I recently listened to an item which featured Steve Job’s first boss, from the company Atari. He thought that Jobs was an unusual and difficult person to work with, and that he might have a lot of trouble even getting a job in the modern work environment. He thinks most employers reject individuality and difficult and critical personalities in favour people who are easier to get on with and more compliant.
Clearly Jobs was an awkward person and it’s easy to see why he might have been seen as difficult to manage, so there is an obvious reason why he might have had trouble being hired, but whose fault is that really? Sure Jobs was difficult but he was also brilliant. It seems to me that most modern personnel management policies favour people who will fit in a mould rather than do genuinely brilliant work.
Of course having an awkward personality in no way guarantees that a person is brilliant but there does seem to be a correlation between the two. It seems to make sense that people who are going to be able to make a genuinely unique contribution to a company are likely to “think different” from the rest and those people are unlikely to fit in with the standard profile most managers are looking for.
There is also the possibility, which I have discussed in the past, that managers might feel threatened by someone who would be employed in a position below themselves but might be far more capable than they are.
The ultimate example of the failure of a conventional mediocre leadership was the “bad times” at Apple. During the time when Jobs wasn’t there and the “suits” controlled the company they almost destroyed it. Apple is an exceptional case and relies on constant innovation and cutting edge design but it does make me wonder whether every company being run by suits (that is, almost all of them) is achieving well below its potential and could do so much more if they were just prepared to take on an exceptional person instead of just another one from the same old mould.
In my experience I have seen this phenomenon a lot. I see very mediocre people with no innovative ideas at all in senior roles and far more capable and original people being controlled by them. So the less brilliant people are not only enjoying the benefits of seniority themselves but they are also holding back those below them who might otherwise really achieve something.
I do recognise, especially in large organisations, that creative people do present a risk because while they might be theoretically capable of excellent original work, that might not fit in with the “bigger picture”. I also recognise that most bigger companies are very risk averse, and would generally prefer to sacrifice the possibility of a very positive new innovation if there is also a chance it could go wrong.
This problem (if it really is a problem) extends to all levels of human organisation: from national politics all the way down to small groups. Despite the claims to the contrary there is generally very little chance of anything genuinely innovative coming out of a typically organised company or other institution.
It’s difficult to say where the cause of the problem lies. It could be, as I have suggested above, that innovative people are blocked from advancement because they are seen as a risk or a threat. It could be that innovative people do get promotions but they are forced to become part of the “machine” once they do gain senior status so their ideas are wasted. And it could be that creative people just aren’t interested in politics or management. I suspect it is all three.
There is no obvious answer to the problem because the people who need to make the changes are exactly the ones who can’t see that there is a problem which needs to be solved. The best we can realistically hope for is that the power of big corporations and senior business and political leaders is kept under control. But how realistic that is, I really don’t know.
Maybe we’re all doomed to living in a world of increasing mediocrity, where people like Steve Jobs are often wasted. It certainly seems that way to me.
It often seems to me that the people who should accept the greatest responsibility and have the greatest accountability are those who actually accept the least. The people at the top of most hierarchies seem to be very good at accepting all the accolades when their organisation is successful but are far less visible and suddenly seem to have a lot less influence when things go wrong.
And when things are going well these same people happily accept huge bonuses even when the success has little to do with them, but I don’t see a lot of them insisting on lesser rewards when things go badly.
In my main job I am paid a salary so I don’t get bonuses for the good stuff or penalties when things don’t go so well (and they do occasionally) but I also do after hours consulting where I can basically set my own charges. I work in IT, so of course things do intermittently go wrong! Sometimes it’s my fault and sometimes it isn’t, but generally when I am fixing a problem I don’t charge the client extra for doing that (unless it was very clearly the client’s fault).
If that sort of system is good enough for me (and my income is fairly moderate, despite doing the extra work) why is it not good enough for people whose normal rate of pay is vastly greater than mine? Why don’t they fix their own errors at no charge?
If you live in New Zealand or know anything about current events here you might have guessed by now who I have in mind here. I’m talking about our old friend Don Elder, former CEO of Solid Energy. This highly paid business leader took a well performing state-owned company and completely destroyed it. Before the degree of his incompetence became widely known he resigned, but being one of the new elite with a huge sense of his own perceived value and self-importance he continued to accept his grossly inflated salary for “helping” the company out of its precarious financial position.
Any decent human being at this stage would have either said “no sorry, I’ve messed this up, I will leave but don’t give me any more payments for a job I’m clearly incapable of doing” or said “yes, I will help fix the problems I created but I insist you don’t pay me to fix something which shouldn’t have gone wrong in the first place”. It seems to be that being paid over a million dollars a year to destroy a company and then charging the same rate to try to fix it is a bit self-serving.
As I said above, I would never contemplate charging a client to fix a problem which I was responsible for in the first place. And if people are paid based on how responsible their job is you would expect someone with over ten times my salary to demonstrate ten times the degree of personal liability when things go wrong. But in the case of the corporate aristocracy apparently that isn’t the case. The extent of their feeling of personal entitlement is unbelievable!
