Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Teams Work or Don't: A Chapter from the Ordeals File

Teams are the big thing. Major buzz word in business. It’s easy to say, much harder to put into practice.

While an employee of Ordeals, I got to hear the sports jargon bandied about, cheer leading for the drones. On Sunday they watch a game, on Monday, they play the game. All rah, rah, rah for the old coach/boss/gypper, but performance? That might be another matter. Sugaring up the boss doesn’t count as work, nor does it appear on the bottom line. It does keep incompetents in their jobs.

The irony is that the concept of a ‘team’ is really rooted in the basic social structure, that of the family. Everyone needs to be able to work together, whether it’s to keep the house running or the business booming.

How well the specific team ‘performs’ is due to the management. Doesn’t matter if it’s a mom and pop shop or a Fortune 500 behemoth, bad management, bad decisions, usually equal bad return on investment. Failure is in the future.

To keep things going, you have to have all the team players buy into the goal. You get a slacker in a key position or a glory hog, whoops there goes the ball game!

How many people have you met that say they do a lousy job? Probably few, if any. Everyone tells about how hard they work, what rigors and trials they go through.

We all do it. Part of it’s recognition, the old ego-feed, having others acknowledge our work. Which is OK, as long as we don’t get obsessive about it. The other is self-satisfaction, knowing that you did a good job, without the need of public or company recognition.

No problem on either side. The problems come in when you have office politics. People saying, doing or creating situations strictly for their own advancement. Team first? Hah, not if they can figure out a way to make themselves look good. Who cares if it sinks the project?

They might, in the long run, when the client packs up their wallet and takes the job to a competitor.

An example of how dysfunctional a team can get, from the Ordeals File.

I needed a printer due to the volume of work I was churning out. When I used the office printer, it would bog down the work of the 30+ engineers in the office. Printing out a small 30 page manual wasn’t too bad. Cranking off a 300 to 400 plus page book could tie up the printer for an hour, if not longer.

After checking with my boss in the USA, I was given the OK to look for a new printer. Found one that would do the job, priced it and told the company. They balked, someone came up with the idea of shipping me an old printer from the USA. I was told to check with the local service company, find out what I would need to use it in the Netherlands.

The printer service rep told me that he wouldn’t touch the printer. It wouldn’t work, due to the different electrical configurations in Europe. I double checked it on the Internet. He wasn’t kidding, even the printer company website said it was a ‘no go’.

After relaying this info back to my boss, including the Internet link, I figured that I would receive authorization to get the new printer.

Nope, not going to happen. They wanted me to find out about getting a transformer to run the 110 volt printer on the 220 volt European system. They didn’t want to hear about the 50 and 60 Hertz difference. Which makes all the difference. Not to mention that the transformer was only about $20 less than the new printer.

Fast forward about a month. A large box is delivered to my desk. Inside is a ratty printer, stuffed, literally, with plastic peanuts. Whoever had packed it, probably the IT department, had not wrapped it in plastic and had gone so far as to stuff plastic peanuts into the delivery tray and into cooling slots.

My Dutch co-workers shook their heads in disbelief. For the next two hours, I took the printer apart and cleaned it up. Thanks for the ‘help’, computer support group. All enabled by cost defective management.

About 6 weeks after this, my boss and the project manager arrived for the annual ‘Spring Tour’. This consisted of meetings, eating, shopping and sightseeing. Rubes on tour, with maybe a little business thrown in, to make it a 'business expense' write-off.

After a meeting one afternoon, my project manager wanted to see the printer. He asked why it wasn’t hooked up and working. I was using it as a fifty pound paperweight and storage shelf.

My project manager stared at me and demanded, “You haven’t been saying bad things about our company, have you?”

I looked him in the eye and told him, “I haven’t said a word. People around here can see how things have been handled by ‘our company’.”

He then wanted to know why the printer wasn’t being used yet. I told him no one would provide service for it. I had a letter from the local printer service company to that effect. When I showed it to him, he ignored it.

He began to browbeat me about not following the orders of our company’s vice-president. I had been told to install the printer.

My reply was that the printer was a potential electrical hazard, due to the voltage and frequency differences. He didn’t like my answer, but he dropped the issue.

You don’t want to get into this type of no-win situation. My mistake was not going ahead and buying the transformer, hooking up the printer and either frying it or setting the office on fire when it burned up. That wouldn't have been my fault, would it?

This might not have happened, but at least I would have been following the ‘orders from on high’ of those who didn’t have a clue about what they were doing in this case.

In my opinion, the best way to handle a boss who is the armchair quarterback, but is in charge of running the team is to document his orders. Do as he says and when it comes unglued, talk to his boss, the big coach. Have a line of defense in place, witnesses help.

If that fails, read the message. It’s time to find another job. Too many people are working against you, not with you.

It’s not teamwork, it’s a gang slaying.

You’re the target.

(All examples in the Ordeals File are taken from my book, "Going Dutch, Trials of a Wage Slave")

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