Kicking the can down the road

As with most corporate jargon and complex phrases, the term, ‘kick the can down the road’ has a much simpler expression – ‘make it someone else’s problem’. Being a natural part of human behavior, this skill sits very well in the corporate world.

In its simplest form, corporate managers, and even rookies, can easily postpone discussion on a difficult topic by simply stating, “let us sleep over this issue” or “let us take it up in the next meeting (which conveniently does not take place for several months) or with a curve ball, “can we get more data points before we make a decision on this?”. Quite often, in meetings, troublesome topics are deliberately scheduled last on the agenda to provide ample opportunity to be skipped or postponed.

A more serious form of this game is in dealing with customer commitments. It is the dream of all sales executives and managers not to say ‘No’ to prospects and customers. “Can your video game software help me balance budgets?” – Yes, this add-on feature will be given to you free. “Can your company guarantee peak performance, with a dedicated service representative, for three years?” – Yes, of course. “Can your product make me fly?” – Yes, we are including this feature in our next version! These responses, apart from being wildly imaginative and tangential with reference to what is being sold, also make promises to be fulfilled by someone else at a later point in time – classic ‘kick the can’!

At the professional level – call it the NFL level – the can being kicked is the company itself. This is where the C-suite executives (the CEO, CMO and a variety of other C’s) use decisions and indecisions to tide over serious issues temporarily, often at the cost of long term setback – comparable to increasing the size of the fuse on a detonator instead of removing the explosive.  For example, to make up for a poorly designed product, instead of fixing the design, you deploy more support staff to field customer complaints, hoping that customers don’t desert the company before you, the CEO, do. As the Vice President of HR, you appease people by offering inconsistent pay revisions to different groups of employees till everyone is equally dissatisfied – and then you jump ship leaving your legacy – also known as the previously-kicked-can – for your successor to grapple with.

For the suave executive, the ability to kick the can down the road must be matched by the ability to quickly move places.

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Never Say No

Have you come across a manager who never says ‘No’? I am sure many can relate to experiences with a manager, or some other executive in the corporate jungle, who is always smiling and saying, “Of course, will do” or “Not a problem” or a reassuring “Consider it done”.

As a novice, your initial reaction to interaction with such a saint, who giveth unconditionally, is one of elation. You want a two-week vacation starting tomorrow? Approved. Five thousand dollars for a company picnic? Go right ahead. Taking this a notch higher, could we hire a new contract programmer for a year? Yes, of course. And, how about an additional million dollars for the departmental budget – wink, wink, you know the answer.

Before you start wondering how rosy the world would be under such a benevolent corporate ruler, let us see how this actually translates into real (in)action. First, this manager would carefully ensure that he is not directly responsible for implementing his ill-thought-out decisions. He is depending, if not betting, on the convoluted corporate maze wherein someone else would block and tackle and actually stop the run (sorry, non-football folks, for the analogy). Maybe a HR manager will point out that the concerned employee has no vacation days left; or, no picnic locations nearby are available for the entire summer; and so on. The Machiavellian strategy is to make sure that the blame for inaction and non-implementation falls on someone else. In fact, the more experienced manager ensures that it is so, by being forearmed with relevant constraints and limitations.

A popular variation of the above theme is to give away things that are not in your domain or purview. A sales manager selling an expensive computer to a customer who does not want to buy extended warranty whispers to the customer, “don’t worry, you can always call our service department and ask for help”. When your Director asks you if you could compile an urgent sales report before the end of the day, and you are already up to your neck in other work, you obviously don’t say ‘no’ or ‘sorry’ but puff and pant and smartly state, “I am fully booked but no worries –  I will ask Beth in Operations to do this. I am sure she will be delighted to chip in”.

For more sensational, and, naturally, devastating effects, you need to move up the organization where C-Level executives are interacting with external entities. A customer manager, who is causing inordinate delays and is being diligently handled by your company’s project team, suddenly wants the project time reduced by half because she wants to go on a cruise. She approaches your VP of Projects and readily gets her wish granted. This then results not only in the frustrated project team members working weekends but sends a lot of other projects into a tailspin.

So, the moral of the story – learn to say ‘No problem’ and create problems!

