Exception becomes the Rule

Long ago, one of my bosses told me, “There is an exception to every rule but exception itself is not a rule”. I was reveling in the wisdom of such thoughtful words till the reality of the working world set me right.

While the turn of events in the political arena in America seems to have legitimized every possible exception only in recent times, the practice has been nonchalantly adopted by the corporate world for decades, if not centuries.

OK, ok, I know what you are thinking – “what is this lunatic raving about?” – let me get straight to explaining this. When you are at the bottom of the organizational totem pole and you have, let us call them, idiosyncrasies such as interrupting someone in mid-sentence or talking on the phone while ignoring the person in front of you, you would get expressions of disapproval all the way from a stiff upper lip or a raised eyebrow if you are in the company of Englishmen practicing Wodehouse-an values, through a kick under the table if you are amongst friends, to an outright ‘shut-up’ if you are in the company of millennials trying to right everything that is wrong around them. But, if you are tenacious and preserve your behavior as you worm your way up the organization, you will soon reach a level where you can authoritatively have your exceptional behavior be not just tolerated but accepted, many times encouraged and often imitated. Thus you redefine and convert an exception to the norm as the norm.

The key here is that you should be patient and wait till you are at a level in your company where you have earned the right to project the exception as a hallmark of your individual self and style rather than as a lacuna in your capability. Whether it is a case of routinely not paying attention to what people are saying, ignoring facts, writing incoherent emails, eating peanuts and ice cubes during meetings, using the f-word in every sentence or any other equally entertaining habit, no one dares to question you. Even better, everyone starts practicing these exceptions, sorry rules, and they become an integral part of the corporate culture!



The Offline Company

I think I got you there – you thought you were about to read about a company that has no online presence and does business only through traditional means such as brick-and-mortar shops or traveling salesmen. Wrong! I am referring to the management cliché, that is all too prevalent, of deferring discussion on any topic or issue during a meeting by simply opting to ‘take it offline’!

Meetings are fundamental to the practice and growth of mediocrity and non-performance in corporate life. In large organizations, it is quite easy to mandate the presence of a bewildering array of representatives from various departments for any meeting. The crux of the matter is that no one knows how or why the other departments are involved – because no one knows why their own department is involved in the matter! And, since no one comes prepared with any relevant information, key issues meant to be discussed during a meeting are always side-stepped and marked for ‘offline’ resolution, defeating the very purpose of the meeting.

Let us track the (non)progress of such a meeting with the stated purpose of determining sales targets for the coming year After losing considerable time on scheduling the meeting through a complex algorithm using linear programming techniques to accommodate all participants, the meeting is finally convened. Of course, in keeping with contemporary organizational practices, very few people are physically present at the venue – most are virtual via digital technology.

Martin (CEO): Good morning and welcome. As you all know, we are in a tough market and there is increasing pressure from our investors to double our sales next year. So, Jason, what do we have by way of plans to achieve this?

Jason (Head of Sales) (clearly taken aback by the CEO’s expectations): Er..Hmm… Yes, Martin, we are putting together an aggressive plan to penetrate new markets. We expect a significant increase in the breadth and depth of our coverage. We …

Martin: OK, what does that mean in real terms?

Jason: Liz, could you please share our analysis and projections?

Liz (Market Research): Yes, Jason. We are currently thrice as big as the smallest competitor in our vertical, not considering the international sector. Next year, after adjusting for regional variances and accounting for GDP growth, we should be twice as big as the median competitor in year-on-year sales growth. This, of course…

Martin: Sorry guys, what numbers are we talking about?

Jason: Martin, in the interest of time and to deal with other items on the agenda for this meeting, could we take this offline, outside this meeting?

Martin (clearly enraged): What other items? Was this meeting not meant to focus on sales targets for next year?

Jason: Yes, yes. We will deal with that offline – I promise. Could we now quickly discuss participation in trade shows next year?

Martin (exasperated): Could we not take that offline?

Management by (not ‘of’) Conflict

Conflict Management – the manna from heaven for business schools and management strategists for providing endless advice and, of course, fertile ground for earning handsome fees. Be it words of wisdom from Peter Drucker or the guy in the next cube, conflict management is never far from one’s mind.

While conflict may be viewed as something that is natural in its occurrence prompting one to try and figure out ways and means to resolve (or prevent) the same, the shrewd corporate wizard knows and puts into practice the full potential of conflicts as an effective management tool.

Let us look at a software manager controlling (in the name of ‘coordinating’) the work of two developers under her. One of them mentions in a casual conversation with the manager that the other developer, Mary, is having a tough time finishing a complex program that she is working on. Subsequently, the manager calls Mary and informs her, “John was complaining that your code is not up to standards and that is affecting integration with his programs”. Thus is set in motion a period of eternal rivalry and conflict between John and Mary making them point fingers at each other and lose no opportunity to ‘impress’ their manager by – yes, you are right – putting down his/her colleague, while the manager herself has the luxury of sitting and twiddling her thumbs.

