Rocket Science

The argument had taken somewhat of a harsh turn. Bull Terrier, who comes by his name honestly, growled something not quite off a Valentine card. The techie he faced was frustrated that his brilliant algorithm was being wasted on a sales grunt.

At issue was a dashboard the tech created that would measure the sales performance of a new line of industrial security products. The dashboard was built around a series of metrics that went far beyond merely sales volume and margins. Bull argued that their customers don’t want all this information, that they have their own way of measuring results, that too much technology turns them off. The answer to that was that customers could easily cherry-pick the metrics they found useful and ignore the rest. But for those that appreciate having more information so that they can make better decisions, we will have a distinct advantage over our competitors.

The argument soon became esoteric.

You have designed in retro rockets. The customer needs wheels.

“You have built a rocket ship,” Bull said in a rather exasperated tone. “The customer wants a car. The customer wants to drive to the grocery store, not fly to the moon.”

“The customer already has a car,” the techie replied with matching exasperation. “He doesn’t need us to give him another one. We are giving him a way to fly to the moon, something he doesn’t already have.”

“The customer doesn’t know how to pilot a rocket ship.”

“That’s where you come in. You will teach him to become a pilot. Do your job.”

“ Your job,” responded Bull angrily, “is to give the customer what he wants.”

“We are a technology company. Our job is not to give the customer what he wants but what he will soon learn that he needs.”

“What he needs!? You have designed in retro rockets. The customer needs wheels.”

The techie looked at Bull with a blank expression. “Why would a rocket have wheels?”

There is a Japanese proverb that says: Too much is just the same as too little. I heard it in the context of arranging flowers, the art of which, in Japan, is called Ikebana. I think it also works well in the context of this exchange.

Dress Code

“In my own city, my name procures me respect; in a strange city, my clothes.” – Hebrew Proverb

I recently attended a market analytics conference. Various market research companies were presenting a range of analyses designed ostensibly to inform, hopefully to titillate and, ultimately, to stimulate attendees to pay heavily for their services.

This was a gathering of C-level managers, all of whom looked the part. They were all attired in suits and tinged with just the right amount of grey. As an aggregate, they were natty and sophisticated. They looked like a million dollars, even if in well used notes, to use the words of author Angela Carter.

I have been to several such conferences over the years. Dress is always business casual and that is how I packed. As I entered the large hall with a screen the size of Iowa, I noticed all the suits. My heart sank a couple of inches. I guess I should have looked more closely at the dress code on the invitation. I leaned over to a hostess and asked her if I had missed something. She assured me that there was no requirement to wear a suit and that I should relax and enjoy myself. With no alternative, I resolved to do just that.

It was as if I had stumbled onto the set of the Thomas Crown Affair.

So there I was in dress pants and a merino blend v-neck sweater over a Ted Baker London classic fit check sport shirt. Presentable, I would say. After the first Power Point, which lasted a very long 60 minutes, I noticed that most of the jackets were hung over seat backs. By the mid-morning break, most of the ties followed suit. When the conference resumed after lunch, open collars and sweaters were out in force.

It was all so very gratifying. When I first walked in, it was as if I had stumbled onto the set of the Thomas Crown Affair bowler hat scene. These people had originally chosen conformity over comfort. And then, given a viable option, they quickly opted for the relaxed fit. Good on them.

Easy Does IT

Our IT department put in place this corporate chat tool that allows various groups to communicate with each other 24/7, to discuss issues of great or not the slightest importance. There is no moderator, although it is expected that good taste and good judgment will generally be maintained. There is a corporate channel, a sales channel and an IT channel.

You might imagine that I would not spend much time following the rather arcane threads that dominate the IT channel and you’d be correct. But I do drop in every now and then and, every now and then, I am richly rewarded. Yesterday, I stumbled in on this mystifying exchange.

We would have to swithc to vim.

Mac (our appropriately named IT Director): The thing is, we are kinda stuck with the mac. I mean, do you really want to dual boot ubuntu?

Shaggy (my inside source for all things IT): I can’t even imagine dealing with nvidia drivers on ubuntu… not to mention rubymine won’t run on it.

Thomas (our webmaster): Can someone translate for me?

Mac: We would have to swithc to vim.

Thomas: Where is my auto-correct?

Shaggy: What you have to know is that swithc isn’t even a typo.

Mac: No, it’s a nexus. LOL.

It is wonderful, said Winston Churchill, how well men keep secrets they have not been told. For most, talk of ubuntu – and other things incomprehensible – accomplishes much the same thing.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – H.D. Thoreau, Walden

John X. has colitis. His moments of desperation come and go. In between, they lie low with silent slithering like snakes in the grass, waiting for his circumstances to be at their most inconvenient before striking. They do not strike quietly.

