The truth about weekly meetings

In my recent post about meetings in France I promised I’d write a separate post on regular meetings, so here it is. I will say up front that what I’m about to describe is by no means unique to France, and is common to all large companies.

One of the most baffling things I have seen in my career is managers presiding over small teams of less than ten people sitting in the same office needing both a weekly meeting and a weekly report to know what their staff are doing. When I ran a team I knew what they were doing because I wandered around the office talking to them individually; the meetings were purely to discuss common issues or interfaces between two or more people. I would have considered it a failure on my part if I only find out what someone on my team is doing in the weekly meeting. When I inherited a team back in Nigeria the first thing I did was cancel the daily meeting. I was quickly instructed by my line manager to restart them, as they were compulsory.

What I’ve seen from several managers is a regular meeting whereby he or she will sit the entire team around a table and ask each individual, one by one, what they are doing. If the employee is smart he’ll respond with a couple of quick sentences to the effect that everything’s under control, but in France in particular it’s important to show your line manager you’re busier than a barmaid when the USS Nimitz is anchored in the harbour. Therefore, it’s important to list every single activity you have done, or are about to do, up to and including brief phone calls with colleagues. Everything that’s said is diligently typed into a spreadsheet by the manager, often with one finger and excruciatingly slowly. Most of the time the manager has no idea what the subordinate is talking about, so starts to ask questions. This results in the subordinate having to explain the entire history of the project to date, just so his manager can understand. Everyone else has to sit through this in silence. It wouldn’t be so bad if the manager didn’t need half the stuff he was told last week repeated; this is why they are scheduled to last an hour and end up taking two. I once worked out these meetings cost the company around $5k in employee time at prevailing internal charge rates, and decided one day I’d point that out. My manager didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. I can only assume he thought having a bunch of middle-aged senior engineers sat around a table playing with their phones while he had lengthy conversations with one individual on a specific topic cost nothing.

There’s a reason for these meetings. A lot of modern managers see their departments as nothing more than a step on the career ladder, a status marker from which they can launch their next move upwards. They have very little interest in the actual running of the department, and many make it plainly obvious they see their team as an inconvenience. This is why they need information repeated to them so often: they have no real interest when you tell them the first time. When I was a manager I reckoned about 70-80% of my time was spent looking downwards, i.e. managing the people below me, and the remainder looking upwards, i.e. dealing with the organisation above me. But a lot of modern corporate managers spend around 95% of their time looking upwards, arselicking their way to the next promotion in pointless meetings, and spend almost no time getting to know their subordinates and managing them effectively. There’s a strong parallel here with how career politicians view their brief, and even the general population: the best way to describe Theresa May’s relationship with the British people is she finds them an inconvenience.

If you don’t interact with your team, and generally hide in your office avoiding them, you have to do something to demonstrate you’re still a manager. This explains their behaviour in meetings which I described in my previous post. But it also means you have no idea what’s going on, and if someone higher up the chain asks and you can’t answer you’re in trouble. Therefore, you need to hold your nose, meet with your team occasionally, and ask each one to explain what they’re doing so you’re prepared for any awkward questions on high. Astonishingly, this is actually considered management in some organisations.

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Meetings in France

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about presentations in French companies, which I thought was a useful precursor to what I will talk about now – meetings in France.

The most important thing to know about meetings in France is they are not convened for the purpose of sharing information and especially not for making decisions. Decisions in French companies are made by managers meeting informally, e.g. at lunch or in the coffee room or, in many cases, unilaterally by a single senior manager. It is important to understand that any meeting which looks as though it is convened for the purposes of making a decision is simply theatre, a ruse to hoodwink underlings and auditors that some sort of process has been followed. More often though, it is plainly obvious nothing of importance gets decided in French meetings because the whole thing is one long discussion with no decision at the end of it.

So what are they for? Well, that depends. If it’s a regular, scheduled meeting it’s to inform the management of what is going on in their own department. That I will make the subject of a separate post, because it deserves one all of its own. But if it’s any other meeting, it’s best thought of as something akin to the court of a medieval king, with a twofold purpose:

1. It gives subordinates an opportunity to impress the senior manager

This can be done by showing enthusiasm for the manager’s ideas, the latest management directive, or the process being followed. It can also be done by “offering solutions”, even if what is said is quite daft and the person has no expertise in the subject whatsoever. French meetings may be unique in that everyone has an equal say, so if the chap in charge of catering wants to weigh in on drilling, his opinions are considered just as valid as those of the drilling specialist. It is forbidden to suggest that because an individual has no knowledge or experience in a subject, he or she shouldn’t stick their beak in. I have tested this rule to destruction.

