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!

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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!

Ambiguity

The message unequivocally conveyed in all B schools, and in any sort of internal company training conducted by a variety of agencies masquerading as management consultants is that one needs to communicate in a clear, concise and unambiguous manner. Little do these pundits know the incredible power of ambiguity as a management tool par excellence.

Ambiguity as a coveted weapon of choice is not to be confused or even compared with companion management techniques such as indecision, procrastination, denial, deflection, etc. While the said techniques are passive in nature – in that they involve NOT doing something (at least immediately) – ambiguity is an active tool requiring perpetual, perceived action.

Let us take the simple example of when a new system, say (ironically) a new mobile communication platform for the company, will be operational. As the senior IT Director in charge of the project, you want to keep your options open, namely vague (ok, ambiguous)! You mention different ‘launch’ dates in different forums – ‘2 months from now’ through ‘12 months from now’ to ‘TBD’ (to be decided). People are naturally confused, as is expected and desired by you. You take care to neither acknowledge nor deny any dates that are thrown at you, at the same time proactively making statements such as, “the first set of users should be seeing the new system very shortly”, “it is already being beta tested by first adapters”, “oh, it is just coming off the iterative validation by power users – with rave reviews, if I may add” and so on. There is a lot of buoyancy in the air and huge expectations of something big about to happen with no certainty as to when!

The seasoned manager may also practice ambiguity to keep the subordinates guessing. In the first sales review meeting, she could tell her audience, “In future meetings, I would like each one of you to go into some detail regarding your territories”. In the second meeting, she could tell them, “It is really not necessary to go into such excruciating detail about what you do – just focus on the key customers”. The sermon in the third meeting goes something like, “…. Come on guys, we all know what these customers do … let us review the power players, the influencers at these customers …. Haven’t you done any such case studies in college?”. This manager has succeeded in making the entire team jittery and frustrated. They start focusing all their energies on guessing what their manager wants them to present rather than trying to improve sales.

The pinnacle in the art of ambiguity is when your customers start feeling uncertain and even lost as to what they are buying from you. Here is a snippet from a conversation between the Sales Manager of a company trying to sell a phone service to the Admin Manager of a (potential) customer:

Sales Manager (SM): Thanks for seeing me. I assume you have already reviewed our price quote for the 100-instrument integral phone service for your office.

Customer (Admin): Yes, the proposal looks good. I have a few questions….

SM: Fire away. That is why I am here – to offer clarifications (ambiguity antenna sharpened)

Admin: Do you support 100 registered users or 100 concurrent users?

SM: Great question. (pretends to look through some information on his laptop). Our virtual circuit gateway randomizes the virtual user count allowing more than the permissible number of concurrent users to be serviced through queueing.

Admin: Hm….Er…..  Okayeeee…. So I can have more than 100 users on my system?

SM: You may consider it that way. Here is the interesting part. By using the store-and-forward method, we can support delayed processing without your users feeling any negative impact on response times.

Admin: (with no clue as to what is being said) Sounds good …. How about service levels – do you guarantee at least 99% uptime on the system?

SM: Again, a very smart question. Historically, we have achieved greater than 99.5% uptime for all our systems with 10 to 99 instruments in any one location (I am not going to tell you that for 100+ instruments, the figure is well below 80%). In case of catastrophic failures, with our automated redundancy support, we will be able to switch you over to a backup system in 30 minutes. This will cost you 25% extra maintenance ……(peers at his laptop)…..tell you what, I am going to waive this additional fee if you will confirm the order right now. What do you say?

 

Admin: (I have no idea of what I am hearing but it sounds good) OK, let us do it.

Dependencies, aka the Death Spiral

There are a million ways of killing any new initiative in the corporate world but none more powerful than the invocation of dependencies, the dreaded weapon that can immediately start a vicious spiral of death.

No man is an island. And no corporate initiative is independent. You want to change a HR policy – you need to depend on the applicable laws. You want to hire a new employee – you should get budgetary clearance from Finance. You want a promotion – you need to work hard (just kidding!).