The colitis doesn’t affect his work, but it does make his working more difficult. It is almost inevitable that if John is expected at a meeting, he will be indisposed and unavailable at the appointed hour. I am sympathetic to John because I have a child who suffers the same affliction.

It is an odd thing that his colleagues are unaware of his plight, only of its various manifestations. Unkindly, when John is under siege, they say with a snicker that he is “in his office”.

Kyle C., our regional manager for the Northeast, was traveling with John. They were on a bridge in rush hour – trapped, in other words – when John felt a cramp coming on. He quietly – almost serenely – asked Kyle if he was up for some excitement. Kyle knew of John’s issues and immediately went into panic mode.

“Don’t even think about it!” he said sternly.

“I am trying not to”, came the reply.

“I mean it!” insisted Kyle, half expecting his admonition to have some effect on the outcome.

They were on a bridge in rush hour… when John felt a cramp coming on.

John, his stomach gurgling, issued a quiet “Uh, oh. This is not good”. He smiled weakly.

Time passed and traffic moved with excruciating slowness. They were still only half way across the bridge – too close for comfort, too far from relief. They could see no ready solution to their plight… it’s not like there was a rest stop or an off-ramp available.

Well, to quote a Spanish proverb, it’s not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring. Kyle was filled with sympathy and dread in equal measure.

“You will NOT do anything bad in my car, do you hear?” It was more a pleading than a proclamation.

Traffic inched along. A crush of vehicles going nowhere quickly, at least one small drama taking place in its midst.

Like every drama, there is an ending, a denouement, so to speak. But the ending here is, all things said and done, not important. However our story turned out, the thing of it is that it took place at all. And that, to our deepest regrets, it will almost certainly happen again.

If Mama Ain’t Happy

“She shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly, but at a distance.” – Winston Churchill

Churchill was referring to his mother, of course. Mothers will always have a place in our hearts… just not always, hopefully, at our sides.

The manager of our Customer Care Center was hiring an inside sales person, someone who would be prepared to come in at odd hours to accommodate West Coast customers. One prospect showed up for his job interview with his mother. Astonishingly. The receptionist was astonished to see the two enter the building together, she with a purposeful stride, he barely able to keep up, virtually clinging to her petticoat. The Customer Care staff was collectively astonished to see the two strolling as one into their supervisor’s office, an uneven but inseparable couple. The manager was astonished and could only blink… though it might have been more of a twitch. And the Black Widow – who at the best of times has a propensity to devour her young – was astonished that the two could so easily pass through her otherwise impregnable web.

The mother not only sat through the interview, but also let it be known that she would negotiate the best deal for her son when, not if, they did the only logical thing, which was to hire him. The manager assured her that in his deliberations, her inclusion in the process would definitely factor into the decision making process. He thanked her for clarifying things that may not otherwise have come to his attention.

Newspaper editor Hodding Carer wrote about a wise women who once said to him: There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children: one of these is roots, the other wings. This poor lad was tethered by his matriarchal roots and smothered by her expansive wings. He was clearly unable to lift himself off the ground and fly on his own.

She pleaded her son’s case… explaining away the circumstances of his minor indiscretion.

Our very own Black Widow was not off the hook just yet. Only days after the Mother Hen Affair, an employee at one of our distribution centers was suspended for bringing a case of beer to work. (It was over-hoppy Heineken to boot, not one of my favorites, so we could add bad taste to bad judgment.) Had he actually been drunk, he would have been terminated on the spot, such is our zero tolerance policy on the issue of alcohol and the workplace. A grievance was filed by the union, instigated not by the employee, but by his mother. She pleaded her son’s case, vouching for his character and explaining away the circumstances of his minor indiscretion. Again, astonishment reigned among our C-level executives. Do we need to create a corporate policy on breast milk as well as booze?

Apparently, this is already occurring at a number of major industrial concerns. In her book, How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims, the Dean of Students at Stanford, notes that several big companies are already holding job information sessions for parents.

Let’s just say that there is no place for helicopter moms in the Small Office and that, for the record, both our not so intrepid youths were summarily and unceremoniously grounded.

Drill Pickle

Like pretty much every company, we have randomly held fire drills. It is not like we represent a potential liability for insurance companies. Our industry is not high risk by its very nature and our offices, operations and distribution centers are not in high-risk areas. This is important because insurance companies have become more discriminating about who they will insure and where.

On a sleepy Friday afternoon of a nothing week sliding headlong into a week-end of insignificance, we had one of those fire drills. It was like putting an exclamation mark at the end of a very dull sentence.

