25 Stories About Work – Small Unit Cohesion

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

Chicago, 2010, at a Shooting training center

In 2010 my dad and I went to an all-day class to learn how to shoot properly. The first four hours were in a classroom and the last four hours were outside when it was a brisk fall day and we learned various techniques of how to shoot and spent over 800 rounds.

In the beginning of the class, the instructor asked everyone about their background. My dad and I said we were complete amateurs. When the others talked about their experience I didn’t fully understand what they were saying until later but many were ex military who were now contractors in Iraq or elsewhere with very extensive experience. They were attending for what must be some sort of required periodic classroom time.

The reason that this is interesting is because the instructor went through firearm basics that was all news to me but must have been the most banal and simplistic discussion that these guys have ever heard. It would be like sending me back to school for mandatory training and showing me a balance sheet or explaining the very basics of systems technology. In five minutes of this I would be agitated and distracted and frankly a bit insulted that someone wasn’t properly valuing my corporate and career experience. Because that is how a corporate or business person would view the process, but not a military person. Each of the military guys sat in their seats for four hours and if anything they constructively helped the instructor, who was ex-military himself. In hindsight no one was joking around or making a mockery of anything.

When we were shooting the guys all helped each other and the team immediately without asking. We had a lot to cover so they leaped up and changed the targets and moved and anticipated and everyone was part of a larger mission. After a while it was completely obvious to everyone that me and my dad (who was in his late 70s at this point) were behind the game so they subtly starting helping and coaching us in addition to what the instructor was doing. Sometimes you had to shoot multiple targets to clear a level and I think a few times guys helped me by shooting my targets too.

Only in hindsight did I recognize the “cohesion” concepts that SLA Marshall talked about in his famous book. He talked about the value of leadership and training in motivating and getting the best out of the men under your command. While these sound like commonplace lessons, and ones the military has likely long since learned in its recent brutal wars overseas, these lessons are usually nowhere to be found in corporate America and most private businesses.

I watched “The Last Patrol” (highly recommended) last night on HBO and they had a similar observation. The protagonists are walking across America (even in Baltimore, I was scared for them) and asking people what is great about America. These ex-military guys and ex-combat photographers (with 20+ years in the middle of all of it) were trying to wind down and find their bearings without the adrenaline rush of combat and surviving possible death. They met a woman in an American flag bikini and she said she worked in an old folks home for veterans and she said that they all helped and looked out for each other. However, she said, it wasn’t like that once you left the facility – it’s not like that outside in America today.

Back to what I really know which is corporate America including lots about small businesses and government. I have been at 100+ different organizations as a consultant or employee and think about this topic all the time, so I consider myself a bit of an expert. This sort of camaraderie, shared cohesion, and teamwork is mostly absent in these other sorts of organizations.

When I started as an accountant we did have some cohesion and shared purpose because I was assigned to the worst group of clients – governments and utilities. It was all travel, and since most of the value of being an auditor is shopping your skills to companies who might hire you later (I missed all the opportunities in hindsight, sigh), we sometimes banded together because we all felt like we were getting the short end of the stick. I also was right out of college and tended to believe what I was told (initially), although that soon melted away and my skepticism has stuck with me to this date.

In larger organizations it seems that you are fighting your peers as much as the competition. You are all struggling for budget resources, the best staff, and the best opportunities. Often you are stuck working with adjacent organizations run by leaders who “don’t get it” and this just promises to be a long difficult slog, at best. This sort of model (internal competition) kind of works when the stock market is going up and you have the wind at your back, but as soon as you have headwinds and difficulties the real knives come out and then it is mostly rearguard activities rather than fighting for the best interests of the company as a whole. Incentive systems are normally not going to value selfless work on behalf of the corporation so those “behind the scenes” tasks are abandoned and the whole organization kind of chews up its muscles for a while and hopes for the best.

My brother worked for a dying American icon manufacturer and seller of technology and he told me that towards the end, the very neat buildings full of test gear and other materials for client presentations and demos fell into utter ruin because there was no upside in keeping this sort of “common” benefit alive for all the teams to utilize, since the numbers were terrible and everyone was desperate to survive. There was barely a security guard out front and it just became a jumble of crap and a sad reminder of how far the company had fallen.

I can remember vividly another time when we had complete cohesion – seven of us left a consulting firm and started a new firm, with our own money (the CEO put most of it on the line). We went out and rented space, bought equipment, and got started. I did the books every weekend and made sure the invoices and expenses billed to the clients were absolutely perfect and that we got paid right away. (Note – this is hard. Most invoices are terrible, late and full of errors. Mine were error free because I am a zealot and did it myself and also knew what was supposed to be there.) This was in addition to traveling 5 days / week in distant cities. We all worked together to build a company and I still remember this as the best time in my working life. We all leveraged our best skill sets from technological excellence to sales leadership to organization to just focusing and getting work done. It was amazing and the manner in which that fell apart later and I left pains me still to this day.

