Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

Archive for January, 2009

Personal responsibility

Posted by A Friend on 27 January 2009 When things go wrong at work, how quickly and how often do we blame the leader or the manager for the disaster? How often do we use or hear the terms “failure of leadership” or “failure of management” associated with workplace follies?

We encounter these terms regularly in our practice. And when we query people why that is the case, we often hear such reasoning as “They get all the credit for success even when all they do is delegate work, it is only fair that they should cop the blame for failure.” Such statement would have sounded logical, if only the argument was not delivered with a hint of management disdain.

We do not subscribe to the idea that leaders or managers should get all the credit for successful outcomes. Neither do we believe that they should absorb all the flack for unsuccessful ones. Rather, we are a strong believer of taking personal responsibility with everything that one is involved in.

We believe that each individual, regardless of their position in an organization, needs to look at themselves first before pointing the finger at anybody else when an undesirable outcome occurs. They must ask themselves first whether they did all they could to ensure a successful result before even contemplating the assignment of blame on others.

Take for example the case of Robert, a quality manager who felt as though he was forced to leave his previous job because of his boss’s seeming undermining of his work.

Robert used to work in a facility led by an offsite manager. The manager worked only a short distance from the site, but he would only pay Robert and his team a visit on average once every ten days.

Robert felt at best under appreciated and at worst targeted by this manager:

    A lot of the manager’s infrequent surprise visits to the site immediately followed a negative report that Robert filed; and 75 per cent of the time, Robert would only know of these visits from colleagues, after the fact.

    Robert felt that this manager deliberately undermined his productivity by burying him in paperwork with stringent and unnecessary requirements for detailed daily reports.

    Robert received reprimands in various instances when he initiated continual improvement initiatives (“Who gave you the authority?” was the oft-asked killer question), even when such initiatives clearly showed positive results in his department.

The lack of management, communication, and positive feedback was very demoralizing to Robert; and a strong argument could certainly be mounted about his boss’s lack of management capability, and even some signs of workplace bullying.

But then, we also asked Robert: “What actions did you take to resolve this perceived conflict with your boss?” Not surprisingly, Robert admitted that he did not do much. Robert said that he made some cursory effort to properly communicate with his boss, but he also quickly gave up when he was not getting his desired response.

Robert’s case and his actions and reactions are typical of people who are quick to accept their “sad plight” but are not too quick to see that there are in fact so many things under their direct control and influence that they can still do to rectify their situation.

In the workplace, people often feel bogged down by structures and bureaucracy and culture and politics that they find it hard to see opportunities that are available to them. They often only see restrictions and roadblocks and fail to consider that one of the most powerful first steps in seeing possibilities is recognizing limitations.

Robert’s boss might in fact have had targeted and bullied him into resigning. It would be easy for Robert to quickly point the finger at his manager as the antagonist in this sorry saga considering the evidence, but we believe that would also be a cop out.

Instead of wondering about people’s politics and motivations around him, Robert should have first looked at himself to see whether there were things that he could have done to improve matters and made sure he did them.

Robert would dearly want to be able to say that he did the best he could in the situation that he was in. But he did not, so he cannot.

In this instance, Robert is just as responsible as his manager in causing the management process to fail.


Posted in Case Studies, Leadership & Management | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Stymied by the sacred cow

Posted by A Friend on 22 January 2009

BCG MatrixThe Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Growth-Share Matrix, or more simply known as the BCG Matrix, continues to be one of the more popular strategic management tools used today.

The BCG Matrix classifies business units or product portfolios into four distinct categories based on market growth and market share, measured against competitors.

In the diagram, various portfolios can be classified as dogs, question marks, stars, or cash cows. Cash cows are leaders in a mature (low growth) market, dogs are cash traps, question marks have the potential of becoming stars or dogs, and stars are the high maintenance high performers.

In simplest terms, organizations will have a mix of portfolios that fit into each of these quadrants. The idea is to retire the dogs; and make use of the cash cows to both promote question marks into new stars and continue to invest in stars until these become cash cows. The NetMBA site provides a good summary of the BCG Matrix, including some of its inherent limitations.

Our case today presents a situation where the BCG Matrix could have been applied effectively.

Over a period of 20 years, a family-owned business grew from being a small scale trader to becoming one of the biggest vendors of computer servers and peripherals in its region. This was mainly due to an exclusive distribution contract with Hewlett Packard (HP), one of the world’s leading computer manufacturers.

The company’s market dominance was, however, seriously threatened in the mid 1990s when its exclusive contract with HP expired. Not only did HP decide to sign distribution contracts with other vendors then, it also opened its own operations in the region.

