Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Demystifying Delegation and other Cosmic Elements of High Maturity Organisations

There are days of awakening, when one suddenly discovers cosmic wisdom in his immediate surroundings. A gratifying moment when the soul’s eye is yanked open and comprehension of the universe floods in, making up for the lost time.

Today was one such day – when in the much frustrating, much maligned corporate set up in which I move to and fro like the trapped goldfish of modern times, I discovered sophistication that akin to cosmic connection from the most basic to the most profound, the rhythm of operations across multiple levels, the unifying tune in the long chain of command. Indeed, the word ‘cosmic’ actually cropped into it.

High Maturity played out in the Low Lands

According to industry-wide Bodies of Knowledge (BOKs), be it Project Management Institute, Capability Maturity Models, Prince 2 or any such re-canned, rehashed, re-bottled pile of platitudes; to achieve organisational maturity the first requirement is similarity across the outfit. It is of primary importance for the processes and behaviours to be standardised at the organisational level. All the members of the organisation should speak the same language, however inane.

Only when every individual acts according to principles that have been ingrained into their psyche and philosophy can a department or a unit claim to be performing at a reasonably high level of maturity, which in turn is supposedly the stepping stone towards predictability, optimised performance and such phrases that hover in the fuzzy zone between feasibility and farce. In some ways, the concept of  high maturity organisations is almost philosophical. The focus is on the way or path rather than the individual heroism, the duality of self and other vanishing into a vortex of processes and jargon, which some uncharitable souls – including me – has been hitherto guilty of calling a quagmire of mediocrity mixed with greed. 

Replace jargon with mantra and profitability with liberation and you have got yourself a brand new philosophy to market.

However, it was just today that I discovered this genius of uniformity of thought, the resonance of methods, that had always been present around me, undeciphered by my ignorant eyes that could never look beyond the blatant banality.

The Task

I was the messenger of the great Ramesh, Vice President of the European Operations of Axiom Consulting. In one of the several hundred sessions that we keep attending under the various synonyms of organised boot-licking– Power Lunch, Town Hall, Voice of Vision, Open House, Coffee with Concepts - I have tended to meet the great man too often. It may be that my three fold surname crops up in random automated searches for sacrificial employees, or perhaps it is a senior management initiative to make such contact programs cosmopolitan – I somehow happen to land up in more than my share of these exclusive events.

During the last such occasion, the entrepreneur had called me aside and said, “Simon, you know this is a hard time. With all the regulations coming up, HMH will be surely curtailing cost by stopping some of the on-going projects – maybe a lot of them. It is  vital importance that we are prepared. I need some insights into the Forecast Brief of Dave de Boer.”

Now, the Forecast Brief of Dave de Boer, the CEO of HMH Bank, is one of the most closely guarded secrets in entire Netherlands. Getting insights into it, which essentially meant looking at its contents, could have been classified as one of the thus far unattainable goals of mankind – running the 100 metres under 9.5 seconds, solving Zeno’s paradox, reading about the latest exploit of Paris Hilton without wanting to strangle her and so on … When I said as much to Ramesh, he nodded and turned sombre.

“Simon, I have to give some answers to the Board Members .I can’t tell them that it is impossible. Pass my message to Ajay Yadav. He has to find a way. It’s his account, after all.”

Chain Reaction

So, I took the request – or was it an order – to the Account Manager Ajay Yadav. Characteristically, he looked at me as if I had come to confirm that the end of the world was at six fifty seven in the evening – and that was even before I passed the message.

When he heard me, I had expected him to clutch his heart and collapse on the spot, but my eyes were already in the process of being opened. After several furtive glances in all directions, ensuring that no bolt from the blue was on its way to whisk away the box which bore his name in the organisation chart, this unsung and unappreciated man gave an indication that he was made of sterner stuff than we gave him credit for. He picked up his phone and called his immediate subordinate, Janardan.

The thickset man huffed and puffed his way into the office and greeted us cheerfully.

“Janardan,” Ajay began matter of factly. “We need some information as soon as possible.”

“Of course,” zeal and commitment gushed out of the manager’s response.

“We need some insights into the Forecast Brief of Dave de Boer,” Ajay said in the same tone he would have used to ask him to get some coffee from Albert-Heijn.

Janardan’s smile stuck to his face, but the boiling zeal on which it floated was suddenly switched off, and the jovial expression floated uncertainly on the ephemeral bubbles of hope that Ajay had cracked a joke. However, when the chuckle of confirmation did not come, the texture of the smile changed to bafflement.

“But, that is top secret.”

“Yes, I know,” admitted Ajay, nodding with sympathy. “But, it is needed at the VP level. You have some of your people working with some of Dave’s people. You have to get some insights.”

Janardan’s proactiveness was not that easily kick-started when the task at hand was confirmed to be next to impossible.

“But, it is impossible …”

Ajay nodded and pursed his lips. “I understand it’s not easy, but as I said, the request has come from the VP level, and that in turn has probably come from the Board of Directors. I can’t really tell Ramesh that it is impossible. We have to give him something.”

Janardan continued to rebel in his mind, but his heavily conditioned neck went through the motion of nodding. I wonder it follows the same principles we hear of the brain continuing to react and body continuing to jump after decapitation.