Another way of impressing the management is to catch one of your colleagues out on some area of knowledge or a technicality, thus making him look stupid. This stems from the French school system, and probably accounts for more man hours being wasted in France than anything else. If you can ask a question of your colleague (but never, ever your manager: I have also tested this to destruction) that he cannot immediately answer, you have scored a point by indicating you are sharper than he is. Astonishingly, French managers actually believe this. It’s therefore common in French meetings for someone to say “Aha! But did you think of this?” with “this” being some ludicrous scenario nobody in their right mind would consider. Indeed, if you did this in an Anglo-Saxon environment you’d be told to shut up and stop being silly, but in France all questions are valid, and so the person being asked cannot simply dismiss it. This is why their presentations consist of 96 slides with another 150 for backup: they have to anticipate someone asking, “but what was the pressure in the pipe in 1978?” and, if he doesn’t have the answer to hand, being pompously told “but you should know.” And then he watches the person who asked cast a quick glance at the boss before sitting back and with a smug grin of satisfaction all over his face. Without exaggeration, I have seen teams execute hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work and expend thousands of man hours studying ludicrous scenarios because “if someone asks in the presentation, we need to be ready”. Saying, “no we didn’t study this because it’s obviously stupid and unworkable” is an unacceptable answer in a French meeting; everything must be analysed and considered.

Finally, as a minimum everyone in a French meeting is expected to speak and contribute in order to get noticed by the manager, and it is these performances on which your career progression depends. You can now imagine why they go on so long. Things are made worse by the practice of having a “round the table” at the end of the meeting. So having listened to three hours of people ask stupid questions, opine on subjects way outside their area of expertise, and talk forever about how they discovered (at great expense) that water is wet, each individual is invited to have their final say to wrap things up. Each person, with one eye on the senior manager at the head of the table, will repeat whatever he or she said during the meeting in a process which takes no less than half an hour. If the term “replacement bus service” causes English speakers to contemplate suicide, the French words “tour de table” at the end of a pointless meeting that is already running an hour late will drain the will to live from even the sturdiest expat.

2. It reinforces the seniority of the manager

A Chinese chap I once worked with told me meetings in China consist of the big boss listening to various opinions of all his subordinates before making a declaration of what will happen next. Even if the manager has made a catastrophic error of judgement, perhaps by misunderstanding something technical, everyone will bow their heads and say “yes sir” in a show of unanimous obedience. It is career-suicide to even contemplate questioning the boss, regardless of how wrong he may be. Compared to Anglo-Saxon meetings, French meetings feel very Chinese. Once the senior manager has made his feelings known, there is very little pushback from subordinates who may well be seething (and will complain bitterly as soon as the meeting is over and the boss out of earshot). Making declarations and seeing everyone stare at the desk in silence, fearful over their next performance appraisal, is a useful way for a manager to reinforce his or her authority over the team. (I’ll let you imagine what it’s like for the manager when I’m in the room; there are reasons why my career has been dead for quite some time.)

The meeting also serves as an opportunity for the manager to assert his or her authority by assigning tasks to their team members. Often they are belittling admin tasks, or tasks the employee is wholly unsuited to perform, and the ordinary French employee has no choice but to accept they will do it as best they can. When it comes to snapping out random orders which leave their staff baffled, French managers are a lot more Asian or African than European. It is telling that they are often reluctant to issue orders one-on-one, and if they do it’s almost always via email, never face to face. This is because the orders are unimportant, and the tasks would be deemed unnecessary if the slightest thought was applied. Rather, it is the act of issuing instructions in full view of the team which is important, followed by the underling obeying without question. It’s also a test of loyalty, so a manager can identify who the troublemakers are. Usually, it was me.

If you ever find yourself in a French meeting, it is important you understand the true purpose of the meeting and the game that’s being played, and you abandon whatever expectations your own culture has supplied you with. Your best bet, though, is to avoid them altogether.

