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!

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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 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!

The Budget Cycle

Fair Warning: This is not for novices and beginners. You need to have gone through several “…101” courses (Evasion 101, Misleading 101 and Cover-Up 101 to name a few) to be admitted to this Game of Budgets.

Every organization believes that if every department and every area of business is tied to a strict budget, things will automatically be under control. The corporate mantra for governance is ‘budget versus actual’. It is therefore no surprise that seeking and getting sumptuous budgets approved feels like a real life enactment of Hunger Games.

Though the budgetary cycle is only an annual affair (incidentally, ensuring job security for hundreds of spreadsheet-wielding finance wizards and their deputies), if you are responsible for running anything at all in your company, you do not rest for one minute from thinking about past/future budgets. The cornerstone of your planning should always be more ‘projects’ on your list than anyone or any organization can dream of completing in centuries. For example, if you are a Facilities Manager, you need to have an endless array of ‘to-do’ items such as ‘repaint the underside of shelves in the records room’, ‘enlarge the company logo displayed all over the office’, ‘increase the number of water fountains in the cafeteria’ and ‘change the ringtone on all phones in the office’. Moreover, to ensure that you get noticed at the right time by the right people, you also should have a sprinkling of projects such as, ‘change the color of the one-month old carpet in the CEO’s office’ and ‘replace the coffee maker in the Board room twice a month’.

A golden rule in budgetary exercises is to be aware of past ‘performance’. As a departmental head, you never want to be in a situation of having underspent or underutilized the previous year’s budget. This is like signing your own death warrant by inviting a lower budget for the coming year. Therefore, you keep a very close eye on what you are (not) spending throughout the year, especially accelerating your spend, if needed, towards the end.

A common topic, which is inevitably linked to monetary budgets, is the issue of headcount. Managers fighting for an increase (or against reduction, during desperate times), is a familiar scene in all organizations. The savvy manager stays ahead of the pack by using colorful presentations of the innumerable tasks (refer earlier description of ‘list of projects’) that her team has to take care of. For good effect, the resources are divided and subdivided into minute ‘buckets’ to project an image of insufficient staffing for every task. For example, the above-mentioned Facilities Manager would classify her mail-room staff into those responsible for sorting Fedex packets; sorting UPS packages arriving in the afternoon; delivering confidential, priority mail to ‘C’ level executives; and so on. Divide and Conquer of sorts, I suppose.

The grand finale of any budget exercise is the meeting of the apex committee for final approval. Needless to say, several sub-committees would already have done their work and filtered out the less fortunate departments’ requests. Interestingly, significant budget allocations are in order for these sub-committees themselves. Many a time, these committees are master show pieces to demonstrate company wide ‘participation’ while all the shots are, by default, called by the ‘Chief of Staff’, who has the ear of the CEO and others on the top floor.

In line with all corporate meetings, the apex committee uses a randomization algorithm to cut or approve various budget requests – such randomization ensures an atmosphere of luck and chance, rather than one of need and purpose. And then, everyone moves on to preparations for the next cycle, providing an opportunity for the losers to have one more try.

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.

Work Expansion

When your boss tells you to get something done, you think you need to get on with whatever you have been asked to do, complete the task and hope for some brownie points. Wrong, totally wrong, you novice, ignorant of the nuances of the corporate kingdom! Read on to find out how an experienced veteran would handle this.

The seasoned professional, of course, starts by saying an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to the boss. Then she proceeds to make a mental (followed by a physical) list of all possible people and departments that could even remotely be roped in. This is followed by the creation of as complex a list of subtasks, not all of them related to the main task, as possible. And then comes the master stroke – assigning a whole series of interdependent subtasks, one by one, to clueless, unsuspecting individuals or departments, making it impossible to know who needs to do what and, more importantly, who is responsible for anything.

For the benefit of those struggling to visualize what in heaven’s name I am talking about, let us illustrate with an example. Say, your boss, the VP of Sales, has asked you, the Director under him, to prepare a competitive bid for selling office supplies to a prospect that you are trying to win over from a competitor. You immediately call for a brainstorming session of about 40 people including your secretary, your company’s Administration manager (to know how office supplies are used), the janitor (to know how much paper is found in waste paper baskets every day) and some junior assistants in your office to start collating various statistics in the industry. You try, as far as possible, to avoid involving the actual Sales representative assigned to sell to the prospect under consideration.

A few days/weeks later you are sitting comfortably and reviewing an amazing array of data on manufacturing costs of paper clips in different countries, results of scientific research on the relative performance of different types of shredders and similar ‘base data’. You have successfully kept your boss (un)informed of ‘progress’ being made while shooing away the anxious salesperson for the account who is a nervous wreck by now trying to put together some numbers for the customer quote due in two days.

Things naturally, and inevitably, reach D-day. You are of course busy chasing various people who have no clue as to what they are supposed to do or what you are expecting from them. You yell at the salesperson (in front of your boss, of course) for not being able to get an extension of date for submission of the quote. You make abundantly clear to everyone in sight that you have been working 24/7 to get this complex assignment completed on time but are being let down by an incompetent organization that you are forced to work in.

Somehow, at the last minute, a proposal is hastily assembled, in spite of your objections and interference, and sent off to the customer. Your boss calls, thanks you for a job well done and proceeds to tell you that you need to get started with preparations for a sales review meeting scheduled for the following month; you quickly say, ‘yes, of course’ and – yes, you are spot on – a brainstorming session is on its way!