One Trick Pony

The corporate world is full of one-trick ponies. If, as someone lost in the maze of corporate strategy (whatever that means), you feel that you are hearing, seeing and experiencing the same stuff over and over again, please take solace in the fact that you are not alone.

Quite simply, most managers and executives in an organization learn something early in their careers and make it their one-solution-fits-all-situations mantra as they make their way up the corporate ladder. The more conscientious ones may try to put different finishing touches to their single ‘trick’ from time to time but the vast majority don’t even bother with such nuances.

Say, an administration manager does a simple job of setting up a new lunch room in the office consisting of just ten steps – procure tables and chairs, install water cooler, provide a television, etc. Upon successful completion of this ‘major project’, she adopts this ‘ten step process’ to deal with any and all future assignments that she undertakes. Many moons later and in a different situation, while taking on a much more complex project such as relocating a ten thousand-people office, she can be heard explaining eloquently to her subordinates who are juggling with dozens of vendors and hundreds of different types of equipment that her ten-step process from time immemorial must be adopted.

Moving from company to company offers obvious advantages to the one-trick pony as the new company has no idea of the success or failure, or even applicability, of the trick in question. The ideal environment for the one-trick manager is where his singular panacea for all evils is merely discussed and never put to action. What better glory than to have your proposal discussed but never put to test!

Consultants benefit most from the one-trick phenomenon. Almost all consultants are getting things done by others rather than doing anything themselves. A smart consultant merely has to be part of, even aggressively attach himself to, an assignment or project forming part of services rendered to a company unfortunate enough to hire such services. Let us say that as part of implementing a new Human Resources (HR) system, the consultant puts in place an appraisal and career planning process. Once this project is done, the consultant has one specific way of doing appraisal and career planning that he will carry to his grave. In that journey of his, for the next several decades of his career, he will tout his wisdom and experience in dealing with a variety of organizations, (large and small, local and global) categories of workforce (factory workers to software architects, CEOs to janitors) and apply the same – you got it – one trick.

So, the next time you hear someone say, “From my vast experience in dealing with such situations……”, run for the hills!

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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!

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.

Carrot and Stick – or Mashed Potato

Everyone is familiar with the good old concept of carrot and/or stick – the act of cajoling someone to do something through a reward (carrot) and/or with the threat of punishment (stick). As children, we have all gone through the phase of adjusting our actions and behavior based on the expected use of this technique by our parents.

Like with everything else, the corporate world takes this phenomenon to a new level. There are managers who have learnt and (im)perfected this art through full-time courses in business schools, company-sponsored workshops and seminars, miracles producing ‘learn leadership in 30 days’ crash courses or simply through word of mouth from colleagues.

A savvy software development manager, supervising a group of developers in a large corporation, practices this technique like witchcraft. She announces to the team that the entire group would go on a cruise if the project is completed even one day (rephrase this as ‘one minute’ if you want to take this down to the wire) ahead of schedule. While the whole group kicks into a high degree of frenzy, I mean motivation, there are the habitual slackers who spoil the fun – net result is a non-cruise. The manager, annoyed at the delays and the effect on her reputation in the company, wields the stick and cancels pre-approved vacations, even for the good performers.

In the next iteration (software development is nothing but an endless series of failed iterations, under the modern day principle of failing quickly), very few developers bother to work hard and finish their tasks on time, assuming that the group will be late anyway.  The manager, however, selectively rewards the ones who finish their individual tasks on time. She also does not pull up those who are late thus sending mixed and confusing signals like a set of faulty lights at a traffic junction.

The group of developers are now in a state of confusion, to say the least. Those who could perform better but did not do so are fretting and fuming and decide to rebel and sabotage the next project. They promote wrong assumptions and deliberately mislead others about the features of the next software application being developed by their team, with the result that the entire system is scrapped by senior management and the whole department severely reprimanded.

Thus, the ingenious and cunning, though ineffective, use of the carrot-and-stick principle results in a mushy, unpalatable mashed potato!

The Process Company

Processes are an integral part of all companies – sometimes, so integral that a company looks like an incidental outcome of its processes. The greatest benefit of having processes is, of course, the ability to be a ready excuse for any event, outcome or result.

“But sir, I was only following the company process while dealing with that customer”, “Jason, why have you not followed the escalation process for alerting senior management?”, “But….there was no process to catch this error in time”. Sounds familiar? If not, please apply for a corporate job immediately.

As with everything in life, a process is born out of chaos and the need to manage it. You go to a public office (think RMV) and you are handed a token that enters you into the first step in the process. You want a credit card – fill out the first of several dozen documents for, yes, processing. In the absence of these defined steps (a layman’s term for process), the act of getting a license or a credit card could become entirely random, subjective and confusing.

The corporate gurus have taken this to an entirely different level. In a typical office, there is a process for getting a pencil or sharpener for yourself, one (or many) more process(es) for getting approval for a flight that is 20 cents costlier than the lowest fare (though it saves 8 hours of your time) and a process for opening a new office overseas – all equally daunting to navigate. You should never assume that the process for what you may consider a trivial matter is less serious or less complex than that for making profound decisions that affect the entire organization.

What starts off as a simple procedure to streamline things, especially in a growing organization, soon becomes a death trap. Failure to win business against competition is easily blamed on processes, or lack thereof. Poor quality of software is by default attributed to insufficient and inadequate QA processes and never on the lack of skills of the developers.

The power of the process culture as a deterrent should not be underestimated. For example, if you needed to borrow the time of an IT specialist in your company to solve a desktop problem, a quick recap of the request-review-more information-review-deny-appeal-more information-deny steps in the process is enough to decide that it is much better to live with (and spread) the virus on your PC than to seek technical assistance. Of course, we are deliberately ignoring here the possibility of using your personal charm to entice the IT specialist to look at your laptop in the parking lot.

Processes follow the law of entropy – they always increase. First there is chaos in managing employee vacations. To solve this, a simple graph/chart is put up on the wall to see when who is on vacation. Then this gets incorporated as a spreadsheet on the manager’s PC. Next this is uploaded to a central point and made shareable. Everyone starts editing their own (and others’) vacation dates, making it an extremely dynamic document. Then access controls are put in place. This leads to the inability for anyone to get his or her vacation information into the system (yes, it is now a ‘system’) in a timely manner for lack of access privileges. Then comes a complex process of applying for vacation (in a different system, naturally) with associated approval workflow that, if and when successful, will feed the details into the system hosting the vacation chart……… (please feel free to take this up for your Ph.D thesis).