The company had three main business streams at this time. Aside from still being the undisputed leader among HP resellers, it had also established an IT training arm with a good market reputation, and it was still the only company in the region providing re-calibration and other support services for HP products.

These three business streams were all cash cows: outright leadership or high market share in fairly mature segments. However, recognizing the longer-term possibility of losing market share because of increased competition, the company decided to diversify and opened its own consulting services arm.

The company correctly predicted a regional boom in ERP consultancy requirements, so it aggressively built an Oracle and SAP consulting practice. This initial investment saw the company pioneering the growth of ERP consulting in the region, where it became a clear market leader within just a two-year period.

Unfortunately, the company in its core was still a computer hardware vendor, with most of its senior executives having their performance and bonus schemes attached to volume selling of HP products. This led the company to lose sight of what should have been its strategic focus: utilizing its cash cows (computer hardware sales, calibration, and education services) to promote question marks (Oracle and SAP consulting practice) into stars.

Instead, bent on protecting its market share as a HP reseller, the company’s sales executives started offering its Oracle and SAP consulting services as cheap, value adding incentives for bulk hardware purchases. In the short term, this allowed the executives to continue to meet their sales quotas and earn their bonuses.

What they did, however, was also turn their biggest cash cow, computer hardware sales, into a very expensive star. This was always going to be difficult to maintain, considering the increased competition not only from other resellers, but from HP itself, its main product provider.

What the sales executives also inadvertently did was make the question marks, Oracle and SAP consulting, very expensive business units to maintain that provided very little real returns. And with resources having been re-allocated to protecting its share of the computer hardware market, the company was also not going to be able to sustain the momentum it built with its consulting businesses.

Soon, new competitors entered the ERP consulting market, and by virtue of its pioneering status, the company became a natural target for aggressive talent raids. This signaled the deterioration of the company’s consulting practice and not long after, the business units that had all the potential of becoming stars instead became dogs and had to be put down.

Meantime, the company continued to focus on protecting its share of the hardware sales market, even at the behest of its calibration and educational services units. But this was a battle it was never going to win, and it also very slowly lost its dominant market position. Perhaps realizing the inevitable, some of the company’s sales executives started leaving and sought better opportunities elsewhere.

With lost market share came reduced revenues and sliced profits. This significantly cut down the company’s ability to financially support its most expensive star, and it was just going to be a matter of time before its hardware sales business also becomes a dog. It eventually did, and with no other star prospects in sight, the company closed shop in 2005.

Posted in Case Studies, Strategy | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Misuse of social media

Posted by A Friend on 17 January 2009

Rajesh Setty recently posted on the Tom Peters blog where he listed nine points about what a “Personal Brand” is not. Point three piqued our interest the most:

It’s not your presence in the social media. Yes, social media can amplify your personal brand, but the presence itself cannot be a substitute for a personal brand….It is also NOT how “popular” you are in the social media.

We found the above especially true when we recently interviewed a person, who is also a very active “social media butterfly” in our region, for a senior project position.

This person’s resume pointed to his own personal website, a personal blog, and a LinkedIn profile. His LinkedIn profile indicated 500+ connections (the maximum number of connections LinkedIn shows), and over 20 recommendations.

Now we must confess that we are a very late social media adopter (we only discovered Facebook and LinkedIn last year), so this person’s LinkedIn profile especially impressed us, so much so that we decided to skip an initial interview and go straight to a panel – the final selection stage.

We found the interview a complete waste of our time. We emailed this person a brief of the position at least three days before the interview, yet it was very clear from the way he answered the questions that he was not prepared.

And not only was he unprepared, he was totally unqualified: he did not understand some of the most basic concepts we expected he would know and be ready to answer even if he walked into the interview with a massive hangover.

Plus, when we asked him to quote his rates (we ask this regardless of whether we want the applicant, as we keep applicant records on file in case future requirements come up), he was quoting significantly below market rates for the position we considered him for.

We concluded that his resume, and most especially his LinkedIn profile, was a total misrepresentation of his capability. What amused us was he still invited us to “Link In” even after he was rejected.

But the above story is fairly minor compared to what Vincent Wright (a well recognized name in social media circles, including LinkedIn) shared in his networking forum last month about his personal experience of someone who was using LinkedIn deceptively.

