Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Stone of Oblivion

Keen readers of my web blog will recall a previous foray into management consultancy, in which I explained how best to use the office sociopath. I've given the topic more thought of late, and reached the conclusion that most managerial problems can be solved at the recruitment stage.

The overwhelming majority of managers, and "overwhelming" is a word readily associated with them, are unsuited to the job. The reason is that anyone who seeks to attend meetings, read memos, conduct appraisal interviews and associate with other managers is a drainage channel for moral slurry.

How to stop these "cc" zombies from taking over your world?

1. Advertise your managerial post with the usual verbiage about "top-shelf thinking", "disaggregating the transformational foliage" and "synergising the priority valve", take all the applications, and throw them away.

2. Find some normal colleagues. Normal people are those who laugh when they read newspapers, like to play sports rather than go to the gym, and have moderately untidy hair. They gather in bars and smoking areas, even if they neither drink nor smoke. They do not own Morcheeba CDs. If you have no such people or places at work, get another job.

3. Appoint these normal people as managers. They will instinctively know what to do, which most of the time is nothing. But, when danger looms in the shape of visit from Head Office or some sort of inquiry from the Personnel Department, they will lope into action like Lytton Strachey by interposing themselves between their staff and the incoming idiocy.

The result is that work will proceed, unhindered by "evaluations". Budgets will blossom, freed from the weeds of outside consultants. After a few months you will be able to say "pass me a form" to a colleague, and they will hand over a betting slip. An inquiry about "issues" will elicit a copy of the Racing Post. They may even have circled Ham Spanner for you in the 2:30 at Chepstow. In red pencil.

Some readers will nod with an uneasy sense of familiarity. For this is how we used to recruit in the days before management became an industry in itself rather than a way of keeping twits away from heavy machinery. Back then we were the toolbox of the known world. We invented interesting games, as well as gravity, the telly and the wireless, built two empires, won several wars against all comers, and had decent lunch breaks.

Now we do little but sell one another houses, loan our army to desert kleptomaniacs and wonder idly whether we ought to learn Chinese as we nibble a sandwich-style snack unit in a "breakout area". And all because of the wrong type of manager.

Take our spies, for example. They are all fools. Why? Because MI5 and co recruit their staff by asking "Hi there, does anyone want to be a spy?", then have to find safe things for the shiny pods of public-school fascists, child-molesters and Territorial Army rejects to do. Some turn up to interviews in tuxedos and scuba-masks, and bring their own car batteries.

How did the KGB find their own excellent bunch of spies? Imagine you were a bright student at some Soviet university. A chap with proper shoes would sit next to you at the trolleybus hangar one day. He would say that they had been observing your progress with interest for some time, and invite you to join the KGB.

The correct answer was "Rather!", unless you really disliked your parents and fancied a few years of underwater shale-dredging above the Arctic Circle.

Britain did something similar in the 1930s and 40s, but made the mistake of restricting its trawl to Oxbridge inverts - a small pool of talent if what you're looking for is brains and discretion. There's no surprise that the best fellows we recruited were already working for Uncle Joe, and somehow managed to live with the conflict of interest.

We need to return to this simple form of recruitment. Those dead-eyed weasels who do slip through under some New Labour full-employment scam can be dealt with through my Workplace Psycho Deployment Programme. (Remember: "If the Job's Worth Doing, Let Someone Else Do It.")

The righteous manager still has to deal with unenlightened organisations, such as the Personnel Department, for all our sakes, and here I offer a simple technique that worked for me.

My sole stint as a manager came during a posting overseas. We had a general manager who dealt with the local police, firemen and blackmailers, leaving one of the remaining expats to handle staff and editorial matters.

As in all well-run offices, this grisly job fell to the last man in - just as the tardiest reporter to file his copy with The Western Mail had to don the didacoi 'kerchief and write the horoscopes.

My turn came once I'd worked out how to switch on the special computer that contained the email link to Head Office back in Britain.

