Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Get a clue

A Story

There are a few things that I clearly remember from childhood - when the blur of past time seems to slow and sharpen like a pause in a frantic microfiche search and it's possible to immerse oneself in a memory.

Darryl Hull is sitting on my left and is animatedly describing something he did at work to my parents. His booming voice fills the room and his hands, skin soft and buttery-yellow like his hair, make expressive movements to punctuate the story. I'm just a kid, bright but not expected to fully understand what it is he's talking about.

If only he knew how his story changed my life.

He had been engaged by a company to find out why production errors were so high. He was also asked to get rid of a bottleneck that the company had found in it's operations. He went along and toured the facilities, talking to a guide as he filed from room to room, learning about what the company did and how, about the company's culture and it's history, about the way things were done and what was expected of people working there. Walking into a certain area and observing the workflow, he realised he had found it - the place where both the bottleneck and the errors occurred.

He pauses in his story, his eyes sparkling with the enjoyment of talking about an elegant solution to a complex problem. He isn't looking at me, hasn't noticed that I've scarcely taken a breath for the last few minutes. For some reason, this seems like the most interesting story I've ever heard - and it doesn't even have robots in it.

"And then I saw it, I saw *why* all of this was happening. It was between two departments, one of which simply carried on the production work of the previous department. One was wholly reliant on the other for it's input. You see, there was a wall between these two departments - just a flimsy one, not load bearing. It was soundproof, though, and only had a small window and a door in it - that damned door was always kept closed!"

He stopped again, waiting...waiting for my parents to get it. They didn't, it wasn't instinctual to them, this wasn't their profession. I, on the other hand, felt something strange. I remember seeing a flash of something that I can only describe as a dam or a log blocking the flow of a river which was overlaid onto my imagined picture of these two departments. The log was where that wall was and I felt uncomfortable.

"So I told them to get rid of that wall. Just scrap it." He takes a swig of his drink. "Of course, they thought I was crazy, but they did it anyway."

What happened in that company? Well, suddenly those two departments could talk to each other...actually talk...not just about work but just shooting the breeze and comparing notes on the weekend's cricket game. They could do it without opening that damned door, they could just raise their voice a little and talk to someone who basically didn't exist the previous week...someone in Another Department*. The conversation did turn to work occasionally and it turned out that feedback from the 'receiving' department changed what the 'giving' department sent over...it was better, it was right. The bottleneck and the errors were gone. The world took a collective breath. Birds twittered in the trees. We were safe.

(*Anyone who hasn't worked somewhere uber-corporate won't understand that people from Other Departments are usually viewed with suspicion by people in Your Department. The accountants are considered boring drunkards, IT as surly prats, administrative staff as an easy lay and HR as the untouchables. Christmas parties can look like organisational charts from above as department people sit together and rehash the year's cubicle conversation. )

Anyhow, at this point all I wanted to know was: "What is this?" What was his profession? It truly struck me as the most interesting occupation in the world, now that my ideas of being a surgeon had been neatly quashed. There were appeals to my rationality ('It takes years of study, hard study before you make any money.'), femininity ('It's a man's profession, you're always going to find yourself discriminated against.') and propriety ('It's digging around in people's guts, it's sick, foul-smelling, work, it's people dying, it's unsociable hours.'). Perhaps it's one of those things that was never really meant to be, perhaps I didn't really love it enough. I mean, do you think Michaelangelo would have been put off had his parents told him he'd get dusty from all that unsociable marble-chipping?

Either way, something had to replace my voracious appetite for any medical/scientific data and my habit of performing surgery on any meat product that my mother happened to leave on the draining board in the kitchen. (Fish skulls would get the royal treatment and I became expert at pulling apart eyeballs and examining pieces without making too much of a mess of the subject matter.)

Intellectual Apprenticeship

My passion was then and there transferred to this - whatever it was. I first had to find out what on earth his profession was called as it wasn't on the 'usual suspects' list of doctor/lawyer/accountant.

It seemed to be all about observing things, thinking about things and fixing things. It was about looking at things from the macro view. It was about walking into an ailing organisation and healing it. It was a lot like surgery but the patient was a business. I was hooked.

I did what all good chidren do (for once) and sought out the advice of my elders - I asked "How do I get there? How do I get to do this?"

Careers week at school was a little confusing as I couldn't find what I wanted to do on The List of professions. All of the options open to me as a small human were supposed to be contained on this one, all-encompassing, all-knowing list. (Government schools blow in ways unimagined.) Unfortunately, telling a teacher that I wanted to be 'Darryl Hull' would have had me referred to the school psychologist.

