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!

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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.

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.

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!

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!

Corporate Expertise

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them – so goes a famous saying from yester-years. The corporate world extension of this is: Expertise may sometimes actually exist but can always be portrayed to exist.

The corporate world is full of experts if not expertise. You name it and there are one or more experts. At the strategic level, you have the expert on mergers and acquisitions; company turnaround; getting into, sorry, out of, bankruptcy; improving the bottom line, top line or anything in between, and so on.

Experts at the tactical or operational level provide a lot of fun while creating immense confusion in the organization. Typically, such an expert’s ‘expertise’ is based on one incident, situation or project that he or she has encountered earlier in the career. For example, an office manager who has reorganized the office in a five people company, essentially by moving a few tables around, becomes the expert in ‘office remodeling’. She then touts her expertise and attempts the same technique (more like a trick) in a multi-location, global company with hundreds of employees, with disastrous results.

These experts are like one-trick ponies. They learn something somewhere and try to apply the same principle or methodology over and over in any and all situations. Such expertise is even better peddled if the ‘expert’ moves from company to company quickly (which may also be a necessity as their bluff is called out in short order at each place). They constantly try to prove the cliché, ‘one size fits all’!

The pinnacle of the corporate expertise phenomenon is reserved for ‘Ask the Expert’ sessions that are a favorite comic interlude of every conference and convention. Imagine yourself as a helpless spectator in such a gathering, with the panel of experts on the podium dishing out their wisdom to unsuspecting audiences, and enjoy the show:

Panel Moderator: We are honored to have multiple experts on managing project costs to answer questions from our eager group of project managers in the audience.

Audience-1: How can I speed up a project without increasing resource costs?

Expert-1: There is always a cheaper resource – use metal sheets of thinner gauge, use stainless steel instead of ….

Audience-1: But excuse me, we are talking of a software development project.

Expert-1: Well… you know……. maybe you could use a cheaper software language, maybe Java instead of C… it is all the same principle, you know.

 

Audience-2: Hi, in our project the requirements keep changing and the stakeholders do not realize the added costs due to this. How best can we get the right message across and establish controls?

Expert-2: We had the same situation when we were designing the process flow for making soaps in a client’s factory. We just used an existing, competitor’s soap as our requirements specification and ……

Audience-2: But, with due respect, we are designing a unique multi-storey condo complex to custom specifications.

Expert-2: It is all the same. I have seen it in several factories that our consultancy has designed…… Just adopt an existing model…

Long live the clan of experts – but stay away from their expertise!