I have a line I use about a professional contact of mine. This particular contact is in his 70’s and he’s been in the industry for well over 40 years. When I describe him to others I say “He’s always pissing me off. He pisses me off when he tells me that something I want to do won’t work and he pisses me off again when I discover he was right”. The line is a great joke because it’s both funny and based in truth. He’s mellow in his delivery of his opinion about the viability of whatever the initiative is, but he can clearly see when something isn’t going to work the second it’s mentioned. He knows a disaster when he sees one.
I’ve been thinking about disasters. I’m not talking about the ‘maybe’ or the untried, I’m talking about the initiative that is 100% guaranteed to fail! My work centers around the collision points in work and life for the professional. Professionals, no matter if they are in accounting, advanced manufacturing or software development are all good at knowledge gathering and critical thinking. Typically if a professional is knowledgeable in an area and can think critically about a situation they can probably spot a trainwreck far in advance. Yet professionals, especially individual contributors, have little ability to influence certain situations in their world at work. In many instances they are either heavily engaged in, or in charge of something that is guaranteed to fail. It’s simply going to be a disaster and there is nothing you can do about it. That makes work disasters one of those areas that elevates itself to a major collision point in our professional lives.
What do you need to see a disaster?
First a comment about knowledge as it relates to this article. In this world of government facilitated and subsidized educational oversupply there are a few well known and heavily scrutinized outcomes. There are the obvious ones that I discuss regularly including the student loan crisis and mismatch between education and skills desired by employers. One outcome that I don’t really discuss often but one that is highly relevant to this narrative is the concept of a large population of folks who are heavy with ‘book smarts’ as my grandma used to call it, but lack in practical knowledge, ie. common sense. It’s said that knowledge comes from books and wisdom comes from experience. I share this because the people who can see the oncoming disaster generally have a good supply of both. One of the reasons why I opened with the story about my well seasoned colleague is because he has such a deep wealth of wisdom from his five decades in our field. I know he has a good amount of formal education but that was completed half a century ago. His ability to foresee a disaster comes from the fact that he has either taken part in, or personally witnessed, variants of all the new ideas that are floated in our industry. He may have been witness to them multiple times. This is why he can say right from the conceptual state what works and what doesn’t .
This brings us to the benefits of experience. The more seasoned we are, the more we can see the makings of a disaster. The human condition is based upon patterned behavior. This is why a good grasp of history is so important. Any history educator will tell you that the more you understand the mistakes of the past the better you can avoid them. In the case of understanding a disaster in the making, typically the ‘new idea’ has been tried before and didn’t work. A well publicized and relatively recent example of this was Sony’s PlayStation 3 which launched at an astronomically high price as compared to all console launches throughout history. Anyone who was around for the launch of the NeoGeo, which most of the young industry was, could have easily foreseen that Sony was going to squander it’s dominant position in the market with their pricing. With entry level pricing of $500 bucks in 2006 dollars it was expensive compared to most electronics, it was incomprehensibly high for what was and is essentially a toy. It was obviously a disaster in the making to nearly anyone who was knowledgeable about the console market. The natural question to ask is: why didn’t Sony see it and avoid it?
In the case of the PS3 knowing a disaster was going to happen with regards to market share was obvious because of experience. In other instances the concept may be new but there really is obvious reasons why it won’t work. I look to the telecom sector for an example of this. Anyone who was not a Verizon management zombie could have predicted that the fate of Microsoft’s Kin, a smartphone targeted at Tweens and Teens would be a disaster if it required a $60 data plan. What parent in their right mind would spend $60 a month so that their kid can text their buddies and upload selfies. The Kin’s lifetime was measured in months.
Why do Disasters Happen?
An obvious question that can be asked is why do things that are clearly going to be a disaster still happen so often? There are various reasons but a few that I think stand out for consideration and comment from the perspective of the professional individual contributor.
One of the reasons, one that I’m very familiar with is hubris. My best example of this is a company I worked for which was built on the foundation of an international information technology based services business. The company had a headstrong and autocratic owner as you see in most successful business. It also had a natural advantage in that it’s technical operations were all based in India where costs were low but the company served businesses world wide. The first thing the company did was build a massive channel partner program based upon the services business. The second thing the company did was expand that business with a hardware product that interfaced with services business. The services worked and the hardware worked. The business grew rapidly and everyone made money.
Here is the key for the hardware side, it was running on software by Microsoft, a company that despite all its challenges knows a little something about building quality software that works. The owner of my company didn’t like paying a fairly significant license on every single box they shipped so he decided to create his own from open source solutions. That part was logical, the idea of finding a lower cost and homegrown solution to make more money is an age old business practice. What wasn’t logical was the idea that the owner was going to force the channel to adopt his half baked solution when it didn’t work. The hubris that was exhibited by upper management was unique in my personal experience. The new home grown product simply didn’t work. Every single person at the company knew this. Every sales rep, every engineer and every supervisor knew it. Again, not a big deal, sometimes new tech products don’t work out. The hubris came from the fact that management shut down the production of the existing Microsoft based product line that worked perfectly to force everyone to use the new product line. Everyone, unfortunately, also included the channel partners.
