Lunch Meet

We know them as meetings - those get-togethers in which we assemble or conference for some meaningful purpose. Although, it is not always clear what that purpose is. There many types of meetings, ranging from: informal to formal, structured to free form, large group meetings to one-on-one meetings, short meetings to long meetings. Some meetings are designed to distribute information. In these meetings, one or two people present information to a larger audience. Other meetings are of the status-gathering variety. In these meetings, one person typically collects status from the many other participants. Still, another type of meeting is the working meeting. In these meetings, participants are expected to discuss and work through some task.

The problem with all these meetings is, well, just that…ALL these meetings.

Many meetings are not one-time events but are instead so-called repeating meetings. These start out as a useful meeting. The decision is made to have another get together at same time next week. Before long this meeting becomes an every week event. The calendar is cluttered with repeating meetings that have long outlived their usefulness. The vestigial slot on the calendar becomes a repeating meeting of another type, in that it covers the same material over and over. You begin to feel like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day.
The most coveted times for meetings are all taken up by these repeating meetings. So any new or important meeting must be fit in around those times.
Urgent status meetings are called at the end of the day in order to report upward to the executive
“we don’t micro-manage “ team that somehow feels the need to understand the minutia of the day's events. This meeting is often called a “stand-up” meeting or a “standing” meeting. At this meeting no chairs are used. The goal of this meeting is to be quick (no need to sit), collect status and adjourn. Unfortunately, the standing meeting morphs over time from standing to sitting. The meeting becomes a standing meeting only in the sense that it is a standing meeting on the calendar. Now the end of the day is full.
Meetings spawn other meetings. More often than not, action items from a meeting include setting up other meetings. These are generally of the “Lets take this off-line” or the “Let’s meet first thing in the morning” variety.

You know that the meeting schedule is saturated when the only available time left for meetings is through the lunch hour. Sometimes food is brought in (participants are supposed to feel indebted for this gesture, although I believe it is required as part of the Geneva Convention). It is a joy to try to conduct business while consuming sustenance. Nothing like presenting between bites, making sure to wipe the mayo off your mouth.
“Having meat for lunch” no longer has anything to do with your deli selection, but everything to do with cheesy power point slides.
“I’ll have the turkey and swiss on rye please….”

Lasting Loyalty

It used to be that loyalty was a big part of business. Companies valued and rewarded loyal customers, vendors and employees. An employee would join a company right out of school, work their way up, and after thirty years, retire with a comfortable pension. Those days are long gone. Pensions are few and far between; those that still exist are underfunded and in trouble. Wall Street pressure on quarterly results has shifted corporate focus to tactical rather than strategic. This shift increases the willingness of corporations to do whatever necessary to satisfy the street, even at the expense of the employees. Employees quickly realize how little loyalty means when push comes to shove. Layoff, downsize, or "reduction in force", whatever name you give it, is a way to get rid of employees to help pacify the analysts when the bottom line is not up to snuff.
Somehow the value of loyalty has morphed over time to be upside down. Loyal performers that really deliver are graced with paltry inflationary increases at raise time. Unfortunately, the only way to get a real increase is to get an offer from a competitor. A manager can plead, beg, offer parts of their body and cannot adjust a salary beyond the budgeted inflationary increase during raise time, but within minutes of holding an offer letter, the check book opens. All of a sudden, a considerable salary increase, a nice bonus, and an offer to move anywhere in the organization is in hand. The sad part is that this gracious outpouring is reserved only for those who throw out loyalty and pursue employment elsewhere. Rather than rewarding loyalty, quite the opposite is true. Those who are not loyal are rewarded, and the loyal are considered complacent. The longtime loyal are overlooked for promotion, while outsiders are hired into prominent positions.
Someone with “considerable experience and a fresh management style” is brought in from the outside. It turns out that they are experienced; experienced at running their last company into the ground. And, their “fresh” management style is what got them investigated for sexual harassment. Nonetheless, the new face is brought in above all the internal loyal ladder climbers that were not aware of the elevator outside the building.
This brings us to the great loyalty paradox. You may wonder, “Is loyalty gone?” It turns out that loyalty, like energy, is subject to the laws of conservation. There is just as much loyalty as there always was; it is just distributed differently. So where is all this loyalty? Just look up. Notice all those new alluring upper level positions that have been opened up by the “fresh” one. Do you recognize any of the folks holding those new positions? Of course not, they are all cronies from the newcomer’s old company…. yes, that would be the company that is no longer around. After all, they all worked so well together. Now that is loyalty.
Just like any investment prospectus states… “Past performance does not guarantee future results”…. Yikes!

