Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Sins of the past haunt the present, impacting your future too, what to do ?

The new CXO (John) had no handover or parallel working with his predecessor; there was no handover document or any evidence of work done and in progress. The incumbent (Bob) did not know that he was going until the end of the day on a weekend when he was told not to come from next Monday. It was a first time experience for the newcomer who had a few changes in his career. Not that the company had precedence of taking such action against senior people, the circumstances were material enough to precipitate such an action.

But let’s set the context first: It was a top 10 company in its industry, visible and perceived market leader in some segments; proud of its legacy and people, they had set some benchmarks. Calculated risks was a part of the DNA to maintain leadership in the market, the company had hired Bob to take the innovation agenda forward; on his part, he was a veteran and subject matter expert having spent many decades in his chosen industry and field of specialization and acknowledged as a steady dependable performer.

Under his charge the company took on a few innovative projects that on success would leapfrog them in the industry; while the element of risk was low to moderate, the management accepted the same and pushed ahead with endorsing the effort. Bob welcomed the opportunity and set forth to execute with the cross-functional team, the vendor a past acquaintance with reasonable credibility. A few months delayed, the project went live with much fanfare and received mixed reviews from the sales team – the primary users.

Cracks began appearing quickly which led to tactical fixes and then the blame game started; the users blamed Bob’s team that they did not understand the ground reality and build castles in the air; they in turn blamed the developer for making assumptions with no domain expertise to back it up. The developers blamed the customer for changing the brief in every meeting and the cycle repeated itself with every iteration. The matter was escalated to respective CEOs who met but disagreed on every aspect unwilling to take the blame.

Heat turned high on Bob who had chosen the vendor while he fruitlessly attempted to mediate to find an amicable solution. Lawyers on both sides fine combed the contract to find an upper hand; both ended up litigating unwilling to step down from high moral ground. The size and proportion of the project and its failure had an adverse impact on company performance; the CEO was chastised for allowing such an event to occur. The company needed to set an example for the imbroglio, and the fall guy ended up being Bob.

John was handed the project as his key task to recover lost ground and ensure that the deliverables are aligned to the requirements of the sales team. Past success with sales projects gave confidence to John in getting started on the right note. He met the sales teams, created empathy, won them over and created a democratic governance process for vendor selection. It was important to John to keep all stakeholders engaged and feeling wanted in the new avatar of the much maligned project which had taken Bob as collateral damage.

During his interactions, John unearthed and unraveled the story slowly putting the pieces together with surprise, trepidation and decided to keep circling back with his team and the CEO to ensure that he hears alarm bells early enough to take corrective action. Not that the project had a smooth run, it did see its share of bickering and debate, John needed a lot of patience and assertiveness to keep everyone on track. The cautious approach worked well and the project unfurled successfully with bouquets following for John and the team.

John did not allow the ghosts of the past haunt him beyond the cautionary approach for this project; he was also pushed into closing the litigation and creating a settlement with the antagonist of the past. The intellectual property thus created was important to the company and the vendor very well knew this and leveraged it in their favor. The good news was that the vendor gave up all rights to the IP, the bad news was that it cost the company a lot more than the total cost of the old and the new projects combined to close the case.

What options did John have in such a situation ? He was tasked to resolve a conflict, he did reach resolution at a cost. He completed the project satisfactorily which was expected in the second attempt. The price paid rankled the company for a long time and the CEO did not let the dead stay buried with references to history. John would smile at these references and move the agenda to another subject. While he was not directly responsible for the failure and its consequences, it hurt that his profession was tainted.

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