Meeting Agenda

Anyone who has lived, or even smelled, and survived the shenanigans of the corporate world would be aware that at the core of the corporate culture of wasting time – alternatively called ‘keeping busy’ – is the endless loop of meetings. What is even more fascinating, and appalling at the same time, is the ingenuity of defining an ‘agenda’ for the meeting.

Let us take a look at some of the most common items that masquerade as legitimate agenda ‘topics’:

How did we get here:  This is a common opening theme for many meetings, especially those that have no obvious necessity or purpose. This opens the door for a gruesome postmortem of anything and everything (related or unrelated to the meeting) that happened in the past, that everyone is already aware of. This is somewhat like a doctor in an emergency room, before treating a heart attack patient, calling for a detailed discussion on the treatment options that have evolved over the decades.

Summary: This item is a constant companion to ‘how did we get here’ – in many cases, it may actually be the same as the first item as pretty much nothing new is added or accomplished in the meeting. Between these two agenda components, a kind of relay race is set to carry the baton forward to eternity.

Q&A: The questions and answers session is tagged on to every meeting agenda in the fond hope that people attending the meeting would actually pay attention to what goes on and, then, have the courage and patience to prolong the meeting by asking questions.  A very subtle, but effective, hidden agenda (pun intended) for this topic is to fish for agenda ideas for subsequent meetings.

Next Steps: What is the purpose of a meeting if it cannot beget more meetings in short order? Very often, this topic helps carry forward the same agenda items from the current meeting to a future one since nothing has been achieved, other than consuming coffee and other beverages, in this meeting. And, the real measure of success of a meeting is the increase in the number of ‘topics’ to be discussed in the next meeting (see Q&A above). An (un)intended, and often unpleasant, outcome of Next Steps is the assigning of vague and intangible ‘action items’ to unsuspecting audiences (present and absent in the meeting).

Parking Lot:  The purest form of meeting agendas always includes a ‘Parking Lot’, which is often not in the actual agenda but springs up on a white board in the meeting room. This is where the master of ceremonies, the agenda owner, keeps noting down things that cannot be solved in the current meeting (due to lack of sufficient ‘data points’, if I may add). This provides a ready escape route for one and all not to bother about coming prepared to discuss, leave alone resolve, any of the agenda topics.

If ever there was a competition for definition of an endless loop, ‘meeting agenda’ would be a very strong contender!

Corporate Expertise

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them – so goes a famous saying from yester-years. The corporate world extension of this is: Expertise may sometimes actually exist but can always be portrayed to exist.

The corporate world is full of experts if not expertise. You name it and there are one or more experts. At the strategic level, you have the expert on mergers and acquisitions; company turnaround; getting into, sorry, out of, bankruptcy; improving the bottom line, top line or anything in between, and so on.

Experts at the tactical or operational level provide a lot of fun while creating immense confusion in the organization. Typically, such an expert’s ‘expertise’ is based on one incident, situation or project that he or she has encountered earlier in the career. For example, an office manager who has reorganized the office in a five people company, essentially by moving a few tables around, becomes the expert in ‘office remodeling’. She then touts her expertise and attempts the same technique (more like a trick) in a multi-location, global company with hundreds of employees, with disastrous results.

These experts are like one-trick ponies. They learn something somewhere and try to apply the same principle or methodology over and over in any and all situations. Such expertise is even better peddled if the ‘expert’ moves from company to company quickly (which may also be a necessity as their bluff is called out in short order at each place). They constantly try to prove the cliché, ‘one size fits all’!

The pinnacle of the corporate expertise phenomenon is reserved for ‘Ask the Expert’ sessions that are a favorite comic interlude of every conference and convention. Imagine yourself as a helpless spectator in such a gathering, with the panel of experts on the podium dishing out their wisdom to unsuspecting audiences, and enjoy the show:

Panel Moderator: We are honored to have multiple experts on managing project costs to answer questions from our eager group of project managers in the audience.

Audience-1: How can I speed up a project without increasing resource costs?

Expert-1: There is always a cheaper resource – use metal sheets of thinner gauge, use stainless steel instead of ….

Audience-1: But excuse me, we are talking of a software development project.

Expert-1: Well… you know……. maybe you could use a cheaper software language, maybe Java instead of C… it is all the same principle, you know.

