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).

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?

The World of Small Talk

Let us get one thing straight at the beginning – there is nothing ‘small’ about small talk. More often than not, it occupies center stage and is accorded much more importance than the main topic or issue on hand – which it is intended to lead you gently into.

‘How are you?’, ‘How is it going?’ or a more trendy ‘Howdy?’ may not always attract what you are expecting by way of response – a mono-syllable ‘Good’, ‘Fantastic’ or, if you are really lucky, a mere grunt. Your feeble attempt at interacting with an office colleague, with the ill-founded intention of acting sociable, might be the trigger to an extraordinarily elaborate and vivid description, in excruciating detail, of the happenings in the addressee’s life over the past day/week/month/year – as an added bonus, you might also get to know similar details of others who may have had the misfortune to ask the same question ahead of you.

It is agreed that small talk is not everyone’s forte – I have my full sympathy for the hapless souls who struggle to break the ice while interacting with strangers and friends alike, whether at a party or in an office setting. But, on the flip side, those to whom small talk is nothing but second nature have the power, singly and severally, to borrow a legal term, to reduce productivity in the office to statistically insignificant numbers!

Unlike most other activities that have the proverbial time and place to be practiced, small talk is omnipresent and, to the seasoned practitioner, requires no tools of the trade and no preparation time. It is unleashed without notice and hits its mark instantaneously. You could be helping yourself to a cup of water or coffee (while wishing for something stronger) in the break room, when you inadvertently become witness to or get entangled in the intricate details of someone’s child’s birthday party over the weekend or the dinner menu in a restaurant that will be part of a colleague’s vacation festivities next summer.

Extricating (as opposed to the more polite behavior of ‘excusing’) yourself from small talk is a skill that is learnt the hard way and usually after having endured the consequences of not doing so multiple times. Some commonly practiced techniques, with varying degrees of success depending on the practitioner and situation, include responding to nature’s call (assuming that the conversation is not currently taking place in the facility), feigning the onset of an unknown illness, mailing a letter (assuming the current time is close enough to the last mail clearance event for the day) and several variations of these themes. Of course, the universally accepted path to salvation in the corporate world would be the need to go to your next meeting – this is where it really pays to fill your calendar with (real and imaginary) meetings! The last resort to escape from the onslaught of small talk is to rudely walk away – clearly a trade-off between maintaining your {sanity, composure and even health} and being ostracized.

While general small talk around the office can usually be tackled with some personal inconvenience and longer work hours to make up for lost time, the real impact to business occurs at the highest levels in the organization. Here is a snippet of a conversation between the CEO of the company and VP, Procurement of a prospective customer:

CEO: Good Morning! How are you today?

VP: Hi, hanging in there (cough), we have this deadly flu going around town!

CEO: Oh dear, what a shame! My uncle, who lives in your area had the same …….

VP: Yeah, it is strange that even people who have lived here for 20 years are still affected by ……..

(15 minutes later)

CEO: How long have you been there? Where did you live earlier… which college did you go to……

VP: I was at …….

CEO: ……that is really interesting ….. my nephew is also applying to the same School….wonder if you know……

VP: Yes, of course… let me look up my contacts list …….abigail, arnold, arthur… here he is asante…..

(30 minutes later)

CEO: And, by the way, I believe you are asking for a 30% discount on our products. That could be a problem…..

VP: Hi, I really don’t have the time to go into all the numbers now…..why don’t I ask my Manager, Technology Purchases to call someone at your place ……maybe next month, after he is back from vacation. I am sure we can work out something.

CEO: ….I was really hoping to get this order in this quarter……well….. hello … OK…. if you have to go you have to …..catch up later.

So, that is the world we live in – keep it going, but do keep the focus!

The Job Title Quagmire

‘What’s in a name?’ said an unsuspecting Shakespeare, referring to the smell of a rose. One can only pity this simpleton, unaware of the far reaching (or non-existent) implications of the corporate job title game.

Let us start you off with a little quiz. Who is a Manager, Coordination? What does he/she (not) coordinate? What is the difference between a Director, Global Communications and Director, International Branding – or for that matter, Director, Cross-Border Messaging? Not to be outdone in the technical arena, you might want to ponder over the roles of people with such daunting titles as Vice President, Network Infrastructure Management and Mobile Devices Integration, Chief Security Officer Customer Systems and Disaster Recovery as well as Manager, Cross-Platform Integration and Back Office Support.

I could go on bombarding you with more information but I suspect you are already reeling under the shame of your ignorance and therefore I will let you enroll yourself in the appropriate courses – or, better still, join a suitable organization after checking out their ‘titles’ policy.

Job titles are nothing short of manna from heaven where rewards (or corrections, if you will) are concerned. There is no better system known to mankind – I mean corporate-kind – than to promote-demote an employee, especially at senior levels, than to offer exotic job titles. For example, if the Manager Customer Service, responsible for the important task of supporting all customers, is not performing well, simply make her the Director Customer Experience with the all-important job of collecting real and imaginary surveys from customers – while allocating the original customer service job to a competent individual.

