Bring Me The Head Of John The Baptist!
Why corporate Vice Presidents do things that make the rest of us shake our heads and sigh
Let’s begin by acknowledging that very few US corporate Vice Presidents have ever actually asked for the head of John the Baptist, and those that have most likely ended up on extended Personal Leave. Or, if they were VP Human Resources, they simply remained in place because everyone rightly ignores HR anyway as the ultimate non-functioning non-function.
But when we shift from literal to metaphorical demands, we all know that corporate VPs are often given to making demands that make little or no sense. Often these demands are for information that no one will use because no action can be taken as a result of knowing it. I think of this as the Tuesday Syndrome. Sure, I can tell you tomorrow will be Tuesday, but so what? What can you do differently as a result of knowing this fact? It’s not as if, disliking Tuesdays, you can slip into a space-time continuum and hide there until Wednesday comes around. It’s not like you can decide to push Tuesday back a few days and have Wednesday tomorrow instead.
Gathering and presenting information costs resources, so clever people (yes, both of them) know that the only time one should ask for information is if one can do something substantial as a result of getting that information. For example, if we know not only how many defects are occurring on the production line but also where they are occurring, we can investigate and fix the problem. But simply knowing that there are ten people working on the line tells us nothing; likewise knowing they wear blue coats tells us nothing. There is an almost infinite amount of worthless information we can gather and present; the trick is not to do so.
Vice Presidents, however, have a major problem: they need to feel important. Mostly they haven’t a clue what they’re supposed to be doing and they live in perpetual fear that one day someone above them in the corporate hierarchy will discover this unfortunate fact. So they need to distract themselves by doing things that make them feel powerful and important.
And one thing they can definitely do is: ask for information.
Your average Vice President (and, let’s face it, they mostly are very average indeed) wants to be able to stride into a meeting and shout, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist!” But they can’t because they’d end up strapped to a gurney. So instead they say things like, “I want to know how many of our customers have cousins whose children like to wear red shoes on public holidays!”
The fact that the company is providing cloud-based storage for legal documents doesn’t invalidate this magisterial demand in the slightest. Our VP can derive significant, albeit sadly transient, satisfaction from knowing that somewhere below, minions will scurry around for days trying to obtain this crucial information which will then be ignored until the company goes bankrupt, the assets are sold, and the vital data about cousins’ children’s holiday shoe color will be lost forever, thus depriving humankind of knowledge that perhaps could have been used to cure cancer, stop war forever, or at least invent a new flavor of ice-cream.
Underlings quickly discover that the path of least resistance is to provide VPs (and Senior Directors, and Directors, and Senior Managers, and pretty much anyone with a title that is above Specialist Sanitation Engineer First Class) with a simulacrum of what they ask for, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never actually look at it again.
It would of course be easier simply to issue everyone with an impressive-sounding title some sheets of white paper, glitter-glue, and safety scissors and let them play away to their hearts’ content. But for reasons I’ve never understood, few organizations take this obvious and highly cost-effective option (the US White House obviously excepted).
Several years ago I was consulting to a major corporation, helping them build an application that would match resources to demand. Across the company’s many different sites the resource availability ran anywhere from 7 hours per day to 4 hours per day net of other legally mandated and unchangeable tasks. We were 90% of the way through building the system and early site users were happy with what they were getting.
So naturally this was the time for a Very Important Vice President to step into the picture.
We had an international conference call using the remote technology available back then. More than sixty people were on the call from practically every time zone around the world. It quickly became clear that the purpose of the call was to enable the VIVP to tell us that we’d built the system all wrong (he could say this with absolute confidence, having learned of the system only the day before and not having seen it or any associated documentation).
Our problem, he announced, was that we weren’t capturing any information on the mandated tasks that cut down the total time available for the primary function.
Now, none of the mandated tasks could be changed, diminished, or moved. So knowing the mandated tasks wouldn’t help in any way with regards to matching resources to demand.
But the VIVP had spoken.
Turned out there were 18 different kinds of mandated tasks we could capture and he wanted to see them all. A few days later we presented a mockup of the bar chart that would include these 18 mandated tasks, plus the real work versus demand. “Too much detail!” the VIVP announced, making it clear he thought we were all dunces for including such obviously overly-granular data.
We came back a few days later with a mockup of a chart that showed four major groupings of mandated tasks, plus the real work versus demand. “Better,” the VIVP announced, “but still too much unnecessary detail.”
A week later we presented the mockup we’d quickly sketched as a joke during the original meeting: the real bar chart data plus, on the bottom of each column, a little yellow bar showing the sum of mandated tasks. Our VIVP beamed with delight. I felt a little sad that we hadn’t offered him some glitter-glue so he could color in the chart in a more sparkly and creative and Vice Presidential way, but yellow seemed to make him happy enough.
Nearly as happy as he’d have been if we’d pasted tiny pictures of the head of John the Baptist on the top of every column.