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Case Studies | All You Need is a View of the Great Lakes

Updated: May 25

Welcome to Case Studies, an article where we take a look at a specific institution, methodology, or entity and attempt to pick it apart until we've beaten the damn horse into soup.


Imagine working for a project team that got things out on time, with high quality, high client approval, and without the added pressure of hitting deadlines.


Impossible you say?

Well, not for our second installment of case studies.


Organization X included an internal project team that handled everything from software to infrastructure and everything in between. They even had a dedicated few that dealt with office ergonomics, layout, and design (this team was a sub-team tied to the infrastructure team).


The head of the project team was a former Marine, who spent the bulk of his tenure in the service working on large-scale projects, working closely with oversight committees, civilian contractors, and internal teams. By the time he took over the team at Organization X, he had amassed a lifetime of experience working on projects.


“When you are going on a trip, you don’t start at a location” the boss would say, “you have a goal, but first you need to get there, that’s what is most important, the journey there.”


This philosophy guided the team and how they treated projects. Nothing was end-date driven. In fact, the delivery date wasn’t even discussed until they had a plan in place to get there.


What came out of his guidance were projects that always (with very few exceptions) went out on time, to specifications, and above and beyond what was expected. Everyone took ownership of their own work and took ownership in meeting the standards outlined by the man in charge.


Something came up that would set the project behind schedule? Everyone chips in to get it back on track. Problem halting forward progress? All hands-on deck, we’ll find a solution.

When Major bossman left, the team worried that we would lose everything we had built up over the years under his guidance, but he assured us that what he taught us can be applied, regardless of who led the team.


The New Queen of the Team

For about a month we went without a leader, and oddly, we were able to output more without sacrificing quality. We chalked it up to not having morning meetings or check-ins, but regardless of the reason, we were working proof that the Major was right. We didn’t need him, we just needed what he had taught us.


Even though we all were working well, there was a collective relief when we heard that we were getting a new boss. Even better, she apparently had worked for organizations such as Oracle and Microsoft prior to joining our team.


The excitement didn’t last long.


Her first day she sat in her office, with the door closed until noon, a time when we typically all took lunch together. She came out and said “I’m an army brat, I was raised by a father who ran the family like the military, and I will run this team likewise. Any of you step out of line, you will find yourself in the unemployment line, understood?”


She then returned to her office. That’s the last we saw of her that week.


When trying to gather information on our new dictator, we discovered (or didn’t discover) that she neither worked for Oracle nor Microsoft, at least as far as we could tell.

With the lack of leadership, it was business as usual for us. Well… until the start of week two.


The List of Demands

Monday morning, we saw a sheet taped to her door. We had hoped it was her leaving, but alas, it was not so.


The note was a list of demands that we had 30 days to meet. The list included things such as reduction in time to production by 50%, total reduction in manhours by 15%, rework reduced to no more than 10% of total work, and total testing reduced by 75%. There were others, but these were the most egregious of the list. A follow-up e-mail qualified that these performance metrics would begin being tracked immediately, and therefore we needed to figure things out.


Week two went by, and once again we never saw our fearless leader.


The next two weeks were extremely stressful. Reducing time to production by 50% in one month is impossible, even for a team that worked together as well as we did. Try as we did, we could not reduce the time beyond, maybe, a few hours (nowhere near half). What’s worse, is that it created a lot of reworks, because we were no longer focused on quality, only desperately meeting the horrid demands of our absentee boss.


Testing was taking longer, rework was out of control, and the time to production had ballooned at an alarming rate. Work that would typically only take two to three days, was now taking a week or more. Simple requests stalled out before we could even start. In two weeks, we went from superstars to acting like rookies.


Week 4 and Beyond

Monday morning of week four, the office layout and design team were locked out. All of their keycards were disabled. They were escorted by security to their desks to collect their things and then walked out. No warning and no reason given. They were just fired.


Wednesday morning, we were informed that every one of our organizational strategy analysts (basically a BA) had been fired.


Friday morning, we were told that a portion of our jobs would be outsourced, because we failed to meet the list of demands.


