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!

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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).