Established in 1985, staffed by more than 21,000 people and with an annual revenue in 2012 of just over $19 billion, Qualcomm Inc. is a rock solid technology company well known for developing standards for mobile communications. The company owns numerous patents for 3G and 4G communications, for instance, that bring it substantial revenues in licensing fees.
In other words, this is the kind of company with the means, resources and talent to think things through.
Yet, a few days ago, Qualcomm did something utterly bizarre. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas—one of the world’s most important and eagerly watched consumer electronics trade fairs—Qualcomm delivered an opening keynote address that would have made Lady Gaga scratch her meat-enrobed head in bewilderment.
Just like every cubiclist reading this column, I too have acted in numerous, crappy plays and skits all through school and college. The worst of these were ill-conceived spoofs of Sholay that still make me throw up in my mouth a little. (Oh God. That “Sholay In Thanjavur” skit. WHY GOD WHY, WHY WOULD YOU LET THAT HAPPEN TO ME, WHY???!!!)
These deep scars of youth leave me nearly incapable of cringing at anything. And yet I couldn’t watch the Qualcomm keynote without occasionally pausing the video and moaning into a blanket.
It was extraordinarily bad. Qualcomm’s big theme for this year’s CES was “Born Mobile”. So the keynote started with three actors who played three typical “Generation Mobile” characters. They were not great characters.
Also. Generation Mobile? PUKE.
This was followed by a special appearance by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. Who ran onto the stage in his best “I’ve just been to Amsterdam and you won’t believe what I’ve been sprinkling on my food all weekend” impression. Then came special appearances by a character from Sesame Street and a supremely uninterested film actor. Finally there was a live performance by a band, the online stream of which was overlaid with music from another artist. (Because Qualcomm presumably only had the rights to broadcast their music to the live attendees.) And at some point Desmond Tutu spoke too.
It was totally insane. If you have time this weekend, do watch the keynote with the entire family. Bring tequila.
But my point in telling you about the keynote is this: why do such big, established companies do such stupid, stupid, stupid things?
Presuming that more than one person at Qualcomm was involved in planning the show, and that Qualcomm is staffed by normal people, why didn’t anybody set off an alarm? Why didn’t someone in a meeting somewhere stand up and say “Wait a minute friends. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ALL OF US? IS IT SOMETHING IN THE OFFICE WATER SUPPLY???!!!!”
But, quite evidently, nobody did. Or somebody did, and nobody listened to them.
The really disturbing thing about such massive corporate faux pas is that they keep happening over and over again. Nobody seems immune to them. It has happened to Google, Netflix, General Motors, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and even to that epitome of ‘thinking through’: Apple.
Q: What is common to a novice Buddhist monk and an Apple Maps user?
A: They are both trying to find themselves.
Why do such horrible things happen to such great companies?
Largely, I think, the problem is with the extended life span bad ideas seem to get in some office environments. Instead of being discarded immediately bad ideas thrive and grow and eventually lay deep, immovable roots.
In my experience, bad ideas hang around stinking the place for a number of reasons. Sometimes cubiclists are too polite to tell their co-worker that the idea for a new common company-wide ringtone to show solidarity is a terrible idea in an office of 300 people with 600 mobile phones. Instead of doing what they should—throwing out the idea and possibly terminating the idea-generator—cubiclists let the idea linger, waiting for someone else to debunk it.
Alternatively, the bad idea may be suggested by someone so senior in the organization that debunking is fraught with risk. Qualcomm Varma Ki Aag may well have been the brainchild of the company’s CEO or some such chief something-or-the-other officer.
Thirdly bad ideas can also be the outcome of committees gone mad. Where teams become so unruly that the only way to make everyone happy is to agree on a patchwork of inputs where the sum of the parts is crappy and the whole is doubly so. “Sholay in Thanjavur” was the outcome of one such intense team brainstorming process. By the time we realized we had a lemon on our hands it was too late. Besides we’d have sooner stabbed ourselves in the face with teaspoons than convene another meeting.
So what do you do then? Sadly, I think, not a lot. Politeness and a lack of self-awareness are powerful forces of nature.
What could help is having a few of those politically incorrect, brutally frank types in every office. The guys who read your monthly revenue report and then actually roll on the floor laughing their ass off.
In fact, I think this is a great idea. What could possibly go wrong?
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life.
To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama