Office Snooping and Gossip – April 18, 2006

Office Snooping and Gossip

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 19 – April 18, 2006

When I was less than two weeks old I developed a life threatening ear infection, to relieve the pressure in my tiny head doctors punctured one of my eardrums, the other ruptured on its own. Other than having to endure listening to my mother tell every date I ever had what an awful crying infant I was, the fact that I have damaged eardrums has had little impact on my life with the exception of not being able to hear very well when there is background noise.

It is for this reason that I am not a very good at office snooping, it is difficult for me to hear the detail of hushed conversations and telephone calls that could provide useful fodder for gossip. Even with the recent office move, which has located me directly next to Peter McCamley, I know less gossip about our company than the guy that works at the Manhattan Cafe on the corner. Not knowing the office gossip is affecting my self esteem. This is a common side effect of not being in the know, confirmed in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which explained that our access to gossip within the workplace is a “useful barometer of our overall importance within a group”. The article goes on to say that gossip plays an important role in the workplace as a means to alleviate stress and anxiety as well as for entertainment.

Gossip can be good fun, at my previous place of employment the office gossip put bestselling books and television to shame for entertainment value. This continues, it was recently reported to me by a former colleague there, that the whole of the 23rd floor believes he is the father of another friend’s unborn child. This is what happens when you are seen one too many times at the many Starbucks in the building sipping a latte together. The best part of this is that the woman is happily married, and the man is happily gay. He said “I know I don’t skip down the halls in rainbow tights but I thought everyone here knew, I’ve never kept it secret”

There is of course a downside to office gossip, 50% of Australian employees have been victims of false gossip at work; and don’t think it is just the girls gossiping, according to Dr Grant Michelson from the University of Sydney school of business “men are just as adept”. Gossip tends to happen more in companies where there is a high level of uncertainty, such as during a take over or restructure and is prevalent when people don’t have all of the information they need or crave. When you don’t know what is going on, what choice do you have but to make it up?

Finding accurate information to be a good gossiper is tough these days, how do you get it; especially when there are pesky passwords and firewalls, or you are like me and can’t hear too well? Toby Miller a certified Intrusion Analyst and employee of a ‘major internet security firm’ – so secret they can’t name it – claims this is relatively easy in the workplace; despite the security measures many workplaces have in place. He reasons that as human beings, we rarely question actions that we consider normal and those actions are the very ones that make us vulnerable. “Social Engineering” is the term he uses to describe “an attack method used to take advantage of complacency at work”. His examples of Social Engineering listed below make you wonder how any thing stays secret, as it just about describes what most of us spend our day doing.

  • Friendships – where trust can be exploited
  • E-mail –  exploits trust  as well with the added ability to easily spread to others
  • Dumpster Diving- going through the trash bin to get information
  • Office snooping – looking and listening when you should be working
  • Trust – Social engineering exploits human trust
  • Time – obviously some people have too much of it.

By having no friends and not trusting anyone, shredding all documents, and religiously cleaning our desk we can sleep at night knowing the office snoop will have nothing on us. But you know as well as I, that there are far more sophisticated methods for snooping now a days than digging through your bosses garbage can. Most workplaces now have security cameras; they are so common today that we consider them benign.  Do you really care if the security guard in the building watches you pick spinach out of your teeth after lunch or adjust your underwear in the lift? We are so used to this level of snooping, or voyeurism, that we don’t pay it much attention. We also pay little attention to the forms we sign when we start a job giving consent for the company to read our e mails and review computer files whenever they want.

The fact is that this type of monitoring is very common in today’s workplace and we should expect some level of snooping to occur at work. That being said office snooping must be handled with the upmost sensitivity. Not only are there ethics and employee moral at stake, there is the need to be fair and consistent. The mistake many companies make is that they don’t take snooping seriously and this puts them at risk. Often employees assigned to be the snoops are those that understand the computer systems and have the necessary access to hardware and software. This can lead to inconsistency if surveillance is low on that employee’s priority list. Don’t fear being snooped on at Geyer. Our information technology specialists are far too preoccupied teaching me the ins and outs of my blackberry to have any time left over to snoop on you.

In some companies spying on employees is taken quite seriously, mostly to protect theft of proprietary data and software but also to patrol loss of productivity and sexual harassment. An American Management Association survey on electronic monitoring states that nearly three – quarters of the large American companies that responded said that they routinely record and review employees phone calls, e mails, internet connections and computer files. Since one in four companies will fire an employee over what the surveillance turns up you would have an expectation that who ever is doing the snooping would take their job seriously .

This is one reason snooping is taken so seriously in America. Employers there cannot knowingly let an employee do something that is illegal, and this gives them an excuse to snoop. By example, not only could one employee’s surfing a porn site impact productivity; it could also be used to prove the company allowed sexual harassment in the workplace. It is not just what a person does, it is the impact they have on those around them that is considered when establishing whether a workplace is ‘a hostile work environment’. Corporate executives can now be held responsible for misconduct of their subordinates and this is why the courts are no longer buying (unless you have excellent legal counsel or are reporting to the Cole enquire) the line “I don’t recall, or I can’t remember” or “I had no idea that we were selling wheat to Iraq”.

All of this has led to an increase in new applications for snooping like Security Call Analysis, Monitoring Platforms and Scamp. These database technologies allow access to about nine weeks of calling information. It was through technologies like these that AT&T helped crack the Moldovan porn scam – a group in the former Soviet republic  tricked users of internet sites into downloading software that disconnected them from their local telephone company and redialled a 900 number in Moldova. You would see the benefits of this if you were a shareholder of AT&T. Similarly if you are running a business and your employees are making phone calls to Moldova when they should be working you would be pleased. In a survey by Elron Software one tenth of the respondents said they had seen co-workers viewing porn sites at work even though company policy explicitly prohibited it.