Ask anyone who’s worked in a channel sales organization and they will tell you that channel partners are independent businesses that generally exhibit strong loyalty to a brand they can resell which makes them money. Of course if money and face is lost when partners deliver a bad product to the end user, loyalty disappears. The costs to the channel partners of my company was astronomical because of the time they spent having high end field technicians try to get my company’s product to work again and again. We were told to promise all of our partners screaming for relief that it would work perfectly if they just stuck with us through one more major software update. It didn’t take long for the entire industry to realize a small services oriented business did not have the technical chops to take open source software and repurpose it to provide a highly complex distributed computing solution that was enterprise quality. The partners quickly refused to buy the new product. Consequently every single one of the formerly loyal channel partners who had tried the new product walked away from our company the second the old product wasn’t available. Of course, from management’s perspective it was sales that failed, not the product. Many good sales people lost their jobs or left. If someone felt secure enough in that volatile environment to point out to management that they were destroying relationships that took years to build management’s flippant response was that the eventual profit would quickly bring them back. There was little in the way of discussion of the loyalty our former partners would now have with their new vendors who were delivering quality products and allowing them to be highly profitable.
Now I have read accounts countless times of this sort of decision making by leaders at organizations of all sizes. The aforementioned PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Kin are great media examples because it was obvious from the announcement to industry watchers that the new products would be a disaster. Sony management’s attitude about how much their customers should want to pay for a toy and Verizon’s attitude about how much parents should be willing to spend for telecom services are perfect examples of media stories about hubris.
This was the first time that I personally experienced it. I couldn’t believe that the owners decided to continue to blame and penialize the sales teams. I couldn’t believe that the decision was made to screw over the existing channel partners with a product that didn’t work. I couldn’t believe that management was adamant that former partners would leave our competition so quickly after we burned them so badly. The hubris was unimaginable to me. Anyone could see that this was going to be a professional disaster of epic proportions one that would probably cause the company to close its doors.
Another reason we see disasters is the existence of flawed systems. These systems are designed by people who are so far removed from the mechanics of the daily operations that they can’t see the inability of the application to fit the need. I see this often with government. Their is typically a vaunted goal for the effort. This goal is so burdened by things like legislation, conflicting priorities and group think that it spirals into something huge and completely misaligned to the stated mission.
A good example of this is veteran stand downs when they are held . Starting in 1998 Veterans Stand Downs are events designed for providing assistance to homeless veterans. From the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website:
The original Stand Down for homeless veterans was modeled after the Stand Down concept used during the Vietnam War to provide a safe retreat for units returning from combat operations. At secure base camp areas, troops were able to take care of personal hygiene, get clean uniforms, enjoy warm meals, receive medical and dental care, mail and receive letters, and enjoy the camaraderie of friends in a safe environment. Stand Down afforded battle-weary soldiers the opportunity to renew their spirit, health and overall sense of well-being.
That is the purpose of the Stand Down for homeless veterans, and achieving those objectives requires a wide range of support services and time. The program is successful because it brings these services to one location, making them more accessible to homeless veterans.
Sounds great, right? Community leaders tend to jump on this type of initiative. Dozens of supportive services, companies and successful former military business folks throw resources at them. I’ve been to a few and helped put others on. They are amazing. I guess it’s not surprising considering the people involved in putting them on, that they come together with military precision. Hundreds of companies and community service agencies show up. Everyone knows where they are supposed to go, what they are supposed to do, and who else is there to assist. There is one little problem. Unless you are located in one of the very few areas with seriously high concentrations of homeless vets, there is never enough people being served. I say this if you are to look at an honest ratio of effort to homeless vets who attend to the effort involved in bringing it all together. The event is typically a disaster where two or three members of the target population show up to see two hundred service providers.
This is vets but you see this in other areas with government involvement. How many educational programs exist with the same ammount effort as the stand down and the outcome is minimal at best? I’ve seen several workforce programs that are the same. In the case of education and workforce sometimes the effort exists because it is legislated. How many state and federally funded programs exist that don’t meet their stated goals, or worse, have an outcome that is in direct opposition to the stated goal?
There is two final intertwined reasons that comes to my mind to describe why disasters happen, or more precisely why they aren’t halted when even senior decision makers are aware that a project is going to be a disaster. They are Sunk Cost and Inertia. With sunk cost, there is already so much spent in money and effort that to cancel the project would be nearly impossible. An individual example of this is someone who is three years into a degree program in a subject area they realize they really don’t enjoy. Might as well finish up and get the degree and then go work at Starbucks while the graduate ‘finds themselves’. Inertia is sort of the flip side of this effect in that so many people are involved with something that it takes a herculean effort to change it. A phrase most people have heard is “it took on a life of its own”.
