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!

Crisis Management – A Primer

Jason, the young, energetic and new management trainee is bubbling with enthusiasm as he goes through his ‘orientation program’ in We-Make-It-Happen, Inc. On the fifth day of his ‘training’ in the Logistics department, a unit tasked with fulfilling a deliberately confusing set of functions and (ir)responsibilities, he meets with the departmental head, Tom, for the final act.

Tom: Jason, welcome on board. I hope you have been provided with a good insight into the working of this department.

Jason: Yes, indeed. I am very impressed with the variety of activities that your people are taking care of to keep the organization moving forward.

Tom: Is that so (never realized that)? Never mind the routine stuff. I will help you get prepared for crisis management, which is where we excel.

Jason: I am all ears.

Tom: Do you know what the first step is or should be in managing a crisis?

Jason: Er, hmm…. Understand the problem? Find out the importance? Determine impact on customers?

Tom (with a triumphant look): No, not at all. First you need to create a crisis!

Jason (bewildered): Why would you do that? I thought crises happen, not get created deliberately.

Tom: You need experience for that. We will provide you with plenty of opportunities to do so. The point here is that by creating a crisis that is convenient to you, you can be ready with the steps to resolve that, without running the risk of being blamed for it.

Jason (stunned): Never thought of that…..

Tom: Yes, that is the way it works. For example, when you come to know that a shipment due next week is delayed, you make alternate plans but DO NOT let anyone else know till the eleventh hour. Then….

Jason (unable to hold back): But sir…..isn’t the purpose of the Logistics department to foresee, plan and prevent disruptions to the organization?

Tom: Jason, don’t be a fool. And don’t insult my management skills. I am not here to prevent disruptions … or to help some hard working fool in Operations. I need to make myself indispensable…….   Anyway, to continue the story, as late as possible, you send out an email to all people (do not forget to include the CEO and the heads of various departments) about the unfortunate delay in the arrival of supplies…

Jason: …. Along with the alternate plan of action?

Tom (irritated): Patience, my dear child, patience. You have to time these things to perfection. In the first email, you should mention that you are working round the clock to find an alternate solution to the problem, putting yourself in the limelight while seeming to sacrifice your evenings and personal time.

Jason (now all eager and attentive): Then……

Tom: The next morning, at or before 5 AM, you send out an “Eureka” email stating that you have successfully negotiated with the supplier and diverted a truck meant for another customer to your company …… and you are heading out in the wee hours of the morning to the office to receive the truck.

Jason (full of admiration): Wow……that is cool ……in fact, fantastic.

Tom (smiling): And at 8 AM while everyone else is walking into the office to check the good news in their inboxes, you slouch in your chair with a cup of coffee and put on a look that is tired, satisfied and resigned at the same time.

Jason went home a wiser man, well educated in the ways of corporate life.


If you thought the words ‘delivery’ and ‘deliverable’ belonged to a branch of medicine pertaining to women and children or associated these words with the responsibilities of your local Post Office, you may be excused and even offered a free course on an important facet of corporate nuances – read on and become wiser.

A ‘Deliverable’ in corporate speak covers anything and everything – a sandwich for lunch, the Bridge on the River Kwai, an idea to confuse people and, well, even a plot not to deliver anything. With the right imagination, accompanied by a crafty but indecipherable description, each and every (non)activity can be mysteriously turned into a ‘deliverable’.

One must concede that management gurus like Peter Drucker may have invented the ‘deliverable’ as a means of providing an objective way to measure success or failure upon completion of a nebulous task. However, true to the ingenuity of corporate scholars of today, the exact opposite effect has come to stay – converting simple and intuitive outcomes into incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo.

The idea of a deliverable may be used to convert a simple result into a monumental outcome. Thus, a simple orientation session for new recruits in an organization can be positioned to ‘deliver’ the following:

  • welcome new hires and make them feel at home
  • help them become familiar with the nearest restrooms and fire exits
  • infuse the sense of belonging and commitment to the organization
  • create an appreciation for the nutritional values of different lunch options
  • ….and so on

In case the reader has failed to notice, the above deliverables are carefully defined to defy objective measurement of any kind. An added benefit of such definitions is that, where an external agency is involved in providing such complex deliverables, what may otherwise look like an exorbitant consultancy fee can readily be projected as a fair reward.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘deliverable’ phenomenon is used by veterans to remove any semblance of clarity in what is being delivered. Thus the objective (sorry, ‘deliverable’) of an expense reporting system, with simple functions such as the ability to enter and approve expenses, could be turned into a ‘system for simplification of workflow to control costs’ immediately creating a situation where implementation of the said system can be neither completed nor assessed for success.

Just imagine the extension of this corporate style to your every day activities. What is the deliverable for the plumber who fixes your leaking pipe? Eliminate discharge of water from the pipes other than at permissible outlets? Or, say, for your hairdresser – achieve a ratio of 1:3 between the amount of hair remaining versus the original quantum?

The next time you sit in a restaurant, waiting for food to be served, try and define the deliverable for the waiter (other than, of course, the actual items of food ordered). The fun is endless.