Workplace Reality #2: “Organization deliberately sets up conflicting goals for people”

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #2: “Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other“.

There are 2 reasons why organizations end up creating conflicting goals:

  1. Organizations need a healthy checks-and-balances system. They need one set of people to keep a tab on what another set is doing and hold them accountable. For example, finance team is there to make sure money is not being spent unwisely by other groups (of course, they have other goals too!).
  2. Organizations are quite complex. It is very hard to rationalize the goals of one group with the goal of others. It is expected that individuals in these positions will rationalize and get to a common set of goals as needed. So sales is asked to get high revenue (hence sell more and more), engineering is asked to deliver best quality (hence take more time to build it well), and these 2 groups are expected to work out the right balance between them. Simple!

The conflicting nature of goals can create unpleasant situations which are hard to understand. A few examples:

  1. Expense filing process becomes too complicated and keeps getting complicated every year. This makes rest of the company mad at finance team and creates bitter relations. Finance team feels this bitterness is unjustified because they are just doing their job of tracking expenses.
  2. An aggressive sales team becomes over-demanding and keeps selling more than what the engineering can deliver. Engineering team feels burdened and frustrated and end up producing poor quality. This makes sales team mad because they feel engineering is not doing its job.
  3. Developers take too much time to write their code and testers don’t get enough time to test it, letting the product go with inferior quality. When customers complain, tester gets blamed for quality.

Almost all of these (and other similar ones) hard-to-understand situations can be explained if we look at the goals and how they interact when 2 groups come together. Finance goals of strict control on expense conflicts with other groups’ goals of spending little time on non-revenue generating work. Sales team goal of quantity (which is proportional to revenue) conflicts with engineering goal of quality. Developer goal of code completion conflicts with test goal of comprehensiveness.

As if this was not bad enough, organizations create incentives (bonus, rewards, raises) to motivate people to focus on their goals. This makes the situation more complicated by making people push more for some goals than others (and the balance is disturbed more and conflicts are harder to resolve). But that is a topic of its own, to be dealt with on another day!

The way out of such situations having conflicting goals is negotiation and influencing of parties involved. However, most people view this suspiciously and give it an easy name – organizational politics. They dream of working in a company that will have no politics, and fail to see the reality. Smart people instead spend their time mastering their negotiation and influencing skills, and develop networks within organization that helps them navigate these conflicting goals.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #3: “Most performance review systems are broken and useless“. Stay tuned.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Workplace Reality #1: Organizations care for value, not you

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #1: “Organization doesn’t care about you, it only cares about the value you create“.

A job is a financial arrangement: you offer to provide value, and the organization pays you for it. Like any other business transaction, the organization expects to make more money off of the value you create. When you start adding more value, organization pays you more, resulting in salary hike. When you start adding less value, organization tries to help you produce more (training, counselling, transfer, etc.), or tries to get rid of you (since it can’t reduce your salary!). The difference in the value you create and the cost incurred on you is the ROI (Return on Investment) for the organization. Organization will want to maximize this ROI as much as it can. This is the essence of this reality.

Keeping the ROI equation in mind can help explain lots of organizational behavior. Look at these points:

  • Organizations don’t need to care about individual’s career growth if it doesn’t impact ROI positively. They may care if ROI becomes negatively impacted (to recoup their investment), or when they are confident it will increase the ROI.
  • Organizations will use stack ranking, bell curve and all other means to differentiate performance. This is how they improve their ROI, reward better performers and fix or let go worse performers, keeping average ROI improving all the time.
  • Training is a known way to improve ROI since cost of training is assumed to be less than the skill improvement achieved. So organizations invest in training, and will stop the investment when they stop seeing ROI impact.

Many individuals, esp. those in IT in India, fail to look at a job in this way. They think they are so much in demand (because they are much cheaper than their European or US counterpart) that market pressures don’t apply to them. They seem to think they generate significant value just by showing up! Their behavior at workplace and expectations from it doesn’t keep ROI equation in mind. They follow a disastrous career path with unintended consequences. When they are let go, they are surprised and feel victimized.

So how much value does an individual create that warrants the salary he gets?

I teach organizational behavior at a business school. I asked one of the batches to identify and quantify the value they create for their organization. Most students didn’t even attempt to solve it – some said this is too tough a problem to solve, while others said this problem is unsolvable! Those who did attempt found it a very hard exercise.

Modern organizations have such complex inter-dependencies that it is hard to do the math of the value you create. One of the easiest (and crudest) measures is to look at revenue per employee. In general, the way is to understand how money is made and spent, and what role you play in that process. It is better to be in a role that directly and visibly contributes to revenue generation (sales, R&D, delivery) than the indirect ones (cost-saving, internal efficiencies, support roles, etc.).

