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February 26, 2006

How to Prevent a Bozo Explosion

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It's depressing to watch a mean, lean, fighting machine of a company deteriorate into mediocracy. In Silicon Valley we call this process the “bozo explosion.” This downward slide seems inevitable after a company achieves success--often during the years immediately following an IPO. The purpose of this article is to prevent, or at least postpone, this process in your company.

The first step is to determine whether a bozo explosion is happening. Here are the top ten signs of bozosity to help you decide.

1. The two most popular words in your company are “partner” and “strategic.” In addition, “partner” has become a verb, and “strategic” is used to describe decisions and activities that don't make sense.

2. Management has two-day offsites at places like the Ritz Carlton to foster communication and to craft a company mission statement.

3. The aforementioned company mission statement contains more than twenty words--two of which are “partner” and “strategic.”

4. Your CEO's admin has an admin.

5. Your parking lot's “biorhythm” looks like this:

  • 8:00 am - 10:00 am--Japanese cars exceed German cars
  • 10:00 am - 5:00 pm--German cars exceed Japanese cars
  • 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm--Japanese cars exceed German cars

6. Your HR department requires an MBA degree for any position; it also requires five to ten years work experience in an industry that is only four years old.

7. Time is now considered more important than money so you have a company cafeteria, health club, and pet grooming service. Moreover, the first thing that employees show visitors is the company cafeteria, health club, and pet grooming service.

8. Someone whose music sells in the iTunes music store performs at the company Christmas party.

9. An employee is paid to do nothing but write a blog.

10. The success of a competitor upsets you more than the loss of a customer.

(If you've seen other signs of the slide to bozosity, leave them as a comment, and I'll append to this list.)

Addendumbs (sic) to the list from readers:

11. You have a layer of middle management who worked at big-name companies (usually consumer goods) who like to call meetings and designate “project leads.” (I experienced this first hand.) Zoli Erdo

12. Your hire a big name consulting firm who brings in MBAs with one year of experience to re-think your corporate strategies.

13. The front-desk staff gets better looking and less competent. Jeff Barson

14. Your CEO or CFO spends more time on CNBC than in the office. Laurie Sefton

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Did you gulp? Don't sweat it: you're not alone. In fact, you'd be alone if you weren't going through the slide. Here's what you can do about the situation:

  • Insist that managers hire better than themselves. For example, an engineering manager should hire a programmer who is a better programmer than she is, not worse. By the way, this principle starts at the level of the board of directors when hiring the CEO.
  • Eradicate arrogance. Arrogance manifests itself in two principal areas: first, when your employees describe the competition using terms like “clueless,” “bozo” (ironically), or just plain “stupid.” Second, when your employees start believing in “manifest destiny”--that is, that your company deserves, and will achieve, total market domination. Your competition probably isn't stupid, and trees don't grow to the sky.
  • Understaff. Hire fewer people than you're “sure” you need to accommodate that hockey-stick growth you're “sure” you're going to achieve. When you're in a rush to fill openings to respond to growth, you make mistakes. Unfortunately, many companies adopt the attitude of “Hire any intelligent body, or we'll lose business--we'll sort everything out later.”
  • Undergrow. This is the flip side of under-staffing. I am suggesting intentionally forgoing sales. Staying small and fine is a perfectly acceptable management policy. At the very least, calculate the entire impact on head count of getting that additional sale, new line of business, or acquisition.
  • Look beyond the resume. The goal of hiring is building a team of great employees. One proxy for a great employee is a relevant educational or work background. However, the perceived “right” educational background and work experience are not sufficient conditions for excellence. Hiring a bozo with the “right” resume can drag down other employees and increase the probability of hiring more bozos. Not hiring a great person because she lacks the “right” resume is not as harmful but is a mistake too.
  • Diversify. Some companies look like the corporate version of the Stepford Wives: people are too similar. For example, everyone has a PhD. Everyone grew up in a white, upper-middleclass family. Everyone went to an Ivy League school. It's a bunch of Me and Mini-Mes. When this happens, it means that form is overruling function, and the way people succeed is by representing the right form, not excelling at the right function. That's back asswards.
  • Merge and purge. You owe it to your employees to take corrective action, and, if necessary, terminate people as soon as issues come to light. You may be thinking, “Let's wait and see; maybe he'll improve; our numbers are still great, etc.,” but this is unfair to everyone involved. If there's a problem, fix it. If you can't fix it, then make it an “exployee”--thereby, establishing performance excellence as a corporate standard.

Written at: America West, flight #567, seat 4B, Phoenix to Orlando

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Comments

Some that top my list.

1) When your project plan looks like:
purchase vendor application
implement (and customize) vendor application
get training on vendor application

2) When every RFP you write focusses on what functionality the vendor can deliver but doesn't bother to ask what requirements the vendor has for input data... "What do you mean we have to track [key data element]? We've never done that!"

More signs:

When you cut through the pages of BS which is your marketing plan, it boils down to:

1) Search Engine Optimize
2) Get Scobleized
3) If the above doesn't work, get interviewed on CNN.

Yes, I've seen this. Except they omitted #2.

Your prioritized objectives are:

1) Generate more traffic
2) Attract more investors
3) Change the product so it'll accellerate us towards objectives #1 and 2.

Yep, I've seen this one too. Developers proposed a best practice solution, and the CEO told them that investors never look that deep into things, so just make it look sexy, m'kay?

Guy,

This is hilarious. I live in Seattle and we been noticing this trend with Amazon.com They want an MBA for everything. They want MBAs who can code. Yeah, I went to school for 18 months and spent $50,000 on an MBA so that I can keep my coding job.

