The Dotted (line) Company

Geometry seems to be an integral part of the corporate world as we have seen in some of our earlier analysis. But nothing has been as cunningly used, with (un)predictable effect, as the dotted line. Early novices in the corporate world created the concept of defining and drawing an organization structure as a chart containing a series of parent-child relationship, connected using a bunch of vertical and horizontal lines.  Modern day management gurus have successfully neutralized the structure, and any discipline represented by such structures, by introducing the ubiquitous dotted line!

For the uninitiated, in an organization chart, a dotted line, in its simplest sense, represents an informal reporting relationship. But, before you get your hopes high regarding your understanding, let me warn you that there is a lot more unwritten, implied meaning to be derived by reading between the lines (pun intended). A dotted line serves various purposes, chief amongst them being to confuse the structure by diluting authority and responsibility, the cornerstones of an organization structure.

For example, in a company that has multiple manufacturing units at different locations, there is a finance department in each location reporting to the General Manager of the respective unit. At the same time, the head of finance at each location has a – you guessed it – dotted line relationship with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) operating out of the Head Office.  The CFO could use the dotted lines as strings to play on the puppets attached at the end. This informal structure serves as the recipe for conflicts in priorities, daily activities and everything in between for the local finance departments who are forced to spend all their time managing a major standoff between their solid and dotted lines!

To understand the full power and destruction potential of the dotted mode of operation, listen to this conversation in a team meeting on an IT project.

Cindy (Project Manager)(trying to keep the overall project on track): I understand that the requirements have been gathered from all user departments. So, we can proceed with ……….

Jim (senior team member): Yes, Cindy, I believe we have completed the scope definition for the system.

Ron (HR specialist): Hold on a second. We have not fully vetted the legal requirements affecting part-time labor. We need to analyze those.

Cindy: But Ron, this issue has been raised many times in the past three months – why was no action taken to finalize legal requirements?

Ron: Cindy, I have been deputed to this project from HR, so I only have a dotted line relationship with you, the PM. I was ……

Cindy: But what does that have to do with you completing the requirements analysis, now that you have been on the project for three months?

Ron: I needed to ask for an additional resource from Legal to help with this analysis but since I only have a dotted line to you, I could not make that request to you.

Cindy: For God’s sake, why could you not ask your own HR manager that you needed help?

Ron: It is complicated – since I was temporarily assigned to you, my direct, solid line reporting within my department was suspended for the duration of the project – preventing me from placing any requests and so…

Cindy (exasperated): Why could you not have brought this up months ago?

Ron: I was still new in the company and was undergoing orientation from the Training department on all the dotted line relationships that I was part of.

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The Expressive Company

Communication is perhaps the life blood of civilization. Humans invented language (one too many of them if I may add) to clearly distinguish and differentiate homo sapiens from animals. However, with technological advances and the elimination of verbal communication (in favor of shortened messages/texts, pictures, emojis and other forms of visual art), conversation following the rules of any language is fast becoming a thing of the past.

The corporate world does not allow itself to be left behind in this regard, or in any regard, if you will. Interpersonal communication (a subject on which many a career in Human Resources has been built) has taken on a new dimension that is often bewildering in its inability to convey anything to the receiving party.

For instance, listen to this exchange between two managers talking about their Director:

Manager-1: Hi buddy, how is it going?
Manager-2: Pressure, man.
Manager-1: Oh, what’s the matter?
Manager-2: Just…. this Director ….. you know (throws up hands)
Manager-1: I see… (clearly does not see or understand what is going on)
Manager-2: Always the same thing……. you know what…… she is weird …….. (rolls eyes
and sneers)
Manager-1: Any problem with your work?
Manager-2: No, man…. it is just totally bizarre…… you know what …….. I am like
“Whaaat?” (points to a computer)
Manager-1 (trying desperately to understand and/or help): Anything I can ………
Manager-2: Whatever….. I’m just goin to…… what’s  the word ……..   (wrings hands and
heads to the restroom)

A senior Director of Sales, training his new sales executives on the nuances of selling the company’s products, takes the (non)communication to an entirely new level.

Sales Director (SD): Welcome one and all. We will see how to put some (pumps his fist)
into selling…..
Sales-1: (punch the customer in the face?!…..)
SD: You should try and spot the …. you know …… influencer by …… hmmmmm….. (winks)
Sales-2: (what? how?)
Sales-3: Sir. How do we project our company as being different from the pack?
SD: (caught unawares):  Ha…. different?…..sell the .….brand …… we have a different             brand ………
Sales-1: In what way, sir?
SD: (clearly rattled): We are ….you know….. (makes gestures that look like a tall                     building collapsing)
Sales-2: You mean, crush the competition?
Sales-3: (whatever, man….)
SD: (perspiring profusely) You will learn ……. through experience ……

World of Acronyms

Corporate life is full of acronyms. In fact, many a corporate veteran talks only in acronyms. If you have felt inadequate, even downright miserable, in the corporate jungle for not being able to understand what is going on in conversations filled with acronyms, and felt like an outsider struggling to get in, rest assured you are not alone.