But I shouldn’t just pick on poor old Don Elder, should I? What about all the other numerous examples of gross incompetence from the top echelons of management in New Zealand? What about the evil Dame Jenny Shipley’s hideous ineptitude in helping drive Mainzeal Construction into bankruptcy? Doesn’t she deserve some of the blame? Well she was being paid a lot of money while she was on the board. Again, does she accept the attendant responsibility or not? Well I think we all know the answer to that!
And do you want a further list of the new incompetent elite? How about these prominent people who have also presided over similar disasters (this list is from the New Zealand Herald): Wyatt Creech and John Luxton at Blue Chip; Sir Roger Douglas, Fran Wilde and Philip Burdon at Brierley Investments; Don Brash and John Banks at Huljich Wealth Management; Sir Douglas Graham and Bill Jeffries at Lombard; Sir William Birch at Viking Pacific; and Ruth Richardson at Dairy Brands and Syft Technologies.
Did you notice all the “Sirs” and “Dames” in this blog post? These really are the new aristocracy and their value to society is about equivalent to aristocracies everywhere: zero. But they are extremely skilled at acquiring undeserved honours like those. If the job losses and destruction of our economy wasn’t so serious the whole situation would be quite humorous. Sort of like a circus with these people the clowns!
It’s easy to rant about these people in a blog like this but surely it’s much harder to actually do what they’re doing, isn’t it? Actually, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It seems to me that in most cases the failures were due to overly ambitious and poorly considered plans for expansion and forgetting about doing the job the company was supposed to be there to do. And it is all about the top management just walking away and moving on to the next unfortunate victim for their allegedly exceptional skills.
Everyone makes mistakes but these people are paid a lot not to make the same mistakes over and over again. And if they do make a mistake at least they could take a little bit of responsibility and do the right thing. But the “right thing” is about as far from the minds of senior management as anything can be. These people are the worst type of immoral, greedy, ignorant excuses for human beings on the face of the planet.
Even if they did work for free they would still be overpaid!
Here’s some interesting material I want to share from the Talent2 web site…
Under the heading “Payroll – Client Successes” they claim “Our HR and Payroll case studies demonstrate our ability to provide end-to-end solutions that multiply the power and productivity of people.” and “Are you an organisation of a few employees or tens of thousands? Whatever your requirement, Talent2 has a payroll solution that suits.” and “A payroll provider you can trust.”
Here’s a description of the group CEO: “JR is well known for his accessible style and genuine interest in his people – whenever he can afford the time he will open the door to listen. This drives one of his greatest assets – his ability to recognise and combine the strengths of people across all levels of the business. JR encourages resourcefulness, synergy and initiative to allow people to realise their own potential and that of the bigger team.”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to work with such a great company based on those impressive claims? Yeah, if there was even a small element of connection between the fantasy and reality then maybe that would be true. But of course, the real world and that promised by corporate Newspeak are two entirely different things.
By the way, in case you don’t know, Newspeak is the language described in the dystopian science fiction novel 1984. Many people like to describe a future where government control has resulted in a repressive regime and where propaganda is a major tool of repression, but in reality I am more concerned with one where large corporations have the excessive levels of control. Even where governments are guilty of the same thing (and they often are) it is often as a result of the excessive influence of big business, so corporations are still the root cause of the problem.
Newspeak is defined as “propagandistic language marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meanings”. After examining the propaganda above and comparing it with reality you might see the relevance!
But back to Talent2. If you live in New Zealand you will probably be laughing after reading the quotes above because the promises and the reality are so different. The complete incompetence and moral corruption this corporation has exhibited in its handling of the new education payroll “Novopay” is so outrageous that laughter is the most appropriate response!
So what is the reality? Well here is a partial list of the ill-conceived decisions made in the design, implementation, and “fixing” of the Novopay payroll system…
First, instead of designing a system which fits the requirements or building on top of an existing system appropriate to the actual requirements, they have taken a generic payroll called “Alesco” which may be a perfectly adequate system in many cases (although I have heard it described as “antiquated”) and tried to add a huge number of new functions and modifications to it.
Anyone who does programming knows this is usually a bad approach. Unless the core functions of the system you are basing yours on are robust things will just go rapidly downhill from there. And if the base system is as old as I have heard mention then it is unlikely to be easily extendable because it is not likely to use modern mechanisms such as customisable and transportable code objects.
Second, patching the obvious errors as they appear instead of fixing the deeper issues is unlikely to result in long term stability. Fixing a superficial error which is really just disguising a problem at the core of the system often results in several new errors resulting as a side effect. This is incredibly frustrating and disconcerting to the programmers involved, especially when they are working with someone else’s code.
Experts say the review of Novopay shows signs of “panic and crazy practices” and “common database and coding practices not being followed” and “modifications to the core system making a mockery of the decision process” which are all often the result of not doing the basics right.
Third, when you have a large team working on a project there needs to be some strategy for coordinating their efforts, but having an ignorant manager who is interested in nothing except gaining maximum money for minimum effort is likely to be worse than having no management at all (I’m not saying I know this happens at Talent2 for sure but all the signs are there).
