretending to be able to get anything done within your organization – usually by throwing various colleagues under the proverbial bus. Committing to unreasonable, if not downright impossible, schedules with a client, giving away free services, usually in the name of building a better relationship, and even giving away sensitive and confidential information are all variations of the theme of positioning – more like posturing – yourself and your (doubtful) importance!

Management by Confusion

Management by Objectives is taught at Harvard. Management by confusion can only be learnt and perfected through churning the wheels in the corporate world.

One of the best ways of evading decisions is to create confusion. Take for example the new intern, Beth, approaching her supervisor with the question, “For the upcoming team meeting, should I create this report customer-wise or product-wise?” You would have thought the answer is a pretty straightforward one – customer or product. Wrong! The supervisor, a veteran of corporate confusion for decades, responds with, “That is an interesting question – I am glad you are applying your mind to the task on hand. Let us see ….. Have you considered the needs of all sections of the audience reading your report? Should there be a time/aging factor built into the report?  How about a geographic, territory wise matrix? It is best to review all requirements and then come up with a format for the report”. This, needless to say, is guaranteed to send the intern on a wild goose chase of finding out all reporting needs and formats (items that were finalized months ago)– with no obvious end in sight. A logical end is not the goal, anyway, to start with.

Confusion, in many situations, is also a passport to avoiding accountability. You can usually get away with not being responsible for a bad move if there is a minimum quantum of confusion around the subject. If you know that you would not be able to finish a customer proposal on time, you create a list of ‘clarifications’ required from others in your organization as inputs to your proposal; email the list to the wrong person first; then, with a, ‘oh! I did not know that she was no longer in that role’; send it to the right person and copy the mail, for good measure, to several other people; get conflicting responses from multiple people; then call for a meeting to discuss the various responses; and so on ….. you get the point!

Confusion is also an excellent tool for keeping your subordinates and, quite often, your superiors too, on tenterhooks. You might even come out with flying colors in the process. Let us say that you are responsible for introducing a new invoicing system in your company. On the eve of the system going live, you come out with a new checklist and unleash it on an unsuspecting audience. “Does this take care of international billing?”; “Has all the historical data for the past 10 years been migrated to the new system?”. Ironically, all these questions would have been asked several months ago, when the project was first initiated, and deliberate decisions taken not to include these features in the new system. But raising these questions now makes it appear that you are the one with a keen eye for minor details. Consequently, while your team runs around in circles to check the system, you can use the opportunity to gain a few brownie points with your superiors.

Creating confusion of biblical proportions in the organization takes a lot of experience and planning.  An essential requirement is to be armed with irrelevant statistics (more commonly passing under the phrase, ‘facts and figures’). When the CEO seeks advice from the Vice President, Sales on setting sales goals for the coming year, the latter can spin a web around the hapless CEO by quoting various economic indicators from far flung locations where the company has no operations, percentages and market trends in sectors unrelated to the company’s product line and quotes from a variety of market research reports with complex graphs and dubious predictions. The key here is to provide data, in large quantities, but with very little, if any, information and analysis. This is sure to keep the corporate wheel spinning, literally and figuratively, in circles!

Disruption – Corporate Style

Disruption – a very unique word in the Corporate dictionary, which goes by many ‘synonyms’ such as innovation, dynamism, proactiveness, transformation, priority, out-of-the-box idea, even bravery!

To fully understand the nature of disruptive behavior and its impact in a typical organization, let us take a look at a few everyday scenarios in the office. As with everything else in the corporate environment, the higher the level at which this occurs the broader and deeper its effect.

