Press-ganged again! Those inky blighters who do the menial work around here have locked me in my office, demanding that I ransack my reminiscences for a real-life tale, to be published today. All right, you drudges, I’ll do it – on condition that you print these few words as a caption. If you trick me, heads shall roll. One true story coming up. Editor
A Man And A Plan
Shortly before the end of my working life in the commercial world, I was charged with an awesome responsibility. “You are now Corporate Planning Manager,” they said. “Go forth and produce a plan.” The initiative was a brainchild of my immediate boss, the Director of Administration. He had attended a seminar, returning with a mountain of literature emanating from an American business guru.
In a sizable organisation – we had over a thousand people at the head office and four times that number in our nationwide branch network – I was not left without help. In fact I was assisted to distraction. Dozens of colleagues were eager to participate, especially in the area of terminology. I soon found that the idea was to mix and match impressive words and present them in any order, without varying the ostensible meaning of the expression concerned.
My chief thundered that we knew next to nothing about our affairs. This baffled me, as we and our predecessors had been running the business for about 140 years and were achieving better results than all but half a dozen of our hundred-odd competitors. Nevertheless, it became de rigueur for our leaders to stalk the corridors, wearing glazed Messianic looks and striving to outdo each other in admitting profound ignorance of our wider environment. To make any contrary claim was to court disaster.
Presentation of the plan was a big problem, revolving mainly around organisational shapes. Some preferred classical pyramids, others ziggurats, others concentric circles. The only general agreement was that whatever was offered to the non-executive directors should look nice. Many hours were spent in meetings convened to establish the relative values of the words ‘mission’, ‘aim’, ‘goal’, ‘objective’ and ‘strategy’. Invariably, the consensus was that all of them should be used, though their hierarchy was a matter of hot debate. If a mission was immutable, could a goal be changed? If an objective was quantifiable, could it be reached by a strategy which was not? Such considerations so impinged upon the daily round that for weeks it was almost impossible to find a manager who would deal with our firm’s normal day to day exigencies.
In vain I pointed out that other companies in our field were repeatedly attaining excellent annual results without the benefit of formal corporate planning. For this and other heresies, I came close to losing my job. That I did not do so was probably attributable to the fact that I was the only one doing any actual work on the new scheme. My colleagues offered much advice, while remaining sufficiently ambivalent to guard themselves against any danger of adverse repercussions. Every one of the chieftains agreed that the old baronies had to go, but all maintained their fiefdoms, prudently adding extra strata, to be removed later in the event of rationalisation, in order to restore the status quo ante.
After labouring mightily for some months, we reached accord. The pinnacle of our plan was to be the Corporate Aim, though even this gave rise to dissent, as some people suggested ‘Mission Statement’. The former term prevailed. It was a ringing assertion of our values. I forget the text, but it was to the effect that we intended to be the best outfit of our kind. Since several of our major rivals made similar declarations, I could not see how this moved us forwards. Not being of top-brass calibre, I failed to grasp the true relevance of the development.
Now came the even knottier problem of achieving our desired result. As we had well-nigh exhausted our collective cerebral power in deciding what the plan was, how were we to muster the resources to implement it? The solution came from my still supercharged chief. In one of his visionary flashes, he realised that my shoulders were creaking. We needed management consultants.
Where does one go after proceeding from the sublime to the ridiculous? Let me just say that we went there. We interviewed four prestigious consultancy firms, each of which promised us salvation. The first three did so on the understanding that they would operate for a predetermined period, their charges being fixed at the outset. The fourth refused to commit to either timetable or costs. The executive directors chose that one.
It has been said that management consultants are people who borrow one’s watch to tell one the time. They do indeed have a wondrous technique, collecting vast fees, riding roughshod over clients, whose facilities they commandeer left, right and centre, while providing very few of their own tangible resources. They take no responsibility and guarantee nothing. There are three possible outcomes. First, one rejects the consultants’ advice, which exonerates them. Second, one goes along with their recommendations and comes to grief, in which case they will argue that their guidelines were not followed correctly. Third, one accepts their suggestions and succeeds, which covers them in glory. In any event, they prosper.
Thanks to our counsellors, we soon had flesh on the bones of our plan. Within a year, we had a magnificent document. The verbosity was intolerable, but the gist was that if we did as we were told, we would be a virile, powerful leader in our field, possessed of all the ingredients for a glowing future, surviving into the new millennium and acquiring minnows in our field as a sparrow picks up breadcrumbs.
We followed the advice and about five years later were gobbled up by a larger organisation in our own sphere. Shortly after the takeover, I met a Japanese businessman and asked him how his compatriots went about corporate planning. “Colpolate pranning,” he said. “What is that?”
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