Once you know how to calculate the value you create (even if approximate), you can understand and control the ROI equation in your favor, and that is one of the best ways of proactively managing your career.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #2: “Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other“. Stay tuned.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

9 Realities of Modern Workplace

While talking to a project manager in a services company recently, I was reminded of how little people (even those with 8-10 years of experience) understand modern workplace. We were talking about promotions and bonuses and she was lamenting the fact that promotions very rarely happen in the mid-year review. When I asked her why that might be (it is the case in most companies – it is an exception to get promotion in a mid-year review), she offered a few: it gives more time to people to prove themselves in case they missed out in the last review, it is too early, etc. but nothing convincing, even to herself. I left it as homework for her to figure this out but it left me thinking.

If someone is serious about building a career, they need to understand modern workplaces. While there are lots of management books about workplace and organization behavior, very few people bother to read them, preferring instead to somehow manage their way through the workplace. This puts them at a serious disadvantage. Many times, people think their current workplace is bad because these factors exist and think that their next workplace will be much better. The sad reality is that most workplaces are similar in these aspects and their next workplace is unlikely to be any better than current one. From career management perspective, it is much better to stay and try to figure out how to excel in the presence of these realities rather than trying to run away from them.

Here are 9 realities of modern workplace that everyone would do well to keep in mind and plan to tackle.

  • Organization doesn’t care about you, it only cares about the value you create
  • Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other
  • Most performance review systems are broken and useless
  • Promotions and bonuses are determined more by available budget and market conditions, less by your capabilities or your performance
  • There is always a stack ranking and a bell curve of performance rating, even in companies that claim they don’t have these
  • The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology
  • Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful
  • There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa
  • What leaders say can be very different than what they mean

Here are 7 personal rules that career-savvy engineers try to live by and work around these organization realities:

  1. I don’t work for my manager, I work for my organization
  2. I don’t listen to leaders, I only observe them
  3. I make things happen, I don’t wait for them
  4. Every obstacle is an opportunity to learn something new
  5. I always explore opportunities to learn new things that are aligned to my goals
  6. I measure my own career growth, I don’t rely on performance management systems
  7. I always produce the best I can produce, independent of how the organization makes me feel

Later posts will delve deeper into some of these realities and rules. I am very interested in listening to what your experience has been with realities of modern workplaces, and how you have dealt with them. Please post your comments.

PS: So what is the answer to the question I posed to the PM at the beginning of this post? Well, it is simple: company’s annual budget incorporates the money needed for salary hikes and bonuses. If companies start giving regular hikes and bonuses during mid-year, financial planning will become quite complicated because salary usually constitutes a significant portion of the cost of a technology company. So to keep things simple, all such changes to money outlay is planned to be done once a year and money is allocated during budget exercise.

PPS: Here are the links to the posts for each of the realities:

  1. Organization doesn’t care about you, it only cares about the value you create
  2. Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other
  3. Most performance review systems are broken and useless
  4. Promotions and bonuses are determined more by available budget and market conditions, less by your capabilities or your performance
  5. There is always a stack ranking and a bell curve of performance rating, even in companies that claim they don’t have these
  6. The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology
  7. Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful
  8. There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa
  9. What leaders say can be very different than what they mean

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

My Independence – Growing up

This is part-3 of a series in which I am writing a post every 6-7 months to chronicle my entrepreneurial journey (see first part and second part) and share my roadblocks as well as lessons. It is hard to write connected posts with such a long gap, you tend to get lost in details and what to exclude. Let me try to distill my thoughts and present a short version of my last 7 months (this is still a very long post!).

I left the last post at a point where I had just come out of a pretty depressing phase where nothing seemed to be going for me –called ‘informed pessimism’ in psychology literature – and I had entered ‘informed optimism’ phase. Most of the comments suggested that people thought I was on the verge of giving up, and they tried to encourage me. I have good news for them: I am continuing on the same path, with much more determination and fun. All of your best wishes definitely worked for me! Continue reading

Learning Product Management from City Administrators

Two real stories, one long and one short, and an observation on how you can learn product management from city administration.

Story 1: Caring about unmet need

I live in Greater Noida, which very clearly has been designed by people who thought a lot about city planning and had lots of creativity. Roads are very wide (even small streets are 4-6 lanes), Sectors have Greek names (Alpha, Beta,..), and every type of property has a designated location (all schools together, all colleges together, all factories together, all shops together, etc.). Continue reading

B.Tech Degree Shops (aka engineering colleges) – Who will clean the mess?

Recently I met a 3rd year student of a private engineering college in Greater Noida. To avoid problems for me and the college, let’s call the College Best Standard Institute of Technology (BS-IT). Here is the profile of the student I met (let’s call him Sam), so that you can decide for yourself if this is a representative sample of students going to normal private engineering colleges in the hope of good education and degree:

Class XII – No name school in a no name place with average marks because he was preparing for IIT-JEE in Kota for 2 years

Class X – Top notch school in an industrial township, average marks

Decent performance in school level Maths and Science Olympiads (the ones that start from Grade 2-3), very good at logical and memory-related skills

Middle-class family, father a PSU employee Continue reading

IIT Mania – Can kids be kids?

Recently, I read the news about JEE (Advanced) Delhi topper (who is also JEE 4 nationally), who said

I have been preparing for five years for this exam

Wow! This means he started when he was in Class VIII, aged 13-14 years. He goes on to say

When I had school, I usually could put in about four or five hours of study every day, but as soon as the holidays begin, I usually put in about nine hours minimum

So when was he doing things 14 year old kids are supposed to do – like playing with friends, net surfing, reading non-textbook books, watching TV, playing pranks, socializing, etc.? Continue reading

Enabling Product Managers to manage Product Experience

In my last post, Product Manager, or Product Experience Manager, I described the disparate features and experiences that got broken in SiteZ and made the case that product management team should be responsible for overall product experience. In the final post of this series, I will present my views on how product management team should manage experience so that such issues can be minimized or avoided. Note that I am not talking about creating initial product experience or its next version, which is a topic of itself. I will focus only on managing the product as it goes through incremental changes.

There are 3 questions that must be answered by product management team at all times (and should be asked periodically):

  1. Are we seeing all the activities we should be seeing?
  2. Are we processing all the activities we see?
  3. Are we making good decisions based on our processing outcomes? Continue reading

Career Choice: Good boss or Good work?

Someone asked me this recently:

You have 2 options: Work with a good boss, but the work is some boring stuff, or work on some interesting project, but the boss is not good. Which one would you choose?

My mind jumped to all the boss-work combinations possible, see the picture.

If I make this a generic question, it is really a multiple choice question:

Which is the best option for you to choose?

  1. Bad Work and Bad Boss
  2. Bad Work and Good Boss
  3. Good Work and Bad Boss
  4. Good Work and Good Boss

The questioner was asking which one to choose between 2 and 3, so let’s talk about this first. While there is a scale of goodness, let’s assume black-and-white situation for simplicity – things are either good or bad!

 

Good work makes life at work interesting, it grows your career, and overall makes you happy. So of course you would want to choose good work.

Good boss gives you opportunities to grow, guides you in your career quest, and removes roadblocks in your work thus making you effective. So of course you would want to choose good boss.

If you have to prioritize between them, it is not easy. My answer was to choose good boss (option 2 above). Here are the reasons I gave:

  1. You can turn boring work into work that helps your career (esp. when you have a good boss), but it is very hard to turn a bad boss into a good one.
  2. Your career depends much more on quality of boss than quality of work. This is because career depends on factors other than quality of work. For example, even if you work on a boring project, your good boss can give you opportunities to present your work to your VP, thereby giving much needed visibility.

This also reminded me one of the hindi couplets from my textbook:

गुरु गोबिन्द दोऊ खड़े, काको लागूँ पाय।

बलिहारी गुरु आपने, जिन गोबिन्द दियो बताय।।

(Teacher and God, both are standing – whose feet should I touch first?

I bow to thee, O teacher! Who made me understand God)

While the analogy is crude, it is worth saying: a good boss is like a teacher, a guide – he/she will help you know and understand the work, the career, the workplace. Good work is great, but not enough.

So what about options 1 and 4? They seem obvious – 1 is strict no-no, and 4 is worth grabbing with both hands. However, it is important to keep in mind that there is no single, or correct, definition of ‘good work’ or ‘good boss’. Work good for one may be painful to another, and boss great for one may be bad for others. So if the definitions are clear, the question becomes more complicated, and even moot. Before answering this multiple-choice question, it is important to spend time on following questions:

  1. What kind of work will be good work for me at this stage of my career?
  2. What kind of boss will be good boss for me at this stage of my career?

These are not easy questions to answer because they rely on your current career stage, career goals, and your self-awareness, but they are very important to answer if the original question is to be answered.

What is your take on this? If you are given a choice between good boss and good work, which one will you choose?