Friday, May 29, 2009

Time: The Great Unequalizer

Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable. ~ Franz Kafka (often attributed to Peter Drucker)

It's interesting that Drucker, the great business guru, seems to have lifted that line from Kafka (at least, I can't find where Drucker made an attribution). When I went looking for the source of those words, I came across many other Drucker quotes that seemed more geared to the results-oriented approach that leads to the results-at-any-cost approach so common in business in the last few decades.

It just seemed a little out of place for Drucker to be a moralist.

This little digression is by way of introducing a discussion of a couple of studies that while seemingly on two different subjects, seem to dovetail. First, there was a study (there is always a study) that showed that project teams under time pressure are not innovative, instead relying on the tried-and-true just to get the bloody project done.

I'm not sure if this is supposed to be surprising to anyone. It certainly isn't news to me. I've been involved in enough projects to know that. When a team is under the gun, it doesn't have time to try out and test new methods. First of all, it takes time to develop truly new concepts, and second, it costs money. Managers pay a great deal of lip service to "thinking outside the box", a hideous phrase, but what they really mean is, "Get it done on time, even if you're not really changing anything."

In addition, managers are just like other folks: They don't like real change. Unlike the other folks, managers have the authrority to prevent change from happening. Years ago, I worked for a company where the president decided the company needed to be more forward-looking and innovative to move into the future. He hired a consultant to train all the managers in the concepts of planning, then had them meet once a week for weeks at an off-site location, developing the long-range strategy.

This was serious work because between meetings, the managers had to do research, prepare revenue estimates, draw up new plant layouts, and so on. After about six months, they proudly presented the president with a detailed 5-year plan. He praised their effort and then announced his own plan, which had nothing to do with their work. It was, instead, based on some equipment he'd seen on a vacation to Europe.

So much for thinking outside the box.

Another study (they're everywhere, they're everywhere!) came along the other day that showed that morality was also affected by time. In this study, it was shown that people would condone actions in the immediate present that they would condemn if the action were linked to some people in, say, ten years' time. Similarly, the same action performed in the past would be considered immoral, but current necessities would override that moral indignation.

In other words, it depends not only on whose ox is being gored, but when it's being gored.

We've all experienced this phenomenon. People will decry the polluting activities of their forebears and expect future business actions to be green, green, green. Yet, when faced with environmental requirements or the need to conserve energy today, they will go to great lengths to try to rationalize their way out of having to do the right things.

The business methods introduced in the 1970's by those accursed MBA's have heightened the need for such situational ethics. Thinking for the long term is a lost art that has been replaced by the "what have your earnings been lately?" approach.

If you really want this put into perspective, consider the new automotive fuel efficiency requirements signed into law recently. The auto industry has done nothing to increase average fleet mileage since the 1980's, the last time such requirements were imposed. In fact, by excluding gas guzzlers like SUV's and trucks from the figures, they have been able to disguise the fact that fuel efficiency has probably declined.

Now the industry is in all sorts of trouble, primarily because they put off making more economical and affordable vehicles. Instead, they were instituting all sorts of project teams that had to come up with results without actually changing anything.

Of course, there is a prevailing theory that the auto companies have been in cahoots with big oil. While I certainly wouldn't automatically dismiss the possibility, what I've seen of the American auto makers convinces me that they couldn't keep that a secret. What they saw is that, as long as gas was affordable, they could get away without having to innovate annything, which left more money for bonses. They could show all manner of concept cars that showed that the future would have to be green, but today the only green they would respect was coming out of the consumers' collective pockets.

Had there been a conspiracy, the oil companies wouldn't have upset the applecart by running gas prices up to the point that they would collapse the economy.

Enron, Healthsouth, GM, Chrysler. It didn't take academics doing studies to find out that our business leaders' heads weren't screwed on straight. The situational ethics and cultures of doing-what-we've-always done have been aroudn for half a century.

Shakespeare says in one of his plays, "The first thing we do, we kill all the lawyers." That's only because they didn't have MBA's in those days.

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