Ajay thus climbed a small rung in my esteem from the perpetual pits  when he managed to crack his countenance of fidgety fear with the hint of a smile.

“And Janardan, take Simon with you. Keep him in the loop of all that happens in this regard.”

So, I walked out with Janardan and he muttered and mumbled about the unreasonableness of demand, with a hesitant tone that acted as a sort of disclaimer against his protests. After all, he was still a devoted Axiom Consulting employee and I was, for all intents and purposes, a managerial mole.

However, I had to be kept in the loop, and so he took me along as he stepped into Ankit’s cubicle. The assistant manager, who was just getting back into his working groove from one of the knowledge dissemination and thought leadership smoking sessions, looked up and welcomed him with a frown of industriousness.

“I have been working on the Lean Value proposal, but there are a few confusing parts – I would like to discuss with you …,” he began on seeing his immediate supervisor, the lips straining to get around Janardan's ample behind, but the stocky man cut him short.

“Ankit, priorities have changed. Take up this new assignment A-S-A-P,” he actually spelt the acronym. “We urgently require insights into Forecast Brief of Dave de Boer.”

Ankit’s frown changed from industrious to quizzical.

“Dave de Boer’s Forecast Brief? But that’s out of bounds.”

Janardan waved aside unwanted squeamishness with an impatient gesture.

“Ankit, it has come from Ajay and he has got this from Ramesh. When Ajay asks me, I can’t say it is out of bounds.”

“But …”

“There are so many of your people working with Dave’s men. Be innovative – I am sure you will manage something. And keep Simon in the loop for all communication in this regard.”

Janardan patted me to emphasise the last point, the gesture subtly positioning me strategically in the cubicle. As he huffed and puffed his way back towards his own cubicle, Ankit’s frown changed, now from the quizzical to the irritated.

He eyed me with some reservation. Perhaps he was not too keen to trust a curious creature who claimed to think and did not smoke.

“Difficult task?” I asked.

He thought a while and shook his head. “Not difficult. But, getting senior management information from the heads of the Bank should be handled by our senior management. I am just an assistant manager, am I not? I know I am the only one capable of getting this done, working miracles and that sort of thing ... but then my designation needs to change too. You can get me to do all sorts of difficult tasks, but I have to be rewarded and recognised.”

He paused and kept looking at me. It was later that Jaydev clarified that such a pause opens channels for sympathetic concurrence. However, I was uninitiated in the mysterious ways, and the claim had to make do without my certification.   

“Okay, let’s get a move on,” Ankit got up from his seat. “We have to get the information.”

I followed him, eager to see a master at work, walking assiduously, thinking on his feet. The problem I had termed unsolvable was about to be demystified.

Our march ended across a bend in the office floor, twenty metres from our starting point. Ankit knocked  extra hard on the panel of the cubicle and a startled Jaydev looked up to see a frown, now having metamorphosed into one of severe authority.

“Hi Ankit.”

The middle manager grunted in response.

“Jaydev, stop whatever you are doing …”

“I am working on the Lean Value proposal which you sort of said was the most important thing since the fall of the Berlin Wall …,” the slightly perplexed footsoldier began.

“Berlin?” Ankit ‘s frown flitted back to the quizzical before resuming the authoritarian form with renewed vigour. “Leave the Lean Value aside for now. Something more important has come up.”

“We live in interesting times indeed. Two consecutive items on the agenda each more important than the fall of the Berlin Wall. And Francis Fukuyama had claimed it was the end of history …”

“Francis? Francis van Halen? The Payments guy?”

“Not important. Surely nothing as remotely important as the Berlin Wall or the Lean Value proposal. What do you want me to do now?”

Ankit nodded. “We want insights into Forecast Brief of Dave de Boer. We had a long discussion about this, and I suggested your name for the job as the right person.”

Jaydev raised his eyebrows. “You do realise that it is classified, right? STG. Zeer Geheim. Cosmic Top Secret as per NATO.”

Ankit struggled with the slick illusions, and decided to follow the standard organisational process.

“Jaydev, you have to look at the big picture. It is a requirement that has come right from Ramesh, down to Ajay. Now if Janardan, Ajay, or Ramesh ask me, I can’t say it is a NATO Cosmonaut secret.”

I fought like a tiger against my dangerous instincts and managed to keep my eyes from meeting Jaydev’s.

“Take the guys from Dave's team you work with for a drink, for lunch … and try to get some insights. Think out of the box. It is challenging, but we have to do it. And remember, this is high visibility, and if we succeed …”

Jaydev got up and saluted. “Yes, sir. I will get onto it.”

"I want something by EOD today," Ankit turned to go, but I stopped him.

“Er Ankit, you forgot the bit about keeping me in loop.”

Ankit frowned with an unstated apology. “That’s a very good point Simon. Of course, I would have forwarded everything to you, but Jaydev can do it himself.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Jaydev watched him leave with considerable relief and smiled at me. “Creative challenge. Who says our work is clerical?”

Something was bugging me.

“Er, Jaydev, there is no one reporting to you, right?”

Jaydev shook his head. “I am at the extreme end of the big picture, sometimes I have to strain to get past the frame.”

