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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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!

Never Say No

Have you come across a manager who never says ‘No’? I am sure many can relate to experiences with a manager, or some other executive in the corporate jungle, who is always smiling and saying, “Of course, will do” or “Not a problem” or a reassuring “Consider it done”.

As a novice, your initial reaction to interaction with such a saint, who giveth unconditionally, is one of elation. You want a two-week vacation starting tomorrow? Approved. Five thousand dollars for a company picnic? Go right ahead. Taking this a notch higher, could we hire a new contract programmer for a year? Yes, of course. And, how about an additional million dollars for the departmental budget – wink, wink, you know the answer.

Before you start wondering how rosy the world would be under such a benevolent corporate ruler, let us see how this actually translates into real (in)action. First, this manager would carefully ensure that he is not directly responsible for implementing his ill-thought-out decisions. He is depending, if not betting, on the convoluted corporate maze wherein someone else would block and tackle and actually stop the run (sorry, non-football folks, for the analogy). Maybe a HR manager will point out that the concerned employee has no vacation days left; or, no picnic locations nearby are available for the entire summer; and so on. The Machiavellian strategy is to make sure that the blame for inaction and non-implementation falls on someone else. In fact, the more experienced manager ensures that it is so, by being forearmed with relevant constraints and limitations.

A popular variation of the above theme is to give away things that are not in your domain or purview. A sales manager selling an expensive computer to a customer who does not want to buy extended warranty whispers to the customer, “don’t worry, you can always call our service department and ask for help”. When your Director asks you if you could compile an urgent sales report before the end of the day, and you are already up to your neck in other work, you obviously don’t say ‘no’ or ‘sorry’ but puff and pant and smartly state, “I am fully booked but no worries –  I will ask Beth in Operations to do this. I am sure she will be delighted to chip in”.

For more sensational, and, naturally, devastating effects, you need to move up the organization where C-Level executives are interacting with external entities. A customer manager, who is causing inordinate delays and is being diligently handled by your company’s project team, suddenly wants the project time reduced by half because she wants to go on a cruise. She approaches your VP of Projects and readily gets her wish granted. This then results not only in the frustrated project team members working weekends but sends a lot of other projects into a tailspin.

So, the moral of the story – learn to say ‘No problem’ and create problems!

Carrot and Stick – or Mashed Potato

Everyone is familiar with the good old concept of carrot and/or stick – the act of cajoling someone to do something through a reward (carrot) and/or with the threat of punishment (stick). As children, we have all gone through the phase of adjusting our actions and behavior based on the expected use of this technique by our parents.

Like with everything else, the corporate world takes this phenomenon to a new level. There are managers who have learnt and (im)perfected this art through full-time courses in business schools, company-sponsored workshops and seminars, miracles producing ‘learn leadership in 30 days’ crash courses or simply through word of mouth from colleagues.

A savvy software development manager, supervising a group of developers in a large corporation, practices this technique like witchcraft. She announces to the team that the entire group would go on a cruise if the project is completed even one day (rephrase this as ‘one minute’ if you want to take this down to the wire) ahead of schedule. While the whole group kicks into a high degree of frenzy, I mean motivation, there are the habitual slackers who spoil the fun – net result is a non-cruise. The manager, annoyed at the delays and the effect on her reputation in the company, wields the stick and cancels pre-approved vacations, even for the good performers.

In the next iteration (software development is nothing but an endless series of failed iterations, under the modern day principle of failing quickly), very few developers bother to work hard and finish their tasks on time, assuming that the group will be late anyway.  The manager, however, selectively rewards the ones who finish their individual tasks on time. She also does not pull up those who are late thus sending mixed and confusing signals like a set of faulty lights at a traffic junction.

The group of developers are now in a state of confusion, to say the least. Those who could perform better but did not do so are fretting and fuming and decide to rebel and sabotage the next project. They promote wrong assumptions and deliberately mislead others about the features of the next software application being developed by their team, with the result that the entire system is scrapped by senior management and the whole department severely reprimanded.

Thus, the ingenious and cunning, though ineffective, use of the carrot-and-stick principle results in a mushy, unpalatable mashed potato!

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.

 

The Corporate Juggler

There you have it! Even for the weary warrior, quite used to being reduced to a hapless bystander by corporate shenanigans, this may cause a slightly raised eyebrow – or not!

A juggler has traditionally been viewed as someone who can keep you captivated, even mesmerized, with what appears to be an impossible set of skills – keeping an assortment of objects such as balls, clubs, knives and burning sticks endlessly in the air. Fast forward to the current day – and you have the corporate juggler. The similarities cannot be overstated:

  1. both like to play with multiple objects at the same time, gradually increasing the number of things they juggle
  2. both get rid of things as soon as they arrive
  3. both do not hold one specific object/topic long enough to create ownership
  4. they do not seek anyone’s assistance but quit the game at their discretion

In simple terms, corporate jugglery is about bouncing around problems and issues – not to be confused with delegation where responsibility is handed over. The suave manager never refuses to take on new assignments or solve new problems; in fact, he/she volunteers to take on new ones. But the input-output processing takes place so rapidly that the elapsed time needs to be measured in nanoseconds.

You need the sales report by tomorrow? No problem – here is an email to 200 people. You need new chairs for your department? OK – here is a 10-page questionnaire on the specifications for you to fill up. Your laptop is not working? OK, I don’t know what the problem is but I will put in a request for the operating system to be upgraded. Oh…. the sales report … have the emails come back with the sales figures? OK, I will ask my secretary to enter them on a spreadsheet. You filled in the specifications for the chairs? Alright, can you now get me a list of all the people in your department and their weights to see the strength of the chairs we need? Nice, I seem to have some free time – let me see – I can help with preparing coffee for the meeting. Can someone arrange the coffee pods in decreasing order of strength while I ask someone else to fetch cream and sugar from the pantry? OK guys, we will pick up the threads tomorrow……….

You get the idea!

As with everything else, the performance of corporate jugglery tends to be at its best at higher levels of the corporate ladder where access to knives, sticks and other destructive objects is almost infinite!

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.