There seems to be a policy of minimising costs without any real concern for the final quality of the product (and that includes support, training, communications, and all of the peripheral issues related to a large technical project of this sort). The decision to hack together something out of an existing system which was itself substandard must have been made primarily to cut costs but this can only be the result of greed given the huge cost of the system.
Fourth, there seems to be no indication of individual ownership or pride in the system. When I write some elegant code, or build an incredibly flexible code library, or design a really friendly user interface I feel personal ownership of the result. The fact that the system is almost unusable by most people and has just been stitched together, Frankenstein-style from old parts, would suggest to me that no one really cares much about this project.
I am now going to make a crazy claim that no one should make without understanding the details of the project, but I will make it anyway to illustrate how an alternative approach might help…
If I was creating this system I would do it for about a quarter of what Talent2 have charged for a start because any more is tantamount to theft. Then I would hire about 10 or 20 (the exact number would depend on the details but too many is worse than not enough) really talented programmers and some people who have actually processed education payrolls. I would then design a system from scratch based on open (and cheaper) technologies which would provide great performance for minimum costs.
Because I would have less staff I would pay those I do hire more and I would give them plenty of personal freedom to create really outstanding code, while ensuring that the client (the payroll experts) were the final arbiters of functionality.
There would be no central management but there would be regular, short discussions on how the components would fit together and every module would have a precisely defined functionality which everyone understood. And there would be unlimited free coffee!
Maybe I’m being hopelessly naive but I believe this approach would provide a far better outcome than the traditional management based approaches where the strategies are devised buy a bunch of senior bureaucrats who are completely clueless about the real issues (and yes, again I am assuming a certain amount about how Talent2 operates).
I will say this though: whatever the outcome of my system, how could it possibly be worse than the total shambles the so-called professionals at Talent2 have created now?
You may think I am being unkind towards my fellow IT professionals. Actually I’m not. I blame the management for this mess. The CEO, John Rawlinson started his working life as a physical education teacher and has a bachelor of education from Victoria University and a Graduate Diploma in entrepreneurship and innovation from Swinburne University. Gee, I’m so impressed! No wonder he gets such good results! (that was sarcasm)
The system cost $182 million. For that price I have very high standards and I don’t expect a bunch or corporate thieves run by an ex physical education teacher who seems determined to create a totally half-assed piece of crap for the absolute minimum cost possible. Talent2 should refund all the money they have been paid and go home. And in future the government should be a lot more careful about who they hire!
I think people are getting more and more sick of the incompetence and immorality of the ruling class here in New Zealand. And yes, I used the word “class” deliberately because it really has got to the point where there is a certain group of people who rule by a sense of entitlement rather than any proven competence.
Every week there seems to be a new story describing the ineptitude of another highly paid director or other leader. The latest is Solid Energy ex-CEO, Don Elder, but he is just one of many.
Don Elder was probably quite a smart person at one time. He went to the prestigious high school Christ’s College, graduated from the University of Canterbury with a degree in engineering, and then gained a Rhodes Scholarship to go to Oxford University. Who knows, maybe he’s still a really smart person but I think something has gone horribly wrong and I think I could make a good guess about what it is.
It’s that senior managers acquire a false sense of their own importance, competence, and uniqueness. They really think that they deserve the vast salaries they are given. They really think their decisions are better than those of mere mortals. And they really think they are making the “hard decisions” which no one else understands.
There are probably a few exceptions to the picture of hopelessness I have presented so far – after all, the people running companies or other organisations reasonably well usually keep out of the news so we don’t hear much about them – but the model seems to fit the vast majority of the ruling class I have heard of.
The process through which this false sense of their own skills and value is acquired is obvious. Who do these people associate with? The board of directors, other managers, senior government ministers, and other people of the same class as them. In other words, other immoral, useless parasites who aren’t going to risk sabotaging the system by suggesting it has significant faults.
I can imagine them congratulating each other on a job well done and giving each other huge bonuses at the same time as their company sinks into financial disaster or compensates for its inefficiencies by ramping up prices for its captive customers.
Don Elder has driven the company into the ground at the same time as he made investments which anyone could see were bad, built a luxurious corporate headquarters (known locally as the “Palace”), bought a mine for $64 million and closed it a month later, invested in a failed biodiesel project, and thought that he and his high class buddies were doing such a good job that they deserved $23 million in bonuses. What a guy! Now isn’t that the sort of performance well worth paying over a million dollars a year for!
And now he’s at home being paid full pay as an adviser and to help with the transition to new management, and still he refuses to be accountable. His phone diverts saying he’s out of town. Is he hiding somewhere like a coward or maybe he’s enjoying an overseas holiday at our expense.
Let’s get some of the defences proffered for Elder out of the way here. First, the coal industry is in decline so losses are inevitable. OK, maybe they are, but why make matters worse with foolish investments and undeserved bonuses? Second, it’s a hard job, could you do it? Well yes, I think I could, because I would have enough expert advisers to allow me to make a sensible and moral decision. Third, maybe what look like bad decisions would work in the long term. Yeah maybe, but it seems unlikely, and if he really thought that why not make an appearance and tell us all how that could happen.