I sat down. “That’s heartening to know. So there won’t be another walk down to another cubicle and another delegation.”

Jaydev nodded.

“Right. This is where the shovel is handed down. Now the crap will be scooped all the way up.”

“It is really incredible how the different levels of the organisation think in the same way,” I observed after we had revisited the trail of singularly similar designation. 

"I am sorry, but where exactly did thinking come into this?"

"Okay, sorry. They act in the same way. I don't think the BOKs are too concerned with thinking anyway. Signs of a very mature unit. But, how will you manage the impossible?”

Jaydev smiled. “I will think out of the box, as advised by our thought-leader. None of the Dutchmen will ever tell me anything about the Forecast Brief. So, I will make up something, and like astrologers will make it vague enough to be true for any incident, from Lean Value to Berlin Wall. 'Budget pot for realigning the cross functional synergies'. How does that sound for starters?”

“And that will be acceptable?”

“No. It will be sent back a half a dozen times along the same chain of command as vague and unclear, and if you follow the review comments that grow like snowball, you will realise all the more that the organisation thinks similarly at all levels. But, after three or four rewrites, there won’t be a choice. By that time power point will have worked its magic and transformed excrement to strategy.”

“And we will follow that strategy when the time comes?”

“We will do whatever our jerky knees and frenzied guts tell us to do. Later we can always map that to this strategy to make it a success story of proactive thought. We may even pen books on managing uncertainty, the Axiom way.”

I sighed.

“Yes, proactive thought leadership making us immune to the market changes. Only a highly mature organisation can achieve that.”

Jaydev agreed. “Amen to that.”

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Smoking hot thought leadership

Holy Smoke

As I approached the office building, friendly hands variously greeted and beckoned me to the corner where half a dozen of my Indian colleagues stood smoking.

My European brethren smoke profusely, using the celebrated laid back continental culture to wake up ever-so-slowly to the perils of nicotine. In Holland, such awakening often result in switching allegiance to cannabis. And as in any shared passion, the more menacing the merrier, simultaneously lighted death sticks often make for casual camaraderie.

But, my Indian colleagues have taken the art of destroying one’s lungs to the realms of a community ritual. They convene around conflagrant cigarettes in hordes, several times a day, twice an hour is not too optimistic an estimate. The most important members of their ilk ride down the elevator and emerge outside as mighty leaders, shrugging off their own subservient client-facing selves in the recesses of the work place. A number of junior workers tag along, join the ceremony, some even if they do not smoke.

“Lots of interactions and knowledge sharing take place in the smoking zone,” Ankit, the assistant manager, had explained to me – leading me to wonder whether there was a humorous strain under the ultra-serious exterior. “You should join us once in a while.”

Till today I had deprived myself of this marvel of teamwork, citing my sensitivity to smoke. “This smoke does not reach our lungs” Ankit had reassured. “It just stimulates the roots of our thoughts.”

Jaydev, a fresh faced recruit two years out of college had taken me aside a couple of days earlier and explained some of the intricacies of the smoking breaks.

“Ankit lighting a cigarette is like the Piper of Hamlyn blowing into his instrument. The rats follow … Some think it is time out from the rat-race, but actually it is like the pit stop of the racing car. Our tires are aligned to the vision of the leader. Lubricants flow relentlessly. I call them the alignment sessions. If you pay attention, you can hear me herding others out when the leader decides to smoke saying, ‘Come on folks, let’s get aligned’.”

“So it is a case of no smoke without 'fired'?”

“Absolutely. Especially in this market. But there are other considerations as well. Appreciation, allegiance, silent nudges and hints about appraisal and promotion. Again, the main purpose is to be aligned to Ankit’s vision.”

My confusion had persisted. “So, Ankit talks about the company vision?”

Jaydev had nodded, “He is an Assistant Manager – that makes him one of the thought leaders. He leads by telling us what he thinks – about more or less everything in the world.”

“And you listen?”

“As I said, we align ourselves to the thoughts. Our opinions are always tuned to the vision of our thought leader. You should join us once in a while …”

I had repeated my concern about my lungs …

“Pick a windy day and stand upwind. The next few days are especially interesting.”


“No. Ankit has expended all his thoughts about the Dutch rental laws he had been so vocal about till a week back ... because his landlord has agreed to repair a leak. You may still hear him expounding about his exemplary man management skills that ensured this miracle, but chances are remote. If you are into gadgets, now is the time to attend a few smoking sessions.”

The Gadgeted Manager

“I am not particularly into gadgets …,” I had begun.

Jaydev had shushed me. “That’s about as non-aligned as you can get. You see, the company believes that the world is moving into a hand-held age. Upgrade or die. The vision of the management is for every Manager to communicate and keep abreast of projects, clients, opportunities, business trends and that sort of thing through blackberries, podcasts and the rest of it. According to the metrics of the grapevine, the number of tweets from Senior Managers have just overtaken the total number of times ‘proactiveness’  was mentioned in last year-end review.”

“Very forward thinking I must say.”

“As far as the tweets are concerned, they are more about ‘forward’ than ‘thinking’.”

“That’s what you discuss nowadays? Gadgets?”