At a higher level in the corporate hierarchy, the conflict tool is used with even more telling (and, needless to say, disastrous) effect. The CEO of a consumer products company could easily sow the seeds for a series of conflicts between the Product Manager and the head of R&D by saying to the latter, “Hey, the Product Manager thinks you guys should be in the baby food business, the way you come up with trashy perfumes!” The CEO clearly is looking to take advantage of this deliberate incitement while seeming to induce competition (more like combat).

Another shining example of benefiting from the creation or encouragement of conflict is in dealing with prospects or customers and the intra-company turf wars that exist. Say, you are trying to sell a new medical device to a hospital. The head of medical practice is at loggerheads with the chief of engineering who feels that the existing devices in the hospital have a life span of 5 more years. You, the supplier, could help by digging up dirt on their engineering department regarding non-existent inefficiencies and arm the head of medical practice to berate and demean their engineers and win his case for ordering new equipment, resulting in predictably unwarranted expenditure for the hospital. Clearly there are many paths to corporate survival, I mean, success!

Adaption, Corporate Style

Amongst all the celebrated ‘virtues’ in the corporate world, ‘Adaption’ ranks right at the top. It could be mistaken by a simpleton to mean the much commended habit of being able to adjust to one’s surroundings and environment. However, the heights (or depths, if you prefer) to which this behavior can be taken and the results achieved will leave you spellbound.

As a newcomer to any company that qualifies to be in the corporate league, you are told, if you have not already thought through it, to adapt to the prevalent corporate culture. This sets you off on a wild goose chase of the elusive phenomenon that conveniently defies any objective definition. You hear passing remarks such as, “…. you got to rise up to it”, “…it is in the genes of this company”,”….this is precisely what I love about this place” and ”….the culture here is unique”. You are baffled and frustrated at the same time and decide to give it some time to sink into you.

A few weeks and several faux pas and mishaps later, you are gradually beginning to understand the adaption game. You can certainly be excused if you get the feeling, more than once, of being an adopted child in the organization. You have adapted to the chaotic habit in the company of copying a minimum of 25 extraneous people in every email and responding to only such emails where you are a ‘cc’ and which do not pertain to your area of work; you have fully embraced the culture of 120-minute meal breaks; you have quickly become adept at putting yourself on mute during most conference calls, and doing your real work.

You try valiantly to find out what is valued in the company – punctuality, working late, meeting deadlines, more/less meetings, sending thank-you notes and emails, sharing work, small talk and so on. You draw a blank when you confront people with these questions – they just shrug or grin. After racking your brain for several months, you give up and decide to go with the flow – and thus adapt!

Some of the adaptations are not easy to come by and this is where you really earn your keep. You should be intuitive enough to know which other departments and managers are on your boss’ favored list. This determines, in no uncertain terms, who your friends and non-friends (you never label anyone as your ‘enemy’ in the corporate world) are – and remember this is a dynamic list that changes often, all part of the culture that you are trying to adapt into. Likewise, you need to know the limits to which information and facts can be stretched – these are obviously elastic in nature – without breaking the proverbial bank (read, your job!). And then there is a plethora of nuances and subtleties of how to do tasks that put yourself (and your boss, of course) in the best light, how to avoid the pitfalls of being associated with a failed project, how not to make any recommendations that may come back to bite you ……. and so on. Yes, adaption in the corporate world is not a joke!

Reflection – a powerful tool for Inaction

OK, you are intrigued by the title. No? Read on anyway! Hint: We are not talking about the philosophical introspection – pensively looking into yourself or the issue on hand and coming up with a solution to a tricky problem, through the wisdom of experience. We are, rather, talking about reflecting (more like deflecting) back a problem or a question like rays on a mirror.

Have you ever gone up to your manager and asked, “I have these two conflicting tasks – what should I do?” …. And received a response like, “What would YOU do, Jason?” followed by a stoic silence for a very long time till you correctly get the message as, “Go deal with it yourself”. Welcome to the world of the ‘reflective manager’.

The art of reflection (also referred to as ‘playing tennis’ in less sophisticated circles) is best practiced when you potentially have a large audience. Say you are training a large group of young management trainees. You can, with confidence, bounce every one of the questions raised by each one of them right back to group ….. and make it appear like you are giving them a chance to exercise their grey cells. You can even make project assignments of the silliest question and send them into endless circles.