As I write new tools are being developed to help mine data and this will enable the application of software analysis tools, now used by law enforcement agencies, to identify activities that would be missed by human eavesdroppers. Data mining is used now by credit card companies to stop fraud and insurance companies to predict risk but in the future it will be used to draw connections between unrelated pieces of information by using mathematical or statistical techniques to scan for hidden relationships in streams of digital data.

This technology has attracted the interest of the US government who recently dispatched a group of National Security Agency officials to the Silicon Valley to go shopping to find the best snooping software money could buy. They were scouting out this cutting edge technology to support the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist eavesdropping program. As a US citizen, I am subject to having my e mails and computer files searched by the US government, as well as by my employer! The new data mining software could track how many times seemingly unrelated bits of information might occur together, such as the presence of the words president and incompetent in the same sentence in one of my emails. This could well earn me a little vacation to Guantanamo Bay. Given this information we had better ramp up our secession planning sooner rather than later.

The reality is that we can’t complain about the lack of anonymity or privacy we have at work or in our lives. Most of us willingly embraced the convenience of mobile phones, GPS devices, EZ passes, and BPay. We like knowing that our security pass keeps vagrants out of our workplaces. We cannot then be enraged when RFID tags or “spy chips” are placed in the products we buy, from shoes to milk to give retailers the ability to amass and analise our buying patterns. Nor should we be surprised when our employers want to use similar applications to track our movements. Particularly as mobility and distributed work environments become more predominant. That day is already here, two years ago Allan and I visited Paddy from Cisco systems, he demonstrated for us how he could find an employee, an acquaintance of mine in Santa Clara. In less than one minute he knew which building she sat it, which seat she sat in, where she was – travelling or at home, and he pulled up a picture of her to boot. This was a few years ago, I bet now he could tell us what she is having for lunch.

It does make you wonder about the great concern so many of our clients have about being overheard in an open office environments. With the technology that exists today the concern should not be for the guy sitting next to you snooping in on your phone calls, but for your employer digging through your computer files and finding out that you have over extended yourself on your mortgage, visit a Barbie Doll collectors web site with frequency, or have been viewing porn from Moldova. There are some things you just don’t want everyone knowing about.

By the way, did you hear that Andrew Isaacson has resigned


Extent of UK snooping revealed

BBC News

The Latest on Office Gossip

By Owen Thompson

The Sydney Morning Herald  March 25-26, 2006

Fast Company

Office Handbook – Chapter 63 Busybodies

Issue 78 January 2004

By Ryan Underwood

Taking Snooping Further; Government Looks at Ways To Mine Databases

By John Markoff; Scott Shane contributer

The New York Times February 25, 2006

The Right Thing; As Office Snooping Grows, Who Watches the Watchers?

by Jeffrey L Seglin

The New York Times June 18, 2000

Executive Life; New Kind of Snooping Arrives at the Office

By Marci Alboher Nusbaum

The New York Times July 13, 2003

A Growing Web of Watchers Builds a Surveillance Society

The New York Times January 25, 2006

Social Engineering

By Toby Miller

Security Focus Web site June 19, 2000

Just How Fair is the Workplace?

News Release – SauderSchool of Business August 30, 2001




Keeping up Appearances – February 16, 2006

Keeping Up Appearances

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 17 – February 16, 2006

Since releasing the last Futures Ramblings I have been engaged in several conversations with people  who have intimated that they believed the newsletter was my personal vehicle for having a go at the company, its policies or people. Since I am now up to issue 17, and in the time that I have been writing these many employees have departed and joined Geyer, I thought it might be appropriate to reiterate to you all why I do this.

At Geyer we are very different, but the one trait we share with many design firms, is the tendency to get carried away with the ‘design current’. It is our passion, our driver –  the air we breath. Unfortunately, many of our clients are breathing a slightly different mix of air, and for them there are many other issues that they need to consider. Some of these can be pretty far off our radar as design professionals. The purpose of the Ramblings is to put these issues on the screen. We pride ourselves in taking a holistic approach to projects. In fact, our briefing process is designed to dig out the variables that exist in our client’s business strategies, brand and culture to enable us to create a design uniquely suited to them. So it is with the hope that we will create better design solutions, that I write these.

It comes as no surprise that Geyer, as an organisation faces some of these same issues I write about. It is also not startling to find that  that some of these articles have  hit a nerve with you personally. This is after all a company, and people work here, we do share similarities with the rest of the world.  However, please note (just like in the cop shows on TV) the similarities between these stories, and characters in real life is circumstantial. I will confess that with the exception of my comments about US foreign policy, and the competency of my home land’s ‘Commander and Chief,’ there are no intended secret messages. If you think you see one, well you are probably the kind of person who could see the face of Jesus in a tortilla, and saw great meaning in Paul McCartney being barefoot in the photo on in the ‘Abby Road’ album cover.

It’s about the issues that businesses face, nothing more.

It  is intended as an internal publication,  but I do send it to my husband, my brother and a special few people who I believe can stomach my sarcasm and I hope they are the kind of people who will take it in the spirit it is intended. Therefore, the idea of you, a client or my brother reading these and formulating some opinion on Geyer is an interesting offshoot. Should I now watch what I say because we have an appearance to keep up? After all it is not like we are like the USA madly scrambling around trying to keep the story about the Vice President accidentally shooting his hunting buddy in the chest from the public! Or the big developer in town who is always leaking to the Financial Review that the new hot client in town has committed to their building.

