The Email Shower

Nothing defines corporate life as well as the proliferation of email messages crisscrossing the length and breadth of an organization. So pervasive is the phenomenon that in many companies, or at least in sections of many companies, no one “talks” to anyone else in non-email mode.

Emails can be as powerful as a nuclear device – with a single stroke of a finger (or click of a mouse, if you will), you can destroy many a family weekend, a romantic dinner or even an entire vacation. All it takes is a one-liner, “Call me.   D” (for dramatic effect, the boss signs, if at all, with only the first initial), safely and securely, and in an untimely manner, delivered to your smart phone. Of course the boss is not available to take the call even after you have tried calling till your phone battery is dead.

There are many innovative uses of the email weapon, limited only by your imagination. Here are a few that come to my mind:

  • You prove you are working by the steady stream of well-timed emails
  • You preempt any deadlines by repeatedly promising to deliver anything and everything the following day
  • You create or redirect work to others so that you have time for, yes, more emails
  • You cause the company server to crash with larger than life attachments
  • You never delete any of the earlier messages in the thread and frequently refer to something that is hundreds of levels deep in the thread
  • You never ever forget to ‘reply all’

Emails are self-perpetuating in nature – an email begets another one (or more). Like a race to the bottom, there are email competitions as to who will outlast whom. Let us follow one such chain:

Liz: Brian, could you please email me the proposal that we sent to Allied Traders last week?

Brian: I am in a meeting for the next thirty minutes – marking this to Kate to take action.

Kate (to Brian and Liz): Got it. Will jump on it right away.

Liz: Thanks Brian and Kate.

Brian: Not a problem. Still busy at the meeting (while also acknowledging several other such emails)

Kate: Always happy to help, Brian.

Liz (after 3 minutes): Kate, any progress?

Kate: Liz, my computer just froze – will wait for the tech guy to show up.

Brian (still busy at the meeting): Kate, try rebooting in the meanwhile.

Jason (the tech guy): Which floor and section are you in? Your laptop does not seem to be registered with us.

Liz (email spray): Can anyone else help with the document – please….

Random Guy-1: I can probably fix Kate’s computer.

Brian: I am really sorry Liz, the meeting is going way beyond its scheduled time.

Liz: Thanks Brian – appreciate your concern.

Kate: Hey!!! My computer is up.

Brian: Good job, Kate.

Jason: Kate, could you please close your service call request?

Brian: Jason, I will take care of it, as soon as I am out of the meeting. Kate, please fetch Liz’s document as soon as possible.

Kate: I am on it……

Liz: I just got the document.

Kate: But I have not yet sent it.

Liz: Let me see…… Random Guy-3 sent it. Does anyone know who he is? Anyway, thanks everyone.

Brian: Thank you Liz.

Brian: Thank you Kate.

Kate: Thank you Brian – much appreciate your support.

Jason: Can someone please close the support ticket? Thanks.

Brain: On it buddy…..

Kate: Brian, thanks a lot for taking care of this ticket.

Brain: Not a problem Kate.

Kate: Thanks.

Brian: You are welcome.

(Random Guy-3, who actually sent the document, and is an inadvertent “cc” in all these exchanges, wonders, “What the hell is going on?”)

The Holiday Party

Nothing else brings out the culture – or any other label you may care to use – of a company as the preparation, performance and post-event reminiscence of a holiday party. We will avoid assigning a name to the event – Halloween, Christmas, Diwali – to keep the context generic (if you are saying, “it is all the same” at this stage, I have already connected with you).

Typically, preparations for the party start a year ahead of time, just a day after the previous year’s party has ended. There are natural ‘leaders’ in any organization that effortlessly assume (usurp?) the role of organizer(s), edging out the meek and silent contenders. And this is perhaps one of the few areas of corporate sports where the senior executives are automatically eliminated, leaving the field open to the common man and woman.

Considerable time is spent on selecting a suitable venue. Many obviously unsuitable and exotic avenues are considered, deliberated upon and discarded, choosing one of the following reasons through random selection: too small, too large, expensive, too far from the office, too close, too noisy, too quiet, just-don’t-like-it. On the positive side, the organizers have managed to justify around four months worth of work hours.

