I’ve been saying for a while that I’m moving more towards fiction as a way of explaining the core ideas of my work.
This briefish multi-chapter extract is from a business-oriented novel with a working-title of The End of Certainty. (Yeah, I know it’s not a good title, but it’ll do for now!) The aim is to introduce whole-enterprise thinking and methods, but in a form that makes it all more palatable and ‘human’.
The characters we meet here, either in person or indirectly, are as follows:
- Marco Pellegrini – the narrator – is the recently-appointed ‘Head of Organizational Development’ for a large but unnamed multinational in the widget-retail business
- Margaret Millhouse is the organisation’s CEO
- Helen Pellegrini is Marco’s wife, a lead analyst for another organisation, MarCom
- ‘Mouse’ (Amber Pellegrini) is Marco and Helen’s eight-year-old daughter
The context for this extract – chapters 21-27 of the book-so-far – is that Marco has developed a change-plan along the typical ideas and assertions that we’d see in the present-day business-press, as promoted by business-schools and mainstream business-pundits. But as we’ll see, the plan, uh, doesn’t quite go to plan… – folks here may recognise some of the blatant howlers and the first signs of the screw-ups that arise from them.
The Mouse’s painting, mentioned in see Chapter 22, turns out to be a key anchor-metaphor throughout the whole story – even if entirely unintentional and unknowing on her part. For example, the targets in the painting symbolise a problem with business-targets that we’ll see arising already even in this extract; and ’the Scotsman’ is a symbol for a key character in the story whom Marco has already met, but doesn’t yet realise that he’s done so, or how important the Scotsman will be in helping him to get out of his mess.
This book is perhaps half-written already; if I use it as my main focus for the ‘NaNoWriMo Challenge’ next month, I should have a first-edit full-draft available for people to play with by around Christmas or New Year.
Hope you enjoy it, anyway!
All right, I’ve survived that meeting – we have the go-ahead from Margaret.
I’m pleased with what I’ve done on that plan – she pretty much approved the whole thing as-is, without much change, or even much argument at all. That screaming-match of hers just before our meeting might have had something to do with it, of course.
Ye gods – I got a ‘yes’ out of the Queen of No! She only made one significant change, but which I know the marketing people won’t like: she’s vetoed their entire social-media plan, as a waste of time and resources. She says we can just opt out of the whole thing, not bother with it, not let it bother us. I’m inclined to agree with her, though: after all, it’s only another marketing-channel, and we’re spending more than enough on advertising already. As for the ‘reply-channel’ that they talked about, all it would be is another way for customers to complain at us. And we need to stop that happening, as much as we can, otherwise our customer-service costs will go through the roof – and that’s another overhead we really don’t need. No, just opt out of social-media entirely – we don’t need it.
Okay, let’s go put this into action, and fast: we need to be able to show real returns from at least some of this within the current quarter.
“What’s that noise, Daddy?”
We’re in the town square, after her school, and there’s a guy in full Scots kit playing bagpipes over on the far side. Is it Burns Night coming up again already? – I don’t know. Probably.
Personally I think the best part of the sound of the bagpipes is when they stop, but the Mouse is enthralled. She drags me over there, and stands up close, her fingers in her ears and a huge grin on her face.
Finally he stops, at last, my ears get a rest, and I grab the chance to gently drag the Mouse away while I can. She’s still way hyped-up over it.
“Wow! I didn’t know you could do all that loud, from just a thing you blow! Wow!”
Of course – she’s never seen that kind of live-music before. Music comes out of a loudspeaker, otherwise it’s just the tinkly little stuff they do with tambourines and triangles at her school. So yeah, bagpipes would be a bit of a shock to the system, then, wouldn’t it? I have to smile – kids are just amazing, watching them learn new things. Learn new things from them, too.
But then she stops dead in her tracks, yanking me to a halt as well. She turns back to look at the piper again, but thankfully doesn’t seem to want to go back. Then she lets go of my hand, faces me instead, and settles into her ‘I’m thinking about things’ pout. She’s looking worried: something’s not right.
“Why’s he wearing a skirt, Daddy? Girls wear skirts, boys don’t. It’s wrong.”
Yeah, she’s in the everything’s-black-and-white-no-shades-of-grey stage at the moment. Everything’s absolute, no context, no complications. Just either right, or wrong. She’s going to get a few shocks later, isn’t she? – we all do… But at least this one’s safe enough to explain to her, even at this age.
“He’s dressed like a Scottish soldier, mouse. And it’s not a skirt, it’s called a kilt. Some Scotsmen have always worn them, especially the soldiers. Goes a long long way back into history.” You gotta be tough to live in that climate, I think to myself. And even tougher to be a big tough guy and wear that stupid skirt in public. So yeah, it kinda figures, I guess?
“Oh.” The Mouse is still thinking about it. “I s’pose that ‘splains it, then.”
“In my painting. You know, of you, at work. In the castle, with the dragons and all.”
What painting? Oh, ah, right, yeah, that painting. Just before the weekend. Got it.
“The woman in the market, with the frying-pan, hitting the dragon. You ‘member? When I drew it, I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t work it out.”
Like I said, even she has to stop for breath sometimes.
“That music-man’s kilt ‘splains it, you see. I knew it had to be a skirt, but it’s not a she, it’s a he. The frying-pan woman is a Scotsman, like the music-man.”
