Law of the Human Jungle

1.

Long, long ago I went to work for a young company of a kind that later would be called a ‘start-up’, although things were a little different in those days. For instance, the company had already “gone IPO”, selling its stock to the public in order to raise capital to develop its product, not as an “exit strategy” for investors. Quaint, eh?

It didn’t feel very quaint. It was a pressure cooker of new technologies and hard work to create a big, complicated machine, to get it to market quickly and establish a beachhead before the giant companies could squash us.

We were successful. Our company grew. It had 50 people when I joined. Two or three years later, it had 50 managers. A few years after that, 50 executives, vice presidents, and assistant vice presidents. I once calculated that if every supervisor, manager, and executive had six direct reports, we had enough layers of management to run a company the size of New York City.

Anyone could see we were top-heavy. Management could see it. But they weren’t so sure what to do about it. Facile cracks about “empire building” to the contrary notwithstanding, our complex web of managers were all managing things that needed managing,

Consultants were called in. Plans were worked out. A few managers exited. A few were demoted, and most of these accepted with some grace, at least publicly. Positions were eliminated. It took a year or more, and it was not an easy time.

And it was not the end of the consultants.

2.

A company growing as fast as we were, and turning over as much money as we were, is a magnet for consultants. Not all of them were worthless. A few were silly, but there were surprises.

PCs were still a corporate curiosity. Our mainframes hosted internal email, but few people used it. There were no electronic organizers. Secretaries kept paper calendars for scheduling conference rooms and their boss’s appointments, and meetings were organized by circulating memos through the company mail. The mailroom acquired a self-propelled robotic mail cart that made it’s daily rounds, stopping each secretarial station, flashing yellow lights to warn people of its approach. I don’t recall how it negotiated the elevator.

Now, we did not feel benighted. We were all doing our jobs and managing our time, what there was of it, quite well, thank you. We didn’t think we needed any new technology for that. But we were about to get it.

Into our lives came the Franklin Planner. Hundreds of them, actually, along with a team of Franklin trainers to show us how to use them.

Hopefully you know more or less what a day-planner is, the kind you carry around with you, a miniature loose-leaf notebook with refillable calendar and journal pages, and what-not. The Franklin version wasn’t exactly a new invention, but boy, they had a system, and they meant to indoctrinate us into their system.

All of us managers were scheduled for training, day-long classes in the proper use of the Franklin Planner. A day? Yes, a day. We grumbled, we groaned, but we went.

The first half of training day was spent listening to the life story of our trainer, who had apparently drifted through life with no purpose until something terrible had happened, or nearly happened, what it was I don’t recall, and she finally realized what was important to her and began to organize her life around it. Apparently, all the trainers had dramatic life stories, to put their charges into the proper frame of mind. The second half of training day was spent with the planner itself.

The details are hazy after all these years. In truth, they were getting hazy a week afterward. But I do recall some talk about knowing what was important to you, and taking private time each month, away from all the distractions of life, to think about what you would do to move closer to your goal. Likewise, to spend some private time each week to plan what you would get done to advance your objectives for the month. And before you went to bed, or upon arising…well, you get the picture. And all of this was, of course, to be written in your planner, which you would always carry with you.

It’s highly doubtful that anyone actually followed through on all this. I didn’t. But in later years, some of those impressions would come back.

3.

When I left the company, it had grown to 6,000 employees. It had almost always been profitable, highly profitable. Those of us who had been able to acquire stock made a good deal of money on it.

Some time after I left, the company was acquired by a larger competitor. We had had but one CEO in all the years I worked there, and I believe he foresaw the end of the road and contrived a final money-making exit. Today what remains of that merger is a shadow.

For years the company had excelled at formulating and executing strategy, even if from the inside it felt like barely controlled chaos. When we were successful, it  began with understanding our customer’s businesses almost as well as they did, identifying an opportunity that matched our distinctive capabilities, or capabilities we could reasonably acquire, and working out the steps to get there. This sounds obvious, but it’s not.

People like to talk about strategy, but they rarely enjoy doing it. That’s because it’s hard, and it’s hard because it’s complicated, and time-consuming.

If you hear someone say that your company’s strategy is to be “best in class”, or to “under-promise and over-deliver”, or some other slogan, be assured they have no idea what they’re talking about. They have no idea what strategy is. If they are running the company, best to hope the slogans are public misdirection, that they hope to gain some advantage in surprise, unlikely as it seems. If not, the actual strategy is to simply wish hard, and it will likely fall hardest on the employees.

In the Second World War, the Allied High Command came to see they were in a war of attrition. Western politicians and generals came to understand that one of their most important strategic assets was the communist Soviet Union and its tyrant Joseph Stalin, who would bog down the German army even at the cost of millions of lives; that modern armies and navies run on petroleum, that Germany had invaded and occupied Norway for that reason and had deployed well over half its Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe to the eastern front in an attempt to capture Soviet oilfields, etc., etc., etc.

But there were many people who strongly believed Stalin and his brand of Communism were a greater threat to the West than Hitler, that peace with Hitler would free Germany to “deal with” Stalin, that the only sensible course of action was to set the stage for two evil powers to demolish each other, etc., etc., etc.

Today it all seems a simple morality tale, good versus evil, with victory for the good all but assured. But it wasn’t that way all. The ends weren’t nearly so clear, and the means even less so.

4.

One of the business ‘truths’ making the rounds of venture capitalists these days is that software is eating the world. Everyone is doing software, everyone wants to invest in software. Geeks work 18 hour days banging out incomprehensible code for weeks on end, and we get an ‘app’, or a new social media site, or a game.

Software of any practical use is ungodly complicated, and I suppose this is so because the computers that run it are essentially quite dumb. And software geeks can get into quasi-religious wars over programming languages with ‘names’ like C, C++, or Ruby.

But the heated debates can be boiled down to a very simple idea: Managing complexity. You want to use the language or tools that are best at managing complexity, because that’s what you need to deliver products, fix bugs, and succeed.

Complexity is the law of life. Managing complexity is the existential imperative. Those who manage it well, in spite of the pressures and distractions and confusion of the battle or the business or the home, those who do the work to cut through the fog and see where they must go and the steps to get there, are those who succeed.

We can not all of us be leaders in business or in war, but we can try to follow leaders who articulate believably where they want to go, why, and how they plan to get there. The where, why, and how are all important, critically so, but hard.

And they can never be graven in stone. Managing complexity never ends, not without complexity finally overwhelming with chaos, and failure.

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