A major pathology of the culture of high tech companies-example

In my last post, I discussed the link between an organizations’ culture and overly  aggressive customer commitments.

In this post I want to document  the dysfunction that occurs internally within an organization which severely over commits to customers.  What I am describing in this post is one of the major pathologies of the high tech industry today.

John (CEO) and Enrique (Chief of Sales) have just signed an 800 million dollar deal. Deployment of the (yet to be developed)  product which has been sold will start in two years. John and Enrique are naturally far more happy  than is VP R&D, Karl. Karl knows that while it may be  possible to develop what has been sold, he does not have the time or resources to make it happen in the time frame which has been committed to.

Karl convenes his 12 development “leads”  to conduct a three day summit to discuss “how to make the development miracle happen”. Karl dictates an impossible  schedule. Moshe from Israel and Pieter from Holland speak up, questioning the soundness of the timetable which is “handed down”. Moshe tells Karl: “You cannot manage by “wishful non thinking”. Karl crushes Moshe, who is replaced and dismissed.

Subsequently each development-leads convene summits with their respective teams. The story about Moshe being axed is all over the company. The story in the trenches is that “John and Enrique are dead if we don’t deliver to schedule”. (The scheduled commitments are compared to committing to learn Chinese in a month).

The commitments are rolled down into the trenches and by the time it has reached the 600 developers, everyone know it is purely absurd. Sandbagging, dithering and belittling management as “our of their fucking minds” become common.

Furthermore, developers adapt the following behaviours:

1) They wait passively for a needed component from a peer to be late, and then blame one another for  their own delays.

2) The troops ask for more and more “clarity” about what the client “really needs”; management asks people to “assume ownership”.

3) The troops ask for “planning sessions”; management  demands hard work and a better attitude. Management asks for more efficiency and priority management; the troops ask for more time.

4) Several sets of parallel commitments co-exist…1) what was told to the customers, 2) what was told to management, 3)  what “we tell ourselves”, 4) what we tell our peers, 5) what the troops tell senior management. None of these commitments is solid or real.

5) The entire system breaks down and spins into chaos very suddenly. This can happen at a initial benign customer review session which turns bad. Or, someone from development “leaks” what is going on to the customer, who demands a review and the shit hits fan.

There are many OD interventions which can mitigate this damage. Read on.

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Aggressive promises to clients and culture

It is very common especially (but not only) in software development for the following dynamic to occur:

   1) A client goes shopping looking for a product that will vastly jump start competitiveness in a very short time frame.

   2) The clients “procurement department” pushes for very aggressive commitments from possible vendors, knowing full well that while vendors will “apparently” comply with what they asking for in order to win the business, there will be slips in delivery, quality and price of the what they have purchased.

   3) The vendors, competing to win the bid, over promise and under charge. They know full well that once they have their foot in the client’s door, they can ”manage the client” and renegotiate both the deliverables and the price (phased delivery).

Now, let us look what happens within the vendor organization. The Head of R&D (let’s call him Willie)  is given this commitment by Sales or the CEO; Willie sees his yearly bonus and perhaps his career depending upon the delivery of this “promise” to the client.

Willie puts massive pressure on his “engineering leads” to commit and the pressure gets “transferred” down to the trenches where the coders get even more pressure, because each layer has sandbagged. And the coders know full well that this commitment ain’t gonna happen.

Here culture comes into play.

  • The folks who come from cultures where authority can be confronted will start pushing the obstacles, the hallucinatory  nature of the commitments and the bad news “up” to management.
  • The folks who come from cultures where obedience is the norm will “feign” obedience, and drop discrete hints about what is going, and not going to be delivered.
  • Folks who come from cultures where planning is a ritual will plan, plan and plan again.
  • Folks who come from a culture of improvisation will start working without a clear spec.

When delivery dates approach and as the ugly truth surfaces that the promise to the client is going to be missed, there is a massive rupture of trust, caused both  by the aggressive promises themselves, severely exacerbated by the different ways that people from different cultures react.

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Discussing your past failures with potential clients

It is common practice and very legitimate for potential clients to look at your track record as he/she accesses your potential candidacy to serve as an OD consultant.

Each and every one of us have failed. Certainly I have had some failures in my 38 year career. In this post I will relate to way and means of handling the question of past failures with prospective clients in initial interviews.

(If you have positioned yourself as a vendor of products and tools, you will not find this  post useful. Clearly, in such a case, you may need to relate to the mismatch between the tool/product and the client, defend/blame the tool itself or even the client, as do our confreres in software! 😉 )

This post relates to those of us who see OD as professional service of trusted advisor who supports change efforts.

Following are a few selected suggestions how to field questions about past failures.

1) A failed relationship

The professional relationship between an OD service provider and client is “a service delivered in the context of a relationship”. Like all relationships, client-OD relationships do not always succeed. And often, neither side knows this will be case at the initial stage on engagement.

2) Something  you cannot disclose so as not to compromise your former client

Clearly while you cannot discuss the nature of the failure and compromise your former clients integrity, you may encounter pressure to do so.

