5150 Business Strategy

Life in the Corporate Fast Lane and Still Remaining Intelligent

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Square Peg, Round Hole

Why do companies continually believe that they can force fit an ERP system anymore than they can get a square peg to fit a round hole, or a round peg into a square hole??

For instance:

  • Why would you think that software written for grocery stores would work in an architecture firm?
  • Why would state of the art software work in an environment not acclimated to the workflow required?
  • Why do we believe that best practices project management will spring from the software application?
  • Why do we perpetuate the idea that flicking a switch or pushing a button on a program will be all that is needed to correct deficiencies in internal practices or culture?

Glad you asked, let me enlighten you:

  • Reenforcing behaviour/Group Think – individuals tend to drive decisions towards alternatives that they have already decided meet their individual needs. They will do this even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Every negative is downplayed while every positive is accentuated. Those opposed are cast as naysayers or as having ulterior motives – usually having to do with wanting a fair evaluation of alternatives. The best example of this is the selection of software used at Safeway or Lucky to implement in a project based architectural firm. Even on the face of it most would say “WTF” but given the power of reenforcing behaviour, and other factors, that is exactly what one “world class” architectural firm selected and failed to implement. Not only did very few people say “WTF” but the further along the implementation went the more people jumped onto the bandwagon. Those opposed, or who brought up shortcomings, were summarily pooh poohed and sent off to Siberia, or worse. The entire firm was subjected to a countdown clock on the intranet that heralded the day when the “New World” would dawn!! There was no New World as the software was never turned on – can you say crash and burn. Square Peg, Round Hole.
  • Flick a switch/Push a Button mentality – many in management believe that with the advent of large sophisticated ERP systems every process, or company shortcoming, can be cured with the flip of a switch or push of a button. Just MAKE IT SO is the common refrain when confronted with a situation which does not fit their nice vision of reality. Best example is when the proposal team that made the short list came to me wanting to know what the clause “full cost accounting standards (CAS) covered” meant. My reply, ” It means you cannot win this project”. Went over real well and they did not believe this was not something cured with the flick of a switch or simple insertion of one or two line explanation in the best and final. How could I dismiss all their hard work so offhandedly when, without a doubt in their mind, this requirement could be remedied by someone more knowledgeable. Off they run to the powers to be who similarly believed that surely something could be done – wrong, the awarding agency confirmed what I knew all along. Cue the sound of a toilet flushing.
  • Only the best most sophisticated system will do – we all have been oversold on the idea that unless every process is modeled after the published “best practices” that any implementation not reaching 100% of those objectives is not worthy. What many fail to take into account are the existing internal cultural dynamics which may make attaining those objectives impossible or unrealistic. Why pay top dollar for a system which will provide you the capability to implement state of the art features which you will never use?
  • Consultants abound – read my previous post “Consultants Feeding at the Gates of Hell”.

Lessons learned: ignorance is bliss until you run into the wall at full speed. A firms cultural norms need to be taken into account when determining the needs to be met with an ERP. Aiming for the highest standard when the culture does not support that objective will only lead to purchasing more than can be utilized.

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Consultants Feeding at the Gates of Hell

I had a consultant fired from a very lucrative engagement during the tailend of a failed ERP engagement. I still remember his final words to me as he pondered the loss of easy money, “You would not be so cavalier if it was YOUR money”. The irony of those words sticks with me, as if he had the inside track on how to remedy a failed implementation that they screwed up very early on in the process. I was the only one trying to slam on the brakes and stop the flow of cash going into a money pit. The only thing I regret is not being able to ditch his ass sooner.

Why did they stand by as the train headed for the abyss?

