On the Handrail into the Decision-Making Circle – Meetings and Circles

His first group meet­ing. They gath­ered in one of the numer­ous meet­ing rooms, whose dis­mal func­tion­al­i­ty imme­di­ate­ly suf­fo­cat­ed every trace of cre­ativ­i­ty. In gen­er­al, the whole build­ing — although com­plet­ed only a few years ago — resem­bled more a hos­pi­tal than an IT centre.

After last week’s kick-off, this is the sec­ond chap­ter of a new nov­el about life in the cor­po­ra­tion enti­tled “On the handrail to the deci­sion-mak­ing cir­cle”. This nov­el is an exper­i­ment for me that depends on your feed­back. Is it worth writ­ing this nov­el? What could I do bet­ter and what should I do differently?

So now T. was part of that group, one of them, had changed sides, was no longer “just” an exter­nal. He was sup­posed to be an IT project man­ag­er, lead­ing an impor­tant project in a large pro­gram, dif­fi­cult busi­ness depart­ment, very polit­i­cal — as usu­al. T. was con­sid­ered capa­ble of man­ag­ing this sit­u­a­tion well, which is why he had been hired.

As a new mem­ber T. intro­duced him­self at the begin­ning of the group meet­ing in a few brief words. Then the oth­ers intro­duced them­selves in turn, most­ly more detailed than he thought was appro­pri­ate; appar­ent­ly there was no hur­ry. T. already knew most of them, at least casu­al­ly, and with some of them he had already worked quite inten­sive­ly in the past.

Nine­ty min­utes each week. That was the rite, all the groups did it that way. So not only the 15 employ­ees of his group, but basi­cal­ly all employ­ees met each week for one and a half hour. Sev­er­al thou­sand hours of work­ing time were invest­ed week after week (not to say destroyed) in order to dis­trib­ute and dis­cuss infor­ma­tion from com­mit­tees and high­er circles.

Cir­cles seemed to be very impor­tant. The cir­cle of IT man­agers, the main depart­ment cir­cle, then the depart­ment meet­ing — which for inex­plic­a­ble rea­sons was no longer a cir­cle — and then this group meet­ing. From cir­cle to cir­cle, from round to round, a Chi­nese whis­pers game for adults that has become a rit­u­al, this read­ing, com­ment­ing and dis­cussing of min­utes and res­o­lu­tions from com­mit­tees and cir­cles. This meet­ing def­i­nite­ly should have become an email. 

Or even bet­ter a blog post in the Enter­prise Social Net­work, then you could sim­ply dis­cuss with every­one there and not just here in this group. On Twit­ter he had expe­ri­enced this dis­cus­sion over the last few years and learned to high­ly appre­ci­ate it. That’s why T. curi­ous­ly took a look at this Enter­prise Social Net­work on his first day, but was dis­ap­point­ed to find that there did­n’t seem to be any good pub­lic dis­cus­sions. Maybe there was more dis­cus­sion in the many pri­vate groups, but the pub­lic area looked like a ghost town.

Is to be imple­ment­ed as pre­sent­ed”, “the deliv­ery sched­ule is to be adhered to”, “is to be start­ed as agreed” and so forth. The lan­guage of these com­mit­tees and cir­cles out of whose min­utes his group leader read the rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion seemed strange­ly imper­son­al to him. As if it were not humans talk­ing to each oth­er, but a machine talk­ing to them. So he had become a small gear in a machine and the sys­tem now gave him and the oth­ers its instruc­tions through an infi­nite num­ber of com­mit­tees and deci­sion-mak­ing circles. 

But weren’t these cir­cles made up of humans? And weren’t their instruc­tions ulti­mate­ly direct­ed at humans? Weren’t humans the core of the orga­ni­za­tion? Nev­er­the­less, or per­haps because of that, every­one seemed to be try­ing to keep this offi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tion as cold, pas­sive, ster­ile and inhu­man as pos­si­ble. Cap­tain Picard among the Borg came to his mind.

Since T. nei­ther under­stood nor con­sid­ered impor­tant most of this line com­mu­ni­ca­tion, at least not for the project he would con­cen­trate on, because that’s what he had come for, he went about doing what every­one else did and opened his lap­top. A bog-stan­dard Win­dows lap­top. He hat­ed Windows.

Even more T. hat­ed to have no admin rights on the device in order to con­fig­ure it at least some­what accept­able. From his pre­vi­ous jobs he was used to choos­ing between Mac­Book and Win­dows lap­top. Just as T. took it for grant­ed for him as a com­put­er sci­en­tist to set up his com­put­ers accord­ing to his wish­es and install what he need­ed. But of course this was not pos­si­ble here. Not even a stick­er on the device was allowed!

Don’t be like that! It’s just a job.” It was a very well paid job, which he had got­ten despite a remain­der of skep­ti­cism from the per­son­nel offi­cer. “Think care­ful­ly about whether he real­ly fits into your group, whether he fits into our cul­ture here. I have my doubts as to whether he will fit in well,” she told his group leader clear­ly. Now T. began to under­stand what she meant. It would be hard, hard­er than expected. 

He didn’t just want to do a job, he want­ed to make a bloody dif­fer­ence, make a dif­fer­ence togeth­er with oth­er engaged peo­ple, cre­ate some­thing big togeth­er. That’s what he wanted.

T. was now hap­py to be a part of it and he liked the peo­ple, but at the same time he was irri­tat­ed by the dis­cus­sions. It seemed to him that this group meet­ing was often about pre­vent­ing things. Some­times it was the claims of the projects against the IT sys­tems man­aged in this group that had to be reject­ed. Then there were the non-prac­ti­cal inquiries of the gov­er­nance, which one want­ed to avert with as lit­tle effort as pos­si­ble. Also strik­ing were the com­plaints from employ­ees about groups in oth­er depart­ments who did not want to coop­er­ate prop­er­ly in order to do their own thing.

At first glance, it almost seemed to T. that the cohe­sion of this group con­sist­ed to a not insignif­i­cant degree in the demar­ca­tion to the out­side and against “the others”.

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Chris Philpott 20. August 2019 Reply

Servus Mackus,
Very good, strik­ing­ly resem­bling my expe­ri­ences in team meet­ings and some very keen insights into the cor­po­rate world.
I like the ref­er­ences to the pre­vi­ous chap­ter regard­ing the HR lady’s com­ment about cul­ture, obvi­ous­ly they don’t encour­age diver­si­ty, open-mind­ed­ness, or rebelliousness.
The final sen­tence rings so many bells with me. When Plant Hams Hall was still a project and being built there were not so many of us and so one knew each oth­er very well. When the plant start­ed pro­duc­tion our mot­to was “We @ Hams Hall” and it felt more like a fam­i­ly than a busi­ness. Then I had my place­ment in TA‑2 Munich engine plant and when I returned to Hams Hall things had changed — silo men­tal­i­ty had got­ten a hold on so many peo­ple, who pre­vi­ous­ly had been part of the family.
14 years lat­er on I still strug­gle against this silo men­tal­i­ty, but it is ingrained in most of my colleagues.
I look for­ward to read­ing more about T.‘s jour­ney through the cor­po­rate world.

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