There’s another point I should deal with too. That is the Solid Energy is a state-owned company. Some free-market zealots (not mentioning anyone… yes I am, Steven Joyce) have claimed a similar problem could never happen to a fully commercial company. Interesting theory but the constant failures of a very similar type in public companies tends to counter that assertion. In fact it was by playing the same games that fully commercial companies like to play that lead Solid Energy down this dismal path in the first place!
OK, that’s one member of the new aristocracy dealt with, now who else deserves an honourable mention in this role of the most esteemed members of the upper echelons in modern society?
Could it be another member of the privileged class who is perhaps even more despised than Elder, our old friend Jenny Shipley? She has just resigned from one company she was a director of which failed, resulting in the loss of many jobs. She did have more luck with Genesis Energy though. But to overcome the gross incompetence of its management it was necessary to push the prices up for its victims, whoops, I mean customers.
Yes, Jenny is proud of the profits at Genesis Energy, but the fact that these are gained at the expense of the people of New Zealand wouldn’t even be of the slightest concern to her. Those people are from the lower classes after all, so who cares? So let’s put the prices up in January this year and then again in a few months time. Oh and I think the directors deserve a bonus for their good work on that too! Would $30,000 be OK?
Well just pushing up prices to consumers isn’t the sort of brilliant work we should be paying these scumbags big money for. The price increases are totally unjustified despite the lies about increased distribution costs and other excuses. I could choose a homeless bum off the street, pay him with a bottle of vodka a day, and let him come up with the idea that you can make more money if you just charge your customers more.
Who knows, he might even come up with a genuinely new idea instead of the stale and mindless rubbish the privileged classes just recycle over and over again. Anything would be better than what we have now.
One of the most common frustrations of working in the modern environment is the constant cut-backs, downsizing, and budgeting which makes getting things done more difficult. These are generally justified through an argument such as: in these difficult economic times we must tighten our belts, or public (or shareholder) funds must be spent responsibly, or we must become more efficient to compete in the market. While politicians and managers love this sort of stuff, in most cases it’s all crap.
In every case I am familiar with there is a remarkable inequality and inconsistency in these “austerity” styled processes. When there are redundancies, reduced pay, or less generous conditions it very rarely affects top management. Sure, sometimes middle and lower management are reduced in numbers, but far more often it is those at the bottom who are the victims, and they are the least responsible for the organisation’s alleged difficult situation.
When cutbacks are made it is surprising how often that later it is discovered that the same organisation is wasting large amounts on worthless nonsense. My colleague Fred (not his real name but he is an IT professional in a similar job to mine) reported this phenomenon recently where the workers’ conferences were cancelled, they had great difficulty getting the equipment their job required, and they were forced to keep old equipment well past its useful lifetime, yet management spent large sums (how much they would not reveal) on pathetically childish management motivational and organisational material. Fred claims it looks like the sort of stuff that a bunch of kindergarten kids with a box of crayons could produce. I thought that was being a bit unkind to the intellect of 5 year olds!
The same thing happens at government level. Here in New Zealand there are constant claims that there just isn’t the money to carry out many projects which would otherwise be very worthwhile. Yet the same government wastes huge amounts on stuff that benefits very few. For example, research budgets are being cut here yet the government can still give big overseas corporations like Warners tens of millions of dollars in hand-outs.
I think austerity measures are doomed to failure in most cases whatever the circumstances are but at least I would be more prepared to support them if there wasn’t this obvious double standard. If I was in an organisation afflicted with this problem I would be prepared to accept cut-backs to expensive equipment purchases and conferences if that was necessary. But I would not be happy to do that and then find management has just spent a small fortune on some nonsense which some “criminal” masquerading as a “management consultant” has produced.
I would regretfully accept the necessity to keep using old equipment even past its useful lifetime, but if I then found management being given fancy new gadgets which they barely even knew how to use I would be less than impressed. This is the sort of thing which does happen regularly unfortunately, and it’s about time workers stopped just accepting it.
But there is one other factor here. It’s difficult for many people – even some who are very skilled – to get a job in the current environment. So people just tend to put up with whatever outrageous nonsense is going on even when they know it is wrong, because if they were fired or resigned they would have a lot of trouble finding another job.
And I think that is one reason why the current New Zealand government is so reluctant to do anything about unemployment. I think they actually want unemployment to be high because that gives employers a huge advantage in pay negotiations. There is also the standard dogma they have about not interfering in the markets of course, but that seems to be set aside when it comes to welfare for corporates.
With the conservatives it seems to be something like this: welfare for those who least need it, don’t interfere except when you really should, blame those who have the least responsibility, have the least accountability for those who demand the most from everyone else, and above all make sure the pain of cutbacks is inflicted on those who can least bear it.
There’s the standard recipe for modern conservative governments and modern management. Why do we put up with it? Sure beats me!