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Orders Given

I can’t seem to get off this topic. Here’s a story from yesterday’s Telegraph:

Companies in the UK must undergo a “genuine culture change” to get rid of alpha males and promote women, government ministers have said.

Ministers John Glen and Victoria Atkins have called for “greater diversity” in the workplace, adding that companies should “call out” non-inclusive behaviour.

They particularly highlighted the “woefully low” number of women in senior jobs the City, which is both “morally wrong” and affects the sector’s productivity.

“We have a problem when it comes to the representation of senior women in the financial services sector,” the ministers said in a letter to MPs.

There is just so many things wrong with these four paragraphs it’s easier to make a list than fisk it:

1. Why is it assumed alpha male traits are bad for business? Are companies filled with beta males more profitable?

2. Why are Conservative MP’s calling for culture changes? What, if anything, are they interested in actually conserving?

3. Why is “greater diversity” assumed to be better for businesses? If this was the case, why are they not doing it already and reaping the rewards?

4. Why is the number of women employed in the financial sector a moral issue? As I’m fond of saying, these people would be better off going to church rather than haranguing the public.

5. What is the basis for the claim that putting more women in senior jobs in the City will increase productivity? And why are firms not doing that already if this is the case?

Responding to the Treasury Committee’s Women in Finance report, the Government accepted MPs’ calls to abolish “alpha male” culture, remove the stigma of flexible working and encourage senior men to lead by example.

Its letter says there is still a “long way to go” for the financial sector to become diverse. “This includes encouraging gender balance at all levels of seniority and focusing on other forms of diversity,” it said.

This story says far less about the role of women in London’s financial sector than the role of women and wet beta males in politics. If politics is downstream of culture, then business is rapidly becoming downstream of politics. And if this is what passes for a Conservative government, there is absolutely no reason to vote for them. None at all.

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Women at Work

Staying on the subject of empowered women, there’s a lengthy video over at Breitbart showing senior Google managers talking about how they reacted to Trump’s election. The video is generating a lot of comments because people see it as proof that Google is so much in bed with the Democrats they might as well be considered part of their campaign; presumably we’d see equal numbers of comments if Sir Alex Ferguson was suddenly revealed to be a Manchester United fan.

My interest, however, is in this segment:

Here we have the CFO of one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies breaking down in tears at the recollection of the night a presidential election didn’t go the way she wanted it to. It would be bad enough if she started snivelling at the result, but to start welling up at the recollection of it, as if she were talking about the time she had a miscarriage or her sister died? This woman is mentally unstable, there’s no other way to put it, yet here she is at the head of a giant corporation.

I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the arguments misogynistic old dinosaurs used to make when women were first proposed for higher management was their minds were too feeble to handle the pressures and gravity of the job. Well, judging by Ruth Porat’s performance, perhaps they were onto something. Did John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Richard B. Mellon, and Henry Ford hire CFOs who broke down in tears when discussing the previous presidential election? No, because they were serious men living in serious times. Not only are today’s supposed captains of industry unserious people, but we are no longer living in serious times. This isn’t to say women shouldn’t become CFOs of major corporations of even CEOs, but women who lack the mental fortitude to cope with election results have no business occupying such roles. You can be damned sure Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi doesn’t behave like this.

Which brings me onto this, which popped up on my Twitter feed now I’m in Australia:

Now I know this is a promoted Tweet from some grifting law firm looking to fill its pockets with taxpayer cash, but let’s take the ludicrous claims at face value and see where they lead us.

1. Sexual harassment at work has been banned for thirty years, but hasn’t reduced.

2. Women have no faith existing structures will protect them from sexual harassment at work.

3. Half of all women experience sexual harassment at work.

What this is telling us is that men and women cannot work together, something Jordan Peterson rather mischievously suggested in an interview with Vice. If a minority of women were being harassed but otherwise the existing structures were fine for the vast majority of both sexes, then the solution would be to deal with the handful of offenders. But if half of all women are being sexually harassed at work despite it being illegal for thirty years, the solution is obvious: keep men and women separated for clearly they cannot work together. Of course, the shysters in the video think the solution is to restructure society in a manner which makes them richer and more powerful, which is why they’ve exaggerated the problem to an absurd degree. But if the problem is what they say it is, then we need segregated workplaces. Women can still hold the prestigious professional posts they believe they’re entitled to, but it will have to be in the company of other women; the men will be over there, isolated from any opportunity to sexually harass a co-worker.