Communicating a companies brand values in their work environment is something we are very familiar with,  our reputation in the market for this is quite unparalleled. Where do you draw the line: the workspace, the marketing material, the people, their clothes, their hair, their behaviour outside of the office? We have all heard stories about people being fired for doing something in their personal life that was inconsistent with their public image. Poor Kate Moss, Hugh Grant and Pee Wee Herman. Personally I think that the ability to snort coke at night and still look good  is quite an effective  testimonial for cosmetics!  Since all of these people were being paid to represent a company’s image their fate is understandable, but what about the normal worker?

I know that a number of our clients that have instituted dress codes, to complete the appearance of their new work environments. They believe that this will encourage their employees to behave differently and I think we would all agree that clothing, like lighting, and space can influence  behaviour. Also, no one would argue that if you are in the public eye, the way you look creates an impression of the company that you are employed by. Unfortunately, when it comes to dictating appearance it is a challenge to know where to draw the line. One of our clients confessed they were having a real problem identifying the application of the  dress code to call centres where there is no client contact. Really, who cares what you wear in a call centre, except maybe the person that has to sit near you? We should all call our favourite help desk and ask them to describe what they’re wearing before we ask for tech help and see if this somehow changes our perception of their service. “ a really light, clingy, sexy, hardly even there – SARI –   because it’s damm hot in Mumbai”

The Sydney Morning Herald recently ran an article about women in China undergoing voice – alteration surgery in hopes of obtaining a voice with a higher pitch. Apparently in a business climate still dominated by men, a woman with a high, sweet falsetto voice will have better opportunities in China. Dr Yu Ping, from the People’s Liberation Army GeneralHospital in Beijing said that her voice clinic, which has only been opened for a year, is treating an average of 40 people a day! Even though the surgery cost hundreds of dollars women are willing to pay the price if it will give them an edge in the increasingly competitive job market. Chinese universities now churn out about 4 million graduates a year, so it is tough.

As many of you may know Andrew (ZAC) spent five weeks in South America over the Christmas holiday. He returned with stories of a culture obsessed with physical appearance to the extent that a common gift from a parent  to a sixteen year old child is some form of plastic surgery. This mirrors a program I saw highlighting young girls being told by modelling agencies in South America that they needed to have surgery before they should even consider modelling. The surprising part of this story was their parents allowed them to do it. I must be old school, because I believe: 1. If you ask your mother about your appearance the appropriate response should always be “ oh honey you’re fine just the way you are” and  2. At age 12 or 13 few people are very reasonable, which is why we don’t let them drink, drive or vote; they should not be exposed to people who would suggest to them that it is a good idea to have major surgery if they don’t need it.

Unfortunately the realities of ‘appearance’ discrimination in the work environment is wide spread and it is alive and well here in Australia.  Plastic surgeon Dr Warwick Nettle claims that ten years ago the average age for plastic surgery was mid 50s, now it is mid 40s. Nettle says “ I think there’s a huge range of motivation for seeking beauty, but probably a common motivation these days is to stay in the workforce”. This is what Shirley Dean, in her mid – 40s, and needing to raise two children on her own learned. She applied for 30 different positions and was rejected on all of them, even though she had the skills and experience. She elected to have a facelift to improve her employment prospects and almost immediately landed a new job. Whether it is from the new appearance, or the confidence that came with it, there is no doubt that appearance has a lot to do with today’s workforce.

Research shows that despite laws to protect against discrimination in the workplace, 85% of Australians think appearance and presentation is a major influence in earning power and success. Recruitment agency TMP International studies have shown that interviewers tended to make up their mind about someone in the first four minutes of an interview. So it is no surprise that the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria deals with countless cases involving people who have been refused employment, denied promotion, suffered hurt, harassment and humiliation because they do not measure up to someone’s ideal of how they should look

A national poll in the US showed public opinion was sharply divided on regulating appearance – from weight to tattoos – in the workplace. The most surprising finding in the poll is that roughly half the nation’s employers have absolutely no policy or regulation that addresses this complex workplace issue. According to the poll most of the employee claims in the past have involved direct – customer contact businesses like retailing, restaurants, and transportation, but they are  now seeing image or appearance – based claims in virtually every employment sector.

So it is only a matter of time before Geyer will need to deal with this issue, in our own workplace or those we design. We might get a jump start by changing out the bad fluorescent lighting in our lifts and loos that make us all look like we have been up all night drinking shots. If we do the same in every job we design the boost to employee confidence should hold off the need for more radical measures by a few years.

In the event that time does come, and you fall into the tortilla watcher category of people who reject my disclaimer, believing this is a message for you personally; here is what you should expect to pay for an appearance tweak:

  • Nose job: $1,500 to $4,000
  • Liposuction: $500 to $5,000
  • Breast enlargement: $3,000
  • Breast reduction: $3,500 up
  • Facelift: $2,500 to $5,000
  • Eyelid lift: $1,200 to $3,000
  • Tummy tuck: $3,500 to $5,000
  • Chemical skin peel and abrasion: $600 up
  • Laser skin surfacing: $800 up
  • Ear job: $500 to $1,500
  • Cheek implants: $500 to $1,500
  • Chin implants: $500
  • Brow lift $1,500 to $3,000
  • Collagen $200 to $4600

For those that reject my disclaimer and believe this is a message for our company. Well then we had better immediately draft up a policy on plastic surgery and permanent body markings. Of course we will engage Simone  as National Design Leader to develop a guideline on body art and size.  I would suggest we start by only allowing tattoos in grey ink, Arial Narrow text, and to limit the images to hearts with the initials PG on the inside, or just a simple elegant text tattoo that says Geyer rules.