Note: the following blog entry is based on personal opinion and anecdotes. I have no real scientific evidence to support many of my contentions. I do think it is a valid hypothesis however, because I believe it’s difficult to refute most of my individual points. So, now that you have been warned, here’s the rant…
I often wonder why so many companies produce such mediocre products, provide such terrible service, and generally just don’t seem to reach the potential we might expect of them. I know that there are a few fairly good products around too, and even with the rather lacklustre service many companies provide most issues are eventually resolved, but it still seems to me that things could be so much better.
If you think the products we have today are good then maybe you are right… but maybe you are wrong too. When Apple started producing the iPhone many people wondered why they bothered because the phones then available were, they thought, perfectly adequate. But what has happened a few years later? Just about every advanced phone is either an iPhone or an iPhone look-alike. Maybe those old phones weren’t so good, but we just didn’t realise it until a much better one came along.
I’m sure the same applies to almost every product we use. One of my interests is in user interface design and I am constantly surprised at how terrible the user interface for almost everything is. How many people can navigate the arcane menu systems and change settings in their TV for example? And why are so many web sites so atrociously designed, and why is it almost impossible to get any help with these frustrating situations when they do arise?
I think I know why. It’s because, in almost every case, large companies simply don’t care about their products. The product (or service) is seen as an annoying but necessary ancillary issue to be dealt with on the way to the company’s real goal: making money.
I’m not saying a company shouldn’t make money. Clearly in our modern capitalist system that is an absolute necessity. What I am saying is that making money should be seen as an outcome of doing what the company is really there for (producing a product or providing a service) rather than it’s primary raison d’etre.
Let me give a few examples of where this phenomenon has become apparent. I’m going to talk in generalities here because it’s unfair to mention a company by name without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves, but you might be able to guess who I am talking about in some cases.
I work with many software companies in my professional life and many of them provide software which is really expensive. I also work with products of smaller companies (sometimes just a single developer) which are often quite cheap. Which of these products should we expect to have the greatest reliability and which company should be the most responsive to questions and requests for help?
If you have ever had to deal with a large software company you probably already know the answer. Surprisingly it is often the smaller, more focussed companies which create the most reliable and most functional software. And trying to contact one of the big companies to report a bug, ask for help, or request a new feature is usually a waste of time. On the other hand I have had a lot of positive experiences with smaller companies where they have given answers to questions very quickly.
On the subject of getting help I really must mention the greatest travesty of modern customer service: the helpdesk or help phone system. There are probably cases where these can work moderately well, and there are occasional situations where it’s possible to get certain issues resolved, but the main problem is that they have become the only solution for many companies, not because they give good results but because they are cheap or they are simple.
Many companies operate technical services which might be open to malicious attack or susceptible to highly esoteric problems, but you would expect the experts at these organisations to deal with those issues. In smaller companies where a person with good technical skills is in charge this usually happens but it’s surprising how often in bigger companies really basic errors are made.
For example, email systems might be hacked (just a totally theoretical example, you understand) or software of truly awful design might be produced (by a supposedly talented company). These technical problems happen in big organisations either because the people with real technical skills just aren’t there or if they are there they are constrained by the wishes of their “superiors” (I hate that word) for making money ahead of providing service.
Another cause of these issues is outsourcing. Theoretically this should be a great idea because a specialised company or other organisation can handle a subset of the tasks the company contracting it was previously required to perform and, because that’s their specialty they should be able to do it better.
But by now you should be able to guess what really happens. That’s right, instead of outsourcing to get better results it is done for other reasons: either to save money or to remove responsibility from the company and attempt to evade its responsibility. So, for example, an internet company could outsource it’s email services then blame the company it outsourced to for any (almost inevitable) failures. Again, service is forgotten and quick and easy profit is the sole aim.
So why does this happen in most big companies but rarely in small ones? It’s because of that greatest modern obstacle to progress: managers. Yes, professional managers generally don’t know much about the products and services of their company and they aren’t motivated to try to improve them either. Their focus is on greater profits at whatever cost is necessary: reducing staff, making products cheaper, providing the absolute minimum of service, using cheap foreign labour, etc.
The real problem is that this often works (from the company’s perspective). Many companies who take this approach do make quite good profits, at least for a while. Why don’t the famous market mechanisms operate here? Why don’t consumers just change to a company which still does provide good services and products? Probably for several reasons: most of the other companies are operating the same way so there’s no advantage in changing, the customer is locked in with some sort of contract, they aren’t aware of how poor the service they are getting really is, etc.
And the small companies which might start and are not yet affected by this malaise usually don’t get far before they are either destroyed by unfair competition from the bigger ones or are bought by them and assimilated into their corporate culture.
What can be done about this? I don’t use products from big companies where I can avoid it. For example, I only use Microsoft and Adobe products when I’m helping other users who use them. Unfortunately this means I have had to but licenses for them so in fact I haven’t achieved much there! Also I use almost exclusively use Apple computer products and Apple has grown into one of the biggest corporates of all. But at least there is a focus on innovation and quality of some sort there still.
So in reality there isn’t much that an individual can do without making their own life awkward, because we are all quite tied into the corporate system. But at the very least we know what to expect and why, in most cases: poor service and mediocre products because the leadership just doesn’t care.
