“Are you going to goal me on that?” asked the well dressed and obviously eager young man.
“No. We’re not, but we’re going to goal you on this,” replied the not-much-older gentlemen as both peered intently at a document.
I turned to Kate, who had joined me for a walk across the street from our office to Starbucks.
“Did you hear that?” I asked her.
“Yup,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m so glad to be done with all that nonsense.”
Intrigued, I decided to hang around a bit and see how the goaling turned out.
What followed was a 30 minute negotiation about what the young man would be goaled on, and how much the goal would be for each objective. The two negotiated, tussled, haggled, and debated the relative fairness of each metric. Before breaking, they agreed to review the goaling schedule once more before finalizing it. It all seemed so ridiculous.
The conversation brought me back to my goaling days, a process that seemed as unpalatable to any of my assorted managers as it was to me. When it came my turn to goal others, I tried to give it a decent effort, but found I could only muster enough enthusiasm to fill the allotted space on the HR-crafted form.
The whole thing seemed a waste of time because effective management needs to be a daily, not yearly, activity, not an intermittent checking-in to see if all’s well, only to issue dramatic and usually resented course corrections if it isn’t. Much like steering a large tanker, helping employees stay on track works best when feedback is constant and constructive criticism is almost imperceptible.
But reviews aren’t the only corporate ritual that can drag an organization’s productivity down. Often, that season rolls right into budgeting, leaving managers largely absent from any real work for a full month. Of course they’re present, in the sense they occupy all the conference rooms, and order lunch on the company tab every day. (The best part is when the scraps get put in the office kitchen for the rest of us to pick from. On days when the executive gang is especially ravenous, we might be left to fight over a slice of tomato and the bizarre pastry nobody could muster the courage to try.)
Here’s how the budgeting process plays out:
- Tim, a business line manager, is required to submit an estimate of how much revenue his group will generate in the next fiscal year, broken down by quarter. The first thing he does is come up with a real number. This is a number no one will see. Tim sits down and tries to guess what his managers expect his number to be. He wants to come close so they don’t balk, but he wants to be conservative so he can come in slightly, but respectably, higher than the number they finally agree to. He doesn’t want to come in under his number, of course, and he doesn’t want to blow it out, lest his superiors feel “sandbagged.” This, we all know, is when someone submits a lowball budget, planning to beat it by a huge margin and thus attain hero status.
- With budget in hand, Tim enters the shark tank (conference room) where his superiors interrogate him like a drug mule in “Locked Up Abroad.” The room alternately resonates with exclamations like:
- “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
- “There’s no way you’ll do that much.”
- “Why is this number so low?”
Mind you, the entire leadership of the company is engaged in this folly and it goes on and on, as Tim and all his colleagues are brought in, flogged, and sent out to rework the numbers.
- Tim returns to his office and adjusts his numbers to reflect the criticisms he’s just received. Note — this is no way reflects a change in his estimation of future business. This is merely to steer his budget toward acceptance, so the root canal can end.
- At some point in the future, when the quarter or year has closed, Tim is either brought in and flogged for not reaching or far exceeding his targets, or mildly praised for moderately beating his goals, only to be told to double will be expected from him next year.
I have written it before, and I will write it again: time is the most valuable asset you have. Napoleon said it best: “Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the latter than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never.” Despite this, I have never seen so much time wasted to such little benefit as on these types of processes. Remember, you and your team have a finite amount of force that can be brought to bear in pursuit of your objectives. The more energy you spend pestering your good people into promising more, the less they can actually achieve.
Of course, some planning and reflection is necessary, but it always seemed to me these activities were undertaken without the slightest thought as to what everyone in the room was not doing because they were forced to be in it. There is too much on your plates to countenance the managerial malpractice that is time egregiously wasted. You, and your people, must always be doing the right things if you are to accomplish great things.