Turning Things Off

Topics: HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

Turning Things Off - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

When you are changing an ecosystem, the status quo is the absolute enemy.

Turning Things Off

Here’s what I know. Speculating about Marissa’s motivations and the likely outcome of her decision is a waste of time. The endless flow of BS on the topic is driven by the desire to be topical and the pressure of daily publishing.

I want to tell you a story about turning things off.

In the early 1990s, I took charge of a struggling non-profit. It was one of the very first organizations to totally run on email. (It was the first place a counsumer could actually get an internet account.) It was well before the graphical web.

This small band of artists, writers and futurists were living in the future. (Then, as now, the future isn’t evenly distributed.)

As the new guy, I was operating at a disadvantage. The organization actually lived in the ether. All important conversations happened in email. It was impossible to tell what was going on without participating in those conversations.

So, I turned off all the email accounts.You should have heard the screams.

The staff was engaged in a complex web of bitter personal attacks using the email system. I”d meet with people in person then meet them in the halls an hour later. I could see the fear and anger but I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I knew something was rotting the organization but couldn’t figure it out.

When I turned off the email, things went crazy for a little while. You can imagine what it would be like in your world. You’d have to call people. You’d have to talk to them. Little transactions would take a lot longer.

When you are changing an ecosystem, the status quo is the absolute enemy. Every turnaround involves some form of amputation. The blunt way is to start chopping heads. The more elegant method is to interrupt things and try to cause a reset.

I’ve had the wonderful good fortune to have been called awful names in a variety of settings. (I have thin skin, so it usually hurts.) The point, generally is that my job requires certain things. Feeling good isn’t necessarily an option. (The basic problem with most engagement stuff. – can we start calling it en-gag-ment yet?)

That time, I got called a lot of things. Think four syllables beginning with an M.

My job was to turn the organization around. It really wasn’t to make the employees or the audience happy. The choice was stark, deep cuts with a layoff or a reset to see what could be fixed.

Generally, when you do something like this, it falls into the no good deed goes unpunished bucket. Upsetting the normal work environment is what’s required when the normal work environment is broken. Inconvenienced people rarely care if the current scenario was the lesser of two evils.

I didn’t like it. I wasn’t passionate about it. I didn’t like inconveniencing everyone. But in order to do my job, I needed to know some things.

That’s how turnarounds go. My three predecessors failed for one reason or another. I needeed to peel back the organization’s skin. I needed to demonstrate that the status quo was not acceptable. It had the effect of eliminating the possibility that I would ever be one of the guys.

That was good. It wasn’t my job to make friends. It was my job to navigate the ship through rough waters

From my perspective, the intervention worked. A few deadlines got missed. A few people quit because they could not imagine working for such an A******.  A few people stayed because they had no immediate other option.

The infighting became particularly visible. There were people who simply shouldn’t have been working together. Most of them got the boot.

The work got done. The team regenerated (though their idealism was tarnished). The cost structure was rearranged. New players emerged.

There’s not really a moral here.

My intervention worked even though the initial reviews were terrible. Sometimes, bosses have to make unpopular decisions. The great ones understand that it’s never a popularity contest and that there are no sure fire recipes for success. Almost everything is fungible in a turnaround.


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