The special computer had one purpose - to send me strange messages from blonde PAs called Nikki "regarding" various matters of breathtaking inertia, requests for arcane information from the Personnel Department ("Does Mr Rashid have the capabilities to speak Kabbalist?") and misspelt threats from various Health & Safety 'droids ("There have been a case off rabies in your country in question and request your evcaute expatriate staff with IMMEDIATE effect, thank you regards.").

I would have turned to my predecessor for guidance, but he had already waved a quick cheerio and headed off to be languidly fellated in some souk. I remembered that he had told me to print off all these messages and deal with them "in order of some sort of priority". So I printed them off, stacked them on my desk, and ignored them.

Several days later the wind started to blow from High Tartary, buffeting the drapes and scattering reeds and papyri about the place. I found a large stone in the garden, which on reflection may have been the fossilised skull of an Sogdian betel trader, and adopted it as a paperweight. I put all my managerial emails under it and ignored them.

The Stone of Oblivion was born.

I soon found an agreeable managerial rhythm:

If Nikki or one of her revolving-door cohorts sent me a follow-up email ("Hi this is regarding an email I sent you regarding the issue regarding..."), I would fish the original missive out from under the Stone of Oblivion, put it in my in-tray and ignore it.

If the correspondence stretched to a third plea ("Mr Rashid's file does not indicate whether he is a man or a woman, please clarify") I would dispatch the Standard Stalling Response ("We are dealing with your inquiry"), and that would normally be the end of that. The original email would then go back under the Stone of Oblivion.

At the end of each month, I would sort out my paperwork. Everything under the Stone would be binned, and everything in the in-tray would go back under The Stone of Oblivion.

I estimate that I had to reply to fewer than one in ten of the emails I received, and only a fraction of those merited anything beyond the Standard Stalling Response. That fraction almost entirely consisted of pitiful attempts on the Nikkis' part to deal with one of our simple requests, such as some money to pay staff wages.

The Stone of Oblivion still has its place in a wired-up world where even journalists have computers, wap-drives and ceefaxes. A managerial spouse of mine handles much of her correspondence by funnelling it into mailbox folders that cannot be accessed and which, through the loving grace of technology, send back a conquering worm that destroys all evidence of the original message.

In this new age of austerity all the justly employed must bar the way to this Managerial Moloch. As companies close and municipal programmes implode, wingèd monkeys of misery flit through the heavy skies in search of new perches.

Before you know it, you have more Human Resources Facilitators than human beings on your payroll, and all your corner offices belong to diagonal roll-out directors and their clumpy-heeled 5k-a-day consultants.

Decent managers owe it to their colleagues to repel these powerpoint pirates through a cannonade of common sense and, if necessary, some dirty rock and roll. (Fact: managerial parasites cannot withstand the weaving guitars of late '60s Rolling Stones).

Or you could always rent a farmer. He'll spot the bullshit for you, and his rough rustic ways will send the interlopers fleeing for the nearest latte bar.

Otherwise you'd better invest heavily in quarries, because your Ziggurats of Oblivion are going to split the skies.

"Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me."


SnoopyTheGoon said...

The ideas are not bad, I must say, but in the end the efficiency consultants will get you anyhow.

Ian Plenderleith said...

Brilliant. I've got my own Stone of Oblivion in the form of my address book (who uses those any more?), under which all correspondence is shoved, to be cleared out about once a year. It's amazing how many problems/tasks/responsibilities dissipate into nothing if you just ignore them.

No Good Boyo said...

"It's amazing how many problems/ tasks/responsibilities dissipate into nothing if you just ignore them."

AS at work, so in marriage.

The Birdwatcher said...

I do this with emails. I have a folder titled "to be dealt with later" where I store my emails. Once a month I delete them.

looby said...

I am not a man given to lachrychmosity, but there is no blog I am currently reading that holds me in a readerly hammock which sways between intellectual delight and [bold] tears of laughter [stop the bold now] as yours.