A mandatory meeting was scheduled for the following week. The purpose: addressing the office chatter. You see, we had made it abundantly clear that we were not happy with the new direction we were going in and had serious concerns over the ability of the team to meet the needs of the company. This went around, and eventually made it back to the new boss.


During the meeting, our senior database engineer stood up and told the boss that the way she was treating us, and the demands that she was making were demoralizing.


“Look out the window, you have a view of the great lakes, what do you have to be demoralized over,” was her quick reply.


The senior data engineer walked out. Four others followed behind him.


Over the next six months all but a handful of us quit. The team was now primarily made up of offshore employees. The team size nearly doubled, because the boss lady picked the cheapest offshoring service, which led to less-than-stellar performances from them.

Our time to production had nearly tripled, and tickets needing rework versus total tickets were damn near 1:1.


Then, one day, we were all let go. The boss had pitched outsourcing all of the work to a third-party vendor. Everyone, except for her, was notified that our services would no longer be needed.


Years later, we found out from friends who still worked at the company (just not part of the project team) that outsourcing the work to the third-party cost the company millions of dollars over what they were paying us. The software went from one cohesive system to utilizing 16 different bits of software, forcing employees to bounce from screen to screen in order to do the simplest of tasks. The self-proclaimed army brat was still there as an executive director.


Analysis

Jesus fucking tap-dancing Christ on a cracker there is a lot to unpack here.


When gathering insight into this case study, truth be told, we started to disbelieve what we were being told. How does a project team go from great to super shitty in such a short amount of time? How does a new manager tank the whole team? It’s fucking wild. As we spoke to more and more of those involved, we concluded that it was real and that it was probably worse than what they realized.


Blame it on the Rain

Much like Milli Vanilli, what you hear coming out of the artist (or in this case, the boss), is probably coming from some unnamed asshole.


Shit like this doesn’t just manifest with a single person suddenly coming on staff. It’s something that is manifested by those at the top. When you see things like this, it is almost always because the board wants to go in a specific direction, and so they choose someone who will follow their direction (regardless of how stupid it is).


I stumbled across several stories of beloved managers being replaced by some asshole that ruined the team. Anecdotal or not, it appears that this is a serious issue that many have experienced firsthand.


So, the shit starts at the top, and trickles down to those on the front lines, right? So, it can’t be fought?


Well, no, and yes, but no.


There are a few things that can be done to make changes within your organization, but there are a few things you have to understand before pushing back.


Incentives are Bullshit

Many companies have taken to offering incentives for those who are top performers. Whether it’s a one-person pizza party, a new watch, or being subject to fewer lashings with a switch on Friday, incentives have become the go-to when it comes to getting employees to do what the company wants them to do.


But incentives aren’t just for frontline workers. For many CEOs and other C-suite members, shareholders have incentivized them to be complete asshats. Many times, shareholders want the company to reduce costs, while growing profits, wanting the best of both worlds without any consequences, which is total bullshit.


In a discussion with a friend who became the unwitting temporary CEO of a mid-sized company, he revealed that the shareholder demands tend to either be too nebulous or too specific. In both cases, they put the C-suite in a very difficult position, having to choose between obeying their overlords, or doing what is best for the company.


That’s right. The CEO doesn’t work for the company, put that shit out of your mind. The CEO works for the shareholders. The shareholders don’t have the company in their best interest, they have their own investment as their best interest.


It isn’t universally true. Indeed, some CEOs/Presidents are the hemorrhoids of humanity, but for some, the choice they are faced with could be the difference between having a job and not.


My CEO friend told me about an instance where a board member, who had significant investments in a major computer company, told him that he needed to ditch the HP computers the company had used for years and go with the computers the company he was invested in. It’s shady, potentially illegal, and super fucking shady. The board member told him if he did this for him, he’d ensure that he got a raise and stayed as the CEO, if not, he couldn’t make any promises.


Yeah, fucking blackmail. Although on the 20th floor, that’s just called doing business.


If Your Boss Says That Ravens are Fuchsia, Ravens are Fuchsia

I remember hearing this when I was younger, and thinking, wow… what a load of shit.


