Thursday, March 18, 2010

Row, row, row your boat

The story goes that with great fanfare, India decided to participate in the annual international  boat race. After the usual selection drama, the Indian contingent of 9 boatmen and 90 officials went off to the US, the venue of the race.

On D-day, during the qualifiers, the Indians were last, losing to the American team by 5 miles, in a 6 mile race. Obviously, everyone was down in the dumps. The 90 officials decided that they needed to find out what had gone wrong. So, a team consisting of senior officials was formed to investigate the issue and make suitable recommendations.

The report indicated that the Americans had 8 people to row, and 1 to steer, whereas the Indians had 1 to row and 8 to steer. The Indian team management was perplexed. They hired the most expensive consultants for advice. The consultants examined the issue for 2 months, and concluded that there was not enough rowing being done by the team.  Hence, the team management decided to reorganize the team structure. They promoted 4 of the members to Steering Managers, 3 to Steering Supervisors, and 1 as Head of Operations – Steering. In addition, the rower was issued a warning letter telling him that he needed to improve his performance to save his job.

The next year, the Indians were last again. This time, they did not even complete a 100 metres of the race. Humiliated, the management fired the rower, and dissolved all investments made in the field of boating. They used the cost saved to give a bonus to the management team, and rehired the consultants.

No doubt, that seems like a far-fetched story. But in truth, it is quite close to the way some organizations function. In fact, if one uses the above parable, some possible issues could be:

a) Flawed organizational design – In a world obsessed with designations and fancy positions, it is easy to lose sight of objectives and just focus on building a hierarchy. Top-heaviness is a syndrome that many modern organizations suffer from.

b) Lack of performance management – Yes, the organization, like our boating team has a macro goal – to be the best. But, someone needs to break that down into simpler pieces for each individual to know his/her role. (To use some typical jargon, this would be MBO – management by objectives)

c) Improper planning – The organization here was committed to its results, but then you probably cannot build a world-beating team in such a short time. Without deciding on how long they were prepared to wait for results, the reactions of the management were simply knee-jerk.

Ultimately, in the long-term, no one gained in this scenario (except the consultants, probably). But, if they had done a little bit of homework, they probably could have given the American boatmen a run for their money, instead of ending up like the Titanic – sunk.

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