Sometimes I think I have gone mad but when I reflect on what had happened, I am relieved to realise perhaps it is the business world I inhabit that is slowly but surely going completely nuts!
No matter how high level or advanced the business situation is, humanity still acts and behaves in a ridiculously self-important and self-deluding manner where there are always people around who encourage and promote lunatic behaviour for their own ends. Although I note the madness of this world, often with frustration, I am ashamed to confess that I condone it by participating in the charade.
Allow me to demonstrate through two anecdotes.
I worked for a large retailer who had set up a new business to explore new retailing concepts and technologies before they were implemented across their nationwide chain of stores. A new product range was being designed and we wanted to address ourselves to the question of finding a suitably memorable but relevant product name. A marketing company was engaged, focus groups assembled, name searches conducted and so on. Finally, a short list of 3 names was put before the executive board to select one.
We assembled round a big table with a great deal of excitement, the marketing company made their presentation with an air of importance, explaining to us the significance and meaning of each name and finally they asked us to choose. We debated and debated until finally, our chairman, who hardly uttered a word until that point, finally spoke. He asked us if individually we had a favourite and we said we did. He asked for a show of hands and everyone voted for his or her favourite name with one specific name coming on top.
Chairman: Well, I am not keen on any of them!
All of us: But they are good and they will soon grow on you, blah, blah, blah
Chairman: I have another suggestion
All of us (surprised): Oh!
Chairman: Yes, as a matter of fact, my wife came up with it last night and I think it is just absolutely right
He shared with us the wife-suggested name and we were split down the middle: those who didn’t like it and those who hated it. Bravely, one or two of us expressed their thoughts frankly but politely and slowly, more and more people found their voices and courage to object to the suggested 4th name. Finally the Chairman spoke again and in a conciliatory manner:
“Well, it is just a suggestion…” But with a less conciliatory and more menacing manner he continued: “But, let’s not forget who is making this suggestion!”
We all immediately agreed the wife-suggested name was the best and the other three names were summarily thrown out.
The second story took place a few years later. In 1997, I was working as a consultant for a very prestigious global apparel company discussing preparation for the “Millennium Bug” that never was. You may recall; companies and governments spent billions of dollars preparing for the dreaded bug by checking their entire computerised systems from accounting packages to lifts, elevators and air conditioning systems. The supposed catastrophe was to befall the world at 1 minute past midnight on the first day of the year 2000, everything would come crashing around our ears because our highly computerised world would not be able to handle the switch from the date format of 1990 something to 2000 something, unless we make laborious and expensive checks and amendments.
The whole thing was a huge sham of course, which kept tens of thousands of computer experts and consultants in work for months and months. Anyway, on the day in question, we gathered in the boardroom to discuss the company’s tactics on how to be ready for the day of reckoning. Present in the room were senior company staff, three partners from an equally prestigious consultancy company and myself as an independent retained consultant. Many ideas were thrown on the table, discussed and re-discussed ad infinitum. Finally, the senior company man said: “What we need is someone with previous Millennium Experience.” My first thought was: “Wait a minute, this person, should they exist, will be around 1040 years old, give or take a few years.”
Before I could say anything, or even laugh at the apparent joke, one of the prestigious consultancy partners said: “We have someone”. I waited for everyone to laugh but no one did! What the senior company man said was: “When can they start?” Again, I thought the joke would soon wear thin and we would all laugh, but to no avail. Within 5 minutes, it was agreed that this extremely old consultant would turn up the following Monday and at an enormous cost, give us the benefit of his advice on how to handle this monumental challenge.
Many of us are familiar with a short story by Hans Christian Andersen about the ancient Emperor who was fooled by a couple of dishonest tailors who presented him with silk robes so fine in material that no one could actually see the clothes, except for the tailors and the arrogant but foolish Emperor who stripped naked and donned these non-existent but very expensive robes. No one dared say anything for fear of being arrested and punished so, all citizens sighed with delight at the beauty and rarity of the Emperor’s robes. It took a child in the street to realise the absurdity of the situation and shout out: “Oh look, the Emperor has no clothes!” for the population to start laughing and pointing at their foolish ruler. The dishonest tailors were arrested and executed.
Sometimes I wish I had the wisdom and courage of a child!