I am Positive it Won’t Work or the Power of Groupthink
A long and tortured tale of a failed ERP implementation at a large architectural firm headquartered in San Francisco.
The best moments are only available upon reflection as at the time it was a period of total lunacy in my career. Dominated by a culture so dysfunctional that it allowed $5.0 million plus to be pissed down a hole. Of course, I was painted as the dysfunctional one since, as the SF Regional manager, so astutely told me during one discussion, “You need to be positive about the ERP implementation!”, in her chirpy upbeat way. To which I replied, “OK, I am POSITIVE this implementation will fail”. How is that for being positive. This was several months into an implementation that saw us christening the project management module of the software as “Project Uranus”. Very appropriate, given that you could stick this software up “your anus” since it was never going to work.
Talk about swimming upstream, every person on the project team fell in line behind the founders son in proclaiming that the software implementation was going to be a success. This against every single indication that it was failing. A countdown clock to the “go live” date was established so everyone could eagerly await the dawning of the new day for the firm. It was a joke of huge magnitude which only I could see.
Everything was done according to the book to insure success – a focused evaluation and implementation team was formed that included outside consultants, outside accounting firm, and representatives of other firms. The consortium of outside firms was a who’s who of the architecture industry in the United States. It was impossible to fail, or so some in upper management thought. With so much brain power, and I use the term lightly, there was no way that we could go down the wrong path. The problem was that, to a person, everyone on the implementation “team” had no facility for independent thought and/or it was not in their vested interest to buck the trend if it would be perceived negatively. The prodigal son made it clear that what he wanted is what would be chosen and implemented, regardless of whether it would work – everyone was to MAKE it work, or else. That was the environment which caused everyone to fall in line and follow each other over the cliff even though it became a forgone conclusion that the implementation was going to fail. Questioning the decision was a career limiting move or it would cost the outside consultants their fees.
I recall one meeting held in a large conference room when things were already going sideways in which everyone formed a circle to encourage openness and unity, LOL. Did I mention this firm bought into, and probably still does, buy into every management craze that happens to be in vogue. Doesn’t matter whether the latest trend works, just that we did them so we showed our intellectual prowess, again LOL. They were high on appearance but low on execution – they had not figured out that without execution the latest theories are nothing more than opiates for the masses – we are doing OK because we are doing what everyone says is right!! I digress, we are in this room in a circle and the prodigal son goes around the room one by one and asks each person to give their impression of where the project stands. Remember, this was to be his way of getting to the truth of the situation, whether his belief that things were OK could be validated by the assembled “experts”. I am standing next to one of the founders of the accounting firm we utilized at the time, he leans over and whispers, “..this is a cluster fuck”. I nod my affirmation that, indeed, this is an exercise in stupidity as not one person uttered what was overwhelmingly the only conclusion a sane person could come to – the ERP system chosen was a complete failure and would never work. It was as clear as the nose on everyone’s face but no one wanted that nose cut off by the prodigal son, easier to go with the flow over the cliff and over they all went. All telling little white lies to keep their positions within the firm intact. Several went on to become principals in the firm when they rightly should have been terminated for gross negligence. Nothing so harsh – they were “team” players, no matter they cost the firm $5.0 million as the culture of this firm was better to go along with the dysfunctional behavior because that was part of our culture, and our culture is what got us here. Whacked.
To this day I gag every time I see quotes from senior managers of this firm, or in particular the ex-CEO, who speak authoritatively on management theory or techniques. Unless they have somehow pulled their heads out of their asses, which I doubt, their words of wisdom fall on deaf ears as experience has shown they lack the ability to execute.
Lesson Learned: without execution all the management theories are not worth the paper they are written on. Groups who are not empowered to speak freely are capable of tremendously stupid decisions. When the overpowering emphasis is on going with the flow there is real danger in going over the cliff.