-- Joe

Toby:

This is on purpose: mediocrity combined with bureaucracy = mediocracy.

Thanks,

Guy

mediocracy -> mediocrity

Walk around and count how many times you hear buzz words like "actionable" and "drive" (as in, "...drive revenues...") in a five-minute period between 10 AM and 11 AM. If you counted more than 10...

-h

When you're still a startup, but have farmed out hiring to "recruiters" who clearly don't understand your business... you are in trouble.

This is seriously funny stuff!

One more sign of bozosity :

1. Having hostshots from all world sites fly in with complex org charts,trying to tell you where you fit in(as a small speck in grander scheme of things) and how exciting that is!

From my dot com days:
Your company gives out all sorts of free pens, mugs, slinkies and balls at trade shows, but none of it has the company name or URL on it, just the number 4.

Looking over comments... seems that a sign of bozo-fication might be: Defensive manager imagines that the fact that IT workers think people who can't operate computers are bozos actually MATTERS and is the real reason his company is failing. BOZO.
Almost ALL techies are like that. Of course, they're not steering the ship, you bozo.. THAT'S AN ICEBERG, ROIGHT AHEAD, BOZO!

How about your company hires an ex-NFL player who's allowed to name his own title, and its grammatically incorrect or semantically nonsensical - like the "Vice President of Partnershipping And Strategy". This happened at the pennsylvania internet once high-flying b2b I used to work for.

Brilliant, almost scary reminder of days gone past. Here are a couple of more:

- The head of engineering insists everything be designed to military spec regardless of the intended audience and added costs
- The company throws very expensive launch parties for customers and fails to mention the product, or the name of the company for that matter.
- The executives spend more time talking to a single consultant than they do to customers.
- The engineering department spends more time playing foosball in the rec room than they do actually working
- The CEO has absolute distain for his target audience
- Everything is "a big secret"

Any thoughts on http://duckdown.blogspot.com/2006/03/venture-capital-and-enterprise.html

Right on, Guy. Ugh, you see it in I.T. all the time:

http://blogs.msdn.com/steveyi/archive/2006/02/12/530395.aspx

Lol.. brilliant! Oh have I got more. My IT dept is incredibly dumbed up by the IT director and we've seen some 1+ million dollar mistakes that are still being "implemented" 3 years later.

Bozodom can be defined as buying state-of-the-art computer equipment for executives who don't have a need for it (or a clue how to use it), and making the ground troops (who are doing the real work) make do with hand-me-downs. This isn't as bad as it used to be, though, since the companies I know of that practiced that aren't around anymore. Hmmm, wonder why...

You've really hit a nerve here Guy...I smell a new book:

The Art of de-Bozoing a company in ten days or less

You have to set up a phoney company just to pitch a new idea to your employer.

You go a month without talking to a customer.

I have a hard time NOT working for companies in bozodom. Every time there's a job that makes use of my intelligence/best skills/interests, some bigger fish comes along and buys out the company. Shortly thereafter, the company starts another round of financing, and expense accounts for everyone in the engineering departments disappear.

How to tell when the company is on the downward slope:
..There's a full-time attorney for every 25 employees (specializing in customer lawsuits and employee layoffs).
..All the patent holders resign (or change careers).
..The CxOs start collaring the stock.
..Customer service calls are triaged or sent to voice mail.
..Three levels of management are "barred" from customer sites.
..Consultants are hired from the Bohemian Grove waiting list.

Hmmm,

15) Your list of Top 10 Signs Your In a Bozo Explosion goes to 14 items (uh, 15).

A couple more:

The VP spends all day designing a "Company Values" poster (in Power Point) that includes a reference to employee morale, while his only contributions to morale have been ridiculous micromanagement, refusal to buy badly needed (inexpensive) supplies, and a three-year wage freeze.

You spend thousands of dollars on new CAD software that sits on the shelf for over a year because manglement refuses to buy computers capable of running it.

MisManagement's idea of a thin-client environment is that 20 users can share one software license.

More;

• "Managing your career path" becomes more important than "doing your job"

• Wage rates are defined by title and accreditation, rather than skills, experience, and value.

• Real humans no longer pick up incoming calls.

• "Leveraging core competencies" and "maximizing shareholder value" show up in official documentation, in the same paragraph.

Weird, we were just talking about the car thing the other day. All the people that work late regularly can look out the window on an evening and see everyone elses crappy car in the car park below beside their own. We think that it could be that if you have a company car, you must feel the need to get out there and drive it - doesn't really matter where to as long as it's not the office!

Some more bozosity:

- Your org unit has two or more weekly meetings that are scheduled for one hour or more, but usually, when time's up, there's still some fruitless discussion going on. These meetings also spend lots of time reading the minutes but not deciding any actions whatsoever.

- There's a lot of talk about "the customer", but when asked, nobody really knows who he/she is.

- Your having regular "team events" to "build moral", but in day to day business much energy is wasted in search of scapegoats.

- "Management by Objective" in your organization is only used as a reason why you're not getting a bonus.

- There's a lot of talk about "processes" and that they need to be followed and optimized. It's used casually to have a reason not to get any real work done.

- Management says stuff like "We need to spend less time doing things right and more time doing the right thing." (Don't laugh, I've heard this and is was not meant to be a joke or quote from Dilbert. The guy genuinely thought he was on to something... Sometimes Scott Adams as scary.)

Fantastic post.

A very clear description of the forces that drive sanity out of the workplace "Because it seemed like a good idea at the time" resultign in the death of execution and common sense.

Another suggestion;

As the company grows each new VP decides to "proove" themselves by campaigning to "improve" the product before they even understand what the product actually does or how to use it...

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