 

Audience-2: Hi, in our project the requirements keep changing and the stakeholders do not realize the added costs due to this. How best can we get the right message across and establish controls?

Expert-2: We had the same situation when we were designing the process flow for making soaps in a client’s factory. We just used an existing, competitor’s soap as our requirements specification and ……

Audience-2: But, with due respect, we are designing a unique multi-storey condo complex to custom specifications.

Expert-2: It is all the same. I have seen it in several factories that our consultancy has designed…… Just adopt an existing model…

Long live the clan of experts – but stay away from their expertise!

Carrot and Stick – or Mashed Potato

Everyone is familiar with the good old concept of carrot and/or stick – the act of cajoling someone to do something through a reward (carrot) and/or with the threat of punishment (stick). As children, we have all gone through the phase of adjusting our actions and behavior based on the expected use of this technique by our parents.

Like with everything else, the corporate world takes this phenomenon to a new level. There are managers who have learnt and (im)perfected this art through full-time courses in business schools, company-sponsored workshops and seminars, miracles producing ‘learn leadership in 30 days’ crash courses or simply through word of mouth from colleagues.

A savvy software development manager, supervising a group of developers in a large corporation, practices this technique like witchcraft. She announces to the team that the entire group would go on a cruise if the project is completed even one day (rephrase this as ‘one minute’ if you want to take this down to the wire) ahead of schedule. While the whole group kicks into a high degree of frenzy, I mean motivation, there are the habitual slackers who spoil the fun – net result is a non-cruise. The manager, annoyed at the delays and the effect on her reputation in the company, wields the stick and cancels pre-approved vacations, even for the good performers.

In the next iteration (software development is nothing but an endless series of failed iterations, under the modern day principle of failing quickly), very few developers bother to work hard and finish their tasks on time, assuming that the group will be late anyway.  The manager, however, selectively rewards the ones who finish their individual tasks on time. She also does not pull up those who are late thus sending mixed and confusing signals like a set of faulty lights at a traffic junction.

The group of developers are now in a state of confusion, to say the least. Those who could perform better but did not do so are fretting and fuming and decide to rebel and sabotage the next project. They promote wrong assumptions and deliberately mislead others about the features of the next software application being developed by their team, with the result that the entire system is scrapped by senior management and the whole department severely reprimanded.

Thus, the ingenious and cunning, though ineffective, use of the carrot-and-stick principle results in a mushy, unpalatable mashed potato!

Geometry in Corporate Life

From my school days, the branch of Math called Geometry has been fascinating as well as frightening depending on whether I was preparing for a test or not. The corporate world, ever the innovative busy bee that it is, has added significant new dimensions (pun intended) to this science, never ever dreamt of by Euclid, Archimedes and others.

From the shape, circle, comes the concept of going round in circles, the well known form of corporate dance that maintains a facade of carrying out various (usually repetitive) actions without making any progress on the issue involved. For example, in preparation for a major presentation to senior management the following month, the departmental manager assembles his staff every day and talks about what could go wrong during the presentation, what unexpected questions might be asked, who in senior management might get a bad impression and so on. Having spent all available time in preparing for defense against imaginary ghosts, he makes no worthwhile points about the achievements of the department during the actual presentation – thus paving the way for the very reaction from senior management that he was trying to prevent!

There are other aspects of geometry that have made their way into corporate speak – scalable model, cutting corners, going full circle (aka back to square one) and throwing a curve ball to name a few. But the one concept that is used to telling effect as a strategy of evasion and diversion is the act of sending others on a ‘tangential’ path.

Let us follow the conversation at a high-level (‘C’ Level, if you will) meeting in a global organization.

Dan (CEO): How are we doing with Sales this month?

Mary (VP, Sales): We are doing OK, Dan. Have had a few hiccups in the North due to transportation issues but …..

Dan: What transportation issues? Let us get a fix on them.

Tom (Director, Transportation): The fleet company we use to move our goods has had problems due to …….

Dan: I cannot have an outside fleet company hold us to ransom. Let us explore the option of acquiring and managing our own trucks. Jon, can you initiate a study to explore this?

Jon (CFO): Well, Dan, we did some analysis five years ago through a study we conducted with …….

