Jacob Lawrence, "The Life of Harriet Tubman No. 5," 1940
Jacob Lawrence, The Life of Harriet Tubman No. 5. She felt the sting of slavery when as a young girl she was struck on the head with an iron bar by an enraged overseer. (1940)
Can a Game Be Literature?

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November 17, 2002:

Sketch: Regina.

Personification of a personality type common in Technology Land: the individual who becomes "indispensable" by centralizing and hoarding information which others require in order to do their jobs.

Her peculiar arrogance is probably most evident in the way she responds to questions. Once, in my first week with the company, I asked her to explain some basic strategic thinking behind their technology architectures. Her reply was gobbledygook: unfocused, roundabout, off-topic, garbled, and wrong. Diplomatically I told her I didn't understand. Could she explain it again? Sarcastically, with a smirk, she repeated the same speech word-for-word, pausing every few syllables as if to imply, "You're a moron. Here's a moment for you to catch up." Like this: "Sarcastically... with a smirk... she repeated... the same speech... word-for-word... pausing... every few syllables... as if to imply... 'You're a moron.... Here's a moment... for you to catch up. Get it now?'" After that I searched-out alternate sources of information, which led her to complain to our mutual boss that I was asking her too few questions to be taking my job seriously.

The dynamic she engenders is simple as can be. By withholding information, she makes it impossible for others to do their jobs without her assistance. When she tells her management "nothing would get done around here without me," she's relaying a truth she's created. Unfortunately this is a traditional hierarchical organization in which decision-making and information flows are modeled on the military. Which is to say, her management have no alternate source of information. To the contrary, they focus their attention on the hours she commits, her obvious dedication and sense of personal responsibility, which appear to reinforce her credibility. They come to agree that nothing would get done without her, and they reward her with further empowerment, that is, by further disempowering the people doing the work. The cycle spins.

What interests me is her lack of awareness of her own responsibility. Blind to the structural relationships, her dialectic unfolds on two levels. In consciousness she's arrogant, vain and domineering. At the deeper unconscious level she's crippled with insecurity. Her insecurity determines her need to control others. This is the motor which eventually drives the company to failure.

Parking lot, Sausalito, afternoon on a sunny summer day, 1999. Three of you in business suits: yourself, the COO of your company, and a colleague named C. This is DotCom Land, at the height of the great Internet Bubble. You've just concluded a business meeting with representatives of a potential partner company, and are walking toward your car. Unfocused meeting, unproductive, in which the potential partners made their incompetence clear within the first few minutes, bickering among themselves and insulting each other. Wasted afternoon. You have to pee like anything. Instead your COO is inspired to talk psychology.

She says, "C.'s a 'Type A Personality', aren't you C.? Like me. We have that inbuilt drive to succeed. That striving to achieve something outstanding." While she's not eloquent, she's conveying a certain pride, as if to imply, "Us Type A Personalities are the engines of progress." "What about you Mark?," she wants to know. "Are you one of us?"

Your brain, marinated in urine, lacks the resources on this occasion to spark a diplomatic and business-savvy reply. Instead you tell her the blunt truth. "No. I associate 'Type A Personalities' with significant underlying insecurity, as if they feel the need to prove something to the world. I feel the world needs to prove something to me, and is failing."

Neither of them say a word on the trip back to the office.

There's only one way to repair an organization damaged by people like this. You have to whack the perpetrator. The scene is always the same. "You CAN'T fire me! The place'll go to hell in a handbasket!" Thanks, we'll take our chances. For about a day and a half there's utter panic among the project teams. Then their talent and professionalism re-emerge, unshackled. They build their own communication and decision-making structures based on real knowledge of the project and the technology. Morale soars. Productivity doubles the first week, increases by an order of magnitude within a quarter. Which is still no guarantee of success. The final outcome depends on how early or how late the problem child was let go; on the strategic technology choices which have already been made; and on the quality of the work groups now empowered.

This particular company failed because the problem child was never let go. I quit instead. I could have fixed these problems but it would have meant six months of infighting in which senior management slowly became educated re who to have confidence in. I decided, at age 43, that my blood pressure mattered more. The consulting fees I'd earned there lasted a year, which I spent writing TriadCity. The company folded in a few months.

We've all heard many times the standard ideological trope that Free Enterprise is more successful than other economic systems largely because it's more "efficient." Yet in my career I've met only a handful of truly competent managers, people who know how to achieve excellence and do so. The others have been uniformly mediocre: people who built ineffective organizations with poor morale, weak strategy, and inferior products. Included in this group are famous CEOs who thought of themselves as the best in the world, and were said by the press to be so. Yet I see little efficiency in their histories. The interesting thing is that of the small group of genuinely excellent managers, all but one is a Red of some flavor, and the one who isn't will become one once he encounters the right books. This irony tickles me no end.

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