Corporate Communications During Lockdown

In the strange, surreal environment that exists today due to the pandemic, many of us are working from home and trying to adjust to a world devoid of ‘bio breaks’ during meetings and exchange of gossip through ‘water cooler conversations’. I would assume that I am not alone in voting ‘corporate communications’ as the most painful aspect of being confined to the four walls or, in the case of some lucky ones, the basement of your home.

I dread opening my Inbox every morning. There is a plethora of communications from my HR department on how to stay motivated, what training courses I can take while being under house-arrest, how I can energize myself, followed by how I can calm myself down. This feels like the time when I was five years old and my mother, grandmother and various other elders were teaching me how to become a good citizen. Comparison to death by a thousand paper cuts is not all that far-fetched.

Why is there an assumption that I need to be propped up constantly? And why is there the gross misconception that I have any less work now than before? Frankly, I have been so used to working from home over the years that I don’t need constant pats, more like blows, on the back to continue doing what I have been doing all my life.

Wait, there is more….as they say on those blessed commercials on TV. The ‘corporate’ office also encourages employees to communicate with one another to ‘stay in touch’. This is misconstrued by many eager-but-held-back-so-far-by-decency coworkers to unleash a hailstorm of their own. These take place by way of mass emails or through group chat facilities, paid for by the company on an emergency basis. The contents vary from photos of their pet snakes, videos of piano recitals by their toddlers, vivid descriptions of their dishwashing adventures and daily walks in the woods. I get it – people want to stay in touch. But what about actual work, at least as an afterthought?

In large organizations, you might start hearing from sections of the company which you never knew existed. You might get ‘guidelines’ from the Manager for Digital, peer-to-peer social media communications. You  might also hear from the Office Manager responsible for removing or repurposing unused furniture (who is using any office furniture now?). Or from the VP for global communications strategy – do I ever get a break?

Amidst all that is going on in the world today, one thing stands out, steady as a rock – the ability for the corporate giant to tie itself, and others, into knots!

Catching Up

“Sorry I am late – was unable to locate this meeting room in time – could I quickly catch up on the discussions so far?” This every day phenomenon halts the progress of many a meeting and puts everything in rewind mode.

The ‘catching up’ syndrome is a sibling to the ‘status update’ malady in corporate life, with equal power to disrupt and, many times, derail the rare phenomenon of forward progress in corporate meetings.

The golden rule in the deployment of this powerful tool is that you cannot be a junior member amongst the attendees – a junior associate in any meeting does not have the privilege of catching up that also goes hand in hand with his/her lack of privilege of coming late to the meeting – a prerequisite that lays the foundation for the need to catch up. Viewed in a positive manner (grin!), this is one of the unofficial perks of going up the executive ladder.

Let us follow the meeting for a few minutes to realize the magnitude of disruption and interruption that can be unleashed:

A meeting of territory managers is under way to determine the change in pricing strategy needed to respond to a recent price war initiated by a competitor. All the past data on sales and prices have been circulated and reviewed before the meeting so that the managers could focus on future actions during the meeting.

Enter their boss, the VP of Sales.

VP, Sales:… (hassled and short of breath) Sorry to be late as I was (choose option-1, option-2,…option-n)… What are we doing here?

Manager-1: We are finalizing our future pricing strategy to respond to recent increase in competition.

VP, Sales: Really?! Wow, I thought we were to talk about marketing campaigns here…anyway, what’s with the prices? I thought we already had the lowest prices in the market.

Manager-2: The detailed price analysis and trends are in the reports circulated last week. Clearly, we are …..

VP, Sales: Sorry guys, I am not up to speed on what is going on. Could I (hurray!) catch up on what has been going on?

Manager-3 (stunned face): Two weeks ago, our competitor cut the prices of many of their SKU’s by 20% and also offered multi-buy discounts. We are……

VP, Sales: Sorry to interrupt you but could you bring up the slides on how we have fared against competition over the past (fill in the blanks) years?