A manager’s true capabilities lie in performing multi-directional reflection across different departments and sections of the organization. For instance, when your boss asks you what the status of an IT upgrade project that you are responsible for is, you immediately run through a mental checklist of all people who could be targeted – the janitor on your floor, the purchase department guy who helped you order the cables for the project, even the secretary who prepared your last powerpoint deck – and finally end up ‘pinging’ the heads of various departments that are not part of the upgrade project. By keeping your boss copied on all your ‘deflections’ you create a huge aura and perception of working hard to gather facts, while shielding yourself from actually providing any response of your own.

Reflection involving people outside your company – vendors, customers, contractors – is even more entertaining, with near zero risk. A scene that would be readily familiar to everyone is the runaround given to a supplier while trying to get an overdue invoice paid. As the person directly responsible for approving the payment, you could bounce the hapless supplier representative in many a direction – ‘oh, I have asked for the purchase order to be reissued’, ‘I will check if you have been set up on our Accounts Payable system’, ‘Have you submitted form XR-896D to my Tax department?’, ‘I have just asked my contracting department for the terms of payment’, ‘I will check with my finance department when their next payment cycle is’…. and so on to eternity!

The Status Quo Heaven

Status Quo is a wonderful thing. For those pundits who need a definition for everything, let me define status quo as the result of an act (more like an art) of preventing anything from making forward progress of any kind – if, inadvertently, things move backward, it could be treated as an added bonus.

The degree of difficulty in maintaining status quo is inversely proportional to the size of the organization. Further, in large organizations it is next to impossible to ascertain with any level of confidence that anything has changed or not – whether it is the number of meetings that you have to attend (endure), the number of such meetings that result in any tangible outcome or the number of times you have to clarify (or categorize) an item on your expense report.

For the average mid level manager (and at other levels too), status quo is the gold standard, the pursuit of which tends to be relentless. Take a look at the deft maneuvering by the seasoned professional in the following conversation:

Karen (Chief Operating Officer): Thank you all for coming to this meeting at such a short notice. We have selected a new expense management system that will enable tracking of various expenses by categories, by departments and more. This will help us…….. yes, Tim, you have a question?

Tim (Manager, Administration): Is this SATGH 1010, KUSNK 201 certified?

Karen: I am not sure what those acronyms are but this product is being used by the majority of Fortune 500 companies. So, Mary, I would like you to come up with a plan for speedy implementation.

Mary (Head of Information Systems): Yes, Karen. Sounds interesting. We should be able to…….

Tim: But the risks and costs of introducing high tech systems in our organization may be formidable. You will all remember the disaster when we tried to quickly automate the process for cafeteria menu management 10 years ago – people had to go without chicken sandwiches for 2 full days.

Karen (getting irritated): Tim, what are you implying here – that we should not change from a 20-year old, paper based system that is obsolete?

Tim: No, Karen. I only want to recommend that we should be very careful in selecting and implementing any new system. We should initiate a full training program for all our employees to be trained in the use of a computer mouse as well as the correct use of their fingers on touch screens. This obviously could take a few years to accomplish. And then we should have parallel runs for the new system for a period of …….

Karen (barely able to control herself): OK, Mary could you get with Tim and come up with a plan that is workable. Let us meet again in 3 months.

Tim is back in his cabin, satisfied at having succeeded in preventing another risky move to make things better in the organization.

The Magical Quadrants

There is a panacea for all evils – or is it the other way (evil in every panacea) – in corporate management. Its name is ‘the magical quadrants’.

A corporate quadrant diagram has four boxes (surprise!). Every issue, situation, behavior, result, forecast, procedure and (name anything you wish) is nonchalantly fitted into one of these boxes and, before you can say, ‘hey, presto’, the problem is ‘solved’!

As an example, let us analyze a situation where your company’s sales figures are declining while other comparable companies are doing very well. Bring on the quadrant wand and slot away as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 7.24.40 PM

Armed with the above tantalizing display, the Head of Sales can easily make the following presentation to the company’s senior management:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am aware that you are all worried about the company’s performance (or lack thereof) over the past few quarters. But I have been tracking the progress of our company through the company performance-employee morale correlation represented in the picture shown above. This has been taken directly from published results from extensive research on leading global companies by the industry watchdog, XYZ Unlimited. Last year, we were in quadrant I. Thanks to tremendous efforts by our management to expand and grow our lawn, with active support from the CEO, I am proud to say that we are now in quadrant II. We do not ever want to be in quadrant III which is where all our competitors are – with low employee morale that is easily correctable. We have put aggressive plans in place to move directly to quadrant IV. With our highly motivated workforce and our continuing investments in maintaining and growing greenery around us, it is just a matter of time before we find ourselves at the top of quadrant IV that remains a mere dream for all our competitors. Thank you all!

After that fiery speech, everyone goes back to work with renewed resolve to seek out more correlations and generate new quadrant diagrams!