Choosing a date is no less daunting. A day has to be selected after eliminating any kind of conflict with the school parties and game-days of various employees’ kids, standing weekly meetings of various cultural committees in the office, monthly birthday parties and several other important events. The trick is to get on to people’s calendars well ahead of their dentists’ offices.

About a month before the event day, things reach fever pitch. A variety of committees – food, transportation, decoration, sound system, games, evites and email reminders, coat hangers at the venue and so on – have been formed to accommodate (non)work for the swelling population of volunteers. Of course, regular office work has already come to a standstill. Bosses have stopped asking where their secretaries were.

After dodging multiple bullets in the form of a narrowly-missed tornado or storm, the evasive caterer failing to honor a carefully engineered menu and a eleventh hour cut in the company expense budget (successfully overcome by canceling a critical training program) the event is finally unstoppable. People arrive at the venue determined to have a good time. There is noticeable disappointment when it becomes clear that there is no alcohol – thanks to an overnight decision by the HR manager. The chief organizer tries her best to divert people’s attention to games such as match-the-baby-photos-to-your-current-bosses and name-all-the-conference-meeting-rooms-in-the-office. People are busy talking about their kids’ school and their visiting in-laws. The few bosses who do manage to come in are busy with shop talk.

The party comes to its inevitable end at the appointed hour, leaving the organizers to start their planning for …… you know what.

The Process Company

Processes are an integral part of all companies – sometimes, so integral that a company looks like an incidental outcome of its processes. The greatest benefit of having processes is, of course, the ability to be a ready excuse for any event, outcome or result.

“But sir, I was only following the company process while dealing with that customer”, “Jason, why have you not followed the escalation process for alerting senior management?”, “But….there was no process to catch this error in time”. Sounds familiar? If not, please apply for a corporate job immediately.

As with everything in life, a process is born out of chaos and the need to manage it. You go to a public office (think RMV) and you are handed a token that enters you into the first step in the process. You want a credit card – fill out the first of several dozen documents for, yes, processing. In the absence of these defined steps (a layman’s term for process), the act of getting a license or a credit card could become entirely random, subjective and confusing.

The corporate gurus have taken this to an entirely different level. In a typical office, there is a process for getting a pencil or sharpener for yourself, one (or many) more process(es) for getting approval for a flight that is 20 cents costlier than the lowest fare (though it saves 8 hours of your time) and a process for opening a new office overseas – all equally daunting to navigate. You should never assume that the process for what you may consider a trivial matter is less serious or less complex than that for making profound decisions that affect the entire organization.

What starts off as a simple procedure to streamline things, especially in a growing organization, soon becomes a death trap. Failure to win business against competition is easily blamed on processes, or lack thereof. Poor quality of software is by default attributed to insufficient and inadequate QA processes and never on the lack of skills of the developers.

The power of the process culture as a deterrent should not be underestimated. For example, if you needed to borrow the time of an IT specialist in your company to solve a desktop problem, a quick recap of the request-review-more information-review-deny-appeal-more information-deny steps in the process is enough to decide that it is much better to live with (and spread) the virus on your PC than to seek technical assistance. Of course, we are deliberately ignoring here the possibility of using your personal charm to entice the IT specialist to look at your laptop in the parking lot.

Processes follow the law of entropy – they always increase. First there is chaos in managing employee vacations. To solve this, a simple graph/chart is put up on the wall to see when who is on vacation. Then this gets incorporated as a spreadsheet on the manager’s PC. Next this is uploaded to a central point and made shareable. Everyone starts editing their own (and others’) vacation dates, making it an extremely dynamic document. Then access controls are put in place. This leads to the inability for anyone to get his or her vacation information into the system (yes, it is now a ‘system’) in a timely manner for lack of access privileges. Then comes a complex process of applying for vacation (in a different system, naturally) with associated approval workflow that, if and when successful, will feed the details into the system hosting the vacation chart……… (please feel free to take this up for your Ph.D thesis).

Management by Adjectives

“Brilliant”, “Outstanding”, “Abysmal”, “Pathetic” – do these sound familiar in your workplace, especially in meetings? Welcome to the domain of superlatives and the world of management by adjectives.

