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.”

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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