For each floor of our head office complex, we had assigned two fire marshals. In the event of a drill or a real fire, their job is to clear their designated areas quickly and without drama. Everyone in their respective zones must be accounted for. They have absolute authority once the alarm sounds. Evacuating our head office should take around three minutes.

Bryan C. is a mid-level manager. On this hypnotically somnolent day, the siren screamed at us all, shaking us violently out of our lethargy. It was a most welcome distraction. I was only too happy to lead the charge out of the building.

Bryan C. obviously was not. He kept working on his computer, undeterred by the ear-splitting cacophony of the alarm. And, unfortunately, unimpressed by the young female fire marshal who tried to wave him out of his office. The marshals can easily be identified by their red hard hats, so it’s not like he could say he didn’t know who she was or what her purpose might be.

The siren screamed at us all, shaking us violently out of our lethargy.

In 15 minutes, the drill was over and each of the Small Office denizens returned to his or her office. Our intrepid fire marshal was furious that Bryan ignored her requests, then entreaties, then demands that he vacate the premises. She subsequently complained to the Health & Safety Coordinator of the Black Widow’s human resources department.

There was quite a discussion held at the highest levels about the incident. Bryan’s boss did his best to defend his employee, arguing that he was facing strict deadlines and would not be dissuaded from completing his task on time. He should be lauded, not lambasted. The Black Widow tapped the tiled floor impatiently, then let out a silent hiss. Bryan flaunted the rules, she said, and disrespected an employee doing her job. She wanted an example set. Our legal mind, Rigor Mortis, addressed the question of whether following safety protocol was a condition of employment. The discussion went hither and thither till it landed square at the figure of our Solomonesque CEO, the Man from Glad.

He spoke softly but held the big stick. Bryan made a choice, he said. When it comes to safety, however, there is no choice. When it comes to respecting others, there is no choice. When it comes to adhering to company policy – especially one on which lives depend, there is no choice. If there is no choice, there is no need for discussion.

Bryan was suspended without pay for two weeks. He apologized to the fire marshal.

One to a Customer

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” – Daniel Varè

With the end of the year approaching, we are already well into our first round of customer negotiations. It is a time of confirmation and of confrontation. It is the sum of all things and the end of some things. I especially enjoy this time of year because it is when strategy hits the streets.

Our guess was that our toughest negotiation would be with our largest customer. Several issues are conspiring against us. First, some new faces have been added to their senior management team. It is most likely that these newcomers will want to make some very public changes to show that they are in charge, that they have a new vision for their organization, that this is now their company. We have been through this before and we learned the hard way that, with new people in place, you have to tread softly while making your presence known. They have to believe they need your support before they’ll give you theirs.

We did our best to meet with them in the run-up to the negotiations, to hear what they have to say, to figure out where they are headed. Our perceptive, almost empathic CEO, the Man from Glad, has few peers when it comes to cutting through the clutter and figuring out what’s really what. But their CEO has been well shielded and his intentions well camouflaged.

Also working against us is that they have recently acquired a company that is already a customer of ours. Their volume is now that much larger and they are looking for new discount plateaus to recognize this fact. So far, we have made it clear that we won’t pay more for business we already have, but what happens, I wonder, when push becomes shove. Will our resolve tumble like autumn leaves?

It is a time of confirmation and of confrontation.

The biggest problem with this particular negotiation is that all our other customers and all our competitors are watching closely. Seeing us as vulnerable, our principal competitor is going after this business with all guns blazing. With nothing to lose and plants to fill, it is offering the moon. Even if it doesn’t get the business, it will let our other customers know that we had to beat out an outrageous offer and that their own respective deals now likely pale by comparison, that they will no longer be competitive, that it is time for them to switch suppliers. Some might take the bait. In short, with all eyes now fixed on us, we are basically negotiating for the whole market.

Our clear-headed and always calculating CEO had other ideas. He has his own take on diplomacy which he might well have borrowed from Wynn Catlin’s Kiss Me Hardy: diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.

So he phoned this customer’s CEO and arranged a one-on-one meeting at a local art gallery. After a considerable amount of frottage, our ever so foxy Man from Glad explained that, while there are a number of interesting, outside-the-deal arrangements we could make, it would do nothing for either organization to drop the whole market and upset the equilibrium that currently exists. There is no benefit accruing to new management when a deal is struck that reduces profits. The best arrangement for everyone is to just quietly extend the current deal and – my favorite thing to do – create a secret war chest for exclusive promotions. Some more frottage to frame the conversation and an understanding was reached.

Bull Terrier, our V.P. Sales was then dispatched to iron out the details of an extension. His minions were told to quickly and quietly secure any customers that may be at risk. It was the equivalent of Winston Churchill’s advice not to disband your army until you’ve got your terms.

We have our marching orders.