Scenario-1:

Mary, Executive Assistant to the VP Sales, is busy putting together, for an important proposal due that morning, the plethora of spreadsheets containing a bewildering array of pricing options designed to confuse, sorry educate, the potential customer on the choices available to them. In comes Jane, the recent graduate from Harvard Business School and newly appointed marketing executive, asking Mary for sales data for the last ten years, with territory-wise, product-wise, sales manager-wise breakdown, for a pricing model that she is building. Mary tries to tell Jane about what she is working on and the associated deadline but Jane will have none of it and mentions that none other than the CEO is waiting (in the coffee room right then!) for the numbers. Poor Mary drops what she is doing and spends the next four hours digging out and tabulating the information required by Jane. Then, when she gets back to her original proposal with barely 30 minutes left for the deadline, she misses out on a crucial discount that the VP, Sales has authorized at the last minute, which in turn makes the company’s bid extremely noncompetitive and a prime candidate for rejection by the customer. In the meanwhile, Jane is back at her desk, happily listening to her iPod, smug in the fact that she has a chance to submit her report a week ahead of schedule, an act sure to get her some brownie points from the CEO and the VP of Sales!

Scenario-2:

Amber, the Administration Manager, is busy getting the final details sorted out for an upcoming conference to be attended by all the Regional Managers from across the country. All the RMs have cleared their calendars and rearranged many of their customer meetings to attend this important annual meeting in the company. Two days before the scheduled conference, Brian, the Executive VP, Operations, well known for his dynamism (read, craziness), receives a call from his friend, who happens to be a senior executive in a customer organization that regularly provides multi-million dollar business year after year. Brian’s buddy and Linkedin connection, will be in town – you guessed it – on the same day as that of the conference and wants to catch up with Brian. Brian, without batting an eyelid agrees to have a ‘business review’ meeting with his friend and asks a shocked Amber to reschedule the Regional Manager’s conference. Amber starts to say, “But Brian, we have 30 people coming from ……” but Brian cuts her short with, “Customers take precedence over everything else” and dismisses her. It is past midnight by the time Amber manages to cancel all arrangements for the conference and finishes hearing an earful from all the irate RMs!

Net Result: Over two hundred thousand dollars in cancellations; hundreds of hours wasted across the organization; inability for the senior and mid level managers to interact and understand the company’s goals and direction at the right time.

Scenario-3 (saved the best for last!):

It has been crazy busy in the Development unit of the software products company.  Everyone is busy completing all the planned functions and components of the first general release of their Price Optimization product, which, based on excellent feedback received during beta testing, promises to be a winner all the way. The CEO, Karl, has just returned from an executive summit, in the Caribbean of course, hosted by a leading management consultancy firm.  His head full of powerpoint slides and colorful graphs from the summit, Karl summons the Director of Development and his senior team members and informs them of his vision. Karl wants the Price Optimization product to include processing and correction algorithms in response to dynamic feedback from the Social Media sites. The collective groan from the audience is audible several offices away. One Development Manager summons the courage to stand up and ask, “We have been working on finishing the current version of the product for more than a year and the Sales people have already starting selling. Integrating with Social Media sites is a huge change that involves not just more coding and testing but a complete redesign of the architecture to use Big Data and related technologies. This could delay the product launch by a year or more, in addition to increasing development costs by at least 75%”. The CEO replies in classic style, “We need to be proactive to the future needs and demands in the market. Our company has always been known for innovation and the ability to adapt. You are the best brains in the industry. We can make it happen. I am sure our customers will understand the delay. Come on guys, let us not waste time, just make it happen! I am announcing the launch of our new product tomorrow”. The stunned Development team starts gathering its belongings (and its spirits!) before leaving the conference room.

Fast forward to nine months later: The product is in a mess as more revisions to features have occurred. Customers are unhappy as they see no realistic product offering in the horizon. The Development team and, in turn, the Sales team are disillusioned and busy updating their resumes!

Inside A Corporate Meeting

It was the day of the meeting to finalize the company’s annual plans. It was the culmination of many days (and nights) of tireless work by the underlings. A lot was hanging in the balance. Serious decisions influencing, if not actually affecting, many people’s lives were in the offing. Senior executives from various locations and divisions were expected to be in attendance. No detail was too small to be ignored as far as preparations were concerned. It was show time!