As the corporate world chugs along, trying (and failing) to keep pace with the lightning speed with which social media proliferates all aspects of life, every adjective that is (and is not) in the dictionary has become a weapon in the management arsenal.

Of course, pundits have long acknowledged and recommended the positive power of a pat on the back of a deserving employee. But, surely, isn’t a response of “awesome” from a manager while acknowledging his secretary’s mere mention of his next appointment a bit of overkill? Or an exclamation of “phenomenal” upon hearing a co-worker mention that the earth is round?

While the novice manager tries to be merely sensational with her use of adjectives (in the absence of any meaningful objectives), the professional takes the act to a different level – strategy at its best. With a deft maneuvering of the topic with the right adjectives, a situation such as, “We messed up and lost the order” could be portrayed as, “It was a sensational battle that came down to the wire. The competitor was selling snake oil with smokes and mirrors and unfortunately the customer failed miserably to see the extraordinary value in our unprecedented offer”.

In the sea of departmental wars that is often referred to as a corporation, the functional head who has command over a better repertoire of adjectives usually wins or at least comes out unscathed. Take a look at the following conversation in a review meeting:

Dan (CEO): How is the new building coming along?

Bob (Head of Construction): We have had some serious setbacks. Material for the structures arrived very late and the building crew had to be reassigned many times and we are six weeks behind schedule.

Dan: Mary, what …….

Mary (Head of Purchasing): Dan and Bob, it has been a hectic time with all vendors due to the unforeseen, unseasonable weather. My Senior Procurement Manager, Liz, has spent countless number of hours relentlessly chasing up an endless number of sources and has made the supreme sacrifice of canceling her precious dental appointment. But for dedicated staff like Liz, we would be way more behind schedule. I am monitoring the situation 24/7 (24/7 is an adjective not in the dictionary).

Dan: OK, ok…. Both of you, please get this back on track.

I rest my case.

10 Reasons Why Republicans Postponed Speaker Election

Check this out for ‘political’ entertainment that seems to rival and, often beat, corporate humor.

List of X

Outgoing Speaker John Boehner is just so happy that he won't have to do this crappy job anymore. Outgoing Speaker John Boehner is just so happy that he won’t have to do this crappy job anymore.

A couple of weeks ago, Republican John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, announced his retirement, and this Thursday the Republican party was scheduled to have a closed party election to fill the position. However, the election has been indefinitely postponed. Supposedly, the reason for delay was that the House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, who was widely expected to win the election, unexpectedly withdrew from the race yesterday: McCarthy had admitted that the purpose of Benghazi investigations was to lower Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, and this unfortunate episode of truth-speaking called McCarthy’s political competence into question. However, this wasn’t the only reason, and here are 10 other reasons why the vote was postponed.

1)  Every Republican politician who could have been interested in the Speaker job is already running for president.

2)  The Republican Party…

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The Consultant Phenomenon

The term Consultant is such an integral part of the corporate world – invoking, at the same time, images of a monster, a smooth operator, a scapegoat, a panacea for all evils or a tail-spinning artist depending on your point of view – that it deserves to be treated as a phenomenon rather than a mere noun.

First, who IS a Consultant? While we can fill several volumes with definitions and narratives, let us, for the sake of simplicity, treat the Consultant as an ‘outsider’ who is hired to accomplish a task that the parent organization in unable or unwilling to do with its internal resources (phew, that was hard!).

A Consultant usually makes his way in as an expert in something. The first thing that he does to establish his expertise is to question if the problem that he is hired to solve is indeed as simple as the novice organization initially thought it to be. “Do you think this is simply a technical problem of linking all your computers together in a network? Have you thought of access controls? How would you protect the (fictitious) personnel data (that is not present on these computers) from unauthorized changes? Where is your audit trail?” and many more questions are thrown at the unsuspecting managers unfortunate enough to be selected to work with the Consultant. Very quickly, matters spin out of control and a one-week assignment for one Consultant becomes a multi person-year program, complete with an in-house office set up for about hundred staff members from the Consultant company.