“Ankit discusses. We align ourselves to his wisdom. Right now he is very excited about the Blackberry he purchased recently.”

This had confused me.

“But, aren’t Blackberries handed out to Managers for free?”

Jaydev had nodded. “There. You have put your finger on the snag. Blackberry is indeed the current day fruit of labour. But the problem is that the handsets are given to the grades of Manager and above. Ankit is still only an Assistant Manager, and anyone who has come in contact with his waves of thought leadership will know that he craves a promotion. He dreams about it more than Martin Luther King ever did. He could not really wait any longer. He was too eager to see the ‘Sent from my Blackberry’ line under his emails. Apparently, adding the same while sending a mail from the laptop does not work. People tend to find out. So, he bought one for himself. Perhaps it will go down as an argument for being ready for the next level.”

“Men and their toys.”

“More than that, Simon. You see, in the seventies and eighties, there was considerable amount of social prestige associated with a gazetted officer. This was a highly ranked public servant, who could stamp documents and photocopies and attest them for lesser mortals. In the nineties we entered the open market and such social norms went for a toss. Industries were privatised and the public servants remained powerful in their own way, but their esteem was dwarfed by employees of private companies who earned much more. At long last, the system has reached an equilibrium at the other end. From gazetted officers, the cornerstone of social status has shifted to the gadgeted managers.”

Thoughts go up in smoke

Indeed, as hands now waved at me, I could see the fist of  Ankit, proudly clutching the flat, black handheld device for me and the rest of the world to see. Jaydev’s curious socio-linguistic explanation seemed to  make a lot of sense.

The invitation in Ankit’s manager-in-waiting eyes was somewhat difficult to refuse even at the peril of putting healthy lungs through six simultaneous draughts of exhaled smoke.

“Simon,” the thought leader exclaimed eagerly, eyes shining at the sight of an approaching receptacle for his ideas and opinions. The hand continued to wave, and the Blackberry continued to totter on the brink of things, ready to be thrown into the conversation. I relented.

“Enjoying your time with the new baby?” I asked pointing.

“Of course,” Jaydev piped in from the side-line, where he had possibly aligned himself. “Everyone likes to play with his tool now.”

I shot him a worried glance, but he was unfazed. With reason too, because the innuendo sailed harmlessly over Ankit, only fanning his fervour further.

“Of course. This is the way the world is heading. That’s what Ramesh himself said in the thought leadership meet last week,” at the mention of the hallowed name, a resonated rush of reverence shot through the gathering. “Gone are the days people had to open their machines to get their work done. It’s possible to work even in crowded trains. You know, Simon, I reviewed a full power point presentation on this – er – baby as I was coming to office in the Metro. A crowded Metro.”

He paused and looked around, to soak the admiring gazes into his psyche. Around him everyone was well aligned to his thoughts and the resonance that rippled about in the rush of lubricants was of fascination.

“Simon, you should consider getting one.”

Jaydev later told me that the proper answer according to well established protocol would have been, “Heh heh heh heh, Ankit, if I earned even half as much as you I would have got myself one …” and in ritualistic dance patterns the response would have been a half-pleased protest that his salary was not that great, and there were many earning more – undeserving ones who had been promoted before him because of reasons deeply political.

However, the Dutchman uninitiated to such indigenous customs, I pursed my lips and said, “Well, I think I’ll pass. I generally read in the trains, and when it is crowded, I like to think.”

Obviously there was something amiss in my alignment. There was almost a resounding gasp as breaths were drawn in all at once. Ankit batted his eyelids for a few muted moments before rolling his eyes and exclaiming, ”Think? Where’s the time to think?”

The modern day thought leader shuddered at the idea and stubbed out his cigarette – signalling the end of the ceremony.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Butterfly Effect in the Chaotic Corporate World

The derived game of Indian whisper? Or was it seriously sucking snowball? Finally I zeroed down on the chaotic ground reality of the global delivery model and called it the Corporate Butterfly Effect.

Maarten Klassen, Process Management Lead of HMH Bank IT, stopped me as I was on my way to my eight hours of cubicular cerebral sloth. “Simon, you remember we had talked about the Basics of Ethics training? The web based course one had to click one’s way to completion?”

I thought hard, across gigabytes of such ridiculous and redundant compliance trainings. “You mean the one you wanted to share with the offshore vendors some – what – eight months back?”

Maarten smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, eight or nine months back, at that moment it was supposed to be ASAP. Now people have forgotten why it was so important, but it still sits on my todo list. You see, I went on vacation, and when I returned the content designer went on vacation, and when she returned  half the developers were reassigned to the top priority portal, and one of them went to get married ...  you know how it works. But, now it’s finally complete and available online, and so could you dash it off to your company folks in Bangalore and ask whoever is working on the HMH account to complete it within, say, a couple of months or may be a quarter or, may be, six months ...?”

Chaos and the game of Indian Whisper

That’s how it started. You can perhaps say that working in Axiom Consulting for a couple of years, I should have been prepared and mentally armed to my teeth to withstand what followed, but then, as our company promises, it continues to innovate and surprise.