Surgery for the sake of work

A current affair July 23, 2001

Dodging Unintentional Discrimination in the Workplace

By Kathleen Wells, Ph. D.

What a Waist: Why the Fat Deserve Equal Opportunity – by Diane Sisel

The Age August 4, 2002

Women Make Pitch To Land a Better Job

The Sydney Morning Herald February 1, 2006

The Bottom Line; Weight At Work; Obesity Has Become a National Problem. That Means it Has Become a National Business Problem  By Gwendolyn Freed

Star Tribune October 19, 2003

Public Opinion Divided on Regulating Appearance In The Workplace By Judith Bevis Langevin

Press Release Gray Plant Mooty

My Blackberry – January 16, 2006


Future’s Ramblings – Issue 16 – January 16, 2006

Although it may not be of interest to you, I want to share with you what I did on my holiday and I what got for Christmas? Besides the stellar fluorescent beach towel and a good bottle of champagne from the Melbourne hamper draw, I got a blackberry from Geyer! Don’t get jealous, it’s not really a Christmas present, the arrival of this device just happens to have coincided with the arrival of the baby Jesus in the manger. Even though it had nothing to do with the holiday it had quite an impact on mine. I mean no hurt when I admit that normally I spend little if any time thinking about any of you when I am on holiday, but since I got my blackberry – front of mind every day!

Our holiday was spent at our friend’s beach house in Sorrento, the mornings all began the same: my friend on the phone to the Financial Review IT guy, navigating her way through the firewall into her e mail. My husband and older son waiting to get on to their e mail, followed by two others in our group waiting to get on to their e mail. Me checking my e mail with my new blackberry, and my younger son playing his PSP, which can access the internet to check e mail if you desire. Alas he is young and innocent and does not have an e mail account yet but suspect that will be a request in the near future.

Afternoons held greater variation: check the computer for tides tables, if the beach is not an option check to see what movies are playing, check to see what boat is in the lead in the Sydney to Hobart. The computer even played a part in our evenings; no opening a nice bottle of wine to relax in the sunset for this crowd, not when you could log on to the internet for new and unusual drink recipes.

I can only imagine the tragedy that would have ensued if the power had gone out and we all had to go on a technology cold turkey. Evidently at some point, when we were not paying attention, myself, my family and my friends all got addicted to both technology and work. I found myself wishing things were simpler, I dreamed of Homer Simpson’s description of the internet – the mesh inside of your swimmers, and logging on to your internet only happened when you got a real fright.

Technology is meant to make life easier but in reality it has blurred the boundaries between work and the rest of life. According to psychotherapist Bryan Robinson author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them (New York University Press 1998) overwork is this decade’s cocaine. He defines workaholism as “an obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an over – indulgence in work – to the exclusion of most other life activities”

25% of the population qualifies as workaholics. They have significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety and according to a survey by the AmericanAcademy of Matrimonial Lawyers; preoccupation with work is one of the top causes of divorce. Workaholics also abuse alcohol more, have more extramarital affairs, and have more stress related illness.

What is it that we find so seductive about work? One reason is it keeps us from dealing with other issues in our lives that may be more challenging. Communicating beyond the superficial with your spouse or children, losing some weight, eating better are all other common pressures we may wish to procrastinate on a bit. No doubt our clients understand this in a subtle way, when they resist changes in their work environment which for many may represent a place in their lives of calm and stability.

Our culture rewards those that work endless hours and denies that there is any price that is paid by doing so. Being a workaholic is not typically seen as a problem by our society and in fact it is sanctioned. After all, unlike alcoholism which does nothing good for one’s self or others the consequences of workaholism is greater productivity which companies benefit from.

Needing more money is another common delusion that encourages us to overwork. The cycle of working more to acquire more possessions is never ending. The more things that we buy the more time it takes for us to tinker with them, and the less time and money we have to spend focusing on other things in life. With a family of four each having mobile phones, e mail addresses and now broadband I expect our average monthly bill to be in excess of $200. The amount of time spent setting up, monitoring and maintaining these devices is staggering.

People today work more than they need to and it is often their own fault, they treat time as a status symbol. Not having time is considered a symbol of prestige, the more time you have on your hands the less important you are. Similarly, when we take a call on our mobile while meeting or talking with others we foolishly feel that this action symbolizes our importance, instead of being just plain rude. Unfortunately, if you are the person being talked to the message is clear, you are not nearly as important as that person on the phone. Now if you happen to be chatting to a brain surgeon, taking the call may be justified; this is rarely the case.