Newton's Business

It is interesting how science works its way into the business world. The most significant scientific principle that plays out in business is that of gravity. The American Heritage dictionary defines gravity as the natural force of attraction exerted by a celestial body, such as Earth, upon objects at or near its surface, tending to draw them toward the center of the body. Since most business takes place on earth, it too is effected by gravity. This is the force behind the proverbial assertion that you-know-what flows downhill.
This is the way it works. The executives desire change. Either to “make their mark”, to improve the bottom line, or just because they need something to do. Since they do not have any idea what change to make, they must ask for help. Rather than ask the troops already on the payroll and actually doing the work, they instead choose to hire expensive consultants. Why get the information first hand from the employees that actually have a stake in changes, when you can pay excessive amounts of the profit sharing to outside consultants that never met a process they didn’t like?
The executives bite, hook line and sinker. The consultant plan is accepted, and communicated to the troops. This is where gravity comes in to play... the actual implementation of the plan flows downhill to the troops.
The expensive plan is eventually implemented, much to the chagrin of the majority of the employees.
After a period of time, the disappointed executives realize that ...surprise, surprise, the plan is not improving anything. As a matter of fact,things are getting worse since the employees are clearly demotivated.

A meeting is called with all the managers. The executives express their disappointment and tell the managers that they want to get to the bottom of this matter. Finally, an opportunity to tell the brass what needs to change. The managers start rolling. They point out the mistakes of the executives and how they have led to the demotivation of the troops. Blow after blow the managers blast away. Then, just when it looks like the executives are on the ropes and reeling, the bell rings... ...round over. Next round, the executives recover and deliver the knock out blow. “We do not want to hear whining about demotivated employees. You are the management team , it is your responsibility to motivate your employees. We expect you to turn this around.”

There you have it. The second rule of gravity in business: Whatever goes up, must come down. Be careful what you throw, it will come back down.

Second Hand

The applause subsides. The executive thanks the masses and launches into the sunshine blowing presentation that has been rehearsed, presented to the analysts, and is now delivered to the employees.
The “all hands” meeting is a forum to pump up the troops under the guise of a communications session. The executive describes how great the quarter was and how thankful he is to the strong team that made it possible. He explains how employees are the foundation of a great company, and that a company is only as good as the people who work there. So congratulations are in order. It is you, the employees, that made this (including the nice executive bonus) all possible. Unfortunately, going forward (that is a favorite term of executives) there are challenging times ahead. The good news is that the executives have done the really tough work and put a plan in place. Now, all that is left is for the team to execute to the plan. “Just execute.” he pleads.

All hands meetings typically end with a “Q and A” session. This is a question and answer session in which anyone in the entire organization may question directly the executive management. There are rarely any interesting questions, and most people just want to leave the meeting. The session does get interesting when that one employee that has an ax to grind, decides to take off the gloves and take on the big wigs. He has had enough, he is not afraid; he is going to put this executive on the spot. This will get the respect of all those downtrodden individuals in the company. Scenes from Norma Rae flash though his mind. In his best Wolf Blitzer investigative tone he questions the executive like a journalist at a presidential press conference. “Why is it, that the executives of this company ride in limousines and fly first class, while the rest of us face cutbacks and now have to bring in our own toilet paper?” he boldly questions. Time to watch the executive squirm.

The problem with this plan is that the executive did not make it to their level by accident. These folks are good. Executives field pointed questions from board members, analysis, brokers and journalists all the time. One little stinger from an itchy employee is nothing for these folks to field. “That is a very good question, and I am glad you brought it up” the exec responds with a smile. “While myself and many executives would very much prefer to drive ourselves to the airport, unfortunately, liability and insurance concerns prevent us from doing so. The bylaws of the company require that professional drivers transport executive members to and from the airport.” He continues, “Due to the volume of business we do with the airline, we have a strategic relationship in which first class travel for executives is provided at no additional cost.” The executive shifts gears to rally the troops, “As you know, we highly value the health and wellness of our employees. We provide state of the art restrooms, available 24/7 for all employees. We have spared little cost in the most efficient and health minded fixtures to promote good health and wellbeing for all our employees. To help offset costs in difficult times, the employees are asked for a minor contribution. It is a small gesture that means a lot to the bottom line but, more importantly, this is a way in which everyone can contribute and be a part of something great. It is teamwork like this that has made us great and will continue to make us great. Thank you for your participation in this endeavor and for that great question.”