The gist of the story is Vincent had an invitation from one “Bob Smith” to connect. Shortly after getting connected, “Bob”, a recruiter, started asking Vincent for recruitment requirements. Vincent rang “Bob”, “Bob” tried very hard to sound like a “Bob”, but Vincent became suspicious of the way he sounded, so he asked him whether his real name was indeed Bob Smith. “Bob” said his real name was “Raj”.

Vincent provided more information about this Bob Smith in the link above than we have here – enough to allow us to actually find his LinkedIn profile. This Bob Smith has 500+ connections and five recommendations. All five of his connections were from co-workers, and all sounded suspiciously contrived.

Going back to Setty’s post on the Tom Peters blog, point two stated that your personal brand is not an extension of your employer’s brand. We agree. But based on the above situation, we also say that your personal brand can be so powerful that it can enhance or tarnish your employer’s brand.

We would never entertain thoughts of doing business with Bob or Raj’s employer.

Posted in Case Studies, Social Media | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

A case of deliberately breaching security

Posted by A Friend on 14 January 2009

Even the best of intentions cannot be used as justification for an intentional breach of security. An ex-consultant found this out the hard way, and he also quickly became an ex-employee.

One bad thing about working in consulting is one is expected to work ridiculous hours and fly to ridiculously unreachable places on the, well, fly. Some consultants grow tired of this very quickly and yearn to “retire” into a nine-to-five job in an end client environment that recognizes their consulting background and blindly pays them top dollar.

There are, however, consultants who enjoy what they do, who get a rush out of the various challenges presented to them from various situations, who love the fast pace of unreasonably scoped project environments. These types of consultants will find end client environments too slow and too boring.

Such was the case of this particular ex-consultant. He had been in consulting for most of his recent professional life, but he fell victim to the post-Y2K consulting downturn and was laid off. He found himself some contract opportunities in the first few instances, but even those died down as well. Eventually, he reluctantly accepted a permanent position as a business analyst in an end client environment, in another state.

The company that he joined was in a very mature, heavily regulated industry. These types of organizations are by their nature very conservative; and planning, budget, and investment returns orientated. Most project proposals in this company are heavily scrutinized, and anything that might look remotely expensive have to go through at least three levels of budget reviews, the last of which is at an offshore head office.

This way of getting things done was greatly frustrating to our ex-consultant: he believed it actually meant not getting anything productive done. As a business analyst, he thought he was hired to look at the company’s systems and processes, and find and propose ways to improve these. He did just that, but his project proposals just could not seem to get any traction with management.

One particular area that greatly distressed our ex-consultant was how the company could have, in his opinion, such an antiquated project systems (PS) process, when PS is such a critical module for the company’s operations. In this regard, our ex-consultant proposed at least reorganizing disparate and cluttered PS data and making these more meaningful to the business people. He believed this alone was going to introduce significant efficiency improvements around the PS processes.

Still, our ex-consultant was not getting the quick response that he hoped for, and probably expected, having come from a consulting background. People who were meant to help him were just busy doing other things, and there was no sense of urgency from anyone to address his requirements.

It was at this point that our ex-consultant took matters into his own hands. Because no one in the organization could help him with his needs, he went out of his way to contact an ex-consulting colleague, detailed his requirements, and gave the ex-colleague access to various systems, using his own account. The ex-colleague completed the requirements in one weekend.

The next Monday, the ex-consultant walked in and reported his accomplishments to his manager. Of course, since he did not have the skill and competency sets to perform the tasks completed during the weekend, the ex-consultant had to fess up about seeking external help without prior company clearance. The manager, a well-mannered and easy-going guy, was shocked, and told the ex-consultant that he was left with no choice but to report the incident to senior management.

Swift action was taken after the incident was escalated. The ex-consultant’s teammates were gathered by their manager and briefed about the serious security breach. Everything the ex-consultant arranged to be done during the weekend was deleted without further question, even if it might have meant rework of some outstanding items that may be inadvertently included in the wipeout. And by 3pm, the ex-consultant was escorted out of the building, terminated on the spot.

When new to an organization, we often find that companies have different ways of doing things and getting things done. The ideal scenario, of course, is for the organization’s ways to be the same as ours; but that may not always be the case. Our ex-consultant’s biggest mistake was adamantly sticking to the way he believes things need to be done. He did not take organizational culture, “the way we do things here”, into consideration at all.

Here is a short article on the importance of understanding organizational culture that you might find useful. One paragraph in particular stood out to us: “Understanding the organizational culture can help you to understand why change does not take place, or why a project fails. It will also help you to determine where to strive to make changes to the culture.” We suspect our ex-consultant, now ex-employee, would have found this point useful.