After a quick mail to Prakash at Bangalore providing the link to the training and the approximate date for completion, I was blissfully tinkering with a spreadsheet with some associated alt-tabs to get the latest on the Euro Cup, when a mail brandishing the red exclamation mark of importance thudded into my Inbox. It is quite revealing that importance has to be denoted by exclamation marks in this industry.

Prakash had responded with a deluge of questions, “Simon, what is this all about? What sort of reports do we need to provide?  What is the SLA – two months or a quarter or six months? How are we to ensure that people complete the training? Could we get into a call?”

Having  somehow managed to read the substance between the interrogation marks, I wrote back, “Relax. 
Not that important. Pass the links and ask the folks to complete within two months. Leave the rest to them, on trust. After all, trust and openness is all that we hear in corporate updates nowadays. Delay of a few days won’t really matter, trust me.”

Within half an hour, Prakash was stuttering in an edgy tone on the telephone, my handset almost vibrating with his nervous twitches.

“Ramya, the Project Lead, wanted to know how we are to ensure that the people complete the compliance trainings.”

“Did you tell her about trusting people?”

“She says no one will complete unless we follow up and chase them.”

I sighed. “Then go ahead and chase them, but believe me, it’s not that serious.”

“Is there a tool that tells us how many have completed?”

“Er, not that I know of ...”

“Then can we ask the client for specifications and database details so that we can create an in-house tool? Ramya and her co-manager Srini want to know.”

“There you go. Does one need to look further for in-house tools?”

He called back after another half an hour.

“Ramya asks if you can get into a conference call.”

“Why on earth?”

“She wants to understand the requirements – what we need to send to the client.”

“There is nothing you need to send to the client. You need to complete the training and that’s all there is to it. There are about 20 slides. Everyone needs to click their way to the end, to the point where there is a pop up saying ‘Congratulations. You have completed the Basic Ethics course.’ It will take five minutes for each, at most.”

Prakash’s voice still crudely crisscrossed my eardrum with its edgy tension. “Ramya says if people don’t do it, and the client asks for completion figures, we can get into trouble, and the buck will come back to me.”

“Why you?”

“Because you told me to ensure that it is done, and she doesn’t want to take ownership.”

“Jesus ...”

“She wants to know what sort of reports of completion you want.”

“I just want to be left in peace.”

“Weekly percentage figures  ... or a dashboard showing projections of next week ...”

“Prakash, this is almost an afterthought on the part of the client, and they may or may not even be interested to know whether ...”

“Simon, Ramya has already talked to her boss, Narayanan, the Senior Manager, and the two of them want a breakfast meeting with me tomorrow. It seems they are taking it seriously. Tell me, is there any way that I can generate the completion figures...”

“Erm ... Prakash, did I mention mountains and molehills?”


“ Believe me, it is not high priority. And there is no way that I am getting into a call over this.”

The next call was from Ramya herself. It was quite a surprise, since I was about to leave office in Amsterdam while she seemed very much working her way to the middle of a busy day at Bangalore.

“Simon, good afternoon. I had a question.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“Can we get into a call now?”

“I am confused. What exactly are we into now?”

“I mean Narayanan wanted to join, and as the local SME I would keep Prakash in the call as well.”

“SME? Are you still talking about the compliance training?”

“Yes, and Prakash is the only one who seems to know the specs.”

“Specs? We are not talking about a project here, for God’s sake.”

“We have opened a new sub project in the Project Management System and allocated Prakash as the lead. It is non-billable, but Narayanan wants a status report every week – and it has to be shared with the client to show our weekly progress. As partners, we need to project ourselves as sensitive to the client’s requirements”

“Sensitive? You are already more sensitive than an exposed dental nerve ...”

 “I am connecting Narayanan and Prakash as well.”

As several beeps announced the arrival of the waiting team members on the company sponsored conference bridge, I put my fingers on the bridge of my own nose and squeezed hard, “Ramya, this is not even a serious initiative. There is only one guy in the entire client organisation who is interested in this because he has suddenly discovered this on his to-do list, possibly from an archived action item list and he will go on vacation again soon and  everything will be forgotten.”

Narayanan’s important disembodied voice floated in, out-decibling my protests. “In that case you need to position yourself as the deputy to ensure this is completed – you can be the onsite lead of us, the partner organisation.”

“Huh ...”

“As partners, we need to take up whatever the customer thinks is important – even if they don’t think of it as important, we need to coach them into seeing the value-adds. That is the way we can build trust.”

“Trust? That’s rich. A while back we were unable to trust our own people to complete the training by themselves and now ... “

There was an uncomfortable silence, before the Senior Manager demonstrated his exemplary thought-leadership.

“It is not that we don’t trust them. We wanted to track the completions so that we can publish lists of members as an appreciation of those who worked hard and completed the course. And also, we can prepare dashboards to share the completion statistics with the client and have these weekly calls in which we can discuss any issues and risks and mitigation actions necessary. In the meantime, Prakash, with Simon’s guidance you can prepare a comprehensive presentation of the initiative, with client situation, requirement, our solution, differentiators, learnings, innovations and all that ... I think it would be a very good case study for our Best Practice event. It can be the Assignment of the Annum.”