As someone who has no problem with smart, capable women holding down professional positions in any field, I find it difficult to see how the behaviour of women like Ruth Porat and campaigns such as We Fight For Fair do anything other than set their cause back years, if not decades. If women want to advance and be taken seriously in professional fields, they need to distance themselves from this sort of lunacy.

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More on presentations

There is little that enrages me more than a manager asking a subordinate to prepare a presentation which the manager will deliver. My view of presentations is the speaker holds the information and the slides are a merely an aid to delivering it verbally. Therefore, it makes no sense for someone other than the presenter to prepare the slides, any more than the business of writing a Best Man’s speech should be hived off to someone else (although I’m sure this happens). There are exceptions: politicians have speechwriters, and similarly high-flying CEOs will have someone who knows the individual’s style to prepare presentations, or at least the bulk of them.

On the occasions I’ve been asked to do this, I’ve always responded with “But I have no idea what you want to say and how you want to say it.” If they persist, I prepare a presentation as if I was delivering it, starting off with a picture of a wave crashing on a beach and no surrounding text. Early into the “review” meeting it dawns on them they ought to have asked someone else. Usually they can find half a dozen others who will jump to the task toute de suite, which is why they have careers and I don’t.

If a manager is asking a subordinate to prepare a presentation for him or her it’s a clear sign they are incompetent at both presentations and management. Anyone who takes delivering a presentation seriously would prepare it themselves, and practice it. They’d know what they were going to say on each page, and how the information on the slide complements their words. They’d also work on the pacing, and own the whole thing from beginning to end. Getting someone else to do it is a sign the person knows full well the presentation is unimportant, or being given for the reasons I describe in my previous post.

Half the time, though, I think it’s a method with which insecure managers belittle their subordinates. It’s one thing getting an intern or junior to prepare presentations, but another to get middle aged men and women with 15-20 years experience to carry out the boss’s admin duties. It’s surprisingly common, though. A friend of mine works for a giant American company in its European headquarters in Paris, and she spends half her time preparing slides for her incompetent and superfluous manager and the other half implementing petty, cosmetic changes on the ones she’d prepared earlier. My friend is 44 with an MBA and two decades of experience. As I’ve remarked before, the activities of large, modern corporations tend to consist largely of preparing thousands of slides for internal use and bickering over their contents.

The above might not be completely down to belittlement. Managers who’ve been promoted above their competence level and lack confidence almost always try to rectify this by micromanaging their subordinates, and this can result in lengthy meetings discussing the contents of an upcoming presentation. But if you want to show you hold your underlings in contempt, getting them to do your PowerPoint admin is a good way to go about it.

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Presentations in France

When I arrived in Paris in early 2014 I was sent on a training course entitled “Living and Working in France”. It was run by a French lady who’d worked for Michelin and been sent on expatriation to the US for several years. When she returned she realised how peculiar the French way of life must look to foreigners, so quit her job and set up this course, which was excellent. The course took two days, morning and afternoon, so four sessions in all. The first day was about life in France, the second covered the work environment. On that second day an entire morning – a quarter of the whole course – was dedicated to a single topic: meetings in a French company.

When she introduced this topic, the instructor laughed and said this is one of the things which baffles and infuriates most foreigners working in France so she had to give it plenty of attention in her course. Having spent almost five years sitting in meetings in France I can say she was absolutely correct, but the training only allows you to understand what is going on and why, which does little to ease the frustration. I was about to describe meetings in France in a blog post but realised I couldn’t do so without first describing what passes for a presentation in a large French company. Now aspects of this will certainly be found elsewhere, particularly in large, bureaucratic organisations, but parts of it will be uniquely French with the combination being quite horrific. So here goes.

The best people for giving presentations by far are Americans who’ve practiced it. They’ll stand at the front of a room with a slide showing a picture and they’ll kick things off by talking about why that picture is relevant. That gets your attention. A Frenchman will kick things off with an agenda he has no intention of sticking to. The American will then proceed to the next slide which has a maximum of three pieces of information in concise form, a picture or cartoon, and plenty of white space. He will then leave that slide on the screen as a focal point while he talks around it for several minutes, imparting the information you’ve come to receive. A Frenchman, on the other hand, will present a slide like this:

He will then read out what is on the slide, word for word if it’s a series of bullet points. Whereas the American uses his slides as a presentation aid, with the bulk of the information delivered verbally, the French think all information to be imparted must appear on the slide. It is common when preparing slides for a French manager for him to say “You forgot to mention it rains in Argentina”. If you say, “No, I’m going to say that in the presentation” you’ll be instructed to include it in the slide.