Mission and Vision statements (a corporate tool in its own right) are perhaps one of the most frequent landing spots for ingenious acronyms. DELIVER (Drive, Energy, Listen, Innovate, Validate, Exemplify, Review) could be a poignant expression (no doubt coming out of a million-dollar consultancy) that the CEO proudly put out. But to the novice employee – the corporate equivalent of the ‘layman’ – this looks like random babble coming from a child learning new words. What are you Validating? And, pardon my ignorance, what is this Energy business – are we supposed to drink Gatorade at work?

I must admit that glib acronyms look slick in presentations using power point slides – I have sat through many – especially when the flashy acronyms are designed to interlace, intersect and fly across large screens. What better way to egg people on to action than to have them DONT (Do, Own, Novel, Try) or have them MISS (Make It Seriously Simple). Once you get the hang of it, you will notice that you can confuse, I mean communicate, any idea with any sequence of letters – they soon start looking like stock symbols!

To me, entertainment in the office comes in the form of listening to two executives having a ‘business’ conversation with liberal use of acronyms:

Executive-1: Hi, how is it going? (sorry, no acronyms in this greeting)

Executive-2: Busy, pal. Trying to get this RFP (Request for Proposal) done by EOD (End of Day).

Executive-1: I know the feeling. My CTO (Chief Technology Officer) told me TYT (Take your time) but in no time turned around and told me to complete the API (Application Program Interface) document by COB (Close of business)

Executive-2: Honestly, IMO (In my opinion), these guys are nuts.  That is why I frequently WFH (Work from home) and put out an OOO (Out of office) notification.

Those trying assiduously to climb the corporate ladder might spend their time learning all the acronyms in the organization but the real smart ones invent new ones!

One Trick Pony

The corporate world is full of one-trick ponies. If, as someone lost in the maze of corporate strategy (whatever that means), you feel that you are hearing, seeing and experiencing the same stuff over and over again, please take solace in the fact that you are not alone.

Quite simply, most managers and executives in an organization learn something early in their careers and make it their one-solution-fits-all-situations mantra as they make their way up the corporate ladder. The more conscientious ones may try to put different finishing touches to their single ‘trick’ from time to time but the vast majority don’t even bother with such nuances.

Say, an administration manager does a simple job of setting up a new lunch room in the office consisting of just ten steps – procure tables and chairs, install water cooler, provide a television, etc. Upon successful completion of this ‘major project’, she adopts this ‘ten step process’ to deal with any and all future assignments that she undertakes. Many moons later and in a different situation, while taking on a much more complex project such as relocating a ten thousand-people office, she can be heard explaining eloquently to her subordinates who are juggling with dozens of vendors and hundreds of different types of equipment that her ten-step process from time immemorial must be adopted.

Moving from company to company offers obvious advantages to the one-trick pony as the new company has no idea of the success or failure, or even applicability, of the trick in question. The ideal environment for the one-trick manager is where his singular panacea for all evils is merely discussed and never put to action. What better glory than to have your proposal discussed but never put to test!

Consultants benefit most from the one-trick phenomenon. Almost all consultants are getting things done by others rather than doing anything themselves. A smart consultant merely has to be part of, even aggressively attach himself to, an assignment or project forming part of services rendered to a company unfortunate enough to hire such services. Let us say that as part of implementing a new Human Resources (HR) system, the consultant puts in place an appraisal and career planning process. Once this project is done, the consultant has one specific way of doing appraisal and career planning that he will carry to his grave. In that journey of his, for the next several decades of his career, he will tout his wisdom and experience in dealing with a variety of organizations, (large and small, local and global) categories of workforce (factory workers to software architects, CEOs to janitors) and apply the same – you got it – one trick.

So, the next time you hear someone say, “From my vast experience in dealing with such situations……”, run for the hills!

Presenting Procedures

The corporate world is all about appearances and portrayal. Nowhere else is it more evident than in the art of elaborating on an innocuous, almost intuitive, activity to make it appear like it is the next most complex thing after landing on the moon. Forget ‘making a mountain out of a mole hole’, ‘beating a dead horse’ or ‘selling ice to Eskimos’ – welcome to the world of presenting procedures.

The IT folks are notorious for explaining procedures since they have to deal with many people born before the word computer was invented. There is never a simple ‘switch on the printer’; it is always a ‘start up sequence for the system – refer section 1.3(a)/5 for the 100 steps involved’. And when something fails and you are unable to login, it is never a ‘sorry, we messed up’; it is more like, ‘the database connections on the standby servers were not reinitialized using the 13 mandatory steps prescribed, after the recent middleware upgrade’ (shoot me, I hear you saying).

The Human Resources (HR) people are not ones to be outdone by the technical folks. They develop (or get developed through consultants) job descriptions that belabor the point ad nauseam. Almost all job descriptions have universal clauses such as “must be a self-starter” (as in a motor car?); “must be able to work with minimal guidance” (non-GPS mode?); “must be a team player” (no tennis singles?); “must be a problem solver” (calculator?)”. To add further redundancy to the  whole scenario, the same list of items is mentioned under ‘qualifications needed’, ‘job responsibilities’ and ‘skills profile’. It is a miracle that anyone gets selected for any position.

