Deniability

In the game of corporate chess played by professionals, deniability is a move reserved only for the grandmasters – comparable in strategic importance to the capture of the opponent’s queen.

For the common man, deniability might sound like a legal process to be practised only by the defense attorney in a murder case. The term might even be confused with the word, ‘disclaimer’, that dutifully appears at the end of just about every document in today’s business world. Let us try and understand this corporate phenomenon in a simple (wink, smile!) manner – while, of course, denying any (un)intended consequences!

Deniability in its simple form is the art of making promises without any intention to fulfill those. Take for example the HR Manager who promises you a salary review and potential increase after 6 months of ‘good performance’ to entice you into joining the company, taking a significant cut in your then current remuneration. Your line manager, when the magical six months are up, will plead ignorance (yes, you are learning fast the different shades of deniability) of any earlier promises made. Your attempts at raising the issue with the HR Manager will be met with strange occurrences of selective amnesia! The more conscientious HR Manager might point you to the recent changes in Section 14.3 of the HR policy that prohibits reviews before 12 months of continuous service!

More sophisticated forms of deniability require significant planning. During the sales cycle for a major ERP system, the deployment engineers are deliberately absent so that the ‘knowledgeable’ sales team of the vendor, which could include executives all the way up to the head of sales, can position the company’s offering as the panacea for all evils. All questions from the customer regarding the system’s capabilities are met with an emphatic ‘yes’. The customer signs up to what they consider a great deal and it is now time for deploying what promises to be the mother of all systems. When the vendor’s deployment team starts explaining the conditions under which the system would function and the time it would take to reorganize the company’s processes to use the new system, the customer is naturally taken aback. In sheer naivety, they try to recall the discussions during the sales process, all knowledge of which the vendor’s delivery team promptly denies! Thus begins a long cycle of acrimonious mudslinging between the two companies, even as the sales team moves on to greener pastures!

In practicing the art of deniability, one should be skillful in using ambiguous words and stating partial truths. You never say, “it works” but state something like, “it has never been known to have failed in the past”. If the customer asks, “will we get 24/7 support”, you aggressively counter with, “you may call me on my cell at any time”. The answer to, “are there any outstanding issues with the product”, is, “all known errors to-date have been fixed in the latest release”. After gaining adequate experience in handling these situations, your responses and conversation will begin to have an automatic stamp of deniability. This is when you graduate from being a mere practitioner of the art to being a mentor to others!

Deniability has come to pass as a strategic tool in corporate management – in much the same way as spying on your private life goes under the name of ‘market intelligence’ and ‘personalization’ (topics that deserve to be individually dealt with in their own right!). One can only nostalgically look back upon the times when a deal used to be sealed with a handshake!

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