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.

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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.

Kicking the can down the road

As with most corporate jargon and complex phrases, the term, ‘kick the can down the road’ has a much simpler expression – ‘make it someone else’s problem’. Being a natural part of human behavior, this skill sits very well in the corporate world.

In its simplest form, corporate managers, and even rookies, can easily postpone discussion on a difficult topic by simply stating, “let us sleep over this issue” or “let us take it up in the next meeting (which conveniently does not take place for several months) or with a curve ball, “can we get more data points before we make a decision on this?”. Quite often, in meetings, troublesome topics are deliberately scheduled last on the agenda to provide ample opportunity to be skipped or postponed.

A more serious form of this game is in dealing with customer commitments. It is the dream of all sales executives and managers not to say ‘No’ to prospects and customers. “Can your video game software help me balance budgets?” – Yes, this add-on feature will be given to you free. “Can your company guarantee peak performance, with a dedicated service representative, for three years?” – Yes, of course. “Can your product make me fly?” – Yes, we are including this feature in our next version! These responses, apart from being wildly imaginative and tangential with reference to what is being sold, also make promises to be fulfilled by someone else at a later point in time – classic ‘kick the can’!

At the professional level – call it the NFL level – the can being kicked is the company itself. This is where the C-suite executives (the CEO, CMO and a variety of other C’s) use decisions and indecisions to tide over serious issues temporarily, often at the cost of long term setback – comparable to increasing the size of the fuse on a detonator instead of removing the explosive.  For example, to make up for a poorly designed product, instead of fixing the design, you deploy more support staff to field customer complaints, hoping that customers don’t desert the company before you, the CEO, do. As the Vice President of HR, you appease people by offering inconsistent pay revisions to different groups of employees till everyone is equally dissatisfied – and then you jump ship leaving your legacy – also known as the previously-kicked-can – for your successor to grapple with.

For the suave executive, the ability to kick the can down the road must be matched by the ability to quickly move places.

Meeting Agenda

Anyone who has lived, or even smelled, and survived the shenanigans of the corporate world would be aware that at the core of the corporate culture of wasting time – alternatively called ‘keeping busy’ – is the endless loop of meetings. What is even more fascinating, and appalling at the same time, is the ingenuity of defining an ‘agenda’ for the meeting.

Let us take a look at some of the most common items that masquerade as legitimate agenda ‘topics’:

How did we get here:  This is a common opening theme for many meetings, especially those that have no obvious necessity or purpose. This opens the door for a gruesome postmortem of anything and everything (related or unrelated to the meeting) that happened in the past, that everyone is already aware of. This is somewhat like a doctor in an emergency room, before treating a heart attack patient, calling for a detailed discussion on the treatment options that have evolved over the decades.

Summary: This item is a constant companion to ‘how did we get here’ – in many cases, it may actually be the same as the first item as pretty much nothing new is added or accomplished in the meeting. Between these two agenda components, a kind of relay race is set to carry the baton forward to eternity.

Q&A: The questions and answers session is tagged on to every meeting agenda in the fond hope that people attending the meeting would actually pay attention to what goes on and, then, have the courage and patience to prolong the meeting by asking questions.  A very subtle, but effective, hidden agenda (pun intended) for this topic is to fish for agenda ideas for subsequent meetings.

Next Steps: What is the purpose of a meeting if it cannot beget more meetings in short order? Very often, this topic helps carry forward the same agenda items from the current meeting to a future one since nothing has been achieved, other than consuming coffee and other beverages, in this meeting. And, the real measure of success of a meeting is the increase in the number of ‘topics’ to be discussed in the next meeting (see Q&A above). An (un)intended, and often unpleasant, outcome of Next Steps is the assigning of vague and intangible ‘action items’ to unsuspecting audiences (present and absent in the meeting).

Parking Lot:  The purest form of meeting agendas always includes a ‘Parking Lot’, which is often not in the actual agenda but springs up on a white board in the meeting room. This is where the master of ceremonies, the agenda owner, keeps noting down things that cannot be solved in the current meeting (due to lack of sufficient ‘data points’, if I may add). This provides a ready escape route for one and all not to bother about coming prepared to discuss, leave alone resolve, any of the agenda topics.

If ever there was a competition for definition of an endless loop, ‘meeting agenda’ would be a very strong contender!

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?

All Hands On Deck

It is Friday evening and the fuse goes off. “I want all hands on deck – stat; no excuses” bellows the Chief Operating Officer, currently Dan (in a ‘dynamic’ organization one needs to keep track of these positions in real time). Apparently things are fast approaching the point of no return with respect to the launch of the company’s new web site.

In line with the corporate principle that ‘all hands on deck’ does not necessarily mean ‘all relevant hands on deck’, the executive assistant to the COO, just bidding goodbye to her weekend plans, rounds up the usual (irrelevant) suspects – Director Purchasing, Director Transport, Admin Assistant in charge of the Cafeteria, Vice President Legal and the Manager Accounts (since the CFO could not be traced after several phone calls). In parallel, the Project Manager in charge of completing the new web site, Helen, trying her best to get everything ready for a timely launch by Sunday night, gets the summons from the COO’s office and asks all her team members – programmers, web designers, database administrators and others – to stop their work and report to the control tower, sorry, control room.

Let us pretend to be a fly on the wall in the control room and listen in.

COO: Thanks for responding to the call quickly. And thanks to our Admin department, pizza and coffee will be served round the clock. We will not leave this room till we have the new web site up and running.

Director, Transport: We have three cars waiting at our disposal for all emergencies including hospitalization, if necessary, for everyone present here as well as their respective families.

Manager, Accounts: The CFO has specially cleared funds for rearranging any travel and other plans that may need to be rescheduled for people who have graciously agreed to jump into this crisis.

Programmer-1 (looking at his code on his laptop and thinking….): What the f…. is the problem with these guys?

Project Manager (to the COO): Sir, what seems to be the problem?

COO (waving a piece of paper): Helen, what do you mean? You just reported that there are still 10 major bugs and 2 ½ (two and a half?) minor issues with the web site.

(All programmers and technical people are on edge now)

Project Manager: But, sir …..

COO: Cool guys. We are all in this together. I am not blaming anyone. It is time for true teamwork.

VP, Legal: That is right, Dan. No sweat. Though the next shareholders meeting is just round the corner – (looking at his calendar) in six months – I am sure we can launch the new web site in time.

Programmer-1: (looking up from his laptop, barely able to contain himself, and thinking ….) Are you kidding me?

Project Manager (handing over a freshly printed sheet of paper to the COO): I think you were referring to an old status report. Here is the current status. All issues have been resolved and we have finished our final integration testing. We were just taking a backup of the old web site when you called. We are all set and good to go.

COO (with a triumphant look): Fantastic news. I knew I could always depend on the team. Thanks, everyone. Please feel free to take the remaining pizza home.

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!