It’s three years since Wrox Press went bankrupt and I got caught with redundancy for the first time, having survived four previous rounds of downsizing in various organisations. It got me thinking about the common signs of sickness I’ve seen in each company before it slides into corporate intensive care.
Managers don’t decide, they just administrate
There can be two reasons for this. The first is relatively benign, as long as it’s a temporary phase in the transition from small start-up to smallish established company. I encountered this with Wrox, which was begun by a charismatic entrepreneur. It takes a long time for such people to take a more hands-off role to concentrate on high-level strategy and let the managers take the day-to-day decisions instead of just implementing the entrepreneur’s wishes.
But in a mature organisation, inert management is a killer. I’ve worked in places where the colour of a button on a Web form was decided by the Big Chief because everyone was afraid of taking the decision in case they got it wrong or were called on it in the future.
This is ultimately fatal to a company. Some decisions are relatively trivial (do we use this photo of our new Widget on the cover of the Annual Report, or that one?) but if managers won’t decide, it goes up and up the chain, until the person with the bollocks actually to take the decision is so far from the debates that they can’t hope to get it right. Meanwhile, lower ranks feel disenfranchised and nobody wins.
Empires of nothingness grow and grow
Inert managers need to justify their existence and keep their budgets up, as the best way to self-esteem and the Chief’s ear is to hold a large budget.
So a department for the polishing of paperclips is established. That’s fine; every organisation needs shiny paperclips. An extra person is recruited, and suddenly, the manager has to hire an underling to be Manager of Paperclip Polishing. Policies and procedures are needed, debated in endless meetings, posted on the Intranet to an oblivious workforce.
Sally from Events needs urgently to source some paperclips at short notice for the Shareholder’s meeting. An anguished email from Bob, the Head of Paperclips, lands on her computer: she can’t possibly source them from anywhere without requisitioning them Bob, using form 78/c in triplicate (counter-signed by The Big Chief) and it takes three days.
Bob can’t possibly acknowledge that it doesn’t fucking matter, because that would be admitting his job is null. Sally is irate because the shareholder’s meeting notes aren’t nicely clipped together. Bob’s team are annoyed because Sally is trying to circumvent Paperclip Policy.
Meanwhile, Bob’s manager is delighted; she decides to hire a Paperclip Evangelist to sell Paperclip Procedures to the rest of the company, so her budget and thus her sense of self-worth increases.
“Human Resources” expands
HR departments are a classic example of the tail wagging the dog. My personal opinion of most HR directors is that I wouldn’t piss down their throats if their hearts were on fire (except for my mates Bruce and Steph, and I knew them before they went to the Dark Side).
However, I acknowledge that organisations sometimes need a Personnel Officer. (Enough with the self-aggrandising “HR” bullshit). Organisations get difficult staff, tricky situations, and you need Personnel Officers to sort them out. They’re a bit like adult diapers – if you need something to catch a little bit of mess, they should be hidden: nobody should ever know you’ve got them.
But in sick organisations, Personnel Officers are as rampant as threadworms in a stray dog’s guts. They write policies, go to meetings, even sometimes sit on the Board.
If Personnel are expanding while core businesses are in a recruitment freeze, then your organisation isn’t just sick – it’s got cancer. Excise it before it spreads.
Consultants spread faster than Athlete’s Foot
Bad managers know that the easiest way to look decisive while doing fuck all is to get a Consultant in. These modern-day witch doctors come in with shiny suits and shiny teeth, charge the ailing organisation £1000 a day to write some report that says what everyone knew anyway. (Another sign of a sick organisation is that management never trust their own staff to have a brain, so always need to obvious spelled out by a consultant).
The report is then endlessly debated, given to Personnel to implement, they fuck it up and the departed consultant is blamed.
Too much uncertainty and not enough truthful communication
At some point in a sick organisation there will be a cull, a.k.a. “redundancies”. If there’s “downsizing” to be done, bosses get hard-ons/ wide-ons as it’s a chance for them to be decisive, show leadership, etc etc. But the troops hate it.
While Personnel expands and senior managers bang on about “challenges” and “change”, the best quality staff get demoralised and demotivated. They figure that, if their less able colleagues are going to be fired, they will have to do more work, and there’s no guarantee that the company will get better.
And so the talent starts looking for other jobs, and generally finds them, leaving the dead wood sitting pretty as firing them will leave nobody at all to polish Personnel’s paperclips. Thus, nobody wins.
If there’s going to be redundancies, do them swiftly, humanely, don’t require redundant staff to work their notice and thereby make everyone feel embarrassed and lethargic. And tell the fucking truth: “We, your managers, have ballsed-up. Obviously, we’re not going to fall on our own swords, but will instead fire some of you”, not “The year ahead will present many challenges. It will be a time of change which we will embrace blah blah fucking blah”.
Anyone else ever worked for a sick organisation and can point out some more signs?
Update July 2006. Just found this brilliant essay by a Venture Capitalist called “The Art of The Layoff“.
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