Here are several reasons:

  1. They had a vested interest in keeping the golden son happy who was “managing” the implementation. When he said things were hunky dory who were they to question him. He did, after all, control the purse strings. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. They were nothing more than a mouthpiece for the son instead of the gatekeepers at the edge of hell that we fell into.
  2. This particular consultant was like many – his time had come and gone. Everyone believes that experience necessarily connotates into an ability to solve problems regardless of the field of endeavor. That past stories of glory and success would miraculously turn a sows ear into silk.
  3.  He was out of his league and traded on taking input gathered from others, regurgitating it to anyone who would listen, and then charging $500 an hour for the “service”.
  4. Some consultants have become like the saying for teachers goes – those who can, do and those who can’t, consult. I question whether some of them could succeed in managing a real business on their own versus trying to tell others how things should be done.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many good consultants out there. Ones that add more value than you could hope for in many different areas. A good independent consultant who gives unbiased advice and is willing to stand by their convictions is worth their weight in gold. Those involved in what I described do not, and still don’t, belong in that group. They sold their souls for several ducats of gold, and the company burned through $5 million on a failed implementation. Consultants all the while singing the praises of a software package that was doomed to fail from day 1. Except in private conversations they would confirm that the entire project was a cluster f**k. Hey, at least they were honest some of the time!!

Lesson learned: beware of those with vested interest in a process which puts food on the table. When independence is compromised it is very easy to go flying off the cliff.

When Pigs Fly

Pigs will fly before corporate America regains the loyalty of the majority of workers. After years of layoffs, benefit cuts, and shifting jobs overseas it will take more than empty promises to engender a greater sense of loyalty.

I can recall at just about every position an instance where responses were crafted to mislead employees on some upcoming event – an office move, loss of a contract that resulted in layoffs, company being acquired, or a shift in corporate policy which affected employees. Of course, the justification was to prevent employees from being confused or misinterpreting events. Think about it, is there any more pompous condescending attitude?? In essence, it is the impression of senior management that the majority of employees are incapable of analytical thought and/or are too stupid to understand corporate strategy.

Examples:

  1. Due to an ownership transition the corporate office was rumored that it might be relocated. Instead of being honest and upfront with the inevitability of this event management followed a course of outright lies. I would support any decision that was openly communicated but was told repeatedly that a move was not in the cards. I became an unwitting accomplice as I believed what I was being told, relayed that to staff in meetings, and in the end looked like a player in the string of lies to keep everyone working happily while their jobs were phased out.
  2. Landscape architecture firm senior staff meeting there was a discussion regarding moving offices around. A simple enough innocuous event, or so I thought. Not knowing that the COO was a closet spy freak I announced the possibility at the weekly accounting meeting. Big mistake, here comes Mr. COO all red in the face, huffing and puffing, and says, “How dare you communicate private confidential information discussed in a senior staff meeting!”. Excusssse me, but moving several people around in offices did not rise to the level of top secret information in my mind but it did show the same asinine attitude amongst some in senior management that employees are incapable of sane rational thought when confronted with this “high level” strategic information. Puhleeze. Then the CFO comes into my office with her usual politically correct head up ass attitude and wants to know, “what were you thinking?”. My response, “I don’t care what the CEO or COO thought on this subject as this was much ado about nothing.”. Her response was very telling, “You HAVE to care what they think.”. Wrongo, unlike the CFO at this company I did not sign away my right to have an opinion, believe in open disclosure, and have rational thought processes. Told her I still did not care and that just shattered her world since someone who has sold their soul has a very hard time in understanding those who retain some sense of dignity and independent thought.
  3. Last example, same landscape architecture firm was being acquired by a much larger company. Meeting after meeting at the senior level discussed ways to spin this to staff in the most positive way. Your jobs will not be in danger (but we will eliminate redundant positions), the company will remain independent (but we will be merged over time), benefits will not change (not at first but we will adopt the larger companies plans), trust us we will retain our unique culture and operating style (only until everyone in senior management has feathered their nests and then adios suckers). Today this landscape architecture firm  no longer exists as it did, many positions were eliminated, and senior management has been absorbed into the larger entity.

Lesson learned: trust your instincts. If what you are being told flies in the face of conventional wisdom and rational thought then adjust your strategy accordingly. Don’t take anyones statements at face value when the facts indicate otherwise, no matter what level they occupy in the organization.