A series of meetings then follows to define the problem. “But, we already stated the problem in our original engagement letter” pleads the IT Manager with a quiver. She is quickly brushed aside by the Senior Partner from the Consultant company who is armed with a 55-slide presentation on the steps for scope definition. It becomes rapidly evident to the parent organization that they do not have any of information required by the Consultant to define the assignment. Several dozen in-house programmers are pulled from their critical work to extract and analyze data from various databases – ranging from number of copies of applications running on various servers to the first names of spouses of employees who left the company in the past 50 years. In the meanwhile, all the Consultants (yes, there are dozens of them by now) are preparing the next set of questions to be answered.

Six months and several million dollars later, there is the expected management review of what (the hell) is going on. Needless to say, it is the Consultant(s) who is presenting the status, as everyone in the parent organization has become a dumb bystander in the project. There is a bewildering array of colors – green, yellow, orange, pink and variations thereof – representing the current state of several hundred activities, none relevant to the original assignment. The CIO who is chairing the meeting asks his Director, “What are we trying to achieve here?” The Director starts to mumble, “I think….. I mean…..we started ……” when the Partner from the Consultant company smoothly chips in with, “Respected CIO, that is the topic for our next meeting at 10 AM on Monday next week”, bringing to an end yet another valiant attempt by the parent organization to retrieve itself from the maze.

The Corporate Bus

Buses have been an integral part of the corporate world for quite some time. Before you summarily dismiss me as a raving lunatic, please indulge me and read the rest of this musing.

The bus has been used as a metaphor, simile and variations thereof in a number of situations and contexts. Perhaps the most honorable mention has been in the book, Good to Great, by James Collins. James’ simple advice to the CEO of a company, who is pictured as the driver of the company bus, is to make sure that only the right people get on the bus and to let them decide/dictate the journey details.

We also often hear this, somewhat rhetorical, question: “What happens if Tina is run over by a bus tomorrow?” And then there is the “Who is in the driver’s seat – we or the customer?”, not to forget the “Hi buddy, you are late – you missed the bus”.

But the one that most people are aware of – and have perhaps experienced at some point in time (!) – is the act of throwing someone under the bus. While the act itself may appear deceptively simple, the finesse needed to practice the skill is not to be underestimated.

When you are a novice trying to learn your tricks in your organization, you typically do not have anyone (excluding, for this discussion, the security guard) reporting to you. So, as part of your learn-to-throw-under-the-bus, level-101 course you might try things like, “I did not attend the meeting because my colleague ….. did not send a meeting invite” or “Mary (the secretary) brought me a very spicy burger which forced me to spend half an hour in the restroom”. The important lesson to learn here is the ability to spot opportunities where you can practice your skill, be spontaneous and be able to think on your feet.

At the next level, when you are a manager, you ruthlessly practice your art on your hapless subordinates. If you are late in submitting your monthly report because you completely ignored or forgot about it, you declare, with a straight face, that (you pick a name) had horribly mixed up the numbers before going on her ill-timed, one-day sick leave. To add to the effect, you profusely apologize for having missed the deadline and swear never to depend on others, even in your own department, for such critical tasks. And then you send a nasty email on the subject (for the first time) to the employee now crushed under the bus. End of episode!

The black belts of this art are, of course, found in the highest levels of the organization. They can throw armies under the bus (or tankers, if you prefer) with nonchalance. And they can include peers and also superiors in their gamut. Here is a scene with the CEO, VP Sales and VP Services:

CEO (Tom): I believe our customer, Allied Manufacturing, is refusing to sign the new five-million dollar deal for our new pumps – this is crucial to meet our current targets.

VP Sales (Jen): Yes, Tom, we are having difficult negotiations. I understand that they have not been very happy with our level of service on existing equipment and ……

CEO: What is the problem John?

VP Services (John) (clearly surprised): Well, I don’t know….we have fixed all their problems promptly and, in fact, we have had no issue or complaints for the past 4 months……Who in Allied…..

VP Sales: John, people don’t always say things to people openly but we heard from our ‘sources’ that….

CEO: John, I cannot have a dissatisfied customer. Hurts our business badly. Go get a fix on the (non)issue.

Epilogue:

John (from under the four wheels): Can someone tell me what happened?