Nice try. But you are not going to beat these guys at their own game. You will never get the answer you would like. No executive is going to say, “You know…you are right! We will stop doing that immediately and give everyone a raise instead.” Get real… and get back to work!

Hands Down

It is earnings season. The time when Wall Street anxiously awaits quarterly earning reports from publicly traded companies. This is arguably one of the most anticlimactic events in the corporate calendar. Since analysts hate surprises (positive or negative), companies give advance “guidance” ahead of the report to tip off the street. This model works well when presenting project status to upper management. Give advanced guidance before the formal presentation to avoid any surprises.

Significant corporate events such as earnings reports are often topics of communication to the troops. This communication can be via company wide e-mail, posted on internal web pages or delivered live at a communication meeting. The so called “all hands meeting” calls all employees to gather like groupies to see their leaders live in concert. The leader is introduced by the emcee, then takes to the podium or stage to the obligatory excited applause from all the hands.

Many believe that the term is derived from the maritime culture in which “all hands” are called on deck to deal with extreme conditions. Others believe it comes from the cowboy culture in which ranch “hands” are called to round up the cattle. Actually, the term comes from the desire of narcissistic leaders to feign celebrity and emulate a rock star persona. That is why it is called an all hands meeting. They want to maximize the applause. You need hands for that.

The applause is good, but really what is desired are screams and whistles. Somehow the “all mouths” meeting didn’t past muster with the Human Resources department. The “big mouths” meeting was approved, but shot down by the presenters. Looks like we will just stick with the applause for now.

What Will It Take?

I blame the microwave...that, and easy financing. People today do not want to wait for anything. They want it now, instant gratification, regardless of the consequences. Opportunity cost is not a concept considered. The problem is that these impetuous people go to work in the corporate world. They want the same kind of instant gratification at work afforded them outside of work. They eat fast food, win instantly, instant message, have live updates, drive through, and use the express lane.

Any significant project takes some time. Instant does not apply. A significant task or project must be planned, designed, implemented and deployed. Each of these steps takes time. There is a certain organic process that must occur. You can break projects down into tasks that can be worked in parallel, but there is a price to pay when it comes to integrating all those completed parts back together.

Some people cannot seem to understand why projects take any time at all. After all, if you do not have money but really really want a car now, you can finance it. Never mind the debt and the got the car when you wanted it. It is these folks who will ask “What will it take ... to have the project completed by next month?” You explain that it cannot be done next month because there are still six months of work yet to be done. “Oh, I know” they reply, “but I am asking ...what will it take.” As if there is in fact some way to do it by next month. More equipment? More dollars? More people? What is it going to take?
In their pompous condescending tone they imply that for mere mortals the cost may be too high, but no matter how big the check , they will take care of it. No cost is too high. “If it is more people, then we will get more people, but I want this done.” they state boldly.
Getting approval to hire more people does nothing to help the matter. The tasks of finding, hiring and training people take time. Time you apparently don't have.
In his book The Mythical Man Month, Frederick Brooks explains how adding people to a project actually makes it take longer. The organic nature of development prevents the proverbial nine women having a baby in one month. Unfortunately, this basic concept seems to evade the vaunting.

The “what will it take” tactic is borrowed from the virtuous used car métier. Get a person to first admit that there is in fact some means through which you can get what you want. Then get concessions. Before you know it, the car is sold at a tidy profit, or you have a commitment to complete a project way before it is actually possible.

Your response to this absurd query can lead to succumbing to the coercion and getting in over your head. Refusing to respond will leave you ostracized as a detractor. One way to counter this tactic it is to respond with a query of your own. “What will it take ... for me to be promoted up two levels next week?”

I respond with the list of what it will take:
1. A DeLorean
2. Some weapons grade plutonium
3. A flux capacitor ...and a dog named Einstein.
‘Cause I am going to need to go back in time to get started sooner.

