the tail wags the dog… and other incomplete metaphors.

“don’t let the tail wag the dog” photo by Sam DuRegger

Corporate life is full of contradictions and incomplete metaphors. It’s an interesting place to spend 40% of your waking hours, an environment full of personalities, agendas, opinions, and egos.

It’s also one of the most socially complex places I’ve ever spent time. In college, the social dynamics in the football locker room was pretty simple — those who worked hard and made plays were respected. Those who worked hard and didn’t make plays were accepted. Those who neither worked hard and never made plays were tolerated, because every squad needs a scout team.

Startups are relatively straightforward as well… those who get shit done for the CEO, stick around. Those who don’t agree with the CEO, are let go. Those who didn’t like to work long hours, left.

Not as equitable as the former, but the rules were clear.

In corporate life, the complexity of the structure, the bureaucracy of the system, and the sheer number of people in positions with shared responsibility to make decisions — makes getting shit done an absolute quagmire.

This is why Dilbert is such a huge hit in corporate settings. #solidarity

To be honest, I always thought pasting a Dilbert cartoon on your cubicle was a bit masochistic, as the cubicle dweller seems to derive joy from their present uninspired position. These sardonic cartoons tacked on cubicle walls was, to me, a memorial — a head stone — honoring the things you hate about your life, but are unwilling to change.

Now, I find in them, a subversive element to corporate life, a defiance by frustrated people who want to do honest work, but have resided to the near impossibility of building at a reasonable pace in bureaucratic systems. These cartoons are like therapy, they are hilarious, because they are so eerily true. Spot on actually.

See today’s (1/11/16) Dilbert Post Here.

The problem with judging all of my co-workers as uninspired cubicle dwellers, is that it’s much more complex than I previously imagined. It’s not a lack of ambition that keeps people’s head down, it’s a lack of direction, lack of priority, and a lack of alignment by the decision makers.

In pointing out all these problems, I’d be amiss to not present a couple solutions, or at least some things that I think might help the situation.

  1. Quit with the incomplete metaphors.

In a world where the workers get conflicting direction and shifting priorities, it doesn’t help when one department is consistently throwing shade on the others. Now, I don’t mind being the best, but in a corporate atmosphere, being the best happens through collaboration and cooperation. It’s not a gladiator match in which there is a winner and a loser, nor is there success at the expense of another team (maybe in spite of another team, but not deliberately against the other team).

“We can’t have the tail wagging the dog,” is not a helpful metaphor, as it implies one team is the ass and the other the brains. It’s subtle, but in a world where people are already memorializing their desks, it becomes fodder for continued disfunction.

“Metaphorical interpretation is an unconscious process, but it can have profound implications.” — David L. Shields

Every team is working towards a goal, the tension comes when the goals are in opposition. For corporate departments to work together, this “versus” attitude needs to shift to a “for each other” attitude. Which can be accomplished with better metaphors — whose goal is to motivate and inspire. Stories which give importance and value to each of the players involved.

Team metaphors, climbing metaphors, and yes, even house building metaphors can help move us past this competitive glut. To build the systems we are trying to build, we need mutual appreciation and respect to flood our meeting rooms — allowing for difference of opinions, and healthy debate, but not at the expense of the other.

I realize this is idealistic, but idealism and pragmatism need not be in a dichotomous position — that is, practicality can be guided by the ideals/values we hold in common. So, instead of pitting our forces against each other, let us rather… decide to dance.

2. Compromise and Collaboration is how shit gets done.

Creating an integrated technology platform is a dubious task, there is no clear path, no uncompromising position. To think a product or platform can be launched with an unknown scope (or fluctuating scope) without a proper LOE (Level of Effort) from the stakeholders is akin to delusion. We are not developing a standalone app which touches nothing but the code in the folder. Which, to be fair, is still a monumental task — in need of collaboration and compromise, but at least the end product is clean, that is, not reliant on other systems and processes to run.

When you add-in a complex non-integrated environment, scope and budget are mere guideposts to a product launch, there is no “completion” as products and platforms with multiple integrations are in constant need of attention and maintenance. There is no end-product, there is only: launch, support, maintain, re-build, test, launch, support, maintain, re-build, test, launch… ad infinitum or death.

All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.
— Edmond Burke, speech on the Conciliation with America

There are many ways to build an app, there are many ways to architect a infrastructure, there are many ways to interface with the customer, but the only way to happy path is to “balance the inconveniences,” as Burke says. We can trudge along as “subtle disputants,” working against the progress of the other departments, a slow grinding process where stubbornness is an asset and hierarchy the trump card. Or we can reach toward a better way to work, in which communication is transparent, collaboration an asset and compromise a daily posture.

Compromise is the core of collaboration.
Communication is the grease.
Common goals are the context.

The product life cycle is not a democracy… nor can it be a monarchy. Successful product life cycles are dependent on proper facilitation of the collaborative process. There will need to be a voice responsible for the decision, but the voice need not make the decision in a silo.

3. Ban Knowledge Silos

In talking about new metaphors, here is one to try on:

Knowledge is a fertilizer, 
spread it out, 
and teams grow.
Put it in a silo,
add some time,
and it becomes inert.
Concentrate it, 
to one seat,
to one person,
and it is toxic.

Basically, knowledge is shit… spread it, then cultivate the soil, so that the product/team/business can grow. Knowledge is fertilizer to grow your teams understanding and competence, not a power reserve for you to store up to zap your opposition when they stick their heads out.

Knowledge is shit — Don’t hoard it. Don’t store it. Spread it.

In a corporate structure, the more I think about it… the more I believe a VP’s role should be thinking about the what, and trust the people on their teams to understand the what and have influence on the how. That is, give the Directors, Managers, and Producers, a vision for the what, but let them figure out the how. Knowledge then is free flowing from the top down and the bottom up. Pun intended.

In conclusion. When we choose to drop our façade, compromise our position, and communicate through it all — we can accomplish much. Dilbert cartoons will become less relevant, and cubicles less sardonic. In this environment, we can really press towards innovation, as the infrastructure will be able to respond to the dynamic challenges of today’s Marketing and Technology demands. No longer working against each other, they will be attached at the hip working alongside each other to accomplish the goals of the company.