Job titles (and associated non-jobs) help the CEO, and others holding power in the corporate world, to bestow favors on their friends and other sycophants, inside and outside their company, while seeming to reorganize and restructure the organization, allegedly for ‘meeting the challenges in the market place’. Thus, if you happen to be lucky enough to work for such an enlightened organization, you might wake up one day to a barrage of HR announcements about a new VP, Cross-Cultural Team Building, a new Chief for obtaining testimonials from customers to be put on the company website (sorry, I could not come up with a concise title for this coveted position) and a Director of Digital Social Media Marketing Ideas (is there any other kind of Social Media?) (Note: this person is responsible ONLY for generating random ideas, to be passed on to other people, with yet-to-be-announced job titles, for execution).

Job titles also help divide (more like fragment) portfolios that should logically remain integrated. For instance, when you have to fill the position of Director, Transportation for your company’s fleet of buses, and you have to (or want to) promote three of your favorite managers, you could create three seemingly different job titles: Director Route Planning, Assistant Senior Director Fuel Efficiency and Director, Special Duties for Fleet Vehicles Acquisition Planning. And here is the best outcome from this brilliant move – with conflicting objectives, these three Directors will require – you got it right this time – another Director, Transportation Coordination to resole their infighting!

Here is the takeaway for those who have made it this far into this article – the next time you are up for an appraisal review, fight hard for a fancy title if nothing else of significance is being offered!

The Status Update Circus

Status Update – the dreaded phrase that could quash every corporate employee in the blink of an eye!

While the need for keeping abreast of what is going on around and below you is an absolute necessity to function properly, the amount of time spent on updates increases exponentially with the size and levels in the organization. One almost wonders whether there should be a metric such as ‘percentage of time spent on status updates versus doing actual work’ in the same way that we talk about percentage of money spent on administration and fund raising for not-for-profit organizations.

The beauty of the situation is that most, if not all, of the executives involved in getting status updates almost always have no clue as to what the problem; nor are they able to contribute to the solution. Consider the following scenario when a customer has reported that the phones provided by your company are not working.

Day-1, Hour Zero: Support desk technician receives a message from the customer and dutifully logs the issue in the customer support database.

Day-1, Hour-1: Support supervisor assigns the problem to the Support engineer to troubleshoot and fix the issue. Support engineer shoots off an email to customer asking for more details. Starts looking through known error database.

Day-1, Hour-2: The sales representative in your organization tries to call the Manager, Operations at the customer office for exploring some upselling opportunities for additional network devices. Unable to get through their main telephone system (which is, of course, down at the moment) contact is made via the manager’s personal cell phone. The sales representative comes to know that the telephone system is down and informs his Sales Manager.

Day-1, Hour-5: The Sales Manager has ‘escalated’ the ‘calamity’ up his organization hierarchy and now the VP, Sales (on a vacation in the Caribbean) is making calls to every C Level executive in the organization (at various locations, naturally) to warn about the ‘impending disaster’ with a customer situation.

Day-1, Hours 2-9: The Support engineer has been trying to get some relevant information about what went wrong from the customer but nobody at their office has the time to gather and provide any details – worse, they don’t seem to be affected by the lack of ability to communicate!

Day-1, Hour-9: Matters have reached a feverish pitch in your company. Meetings, (yes you guessed right!) for status updates have been organized ‘asap’. Excruciatingly minute details of the non-existent sequence of events are being invented, sorry assembled, by technical staff who have been pulled out of their regular development work. In line with protocol requirements, levels of details are being suppressed, I mean summarized, as status updates are being reported to higher levels.

Day-1, Hour-24: Still no additional information is forthcoming from the customer, at the grassroots level. One is almost led to believe that there is no impact to their business operations (ironically perhaps, as the phone system is down, there are no status-update calls that staff are forced to attend and so they are able to focus on their real work!). However, it is an entirely different scene at your office. A war room has been opened to monitor, yes, status. A conference bridge has been opened to enable anyone with any non-information to provide updates – CNN style. The CEO has also joined the fray and has tasked two VPs from unrelated departments to provide him updates at 15-minute intervals. This in turn has the effect of several clueless managers in those departments demanding the engineering and support departments to provide them with information, starting with a primer on how-telephones-work.

Day-2, Hour-4: The Support engineer at the customer office returns from his one-day vacation and notices that the daily reset procedure for the phone system has not been followed by his rookie substitute. This in turn has caused the messages mailbox to overflow and consequently shut down the entire system. A quick reset solves the problem and the phones start ringing again.

Day-2, Hour-6: All the senior executives in your company are assembled in the CEO’s office discussing ‘contingency’ plans ranging from installing a completely new system for the customer, free of cost of course, to rehashing the company’s sales plans should the customer terminate their business. As is normal, the status update process has failed when the problem has actually been resolved and the senior management is unaware of the current status!

Day-3, Hour-1: Upset with the delay in getting status updates, the CEO has ordered a through review of the status reporting process and a VP, with a budget of a million dollars sanctioned out of emergency funds, has been tasked with identifying and putting in place a new system.

In corporate life, the status review/update process is not merely a means to an end – it is an end in its own right!

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!