As such, when an American gives a presentation, he’s going at a rate of around one slide every four or five minutes on average, and each slide is light in content. When I’m asked to give a presentation I ask how long it is and aim for around one slide for every four minutes, with a couple spare at the back if I need to expand on something. The French, bless ’em, don’t appear to think there is any link between the number of slides and the allocated time, hence don’t use this as a basis for preparing the presentation.

Instead, they just put in as many slides as necessary to deliver the information they believe their hierarchy wants to see (French presentations are delivered solely to satisfy anyone in the room more senior than the presenter; anyone else might as well not be there). As such, it is not uncommon to see what is supposed to be a two-hour presentation contain eighty or ninety slides, each crammed full of text in size 8 font with almost no white space and graphs spilling over the margins. Nobody – not even the geniuses who finished top of the class in a polytechnique – seems to understand that a slide every 45 seconds for two hours is laughably impossible, and human beings can’t consume visual information at that rate. They get around the first problem by letting the presentation overrun by a ludicrous degree: I’ve seen hour long meetings go an hour and a half over time. The second problem doesn’t actually matter, and I’ll explain why.

A presentation in France is essentially a report using PowerPoint instead of MS-Word. I noticed some time ago certain managers don’t like reading block text. I suspect they believe it’s beneath them; rather than read a report and provide comments, they feel a lot more important ordering someone to stand in front of them and explain things in person. I once had a facility manager tell me he “didn’t have time” to read my project execution plan explaining what changes were about to be made on his asset, and instead I should make a trip of several days to give him a presentation. The implication was that four days or my time was worth less than half an hour of his, but I suspect he was just lazy.

The other reason some managers prefer presentations to reports is the same reason they prefer management-by-committee to individual decision-making: it allows them to evade responsibility. If someone writes a report and sends it up through the hierarchy, the managers have some sort of obligation to act on it, and they can’t claim ignorance. This is especially true if, as is the case most of the time, one of them has to sign it before it’s issued. Far better to have a presentation where lots of people are present, nobody really knows who said what, and every decision can be passed off as a collective effort or denied outright. Taken to its extreme, even technical work – calculations, designs, etc. – is not validated using an inter-discipline check endorsed with signatures, but by sticking the whole lot in PowerPoint and presenting it to a bunch of people who try to spot any errors. This actually happens. Several times in my recent career I asked for some technical data or a design and was handed a PowerPoint presentation. This is why it’s important all the information is contained in the slides themselves, and nothing left to be imparted only verbally: a presentation in France is often the method by which work is endorsed by the hierarchy, as opposed to signing off on a document. Unlike elsewhere, it’s not actually a method of sharing information in the sense normal people would understand the term, hence it doesn’t matter that it’s ineffective.

In summary, the reason presentations in French companies differ so wildly from those found anywhere else is because they serve a totally different purpose. For the uninitiated, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what it’s like sitting through one of these things on a warm afternoon.

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A white middle-class view of diversity

I forget who sent me the link to this Spectator piece – apologies, whoever you are – but I liked this bit:

Diversity statistics, too, have a whiff of the five-year plan. Thousands of hiring decisions will be made in pursuit of diversity targets without changing social mobility at all. Because most measures do not measure ‘diversity’, but a white middle-class view of what diversity looks like.

In one prestigious organisation recently, a manager was recounting the impressive ethnicity figures for his department. His staff were half female, many of Indian origin. An Indian colleague smiled: ‘Um, you do realise that almost everyone is from the Brahmin caste, do you?’ To English eyes, the department was a model of meritocracy — to an Indian it looked like the crowd at an Eton-Harrow match.

It’s as if HR departments are crying out for someone, anyone, with a modicum of competence.

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Disappointment and Sadness

From The Telegraph:

A premium dating agency has been ordered to refund a client almost £13,000 after it failed to find the woman the “man of my dreams”.

Tereza Burki, 47, paid Seventy Thirty Ltd £12,600 after she was assured they only dealt in “creme de la creme” matches, the High Court heard.