There was silence as the important words echoed along the transcontinental cables. I thought I heard a couple of muted exclamations from Prakash, the entrapped professional in him – an offshore vendor at that – trying to voice his insignificant logical arguments in a vain effort to invoke rationality in a world where the threat of rationalisation rules in a reign of terror. Soon, however, all such minor noises of reason were drowned in the steady hum of action plans.

The only thing left for me to do was to use my privilege of being Dutch and excuse myself for the day, as life called from beyond the cubicles – a call that is also muted in the distant shores of a mysterious land.

Corporate Butterfly Effect

I spent the evening at the De Duif, where an ensemble of art forms influenced by Chaos Theory was on display.   The write-up in the introductory leaflet spoke of the classical questions asked by Chaos, “If a butterfly flaps its wings in China will it result in a Tornado in San Francisco?”

As I was looking at some exquisite paintings and computer images celebrating the vision of Benoit Mandelbrot, it dawned on me. The day had just demonstrated to me the Chaotic world of Corporate Circus of the modern day.

A customer clearing his throat in Amsterdam does result in a tornado of managerial brain farts in Bangalore.  
And the truckload of resulting crap is splattered across numerous charts, graphs and reports.
Finally, in a country where bullshit is traditionally considered sacred, these packaged excrements are often revisited, rejoiced, revered and rewarded.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Straight from the Butt or The Dinosaur Way- corporate lessons from evolutionary studies

Why do giant corporate organisations always manage to suck? Whenever it grows in size and undergoes corporatisation, what is it that converts a happy little homely firm into a collected cornucopia of creeps masquerading in formal wear ? Why is size directly proportional to the degree of gargantuan grievances and acts as an exponential accelerator for the inanity coefficient?

The answer can be approximated from the field of palaeontology, if one knows where to look.

According to the theories of Darwin, creatures evolve to zoom ahead in the race for survival of the fittest.  Initial mutations are brilliant ways of getting ahead of the competition. The sabre teeth of the genus of the tigers named after their dentures helped them to pierce the hide of their prey, while the Apatosaurus, popularly known as the brontosaurus, grew to enormous dimensions to be frighteningly out of reach of the gnashing teeth of the smaller carnivores.

It is similar to the small organisation that gets ahead of the competing firms through some brilliance, or more often evolutionary chance later retrofitted as innovation. By luck or design, it is a step towards success and survival, and everyone is happy – the Apatosaurus, the Sabre Toothed Tiger and the now medium sized firm.

However, it is perhaps now that the philosophical threshold of the middle path is trespassed. The proverbial too much of anything is indulged in and over-evolution enters the equation.

Some studies say that the teeth of the sabre toothed tiger became too big to hunt with the speed and ease of their smaller toothed cousins who survived. 
The Apatosaurus grew too large for its reptilian brain to organise the body. The digestive cycle for the quantities of food consumed to maintain their monstrous physiology was way too long to be practical. And soon they fell prey to the evils of mega growth.

From the organisational point of view, the brains that led the growth from the small to the medium size remained by and large constant. As the firm grew, the mass increased, and layers and layers of lipid accumulated to make up the numbers – or should we say the figure or bottom line. Brilliant brains are rare, and they remained exclusive – stagnant, restricted to the same few that had originally masterminded the initial success, with perhaps infinitesimal increase. The Apatosaurus analogy is now complete. The humongous structure had to be managed by the working intelligence suited for a much smaller system. The decentralised parts of the body malfunctioned, the constitution became crappy, the giant framework remained impressive to the outsider but slipshod and sloppy when viewed with analytical eyes.

And herein, from some misleading studies in the evolutionary field, one can detect a few fundamental mistakes of both the organisation and its copycats – the last mentioned being the naive unfortunates who lap up and ape the gospel as recounted by the corporate communications teams in white-papers and volumes titled The ________ Way .

The giant organisation, in an effort to keep leading the race even with the loads of lard, makes the terrible mistake of trying to squeeze brains out of blubber, by leaping on to the innovation bandwagon, in the curious craze for ideation, excellence, brainstorming and such synonyms of bovine excrement.

Othniel C Marsh
We find parallels in the 19th century study of celebrated palaeontologist Othniel C Marsh. He was perpetually puzzled by the Stegosaurus, an elephant size lizard with walnut sized brains. Marsh, the man who named the Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Diplodocus, tried to solve the confusion with the hypothesis that the Stegosaur had a second brain in the butt. This was influenced in part by the cavity in the pelvic region of the Stegosaurus skeletons. Of course, this theory has been discredited, but it does serve as a lesson in how gigantic forms with small brains can lead able men to try and find intelligence in the arseholes.

Likewise, the gigantic corporate organisations are desperate to squeeze brains out of their peripheries through relentless quest for innovation, trying to disguise farts as brainwaves, trying to run the mammoth frame by beating out sound and fury from the nether parts, the resulting routine thus becoming a colossal pain in the rump and little else.

It is all very well to make a farcical show of using manufactured historical data as products of butt-brained innovation, but there are some lessons from prehistory we will do well to bear in mind.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sherlock Holmes explains the Corporate Game of Shadows

Another day when the cubicle had to withstand the relentless barrage of insanity, another day when the mind clouded with confusion – resulting in outbursts of thunder and lightning.

