The Plan-B Syndrome

“But, what is your Plan-B for this?”

This single sentence could nullify all discussions and decisions painstakingly made over a three hour meeting and render null and void days and months of planning for a new initiative. Hearing this dreaded question in the middle of a discussion is like being handed down the death sentence.

For the uninitiated audience, let it be known that ‘Plan B’ is corporate lingo for ‘alternative solution’ or ‘safety measure’ while attempting to do something new. ‘Rollback strategy’ and ‘failsafe mechanism’ are some alternative references (Plan-B?) to the said terminology.

While planning implementation of a new employee leave/ vacation management system, after hearing the 100-step process, with built-in measures to correct any mis-steps, from the IT department, the HR manager could easily put a spoke by asking, “But, what is your Plan-B?”.  The conversation could then go on somewhat like this:

IT Manager: Er….. if you are asking about something going wrong, we have built in measures to correct and recover each step…. And, we…….

HR Manager: You don’t seem to understand. What if the system just does not come up?

IT Manager: We have tested it for three times the expected load and we have mirrored the system for disaster recovery……

HR Manager (looking exasperated): You don’t seem to have taken into account the organizational catastrophe of this system not being available for logging vacation time. What about employee morale under such circumstances?

IT Manager (looking exhausted): M’me, we have gone through these things several times with your team. We all have agreed that your existing paper-based records can be used for some more time, if needed. I am not sure what more we need to do.

HR Manager: But you don’t have a clearly defined Plan-B. Going back to manual records is demoralizing. What if the system fails after all manual records have been  destroyed? I must review this with senior management before I can agree to go ahead with Plan-A (your new system).

Thus comes to an end one of many new initiatives in an organization where the introduction of a new system is put on hold or buried in a coffin for lack of an imaginary alternative that is not needed.

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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!

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.

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!

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!

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.