No Good Boyo said...

Birdy, to quote Milhouse out of The Simpsons, "This is what it sounds like when doves cry". All these great minds, telling the world to piss off through the art of ignoring. It's beautiful.

Looby, you're a man of taste to rival that of Satan himself. I admire your blog, studded as it is with wit and pictures of honies.

A more aggressive way of dealing with unwelcome correspondence was pioneered by Welsh composer Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), who used to send people photographs of a monitor bird. Yeats got one.

Jon said...

Deeoly excellent. I never had a shot a management. I did head up a trading desk for a while, but that was less like management and more like trying to lead a pack of rebid wolverines.

I quickly learn that the best way to lead them was to find out where they were going and just get in front of them.

Oddly, we made quite a lot of money that way.

No Good Boyo said...

Good point, Jon. Mike the Monk, who features on this blog from time to time, had the same experience. He found that yelling and whooping deflected the feral Cockneys from his gamey Welsh flanks and, somehow, money just rolled their way.

I was brought up on those Hammer House of Horror television series, and therefore thought there must be an ominous catch to such professions. Curse you, Diana Dors and the bloke out of Hazell!

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Very sensible advice, Boyo. This being Brussels, we still work in a 1970's time warp and a welter of paper. I am a strong believer in the "if you haven't needed it in the past six months, you don't need it at all" school of document management, and my filing system consists of a pile of papers in a cupboard which is thrown out every time a new boss arrives. So much time and energy is saved, not to mention fingernails preserved, by riffling through one single pile, rather than trying to remember whether you filed it under "Services directive" or "Dienstleistungs-richtlinie" or "Commission - general crap". The Germans of course have difficulty with the brilliant simplicity of my system but it has never failed me yet.

No Good Boyo said...

Excellent, Daphne. My accounting system is a shoebox. If I need to find anything serious I invite an account I found somewhere over and promise him chocolates if he can found the offending document.

M C Ward said...

Fine wisdom as always, Boyo - it's dumping the free newspapers you're supposed to be delivering in a ditch writ large. By the way, my perspiring fifteen-year-old alter ego's attention was particularly drawn to the concept of "top-shelf thinking"...

No Good Boyo said...

Thanks MC. I have a long-standing campaign with a colleague, Dazza, imperceptibly to introduce the phrase "top-shelf thinking" into drone discourse at management meetings.

I used to work for a consultancy group that sent me abroad to business conference. The boss would give me a massive pack of marketing material, which I would carefully file in my bin before leaving.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Morcheeba CDs, ouch, I know exectly where you're coming from. I used to live in a big house in Copenhagen which was effectively a hippy colony and hashish den with a cauldron of lentil fondue forever bubbling away cheerfully on the hob. Then one day a new bloke arrived in the room next door to mine and started played a Morcheeba CD endlessly 24 hours a day. Gradually the place became infiltrated with people who got their hair cut by hairdressers instead of by that week's bunk-up, and everything became a bit shite.

No Good Boyo said...

So true, Gadj; it's the soundtrack of the soulless. You'll find it in hairdressers, estate agents' car stereos, and trumping out of Satan's rear when one (not you, obviously; you're a Baptist) arrives in Hades.

The Devil has a seven-headed hound, and every head is that of Dido.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Boyo, I maintain that 'hell' retains it's original meaning of simply being a hole in the ground, a place where they bury you or perhaps store tuberous foodstuffs for the winter. Not as exciting as the later, sexed-up, idea of hell, admittedly, and if I should have to go to the latter I imagine I'll be making a Grand Tour of Catholic, Orthodox. Methodist and Anglian hells - the last-named, being presumably one long interminably jumble-sale in aid of renovating the church spire, might be particularly tiresome.

The Devil, however, does definitely exist, and her name is Enya.

No Good Boyo said...

Sounds about right, Gadj. Gaelic is indeed Satan's Tongue. Ever heard mouth music? (shudder)

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