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When the going gets tough

When the going gets tough
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First Published: Fri, Oct 30 2009. 01 09 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Oct 30 2009. 01 09 AM IST
If you search for the phrase “destined to win” on Google.com , it throws up around 52,500 results.
These include everything from dozens of references to the hit by Christian rock group Degarmo & Key, called Destined to win, to several books with the phrase in the title, to hundreds of articles analysing national and local elections, awards and competitions. “Yankees destined to win World Series”, “Hillary destined to win in 2008”, “Neal n Nikki destined to win foreign language film Oscar” and so on.
But now try searching for the phrase “destined to fail”. How many results do you get? Only 5.1 million. There are around a hundred times more pages referring to a premonition of failure than those referring to success.
Humans are very, very pessimistic creatures indeed. But, more tellingly perhaps, we seem to have a species-wide inability to deal with plans, schemes and projects that all have a laughably low chance of succeeding. Instead of dropping these clangers when our losses are low, we persist with them till they blow up in our faces.
And unfortunately for office goers, this tendency permeates into our offices, our cubicles and, worst of all, our conference rooms. Those endless projects that hang around stinking up the place like fish mollee in the pantry microwave? Blame it on this human frailty.
Last week, I began talking to someone who works for a film production company. She was telling me how the movie- making process worked, and how there were a rigorous number of checks and balances built into the system to make sure only the very best scripts got made into films.
I thought about this for a while and then reminded her of Boom, Popcorn Khao! Mast Ho Jao, Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag, Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani and everything with Aftab Shivdasani.
What mad men worked in production companies, read these scripts, overcame instant brain failure and allotted funds?
Which is when she admitted that sometimes horrible projects just don’t die. Most people involved with these films know very early on, around 15 minutes into the first script reading, that the whole thing is a steaming mass of epic fail. Yet, since no one had the authority to call it off, people just worked like cattle. (Note to readers: I mean cattle in the sense they are docile, dissent-free, easily managed, well-behaved creatures. They are Indian cultural icons.)
Immediately I had mental flashbacks of dreaded meetings in cold conference rooms. Where teams of co-workers toiled on with projects that everyone knew would never, ever achieve anything. Yet, they scheduled meetings, made presentations, clocked overtime, asked consultants to pitch for advisory projects and allocated interns till one day, suddenly, the CEO walked into the conference room and noticed the task force:
CEO: “Hello! What is all this?”
Intern prodded with laser pointer by CFO: “We are the ISO 17000 TaskForce B brainstorming...”
CEO: “Eh? Nonsense. The board of directors decided in July to drop ISO 17000 certification. Instead I want you guys to work on a six-month project to reduce our company’s carbon footprint by 75%...”
So if you work in a company, how do you avoid getting involved in dead-end projects? Don’t worry. Here are five ways to tell if a potential project is destined to fail:
1. The CEO introduces the project with the words: “I have been asked by _________”. The blanks may be filled by the words “Bangkok office”, “the board”, “imaginary friend Aravindan”. Whatever it may be, do not touch the project. He has no stake in it and will one day take his meds and fire you for wasting time.
2. When the CEO asks for someone to volunteer to lead the project—be the “champion”—only the office boys are not looking intently into their BlackBerrys. Toxic waste project. Don’t touch.
3. The idea for the project suddenly came to somebody while having lunch. Or taking bath. Or driving to work. The due diligence gone into such a project idea can be described in one palindromic phrase: “Satyam Maytas”.
4. This project has the highest attrition rates of all the offices. Team leads have lasted for an average of a fortnight. When people are allocated to the project, HR is simultaneously asked to prepare Full and Final. Avoid. High attrition is highly contagious.
5. The project falls on the wrong end of the Cubiclenama Inverse Law of Meeting Efficiency. This law states as follows: “The overall efficiency of a meeting is inversely proportional to the total time taken to compare calendars, find a commonly acceptable time, a universally suitable venue and then make arrangements for last-minute changes. The more time it takes to do this, the less productive the meeting will be.” A classic example is the Olympic Games that takes four years to plan but hardly anyone goes back happy and satisfied. (Very rough example.)
How do you avoid doomed projects? How do you cope with them? Send us email. We are free over the weekends.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Oct 30 2009. 01 09 AM IST