Ambiguity

The message unequivocally conveyed in all B schools, and in any sort of internal company training conducted by a variety of agencies masquerading as management consultants is that one needs to communicate in a clear, concise and unambiguous manner. Little do these pundits know the incredible power of ambiguity as a management tool par excellence.

Ambiguity as a coveted weapon of choice is not to be confused or even compared with companion management techniques such as indecision, procrastination, denial, deflection, etc. While the said techniques are passive in nature – in that they involve NOT doing something (at least immediately) – ambiguity is an active tool requiring perpetual, perceived action.

Let us take the simple example of when a new system, say (ironically) a new mobile communication platform for the company, will be operational. As the senior IT Director in charge of the project, you want to keep your options open, namely vague (ok, ambiguous)! You mention different ‘launch’ dates in different forums – ‘2 months from now’ through ‘12 months from now’ to ‘TBD’ (to be decided). People are naturally confused, as is expected and desired by you. You take care to neither acknowledge nor deny any dates that are thrown at you, at the same time proactively making statements such as, “the first set of users should be seeing the new system very shortly”, “it is already being beta tested by first adapters”, “oh, it is just coming off the iterative validation by power users – with rave reviews, if I may add” and so on. There is a lot of buoyancy in the air and huge expectations of something big about to happen with no certainty as to when!

The seasoned manager may also practice ambiguity to keep the subordinates guessing. In the first sales review meeting, she could tell her audience, “In future meetings, I would like each one of you to go into some detail regarding your territories”. In the second meeting, she could tell them, “It is really not necessary to go into such excruciating detail about what you do – just focus on the key customers”. The sermon in the third meeting goes something like, “…. Come on guys, we all know what these customers do … let us review the power players, the influencers at these customers …. Haven’t you done any such case studies in college?”. This manager has succeeded in making the entire team jittery and frustrated. They start focusing all their energies on guessing what their manager wants them to present rather than trying to improve sales.

The pinnacle in the art of ambiguity is when your customers start feeling uncertain and even lost as to what they are buying from you. Here is a snippet from a conversation between the Sales Manager of a company trying to sell a phone service to the Admin Manager of a (potential) customer:

Sales Manager (SM): Thanks for seeing me. I assume you have already reviewed our price quote for the 100-instrument integral phone service for your office.

Customer (Admin): Yes, the proposal looks good. I have a few questions….

SM: Fire away. That is why I am here – to offer clarifications (ambiguity antenna sharpened)

Admin: Do you support 100 registered users or 100 concurrent users?

SM: Great question. (pretends to look through some information on his laptop). Our virtual circuit gateway randomizes the virtual user count allowing more than the permissible number of concurrent users to be serviced through queueing.

Admin: Hm….Er…..  Okayeeee…. So I can have more than 100 users on my system?

SM: You may consider it that way. Here is the interesting part. By using the store-and-forward method, we can support delayed processing without your users feeling any negative impact on response times.

Admin: (with no clue as to what is being said) Sounds good …. How about service levels – do you guarantee at least 99% uptime on the system?

SM: Again, a very smart question. Historically, we have achieved greater than 99.5% uptime for all our systems with 10 to 99 instruments in any one location (I am not going to tell you that for 100+ instruments, the figure is well below 80%). In case of catastrophic failures, with our automated redundancy support, we will be able to switch you over to a backup system in 30 minutes. This will cost you 25% extra maintenance ……(peers at his laptop)…..tell you what, I am going to waive this additional fee if you will confirm the order right now. What do you say?

 

Admin: (I have no idea of what I am hearing but it sounds good) OK, let us do it.

Dependencies, aka the Death Spiral

There are a million ways of killing any new initiative in the corporate world but none more powerful than the invocation of dependencies, the dreaded weapon that can immediately start a vicious spiral of death.

No man is an island. And no corporate initiative is independent. You want to change a HR policy – you need to depend on the applicable laws. You want to hire a new employee – you should get budgetary clearance from Finance. You want a promotion – you need to work hard (just kidding!).

However, the masters of corporate affairs can create real and imaginary dependencies in such a way that nothing can ever get started. As an added bonus, if something does get off the ground against all odds, you, the master, are already armed with the ammunition to absolve yourself of blame for any subsequent failures.

Let us watch the practice of this art in simple and complex situations.

Let us say that a particular manager wants to rearrange the time for a weekly projects status meeting that falls on a Friday at 9 AM, as she has a conflict with another recurring meeting at 9:30 on Fridays. You, the ‘status quo’ master, do not want to change anything and so start drawing upon your repertoire of dependencies. You start explaining, “Oh…I wish I could consider a new timing but the Board room is not available between 9:30 and 2:30. Reordering coffee and snacks served during the meeting, currently scheduled for 9:30 AM, to a different time requires prior approval from the VP as coffee trolleys are shared with other meetings. And, Liz calls to check on her children during her walk between meetings at 10 AM. Additionally, some people have early lunch at 11 AM on Fridays…….. So, you see, it may be rather difficult to change the timing of our weekly meeting; it has a lot of dependencies”. The manager concerned returns to her desk crestfallen.