The Cobblers Children Have No Shoes

Highway to Hell

Follow me, if you will, to the front lobby of a great architectural firm where the furnishings are picture perfect. Everything looks like it came out of Architectural Digest. There is a spiral staircase connecting floors and my first thoughts were – my god how lucky I am to be in the running to work here. I have hit the lottery and will surely get luxury accomodations from which to perform my supreme management duties. I meet in a conference room which exudes only the best – luxurious ergonomic chairs, cherry wood conference table, the carpets are exhibit grade, and everything presents like it came from the life of the rich and famous. I naively go through the entire interview process with the thought that my work environment will be exactly the same as the environment which I have been exposed. Surely everyone in this firm works in the lap of luxury behind glass enclosed offices with leather chairs and Picasso paintings hanging on the walls. Life will be good. It was a dream waiting to turn into a nightmare… and it did.

Yippee Skippee, I get the offer and accept with thoughts of my executive office floating in my minds eye. The first day I report to the beautiful lobby expecting they will lead me to my work castle from which I will rule my domain. I am escorted to the elavators and my thoughts are, great we are heading to the executive floor!! Up we go and the elevator opens onto a drab hallway where everything is a step, actually several steps, down from the Armani level I have heretofore been thinking existed throughout the company. No big deal – why waste money on a hallway, right? As long as they went all out on where I will be spending 10-11 hours of my life toiling away at my management chores. We enter a doorway that opens onto an open space where there are no cubicles but only waste high walls separating work areas. Obviously these are only meant for the general staff and management must sit past this area. I meet with the CFO and am confident he is going to show me to my office when he points me to the first space of the long open area and proclaims, “this is where you will sit”. OMG, OMG, OMG this cannot be happening.

I kid you not, the picture at the left is not an exaggeration. Take away the sewing machines and this is what the finance/accounting department of this great architectural firm looked like. You talk on the phone and everyone hears you. Of course, they characterized it as the open environment design where collaboration was encouraged, yea right. What, everyone on the other floor did not have to collaborate? What happened to the luxury accomodations, did we not rate up there with the rest of the firm? Please Lord, tell me this is a terrible misunderstanding.

OK, OK, don’t panic. This must only be temporary until my office is ready. After the first couple of weeks the reality sits in – this is it. I am totally screwed. I have made a terrible mistake coming to this company. Trading down from where I had prestige and was respected enough to be accorded an office to conduct my duties. When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, you play the cards you are dealt, blah, blah, blah…. It sucked. I immediately set about lobbying for an office that would allow me to do my job effectively.

Wait, it gets better. So, after several months the powers to be relent and grant me my wish to at least have a partition setup around a separate area of the office. Great, now we are getting places as it cannot get much worse, or so I thought.

Looking back it is hilarious, they put me in the communication room!! From where I sat there was a tremendous view, not of the San Francisco skyline, but the patch panel for the entire company. Trust me, the thought of how much damage I could do the nervous system of the company crossed my mind several times. Just a couple of snips here, there, and everywhere and this company would see my true worth! I had been a shareholder at my other company, I was part of senior management, WTF.

To survive I took every assignment that would get me out of the hell hole known as “my office”. Need someone to travel six months on internal audits, I’m your man. Need to have a regional meeting? Don’t come here, I will come to you. This was a company who listed as one of its expertise areas – workplace design! YO, look how they designed my workspace. As the title says, the cobblers children had no shoes.

This was not the only dysfunctional aspect of this company. My standing comment to anyone who would listen was, “I had only worked for one other company as dysfunctional as this one, and they went out of business.” The truth hurts but this firm, while it practiced world class architecture, was in the stone age when it came to every other aspect of their culture and work environment. To this day the headhunter who placed me at this firm apologizes to me. It has become a running joke.

Also note: I can do my work in a closet so that is not the point. It was the shameless BS that was dispensed regarding creating a collaborative workspace, a firm without walls. The funny thing was that the walls went up all over this firm, both figuratively and literally.

Lesson Learned: beauty is only skin deep. Beware of the thin veneer which hides the corkboard underneath. Never assume that the superficial appearances will necessarily mean bigger and better. In this case the glare hid a very ugly reality.

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