Scotsman? What’s she on about? Why on earth would it matter? She’s my own kid, sure, but I gotta admit that sometimes I really don’t understand her at all.
But at least the worry’s vanished from her face; she breaks into a grin that’s so like her mother’s that it almost hurts. She grabs hold of my hand, and tugs me along with her as she breaks into a happy little skipping walk. She looks down at the ground for a moment, then turns her face toward me.
“Come on, Daddy, come on! We promised to cook the dinner for Mummy, we promised, and she’ll be home soon!”
Kids: you gotta laugh, right? At least they don’t have the worries that we do, from the real world. Our job to shield them from that, for as long as we can.
But yeah, she’s right, let’s get the shopping done, and get home. I want to have everything right for my beautiful woman when she comes in from the cold.
The plan: it’s working!
Everything’s in place: the targets, the metrics, all the outsource-arrangements, databases, dashboards, the lot.
The roll-out is going really well – no problems so far, anywhere. A small cost on setting it up, of course, but we’re well on track to big savings even by the end of this quarter.
Might be a few union-hassles with all of the layoffs, but that’s about it: not expecting anything else.
Kind of a triumph, really, though I say it myself. Feels good.
I think it’s working.
A few hiccups around some of the IT-systems, but that’s nothing to be surprised about. Teething-problems, that’s all.
I hope it’s working…
But I can’t tell. That’s what’s driving me nuts.
It’s not working.
I don’t know how it’s not working, but it isn’t.
We did everything by the book, but there’s something weird going on. Everyone’s hitting their targets just fine, but it isn’t getting any better. If anything, it’s getting worse – all sorts of odd problems popping up in unexpected places, kind of somewhere in the cracks between things. Every time we fix a problem, something else just pops up somewhere else instead. It just doesn’t make sense.
I know it’s not working.
But everyone else believes that it is working – or wants to believe it is, perhaps.
And I can’t prove it, so they won’t listen to me anyway – especially as our figures for this quarter show everything as a resounding success.
All I’ve got is a hunch – a feel, I suppose you’d call it – and a bunch of little stories that just don’t add up.
Some of them are things that are just too good. Look at the call-centre logs, for instance. The target for customer-service calls is two minutes max: the operator has to have dealt with the call by then, or passed it on to someone who can fix the problem for the customer. Fair enough. And if you only look at the summaries, at the traffic-light set – green, amber, red – it all looks fine: we very rarely get anything outside of the green. If it’s outside the green, we come down on them like a ton of bricks anyway, so it’s not a great surprise: they ought to do it well, to the target, and they know it.
But if you look at the detail – like I did the other day – it just doesn’t add up: the number of calls climbs steeper and steeper towards the two-minute mark, and then there’s just nothing, nada, zilch. Not many pass-ons, either: it’s like almost everything gets magically fixed exactly at the two-minute mark. And I don’t trust that kind of magic. I especially don’t trust it when our call-volume is going up so steeply that we’ll soon need another call-centre, and maybe more.
Something wrong there, I’m sure of it. The problem is that it’s only visible if you dig right down into the detail – and for much of it, look for what isn’t there, like a more sensible bell-curve distribution for call-durations, not this magic cut-off exactly at the target. But how do I explain it to anyone else? They only look at the aggregated summaries and the traffic-light flags, and everything’s just fine and dandy up there. Or looks fine and dandy, but actually isn’t: and we have no way to find out how much it isn’t. Or why, for that matter. That’s what’s worrying me right now.
And then there’s what happened to Helen in our store over near the Marcom office. She went in, picked up a bunch of stuff, and went over to the checkout in the usual way: nothing unusual there. Halfway through, the checkout-chick stops dead at one item, and tells Helen she can’t have it. What’s wrong, says Helen – why can’t I have it? It’s ‘cos it doesn’t exist, says the chick. What do you mean, ‘it doesn’t exist’? says Helen – you’re holding it, in your hand, right now. I know, says the chick, but the computer says we haven’t got any in stock – and I can’t sell it to you if we haven’t got any in stock.
Helen starts losing her rag a bit at this point, and says, look, it’s right here, it exists, and I want to buy it – are you going to let me buy it? I can’t, says the chick, the computer won’t let me add it to the tally if it says we haven’t got any stock. But you have got stock, says Helen. I know, says the chick, but there’s nothing I can do – computer says no, and I can’t do nothing else.
At which Helen just throws her hands up in the air, she told me, and just walks out, without buying anything at all. And frankly I don’t blame her: I’d do the same. But she’s told a lot of people about that screw-up: I’ve even had a couple of so-called joking emails about it from some of her guys at Marcom. She says she won’t bother trying to buy anything from there again, and as far as I know, she hasn’t – which doesn’t do me much good at home, either, because it’s my company’s store that’s screwed her around in this way. She had a bit of a go at me about it when she first came back from that trip, which I thought was a bit unfair, because it’s nothing to do with me: but she said that logically it was my fault, because it was my change-plan that pushed through the changes that made everything fall apart in that stupid way. And in that sense, yeah, she’s right – which is a real worry.
It’s stuff like that. On the surface, everything all looks like it’s working really well. According to the figures, according to everything that we’re measuring, it is working well. And yet I know it isn’t.
I’m worried, I really am. And I don’t know what to do about it – which is worrying me even more.
(That’s it for now: comments welcome!)