However, the masters of corporate affairs can create real and imaginary dependencies in such a way that nothing can ever get started. As an added bonus, if something does get off the ground against all odds, you, the master, are already armed with the ammunition to absolve yourself of blame for any subsequent failures.

Let us watch the practice of this art in simple and complex situations.

Let us say that a particular manager wants to rearrange the time for a weekly projects status meeting that falls on a Friday at 9 AM, as she has a conflict with another recurring meeting at 9:30 on Fridays. You, the ‘status quo’ master, do not want to change anything and so start drawing upon your repertoire of dependencies. You start explaining, “Oh…I wish I could consider a new timing but the Board room is not available between 9:30 and 2:30. Reordering coffee and snacks served during the meeting, currently scheduled for 9:30 AM, to a different time requires prior approval from the VP as coffee trolleys are shared with other meetings. And, Liz calls to check on her children during her walk between meetings at 10 AM. Additionally, some people have early lunch at 11 AM on Fridays…….. So, you see, it may be rather difficult to change the timing of our weekly meeting; it has a lot of dependencies”. The manager concerned returns to her desk crestfallen.

Fast forward to a more complex scenario – the dream of every IT professional – system dependencies. Poor Joan, the store manager in a Retail chain, wants to ask her IT Gods for extension of time to submit her daily cash balances till 6:30 PM instead of the current 6 PM, in order to have reasonable time to balance her cash registers after store closing. But, of course, the IT powers would have none of that and confront Joan with, “….you have no idea of how inter-dependent things are; your cash balances have to be placed on the FTP server at 6:10 for the batch job to transport them to the interim holding area by 6:18; this will be followed by a purge of yesterday’s totals at 6:24 at which time our monitoring staff will initiate a manual upload before leaving office at 6:30 (if the staff has to stay back, that costs us 73.99 dollars per hour extra); building in redundancies for failures, we are expected to be complete with our ledger processing by 9 PM and then wait for the daily maintenance cycle to kick in at 4 AM (yes, a good 7 hours of ‘holding time’)….. it is all very complicated and inter-dependent. So, your request for an extra half hour to balance your registers will likely cost us an extra $ 2 million per month”. Needless to say, Joan goes away feeling that she might single-handedly have been responsible for the company going into the red.

The Corporate Juggler

There you have it! Even for the weary warrior, quite used to being reduced to a hapless bystander by corporate shenanigans, this may cause a slightly raised eyebrow – or not!

A juggler has traditionally been viewed as someone who can keep you captivated, even mesmerized, with what appears to be an impossible set of skills – keeping an assortment of objects such as balls, clubs, knives and burning sticks endlessly in the air. Fast forward to the current day – and you have the corporate juggler. The similarities cannot be overstated:

  1. both like to play with multiple objects at the same time, gradually increasing the number of things they juggle
  2. both get rid of things as soon as they arrive
  3. both do not hold one specific object/topic long enough to create ownership
  4. they do not seek anyone’s assistance but quit the game at their discretion

In simple terms, corporate jugglery is about bouncing around problems and issues – not to be confused with delegation where responsibility is handed over. The suave manager never refuses to take on new assignments or solve new problems; in fact, he/she volunteers to take on new ones. But the input-output processing takes place so rapidly that the elapsed time needs to be measured in nanoseconds.

You need the sales report by tomorrow? No problem – here is an email to 200 people. You need new chairs for your department? OK – here is a 10-page questionnaire on the specifications for you to fill up. Your laptop is not working? OK, I don’t know what the problem is but I will put in a request for the operating system to be upgraded. Oh…. the sales report … have the emails come back with the sales figures? OK, I will ask my secretary to enter them on a spreadsheet. You filled in the specifications for the chairs? Alright, can you now get me a list of all the people in your department and their weights to see the strength of the chairs we need? Nice, I seem to have some free time – let me see – I can help with preparing coffee for the meeting. Can someone arrange the coffee pods in decreasing order of strength while I ask someone else to fetch cream and sugar from the pantry? OK guys, we will pick up the threads tomorrow……….

You get the idea!

