The Light That Failed
Thomas A. FitzGerald
Of course the rooftop bar at the Trocadero that Spring evening was not exactly the Road To Damascus. Nor was the Loud Voice exactly a blinding light. And it wasn't addressing me anyway. But I take my questions where I may and I had time before the Presidents' Dinner. And my speech for tomorrow was prepared. And it was a perfectly good question. I wondered why I hadn't thought of it.
"If planning was any use," the Loud Voice demanded in a querulous tone, "why aren't them that do it MORE PROFITABLE than them that don't?"
"A good question," I thought, "a trifle less than perfect grammatically, but a good question. One that I can answer with a blizzard of data and just a touch of my rapier wit. Of course them that do it are more profitable than them that don't. Everybody knows that. But I will have to polish the question up a little."
"It will make a nice addition to my speech, add credibility and force," I added mentally, rubbing my hands together and sending a shiver of optimism through the waiter delivering my Irish. "And I know just who is doing it and where the numbers are. And I can have it incorporated in my speech before tomorrow".
But, somehow, my speech the following day did not address that question. And no one noticed. Oh, I got an honorable mention in the convention paper and someone said they enjoyed my talk and someone else remarked on how well I had explained the complex theoretic base and what a good case I had made for Planning. And if only her boss had really listened. And the Loud Voice From The Rooftop Bar did not attend the meeting anyway. And no one raised that question. And I knew I would not raise it. Not then anyway; not for that industry. But I had heard it. I had heard it.
Epiphanies come in their good time and in their good place. And mine that year needed conventions and bars and questions. Summertime in the Adirondacks brought the convention and the bar and the question.
"But did it change a damn thing?!!!" the Bellicose Middle Manager asked of the bartender in a strengthened voice.
Something told me I should leave then. Some primal instinct warned me. Somehow I knew this was about Goddess Planning and Her Sacred Process that I would praise upon the morrow.
There were only three of us in the bar and the danger was palpable. But a strange paralysis had overtaken my limbs and my will. "Are birds mesmerized by snakes like this?" my errant thoughts inquired. I knew that another Moment Of Truth was at hand. I was condemned to listen.
"Tootin' right it didn't" continued the BMM slamming her drink down in an unladylike manner while her index finger probed back an errant lock of graying hair flung up in her anger.
"And if a plan doesn?t cause CHANGE what use is it?!!"
It was too late. My worst fears were being realized. I was witness to the final result of a planner's work. The real results. I would now have to wait it out. A cold numbness grew in my spirit.
"What do you do for a living?" she rounded on me aggressively.
"I play piano," I mumbled.
She sneered in disbelief, piercing me with the gimlet eye of a veteran banker.
"Classical" I hastened, explaining my three piece pin-stripe while I felt to see if my speakers badge was out of sight.
But she wasn't listening anyway. The bartender was again impaled on her accusing finger.
"Do you know what happened?" she hectored on. "The old man, after years of denying everything, finally admitted we were in trouble. But instead of doing something he decided to study it. Planning he called it. He told us all about it and he had a smartass consultant in to do the Environmental Analysis that would show us what we should do. "God is in the details" he would say. And we spent time we didn't have and energy and money and hope. And we got a big ***ing book. Excuse my French.
"But it didn't CHANGE anything" she shrieked. She began to pick up speed. "And everything needed to be changed if we were to survive the competition, even if we weren't in trouble. And we were in trouble. What we needed was to be different, really different!
"And Junior kept on doing what he always did and so did everybody else. And they are merging us into First National next week if the injunction doesn?t hold. And it won't. And the Old Man is still refining his environmental analysis, for God's sake!
She was quiet for a moment.
"Why don?t you play something? Something cheerful! The Moonlight Sonata, maybe!" she demanded suddenly - a Righteous Middle Manager in full cry. It took me a moment to come back from that Place Of Horror where I was still facing the Beast: Results. Planners don't get much practice facing Results. I was wondering if a chair or a cape would be best, though I had neither. And I was naked.
I realized she was again addressing me.
But now, shaken from my thrall, I played a deaf Beethoven on his way to the mens' room. But I had heard, I had heard.
And my speech that convention didn't mention Change or express any doubts on Environmental Analyses. It didn?t mention Improved Profitability either. And no one noticed.
Oh, I got an honorable mention in the convention paper. And someone said they enjoyed my talk. And someone else remarked on how well I had explained the complex theoretic base and what a good case I had made for planning. And if only her boss had really listened. But no one raised those topics. And the Middle Manager did not bother to attend. And I was relieved.
No PROFITS in April. No CHANGE in July. Worse still, a Doubt had arisen about the Sacred Process.
And Autumn that year brought an annual convention and this time my favorite client sat across from me at the Heisemann bar with all his entrepreneurial wattage glowing. Having achieved great business success he had been named to a bank board and was picking my brains on proper behavior for polite society. In return I was angling for an introduction.
"Planning is what you do for banks isn?t it?" he said.
I smiled in modest assent.
"Of course", he continued, "I never plan myself. Real entrepreneurs don't you know. Its unlucky."
It was that Place Of Horror again. Something within desperately tried to deny what I was hearing. But the spiritual numbness was back. And the Beast was stalking me.
"I was talked into it when we hit $20 million, he continued. We hired Big Bucks Consultants too. It paralyzed us. I couldn't get anything changed. In my business we have to be damned agile because the market is changing all the time. New products new equipment coming out every month. And we used to be the best in our industry and that meant the most flexible.
He was quiet for a while. "We got this Big Book with a vanilla Mission Statement that marketing and Big Bucks wrote and nobody read. Thank God! And forty pages of economic forecasting with disclaimers. And another forty pages on the history of the company since I founded it. And twenty pages of numbers they called "goals" that nobody really understood apart from the accountant. And I am not so sure about him either. But he loved the whole process. Scientific Management was what he wanted. But if there was an action step in there, I never saw anybody take it.
"And I couldn?t get anyone to make a decision. "I nearly lost the business that year. Paralysis by Analysis".
Again he said it: "Paralysis By Analysis". A kind of mournful mantrum.
"It must have taken me a year to break the rigor mortis after I finally noticed. I had to fire two of my best people to do it".
A tear of regret floated in his eye; he was an emotional man. But then he seemed to relax and the cloud of memory lifted from his shoulders.
"But its OK for bankers and those kind of people. I'll put in a good word for you", he said loyally.
Somehow, my speech that convention didn't mention Paralysis by Analysis or Entrepreneurship. Or Corporate Agility. Or Flexibility, or Decisiveness, or Vanilla Mission Statements. Of course, it didn?t mention Forcing Change or Increasing Profits either or Willingness to Take a Business Risk.
But nobody noticed.
Oh, I got an honorable mention in the convention paper and - - - . The slides were really pretty.
My loyal and favorite client didn't bother to attend. He was engineering a merger in the bar. Again I was relieved.
No PROFITS in April. No CHANGE in July. No ENTREPRENEURSHIP in November. Nor FLEXIBILITY or RESPONSIVENESS or CORPORATE AGILITY.
I feared my next convention and the truth it would bring. There would be nowhere to hide. No level of denial would suffice. Nothing of my faith would be left. There would be no certainty to cling to.
Could it be that The Sacred Process did not work? Could it be that She was dead? Or had never lived? . . . . .
Will our Hero survive?
Will he again regain his faith?
Will he once more sing the Praises from Her altars?
Tune in again next time for the exciting and startling sequel to:
The Death And Resurrection Of Corporate Planning.