Fast forward to a more complex scenario – the dream of every IT professional – system dependencies. Poor Joan, the store manager in a Retail chain, wants to ask her IT Gods for extension of time to submit her daily cash balances till 6:30 PM instead of the current 6 PM, in order to have reasonable time to balance her cash registers after store closing. But, of course, the IT powers would have none of that and confront Joan with, “….you have no idea of how inter-dependent things are; your cash balances have to be placed on the FTP server at 6:10 for the batch job to transport them to the interim holding area by 6:18; this will be followed by a purge of yesterday’s totals at 6:24 at which time our monitoring staff will initiate a manual upload before leaving office at 6:30 (if the staff has to stay back, that costs us 73.99 dollars per hour extra); building in redundancies for failures, we are expected to be complete with our ledger processing by 9 PM and then wait for the daily maintenance cycle to kick in at 4 AM (yes, a good 7 hours of ‘holding time’)….. it is all very complicated and inter-dependent. So, your request for an extra half hour to balance your registers will likely cost us an extra $ 2 million per month”. Needless to say, Joan goes away feeling that she might single-handedly have been responsible for the company going into the red.

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!

Mountain out of a Molehill

Corporate life is all about survival. Some corporate executives look after their own survival. Many others constantly work to make sure that others don’t survive, as a presumed prerequisite for their own existence. A common strategy to achieve this could be the proverbial making a mountain out of a molehill.

Let us not fool ourselves by thinking that this is an easy-to-practice strategy. If you are someone who looks at a house on fire and simply states the fact as, ‘a house is on fire’, you are advised to skip the rest of this thesis and join the beginner’s course on “Corporate Strategies – 1001” (you would, no doubt, have noticed that this is a ‘1001’ course and not the ‘101’ course that is normally associated with an introductory course for a novice). On the other hand, if you, in the stated situation, naturally exclaim, “I just lifted my head and saw this most amazing, at the same time frightening, sight. An entire house was on fire – yes, the doors, windows, roof, the garage and what looked like an attached dog shelter were all ablaze, with the yellow flames seeming to reach the skies even as some aircraft were seen taking evasive action from the scorching heat”, you might be well qualified to benefit from further reading.

On a more serious note, I am sure you have all come across one or more of the following situations. A manager chastising his secretary with, “you have single-handedly spoilt the entire proposal” for an extra line space between two of the paragraphs in a 30-page document. Programmer-1 briefing her (clueless) boss, “I cannot believe that Programmer-2 delayed testing his program by 20 minutes putting at immense risk our system due two years from now; we all have to work 24/7 to make up for the lost time”. A VP, Sales barking at his Regional Managers, “Why are the monthly reports always late – this is the second time in the last 20 years?”

So, you get the trend. While much of such exaggeration may be harmless or, at worst, irritating, cunning use of this strategy may produce stunning results, usually negative in nature. A customer service rep, having had dinner with her personal friend during a business trip, might have forgotten to deduct a 10-dollar dinner charge while submitting her expense claim. The manager in-charge could well use this to admonish the rep for dishonesty, carelessness, stealing company money and a host of other things destroying the motivation and dedication of the rep who had made a genuine mistake. At a higher level in the corporate game, I mean hierarchy, the CEO of a company can be so nitpicky about the length of reports submitted by his VPs that each VP might start spending 10 minutes in preparing any report and 3 hours (including the time of all subordinates) in shortening the report to meet expected ‘standards’.

Sadly, higher the level at which the mountain-out-of-a-molehill phenomenon exists more difficult it is to correct – who will bell the cat?

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.

The Offline Company

I think I got you there – you thought you were about to read about a company that has no online presence and does business only through traditional means such as brick-and-mortar shops or traveling salesmen. Wrong! I am referring to the management cliché, that is all too prevalent, of deferring discussion on any topic or issue during a meeting by simply opting to ‘take it offline’!

Meetings are fundamental to the practice and growth of mediocrity and non-performance in corporate life. In large organizations, it is quite easy to mandate the presence of a bewildering array of representatives from various departments for any meeting. The crux of the matter is that no one knows how or why the other departments are involved – because no one knows why their own department is involved in the matter! And, since no one comes prepared with any relevant information, key issues meant to be discussed during a meeting are always side-stepped and marked for ‘offline’ resolution, defeating the very purpose of the meeting.

Let us track the (non)progress of such a meeting with the stated purpose of determining sales targets for the coming year After losing considerable time on scheduling the meeting through a complex algorithm using linear programming techniques to accommodate all participants, the meeting is finally convened. Of course, in keeping with contemporary organizational practices, very few people are physically present at the venue – most are virtual via digital technology.

Martin (CEO): Good morning and welcome. As you all know, we are in a tough market and there is increasing pressure from our investors to double our sales next year. So, Jason, what do we have by way of plans to achieve this?

Jason (Head of Sales) (clearly taken aback by the CEO’s expectations): Er..Hmm… Yes, Martin, we are putting together an aggressive plan to penetrate new markets. We expect a significant increase in the breadth and depth of our coverage. We …

Martin: OK, what does that mean in real terms?

Jason: Liz, could you please share our analysis and projections?

Liz (Market Research): Yes, Jason. We are currently thrice as big as the smallest competitor in our vertical, not considering the international sector. Next year, after adjusting for regional variances and accounting for GDP growth, we should be twice as big as the median competitor in year-on-year sales growth. This, of course…

Martin: Sorry guys, what numbers are we talking about?

Jason: Martin, in the interest of time and to deal with other items on the agenda for this meeting, could we take this offline, outside this meeting?

Martin (clearly enraged): What other items? Was this meeting not meant to focus on sales targets for next year?

Jason: Yes, yes. We will deal with that offline – I promise. Could we now quickly discuss participation in trade shows next year?

Martin (exasperated): Could we not take that offline?

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!