But Judge Richard Parkes QC today ordered the agency to repay her fee, ruling that she had been “deceived” by Seventy Thirty’s then managing director.

Upholding Ms Burki’s claim, he ruled the agency’s then managing director, Lemarc Thomas, was guilty of “deceit” after misleading her about the number of suitors on the site.

The divorced mum-of-three was also awarded £500 for the “disappointment and sadness” she suffered.

I think this says less about the delusions ageing, single women subject themselves to than a British justice system which appears, at least to me, to increasingly view grown women as being rather dim and having no agency. Now it could be the judge simply thought charging gullible fools £12k was not on and made an example of them, in which case I hope he feels equally strongly about fifth-rate universities charging thousands for useless degrees (listen to James Delingpole’s latest podcast for more on that). But I suspect he’s decided this is a special case because she’s a woman; the £500 for “disappointment and sadness” certainly points in that direction. Would he have ruled the same way had a man sued any of the dozens of dating sites which use bots with half-naked avatars to send messages to men which they need to pay to read? And isn’t the bulk of marketing aimed at men men based around claims the product will help them get laid? Can I sue because I discovered some years ago, much to my disappointment, that “the Lynx effect” is a figment of a marketing guru’s imagination? A reader on Twitter sends me this link with some details of her complaint:

What she wanted in a partner was a ‘sophisticated gentleman’, ideally employed in the finance industry. It was important to her that her partner should lead a ‘wealthy lifestyle’, and that he should be ‘open to travelling internationally’. For that reason, it would also have been appealing to her that he should have ‘multiple residences’.

Why is she more deserving of sympathy than a man of similar age who blows all his money on a motorbike in order to impress hot young barmaids?

Ms Burki was shown profiles of men who were said to meet her criteria and be actively seeking a romantic partner like her. For example, one who she found attractive “was pictured perched on the bonnet of an expensive car in front of what appeared to be a substantial house” and she was told that his profile fitted her criteria.

Okay, here’s a picture from OKCupid’s front page:

Does anyone in their right mind think these are representative of lesbians you might meet on a dating site, and that any of those featured on the marketing blurb are from real profiles? I’ve played around on dating sites, and sometimes I wondered if I was looking at a selection of extras from The Lord of the Rings. It seems either judges are as prone to white knighting as the most craven beta, or caveat emptor no longer applies to grown women.

That said, the link does include an instance of an Australian man getting his (substantially smaller) membership fee refunded in 2004 for similar reasons:

The judgment consists of twelve terse paragraphs, each one sentence long, and including one: “The majority of the women in Mudgee and Dubbo did not meet the criteria required by the applicant”, which, read alone, no doubt casts the female population of Dubbo and Mudgee in an unfair light, and concluding with a finding that the conduct of the agency was misleading and deceptive and ordering repayment of Mr Galletti’s AUD 770 membership fee.

If getting people to part with their cash by implying they can score out of their league are grounds for being sued, the advertising industry’s going to get hit pretty hard, isn’t it?

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Obvious Solutions

From what I can tell, LinkedIn has turned into a place where dim white-collar workers write essays containing their latest groundbreaking ideas without realising they’ve stumbled onto ground amply covered for the past century by people much cleverer than they. You also get a lot of brown-nosing, especially in the comments. And you also get stuff like this:

So rather than adopting the quick, proven, and obvious solution, from now on she’ll engage in navel gazing to better herself. From this I conclude she must be a middle manager in a modern corporation.

Actually, it turns out she’s a lifestyle coach at around 32 years of age but my error is understandable. I remember back in university I was given an assignment by a weedy academic with a beard to design an automated system to clean the floor of an airport concourse. I basically copied the design of a standard street sweeping machine, made it a bit smaller and had it follow a set path, navigating via radio triangulation. We only had to design the concept so the details were sketchy, but my system would have worked. Only the supervisor came back with the sniffy remark that I was copying an existing solution and “there is room for lateral thinking here”. My thoughts at the time were “Does this idiot want his floor cleaned or not?”