Executives and secretaries (sometimes difficult to tell apart based on what they were doing!) alike were busy weeks before D-Day – synchronizing calendars, canceling and rescheduling other less important activities (such as discussions and signatures on customer contracts!). Countless emails, text messages and phone calls had been exchanged to grab those micro gaps in time when any given executive required for the meeting did not have other commitments on the calendar. Lunch and snack menus had been summoned from top restaurants and gone through in excruciating detail before finalizing precisely what would be served when during the meeting.

Many an intern and lower level staff had slogged for weeks, to the exclusion of attention to any operational work related to the company, over powerpoint slides and spreadsheets giving the best possible picture of their department’s performance and plans. Colors and fonts on the slides had been changed on an hourly basis, depending on the mood of the boss in charge. A substantial quantum of corollary (read, irrelevant) information had been included to provide the ‘broad’ picture. The Internet had been relentlessly scoured to gather all statistics and information to support the required point of view.

On the day of the meeting, the increased level of hustle and bustle was noticeable not just in the corridors of the office floor where the main conference room was located, but around the usual places of office socialization – the ubiquitous water cooler, the break room, the photocopier and, of course, the washroom. Secretaries and others were frantically completing the photocopying of mountains of paper copies of slides, spreadsheets and printouts from Internet pages before making binders for each executive attending the meeting. Trollies with coffee, tea, water and an assortment of cookies were rolled into the conference room.

Some fifteen minutes before the start time, with about 5-6 attendees having arrived early (as they had flown cross-country and were suffering from jet lag), it looked like the meeting would actually take place.  John, the Director who had the misfortune to have been nominated the coordinator for this important meeting, rushed into the room with a folder with a dozen post-it’s sticking out and started dialing the phone in the middle of the room to open the conference call line for people attending remotely. Not being very familiar with the newly implemented technology he encountered considerable difficulty in getting past the robotic message that repeatedly informed him that his access code was invalid. By now, several more attendees had arrived and promptly aligned themselves into two groups – one that was busy catching up with one another on how things had been since they last met and the other that tried to assist John overcome the technical hurdles. It was now 10 minutes past the scheduled start time and, not unusually, the CEO has not arrived yet. Then, John, tethering on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he noticed the CEO enter the room, hit the ‘#’ key on the phone in one last and desperate attempt and was rewarded with the merciful message, “you are now connected to the conference”.

Then began the customary round of introductions. This was characterized by a number of people in the room mumbling under their breath, defeating the purpose of introductions, and the people on the phone not knowing what the expected sequence for talking was, resulting in repeated deadlocks and silence on the line even as the phone speaker volumes were adjusted many times. John, sweating profusely by now, was thankful when the introduction of the 30 odd people was over He then put up the meeting agenda on the screen.

This signaled the beginning of a host of presentations by various departmental heads, complete with multidimensional charts and graphs with innovative axes. The more adventurous executives even resorted to short video clips, involving their dogs, to drive home their points.  Information presented on the complexity of the business operations of the company was so mind boggling that a novice observer could easily have been excused for thinking, “how does this company run amidst such impossible odds?!”.

As the meeting continued, to escape the onslaught of numbers and statistics, many of the attendees resorted to downing several cups of coffee, tea and soft drinks (how they wished for access to some sterner stuff!), comfort breaks and, of course, the innumerable interactions with their smart phones.

The eagerly awaited grand finale came and the CEO, who seemed to have been completely oblivious to what was going on up to that point in time, stood up to speak. His speech was the shortest and consisted of these few sentences: “Thank you one and all. I have enjoyed all your impressive presentations but here is the bottom line for the coming year – I want sales to be up by 5% and there will be no increase in any costs. Wish you all a very happy new year. Let us get to work”.

Later, when the stunned and exhausted executives were headed to the airport to catch their flights home, they could not but wonder whether their presentations and inputs had anything to do with the CEO’s final directive. Thus came to an end another expensive meeting to justify a foregone conclusion!