Friday, February 02, 2007

Vox Clamantis

Last week, my sister Kathleen forwarded me a piece by Pamela Hess (UPI) that she'd gotten through an online news service that she and her husband subscribe to. The article (which I'll summarize briefly, but quote from only sparingly, since I have not been able to find it online) describes a report published just prior to the onset of the war in Iraq. The report was created by a group at the Army War College composed of military personnel and Mideast specialists. It outlined a set of likely problem areas that might be met in Iraq, and laid out a set of recommendations for dealing with them.

Hess categorizes the report as "exceptionally prescient", bang-on it its prediction of insurgency and the proliferation of ethnic, religious, and tribal groups, and in its warnings about the "difficulties of trying to establish a pluralistic democracy in a place where 'anti-democratic tendencies are deeply ingrained.'" The article details several other areas in which the forewarnings were accurate. And while the the authors of the report are soldiering-up and not saying "I told you so," they do acknowledge that it is now too late to implement many of their recommendations.

The point here is not to debate the Iraq War. Pink Slip is my take on things related - however tangentially - to business. While it probably wouldn't take much effort to figure out something about my politics, on Pink Slip, I don't do politics or religion, unless there's a business angle.

The business angle on this one was suggested by Kath when she sent me the article: How many times do you see things like this happen in business, where the folks in the trenches were ignored by those sitting in command central?

The short answer is, a lot.

I'm quite sure that we've all seen it happen: the mid level guys who are closest to the situation make their case and are ignored by the higher-ups. It's not that the higher-ups are necessarily bad, evil, stupid, or really want to do things that will damage the business. It's just that, when presented with information or suggestions that are counter to their world view, or that don't support a decision that they really and truly want to make - and/or have made already - they just can't seem to assimilate it.

And it's not that the lower-downs are neccesarily all-knowing and all-good. It's just that are many situations in business where the people at the lower levels know a lot more about the details, a lot more about the "truth" of a given situation, than those in the executive suite.

Here are a few cases that I know of . (By the way, these are not intended to illustrate my own brilliance, since I wasn't even directly involved in two of them.)

  • When I worked for Genuity (a now-obliterated Internet Services Provider), the CEO decided that we were going to do a deal with HP to use their servers in our data centers. The deal was going to involve our doing an outright purchase of a couple million dollars worth of equipment from HP.

    The CEO was told by the data center folks that this deal was a bad idea, since the HP servers at that time had some design elements that made them difficult to service from the racks in our data centers. (I believe the problem was that you couldn't open the server from the front and thus had to remove it from the rack in order to service it, which was somewhat time consuming.)

    Intent on building a relationship (of sorts) with HP, the CEO went ahead and struck the deal. As a result, our data center guys were stuck with equipment that they really couldn't easily use.

  • What was there about Genuity? Another case in point was a deal we did with Broadvision software. We had been burnt a couple of times on software deals in which we'd purchased shelves full of licenses that we were going to resell (but couldn't). As a result, the mid-level business development folks, the guy who managed the impacted service line, and the sales team that was going to get stuck trying to sell the licenses, had wisely been resisting inking the deal with Broadvision that was on the table, until we could get more favorable terms.

    In blew the new CMO, determined to get the deal signed, and declaring that he was going to show us all "how deals get done on the West Coast." He went ahead and put his name on a deal that did not much more than cost us money. (So that's how deals are done on the West Coast? Way to go.)

  • At Softbridge, shortly after we were acquired, our president decided that, as a matter of good will, he would give up our web-related efforts, ceding development and two of our rare and precious developers to another small company that had been acquired around the same time we were. This was just when web-based applications were starting to replace client/server, but our president decided that we would focus on client/server applications only.

    In doing so, he was actually facing the grim reality that it would be hard for our little band to do both. The problem with the deal was that we were giving up a lot, but getting - as us underlings saw it - nothing in return. We all warned him that if he went ahead with this plan - without exacting some tit for tat like them building applications that we could use for our market - we would get eaten alive in the market, get eaten alive by the company that acquired us for being so weak, and get eaten alive by our "brother" company that had skunked us on the deal. We also warned that the decision would also make us eat our own hearts out, since we would end up with pandemic demoralization caused by our having to continue to slog around with products that were so clearly on their way out.

I could come up many other instances in which those closer to the realities of a situation provided good counsel that was ignored by those in charge. More than once, I've lamented the fact that the voice of those crying out from the wilderness of the middle ranks falls on deaf ears. More than once, I've shot off a memo or e-mail entitled Vox Clamantis in Deserto.

