Culture, Rose-Colored Glasses, and the Michigan Bottle Scam

NEWMAN: Wait a minute. You mean you get five cents here, and ten cents there. You could round up bottles here and run ‘em out to Michigan for the difference.

KRAMER: No, it doesn’t work.

NEWMAN: What d’you mean it doesn’t work? You get enough bottles together…

KRAMER: Yeah, you overload your inventory and you blow your margins on gasoline. Trust me, it doesn’t work.

JERRY: (re-entering) Hey, you’re not talking that Michigan deposit bottle scam again, are you?

KRAMER: No, no, I’m off that.

NEWMAN: You tried it?

KRAMER: Oh yeah. Every which way. Couldn’t crunch the numbers. It drove me crazy.

Even Kramer got it. Fundamentals matter, but there is a persistent legend in many engineering organizations that culture trumps the bottom line. It’s a legend that propagates because, as change management consultant Curt Coffman has provocatively noted, “culture eats strategy for lunch” when it comes to execution. What Coffman and others who talk about “soft stuff” don’t tell you is that in the end culture doesn’t matter.

The reality is is this: culture only trumps the bottom line in organizations that are heading in the wrong direction. It’s easy to see why: bad execution can be excused when it is in the service of a higher calling.  Sometimes — the legend goes — cultural purity even demands failure. Briefings that begin with a retrospective tour of a company’s glory days or the exploits of its leaders are not going to end well.  It’s a malady that afflicts start-ups, Fortune 100 companies, universities, and political office holders.

It was a rare meeting at Bellcore or Bell Labs that did not begin with a bow to a century of innovation and accolades. Theirs was a tradition so rich that it was bound to color all projects in perpetuity. I knew a  business development managers who intoned “WE ARE BELLCORE!” at the start of engagements. It always sounded to me like a high school football chant designed to cow the opposition.

The remnants of the Army Signal Corp  research lab at Fort Monmouth New Jersey had long dispersed by the time I interned there in the early 1970’s, but stories of the famous scientists who once stalked the cavernous halls of the enormous hexagonal building near Tinton Falls were retold to each new class of PhDs as if  the great men would be dropping in any moment to don lab coats and resume their experiments.

Start-ups are not immune, either. A few weeks ago, I was nearly ejected from a meeting with a CEO who was raising early stage money for suggesting that the distinguished professors who had founded the company might have had less than complete insight into market realities.

The “We are great because…”  meme  is propagated by leadership at all levels. Even in this age of the decline of the celebrity CEO, countless university and corporate websites are travelogues for executive jaunts to far-flung campuses. Supporters of one prominent Silicon Valley CEO would muse to anyone who cared to listen: “I wonder what it feels like to always be the smartest person in the room?”  The phrase found its way into an industry analysts’ briefing at the very moment that the company’s stock was falling off the edge of a cliff. I watched the faces of the analysts, and it was clear that they were pondering entirely different questions.

I’ve had my share of run-ins with employees who were not at all shy about using vaguely remembered words of long-departed leaders to pit culture against execution. In one instance, a series of patents led to an ingeniously conceived system for streaming audio and video from conference rooms and lecture halls. Unfortunately every cost projection showed that the effort required to install and maintain the equipment swamped any conceivable revenue stream. When I confronted the inventors with the inevitable conclusion, I was excoriated in the most graphic possible terms because I had not taken sufficient account of  the intellectual beauty of the system.  The crowning blow: “Dr. [insert the name of any of my predecessors] would have understood my work!”

On another occasion, I was called upon to invest heavily in a newly conceived and revolutionary mathematical method that would transform not only our  business but scores of related industries.  The inventors’ local managers had been completely sold on the idea and were willing to put a substantial portion of their margins at risk to develop it.

Key to the idea was the notion that every textbook in the field had been written by authors who willfully ignored the power of the new theories. The invention involved an area in which I had done research in the past, but  I couldn’t make much sense of the claims.  I dutifully sent drafts of patent disclosures to experts, but the feedback was discouraging.  The claims in the patent disclosures were either false or so muddled that further analysis was useless.

I pulled the plug. Reaction was swift and heated.  Here’s what it boiled down to: the founders would have had faith in the employees, and I did not. They were right about me, but not about the founders.

It is in the nature of engineering organizations to reconstruct the past to suit the present.  Hewlett-Packard was famous for such rose-colored glasses.  When then-CEO Carly Fiorina combined ninety or so business units — each of them concentrating on a slice of a business that overlapped with a half-dozen others, driving down operating efficiencies and, with them, margins — into a total of six, howls could be hear from every HP lab on the planet.  “Bill and Dave would not have done that to us.” A casualty of Mark Hurd’s rapid moves to salvage the strategic advantages of the two year old Compaq merger by slicing investments that did not have a clear path to revenue was the revered software laboratory at HP Labs.  “Destroying the culture!” cried the masses.

Now I happen to think that both moves were unwise, but not because of any cultural imperative that had been handed down from Bill and Dave. The numbers were seldom that hard to “crunch”.  It always boiled down to fundamentals. Risks were taken, but only when the fundamentals made sense.

It is a unique fiction in Silicon Valley that Bil Hewlett and Dave Packard were friendly to anything but an engineering culture that demanded results and held managers personally accountable for their decisions. I once got in trouble with the company’s director of  marketing and communications for suggesting otherwise in a public forum.

“Culture” often reared its head during my tenure at HP — usually as an excuse for ignoring business fundamentals. It was a problem that plagued Joel Birnbaum, my precedessor, Dick Lampman, head of HP labs and others over the years. On those occasions, I was happy to have the words of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard to fall back on.

I’ll talk about that in my next post.

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