So I went to University to study Commerce. It seemed to be the right direction - I was studying anatomy, the anatomy of businesses that I would heal. I chose the most prestigious University in my state - all sandstone buildings and sprawling, manicured gardens and brass plaques and mentions in academic journals and treating undergrads (who brought in all the money) like slime because postgrads (who brought in all the prestige) were higher beings and taking itself very, very seriously.

And I waited.

Through hours of lectures on double-entry bookkeeping and Capital Asset Pricing Models.

Through tutorials with wanky marketing-types that would froth and bleat about 'branding' and 'eyeballs'.

Through heated arguments with my Workplace Law lecturer about why the hell every incident is considered the company's fault.

I waited to be taught how to heal, I waited for all of these disparate disciplines to be finally sown together into something resembling a going concern rather than discreet departments that just carried on despite each-other. I waited to be mesmerised again as I was in Darryl Hull's lounge room.

My discontent grew with every passing week, every month. I changed my major from Accounting/Finance to straight Management in a bid to study more of the holistic subjects that I thought would get me to my goal. I had figured out by this time that what I wanted to do was called Change Management and I spent every spare moment in the library reading the Harvard Business Review cases and studies when I should have been memorizing the 6 most common organisational structures or the 4 main things that constitute a marketing push.

Finally, I got to study the unit that was supposed to be all about Change Management. I was early for the first lecture and sat in the front row, giddy with excitement. I imagined case studies and real-world examples, anecdotes and recommendations for dealing with certain common problems. I expected to learn and to love it.

What I did NOT expect were the dreaded PowerPoint Slides of Intellectual Death (+2 resistance against alertness) and the same shapes, models and lists to memorise as in any other courses. By the third lecture I found my attention wandering and I began to think I had made a big, big mistake in my choice of career.

The tutorials, though, kept me thinking that I hadn't. Tutes consisted of case studies, lengthy ones that were supposed to be read beforehand and preliminarily analysed before bringing our paltry observations to the room and laying them on the Altar of Naivette to be scrutinised by the tutor. Sometimes, we would get into groups and 'role play' or discuss the case.

The problems here were twofold.

Firstly, I don't play well with children not of my choosing, so this group thinking thing didn't work for me.

I also generally knew the answers the minute that I skimmed the case. I didn't know how or why exactly - but the correct course of action seemed to come to me as easily as the answer to 1+1 - and I really didn't need to brainstorm or 'role play' with a bunch of list-memorising morons to come to my conclusions.

The answer, most of the time, was communication. Getting rid of the 'information silos' as Jack Welch called them. Getting rid of little factions and fiefdoms built on unique departmental knowledge.

Of course, there were other things that could be fixed - like implicit inducements to incorrect behavior through poorly constructed remuneration, for example - but *dang* did getting the right information to the right people have a lot to do with the quality of their decision making that in turn would ensure the success of the company.

Good internal communication also helped to ease the inevitable friction that poor communication, misinformation or gossip threw up in a large company.

Get Rid of That Wall

So I embarked on my career, usually in Human Resource departments (yes, I have the scars to prove I did my time) and I found that - almost without exception - these people were not the type to give a damn about the organisation as a whole.

They saw the workplace as an org chart to be filled with warm bodies, as resources to be passionlessly managed and moved around physically and emotionally without any reference to their humanity, as annoying complaints to be dealt with, as 'sensitive issues' to get all warm and fuzzy over.

People were foolish, rash, un-PC and there to be controlled like unruly children. We would try to filter and sanitise information as much as we could so that these children didn't hurt themselves or our organisation overly much in their everyday activities.

To be fair, I was working in the zombie-filled corridors of government, but still, aren't they supposed to be the sweet, loving ones that care about people over profit?

I covertly worked within the system to do the things I thought should be done in the ways I though they should be accomplished. I handed out unvarnished truths and didn't call a spade 'a lever-like garden implement'. I endeared myself to those managers who got the fact that we were there to get things done and made dire enemies of those who thought we were there to each create ourselves a corporate nest, line it with bullshit, secure it with sandbags and hunker down until retirement or promotion.

I was always trying to get rid of that damn wall. Through office furiture arrangement, by setting up committees (don't shoot, please), by emailing people, by giving out my mobile number and saying "Just call me...tell me how your day has been, tell me about life, whatever, I don't care, just don't ever think you're annoying me with a phone call."

I was honest about how busy I was. I remember a contract where, within a week of starting, it was decided that I and my lone counterpart were to be the point of contact for all Human Resource and Payroll queries in the company. I was hired as a 'Consultant'. I'm not a Payroll professional, by the way and it's a completely different discipline - like asking a footballer to play rugby because they're both sports played with a ball on a field. No, I don't know why it was dumped on us either.