I always enjoy situations where things are not what they seem, where subtle effects produce unexpected outcomes, and especially when the result of an action is the exact opposite of what the original intention was. It’s not so much that I enjoy seeing people fail (although sometimes, depending on the person involved, I do) its just that I like the weirdness the laws of unintended consequences often result in.
The most interesting sub-type of the law of unintended consequences is, I think, the Cobra Effect. In this effect an attempt to fix a problem results in the exact opposite: the problem is made worse.
The law got its name from an alleged incident during the British colonial rule of India. Whether this really happened – and if it did what the exact details were – is disputed, but this is a great anecdote anyway.
Apparently the British were concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi and decided to offer a bounty to get rid of them. Any dead snake a person (mostly native Indians) brought in would earn a reward. Initially things went well and the cobra population decreased, but after a while it was noticed that more and more were being handed in. After a while the British government figured out that some enterprising individuals were breeding the snakes in “snake farms” and then killing them for the reward. Of course the British wanted to stop this so they refused to give out any further rewards. Naturally the farms were no longer viable so the “farmers” released all of their snakes resulting in an even greater population than at the beginning of the intervention!
As I said above, whether the story is accurate is hard to ascertain because the sources I could find were hardly definitive. But that’s not really the point. The point is that the effect itself is real and occurs in many different areas of modern life.
Here’s another example from more recent times…
Road safety experts assumed that cyclists would be safer if they wore a bike helmet. This seems to make sense because head injuries are a common result of accidents. So many countries enacted laws to force cyclists to wear helmets. However some research indicates that people wearing helmets are actually more likely to be injured on the road. Why? Because car drivers assume cyclist with helmets are safer so don’t give them so much space. And the cyclists themselves feel safer so take more risks. This leads to more accidents and because of the way bike crashes happen the helmets often offer only minimal protection anyway. So in fact the number of injuries goes up, not down.
I must emphasise that this research is uncertain and is disputed by many people and cycle helmet laws are still in force in most countries, but the increased risk is real. Whether it really outweighs any protection the helmets offer is unsettled, but it’s certainly an excellent candidate for the cobra effect.
I will now offer an example from the experience of my colleague (whom I have mentioned before – he works in a very similar organisation to mine) Fred (not his real name). When he started at his current place of work (many years ago) there were few rules and not a lot of supervision of what different staff were doing. This meant that sometimes people would work on wacky projects of doubtful relevance, occasionally work odd hours, and not worry too much about keeping track of leave taken, etc.
Over the years a more and more structured model was introduced to control these “rogue” behaviours. Work was charged using a cost recovery model where the client (from the same organisation) had to pay for the time taken to complete the project, hours worked were watched and recorded, and leave taken was strictly enforced.
You would think this would result in a far more efficient workplace wouldn’t you? Well if you have been paying attention your answer should be “no”. In fact the total opposite was achieved. People stopped working on innovative projects and just did the stuff which generated income easily. They deliberately worked more slowly so they could charge more hours. They got sick of the inept management and left the organisation completely. They only worked the standard hours instead of working to all hours of the night to get projects finished. And they used up their total allotment of leave instead of just taking a part of it as was common before it was all carefully tallied.
Not only that but all the extra organisation meant that a large number of extra administration staff were required until it got to the point where there were more admin staff than actual core technical staff (I must admit that he doesn’t have exact numbers on that, but it must be close).
At this point you would think the management would see the error of their ways and at least try to go partly back to the old system wouldn’t you? Well no, in fact they just made the new system more and more draconian and bureaucratic because it go to the point where they forgot about why they were really there and the bureaucracy become their aim in life instead of just being a way to achieve the real goal of providing a good service.
And here is one final example from Fred which bizarrely closely matches one in my own experience. The organisation he works for is audited (obviously, since all similar organisations are) but for some reason (presumably total ineptitude) the auditor couldn’t find any obvious problems. But he had to earn his grossly inflated fee some way so he insisted that the free coffee being provided for the staff should be stopped. That should save a few hundred dollars a year, right?
Well no, and anyone with a modicum of common sense would see the cobra effect would strike there! Instead of sitting in their offices working and drinking coffee the staff now had to go to the nearest cafe, so hours of extra work time per day was lost. The few hundred dollars per year saved was wasted in a week. That should have been obvious before the decision was made, it should have been even more obvious when it happened, but the free coffee and the extra hours of work have never returned. The cobra strikes!
When you start thinking about it you see the cobra effect everywhere. Generally it involves decisions made by people who are fairly out of touch with reality, live in their own pathetic little dream worlds, and are unprepared to really examine the consequences of their actions (in other words politicians, managers, accountants, lawyers, and other similar low-lifes). It can happen to anyone though and that’s why everyone should be prepared to say “we were wrong, that didn’t work the way we expected, we’d better try something else”. But can you really imagine a politician or manager ever saying that? No, me neither.
In my last blog entry I tried to dispel the idea that people dislike change in their work simply because they are averse to change. I argued that in reality it is more likely to be that the changes that are being forced on them are bad for them so of course they resist them.
