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.

 

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Gossip as a Corporate Strategy

While the management gurus pound you with advice on great strategies, propagated all the way down from Peter Drucker, simple day-to-day tools are often seriously overlooked. Gossip, in the hands of the shrewd executive at the right level, beats any of the management theories taught, after paying thousands of dollars, at management schools. In many cases, it takes small talk to an entirely different level with richer rewards.

First, all gossip is not the same. Second, for the best effect, all gossip must be released to the right person at the right time. Two low level executives may have a casual conversation in the parking lot wherein they may exchange gossip about the habits of a new Director who has recently joined the organization; or exchange rumors regarding an upcoming promotion and who the favorites are; or even the affair between the CEO’s secretary and the VP of HR. But such exchanges of mundane gossip do nothing more than help foster a feeling of comradery between the executives.

To become a strategic tool, the art of gossip must be refined and used with a touch of finesse – and this comes from experience and constant practice. Let us say it is the budgeting season where favors, I mean budgets, are being doled out to various departments. The CFO is struggling with cutting costs by chopping off funds approved earlier. To ‘help her along’, you, the Head of IT, whisper into the ears of the CFO, “Hi, I hear that our CEO is rather upset with the lack of returns from the liberal serving of dessert during our quarterly sales review meetings –  and maybe….. the funds are better used for buying more laptops for our IT department…”. Later on, you feign surprise when you are told that your IT budgets have been approved without any cuts.

At the highest levels, judicious injection of gossip into conversations helps keep your subordinates on edge and plunge them into (un)healthy fights over non-existent issues. Let us look at a scenario where the COO is having a ‘casual’ conversation with the VP of Administration.

COO: Hi Jason, how is it going….

VP, Admin: Very well, thank you. Just struggling with controlling increasing travel costs in the company. I …….

COO (“here is an opportunity”): I have been noticing that too. I hear that the sales people are having fun parties while on visits to unqualified prospects.

VP, Admin: Thanks for that tip (I don’t care if this is true or not). I will tighten the belt.

Soon, there begins a cold war between the VP, Admin and VP, Sales on a non-existent problem. Travel expenses are brutally cut down leading to disinterested sales people refusing to travel. In the meanwhile, the originator of the gossip, the COO, with one less thing to monitor, moves on to ‘tackling’ other ‘C’ level executives in the company.

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!

QED!

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 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.

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 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!