Staff spanning England, Scotland and Wales were split into two groups and given our email addresses. Well, you can imagine that when the electronic shit hit the fan, there wasn't anywhere left for me to hide. I would sometimes sit and just watch emails coming into my inbox, filling the screen with unread messages like a game of tetris gone terribly wrong.

Taking a quick look at how much there was to be done and how little time there was to the next payroll cycle, I made an executive decision to communicate with my 'customers'. I sent out emails essentially saying;

"Hey all - I'm that new HR Consultant you've probably heard about. You've sent me loads of emails and I'm utterly snowed under with problems, all of which can't be solved for this pay cycle. Could the people who whose query is really, really urgent (ie: won't be able to pay the rent or buy food if I don't fix it this month) please send me a quick email and tell me so that I can prioritise them. I *will* get around to you all and think it'll take a few pay cycles to get everything done. Thanks for your patience, guys, I hope to actually meet all of you one of these days."

I hadn't demolished the wall, but I had certainly opened the door so that I could holler into the next room. I received a few emails saying "Me! Me! Fix my problem!" and I did. I received a few from asses who evidently thought that this was an easy system to screw over, simply give the woman a sob story and you'll get to the top of the list. I fixed those too, there weren't that many. I taught myself payroll slowly and painfully, I worked my way down the newly prioritised list and got it done.

It seemed to work. People who would otherwise be fuming about how the new HR person wasn't getting their query fixed realised that she was getting to it as fast as she could. I emailed people when I started working on their query, gave them a date by which I anticipated it's completion and always sent an apologetic email if it looked like I was running over the estimated time.

Most importantly, I had told the truth and had made some friends. People from strange offices far, far away said: "Hey, when are you going to haul your ass down here to visit us? You sound really cool."

I was happy with the result and shared the insight with my manager while we were at a large lunch with a load of other people. Her response?

"Yes, I heard about that. I never want you to do it again. Who are *you* to tell people that their problems may not be as important as someone else's? As for how busy you are - no-one wants to know. If you're going to send emails out to a lot of people, make sure you run them by me in future."

I was stunned. I didn't know whether to be embarrassed or furious, so I just felt numb and confused. Wasn't I hired as someone who was there to help employees? Wasn't part of that help talking to them like fellow human beings?

I didn't realise then that what I had done was to peel away the very cool, corporate persona that HR in this company had erected. We were the untouchables that would swoop down to hurt you if you uttered a sexist joke. We were the mysterious gatekeepers for hiring and firing. We conferred with executives and had just as much power to search their computer for nasties as anyone else's. We didn't have a sense of humour, we didn't fraternise with the natives and we most certainly didn't care if we weren't perceived as doing a good enough job.

Memories of every workplace are littered with those kinds of examples. With the most logical, straightforward solutions being abandoned for something that would tread on less toes, give out less information, present a more 'corporate' face, kiss the right ass.

I ended up thinking that I must be a little crazy, that there must be something wrong with my reasoning and my beliefs. It became very, very tiring to be always butting my head against indifference, hostility, politics and entrenched entropy.

Perhaps these people were right. After all, they're the ones being promoted and I'm the loon that no-one 'important' talks to in the cafeteria.

Cluetrain Vindication

Today I read half of the Cluetrain Manifesto and it was like sitting in Darryl Hull's lounge room again.

The descriptions of problems were clear and the solutions so eloquently, beautifully, instinctually simple and right that the only effort in reading was not to be distracted by anything else.

I dearly wished that I had read this earlier...I dearly wished that it had been written many years ago when I was just starting my degree. I would have had some sort of reference to go back to when the entire world was telling me that the things I thought were wrong and naive, that politicking and lies were the only way to survive, that obfuscation was superior to clarity and honesty and that customers were complete idiots to be fed a message that even we - as students and as practitioners - found insulting to utter.

I wish I had had it when I was working in those horrid companies. I would have understood and laughed at their stupidity rather than timidly tapped my superiors on the shoulder, offering suggestions for change and believing that I must be too young and inexperienced to be right in the face of so much opposition.

Cluetrain should be mandatory reading for university students in many disciplines - but, of course, it won't be - as it directly challenges the authoritative voice that teaches at those institutions.

It should be mandatory reading in any corporation that wishes to remain profitable in the years to come - but, again, it won't be - as it directly challenges the authority of many executives.

It will be read by many, understood by some, implemented by few - and those who implement it will be the ones to 'somehow' survive the great upheavals that are already beginning to shatter Business As Usual in Western society.


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