And one had to bring in Sherlock Holmes to make sense of the madness, explain the curious incidents.

Let me begin by recounting what happened during the day.
The interview had reached an impasse.

The resume on my Lenovo screen was sparkling, almost gilt edged. The mere sight of the listed research papers on computational theory and algorithmic analysis; many of them registered for patent, and some co-authored with veritable pioneers in the field; whipped shut my recruiter’s instinctive snoopiness with the sheer weight of erudition. The stereotypical questions I could think of to throw at the earnest Hungarian at the other end of the line suddenly seemed lame, cripple and grotesquely deformed.

The account manager, at the third node of our conference call, was silent for a long, long time. I could sense him trying to bury the crushing feeling of inadequacy under a mountain of mundane mails which he was rummaging through importantly on his laptop, deluding himself into believing that his responsibilities as a business leader in Europe, right now rendered puny by the academic credentials of Laszlo Kovacs, granted him the status of superiority by default. The title Dr. in front of the Slavic name, in Heading 1 font at the top of the curriculum vitae, strategically placed to penetrate the protracted viewing zone of even the most myopic recruiting manager, did not help matters. Our combined qualifications were dwarfed. No follow up question was forthcoming once the man had gone over his career details.

The uncomfortable silence was interrupted with the connection disturbed by high pitched electronic interference. An sms filtered into my cell phone. It was from Ajay Yadav, the account manager at the third node.

“Carry on asking questions!” it commanded.

It was perhaps the exclamation mark which clinched the battle with professional patience.

“Laszlo, could you please excuse us for a minute?” I put the phone on mute and pressed the call button on my handset.

The account manager started without preamble, “Ask him some questions … you know I can only pitch in at the end…”

“Ajay, this guy is more qualified and educated than the rest of the team put together, you and me included. You want me to ask him how to create project dashboards with red, amber, green signals for half-witted managers?”

I assure you, I am not always like this. Right through The Best Seller, you have seen my innermost thoughts bubbling up only in the confessional confines of this blog. But, the maniacal mismatch between the interviewee and interviewer made me lose it totally. For a moment, it seemed that the spirit of my buddy had floated into me, and poor Ajay was once again being launched into the unchartered territories of truth.

“But, he has applied for this job …” he mumbled.

“Then ask him why he wants to rot in these cubicles, manufacturing data and preparing graphs, tracking so called project progress – charts that are to be discussed by a room full of confused senior managers treating them like patterns of tea leaves which foretell doomsday or coming of the messiah – Why does he want this life when he can sit in Hungary and do something which involves thought, makes sense and is of actual use to the world.”

“I agree that he is a little over-qualified ... ” Ajay admitted.

“A little?”

“May I interrupt?” a heavily accented Slavonic voice interjected, throwing us off balance. “It seems to me that you two are in conference, and one of you forgot to put the call on mute …”


“Oh, man … Ajay…!”

The cascading effects of delegation had reached chronic levels. Ajay Yadav had allowed our candidate to hear everything that we said … at least everything that he said. I was filled with genuine remorse. Of all people, I, who had been withstanding an atmosphere tinged with this imbecile for over three years now, should have seen it coming. Expecting him to put the phone on mute on his own had been an unpardonable mistake in my management of expectation from senior management.

“We’re terribly sorry, Laszlo …”

“Pardon me for having heard what you said,” the gentle voice continued. “But, I think it is good that I can make out your apprehension. I only heard one side of the dialogue …”

“Thank God for that.”

“No … I mean, I am only too happy to explain. You find it surprising that I want to go to The Netherlands and work at a largely clerical job as a Project Management Office, umm, worker …”

I could make out he had scoured his vocabulary to come up with the last word. Specialist and expert would have sounded ridiculous anyway, oxymoron of the highest order. A social levelling could have been served with comrade, but it had remained politically incorrect and probably still induced nightmares in the country from where he hailed. Worker was a close enough approximation.

“Ah, yes, Lasozo, you see we are afraid that if you keep doing something you don’t want to, you might end up not wanting to do it any more … and leave us soon,” Ajay Yadav had as usual made a hash of the Hungarian name, but at least he had managed to step into the conversation with something approaching sense.

“It’s Laszlo. I understand you are not familiar with Hungarian names. Also, it can be a bit confusing if you are not familiar with the conditions. I can write algorithm after algorithm here, revolutionise computing theory, but I will get paid only a third of what I can make there – if paid at all. And believe me, with a wife and a kid to support, you need no more motivation. Most often craving for cerebral challenges is vetoed by far more basic demands of the stomach.”

Ajay called me back once we had managed to hobble through the stumbling blocks of truth during the remaining duration of the interview.

“Well, what do you think?”

I took a deep breath. “We can give him what he wants, Ajay -  a decent income and placement in The Netherlands. And he has what we want, a EU work permit and a salary expectation lower than the commerce graduates from India whom we scrape out from the bottom of the university barrels. We are a perfect match.”

There was something on his mind even after I had broken it down into rudimentary units of demand and supply.