(Hmmm, maybe they were ignored because the receiver hadn't taken four years of Latin and thought the memo was spam! Maybe they thought Vox Clamantis had something to do with E.D. Note to self: stop showing off - and showing your age. Is four years of Latin even possible in this day and age? And who of mens sana - I mean, sound mind - would even take it if it were?)

I will, of course, acknowledge that there are no doubt plenty of counter-examples in which the fearless leaders ignored the naysayers and ended up saving the day. I'm just not all that personally familiar with any of them.

The point is that those who make the decisions need to have their critical thinking caps on, and their good listening skills in tune, when they go to make their decisions. They can't just put on their "happy ears", listening only to those whose viewpoints coincide with theirs.

In the end, of course, it's up to the decider to decide. But I believe that history has generally shown - and will continue to do so - that the better, the more thorough, the more challenging the input that goes into the decision-making process, the better those decisions will be.


Pete Warden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pete Warden said...

The argument that James Chiles makes in his book Inviting Disaster is that memos aren't enough. If peoples lives are on the line you have to threaten to quit and expose it, if management don't take action. Would things have been better if the Iraq report authors had leaked their recommendations? I don't know, but there is a chance...

Of course, it's easy to say and a lot harder to live by, but it helps to remember that I have power to change things, if I'm willing to risk my job. As Bob Sutton says in his latest post about being able to take revenge, "the perception that one has control over negative events in our lives is essential for sustaining human well-being, and the feeling of helplessness is devastating to human well-being". Knowing that I have an option, even if it's very unattractive, helps me be more assertive, even if I never actually take it.

Maureen Rogers said...

Pete - Very true words about "knowing you have the option" being empowering. Years ago I was dealing with a particularly terrible boss. I went home one day after work, discussed the "walk out and don't look back" option with my husband, and went into work the next day with an entirely changed attitude. Just having given myself permission to quit on the spot made it migh easier to cope with the boss from hell.

As for "memos aren't enough", although in my post I talk about all the memos I've written, the situations I outlined (and most of the ones I've been involved in) that had senior managers not heeding the warnings of "the troops" entailed face to face meetings, etc. Of course, none of these business situations exactly involved life and death.

(I'm not sure what the situation was with the Iraq report - where and how it made its way through the chain of command, and how difficult it is for members of the military to buck that chain.)

Pete Warden said...

Thanks Maureen. I was so interested by your post because I've been through similar situations where the normal channels failed to avert (non-life-threatening) disaster, and they left me frustrated. I've been searching for new ways to handle them when the everyday tactics don't work.

Maureen Rogers said...

Pete - I guess there's just no one right way - or even very good way - to handle things when you provide your best advice and counsel and it gets ignored. It's so frustrating to be put in that position. It's not all that satisfying to say "I told you so" - and, of course, you say it at your own peril. You also don't want to conciously or unconciously undermine the execution of a decision - even if you don't agree with it. Rock. Hard place. This is where ou are in these situations.

Maureen Rogers said...

That's where YOU are (not ou).

Rick said...

I think an important question is why is it that top level brass are so resistant to input from the trenches. I speak as an outsider, who has never actually worked in a normal company, but who has dealt with the brass as an outside investor for a depressingly big number of decades. My theory, looking at many company failures over the years, is that most CEOs (and that can probably be generalized down to lower level managers) are extremely susceptible to wishful thinking. Business hasn't been good; the marketing VP says that it wasn't her fault, the problem is that their products/services don't have Bell X and Whistle Y, and that once they add them, sales will take off. The CEO doesn't want to blame himself for hiring a bad marketing VP, so sets the engineers and product developers off on a quest to add those bells and whistles. When asked about the prospects, the CEO is very optimistic, because he knows that once these features are added, sales will take off.

But is that really the issue? Do the customers actually care, or is there some other reason why customers aren't signing up? Anyone in the trenches who suggests that there is some other problem, and those bells and whistles won't make a difference is speaking to an audience with a very strong incentive to be deaf. They have a plan, they're chugging along on it, they've told everyone what to expect once the new bells and whistle features are released. They absolutely will not hear information to the contrary, because it would be too disturbing if true.

Rick said...

I want to add that I envy your four years of Latin; I only had two. As a result, when seeing the title I thought that your post was about some flower speaking to you.

Maureen Rogers said...

Which would, of course, make it Vox Clemaitis.

Maureen Rogers said...

Rick - To your prior comment, Wishful Thinking has been at play in almost every place I've worked. For whatever reasons, the execs can't/won't/think it's "weak" to appear to have any doubts, and then forge on.

Many times I've been reminded of the 'Think Method' used in the "Music Man" to teach the kids to play instruments. It didn't work: the band sounded terrible, but not to themselves or to their proud (wishfully thinking) parents.