Friday, January 11, 2013

A Parable

Imagine you own a company that makes widgets. Once upon a time your widget company was the best in all the world and for most of the recorded history of the widget industry it's been a standard-bearer for excellence in widget making—one of the top two companies for decades. But recently your company has fallen on hard times in one sense: it's been over forty-five years since you last created a widget that was the best in the world (or even second-best) and you're running on reputation alone. Oh, you're still turning a profit—a huge profit, given the circumstances—because you have generations of consumers still buying your widgets out of some kind of misguided loyalty. Some years you offer different colours; other years different shapes and sizes; still others no noticeable change whatsoever. No improvement in how these widgets operate, though: they still break down when the going gets tough (except for one notable year when they were sabotaged by an outside agent beyond your control) and have never truly adapted to the ever-changing landscape. For the past seven years, in fact, yours are the only widgets to have never appeared in the publication This Year in Widgets even once. You're exceedingly happy with your financial situation—and how could you not be?—but embarrassed on some visceral level that your product has become the laughing stock of the entire widget industry. Surely there will come a time when the loyalty factor will be removed from the equation and your profits will take a nosedive...right?

With that in mind, four years ago you decided to hire someone to take charge of your entire widget-making division (for you have diversified in recent years, with divisions that make whosits, thingamajigs and whatchamacallits, all of which are having similar issues of quality control). The person you chose had an interesting résumé: at one point he was executive vice president and director of sales and marketing for This Year in Widgets; in later years he ran the widget-making division of a huge, multi-divisional corporation with an enormous global presence. This division, when he arrived, had some of the best equipment, tools and shop workers in the business already in place. It also had one of the best raw material providers in the industry under exclusive contract for well below market rate, owing mainly to severe nepotism. In his second year as GM he spent a large sum of money on a short-term addition: a high-performing but exceedingly unstable machine to intimidate his company's closest competitors. The intimidation strategy proved to be the process that put his company over the top that year as they bullied their way past a talented but much smaller company into the industry's number-one position.

This man's overreaching hubris drove him to accept the position of "Supreme Commander" with your company, causing him to believe that he was the one person who could lead your once-proud corporation back to the promised land and "Widget of the Year" status. When he arrived and took a long, hard look at the disarray, confusion and neglect that he was now surrounded by, he announced to the world (or, at least, the world of widgets) that he had a plan to grow this company from the ground up until it reached the very pinnacle of its industry. His swagger, smug self-assurance and outright truculence caused many loyal customers to believe his claims, because what man could be so arrogantly egotistical without having good reason? Within a very short time, though, the self-proclaimed Saviour decided to make his first course of action a risky—and, some would say, horribly misguided—one: he gave away the rights to two upcoming prime mining locations for essential raw materials (and one just slightly sub-prime location as well) for a machine that would provide some flash to the product being issued but precious little else. In this one bold stroke, the new man changed the course of your company for years to come and quite possibly scuttled everything else he was going to attempt to do.

You could have let him go right then and there, but you had patience and faith. Perhaps you, too, were fooled by his résumé which masked the true reasons for his one previous success. Perhaps you also confused his bluster and boasting for actual competency. In any event, this man had free reign to proceed in any which way he chose for the next four years. He stated, unequivocally, that he wanted to build your factory from the floor up; however, he tried many, many different types of flooring over those four years—some untested but highly recommended, others with proven track records but worn down by age—but never found one that could adequately support the machinery that produced the product. He hired several new faces for your company's defense team but overpaid badly for a couple of them: one who had served him well in a previous position and one who had only ever won a single case—and most knowledgeable people around the industry (inside and out) believed that the fix was in on that one. As a result of that particular bungling a great many trials were lost that could have been easily won, causing continuous damage to your already weak product. He went through many combinations of front-line machines over those four years with only sporadic successful results in the quality of your output. He decided, somewhere along the way, that even though the country your company operates in has been known since your industry began as the preeminent source of widget-making raw materials in the world, he would fly in the face of that convention and overvalue his home country's (for he was not born here) contribution to the field. Perhaps most egregiously, cronyism caused him to hire a woefully inadequate plant foreman, one who had no successful track record and even at that the industry had long since passed him by, and when the loyal customers started to grumble about this foreman your head honcho decided to arrogantly and derisively give him a public contract extension. But still you let him continue to play out his own rope.

He began to fill up your head office with assistant after assistant, all at great expense to you and none with an appreciable positive impact on your product, save the occasional fleecing of another company with fiscal issues. As a result of all of these second bananas, this bellicose brainiac began to wander farther and farther afield in his daily activities. Two years in a row, on the day the raw material sites whose exclusivity contracts had run out became available to be acquired, this man decided to be far from the scene, preferring instead to leave it up to his myriad assistants to deal with. There were other occasions, too, where he was missing in action; it's hard to say what difference this made in the grand scheme of things for your company but it sure didn't sit well with your long-suffering customer base. He became a figurehead for a great many visible and wonderful causes—charities, civil rights groups, etc.—but he did much of this on your dime and, while it certainly painted your business in a good light, you slowly began to realize that a "good light" was not necessarily what your company needed. You were already one of the most famous corporations of your kind in the world and more positive publicity—while never a bad thing—was not at the top of your list of requirements. Your widget had not changed appreciably in the four years that you let this man have free reign over this division (and hadn't even been made more flashy or cosmetically different in any other valuable way) and, as this was specifically what he was hired for, you start to grow restless. When you decide to divest yourself of the entire company so you can retire comfortably off of the profits, you are not surprised in the least to see that the new owners don't waste very much time in finally dismissing this man, although you do note with some disgust that their reasoning is that he "doesn't fit their corporate image" more than any particular failing you know he has demonstrated at the productivity level.

And then you notice the hand-wringing from industry observers, most of whom were treated with disdain—at the very best—by this man while he held his position of authority. "He wasn't given enough time," is a common theme. "Look at all the work he did for charity," is another—and this one is particularly humourous because now he has all the time in the world to continue his excellent charity work so, really, those people should be elated. "He left the factory in better shape than it was when he arrived," is the one that tickles you the most, though, because that's a bit like saying someone who was hired to rebuild a house after a fire and spent four years rearranging the rubble into piles left the house in better shape than when he was brought in. Not to mention—to really wring everything out of that analogy—that in the meantime he threw out some of the best material and fanned the few remaining embers to burn the rest of it to the ground before he even began the clean-up.

So you read all of this in newspapers and magazines and Social Media of various types and all you can do is shake your head and wonder, "How did we get to the point where proven ineptitude and bad manners and lack of any discernible progress in your given task can still earn you the respect of the general public to such a level that they are dismayed and stunned when you are finally relieved of your duties?"

And then you chuckle to yourself, pull your hat down a little more over your eyes, take a swig of your beer and realize that it's no longer your problem because you've left that industry forever and, in any event, it could have been a lot worse: you could have been the guy who hired Brian Burke to ru(i)n the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And life gets just a little sunnier.

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