This time the New Year did not start on the usual relaxed note in our office. The routine exchanging of wishes and getting over of hangovers was replaced by tenseness and uneasiness. The economic trouble that started in Europe, somehow, for no logical reason whatsoever, had landed in our company for a holiday.
As in the case of Europe, in our company too, the top leaders (read managers) did not have a clue on how to handle the situation. Austerity, so hated by modern economists, who are ardent advocates of more spending, was looming large on the horizon. That only meant one thing – pay cuts and layoffs.
But before we reached those difficult times, two major initiatives were planned for the first week of the year to find solutions to the problem of severe cash crunch – a brainstorming session and appointment of a consultant who would recommend measures for cutting costs.
“As you are aware,” began Superboss grimly, “we are meeting for a brainstorming session to throw up ideas for change and to set our priorities for this year. At this stage I will not say much and start directly with taking suggestions. Who will begin?”
None of us, including Superboss, was in a condition to think radical solutions, let alone anything remotely logical, and it took some goading to get the meeting off to some sort of a start. It was the outspoken and disgruntled Phil, the balding veteran of the HR, who began.
“The reason for our falling revenues is that we are increasing workload and decreasing manpower,” he began, but was cut short by Superboss.
“Focus on something that is in our hands.”
I looked at the pencil in my hand. It suggested sharpening.
“Our computer needs changing,” piped in Soapy, the young blood.
“Now we are getting somewhere,” said Superboss, and his expression became thoughtful.
We had changed our computers three times in the year just gone by. It only led to missing files stored in our systems. In fact finance is still struggling with the problem created by a total loss of accounts data. Moreover, the idea suggested more expenditure rather than revenues. But nobody spoke against the suggestion, probably because of the hangovers.
“How can we improve our relations with our agents?” prodded Superboss, as silence hung heavy. Again it was Phil who spoke up – he was in one of his ‘moods’.
“By improving our services, by understanding their needs,” he said grumpily.
“In brainstorming sessions we need more radical ideas,” said Superboss, trying his best to hide annoyance.
“How about firing all those present in this room and getting smarter people?” asked Phil. With superhuman effort, Superboss suppressed himself.
“Let’s try to figure out what new services we can provide with existing manpower.”
“New services, we are hardly giving the current ones,” said Phil.
“The situation is serious. Let us not divert ourselves with frivolous talks for once,” said Superboss frostily. Phil suddenly lost his will to carry the argument forward and relapsed into the ‘post-New year party’ state like the rest of us.
Superboss got into his motivational skill mode, softened his voice somewhat, and put on his cheerful smile. Only it looked more like a sneer. “It is certain that there will be economic hardships this year,” he began.
“I really liked the uncertain times,” muttered Fred, the bespectacled finance manager.
“I have a vision that if we really put our heads together and resolve to contribute our hundred percent, we will get out of this crisis unscathed,” said Superboss.
Not only is this vision thing over-rated, this directionless talk of contributing hundred percent was not likely to lead to salvation. The gloomy faces around the room confirmed my worst suspicion – that everyone else was also thinking along this line. What was also written clearly on their faces was the fact that in an economic downturn, abandoning the ship was not a practical alternative.
“Let’s meet the marketing team and find out what they want – they were grumbling all of last year. Anyway, what is their grouse?” asked Superboss looking at Mr A, my immediate boss.
Mr A shrugged, made astonished faces, mumbled something and sat back with a satisfied look on his face. He had, to his own satisfaction, exposed the lack of professionalism of the marketing guys quite conclusively. The matter was not too clear to Superboss, who looked confused and said so, “What was that?”
Forced to abandon sign language, Mr A began slowly, but this time clearly, “They want the impossible. They want us to become McKinsey and Intel rolled into one. They have no idea of the structure of our organization or our strengths. We just ignore them.”
“It’s not their fault,” jumped in Mr X, the arch nemesis of my boss, “We must tell them what we can do and what we can’t, and then they can come up with intelligent suggestions.”