“Er, yes, but his aptitude and intelligence …”

“That is indeed an exception of far more gigantic proportions than we have ever handled, but I guess if we can overlook his smartness, we will soon realise that he is smart enough to keep his mental faculties on a leash as he goes about generating graphs and dashboards …”

“I need to think about it. In the meantime could you ask Joost for his feedback regarding the Lasozo’s resume?”

“Laszlo,” I corrected half-heartedly and hung up.

It was some fifteen minutes later that Joost Kuiper walked past my cubicle, lips pressed in a perpetual silent whistle, the rakish hair standing motionless, in the rigid fetters of hair gel.

“Joost, a moment,” I called him.

“Simon, what’s up?”

“I was wondering whether you had a chance to look at the resume we sent you yesterday.”

He pondered.

“The Hungarian guy?” the stress was on the last word.

As I nodded, a nubile form walked by –  on her way back from the coffee machine. Neelam Verma was another Axiom recruit, one of the girls from Bangalore, whose short two month assignment was coming to an end, much to the woe of many a  Dutch and expat heart. Her two months of struggle with data mining had been an unmitigated disaster, but the tee shirts that she wore – the way they accentuated her assets, the amplitude of horizontal oscillations as she made her walk to and back from the coffee machine about two hundred and thirty times a day, all these more than made up for the wasted hours.

“Er…,” Joost hesitated. “Is there really need for you to recruit? Can we not use from your current resource pool?”

I followed his gaze and the hint was not too difficult to grasp. It would perhaps cost the company a little more because the Hungarian would request a much lower rate than the one currently paid to the Bachelor of Commerce (Pass.) from some obscure university in Central India. But, where manpower is sold as commodity, she had attributes that were far more valuable than patented research papers. She rocked in multiple dimensions.

“You want her to stay?” I asked, indicating the retreating, rhythmic swaying of the nymph like hips.

“Er, yes,” Joost seized the opportunity to follow my eyes and ogle the curves before they disappeared into the cruel office chair, “… and could you be explicit about her staying on in my project? She needs to know ...”

I nodded. “Sure.”

It was at the Bijlmer Arena Pathe, watching the newest mutilation of Sherlock Holmes, that I could actually make sense of the upside down microcosm of the corporate world.
In a grotesque mirror image of the corporate world, the commoditisation of one of the most cerebral characters of world literature into an action hero actually allegorised the plight of Dr. Laszlo Kovacs.

I have nothing against Robert Downey Jr., who was just doing what he has to … jumping through the directorial hoops, to be readily palatable to the wii and play-station happy cinema goers. The whirring within the brain, the categorisation and elimination of clues and the zeroing in on the solution by deductive reasoning cannot be projected on screen without stretching the imagination of the digital-dependant minds beyond their short threshold of patience and imagination. For intellectual analysis to be viewed by a current day cinematic audience, one has to attach gizmos which approximate the human brain on dumbed down virtual reality platforms of cheap pseudo technology – much like the innumerable crime scene investigation series that assault us today. No wonder the other Sherlockian avatar of the day is Benedict Cumberhatch, the cutting edge techno savvy manifestation of the sleuth on BBC, who conveniently delegates memory and detection to the external interfaces that look like iPhone apps and super windows.

It is strikingly similar to the patented research work of Dr. Kovacs that is too much of a mental mountain to climb, much more conveniently replaced by zazzy yet over-simplified red, amber, green dashboards of digitised corporate crap.

Jude Law too did his bit as Dr. Watson, the side kick of the action hero. Green Hornet and Kato probably put in more thought behind their action than this detection duo, but one has to dance to the music of time. Other than a couple of feeble attempts to throw some thinking in the foray, the difference between the master sleuth and his often bumbling assistant of the original stories was reduced to almost nothing – the mechanisms of the mind finishing as an also ran in the Game of Shadows. The focus on immediate action, levelling the mental faculties across the horizons of intelligence quotient, is much like the modern world of corporate circus. Brilliant ideas of the genius of Conan Doyle limping in a poor second to the demand for instantaneous pyrotechnics – a carbon copy of the way organisational and process management theories are applied on demand, catering to the results of the next quarter, in the cubicular world.

Irene Adler, one of the most enigmatic female characters ever to grace pages of fiction, whose powers of thinking toppled even the great Sherlock Holmes from the pinnacle of the analytical world, is reduced to a ravishing bimbo with scarcely a line but lots of curves, appearance limited to the first reel. Rachel McAdams hastens to die during the first action sequence, but not before creating enough impression on the audience with every attribute in her possession sans the mental. The female character who takes her place is Noomi Rapace, as the gypsy woman with enough mystery to be unravelled in the distant lands of her origin mingled with the wrappings of cloth around her ample bosom, to make up for all the brains that died with Irene. The Neelam Verma of the modern day Holmes world.

And as the final blow to sensibilities, even Mycroft Holmes has to prance around naked to penetrate the mind of the movie lover of today. To think of Stephen Frey reduced to enacting a topless scene is a fair summary of the grotesque world we live in today, the most sublime of brains traded for the most bizarre of bodies – inside the cubicles and beyond.

Sir Arthur would have been prophetic if he had exchanged names with his Professor Challenger novel and called the Sherlock Holmes canon – The Lost World. That is how it stands today.

The Lost World?

Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

About Simon

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Amsterdam, Netherlands