Two time promising myths we subscribe to: First we believe that knowing more will save time. We live in an economy where information is plentiful, it’s cheap and we can get it fast, but most of it is usually irrelevant. Lots of information is useless, the right information is invaluable. Never the less we fall into the trap of over informing and over doing because it justifies our positions. Hmmmmmmm…. It takes more of our precious time to sift through the dribble to find the relevant information, so no time gained there. Secondly we believe that if we organise ourselves, and often we look to technology as our savior in this regard, we will gain greater efficiency. Do we save any time? Beware, better organization results in temporary savings followed by an increase in expectations that means more work. The moral there is get organized but don’t tell anyone about it

It takes courage, strength and dedication to break engrained habits of overworking. Groups like Workaholics Anonymous are around to help people simplify their lives. Unfortunately, their meetings are poorly attended because a workaholic will not take time out of work to attend a meeting. Whether it is with the help of a group, or on your own, the key to breaking the cycle comes from within. Everyone needs to draw the line for themselves and learn when enough is enough

Recognising that more, or faster technology, will not lead to greater efficiency or more time is a critical step in finding balance. These devices will slowly infiltrate your life; you will feel you have to respond. Consequently these labor saving devices will demand that we labor more, any time day or night. Creating time, takes time, a strategy is in order. Begin by cutting back one hour a day from work to reflect on your life, what makes it complicated and how can you eliminate those complications?

No one can maintain more than three priorities at once, especially men who are lucky if they can pull off one. We need to follow the advice of Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy’s who told all of the addicts in the US to just say NO during the ‘war on drugs’. Saying no to work and technology is tantamount to cutting out the breakfast beer for an alcoholic. No is a hard word for most of us to say, we want to be included, feel we are required, and for many of us we have not gotten over that phase children go through around age four. We want to wear a cape, put our underpants over our heads, jump off the lounge and be a superhero.


“Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything” James Gleick

Keep it Simple – by Michael Warshaw

Fast Company Issue 15 June 1998

Scripture, Meets the Web: Placing Limits on 24/7 by Bob Tedeschi

The New York Times January 9, 2006

“My name is Tony, and I’m a workaholic.” By Tony Schwartz

Fast Company archive

Time Pressure and Creativity: Why Time is Not on Your Side

by Sean Silverthorne

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge publication date Jul 29, 2002

Technorecovery? By Bob Davis

Fast Company Magazine Issue 60 July 2002

The Web Is Cooking  by Susy Pilgrim-Waters

Fast Company Magazine Issue 29 November 1999

Defeating Overwhelm by Stever Robbins

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge publication date

New Spaces – December 13, 2005

New Spaces

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 15 – December 13, 2005


We often find ourselves in the situation where we are explaining to clients that new ideas and initiatives in their organization may well lead to the development of new spaces in their work environments. It is true that ten years ago quiet rooms, prayer rooms, or the various types of meeting and breakout spaces that you see in today’s work environments were not as prevalent as they are today. So hearing about a company putting a unique space into their mix is nothing to stop the press over, never the less, the other day I read a story about a new space that caught my attention.

The aspect of this story that compelled me wasn’t the space itself, but the aspirations the company had in creating this space, their drivers were interesting. The company is Wal-Mart, not being American some of you may not have heard of Wal-Mart. They are a large US retailer, a single buyer for a number of major markets. In fact Wal-Mart control 38 % of the market for several goods, it’s the kind of place you can go to and buy just about anything: bicycles, margarine, shotguns. They are the largest toy seller and grocer in the US. Their sheer size gives them power to dictate price and delivery times of goods to their 21,000 suppliers. If a manufacturer chooses not to follow their edict, they run the risk of seriously hurting their bottom line.

Wal–Mart is quite a fascinating company. In 2002 Wal-Mart shifted the balance in the Fortune 500 away from companies like General Motors and Exxon to mass consumer – merchandisers and retailers. Wal – Mart is now number one, they are the largest corporation in terms of sales in the WORLD. They sold $244.5 billion worth of goods last year and in a three month period sell what the number two retailer sells in a year. They have no real rivals and are growing at a rate of 15% per year. Wal-Mart is a template firm that has set the standard for many others.

Consumers in the US have benefited , Wal-Mart is partly responsible for the low inflation rate in the US and a McKinsey & Co. study concluded that about 12% of the US economy’s productivity gains in the second half of 1990 could be traced to Wal-Mart alone! How do they do it? Well their leverage lies in the fact that they are the end of the supply chain, they know what is being sold and are able to then tell the producers what needs to be made, when it needs to be done and where to deliver it.

Manufacturers are dependant on Wal-Mart’s knowledge of the market. This knowledge is gained through careful analysis of data collected from bar codes that track sales of items on specific days, weeks, hour of the day etc. This knowledge wields them great power. One example of this is the fact that many of Wal-Marts suppliers have been forced to lay off employees in the US and outsource their products overseas. This is the result of the pressure put on the suppliers to drive prices lower. Consequently, Wal-Mart’s success is due in part to the import of product from low-wage countries such as China. Despite the fact that Wal-Mart pushed a “Buy American” banner in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, they have doubled their imports from China in the past five years, buying $12 million in merchandise in 2002. This is nearly 10% of all imports to the United States.

Another contributing factors to Wal-Mart’s success is the way they treat their employees. Here is an excerpt from an internal memo describing Wal-Mart hiring practice. “all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart – gathering)” “ It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier work force than it will be to change behaviour in an existing one,” “These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart”. You don’t have to read between the lines too much to see why statements such as these have given birth to entire web sites such as Wakeup Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch that are dedicated to bashing the company and exposing their bad behaviours. With any luck it will also earn them a well deserved Americans with Disabilities Act class action lawsuit.

The negative publicity has become a real pain in Wal-Mart’s behind, right where their wallet is. In fact a confidential report compiled by McKinsey & Co. found that 2 to 8 percent of Wal- Mart consumers have ceased shopping there due to the “negative press they have heard”The Company executives were not prepared to deal with the impact of the negative press going around and decided to do something about it, and that is where new spaces and innovative approaches to problems come into the picture. Wal-Mart has created a war room in their Bentonville headquarters to enable them to react to what they believe is the most extensive campaign ever waged against a corporation.