Posted in Case Studies, Organizational Culture | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Consensus building, or team sabotage?

Posted by A Friend on 11 January 2009

A popularly talked about management concept, particularly from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, are self directed work teams, or SDWTs.

SDWTs are conceptually an autonomous team of individuals who are given by their organizations a specific set of objectives to meet; but beyond that, they are left to manage themselves and their objectives the best way they know how. SDWTs are formed with full empowerment, transparency, and accountability of individual team members in mind; even team leaders or managers are nominated by the team, and are often rotated on a regular basis.

That is the idea. In reality, a lot of SDWTs are formed merely because some manager heard about it in a coffee shop conversation or read about it from a book he got from Borders. It can also be a roundabout way of sending a group of people out on their own because management do not want to deal with them directly anymore. A lot of SDWTs formed do not have clear objectives, are not given the true autonomy required so they can manage themselves, and are handed down management-nominated leads.

The SDWT that is the topic of our post today was such a case. The team had a strong leader who had always fought for the team’s cause to management, but that leader resigned. Instead of getting the team to nominate a new leader, management mandated to appoint a new one.

The newly appointed leader was perhaps the most qualified, but the point is she was not chosen by the team, thus she did not have the support and empathy of team members that the previous leader had. As an individual, she was also not as popular to the team as the previous team leader: she was known to have personal issues with various team members.

Shortly after her appointment, this leader called for a team meeting, to discuss the team’s objectives for the next year. Consensus building is vitally critical in SDWTs – important decisions are made by the team, not by individuals.

One of the main discussion points during the meeting was training. Because of budgetary constraints that year, not everyone could attend training, so the team had to decide who among the members should be attending. At the end, two were chosen.

On the way home after the meeting, two other team members, merely because they take the same public transport route, had more chances to talk about the meeting outcomes. One of them was particularly concerned about the decisions made about training, specifically the choice of who should be “given the privilege”; he thought that some kind of favoritism was at play.

The other member did not agree, but when pressed by his concerned teammate for concrete reasons why or how the selections were made, he could not give a reasonable response. So this team member took it upon himself to send an email to the team leader, asking for clarifications around why and how the selections were made.

The team leader did not take the email nicely. She sent an email response back to the member saying that if he had issues, he should have been open enough to the team and raised these during the meeting. Furthermore, she said that she was going to forward the email to the team so the team could resolve it.

The team member quickly responded and said that he did not have an issue with the decision, and that he was in fact only asking the questions in good faith for another team member’s behalf. He further requested the team leader not to forward his email to the team as (1) it was likely to be misconstrued by some of the team members, and (2) since he was merely asking questions, there was no need to involve the team.

The team leader ignored the member’s reasoning and proceeded to forward his original email to the team, and even included a stern reprimand about openness, communication, consensus building, and teamwork. She pointed out that if the member was not happy with any of the decisions made during the meeting, he should have raised the issues then instead of going behind his teammates’ backs.

The team member felt he had no choice but to respond to the email, and he did so in a very aggressive way. He took the team leader to task about why she forwarded his first email and not the second, which would have clarified a lot of the points she brought up, including the point about him only acting as an intermediary; and that her inability to answer very basic questions about team decisions showed an utter lack of leadership.

As a direct result of this incident, the team did not have a single meeting for three months, and members became cold to, and quietly suspicious of, each other. This, in turn, led to none of the team objectives, aside from the two team members continuing to attend the aforementioned training, being met.

In this situation, the application of the SDWT concept appears to have been a failure; but why?

If you wish to read more about SDWTs, this is a useful portal that you can start from.

Posted in Case Studies, Team Leadership | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Literally speaking

Posted by A Friend on 9 January 2009

We are launching this blog to present real stories of workplace follies. It is not our intention to name and shame. If some of the stories we present might strike you as too close to home, please consider that it is most likely merely circumstantial. After all, quite a good number of us are repeat offenders of the same workplace mistakes.

We will also be presenting some higher profile stories, often about easily recognizable business circle names, mainly sourced from the news. In such cases, we will only be restating (perhaps with some editorializing) what will already be publicly available information, so we will feel no shame in naming the organizations and individuals concerned.

The name of the blog represents what we believe is one of the most common reasons why even the most well-meaning people fail at work: a dogmatic adherence to accepted or learned business practice, without fully understanding or appreciating the principles behind these.

Finally, we may occasionally waffle on about the mundane and the irrelevant (like what we are doing now). We can only ask for your indulgence, even as we promise to keep the waffling to a minimum.

Posted in WOTM | 1 Comment »