You see this a lot in modern companies. Whereas continuous improvement is good, and “we’ve always done it this way” attitudes can lumber you with inefficiencies, there is much to be said for having a little humility when tackling problems, starting with the recognition that you are probably not the first to have faced them. Alas, humility is a rare commodity in modern organisations whereas hubris lies in abundance, hence managers airily dismiss proven solutions in favour of one which requires lengthy email correspondence, meetings, dedicated teams, and – most importantly – an opportunity to involve the hierarchy. Should an underling point out there are tried and tested methods of, say, setting up a document control system, they’re brushed aside as the workings of inferior beings; we’re much smarter than them.

My advice to anyone confronted with a problem is to see what solutions other people have found, and whether there is a standard industry way of doing it. Chances are, people have done all the hard work and experimentation before you, and you can save yourself a lot of time and effort. Of course, if you are faced with something unique, or the standard solution simply doesn’t work, or you need to do it differently in order to save time and money, then by all means engage in a little creative thinking and try to find a better way of doing it, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re goal-driven, you’ll first look at what everyone else does and stick with what works. However, if you’re process driven, and are more interested in your career and self-promotion…well, you know what to do.

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The Bridge Collapse in Italy

In March this year, following the collapse of a footbridge in Miami, I said this:

For a standard, single-span footbridge to suddenly collapse in this manner in the United States in 2018 is incredible. Reinforced concrete footbridges have been built worldwide for decades, and ought to be the sort of thing a highways department can design and build on their own.

There is enough knowledge and experience by now to ensure these sort of accidents no longer occur.

I had the same thoughts yesterday when I read about this:

A motorway bridge has collapsed in the northwest Italian city of Genoa, killing 26 people and badly injuring 15, police told the BBC.

Dramatic video footage captured the moment of the disaster when one of the huge supporting towers crashed down during torrential rain.

Cars and trucks plummeted 45m (148ft) on to rail tracks, buildings and a river along with slabs of concrete.

This simply should not happen anywhere, much less in a modern, developed country with a history of engineering and industrial competence. The BBC has a good page on possible causes of the bridge’s collapse, but I fear it may have overlooked something far more serious: a general decline in overall competence.

My guess would be a lack of timely maintenance is the technical reason the bridge collapsed, but what I’m more interested in is how Italy became a country incapable of carrying out basic maintenance. This is the sort of thing you used to see in the Soviet Union, or basket-case countries whose rulers enjoy the kickbacks and prestige of large capital projects but can’t be bothered with the mundane task of maintaining anything. However shambolic Italy may have appeared over the years, you could be reasonably confident the bridge over which you were driving wasn’t going to disappear from under you halfway across: they might be corrupt and disorganised, but the basics still got done. That’s no longer the case, so what’s changed? Again, I’ll refer back to my earlier post:

There has been a major shift in modern companies from delivering something useful – such as a bridge which doesn’t collapse – to managing processes. A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are. I’m sure this is pretty much what Carillion was doing when they went bust: anything useful was done by subcontractors. The distance between those doing the actual work and those supposedly responsible for the outcome has, in far too many companies, grown into a yawning chasm. Survival in a modern company is all about compliance and obedience, and accountability is non-existent because it is no longer required.

In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur.

Italy is flat broke and has been for some time, and this will likely be put forward as a contributing factor to the bridge’s collapse. But in my experience, when modern organisations start feeling the pinch the white-collar middle-managers clogging up the glass-fronted offices start preparing spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations which show if they cut back on certain things they can save money – things like maintenance. I’d hazard a guess the organisation responsible for maintaining this bridge has a budget which would make your eyes water, but almost all of it will be blown on overheads and inefficient, process-driven nonsense. They’ll also have a staff which would match the cast of Ben Hur, all of whom will know lots about the latest managerial missives but little about bridge maintenance. I’d also bet the individuals who actually maintain the bridge are subcontractors, and there’s a fair chance they’ve not been paid in a while.

I’m speculating, and perhaps I’m wrong. But currently there is a bridge lying on the ground when it ought to be sitting pretty in the air, and people are asking questions. This should never, ever have happened and it is almost inconceivable that it has. It might be a one-off but me, ever the skeptic, I’m not so sure. I think we’re going to see more of this sort of thing, vital pieces of infrastructure suddenly collapse or stop working in a manner which we in the west thought we’d never see again. I also expect we’re going to see several major corporations go under in the same period, and this will not be a coincidence. It’s good that engineers are now running around Italy inspecting other bridges for signs of collapse, but it’s high time some of these organisations and their management were subject to similar scrutiny.

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