Nobody's Fault

The modern science of Project Management is based upon the premise that nine women, properly organized, can produce a baby in one month. 

There is a reason why very large organizations tend to have expensive administration costs. 

Back in the day, when I was the CFO of the local branch of a national insurance company, I was notified that I was to attend a Very Large Meeting about a Major Problem that had been identified that we would be told about at the meeting. The email invitation, which required attendance at the meeting and required us also to book the next eight weeks for the same time, was phrased to promote the maximum level of panic.  There were also 20 people on the invite list.  We would call this a "One Horsemen of the Apocalypse" meeting, perhaps upgrading to two, if the meeting was to announce layoffs.

Why all the drama?

Most large national or multi-national corporations are typically made up of a bunch of smaller corporations, especially if it's an insurance company.  My insurance company was made up of over a hundred.  Different insurance products (HMO, PPO) etc. would inhabit its own compan for regulatory and financial reasons.  (The financial reasons were so that money could be moved around between them, among other things).  Being insurance companies, each corporation was also regulated separately.  Each would have to file a separate set of quarterly and annual financial statements to their home state.

This issue that generated the meeting turned out to be simple.  Some sales people had been selling large groups (of several hundred employees or more; mostly more) under the contract of one corporation, but the groups had been "set up" for claims payments, income flows, etc. under another in the same state.  It would seem easy enough to fix, but it caused each corporation to resubmit its corrected financials after it was untangled.  And it had been going on for quite a while.  There were also tax implications, etc.  The whole matter touched a lot of different departments, both local and corporate and both in finance and operations. This was why the invitation list was so long. (Why invite one person when you can invite four)?  I was invited because all of this nonsense was happening in my state.  But the tone of the invitation and the subsequent meeting was pure corporate politics.

Because this was a public screw up (since the financial filings are public documents) and because the problem had touched so many departments, the main corporate focus was to decide 1) who to blame and not blame and 2) who was going to get the credit for fixing the problem.  Actually fixing the problem was also somewhere in the agenda.

I had been invited simply as a courtesy, since there was no point where I was directly involved in either the problem or the solution.  This was made clear to me when I ventured to make a comment during the discussion and was solidly rebuked by the corporate VP who was leading the meeting (and settling old scores by fixing the blame).  It took the whole eight weeks of meetings for the group to decide what the problem was and how to fix it.  Then the issue faded off the radar.  No one got fired (as far as I know) but some people lost all hope of getting a bonus, whereas the VP in charge of the meeting was able to add all of this to his list of accomplishments.

Fast forward two years.  The mother corporation has eliminated the CFO positions like mine. The company however wants to keep me, so they part me in a job for a year while they get up and running the Obamacare Implementation Team that they ultimately want me to join. For that year, my job was Special Corporate Project Director, a stupid made up title for the job of me taking over large national projects that no one wanted or could handle.

When I got my portfolio of projects, one popped out immediately.  It was a project that the company had been unable to force anyone to take.  The project involved my state. Apparently, some sales people had been selling large groups (of several hundred employees or more; mostly more) under the contract of one corporation, but the groups had been "set up" for claims payments, income flows, etc. under another in the same state.  It was exactly the same problem that has supposedly been "fixed" two years earlier by the high focus team.

This time, when I put together who was involved, the group was very small.  No one wanted to be on this team.  The only ones who had to were a group of three directors whose departments were bearing the ongoing brunt of the unfixed problem.  Since the problem had not been fixed, each of the directors was afraid she might get fired.

So I had a call with them that lasted all of twenty minutes.  I told them not to be afraid and to tell me why the fix had not been executed.  What they said was that at the time the solution was developed, since the problem involved two corporations (Corporation A and Corporation B), no one had actually taken responsibility to specify which corporation was to get the business. The whole process had broken down, because no one, including the VP, would make the decision.  I asked the directors if they had a preference.  They all said Corporation B.  I asked them if they felt that I had the rank and authority to make the decision.  They said yes.  So I said "make it Corporate B".  They seemed relieved and we ended the meeting.  (I found out later that the reason the VP had not made the decision at the time, was because choosing which corporation to use involved cash flow issues that were above his pay grade. Rather than ask his superiors for help, which might have risked the fix being associated with them rather than him, he delegated the decision to several other people below him, each of whom "assumed" that the other was doing it).

These kinds of things were all too common in this company and any company that I have ever worked for that had more than, say, ten employees.  Everyone wants stuffed fixed.  No one wants to take responsibility for it.  People want credit without doing the work.  People move away as far as they can get away from anything that could go wrong.  In a very large corporation, this takes the form of creating Very Large Meetings, so that one has plenty of forest within which to hide.  People say they do this in order to make sure that "everyone is on the same page".  When I moved into project management, I inherited one "update meeting" that met for an hour each week and included 100 people.  One hundred hours on a meeting where hardly anyone ever said anything for more than a minute.  One hundred hours is the equivalent of two and a half full time people, doing nothing for a full week but going to this meeting.  (I immediately cancelled this meeting and subsequently only met with people who needed to be met with.  The project suddenly started going much faster and more smoothly).

We hear a lot in the present healthcare environment about skyrocketing administrative costs. Aside from solutions like eliminating insurance companies altogether, I think that we could radically cut costs if we could figure out ways of simply eliminating corporate and departmental politics from the corporation.  Because what happens is that corporations go through cycles.  They get blocked from within by politics and posturing.  Things don't get done.  So they hire more people.  Which leads to larger meetings and more posturing, etc. When the problem gets large enough, the executives that caused the problem in the first place decide to go with a brand new corporate management theory, which they initiate with a mass layoff.  Rinse.  Repeat. 

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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