"Attending these non-stop meetings, doing these status reports and using that awful time tracking system is killing my ability to do my job. Why is it that talking about doing my job is more important than actually doing my job?" Sound familiar? Are you the one saying these words? Are these the rantings of the team around you? Does it seem like this sort of lament is the norm no matter the company, the industry or even the size of the enterprise?

The complaint above represents the two biggest mistakes made in corporate America (which are different from the two hardest tasks in Corporate America). One of these mistakes is seldom talked about by leadership and thus rarely practiced by individual contributors. The other mistake is conversely seldom talked about by individual contributors and rarely paid attention to by leadership. This weird perplexity comes up so often in corporate settings that you'll find that a large swath of CMSWire articles touch on the inevitable outcomes of these problems in one way or another.

Whether it's an article on collaboration, social technology, career development, user experience, customer experience or content strategy, these two problems represent a two-sided coin of pain experienced by both leadership and individual contributors alike. Middle management staff may actually be the most pain-ridden of the employees as they are forced to experience the pain from both sides of the coin at once. It may be that middle management is also the key to addressing these two big mistakes -- the lack of understanding that communication is not the distraction, it is the work and the lack of understanding that focused attention is what allows work to be completed.

Biggest Mistake #1 - Forgetting that Communication is not the Distraction. It's the Work.

Believing that communication of status, direction and your view from the field is the distraction, rather than the work, is the biggest mistake made in corporate America today (aside from the other biggest mistake made in corporate America -- not allowing time for focused attention). This mistake is most often made by individual contributors and entry level management and is a direct result of the lack of understanding that being a good communicator is the secret to large scale alignment and productivity. In short, communication with others is not the distraction; it's the work.

The belief that communication is the distraction rather than the work is an outcropping of the "contempt effect." You may be unaware of the contempt effect, but I would argue that you are not unfamiliar with it. How many times have you seen the amount of swirl and churn go on between executive management and the departments of an organization drag on for months because of lack of an aligned perspective of the realities on the ground? 

How often have you heard some of the most talented individual contributors rail against "incompetence of management" after being asked to answer a question they believe they have been asked many times over? The lack of understanding that "just because you have said it already, does not mean it was heard, much less understood" can be just as frustrating for the leaders imploring for more communication as it is for the individual contributor who is lamenting having to respond to the request.

How often have you heard people bemoan how little they get out of going to program status meetings? The lack of understanding that "your primary role in program status meetings is to provide value by providing visibility" is predictable given how individual contributors within the enterprise value chain can fool themselves into believing that the company's value prop revolves around them.

The resulting tension that arises from the "contempt effect" is akin to the 2 party political theatre on our national stage, because once there, the people around them can't help but take sides. This contagious form of "false-dichotomitis" shows up with one group saying "our job matters the most, so you should let us do it" and the other group returning the contempt by shoving more and more process down their throats. 

Being able to short circuit the contempt effect back into healthy boundaries, after the first missile has been launched, is ridiculously hard. Pivoting contemptuous people's perspective back to a position of respect requires deep dialogue and self-examination. (Neither of which are skills that are successfully taught in a corporate training class -- but not for lack of trying by the overzealous corporate trainers who believe that everything including personal hygiene at work is a training problem.)

Biggest Mistake "A" - Forgetting that Uninterrupted Focus Allows Work to be Completed

Forgetting that uninterrupted focus is the critical ingredient to allow work to be completed is the biggest mistake made in Corporate America (except for the other, aforementioned, biggest mistake made). Just following the individual contributors question of "You know where you stick your status report?" comes the inevitable management follow up, "This project only requires 5 hours a week. You can't tell me that nobody can spare 5 hours a week."

Learning Opportunities

I cannot speak to everyone else's experience, but in mine, death by 1000 cuts is an understatement. With projects, the number is more like three. Any more than three projects for your most senior people and it's all downhill from there. Even the third project starts to fragment most people's ability to focus. Time to focus is just as rare inside corporate walls as is respect for the need to manage time tracking and status reports.

Thanks to the people who have turned executive leadership into kids obsessed with sea-monkeys (damn you again publishers of airline magazines!), allowing teams to keep focused on one or two projects at a time is almost impossible. The fear of the next cataclysmic risk is so powerful and omnipresent it seems to have convinced everyone that the company will go bankrupt tomorrow unless all 43 priorities are somehow simultaneously number one.

The corporate prioritization model (or should I say mad scheme?) is akin to Hercules' fight against the Hydra. For every ultra-urgent project that teams manage to complete under crazy deadlines and circumstances, executive management gets more convinced that they can stuff two more projects into the machine. Even if a PMO is strong enough to hold the projects per person down to a reasonable number, there is always the lurking shadow of executive management bringing in the hired-gun vendors who over-promise everything or the flood of hourly contractors.

So, How Can Middle Management Solve this Conundrum?

The secret to not letting these ever-so-frustrating dynamics get the best of your shop is this: You must teach each faction to lead from the other side:

  • Individual contributors must be repeatedly shown that their best defense for keeping a sane project load is to over-communicate and be accountable and graceful for repeated requests for the same information.
  • Executive leadership must be repeatedly reminded that their best shot of getting clear communication from the field is by not overloading their teams with new and conflicting priorities.

Managers, Senior Managers and Directors are in the prime position to teach these lessons both ways. The reason that corporate problems like these are rampant is because we, the enlightened, have not repeated the solutions enough times in every possible locale and context! If we fail to fight the diseases on each and every front, the mindsets behind them spread throughout the enterprise like kudzu on a Georgia highway. Next time you see the forgetfulness from either side, don't shy away from that battle. Remind each side of the cost they are about to incur. It might be just the thing that keeps the enterprise off the crazy train that is on the one way track to the insane asylum.

Editor's Note: Ready for more Stephen? Read his Innovation is Neither a Process or a Department