However, this is something that I see over and over again coming from members of management. They believe that what they say is the word of fucking god.


This is somewhat typical of collectivist cultures, where those at the bottom should have unwavering support for those in charge, which is why it’s so weird that it’s become prevalent in the US, which is very individualistic.


What’s weirder is the number of people at the bottom who praise the fuckers for looking at a coal-black bird claiming it’s hot fucking pink, and say “Yup, that’s a pink bird alright… those mother fuckers in the C-Suite sure are smart, hyuck!”


When you have an asshole running a business who says the dumbest fucking shit ever, makes asinine policies, and runs the company slowly into the ground those bootlicking yes men are the core problem, not the dumb fuck.


Unpopular opinion, we know.


Here’s the thing, when shit for brains is leading the company, you leave. If everyone with important institutional knowledge leaves, the company fails. No amount of dumb business changes will undo the loss of key people.


But so many people will stick around and enable the dumb fuck, because they think that it will advance their career.


The issue that these kiss-asses fail to recognize is that in doing so, they are helping in harming the company’s bottom line at best or helping to destroy the company at worst. Let’s be honest, who wants to hire a shitbag that was a key enabler of the failure of a company.


It Wasn’t Always This Way

One of the individuals we spoke to for this case study (we’ll call them Tom), had nearly 40 years of experience working in strategic project implementation, with many companies. “It was going to be my last job before retiring,” Tom told us.


“There was a time when you could tell your boss that something was a bad idea, or you could say, ‘we tried this before, here is why it failed, here is what still exists that will be a problem moving forward,’ and they would actually listen!”


This is something that we hear more and more, and it seems to correlate with an increase in lower to middle management becoming an entry-level position for college graduates.


Organizations hire MBAs to be front-line managers of a sale team, without considering that managing a front-line requires knowledge… of the fucking front-line. Some kid straight out of grad school isn’t going to know the weird intricacies of working the sales of that organization. They are going to know how things should work, without the context of putting those shoulds into action.

A tell-tale sign that this was becoming a problem was something that had been occurring for a while, that went unnoticed. More and more managers would do nothing but praise the leadership, regardless of the stupidity of the situation. “Jay is so smart,” one respondent told us, “did you know that he graduated cum laude from a shitty regional school that no one has heard of?”


“Jay, one of the company's VPs, could take a shit on the conference room desk and our pissant managers would have called it the greatest thing that anyone has ever done,” Tom quipped, “just the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen in a company.”


We argue that the decline in a merit-based promotion structure, and the rise in rewarding education over knowledge, experience, and hard work is why so many people dread going to work, why we are seeing “quiet quitting” and a lack of interest in being loyal to a company.


The Hidden Cost of Fucking Over Your Workers

A figure that I hear a lot, even though I have yet to find any hard evidence for it, is that offshoring saves companies 60% on the cost of wages within the company.


True or not, it never addresses the hidden costs, the costs that pop up as a direct response to offshoring/outsourcing.


In the case study, they saw turnover more than sextuple. Workers didn’t want to work somewhere that they felt they could be outsourced at any moment.


They also saw a dramatic increase in the cost of third-party off-the-shelf software. In theory, a team in India, should be able to do everything that the team in Michigan could, right? But the thing was the internal team had detailed knowledge of how the company worked, they could walk down to someone’s desk to get detailed information on something, and they had decades of experience working within the same software. Our primary contact said that for every ticket wrapped up by the offshore team, the onshore team would have completed three. By the time they left, it hadn’t improved.


This led to frustration, and the adoption of COTS to cover the issues created by the slow offshore team. Departments became siloed and much of the work that had formerly been automated, became manual since the systems weren’t always compatible with each other.

The other thing to remember is that these offshore companies DO NOT HAVE YOUR BEST INTERESTS IN MIND. I cannot fucking stress this enough.


The response I hear is, “well, we are their client, they need to serve their customers and that means having my interests in mind.” Tell me, if you go to McDonalds and get a burger, do you expect the 30-something-year-old living paycheck to paycheck making your burger to have your best interest in mind? Do you think the single mom taking your order has your best interest in mind? No, they don’t give a shit about you, they just want to take your money and send you on your merry fucking way.


