Friday, November 28, 2014

25 Stories About Work - Small Unit Cohesion

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)...

Chicago, 2010, at a Shooting training center

In 2010 my dad and I went to an all-day class to learn how to shoot properly. The first four hours were in a classroom and the last four hours were outside when it was a brisk fall day and we learned various techniques of how to shoot and spent over 800 rounds.

In the beginning of the class, the instructor asked everyone about their background. My dad and I said we were complete amateurs. When the others talked about their experience I didn't fully understand what they were saying until later but many were ex military who were now contractors in Iraq or elsewhere with very extensive experience. They were attending for what must be some sort of required periodic classroom time.

The reason that this is interesting is because the instructor went through firearm basics that was all news to me but must have been the most banal and simplistic discussion that these guys have ever heard. It would be like sending me back to school for mandatory training and showing me a balance sheet or explaining the very basics of systems technology. In five minutes of this I would be agitated and distracted and frankly a bit insulted that someone wasn't properly valuing my corporate and career experience. Because that is how a corporate or business person would view the process, but not a military person. Each of the military guys sat in their seats for four hours and if anything they constructively helped the instructor, who we ex-military himself. In hindsight no one was joking around or making a mockery of anything.

When we were shooting the guys all helped each other and the team immediately without asking. We had a lot to cover so they leaped up and changed the targets and moved and anticipated and everyone was part of a larger mission. After a while it was completely obvious to everyone that me and my dad (who was in his late 70's at this point) were behind the game so they subtly starting helping and coaching us in addition to what the instructor was doing. Sometimes you had to shoot multiple targets to clear a level and I think a few times guys helped me by shooting my targets too.

Only in hindsight did I recognize the "cohesion" concepts that SLA Marshall talked about in his famous book. He talked about the value of leadership and training in motivating and getting the best out of the men under your command. While these sound like commonplace lessons, and one the military has likely long since learned in its recent brutal wars overseas, these lessons are usually nowhere to be found in corporate America and most private businesses.

I watched "The Last Patrol" (highly recommended) last night on HBO and they had a similar observation. The protagonists are walking across America (even in Baltimore, I was scared for them) and asking people what is great about America. These ex-military guys and ex-combat photographers (with 20+ years in the middle of all of it) were trying to wind down and find their bearings without the adrenaline rush of combat and surviving possible death. They met a woman in an American flag bikini and she said she worked in an old folks home for veterans and she said that they all helped and looked out for each other. However, she said, it wasn't like that once you left the facility - it's not like that outside in America today.

Back to what I really know which is corporate America including lots about small businesses and government. I have been at 100+ different organizations as a consultant or employee and think about this topic all the time, so I consider myself a bit of an expert. This sort of camaraderie, shared cohesion, and teamwork is mostly absent in these other sorts of organizations.

When I started as an accountant we did have some cohesion and shared purpose because I was assigned to the worst group of clients - governments and utilities. It was all travel, and since most of the value of being an auditor is shopping your skills to companies who might hire you later (I missed all the opportunities in hindsight, sigh), we sometimes banded together because we all felt like we were getting the short end of the stick. I also was right out of college and tended to believe what I was told (initially), although that soon melted away and my skepticism has stuck with me to this date.

In larger organizations it seems that you are fighting your peers as much as the competition. You are all struggling for budget resources, the best staff, and the best opportunities. Often you are stuck working with adjacent organizations run by leaders who "don't get it" and this just promises to be a long difficult slog, at best. This sort of model (internal competition) kind of works when the stock market is going up and you have the wind at your back, but as soon as you have headwinds and difficulties the real knives come out and then it is mostly rearguard activities rather than fighting for the best interests of the company as a whole. Incentive systems are normally not going to value selfless work on behalf of the corporation so those "behind the scenes" tasks are abandoned and the whole organization kind of chews up its muscles for a while and hopes for the best.

My brother worked for a dying American icon manufacturer and seller of technology and he told me that towards the end, the very neat buildings full of test gear and other materials for client presentations and demos fell into utter ruin because there was no upside in keeping this sort of "common" benefit alive for all the teams to utilize, since the numbers were terrible and everyone was desperate to survive. There was barely a security guard out front and it just became a jumble of crap and a sad reminder of how far the company had fallen.

I can remember vividly another time when we had complete cohesion - seven of us left a consulting firm and started a new firm, with our own money (the CEO put most of it on the line). We went out and rented space, bought equipment, and got started. I did the books every weekend and made sure the invoices and expenses billed to the clients were absolutely perfect and that we got paid right away (note - this is hard. Most invoices are terrible, late and full of errors. Mine were error free because I am a zealot and did it myself and also knew what was supposed to be there). This was in addition to traveling 5 days / week in distant cities. We all worked together to build a company and I still remember this as the best time in my working life. We all leveraged our best skill sets from technological excellence to sales leadership to organization to just focusing and getting work done. It was amazing and the manner in which that fell apart later and I left pains me still to this day.

I don't think top executives can see the dissension and how far most companies are from the optimal state. They are often far removed and don't have access to front line information, or they don't seek it out. Smart leaders "manage by walking around" because it allows them to talk to staff unscripted and without their management "handlers" who likely would snuff out anything but "happy-talk" to the top executives for fear of making themselves look bad. But excellent top management realizes that this sort of "bad cohesion" will come back to haunt them in the end, somewhere, and try to get ahead of it.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz


creakypavillion said...

Excellent entry, and oh so true about corporate "culture".
I just wanted to add - backstabbing and "reargard activities" during hungry times when there are less incoming projects are habitual signs of mid and small size companies as much as the large ones.
All that lip-service about "teamwork", when in reality you gotta be always alert to your coworkers' moves against you; when the objective shifts from "producing good quality work" to "pleasing your manager" - that grates on one tremendously, and the more time one spends in the industry, the more tired one becomes and less productive.

Thank you for this post, Carl.

Carl from Chicago said...

Glad you like it and agreed that it is difficult to be in a place where you are watching your back all the time.