Saturday, September 3, 2011

Contempt Hall of Fame

Comcast and Blockbuster have been one-upped by Allstate. While not as brilliant as Comcast's outsourcing of system integration to it's customers, in terms of displaying blatant contempt for it's customers, Allstate has got it going on like Donkey Kong! The highlight came when an Allstate manager literally claimed that "Allstate is not accountable for the promises made by its employees". Talk about guts! Telling a customer that anything they or any other employee says to you is meaningless! Allstate must have hired a senior official from the US state department. No other organization knows that the only sure way to avoid dialogue is to systematically shut down the conditions necessary for dialogue to occur.

Think about it, what can you say after this? Given that any actual resolution has no future value what-so-ever, the possibility of a fruitful discussion is completely nil after this basic statement.

My specific disagreement with Allstate is in this case not the relevant factor. The real importance to me is the formalism (an emphasis on the ritual and observance of religious dogma, rather than its meaning) rampant in US companies and how it is destroying customer service inside and outside of enterprises. I saw a brilliant presentation from Netflix the other day which highlights the flip side of formalistic process-centric cultures.

Many organizations teach process as a thing to be worshipped separate from the intended state to be arrived at via adherence to the process. This fundamental flaw creates organizational dissonance (a context wherein an organization has internal discomfort based on mis-alignment of it processes and cultural mores). You'll see this when a company representative says that they want to help you because they believe you are right, but that they cannot because a process prevents them (side note - they never actually say's usually articulated as "I'm sorry. I can't do that", which infuriates me more, because they don't actually mean either of these two sentences, but there does not seem to be much I can do about the fact that actual communication is a dying art form).

This is not the root of the problem however, The real root is a lack of commitment to hire "the right" people (i.e., smart people who are aligned with the vision and values of the company). Both the Netflix presentation and the well respected business book "Good to Great" explain the concept very well. Process centric cultures are created to lessen the effect of bad/mediocre hiring decisions. The long and short of it is explained in two steps:
  1. Hire good people who are aligned with your values
  2. Trust them to make decisions aligned with your values

An old boss of mine described me and another process-breaking colleague thusly: "The difference between you two is that he will act first and beg forgiveness later and that you will act first and then deny that forgiveness is needed at all." This is a pretty accurate description of me - In professional contexts I'm usually trying to act in a manner that is in direct alignment with the long term goals of my leadership.

The sorts of organizations that use formalism, have not grasped a great lesson from the military - "Commander's Intent". When my leadership asks me to do something, I ask an annoying list of detailed questions to suss out what they are actually trying to achieve and I use this understanding of intent to make the appropriate calls on the field. Arbitrary rules are for employees who cannot be trusted to make decisions appropriately. The question I ask of these organizations is this: "If you can't trust your people to make reasonably good decisions, then why did you hire them?"

Rating time:

Rigid processes that sap the spirit and passion from an organization - CRAP

"Lisa, if you don't like your job you don't strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That's the American way." - Homer Simpson

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