Matrix Madness

“Psst...Don’t tell anyone, I hear we are having a re-org...”

Business is tough. In this global economy, corporations must be nimble and ready to adapt to the ever changing technology and business landscape. The parts of a corporation that need change can be fundamental and difficult to change. Unfortunately, misguided management will often reach for, and start turning the easiest knob available instead of the knob that could actually improve the situation. More often than not, it is the reporting structure that is tackled for change. A reorganization (or re-org), is the ginsu knife of the management utensil drawer. It slices, dices and does julienne fries.
Revenue not where it should be? Let’s re-org. Revenues up, but profit margin down? A re-org should do the trick. Business going good and growing? Better re-org to handle the growth. Business down? Need to re-org to turn things around.

Ironically, all the anticipation and reaction to new organizations has more effect on productivity, albeit a negative effect, than the actual reporting structure change.
Word gets out. Rumors run, speculation spirals, and worries worsen.
The sad part is that this organizational distraction preempts change that could actually improve business. It amounts to little more than proverbial deck chair arranging on the titanical corporate vessel.

The real reason that reorganizing is so popular is the opportunity to gain control of resources. Resources equal power. Unfortunately, everyone wants to gain power, so the there is little agreement to the proposed organization changes. This is why pending reorganizations seem to take forever to be formally announced. Often the wait for the disclosure and announcement of the changes takes longer than the actual organization is in effect. This leads to the re-re-org and the re-re-re-org.

Each subsequent change typically cycles through one of three types of organizations. The most classic configuration is the functional organization. How can you argue with this? It must work. The name says it all, it is functional. (Does that make other configurations nonfunctional?) Another classic configuration is the product organization. In this scheme, you must multiply the head count by the number of projects being worked. The resultant head count required is excessive due to this mutiplicative effect (thus the product organization). Finally, there is the matrix organization. This is a virtual organization where things are not as they seem. Keanu Reeves is in charge and most of the people report to intelligent machines.

Distorted Discretion

It all started innocently enough. Someone baked some homemade brownies and brought them to the staff meeting. It was a nice gesture. The few that were left over after the meeting were placed out at the coffee station. They disappeared like free beer at a frat party.

Next it was the birthday cake. The whole department gathered and sang happy birthday, handed out cake, kibitzed, and headed back to work. The left over cake...out to the coffee station. Again, gone in seconds.

Soon, it was not just leftover office food that was being left for public consumption. You can imagine finishing up your kid's birthday party and wondering what to do with the leftover cake. There is no way you are going to eat it , but you paid a small fortune for the colorful concoction with inch thick icing. You think to yourself “At work we just put it out at the coffee station... Hmmm... That gives me an idea!”
The next thing you know people are bringing in left overs from home.

What is amazing is not only the stuff that people bring in, but that people actually partake. Food that would not be the least bit appealing anywhere else is snapped up when left for free at the coffee pot . You could bring in burnt toast and it would get gobbled up. These people are paid well. It is not like they cannot afford to eat. Why is it that free stuff, no matter how undesirable somehow is provocative when placed near the coffee pot? Work really messes with your perception and decision making.

The reason I bring this up is that we are nearing harvest season. Soon those who labored over their gardens all year, and were so excited about that first zucchini, will no longer be able to keep up with the output . The bountiful leftovers will soon be taking over the company kitchen areas and coffee stations around the country.
By dumping their unwanteds at work, people can feel generous under the pretense of sharing, when actually it is just a convenient way to unload without guilt.

The fact of the matter is, the office is not a farmers market. We don’t need the produce section taking over the coffee station. ... Besides, I need the space to unload a bunch of old computer gear from my garage...surely someone will want it.

Challenging Giza

First, there were lots of people. People that needed something to do. Plenty of people, ready and willing to work, but how and what should they do? Someone needs to be in charge of these folk and provide some order; a person to manage these human resources.
Thus was the genesis of …the manager. One person could manage many people. Of course, managers, while adept at managing people have no clue what to actually do. Each manager cannot blindly go off and manage their resources without knowing what the other managers are doing with their resources. They need some kind of coordination or direction. And so it was, that the Director was born.