“Okay we will have a meeting with marketing tomorrow. Who will brief them?” asked Superboss.
After a pause, “What do we tell the marketing guys?”
After another pause, “What will be on the menu?” That got Admin going, and slowly the meeting gathered steam.
After hours of brainstorming, a proper menu was decided, Soapy was voted to be the one to prepare the minutes of the meeting, Techie (our popular Computer expert) was given the task to find out the latest offerings from the computer world and it was announced that the consultant hired for suggesting austerity measures would be submitting his report shortly, and a meeting to discuss the recommendations would take place soon.
The meeting on budget cuts, based on a report by the mysterious consultant, whom none of us had ever met, and who went by the name of Messrs. Dodge and Dodge, was held later that same week. Some of its recommendations had been leaked, and there was a general hostility to the entire exercise. Superboss however looked pleased.
Fred began by expressing the general sentiment. “I have seen parts of the report. I feel it has been done by someone who does not understand our organization. None of us have been consulted in the process.”
He was interrupted by Admin, who, I noticed, was also beaming happily. “That was deliberate. It is dispassionate, fair and impartial report.”
“50% cut for coffee cups, 50% for electricity bills,” began Fred, but before he could come to the point he was trying to make, Admin piped in again.
“Coffee dispensers would not use electricity, so there would be an automatic reduction in electricity charges.”
“But computers do require electricity, so do ACs and tube-lights,” Fred said.
“Our total dependence on technology is not healthy – it dehumanizes the organization.” This gem was from Superboss, who had come to the aid and assistance of Admin.
“And 50% cut in transport?” persisted Fred.
“To reduce our carbon footprint,” said Superboss.
There was no getting around the fact that it was a good plan. Fred surrendered – he knew when he was beaten.
The report of the consultant was adopted by general consensus at the end of an hour long discussion. It was however not clear whether any of us had to do anything beyond ‘acting within the scope of the recommendations’ – whatever that meant. Finance was tasked to keep an eye on all departments to ensure that the report was implemented, ‘in letter and in spirit’.
In the next few months the report was forgotten, and no one really understood the sudden scarcity of paper cups for coffee in the canteen. At the end of financial year in March, the expenditure side was not dented at all – in fact a healthy sum was added to it in form of payment made to Messrs. Dodge and Dodge, Consultant.
The subject of making New Year resolutions came up with my boss, Mr A sometime later in January. I reported by inability to decide on a resolution that I would be able to keep beyond a week, on the outside. Mr A nodded.
“It never works for me too,” he said. “I have long since delegated the task to my wife, who makes the resolution for me and tries to see that it is kept.”
“Has it succeeded?” I asked, interested.
“No. It only gives her another handle to twist me,” he shook his head sadly.
“So why have you introduced this system?” I was puzzled.
“Who said I did? She did,” he retorted.
“Oh. Something like the brainstorming and austerity drive in our company,” I said. “How is the cash situation now? Have you heard from the HQ?”
“With Europe in doldrums, finance seems to be shifting to our shores. The company has managed a soft loan to tide over this period.”
“It is a temporary relief. We must orient ourselves to the market sooner or later,” I said with firm conviction. “But that is not possible with our top heavy decision making. Any proposal that we put up sits on tables until there is a crisis or is outdated and becomes meaningless.”
“Ah there you have hit the nail,” suddenly Mr A was all animation, as if he was the nail in question. “An elaborate system of approvals was created by the wise men during Biblical times just to ensure that most things don’t get done. It probably was a result of Tower of Babel fiasco. Do you realize that most things ought not to be done? It is always haste that makes waste.”
This line of thought in the present context zapped me. Mr A elaborated, “See the result of all the actions that were taken as a result of the crisis – they only made matters worse.”
That inaction is the most appropriate action in crisis has been a line of thought actively promoted by Ostriches. But coming from a manager seemed a little strange. I think it would be years of imbibing the philosophy to Mr A, and observing him in action, or inaction, before I would be able to get the subtle nuances of the fine art of management. I finally resolved to dedicate the year in closely observing Mr A and his methods.