No matter the cause the impending disaster is something big that is not going to work and it’s obvious. This brings us to the more important aspect of this narrative. How does a professional handle an impending disaster?
Rules to handle a disaster!
I think the first rule, at least for me, and a good rule for others, is to not to get frustrated and try and to change the whole situation. The natural response when one realizes something they are engaged in is going to be a massive failure is to ask the question “How can I/we try and keep this disaster from happening?” This is clearly a mistake. The problem with this situation is that it’s rooted in caring too much and believing others care about the success as much as you do. The best way to mitigate your impulse to keep a disaster from happening is to remember you don’t have all the information.
Going back to my personal example at the information technology company, it came out later that the owners were funneling tens of millions of dollars into personal accounts. I don’t think the owners wanted the company to fail initially, but they probably needed to keep activity high as soon as they realized they couldn’t pull off the technological Coup d’état against Microsoft. That meant keeping the train careening out of control until it eventually and completely derailed.
Going to the government world, things like educational initiatives, stand downs, etc. may be a disaster at their stated goal but they may meet other important goals, like for photo ops. Justification in many instances in the world of government means that there was a proper accounting of the money spent. Accounting happens with receipts and ledgers but it also happens when people see proof of the event. Photos are like statistics in that they communicate very well what the person using them wants them to communicate. In the case of a government event it shows that there is an effort at the goal. It doesn’t matter that 10 homeless people showed up and only two were vet’s, that shot of the two homeless vets getting a new suit of clothing and speaking with a counselor may be all that the congress persons office needs. Imagine how you would feel if you knew the size of the population of homeless vets and were charged with spending six months coordinating the event. I would bet that if you want to do a good job and there is limited resources for vets, the effort that went into this event would drive you crazy. Especially if the effort is going to create more pain, i.e. sucking up money that could be better used towards the end goal.
The second rule is to consider your options: Assuming your involved in a project that is a disaster, and assuming your position is with a private firm, then the biggest problem is that your job is probably in jeopardy. Government organizations tend to have more secure positions but contrary to popular belief these positions aren’t guaranteed. One option is to simply keep quiet and just do your job. There are two factors to keep in mind. The first is that this may be challenging if your personality doesn’t suffer fools and foolish things very well. I know I have a tendency to open my mouth a bit to much. If you are the type of person who keeps their own council then this is a great option. Best practice in this situation is humility and political correctness. This will keep from making enemies but has the negative aspect of connecting you to a failure. The second option is to speak up often and loudly. This will piss people off and unfortunately I know this from personal experience. You can damage professional relationships but it will have the benefit of feeling like you are doing something positive. Even though you generally can’t stop a disaster from happening for all the reasons i’ve already cited, there is the positive of being able to say that you did try to stop disaster. It may even work to blunt the impact of the disasters some cases if it changes some of the actions around the actual event or project. Mostly though, and again I can say from experience, even if your right your personal reputation is soured.
The final rule is the most important. When it comes to any sort of disaster the rule of the day must be CYA! Remember, in many cases with a disaster there is a sacrificial lamb. In the case of the company I worked for, it was many lambs. Lambs who were in charge of selling a product to a group of people who wouldn’t even talk to them as the channel customers had already wasted time and money trying to get it to work. These rear end covering machinations to eliminate blame for the disaster can be quite complex. This could actually be a whole article unto itself. There are some basic tenets that anyone can follow. The first is document, document, document. If it’s not in writing it never happened. The second is that if there is a question, get the direction from superiors, and again document it in writing. You never want to be the decision maker on anything.
If a CYA strategy isn’t a viable option or there is nothing you can do then there really is a strong possibility of being in the pole position of a ‘setup to fail’ lineup. Trying to sell a half baked product to a channel that has completely divorced itself from its supplier is a great example of this. My colleagues at that technology company realized that they would be blamed for the lack of sales within days of being hired and immediately started hunting for alternative employment.
If your job isn’t in jeopardy but you may be blamed, an alternative strategy aligned to CYA is to try and turn the lemons to lemonade. You can do this with revisionist history. The language about the stand down may focus on the 200 partners all working together to support vets. Indeed the name of the Stand Down may become something like ‘Vet Services Summit’ in future communications. Nobody asks how many homeless showed up at the Vet Services Summit but they will ask if it’s called a stand down. This ex post facto renaming will align quite nicely with the photos of how great of a networking event it was. Obviously there will be many photos of the vendors speaking with each other because there were no actual attendees.
The bottom line is that as long as there is organizational initiatives some of them simply will become a train wreck. Disasters are going to happen and they will happen regularly for the reasons cited and many many others I didn’t go into because this missive is already too long. There’s a bright side to when things go off the rails. The good news about them happening routinely is that we get better at dealing with them with all the practice. Then one day we can all be the cantankerous old codger who pisses everyone off because he is always right. At least that’s one fun thing I can look forward to in my old age.
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