I don’t think top executives can see the dissension and how far most companies are from the optimal state. They are often far removed and don’t have access to front line information, or they don’t seek it out. Smart leaders “manage by walking around” because it allows them to talk to staff unscripted and without their management “handlers” who likely would snuff out anything but “happy-talk” to the top executives for fear of making themselves look bad. But excellent top management realizes that this sort of “bad cohesion” will come back to haunt them in the end, somewhere, and try to get ahead of it.

Cross posted at LITGM

7 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Small Unit Cohesion”

  1. Internal competition works much better if it is between organizations that are in parallel rather than those that are in series. Competition between two product divisions in a decentralized company is much healthier than competition between gigantic engineering and manufacturing organizations in a centralized company. Competition between sales regions is healthier than competition between Sales and Marketing.

  2. In 1979, I organized a trauma center in our small community hospital. The County had decided to regionalize trauma care and I thought we should apply since we were somewhat separated from the rest of the County by undeveloped land (It is mostly developed now). There were other reasons why this seemed a good idea but one was that most of the doctors who would be involved were young and recently out of training in hospitals with a lot of trauma care. Most of us had trained at LA County hospital and some of the orthopedists had trained in the Navy.

    Anyway, we worked this on a sort of cooperative basis since we were going to do this on our own with no source of revenue except what insurance patients would have. In a big city, this would have been a crazy idea since most trauma victims in a city are stab and gunshot wounds and other forms of assault. Those people rarely have any insurance since Medicaid is mostly for women and children, a group with smaller representation in trauma victims. However, our hospital was in a community that was middle class with big highways passing through so most traumas would be auto accidents.

    The hospital employees were surveyed informally and many were enthusiastic. It became a team building effort and, when the survey group came through, they were surprised how enthusiastic everyone was and we were chosen with what I was told was some surprise. We were rated ahead of the university hospital in the County. The trauma center grew with the south end of Orange County and, eventually, the hospital grew and was sold to an order of nuns that own other hospitals in the area. They brought in a series of administrators and the bureaucracy took over.

    First, the year before I retired, the new administrator announced that he was cutting out a number of incentives for nurses who worked on trauma. His expressions was, “Those nurses have been getting away with murder and I stopped it.” That referred to a small payment for taking trauma call, which involved an agreement to get to the hospital in 15 minutes if called. The hospital was too small to add staff who would sit around waiting for a trauma. In the beginning, we had only five or six cases a week. Now there are five or six a day. The attitude of the administrator, who had come from a big hospital in the East, was going to hurt the esprit of the employees and I told him he would lose good nurses who could work somewhere that did not involve off hours call. About a dozen excellent nurses left in the next year. He didn’t care. Experienced nurses make more money than new graduates and convincing someone with that mind set that experience matters is difficult at best.

    Ten years ago, I was serving on the city planning commission The hospital came to the commission with plans for a big addition. They asked for three hours for their presentation. I was asked to be on a subcommittee to hear the presentation. About 35 young assistant administrators showed up with a presentation that lasted longer than the three hours. I left when the other commission member was willing to stick it out. Bureaucracy was in abundance. Last summer, the present administrator fired the surgery trauma team that had run the center for 35 years. The story is here and here.

    It is not a happy story but it is indicative of where health care is going. I had breakfast this morning with my daughter who is an FBI agent. She was in Dallas last week at a big conference on heath care fraud. That is a growing industry. As health care becomes more bureaucratic, and less of a “cottage industry” as it was once described by Teddy Kennedy, fraud will increase dramatically. Quality of care will diminish but that was not the purpose of Obamacare, another topic for another day,.

  3. This is the essence of capitalism and re-generation. Companies and industries grow, mature, and then start to die. I’ve been in all kinds of companies in different types of functions.

    Health care is a crazy mix of public and private. A huge amount of spend goes to personnel, bricks and mortar, and administrators.

    If they actually were subject to restraints it would be like the power industry. First- capital investment is shut down. Second – the real estate is rationalized. Third – the staffing is rationalized in that lower value functions are outsourced. Fourth – they finally tackle automation, efficiency, and the cost of services.

    The final stage is consolidation as the smaller players die and get rolled up into bigger players.

    Later – new entrants come in to the market and begin innovating against the established players.

  4. Businesses are built by people who see where the customers will come from and what serves them. Businesses die when bureaucrats see only the expenses and lose information about where the next customers will come from.

    Companies confuse Marketing and Sales. Marketing: Who wants the product, why, and what will you have to do to get and keep his business, including product development. Sales: Contacting those people and explaining what you offer, including advertising. People think that advertising is marketing and taking orders is sales.

