The Output Trap

A short story, April 11, 2018, by Marshall Guillory

It was that day again. Powerpoint Commando day. Just like every day on this job. I had never felt more frustrated in my entire career. After all, why did I spend so much of my life educating myself and gaining all of this great business experience and honing my skills if I was going to be reduced to the modus of a PowerPoint clown? That’s what it felt like at least when my VP, a charismatic and gutsy leader, Mike, would call and ask, “Hey do you have those quad charts for the Falcon program updated for the executive review tomorrow?”

I would inevitably find myself in a sour mood after hearing the words, “quad and chart” languished together as if they were some sort of twisted joke reminding me that I wasn’t, in fact, having fun at that moment.  Then I remembered another repetitive PowerPoint task that was due later that week. I would yet again be pulling together a mundane full course of status garbage, data points for an opportunity that I had in my pipeline. Mike was a great person overall, and he and I would razz the hellishness of the process on one-on-one calls all the time, but he would also always remind me, “this is the process the execs want to see happening. It’s their baby.”

The one thing that I could never quite put my finger on was the, “why?” As in, “why are we spending so much effort duplicating slides on the same opportunities and programs when we could automate much of it?” Or perhaps we could just have a normal conversation about where we were, where we are, and where we are going?

From the beginning, I seriously questioned what the executives believed they were getting out a process and system that motivated all of the director level and junior VP’s to game the system.

I had tried earlier in my career at Vertex Technology to convince our EVP and general manager, Bob, that there was a better way. I shared a great solution, or so I thought it was at the time.

I had intended to show my idea and solution to our endless slideshow circus to Mike a month before I showed it to the general manager of our division. But, as luck would have it, he had to go on unexpected leave, things got crazy on a few of my programs around the same time, and then before I knew it opportunity struck. I was unprepared. But, I went for it anyway.

We had had quarterly reviews on-site at HQ in DC and I showed up early to a meeting. The EVP did too. We both knew of each other and had talked on the phone numerous times. We had met in a group setting before too. But there was always that hierarchical separation on paper, and it felt like a cold slab of concrete in person one on one with him. It shouldn’t have mattered. At least according to the recruiter and the inspirational photos on the wall.

So, after we exchanged uncomfortable small talk I took the opportunity to bring up some of the waste in our management reporting system and processes. At first, his words and body language were positive and reinforcing. When I reached the crescendo and the hardest ask in my solution, for us to focus on business outcomes rather than raw statistical outputs of status, slide decks, and repetitive and laborious harping on how great our chances were at winning, his mood turned grim. I didn’t have my faithful mentor and leader to provide cover. I was a loose cannon on the bridge! Diving under the table would have been oddly entertaining, but career ending.

The lecture began and ended quickly with a ring.

Suddenly, I was trapped by my own idea and aspirations in a huge, but otherwise empty conference room that was devoid of caring or safety. I was alone. My fears overwhelmed me as I envisioned my peers coming into the conference room while Bob was reprimanding me for suggesting such a stupid idea and wasting his time. How ironic would that be since he had shown up early for a meeting? That one time.

But, I was saved by a smartphone. Perhaps I should have asked it about sharing my idea first?

On the flight home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what biases drove a seemingly successful businessman to be so closed minded to new and different ideas? What was the array of faulty assumptions he had made about me and my idea that drove this behavior? He hadn’t asked any meaningful questions so how would I ever know? How would he?

This is how my story ended. Mike had called to ask me to “please pass all of your ideas to me first, in the future.” Woah! Did he really just ask me to not share ideas? It sure felt like it! It was crushing innovation through thought and action.

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