In that case, it is best to say, “if I do not succeed here with you, I imagine you will not want me to discuss this with potential clients in the future.”

3) Disagreement on Direction

It is common in our field to have irreconcilable differences even if the personal relationship with the client is trusting. In such a case, both the client and the OD consultant face hard decisions, and this was such a a case.

4) The intervention failed

The OD intervention failed. OD has not been boiled down to a set of algorithms whereby I  can promise success. In any OD intervention, there is a risk of failure. Sometimes we know the reason for failure, and sometimes we don’t.

One more point. I have found it very useful to prod a bit before answering. An example:

Client: Tell me about a recent failure.

Allon: What type of failure are you referring to?

Client: When the staff did not “believe” in consultants.

Allon: The way I work is that someone very senior owns me and it is not a question of “belief”. Do you plan to ask me to sell myself to your staff?

Client: I cannot decide on hiring you without the buy-in of my team!

Allon: Is this characteristic of your decision making?

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When a corporate culture and its accoutrements becomes a religious doctrine: 3 short case studies



In a recent post, I discussed  organizations that have a top-down, HR administered corporate religion and accoutrements which serve as a pseudo-sophisticated ideological veneer. This religious dogma inhibits, not enables, successive coping with a hostile environment. Three short case studies will illustrate.

Myname specializes in electronic signatures and ensuring the safety of financial transactions. Myname has just purchased Signit, which greatly enhances the user friendless of e-signatures in the mobile domain. The integration between the two companies is a failure. Myname, the dominant company, has a culture exhibited by 5 core values which are rammed downed peoples’ throat. The CEO decided to “re-examine the core values” in light of the integration difficulties. A major change was made. Instead of being a “People Company”, the value was changed to “We are All Family.” The integration failed.

Nowait is a mobile telephone company with a very strong top down cultural religion of “Responsiveness to our customers and our staff”. An overly zealous and under skilled HR department supervises the inculcation of this culture, almost by enema. Responsiveness is measured, over measured and measured again. The staff have learnt to beat the system, and the clients are leaving. The Head of HR and the Head of Training, OD and Telephony were recently replaced when an organizational survey had a response level of 12%. The CEO has just hired an HR goon from the military who “knows how to take a bunch of bums from the street and turn them into soldiers in six weeks.” The new HR’s managers key deliverable is to “get responsiveness back on the radar screen”.

Olam is a company with a religion of globalism. The world “global” is attached to everything done in the company. The dining halls serve “ethnic foods” in the company twice a week. Olam suffers lack of delegation to country managers, who feel they have no power over the corporate technical presales team. As a result, sales is falling because the initial pitch made by corporate is not tailored enough to local demands. The CEO has recently asked the HR manager to commission a webinar to “drive home the global message”. The CEO has never really defined “global” because “culture is HR’s domain”. And the HR manager, who ran a call center, also has a marketing background, and she wants the word “global” to capture employee “mindshare”.

These cases illustrate what can happen when the artefacts and accouterments of corporate culture are top-down/phoney as well as what happens when they are executed by HR managers who serve as mindless clergy.

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Working with Inconsistent and Overly–Ambiguous Managers

Very often, circumstances change and managers need to be flexible and reverse decisions and actions. For example, cancellation of an order or loss of a client can change priorities big time.

In this post, I will present tips I have found useful in dealing with flip-flopping and inconsistent managers.

I am not referring  to the type described in the opening sentence of this post.

Nor am I referring to a manager to is trying to encompass dichotomies, like quality and release date.

Following are the characteristics of the type of manager I am referring to:

  1. Makes ambiguous statements which can be understood in many ways
  2. Contradicts himself, and denies it.
  3. Decides but does not act
  4. Acts in contradiction of a decision

Following are behavioural examples of the above:

  1. Makes ambiguous statements which can be understood: “We need to be Diverse-at the switchboard”
  2. Contradicts himself, and denies it. “I gave you leeway, but you should have asked before you promised this feature”.
  3. Decides but does not act “I will speak to Joe” and it never happens, yet.
  4. Acts in contradiction of a decision “I ok’ed business class travel just this one time”.

Here are a few tips I have found useful.

1)  Type down statements/assumptions made by the client and project them on a screen during a consultation. E.g., Jacques needs to be retained in 2014 because he is a key employee”. The client gets these statement typed out at the end of the session.

2)  Every decision has a written summary. (This is pretty obvious, but very important)

3)  When the client has made up his mind, ask: “Have you calculated all the risks? What can change? Are you ready to decide? Is this tentative?

4)  Bring  someone else to important meetings so that there is a witness to what was said.

5)  Try to use group interventions more than one on one interventions because a group will police a flip flopper well.

Note: The Chinese have an expression: like playing piano to the cow. 对牛弹琴 This is said in referring  to someone who just does not get what you are telling them. So, my final suggestion is not to confront the person that he is inconsistent time after time, because it is like “playing piano to the cow.”

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