Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Idiot’s Guide to Management

Paneer, or cottage cheese, is by far the most popular dish among vegetarian Indians. It hardly lets you down, whether you take a few minutes to prepare it, or indulge in painstaking procedure. The taste of paneer per se is rich and delectable. Whatever your ingredients, irrespective of your cooking history, anything edible thrown around paneer acquires a unique flavour. And so I’d joke, that it would take talent to ruin something so facile as paneer.

Till I met some people who seemed perfectly talented for such endeavours. Forget paneer, they could ruin anything, without touching them, with devastating ease. Provided they are the Boss.

Imagine you are a cook. And you have a boss who’s not done much cooking. There are two ways he could go around monitoring your work.

Boss 1

He asks you to prepare a particular paneer dish. After all, it doesn’t take to be a cook to know your taste buds. So, he gives you a clear brief. Not on the process, but on the product. You get working on the task and come up with a dish that stands tall by your quality standards. Your boss tastes it. He likes it. And he tells you so.

Where work is love made visible, response is appreciation spoken out aloud.

In a situation where your boss doesn’t like it, or finds it short of his expectations, he tells you to mend it/ overhaul it. The suggestions are specific – use grated onions/ fry the paneer/ make the curry thicker/ use green chilli instead of red…and so on and so forth. Discussions ensues, suggestions are weighed, and you finally carry out the changes. The dish is ready. A veritable feast.

Going by this speed, you decorate the table with a smorgasbord of cuisines, and leave for home on time.

Boss 2

He is a different boss. Like Boss 1, he too doesn’t know a thing about cooking, but he dreams, eats, smells and breathes cooking. His ambitions are spread so far and wide that he can co-relate astral sciences with cooking. Whether it is pretence or genuine obsession…cooks in the department can’t tell for sure.

What they can bet is that Boss 2 has his ideas fairly scattered. And he has been in the process of collecting them for the last few years. Some say the process won’t end. Of course, they are the callous pessimists. The ones who can’t tell finer differences between a conventional painting and modern art.

Boss 2 summons you. He asks you to prepare a paneer dish. Which kind, you ask. Fancy yourself, he answers. If you are a new cook, you leave with a shot in the arm, beaming. For being made to feel in charge of your business.  If you’re an old hand, your heart sinks for the nth time.

Here is how it goes.

You prepare a paneer dish which ranks high on your yardstick. You take it to Boss 2. He tastes it. He makes a face that suggests he’s had a laxative. He mumbles something in disagreement, and asks you to change the dish. How, you enquire. You try to elicit his idea of the paneer. But what comes forth has nothing to do with paneer. He dwells upon the noble philosophy of Martin Luther King, touches upon the museums of Paris, mutation biology of micro organisms, and the turnaround of IBM by Gerster Jr. The enlightenment lasts an hour. Following which you get no wiser on the task at hand, but one genuine understanding travels to your soul. Well-read is no match for well-thought.

Brushing aside the ramblings of an over-educated mind, you set the burner aflame once more. This time, you really let your creative juices flow. You might not be inspired, but you are aware that an attempt, however lame, has just been made to invigorate you. You re-do the dish by adding unique flavors. You scour the internet for garnishments, using spices from Kerala. Sweating, but satisfied with your work, you enter Boss 2 room again.

This time around, he does a mental somersault. He asks you to think out of the box, and add potatoes to the dish. This leaves you flabbergasted. Paneer and Potato! Your mother would have pulverized Boss 2 for even imagining it! Unsure, you politely tell him that the combination is somewhat…weird.
That’s why you are where you are and I am where I am, he says with a smile. You guys have no capacity to Think. You don’t challenge basic assumptions. That’s why you remain at the crawling level of management. That’s why an organization needs leaders like me to cultivate you folks.

The ignominy is spelled out with such concern that it sounds venerable. Like a class in epistemology. Downright abuse could not have achieved it. This revered feeling in being stripped naked.

But that still leaves you with a plausible question. You wonder, vocally, that if potatoes had to be added at all, why did he not state in the beginning. Isn’t strategy all about defining the goal and drawing a plan to achieve it?

Tch, he clucks his tongue. Once again you have missed the crux of learning, he moans. I did it on purpose. To prepare you for crisis situations like these. You must learn to adapt to change. When I was in…

What follows is an anecdotal story on his escapades in his previous department. Boss 2 gloats over his accounts of perennial fire-fighting and emerging unscathed each time (can’t say the same about his team-mates). Recalling each story in its gory details; forcing you to gather all patience at your command. You wonder, silently this time, what’s the glory in being combative, when you could have been organized?

By now it’s mid-day and you have added potatoes to the paneer, in what you thought to be the only edible combination. This time around, Boss 2 has herded a mini-Parliament in his room. He passes the dish to ten different people, all from different departments, none having a culinary history whatsoever. Suggestions pour in from these ten people in factorial of ten, most of them contradictory and incompatible. Boss 2 asks you to incorporate them all. Your heart sinks to your feet. But Boss 2 is grinning ear to ear. He has just conducted a live experiment of vox populi. Pleased with himself, he thanks everyone for their precious comments, as he waves them the archetypal ‘I am a people’s person’ goodbye.

On the end of your frayed nerves by now, you remind him of the axiom on too many cooks spoiling the broth. Or paneer, in this case. He gives you the look that Krishna would have given Duryodhan when the latter suggested a battle over Kurukshetra. It is followed by a spewing of management jargons – collaborative working, inter-department dialogue, benchmarking, stakeholder buy-in, value creation, granularity, in-sourcing etc. The exercise leaves his dictionary completely exhausted.
Back on the kitchen table, gathering your wits around you, you start working on ‘accommodating’ views of all and sundry. You wish your boss had asked for your view, for a change. But you know better; it takes trust in oneself to place it in another.

Boss 2 keeps watching over, and suggests a new idea every 10 minutes. He calls them ‘iterations’. Old hands in the department come to offer genuine condolence, not without the implicit ‘I warned you so’ message. You find yourself adding banana chips, soya beans, spinach, apricots, beer, Chinese herbs, spearmint, broccoli, plums, fresh cream, crabs, oyster sauce…and what not to the dish. The aroma of paneer has been replaced with an indistinct smell of organic matter. The pan, by now, is a gut-churning sight of unidentifiable mess. Forget eating, sane people would not even touch it.

It is late evening. You feel wasted and drained. You still can’t judge clearly – whether to cry on your fate or to marvel on the talent it takes to destroy even paneer.

But Boss 2 is happy. He has acted in complete accordance with the ‘Idiot’s Guide to Management’ book.