Today I want to take up a similar theme regarding big business. The outgoing CEO of Coca Cola in New Zealand recently started a debate regarding what he sees as the “tall poppy” attitude towards corporations. He claimed that an unfair anti-corporate feeling has stopped business expanding and has been detrimental to the country.
So he thinks that corporations are unfairly seen as being nasty and untrustworthy just because of their success. In fact we see big business that way because they actually are nasty and untrustworthy! The parallel with the resistance to change phenomenon here is obvious: the people causing the problem are turning the blame back on the victims and trying to make them the cause.
It’s particularly ironic that the company involved in this particular case is Coca Cola. It must be the absolute epitome of capitalism gone wrong, because it produces a mediocre, potentially dangerous and addictive product, publicises it with a lot of dishonest advertising, and makes huge profits which it employs various tricks to avoid paying tax on.
I’m not saying anything Coca Cola does is illegal, but it is immoral because the system is immoral and wrong. We have a system which encourages and rewards the worst type of person and organisation so of course we will often (but not always) get the most mediocre, morally corrupt people succeeding.
It’s just a sign of the incredible arrogance of the corporate world that they would even make a comment like this. Does this clown really believe that Coca Cola is a company we should admire? What does it do? It produces flavoured sugar water which is largely responsible for many health issues and sells it at an extravagant profit. Then it doesn’t pay a fair share of tax to help fund the health system which tries to repair the damage done. Surely we should feel disgust rather than admiration for that!
There is another side to the story of course. Big companies do provide products people want (even if in many cases they probably wouldn’t want them if they were acting fully rationally) and they do provide employment for many people. But I don’t think even these doubtful arguments have a lot of merit.
For every big corporation there are dozens of smaller companies which have been driven out of business. Those smaller companies employed more people and often produced a better product. They failed not because they provided an inferior product or service but because they didn’t have access to the same range of dirty tricks as their bigger competitor.
And that leads to the real point I want to make about big business. I heard a commentator make a very insightful statement on this. He said something like “big business profits come at the expense of someone else”.
Yes, every dollar Coca Cola makes comes from someone else. It comes from us buying its rather unremarkable products, it comes from the “efficiencies” the company gains from employing less people, it comes from the demise of smaller competitors, and it comes from paying less tax than it should. So when we see a successful, profitable company it should be no surprise that we despise them rather than respecting them.
If I was the CEO (or ex-CEO) of a company like Coca Cola I would keep my mouth shut about this sort of thing because by displaying such an arrogant and callous disregard for the way the world really works rather than how the corporates imagine it they aren’t helping their cause!
Before I finish there are two issues the more astute of you might be thinking of here…
First, the title of this blog entry is very similar to another one I did recently titled “Have a Cigarette” criticising the tobacco industry. This is deliberate.
And second, what about the big corporations which I support in some way, Apple being the most obvious example. Yeah sure, I would be very happy if I got to work with products made by smaller innovative companies but that’s just not going to happen. If I want to work in IT I do have to work with products made by big companies. I also give Apple special dispensation to some extent because their products are just so good. I realise I am maybe being a bit hypocritical there but in the real world I can be an idealist to a degree but I also have to be a realist.
And yes, I also drink Coke sometimes, but I hate myself for it!
If you have read my previous blog entries you will be very aware of my lack of respect for the process of management in general and most managers in particular. In fact I have been discussing this with my colleague Fred (not his real name) again and he has made some interesting observations which certainly have some resonance for me, specifically on the topic of change management. Here are some of his more astute comments…
When he debates (I get the impression these “debates” are often more like arguments) with the management team at his place of work an accusation often made against him is that he can’t cope with change. In fact this seems to be a very common criticism of anyone who is hesitant to endorse a new way of doing things. I’m sure that in some cases it is true, because many people really don’t like change, but I think more often this is just an excuse used to try to justify new policies and procedures which really don’t have a lot of merit.
In Fred’s case for example it seems counterintuitive that he would reject change when he works in an area (computing) where constant change is the norm. Where else is it necessary to be so open to change or be left behind? So the simple accusation that he doesn’t like change in general is ridiculous. In fact what he doesn’t like is change for the worse, or change for no good reason, or change without consultation.
But the problem with most conversations between a manager and a worker is that the manager doesn’t have to justify anything they do. Generally they initially go with the old justification of “you just don’t like change” and if that fails there’s always the classic follow up of “you could always work somewhere else”.
How would the manager feel if they had a complaint about a staff member’s work and the only response they got was “you just don’t like the new way I do things” or “you could always manage someone else”. They would find that unacceptable wouldn’t they? Yet they think the staff member should accept it when they use exactly equivalent statements. If anyone doesn’t have a good way to justify their conclusions then maybe they should re-examine them.
I guess every organisation does need some ultimate way to make decisions and enforce necessary change but if that is going to happen I think it’s really important that the change be open to criticism and should be able to be defended. Most people’s experience with change in bureaucratic organisations (and that is basically every organisation) is that it is forced on staff against their will, is unsupported with any real proof that it is necessary or advantageous, and is never properly evaluated later to see if it has been successful.