In addition to the war room Wal-Mart has engaged Edelman, one of the largest PR firms in America to help. Edelman has assigned two of their top operatives to the account, one who was a previous adviser to Bill Clinton when he was having Monica problems, and the other was the creative force behind Ronald Regan never getting blamed for anything. In addition, six former political operatives have been dispatched to the Bentonville war room to do damage control. They start at 7 each morning, the room’s walls are covered with display boards and to-do lists for the team. Two large maps on the wall show locations of all Wal-Mart stores across the US. The team scans newspaper article and television transcripts that mention Wal-Mart. Then they call employees around the country to plan for events, whenever possible the war room will try to neutralise criticism before it starts. Their strategy is paying off, they say that many of the stories written in the press contain their messages. It is a proactive response to a bad situation.

What is interesting about this is the unique blending of disciplines: retail, politics, public relations, and architecture to solve a problem. It is also encouraging to see the exploitation and abuses of companies like Wal-Mart moving to the front burner. Mind you exposing such behaviours and stopping them are two different things. Never the less there is hope on the horizon. As of 2004 any company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq is required to adopt and disclose a code of conduct. In addition, calls for a defined standard of corporate conduct are emerging around the globe the United Nations Global Compact and the Consumer Charter for Global Business have endorsed conduct codes. In other regions bodies like the Hong Kong’s Independent commission Against Corruption, South Africa’s King Committee on Corporate Governance, the Brazilian Institute of Corporate Governance and the Japanese prime minister’s 2002 advisory panel have all advised companies to create codes that will outline quality of life and corporate responsibility. 

What does all of this mean to us as designers? Well it reminds us that our jobs are becoming even more difficult because the problems we solve have a higher degree of complexity than ever before. Our client’s demands are different today to what they have been in the past and this may leave us ill equipped to help them. We may need to engage others to develop new attitudes and innovative approaches to tackle issues we never knew were in our realm. In addition, it reminds us that the more we know about the issues our clients deal with the more we will be able to help them control all of the things out there in the world that are volatile. The possibilities are both frightening and exciting because to really be on top of it, we will need to continue to evolve as a company and as individuals.

I will leave you with a story: When my oldest son Harry was about 8 he and a friend of his decided they did not want those gym shoes with the swoosh on them, Nike, because they heard the company employed and exploited children their age in other countries to make their products. I thought this was quite astute for an 8 year old, but he is my son – came out of the womb facing left. At any rate, we were delighted at this small token of compassion shown by our son; the real delight came from knowing we would save a good deal of money never having  to pay for expensive branded gym shoes. We were comforted in knowing we could just buy him something cheap at Wal-Mart. 

Geyer Future Environments wants to wish you a happy and safe holiday season, we look forward to sharing a new year of exciting opportunities and ideas with you.

Sources for this rambling


The New York Times

“A New Weapon for Wal-Mart: A War Room”

November 1, 2005

“The Wal – Mart You Don’t Know”

By Charles Fishman

Fast Company – December 2003

”Inside the Worlds Largest Company” by Edna Bonaciche

Frontline excerpts PBS

“Up to Code – Does Your Company’s Conduct Meet World-Class Standards?”

By Lynn Paine, Rohit Deshpande, Joshua D. Margolis, and Kim Eric Bettcher

The Harvard Business Review – December 2005

“Wal-Mart: Discriminate to Save Health Care Costs”

Labor Blog – October 25, 2005

Job Burnout – October 28, 2005

Job Burnout

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 14 – October 28, 2005

Not being Catholic the closest I have ever come to confession is sitting on a barstool, never the less I feel I understand the concept of sin confession. The propelling guilt that weighs you down. Consequently, I must start this Futures Rambling with confessions. Forgive me Geyer, I did not check my WIPS on time, sign the invoices immediately, I completed my timesheet two days late and it has been two months since my last Rambling… Why? Well lots of thing, most of them acronyms like AGS, MBF, IAG but also to be honest with you, I just couldn’t get myself motivated to do it. The sad thing is that I had even done some great research on appropriate behaviour in the workplace following the antics of John Brogden – former NSW opposition leader, journalist groper and insulter of politician’s wives. Just ask Jenny Angle. So what was the problem is Laurie a slacker? – never mind don’t answer. What I have determined after a process of self diagnosis is I had job burnout.

First off there is a difference between job burnout and basic exhaustion, or general aversion to hard work. In her book Overcoming Job Burnout, Dr. Beverly Potter defines burnout as “a destruction of motivation caused by feelings of powerlessness. Power – the ability to influence and accomplish – is essential for well being and sustained motivation”. In another book The Truth About Burnout author Christina Malach and Michael P. Leiter define burnout as the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion of values, dignity, spirit and will and erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people in a downward spiral from which it is hard to recover. Personally I don’t feel like I am in a downward spiral that is eroding my soul, I just want to take a few days off. The point is we all have our own idea of what this means, it is a very evocative term, a slippery concept with no standard definition but for many of us a real thing we experience from time to time. .

Work done on job burnout has found that there are three interrelated dimensions to job burnout which taken as a whole comprise a psychological symptom. The first dimension is exhaustion; feeling drained and not having mental or physical energy to get on with whatever it is you have to do. The second dimension is cynicism. Cynicism is defined as a negative evaluation and reaction to the job, often beginning with work overload. What happens with cynicism is that it leads to negative thoughts about both work and your colleagues. One hall mark with job burnout is the development of strong negative, hostile, cynical, dehumanizing responses to ones job. The third dimension is negative self evaluation, rather than being negative about ones job and colleagues’ sufferers are negative about who they are and what they are doing.