Dan: I don’t want excuses. Get an external, professional company to do a fresh study. I want to fix the problem (even though I don’t know if there is a problem). I want all the attendees in this room to form a Committee and submit a feasibility report in two weeks.

Tom: Dan, what I meant to say was ……

Dan: Tom, it is not your problem. No one is blaming you. Jon, get cracking on finding a consultant to start the study immediately.

Later, in the corridor……

Mary: I never said or implied that transportation issues affected our sales last month.

Tom: Jon, I only meant to say we were not paying our transporter on time and that we should clear their dues immediately.

Jon (sigh..): And now we have this unwarranted study on our hands.

 

Ambiguity

The message unequivocally conveyed in all B schools, and in any sort of internal company training conducted by a variety of agencies masquerading as management consultants is that one needs to communicate in a clear, concise and unambiguous manner. Little do these pundits know the incredible power of ambiguity as a management tool par excellence.

Ambiguity as a coveted weapon of choice is not to be confused or even compared with companion management techniques such as indecision, procrastination, denial, deflection, etc. While the said techniques are passive in nature – in that they involve NOT doing something (at least immediately) – ambiguity is an active tool requiring perpetual, perceived action.

Let us take the simple example of when a new system, say (ironically) a new mobile communication platform for the company, will be operational. As the senior IT Director in charge of the project, you want to keep your options open, namely vague (ok, ambiguous)! You mention different ‘launch’ dates in different forums – ‘2 months from now’ through ‘12 months from now’ to ‘TBD’ (to be decided). People are naturally confused, as is expected and desired by you. You take care to neither acknowledge nor deny any dates that are thrown at you, at the same time proactively making statements such as, “the first set of users should be seeing the new system very shortly”, “it is already being beta tested by first adapters”, “oh, it is just coming off the iterative validation by power users – with rave reviews, if I may add” and so on. There is a lot of buoyancy in the air and huge expectations of something big about to happen with no certainty as to when!

The seasoned manager may also practice ambiguity to keep the subordinates guessing. In the first sales review meeting, she could tell her audience, “In future meetings, I would like each one of you to go into some detail regarding your territories”. In the second meeting, she could tell them, “It is really not necessary to go into such excruciating detail about what you do – just focus on the key customers”. The sermon in the third meeting goes something like, “…. Come on guys, we all know what these customers do … let us review the power players, the influencers at these customers …. Haven’t you done any such case studies in college?”. This manager has succeeded in making the entire team jittery and frustrated. They start focusing all their energies on guessing what their manager wants them to present rather than trying to improve sales.

The pinnacle in the art of ambiguity is when your customers start feeling uncertain and even lost as to what they are buying from you. Here is a snippet from a conversation between the Sales Manager of a company trying to sell a phone service to the Admin Manager of a (potential) customer:

Sales Manager (SM): Thanks for seeing me. I assume you have already reviewed our price quote for the 100-instrument integral phone service for your office.

Customer (Admin): Yes, the proposal looks good. I have a few questions….

SM: Fire away. That is why I am here – to offer clarifications (ambiguity antenna sharpened)

Admin: Do you support 100 registered users or 100 concurrent users?

SM: Great question. (pretends to look through some information on his laptop). Our virtual circuit gateway randomizes the virtual user count allowing more than the permissible number of concurrent users to be serviced through queueing.

Admin: Hm….Er…..  Okayeeee…. So I can have more than 100 users on my system?

SM: You may consider it that way. Here is the interesting part. By using the store-and-forward method, we can support delayed processing without your users feeling any negative impact on response times.

Admin: (with no clue as to what is being said) Sounds good …. How about service levels – do you guarantee at least 99% uptime on the system?

SM: Again, a very smart question. Historically, we have achieved greater than 99.5% uptime for all our systems with 10 to 99 instruments in any one location (I am not going to tell you that for 100+ instruments, the figure is well below 80%). In case of catastrophic failures, with our automated redundancy support, we will be able to switch you over to a backup system in 30 minutes. This will cost you 25% extra maintenance ……(peers at his laptop)…..tell you what, I am going to waive this additional fee if you will confirm the order right now. What do you say?

 

Admin: (I have no idea of what I am hearing but it sounds good) OK, let us do it.