On a more generic plane, people learn to expand any response from a one-line statement to a multi-bulleted (and sub-bulleted) treatise. Let us say, as a new employee in Sales, you have a question, “How do you compute the total sales figures for the company?”. The simple response would be, “In the Sales Analysis application, use the summary function to add up all the numbers for all the product lines across all regions”. But, no, no…. that would be way too unsophisticated and look unprofessional. The correct response from a seasoned professional would be something like:

  • Open your computer
  • Start up your computer
  • Go to the application Sales Analysis
  • Login to the application (if unable to, go to step 1)
  • Search for ………..
  • …………..
  • If you have miraculously survived up to this point, please refer to the manual Sales-Accummulate-130.23 for further steps. Good luck.

There is an army of people in every organization, usually hiding in departments such as Process Improvement, Organization and Methods and other innovative names, making a living out of defining everything about nothing. Try and avoid them!

Doing Versus Getting It Done

“Let  me make one thing very clear – you are doing the job and I am the one getting it done”. These words, uttered by my manager in response to my naïve assurance to ‘get it done’, early in my career, decades ago, still resonate with a vengeance in my ears!

In the corporate world, you learn something very fast – you never do anything on your own and, to the extent possible, even avoid being a member of a team that does anything. Something to do with plausible deniability, auto-protection against failure and a host of other reasons. You always ‘get it done’. Hence the growth of myriad layers of organizational hierarchy aka middle management, coordinators and ‘touch-points’ in today’s corporate world. Even a simple task such as checking to see if it is raining outside seems to require an army of people who are – you guessed right – ‘getting it done’!

There are several variations to this theme of getting-it-done. Take the case of the much maligned concept of project management. A ‘project’ can be anything from ordering lunch for ten people to building a new office building. A seasoned project manager is capable of identifying the same number of activities and steps for completing both ‘projects’ by building in a whole host of intermediaries, each of who is getting it done through the others (in ‘Factorial N’ ways, for those who are statistically minded).

In the world of modern IT and software, you have one person writing the actual code for a feature in any system and a plethora of team leads, planners, release managers, testers, integrators, customer interface artists and what have you – who are all getting the job done, without really knowing what the job is. As an added bonus, multiple organization layers and mysterious stakeholders ensure that the job is never correctly defined or understood, which in turn provides stability for this structure to be never dismantled!

An interesting aspect of the getting-it-done phenomenon is that you don’t need to be remotely connected with what is being done. In an executive meeting to discuss and improve customer service, while the sales and customer support people are brainstorming ideas for improving response times for customer calls, the ever-entertaining and annoying head of payroll chips in with, “Guys, I know you are all busy and doing your best, so I will jump in and offer my services to coordinate and establish processes to provide measured responses commensurate with the type of incoming calls from customers – happy to get to the bottom of this and get this resolved!”. Needless to say, this is followed by stunned silence and a premature closure of the meeting.

The Self-Deprecation Tool

I am not sure if this phenomenon is unique to the corporate world or is equally prevalent in other walks of life too – the delicate art of insulting the other person by insulting yourself.

Before you wrack your brain to figure out the sanity level of yours truly, let me begin with an example – ‘is it me going mad?’. There you go – by asking you this rhetorical question about myself (knowing fully well that I am NOT mad) I have indirectly (no, it is actually very direct!) implied that you are mad!

Hopefully you get the trend now. Let me illustrate with a few corporate scenarios that are worthy of being patented under ‘corporate culture’. You say to a coworker, “I don’t know about you but I am drowning in the new system”. What you actually mean is, “How can you and others readily accept and adapt to the new system that is doubling our workload? You guys should be protesting”.

Then there is the famous dumb question routine. In a meeting to discuss the new customer service procedures, after a long presentation explaining every nuance in the game (most of which has gone way beyond your comprehension), you get up and say, “Pardon me, this is a dumb question but ……..”. While the truth is that it IS a dumb question, you desperately make it appear that you are the smart cookie that is pointing out a flaw. The higher the level of the executive asking the question, the dumber it usually is – with the added advantage that everyone else cannot even laugh out aloud.

A variation of this dumb-question routine is to randomly interrupt a discussion and say, “Excuse me if I am getting ahead of myself but what about …..”. The unsaid stuff here is, “Know you lesser mortals that I am ten steps ahead of you. Many of you may never reach there but in the unlikely event that someone does get there through the logical sequence of traversing the other nine steps, I am not going to wait for someone else to steal my thunder”.

Here are some more I-will-insult-you-by-insulting-me favorites:

“Maybe I am missing something here but when is lunch scheduled?”
(actually, “Can’t you guys see that it is way past lunch time?)

“This is perhaps not the right forum to ask this but I was wondering …….”
(“You idiots, I know about this topic also – I was just joking about the right forum”)

“Perhaps we can compare notes later but your conclusions appear to be very unusual”
(“I have no notes and I have given no thought to this but I am quite certain you are wrong”)

In the dog-eat-dog arena of corporate games, self-deprecation is a vintage sport played by none but the best in class.