"For whom is all this work getting done?" you may ask. It is for the executives. This royalty of sorts are akin to the lords of yesteryear. The lord, or should I say, President is Numero Uno … the top of the chain. However, this great responsibility of photo ops, hand shaking, ribbon cutting, appearances with famous people, and charity dunk tanks is quite demanding. As a result, much of the actual business work falls to their trusted sidekick …the Vice President. defines “vice” as: “immoral conduct; depraved or degrading behavior.” By definition, the “vice” president must therefor conduct themself and behave in whatever manner needed to see to it that the virtuous folk below deliver for the President.

Now the problem with a pyramidal hierarchy is that definitively there are fewer slots higher up the chain. A cunning director, anxious to exhibit their vice-like skills, denounces the virtuous concept of patience while waiting for the vice presidential slot to be vacated. He instead crafts a sneaky plan.

Rather than wait to actually climb higher on the ladder, the director can emulate a similar self-gratifying effect by adding to the amount of ladder below. After all, you can either look at how far you are from the top or how far up you are from the bottom. The director shrewdly promotes their managers up to director positions in order to justify their own Vice President title.

As this director becomes a vice president an entropic condition is created. The new vice president still reports to the old vice president creating a paradoxical imbalance in the hierarchical structure.
Not to worry. We simply change the old Vice President to “Senior” Vice President. Whew! Catastrophe averted! Balance has been restored and the positive chi is reclaimed. Now we can proceed with business.

And so it goes. The vice presidential hierarchy expands like John Pinnette at a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet. Many new prefixes are added to the vice presidential moniker: executive, chief, commanding, principal, head, managing, etc. Ironically, the care to maintain a pyramidal structure totally misses the fact all the hiring of friends and promoting has left little in terms of actual workers. The pyramid is now precariously balanced on top of a pole. Lots of growth, but organizationally it is all at the top.

This, my friends, is better known as “Organized For Growth.”

A Powerful Point

It used to be that flip charts, handouts and overheads projectors were the presentation tools of choice. Now, these antiquated tools have been replaced by the ubiquitous presentation software, from our friends in Redmond, known as Power Point. The introduction of this tool forever changed the business meeting. It caught on slowly. Most of us didn’t understand what the heck it was all about, until some young hot shot impressed the brass with colorful and animated graphics, shooting across the screen. We all took note, “Wow, now that is how I can get ahead.” We noted that executives, not unlike small children, are impressed by colorful moving objects. Now the bulky overhead projectors and charts are gone; white boards and sleek high resolution projectors have taken their place. Power point has become the defecto standard for communication to management.

To help you with your communication to upper management here are a few pointers:

First, make sure everything is in slide format. Spreadsheets, documents, graphs or tabulated data, are not understood unless presented in slide format. Cut, paste, or do whatever it takes to get the information into a slide format. Somehow, the embodiment of the material in a slide makes it digestible; kind of like putting your dog’s prescription in a wad of meat. Oh, and don’t forget to use the “corporately approved” slide template.

Avoid the “I think you are illiterate” or “Wall Street Journal” presentation styles. In these formats, the slides contain lots and lots of text, and only text. The presenter reads to the audience, word for word, their entire bulleted dissertation. Remember, copious graphics and limited text goes a long way. The people you are presenting to may take the WSJ, but they “read” USA Today.

When using graphics, make sure they add some value to the presentation. Occasionally, the misguided presenter will include a stupid clip art graphic of a silhouette of a stick person scratching their noggin with question marks popping out of their head. While this graphical diversion can be effective eye candy, it can be interpreted as a self portrait; reinforcing the perception that you have no clue what you are presenting.

Next, be careful not to get too whiz bang. Inserting too much animation, sound and other techno-cool tool box features can lead to the likely correct conclusion that you have too much time on your hands.

Finally, and probably most important, is color. Avoid what programmers call the angry fruit salad. Abusing the color palette can make things confusing. Using yellow ocher, burnt umber and phthalo blue may make the wildlife jump off a Bob Ross painting, but too many colors can complicate a business presentation. When presenting to management, it is best to keep it simple and stick with green, yellow and red. Green items will not be questioned, yellow items may get some discussion, but it is the red items that will certainly be the focus of discussion and scrutiny. You can use this conditioning to a kind of color Kung Fu advantage. Use green for the challenging issues, and use red for all items that are going well. Defending and discussing the red items will be a snap.

With these tips you can dazzle management with your presentations. Don’t be surprised if you are asked “Hey, can I get a copy of that?”

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