We Push Back Because We Care

The case study is a difficult one. The griping that was occurring within the team when things started going downhill was seen as being resisting change, insubordination, and challenging the authority and direction of the organization, but the thing is (and this can not be said enough) people who talk about how shitty things are, do so only because they care. If they didn’t care, they’d walk out.


If things are coming from the top, the next bit of advice isn’t too helpful. If your manager is tanking the team for their own benefit, go to their boss, then that person’s boss, then that person’s boss, and on and fucking on. Climb that ladder with your complaints until someone listens. Eventually, it’s hoped that someone will lend a sympathetic ear.


Do Not Go To HR

HR is not your friend. They don’t have your best interests in mind. There are regulations in place that are supposed to protect you if you go to HR with complaints, but they know how to work around those regulations. They are taught how to skirt them. Individuals in HR would sell you to basement trolls if it meant saving the company. HR is nothing but an extension of the PR department, and just as fucking shady.


Where does that leave you? You need a group of people that will back you, which will put pressure on management to make changes that benefit both the employees, as well as getting the organization back on track.


What do you do?


Name and fucking shame.


Take to social media, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, anything. Tell people about what is happening behind the scenes at your organization. Tell people how the company is laying off {insert nationality here} employees in favor of underpaying people in a foreign country. Call out the executive management for living lavish fucking lifestyles. President gets a new limited edition imported sports car? Call them out. Scream to the sky that this fucker laid off employees so he could buy a two-million-dollar Bugatti.


More and more people are realizing that corporations, like Organization X, should not be praised for shit like this. The social assets between organization and the people are very important, as they establish trust between the two groups, as well as societal norms that should be respected. Calling companies out on this and getting the word out can make or break a company.


Older generations might not be as sympathetic, but the younger generation has seen this shit and has gotten pretty fucking tired of it.


Pressure from the public can have a significant impact on how companies behave. Recently the pharmaceutical company that manufactures a TB treatment for a drug-resistant strain caved to pressure from the public to not enforce their patents on the drug, making cheaper generic versions available in areas where it will save lives. Calling out shitty companies works.


Acknowledging the Early Signs

When we discussed this case study with the team members who responded, we asked what was the first thing that caused concern, that is, what was the one thing that stood out that made you pause and say “is this the beginning of something bad.”


While it is very easy to go back and say, oh, it started with this, it’s not always easy to see it in the thick of things.


Looking back, the team all responded that the decline in quality was the first real thing that gave them some sort of pause. Yes, things were shitty, but the slip in quality, and the way that the company was quick to sign off on slipping quality was the oh shit moment.

Other things that have come up in other conversations were, the company mom leaving without another job lined up, the company going public, an easy-going manager suddenly becoming a hard-ass, and losing perks (especially inexpensive perks).


When reflecting on his time there, Tom said that the first sign was the company taking away Monday morning rituals. Each team had something that they did on Monday mornings as a way to ease the teams back into the work week and a way of building team cohesion. The IT/Project team would have bagels and coffee. It cost the team about $75 a month, cheap considering the happiness and productivity that it brought to the team. All teams were told to stop the Monday morning rituals. The previous boss, however, began buying the bagels and coffee with his own money, so that they could continue the tradition. For Tom, that was the first sign that something was off.


Regardless of what the first sign is. It’s important to listen to your instincts. If something feels off or causes you to stop and question if the company is headed to a bad place, then fucking listen to it. Seriously.


The last thought we had on this was something that we glossed over until we started writing this article. One respondent mentioned he thought it was strange that they never attempted to get the offshore team and onshore team to be cohesive. The offshore team showed up to the 8 AM meeting, and that was it. All other communication was asynchronous. “I just figured they’d want us to be friendly, and work well together, at the very least.”

We now see this as a red flag. Not only should your company encourage team cohesion with those who are dispersed from the central team, but they should encourage that organization-wide. Any time there is intentional siloing, be aware that someone in charge is pulling some bullshit.

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