How do you determine whether you have job burnout or are just a big crybaby throwing a dummy spit?  Here are the early warning signs:

  1. Chronic fatigue – exhaustion, tiredness, a sense of being physically run down
  2. Anger at those making demands
  3. Self – criticism for putting up with the demands
  4. Cynicism, negativity and irritability
  5. A sense of being besieged
  6. Exploding easily at seemingly inconsequential things
  7. Frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances
  8. Weight loss or gain
  9. Sleeplessness and depression
  10. Shortness of breath
  11. Suspiciousness
  12. Feeling of helplessness
  13. Increased degree of risk taking

No one is immune to job burnout; anyone can get it, in any profession and at any level. Research has been done in many different countries and the same insights and findings emerge. Interestingly, data suggest that it is not just the senior – level managers who run the organization who get burn out. The research suggests there is not any increased vulnerability for certain occupational groups, be they white or blue collar. The bottom line is it is about mismatches, between the individual and their job, or the workplace environment.

As with most things prevention is better than a cure. What preventative measures can an organization take to prevent job burnout affecting their employees? First off balancing work load is a good start, followed by giving employees control and autonomy. When people feel they have control over their work you will see greater engagement. Creating reward and recognition programs to give feedback positive and negative gives employees a good sense of their job progress. Next it is important to develop a workplace community including colleagues, ones supervisor, and the people one supervises – anyone who the employee has an ongoing relationship with. Creating relationships with mutual trust and support is critical to feeling positive about a job. It is also critical to develop a workplace that is fair; people expect to be treated fairly and with respect, especially when it comes to workloads, pay or promotion. Finally it is difficult to avoid a mismatch when there is a conflict between values. If employees feel constrained by a job they feel is unethical and not in accord with their core values there will be low engagement. It make you wonder how a guy like Dick Cheney happily goes to work every day, unless he is really satin in disguise.

What can each of us do as individuals to avoid job burnout? One bit of advice from the experts is to manage yourself, which requires knowledge and skill. Self management will increase your personal power because you can create situations where you can give yourself the rewards you need. I do this; it’s why I have a file drawer full of shoes. It is also important to manage stress, learn what situations trigger stress responses. By knowing what sets you off you can better raise and lower your tension level.  Building a strong support system of friends, family and co-workers can also help buffer you against the negative effects of stress

In our job journeys we will inevitably encounter situations that will require skills that we have not yet developed. Knowing how to arrange learning situations for yourself will give you the confidence that you can acquire the skills required to tackle new challenges. With jobs it is important to stretch your abilities and follow the inertia principle: A body in motion will stay in motion, keep yourself moving forward. In some cases this may require you to modify or tailor your job to increase your enjoyment of work, shaping your job to capitalize on your skills and interest, and expanding those parts of your job that you enjoy most.

It may be necessary to reprogram your thoughts so you do not respond to every red flag that is waved in your nose. Learning how to empty your mind of negative chatter and remain focused on the challenges at hand can help with work frustrations. Eliminating the negative thinking from your mind can free you up enough to turn around a bad situation and avoid job burnout. It is important to fine tune your thinking and take corrective action.

Part of avoiding job burnout is to be in control of yourself and your thoughts. It is when we are not in control that we feel helpless. Experts recommend detached concern, explaining that it is a higher order of mental control in which personal power can be gained by letting go. Attachment to your notions of how things ought to be can imprison you and make you feel helpless. Like any yoga or dance teacher would advise relax and breathe to stretch.

In some situations the best solution is to change jobs, but the experts warn that if burnout victims quit their job without analyzing the source of dissatisfaction or exploring what is needed, they run the risk of finding a new job as bad as, or worse than the old one.  Personal power comes in knowing what you need and how to go out and get it. It is important not to limit yourself, consider every way you can imagine to achieve what you want.

Finally, it is important not to take yourself too seriously. Laugh – as a disciplined practice – find humor in disaster to save your sanity, your health and your perspective.


Management Today

{How to prevent job} burn out by Professor Christina Maslach

July 2005

13 Signs of Burnout and How To Help You Avoid It  by Henry Neils

“Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work” Beverly A Potter Ronin Publishing Copyright 1998

Job Burnout – Part 1 The Real Causes by Vicki Bell

Just for fun you can take a free Motivational Appraisal of Personal Potential (MAPP) that will asses your true skills to help you tailor your dream job


Corporate Myth Busting – July 29, 2005

Corporate Myth Busting

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 12 – July 29, 2005

Have you seen that TV show Myth Busting, where two nerdy guys conduct experiments in the California desert to test the accuracy of long standing myths such as whether a ceiling fan can really decapitate you if you jumped up into it? The show has endless resources to experiment on such pressing issues, money well spent I’d say. What is more important curing cancer or knowing the true danger of letting your kids jump on the bed?

This show has inspired me to do some myth busting of my own, the myth to investigate today is the one about work life balance. Does this really exist; do companies really care about you or your life? The first area of investigation will be standard work hours. As you may know the French have recently voted not to join the European Union, according to the New York Times this is a short-sighted attempt to hang on to a 37 hour workweek. The Times explains that if they were to become a part of the union, the Bulgarians and Romanians who are willing to work longer hours, would rush in and that would be the end of their café sitting, wine drinking culture.

