The facts of this article are true but I have changed names and some details to protect the identify of a former client.
Victor’s Shell Game
Victor, a CTO, was a skilled swindler and played a marvelous shell game with his executive colleagues. Here’s how the game is played:
Let’s say the priorities this quarter are initiatives A, B, and C.
And the end of the quarter:
- neither A, B, nor C are done;
- Victor explains that A, B, and C are in fact done and we’re already reaping the benefits;
- believing A, B, and C are done, the CEO instructs the CFO to dutifully pay all bonuses.
Everyone agrees the priorities next quarter should be X, Y, and Z.
- As the days pass, the staff find themselves working on A, B, C, X, Y, and Z.
Like a shell game, this lie in the board room is a classic slight-of-hand trick. It happens right before our eyes; we know it’s happening; yet we think this time we’ll outsmart the swindler. It’s a brilliant game, as old as the hills, and still fools the best of us.
Opacity May Be the Opposite of Transparency, But So Too is Obfuscation
The company in this story was a hi-tech product company. They employed a few hundred staff. The executive team worked together in office most of the time.
In their line of work, I have come to expect a company’s office walls would be filled with information: product roadmaps, usage and market statistics, interface wireframes, data flow diagrams. Evidence of people working together. Designing and deciding together.
But my assumption was wrong. The walls in their office were stark and the whiteboards were clean.
I quickly learned the product roadmaps were found in Google Slides. Meeting after meeting through the first few days with them, I listened to executive members refer to “the priorities” and they’d speak of release dates and rollout plans and marketing campaigns. All of these details were either figments of their collective imagination or perhaps each person kept vivid snapshots of the Google Slides in their mind’s eye at all times.
Now, I should tell you, I have a habit as a coach and facilitator. A useful habit, I’d argue. Simply: while I’m listening and observing a team in discussion, I jot down words on the whiteboard or stickies — noteworthy or interesting items from their discussion. This helps me to learn about their technology or business domain, but this also makes visible the most notable aspects of their discussion.
I do this not just for me; I do it for the whole group. I do this on a prominent wall visible to all in the meeting. And (almost) invariably, the discussion moves from the boardroom table to the wall — people stand up from their static position in their boardroom chair and gather with markers and stickies in hand. A visual map of their discussion emerges.
But Victor Hated It!
At first, when Victor was reluctant to participate with the others around the wall, I just thought he was perhaps more shy than the others; perhaps he was uncomfortable with this mode of collaborating.
But, as I’d soon realize, the visual facilitation tools posed severe risk to his shell game. Imagine you could replace the magician’s shells with transparent glasses!
So long as the technology roadmap was confined to Google Slides and controlled by Victor, he could easily tell any story that suited his needs. He could manipulate expectations for his benefit.
But Could It Be True?
“There’s no way a CTO would do that! And there’s no way others wouldn’t figure it out!”
It was difficult for me to believe — who would like to discover that a CTO is misleading their colleagues? So, I tested the idea many times: I spoke with other staff to understand the true condition of the current work. Think: “If I ask 10 people to tell me about project A, I should hear similar stories. Right?”
It became abundantly clear that some projects the CEO thought were absolutely finished, were not.
Victor’s Good Intentions
I’ll end by saying I really liked Victor. And most others did too! After all, he helped ensure everyone would always get their bonuses. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I am convinced Victor did none of this maliciously nor selfishly. Rather, there’s a good argument to be made that he was acting (or so he thought) in everyone’s best interest. Perhaps he thought all of the obfuscation was permissible, even desirable? So long as the train didn’t fall completely off the rails, everyone would benefit, right?
I am reminded of the old saying:
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” — Ancient proverb
And more to the point, I am reminded of a truism I learned from John Gall:
“The meaning of a communication is the behaviour that results.” — John Gall, The Systems Bible, pg. 100
Huh? Let’s unpack that:
- Victor would routinely communicate a falsehood about the current condition of ongoing work.
- The train would not derail.
- Result: Quarterly bonuses would be paid.
The meaning of #1 is, evidently, “CFO, please pay out the bonuses.”
Please note that I hope you, a thoughtful reader, will not mimic Victor’s actions in your own work. That it not the lesson I hope to relay.
Rather: sometimes ‘transparency’ just means not lying. And not lying is sometimes very difficult.