    Information is blocked in most companies. Filling out reports doesn’t tell the next higher level how the company is really managing its projects. Management by walking around is only an informal way of gaining some information.

    I would use a formal method. Each manager of course talks to the people reporting to him. Also, each manager would use 30 min/day talking to the people one more level down, in rotation. Everyone in the company would talk to his manager’s manager from time to time. Each employe would have two higher contacts in the company. This would provide much more operating information, confirm the ongoing success or failure of intended operations, and prevent any manager from building an informaiton fiefdom.

  5. With regard to Andrew M.’s suggestion, one of the two very best manager/leaders I ever worked for in the military did exactly that. He would have a private conference with every one of the junior enlisted staff, and talk with them about the jobs they were doing; asking how they were doing, what were they doing, who they were working and coordinating with, what problems they were encountering and what they were doing about them, what did they think they needed to do the job better … it was exhausting, but rewarding, doing this; half an hour would make us feel like he had extracted every brain cell you had and gone through them with a sieve. But he did this with the mid-and upper-rank NCOs, and the officers, too.

    This was in the Public Affairs shop. He had never trained as a PAO – he was a nav-school instructor and a former enlisted – but what he really was, was ATC’s (Air Training Command)go-to officer for sorting out troubled support units and activities. And he was good at it, too – besides being a very fast learner himself. He had the wit and the good sense to pay attention to the people who really knew their jobs.

    I didn’t often run into many like that, and none of them in my own career field. Alas.

  6. This article fits in with a variety of things I have been reading recently, as well as things I have observed personally for a long time now.

    Megan McArdle recently had a piece regarding the distain that experts have for ordinary people. The Jonathan Gruber episode was the focus of the piece. But I was more struck by for discussion of investment bank publications which give buy and sell recommendations. She noted that it was common knowledge amongst people with any sophistication that these recommendations were virtually meaningless, and that at best buy meant hold and sell meant short. But as Megan noted, many many millions of people were not among those who fell into the category of “everyone knows”. She didn’t go the final step up and say that entire industry was founded upon institutionalized and excepted lies to the public.

    The scandalous conduct of the rating agencies prior to the 2008 crash is similar. But in that case even some supposedly sophisticated people got burned.

    John Robb published a short e-book recently which argued that the biggest problem with America today is the collapsed moral character of the people who run it are basic institutions.

    Donald Vandergriff has made this argument with regard to our military leadership, who Swart reforms which would undermine the authority of the leaders, even if it’s saved lives and money and lead to victory on the battlefield.

    Institutions that have bargaining leverage routinely right impenetrable it one-sided contracts, it’s pitilessly deny less sophisticated parties any benefit from the bargain at all, whenever they can get away with it. They can get away with most of the time.

    Here is a speculation. In the decades ahead, historians will identify a key turning point in the degradation of our shared business in civic life was the publication of Richard Posner’s law school case book online and economics. Posner made the icy economic claim that a party to a contract should breach the contract when it was cheaper for him to breach than to perform. This theory of “efficient breach” had significant theoretical deficiencies, which were later identified in the economic literature. For example there is an extraordinarily high value to reputation in business transactions, if preserving that reputation requires trade-offs. I don’t think Posner was, or is, a malicious thinker. As a University of Chicago scholar, and especially a University of Chicago economist, Judge Posner makes aggressive and even shocking pronouncements, to provoke argument, D5 I thoughtless conventional wisdom, and to move the field forward. However, a simpleminded application, a dogmatic adoption, of the notion of efficient breach add a pernicious affect. Nonetheless, the idea that business transactions should be stripped of any calculus other than the immediate economic gain of one party at once reflected it help to shape the milieu we all live in now.

    In any case, if you’re as old as I am, you are aware of a unquantifiable but real change in the attitudes and practical moral thinking of the people you deal with. There is less kindness, less straight talk, less implicit assumption of human equality, more materialism, not so much in the desire for material things but in treating human beings as things for use, or obstacles, but not as beings with inherent dignity, souls, value.

    I cannot prove any of the foregoing. Anecdotes are not data. But we live by our actual lived experiences, not by peer reviewed academic conclusions, with mathematical appendices.

    A society founded upon routine cynicism is chipping away at its own foundations.

    A critical element in the success of America, in the English-speaking world generally, has been the capacity of individuals to trust each other to a degree which other societies generally never experienced. The erosion of this basic idea, founded upon moral and religious principles which are not easily replaced, is it ignore the structural weakness in our society and even in our civilization.

    Rebuilding civil society, then rebuilding expectations of fairness, Fairdealing, honesty and mutual trust, is a gigantic project which most people haven’t even realized needs to be started.

    I have a few ideas about this. But be forewarned, they are outrageously politically incorrect.

    /rant off

  7. Please pardon the typos. Voice recognition is not perfect, but it is all I have handy at the moment.

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