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Volume 1, Number 3.1
January, 1998

Was it Something I Said?

by Vijay Mehrotra

What follows is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any real person, living or dead, is probably just a direct result of elementary results from your first class in probability theory.

 So I worked with this guy for months and months. "Frank" was a manager at a large company that was a client of ours, and the senior executive that I work with sent me in to help straighten out a project that had gone awry. It was a mess, with the information systems people griping about the business customers, the business customers floundering around with furrowed brows and long faces, the executives storming about madder than hell, and nobody quite sure what to do about it. Frank was at the center of this storm from the time I got involved with the project.
 And then one day Frank was gone.
 This one's for you, old buddy, wherever you are out there in the Ethernet.
 Dear Frank:
 You know, I miss you, man. We spent quite a lot of time together this year, and now, suddenly, you're not here. It's as if I'd had a tooth yanked out of my mouth a long time ago and had finally gotten used to the constant aching, only to find one day that the pain was gone.
 Sure the project has gone to shit, just like you said it would. That's the short-term truth, no question about it. But sometimes things have got to get worse before they can get better. Your approach was taking us on a slow and painful boat to hell, and in some sense I'm much happier to go there quickly so that we can turn around and move forward. But I digress_In some perverse way, I definitely miss you.
 What exactly do I miss about you? I'm glad you asked.

Intellectual Arrogance

You really thought you knew it all, Frank. I was always impressed with your ability to immediately fall in love with the first thing that popped out of your mouth and to fight like hell for it. But I really hated your tactic of trying to intimidate anyone who questioned you with a stream of technobabble, a scowl, a sneer, a raised voice dripping with scorn, a face red with anger, or whatever else you thought might help you win the battle, no matter how small.


You were quite a forecaster. Frank, the whole time I worked with you, not one thing that your group was accountable for was ever complete by the promised date. Worse yet, the quality of the work that you did, and allowed others to submit, was shoddy on a consistent basis. Sure, your staff did a Herculean job trying to fix mistakes that were made. Your best firefighter ultimately quit after being burned one time too many, and she was a huge loss to our overall effort.
 But you never once saw that this was connected to the expectations that you set for them. Your attitude was the gas that lit the fires that they bitched about having to fight day in and day out.


From the first day, you were a real pain for all of us to work with. Perhaps your most outstanding trait was your ability to arrogantly discount and discard other people's ideas without offering any solutions at all. It was always quite impressive how, with one exception, you were able to permeate your entire group with this attitude.
 Trying to get people from different parts of the organization to work together is a huge challenge. Each person brings their own values, their own incentives, and their own priorities to the collective task. When confronted with someone like you, those who can, check out of the process, and those who can't suffer and grumble, keeping most of their excitement and creativity tucked away in their back pocket, reserved for other projects and other parts of their life.
 Your condescending, obstacle-oriented style made the job of building a team that worked a hell of a lot harder, pal.


To this day, Frank, I can still hear your voice in my sleep. Mostly what it says is: "No problem."
"Don't worry"
"That's easy"
"We're already ahead of schedule"
"We already know how to do that"
"We'll get it done"

 Yet I never saw any remorse when you failed to do something right, or on time, and other people were left to suffer the consequences. I never saw you blame yourself, or anyone in your group, for failing to deliver what had been promised (I did see you point your finger at other people when the going got tough, and complain about how difficult other people were to deal with, but never with any constructive approach to improving working relationships).
 Mostly, you just sort of went along. There was no professional pride, no commitment to excellence or to the people that you were working with. And your old boss, also recently departed, deserves as much blame for that attitude as you do.

Lack of Integrity

I remember the first time that you called me up before a review meeting, Frank. You tried to get me to sign up for a fabricated story to tell the execs so that they would think the project was "just fine." Well, the project hadn't been just fine, it wasn't just fine then, and it wasn't on its way to being just fine. For better or for worse, I wasn't going to go along with you for the sake of presenting a unified front.
 You lied about budgets, about how/why human resources were being allocated, about the status of key tasks, and about the cost of tea in China. You also went to great lengths to deliberately mislead me, and others, about company politics, hardware costs, contract terms, and about internal customer expectations. Worse yet, on several occasions, you harassed me for telling others the truth!
 And why? That's the part I still don't understand.
 Given all that, Frank, it should come as no surprise to you that I'm happy to see the empty space at your desk. Your involvement in this project was like a swirling headwind, blowing the participants in different directions and making it hard for any of us to walk forward. All of a sudden, the air is still, and while it's is still a long way to the Promised Land, now we all have a chance to walk there together.
 We'll think of you along the way.


Vijay Mehrotra thinks consulting is perhaps the best way to fool yourself into thinking that you can work in the business world while staying free of office politics. He has also been known to try to score a table with a view at a fancy seaside restaurant by using a deep voice to make reservations for "Dr. Mehrotra." He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at (415) 943-1702.
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