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.

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.