As with everything else, the performance of corporate jugglery tends to be at its best at higher levels of the corporate ladder where access to knives, sticks and other destructive objects is almost infinite!

Gossip as a Corporate Strategy

While the management gurus pound you with advice on great strategies, propagated all the way down from Peter Drucker, simple day-to-day tools are often seriously overlooked. Gossip, in the hands of the shrewd executive at the right level, beats any of the management theories taught, after paying thousands of dollars, at management schools. In many cases, it takes small talk to an entirely different level with richer rewards.

First, all gossip is not the same. Second, for the best effect, all gossip must be released to the right person at the right time. Two low level executives may have a casual conversation in the parking lot wherein they may exchange gossip about the habits of a new Director who has recently joined the organization; or exchange rumors regarding an upcoming promotion and who the favorites are; or even the affair between the CEO’s secretary and the VP of HR. But such exchanges of mundane gossip do nothing more than help foster a feeling of comradery between the executives.

To become a strategic tool, the art of gossip must be refined and used with a touch of finesse – and this comes from experience and constant practice. Let us say it is the budgeting season where favors, I mean budgets, are being doled out to various departments. The CFO is struggling with cutting costs by chopping off funds approved earlier. To ‘help her along’, you, the Head of IT, whisper into the ears of the CFO, “Hi, I hear that our CEO is rather upset with the lack of returns from the liberal serving of dessert during our quarterly sales review meetings –  and maybe….. the funds are better used for buying more laptops for our IT department…”. Later on, you feign surprise when you are told that your IT budgets have been approved without any cuts.

At the highest levels, judicious injection of gossip into conversations helps keep your subordinates on edge and plunge them into (un)healthy fights over non-existent issues. Let us look at a scenario where the COO is having a ‘casual’ conversation with the VP of Administration.

COO: Hi Jason, how is it going….

VP, Admin: Very well, thank you. Just struggling with controlling increasing travel costs in the company. I …….

COO (“here is an opportunity”): I have been noticing that too. I hear that the sales people are having fun parties while on visits to unqualified prospects.

VP, Admin: Thanks for that tip (I don’t care if this is true or not). I will tighten the belt.

Soon, there begins a cold war between the VP, Admin and VP, Sales on a non-existent problem. Travel expenses are brutally cut down leading to disinterested sales people refusing to travel. In the meanwhile, the originator of the gossip, the COO, with one less thing to monitor, moves on to ‘tackling’ other ‘C’ level executives in the company.

Exception becomes the Rule

Long ago, one of my bosses told me, “There is an exception to every rule but exception itself is not a rule”. I was reveling in the wisdom of such thoughtful words till the reality of the working world set me right.

While the turn of events in the political arena in America seems to have legitimized every possible exception only in recent times, the practice has been nonchalantly adopted by the corporate world for decades, if not centuries.

OK, ok, I know what you are thinking – “what is this lunatic raving about?” – let me get straight to explaining this. When you are at the bottom of the organizational totem pole and you have, let us call them, idiosyncrasies such as interrupting someone in mid-sentence or talking on the phone while ignoring the person in front of you, you would get expressions of disapproval all the way from a stiff upper lip or a raised eyebrow if you are in the company of Englishmen practicing Wodehouse-an values, through a kick under the table if you are amongst friends, to an outright ‘shut-up’ if you are in the company of millennials trying to right everything that is wrong around them. But, if you are tenacious and preserve your behavior as you worm your way up the organization, you will soon reach a level where you can authoritatively have your exceptional behavior be not just tolerated but accepted, many times encouraged and often imitated. Thus you redefine and convert an exception to the norm as the norm.

The key here is that you should be patient and wait till you are at a level in your company where you have earned the right to project the exception as a hallmark of your individual self and style rather than as a lacuna in your capability. Whether it is a case of routinely not paying attention to what people are saying, ignoring facts, writing incoherent emails, eating peanuts and ice cubes during meetings, using the f-word in every sentence or any other equally entertaining habit, no one dares to question you. Even better, everyone starts practicing these exceptions, sorry rules, and they become an integral part of the corporate culture!

QED!