The meeting ends with the VP running off to another meeting to catch up on an unspecified agenda.

To the seasoned practitioner, catching up is limitless in its scope. You don’t need to stay on topic to catch up. For example, during a sales meeting such as the one mentioned above, in addition to asking questions on anything about prices and competition, you could also inquire about new products design; or transportation issues; or recruitment matters that some managers have reported in the past few weeks; even a company picnic that one of the regions had the previous week.

Catching up often has the effect of being a tête-à-tête for one but causes utter disruption for others and the organization. But, hey! Who can bell the cat!

Management by Confusion

Management by Objectives is taught at Harvard. Management by confusion can only be learnt and perfected through churning the wheels in the corporate world.

One of the best ways of evading decisions is to create confusion. Take for example the new intern, Beth, approaching her supervisor with the question, “For the upcoming team meeting, should I create this report customer-wise or product-wise?” You would have thought the answer is a pretty straightforward one – customer or product. Wrong! The supervisor, a veteran of corporate confusion for decades, responds with, “That is an interesting question – I am glad you are applying your mind to the task on hand. Let us see ….. Have you considered the needs of all sections of the audience reading your report? Should there be a time/aging factor built into the report?  How about a geographic, territory wise matrix? It is best to review all requirements and then come up with a format for the report”. This, needless to say, is guaranteed to send the intern on a wild goose chase of finding out all reporting needs and formats (items that were finalized months ago)– with no obvious end in sight. A logical end is not the goal, anyway, to start with.

Confusion, in many situations, is also a passport to avoiding accountability. You can usually get away with not being responsible for a bad move if there is a minimum quantum of confusion around the subject. If you know that you would not be able to finish a customer proposal on time, you create a list of ‘clarifications’ required from others in your organization as inputs to your proposal; email the list to the wrong person first; then, with a, ‘oh! I did not know that she was no longer in that role’; send it to the right person and copy the mail, for good measure, to several other people; get conflicting responses from multiple people; then call for a meeting to discuss the various responses; and so on ….. you get the point!

Confusion is also an excellent tool for keeping your subordinates and, quite often, your superiors too, on tenterhooks. You might even come out with flying colors in the process. Let us say that you are responsible for introducing a new invoicing system in your company. On the eve of the system going live, you come out with a new checklist and unleash it on an unsuspecting audience. “Does this take care of international billing?”; “Has all the historical data for the past 10 years been migrated to the new system?”. Ironically, all these questions would have been asked several months ago, when the project was first initiated, and deliberate decisions taken not to include these features in the new system. But raising these questions now makes it appear that you are the one with a keen eye for minor details. Consequently, while your team runs around in circles to check the system, you can use the opportunity to gain a few brownie points with your superiors.

Creating confusion of biblical proportions in the organization takes a lot of experience and planning.  An essential requirement is to be armed with irrelevant statistics (more commonly passing under the phrase, ‘facts and figures’). When the CEO seeks advice from the Vice President, Sales on setting sales goals for the coming year, the latter can spin a web around the hapless CEO by quoting various economic indicators from far flung locations where the company has no operations, percentages and market trends in sectors unrelated to the company’s product line and quotes from a variety of market research reports with complex graphs and dubious predictions. The key here is to provide data, in large quantities, but with very little, if any, information and analysis. This is sure to keep the corporate wheel spinning, literally and figuratively, in circles!

Disruption – Corporate Style

Disruption – a very unique word in the Corporate dictionary, which goes by many ‘synonyms’ such as innovation, dynamism, proactiveness, transformation, priority, out-of-the-box idea, even bravery!

To fully understand the nature of disruptive behavior and its impact in a typical organization, let us take a look at a few everyday scenarios in the office. As with everything else in the corporate environment, the higher the level at which this occurs the broader and deeper its effect.