So let’s look at some of the changes Fred has had to endure in recent years to get an idea of why he might be resistant to them…
His salary in real terms has gone down, allegedly because funding is decreasing, but at the same time there is always plenty of money for managers and bureaucrats. Is this the sort of change anyone should be happy with? I can imagine being unhappy but accepting of sacrifice of that sort if it was applied fairly and gross waste wasn’t obvious elsewhere, but when it’s just a cynical ploy like this why should anyone accept it?
Fred has worked at the same organisation for many years and has noticed a lot of change over that time. In general the change has been in the direction of a huge increase in administration and loss of independence. A significant part of his time is now spent filling in time sheets, completing charging forms, attending meaningless meetings, and other activities which aren’t really part of his job. Interestingly the people who forced the cost recovery system on the technical staff are never required to work that way themselves, maybe because they do nothing so would never charge out any time! Is forcing a skilled professional into doing a lot of meaningless administrivia the sort of change which he should be happy about? I don’t think so.
When Fred started work at his organisation his professional skills were quite trusted. It was assumed (quite rightly) that he knew how to solve the problems he encountered and could consult with colleagues where necessary. But over they years his work has been forced into more of a “template”. Now he has to follow policies formulated by people who have no clues at all about the real issues he encounters. Is trusting a bureaucrats opinion instead of a professionals the sort of change he should be happy with? Who would be?
I’m sure Fred’s situation isn’t unique and, as I said earlier, I can identify with why he is frustrated with the types of changes that have been inflicted on him.
Finally, to emphasise my point, imagine the following imaginary situation…
Manager: Hello Fred, I’ve asked for this meeting so we can discuss the new corporate direction and policy framework the management has been working on.
Fred: (extremely worried about what nonsense is about to ensue) Err, OK, what are these changes?
Manager: Well we have decided the professional staff should be paid more and we are going to fund that by reducing the number of administrators in our organisation. Also, we trust your professional skills so you can use our policies as a guideline but bypass them where that will get a better outcome for the client. And we also are throwing out the cost recovery system, the inefficient user pays mechanism, and we will have an administrator to do any of the remaining paper work for you.
Fred: That sounds fair, I am happy to fully cooperate with the new direction.
Manager: Excellent, I had heard you don’t like change but clearly that’s not true.
Fred: Not like change? Where would you get that idea?
But that wouldn’t happen, would it. Because change is almost never positive. It’s always the opposite of what this manager was proposing. But Fred lives in the real world where change is (almost) always bad. It’s not the change which is the problem, it’s the type of change.
Shouldn’t the people at the top be responsible for their organisations? Isn’t that why they are paid the big salaries? In so many cases it seems that the more responsible a person is the less they are likely to he held to account for what happens under their leadership.
Sure I agree there is the occasional case of a politician resigning after a case of gross negligence, but even those events often seem to be politically orchestrated and the person tends to continue on in a lesser role but still with a substantial salary and might expect an easy, less controversial job in the future when the current problem has been forgotten.
Of course this phenomenon can be seen with all leaders, but the particular case which is most obvious in New Zealand at this point is the minister of education, Hekia Parata, who surely is currently responsible for the most disorganised, dysfunctional, and dispirited organisation in the country. And the way our country is at the moment, to be the most dispirited isn’t easy. There’s plenty of competition!
It’s almost impossible to find anyone involved in education who agrees with this minister’s decisions. Everyone knows that the experts are not being listened to, that her policies are driven by economic and political dogma rather than practical educational requirements, and that the minister can not or will not learn from her mistakes.
As I have said in a previous blog entry, I don’t think Parata is actually evil, she’s just the person who drew the short straw and became education minister for a National government. It’s impossible to do that job properly no matter who you are because National, being a right wing party, is automatically opposed to good traditional educational values.
So the minister is doomed to failure from the beginning and that explains why every National minister of education has been a disaster and has been despised by the majority of people in education. It explains for example why a past minister had to escape out of a window to avoid an angry crowd.
So let’s look at a few of the ridiculous debacles this government has been responsible for in education: there’s the National Standards policy, the League tables, the school closures, the Novopay disaster, and now the resignation of Education Secretary Lesley Longstone.
Longstone always gave me the impression of being a gross incompetent but that might just be because of the way she was forced to defend the minister’s policies which she might not have necessarily agreed with. In fact her resignation indicates that she did disagree with the policies she was forced to implement.
But she won’t do too badly because she is likely to get a half million dollar payout as she leaves. This is from the same ministry which is closing schools to save money. Really, what is the point in recruiting and paying an allegedly highly skilled person if she is going to be forced to do the wrong thing by her minister in charge?
I would suggest the main reason these people are hired is there ability to carry out the instructions of their political master and divert attention from them rather than to make good decisions and really produce quality results for the people they are actually there for.
If any of the education changes had been a great success I’m sure the minister would have taken the credit, but now they have become a disaster suddenly someone else is to blame. And to make matters worse the minister has disappeared off on holiday, but it’s OK, the prime minister has full confidence in her. No surprises there!