Recently Inc. magazine ran a clever article by Jeff Hayden, The Monty Python Guide to Running a Business, spinning business lessons for entrepreneurs from classic sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the iconic British comedy team.
As a longtime Python fan, I found the article to be a great read, but there was no reason for Jeff Hayden to include his “This post is in no way intended as serious business advice…I know I’m being frivolous” disclaimer. On the contrary, many a truth is said in jest, and anyone who is that much of a stick in the mud to be irked by Hayden’s article deserves a visit from this guy.
Not among Jeff Hayden’s top ten “business advice by Monty Python” selections was my #1 choice: The Argument Clinic. One of Monty Python’s most popular comedy sketches, I believe this skit also does a great job portraying the ideal business environment to kill innovation and creativity! Have a look…
While it’s true that Monty Python’s Michael Palin actually pays for the ‘privilege’ of having an argument in this sketch, scores of marketers, engineers and product managers are basically being paid to routinely engage in arguments – aka turf battles, verbal sparring and the like – with others in the company.Such misguided organizations will also have plenty of de facto Verbal Abuse departments (“Stupid git!”) to go along with the inane, endless arguments. And all this nonsense is sure to inflict frequent worker headaches (though hopefully not from a literal wooden mallet to the head).
Simply put, arguing is the opposite of collaborating. It was the root cause of Sony losing the personal music market to Apple and iTunes. As noted in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, Sony’s divisions were too busy constantly arguing with each other to ever “get its hardware and software and content divisions to row in unison.”
[A music executive told Isaacson he] “had spent two years working with Sony, and it hadn’t gone anywhere…Steve would fire people if the divisions didn’t work together, but Sony’s divisions were at war with one another.”
Indeed, Sony provided a clear counterexample to Apple. It had a consumer electronics division that made sleek products and a music division with beloved artists (including Bob Dylan). But because each division tried to protect its own interests, the company as a whole never got its act together to produce an end-to-end service.
Arguments can be induced when workers feel compelled to look over their shoulder instead of working and collaborating openly with others. I was stunned to recently read that for years Microsoft has been using “stack ranking” – aka “rank and yank” – a ruinous, discredited HR management practice that “forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor,” as explained in Microsoft’s Lost Decade, a Vanity Fair article by Kurt Eichenwald (summarized by Forbes). Stack ranking “crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate”:
Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed – every one – cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies” (emphasis added).
UPDATE: This excellent article debunks stack ranking from another perspective: its statistical assumptions are fundamentally flawed. In other words, stack ranking is an example of big data buffoonery with ruinous consequences for the workers affected, and, inevitably, the company itself.
Time spent by workers, managers, departments, business divisions, etc. on internal arguments and other infighting is time not spent fighting competitors outside the company. Time wasted developing innovations in self-preservation, co-worker character assassination, triangulation and other manipulative office politics is time not spent innovating new products, marketing messages and other creative solutions, to say nothing about the serious business costs and personal consequences of such dysfunctional behavior.
Hmm, I think this article has gotten a bit too serious. Let’s close, then, with one more Pythonesque “business lesson,” this time regarding customer service gone wrong!
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