Scenario-1:

Mary, Executive Assistant to the VP Sales, is busy putting together, for an important proposal due that morning, the plethora of spreadsheets containing a bewildering array of pricing options designed to confuse, sorry educate, the potential customer on the choices available to them. In comes Jane, the recent graduate from Harvard Business School and newly appointed marketing executive, asking Mary for sales data for the last ten years, with territory-wise, product-wise, sales manager-wise breakdown, for a pricing model that she is building. Mary tries to tell Jane about what she is working on and the associated deadline but Jane will have none of it and mentions that none other than the CEO is waiting (in the coffee room right then!) for the numbers. Poor Mary drops what she is doing and spends the next four hours digging out and tabulating the information required by Jane. Then, when she gets back to her original proposal with barely 30 minutes left for the deadline, she misses out on a crucial discount that the VP, Sales has authorized at the last minute, which in turn makes the company’s bid extremely noncompetitive and a prime candidate for rejection by the customer. In the meanwhile, Jane is back at her desk, happily listening to her iPod, smug in the fact that she has a chance to submit her report a week ahead of schedule, an act sure to get her some brownie points from the CEO and the VP of Sales!

Scenario-2:

Amber, the Administration Manager, is busy getting the final details sorted out for an upcoming conference to be attended by all the Regional Managers from across the country. All the RMs have cleared their calendars and rearranged many of their customer meetings to attend this important annual meeting in the company. Two days before the scheduled conference, Brian, the Executive VP, Operations, well known for his dynamism (read, craziness), receives a call from his friend, who happens to be a senior executive in a customer organization that regularly provides multi-million dollar business year after year. Brian’s buddy and Linkedin connection, will be in town – you guessed it – on the same day as that of the conference and wants to catch up with Brian. Brian, without batting an eyelid agrees to have a ‘business review’ meeting with his friend and asks a shocked Amber to reschedule the Regional Manager’s conference. Amber starts to say, “But Brian, we have 30 people coming from ……” but Brian cuts her short with, “Customers take precedence over everything else” and dismisses her. It is past midnight by the time Amber manages to cancel all arrangements for the conference and finishes hearing an earful from all the irate RMs!

Net Result: Over two hundred thousand dollars in cancellations; hundreds of hours wasted across the organization; inability for the senior and mid level managers to interact and understand the company’s goals and direction at the right time.

Scenario-3 (saved the best for last!):

It has been crazy busy in the Development unit of the software products company.  Everyone is busy completing all the planned functions and components of the first general release of their Price Optimization product, which, based on excellent feedback received during beta testing, promises to be a winner all the way. The CEO, Karl, has just returned from an executive summit, in the Caribbean of course, hosted by a leading management consultancy firm.  His head full of powerpoint slides and colorful graphs from the summit, Karl summons the Director of Development and his senior team members and informs them of his vision. Karl wants the Price Optimization product to include processing and correction algorithms in response to dynamic feedback from the Social Media sites. The collective groan from the audience is audible several offices away. One Development Manager summons the courage to stand up and ask, “We have been working on finishing the current version of the product for more than a year and the Sales people have already starting selling. Integrating with Social Media sites is a huge change that involves not just more coding and testing but a complete redesign of the architecture to use Big Data and related technologies. This could delay the product launch by a year or more, in addition to increasing development costs by at least 75%”. The CEO replies in classic style, “We need to be proactive to the future needs and demands in the market. Our company has always been known for innovation and the ability to adapt. You are the best brains in the industry. We can make it happen. I am sure our customers will understand the delay. Come on guys, let us not waste time, just make it happen! I am announcing the launch of our new product tomorrow”. The stunned Development team starts gathering its belongings (and its spirits!) before leaving the conference room.

Fast forward to nine months later: The product is in a mess as more revisions to features have occurred. Customers are unhappy as they see no realistic product offering in the horizon. The Development team and, in turn, the Sales team are disillusioned and busy updating their resumes!