The following anecdote is one of my favorites. If you’ve seen me give a talk involving management, chances are you’ve heard this story. And I will continue to repeat it until this behavior is dead and gone. Most likely, that means forever. So please forgive me for the repetition.
Ineffective and inefficient
One of my first assignments after I graduated was to assemble and analyse data about the then-new 3G network of one of the national operators. Mostly, this meant I spent my early mornings on the phone with various teams around the country’s largest cities, handing out their assignments for the day, and then rolling my thumbs until the data started coming in during the evenings. Then I spent my nights compiling the data and emailing the results to my superiors.
By some weird twist that still perplex me to this day, I had ended up with three managers who all had roughly the same role, but who all seemed to have different goals. This obviously led to some confusion as to what my role really was, and I tried my best to serve all three masters at once, basically rendering me and my colleagues completely inefficient.
Months passed, and through the wonders of bureaucracy we moved much like the vessel in the Coleridge poem; “as idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean.” Due to the lack of progress, the spreadsheet I compiled each night kept glowing an angry red.
Mount Sinai appears
Then, one magic day in August, one of my three masters finally had it. He called me to discuss the latest numbers in my report. The transcription below is not 100% accurate. After all, it took place more than 10 years ago at the time of this writing. But it’s disturbingly close.
Master: “The rural areas for cities A, B and C are still red!”
Me: “Yes, I know”
Master: “They must be green by Friday!”
Me: “I can’t promise that. I’m just reporting the data”
Master: “Alright then, I’ll give you until Thursday next week. Then we’re being audited by the license issuer, and we HAVE to be green by then!”
Me: “Uhm… I’ll… see what I can do”
Master: “Good” *click*
This conversation left me so baffled I didn’t know what to say. I called back an hour later to ask him if he had misunderstood what it was I did, and if he had mistakenly shot the messenger. But no, it was clear to him; he knew I was the messenger, he just shot me anyway.
I’m not payed to cheat
Sure, there were several things that I could do to make the numbers green. Starting from the most complicated alternative and working towards the simplest; I could start with changing the routes my teams drove while collecting data. There were areas where we knew we had better coverage, and I could limit the routes to include only those areas.
But what good would that do? That was just cheating, and in that case I might just as well change the numbers to meet the 98% limit.
Or, simpler still, I could just Ctrl+A my spreadsheet and change the colors to green everywhere. The result would be the same: The spreadsheet would be green but the real world would still be glowing red.
I’m pretty sure this was not what my master wanted. He wanted the real world to be as green as the spreadsheet. So the question was what he thought he’d get out of our conversation. If he thought that he could magically turn all the numbers green by a simple phone call, why the hell didn’t he call me sooner? Why wait until August? If it was me I would have called in January and have the whole thing over with.
But no, I suspect he wasn’t really sure himself. He called me out of desperation, probably not thinking much at all. But maybe, just maybe, he could muster up some divine powers and alter reality just a little bit by shaking the magic eight-ball really hard.
When I left you, I was but the learner…
So, a word of advise to my former master: You do not have divine powers, and shooting the messenger will cause nothing but confusion and irritation. Back then, I didn’t have the brass to tell you. Today I have, and I’m sorry for the delay. I hope these words of wisdom comes your way much too late, because if you haven’t figured this out by yourself over the last +10 years, I don’t think they will help.
Don’t worry, I’m not angry, I just hope someone else will read and understand.
(Feature photo: Susan Dussaman)