It is true that that economic globalization has had a great impact on the hours we work. In Japan 63% of the workforce now works an average of 50 hours, they are slackers compared to Hong Kong where 70 % of the workforce works 50 hours a week. According to Washington Post Op Ed columnist Thomas Freidman, in India they would work a 37 hour day if they could. Work hours in America have risen steadily over the last three decades, but that just gives them something else to brag about.

This evidence goes against the predicted trends that we would be working less due to industrialization. Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that by 2000 we would have so much free time we would not know what to do with it, and you may remember that in the television show The Jetsons a standard workweek of 3 hours was mandatory.

The Nobel Prize winning economic historian Robert William Fogel has done studies on what is called the efficiency of the human engine. The studies find that the size, strength and stamina of the human body have evolved equal to mechanical advances in the industrial revolution. As you read this your body is adapting to the increased hours we work, apparently this evolution will mean that the more work you do, the more you are able to do. If we find we are unable to deal with the greater work load we can turn to drugs to help enhance our performance, antidepressants, anti anxiety drugs. New drugs such as Provigal, will allow a person to stay up and alert for two days without sleep, this is currently being tested with helicopter pilots in the army. The Defense Advanced Research Project is also testing drugs with solders that will allow them to will themselves not to bleed and to function efficiently for up to a week without food or water. You would recognize how helpful this could be in a war, but may also explain why there are so many ‘black hawk’ crashes in Iraq. In addition, it will not earn smiley faces in the work life balance category

Many companies go to great lengths to promote work life balance by providing gyms, day-care, pool tables, masseuse, health food in cafes and rooms of all sorts from prayer rooms to sick rooms. However, in the Silicon Valley, there is an increasing feeling that such spaces are a “cosy face on white collar sweat shops” A debate is currently being waged over whether these fringe benefits are a means for technology companies to exploit workers, who they should really be paying overtime to. The pressure has become so great that employees of games company Electronic Arts sued the company in July; they now offer overtime pay to some employees.

The issue continues to escalate, this month several hundred video game makers met in San Francisco to discuss work life issues, giving them something else to talk about besides the fact that they can’t get a date.  The prospect of creating a gaming union is being considered, but companies are well aware of the impact unionizing will have on efficiency, which in the gaming industry is measured in revenue per employee. The opportunity for such companies to drive more jobs overseas is a real fear, and like most large publicly owned companies, they are driven by shareholder return.

The reality is that when you or I fill out our Superannuation forms, we don’t much care whether the company our fund invests in is good to their employees or not. We care how much money we are going to make. This drive for profit, and the complacency of shareholders, has had negative impacts. In the article “Is Your Boss a Psychopath” Alan Deutschman outlines the similarities in behaviours between psychopaths and many CEO’s . “The standard psychopath is a callous, cold – blooded individual who does not care if you have thoughts or feelings they have no sense of guilt or remorse. Top executives are charismatic, visionary and tough but they can also be callous, cunning, manipulative & deceitful verbally and psychologically abusive, remorseless, exploitative, self delusional, irresponsible and egomaniacal”.

Due to the large number of mergers, acquisitions and restructures in business, the climate is particularly suited to the corporate psychopath who thrives on power and control and who ruthlessly seek their own self interest in the form of shareholder value. Personalities like Andrew Fastow of Enron, ImClones Sam Waksal and our own Steve Visard from Telstra are examples. While they lack the chronic instability and anti social defiant lifestyle of the unsuccessful psychopath, they are cut from the same cloth.

Corporate misbehaviour is alive and rampant in Australia and America. An example of the lenient attitudes toward these activities is displayed in the AICD Boardroom Report from the Australian Institute of Company Directors. In the report former CEO of Tyco, Dennis Kozlowski was described as “not a criminal but a victim of the excesses of the time”. On the other hand, in Europe new antibullying movements are beginning to address psychological abuse and manipulation in the workplace. These behaviours are less common in Asia as their businesses are based on community bonds rather than glorified self interest. At least in Australia and the US the CEO’s are finally being held accountable for their crimes, Kozlowski, Fastow, and Waksal are all going to jail even though the AICD do not consider them criminals.

So is this myth busted? Do companies really care about what happens to their people; is there a sense of work life balance? You make the call.

FYI – To find out if your boss is a psychopath go to boss-quiz

to take their quiz.


Sources –

“Is Your Boss a Psychopath” by Alan Deutschman  Fast Company July 2005

“The Way We Live Now; No Rest for The Weary” by Charles McGrath NYT published July 3, 2005

“Fringes vs. Basics in Silicon Valley: by Matt Richtel NYT published March 9, 2005

AICD Boardroom report July


StarTrek Leadership – June 28, 2005

Star Trek  leadership

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 11 – June 28, 2005

This month has been quite a whirlwind, as luck would have it my husband went to the U.S. for a month which happened  to coincide with futures landing several new jobs all with identical deadlines. The result being little time to read, with the exception of Who Weekly.  It is critical to keep abreast of the important issues happening in the world such as what is going on with Brad and Angelina, Russell throwing phones, and Tom popping the question for the third time. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area many of my technology clients used to read Wired, Red Herring, Fast Company, and Martha Stewarts Living – at that time I assumed Martha was in the mix to keep touch with humanity. There is more to life than business and technology, to balance your life you want to know what the newest web browser is and how to make a moist turkey. In retrospect maybe it had nothing to do at all with connecting to our humanity, perhaps reading Martha Stewart was about stock tips.

Fortunately all is not lost, I have been watching TV and despite what you may think there are lessons to be learned if you look deep enough – or drink enough wine while viewing. This months Futures Rambling will be dedicated to what I have learned watching TV this past month.

An insightful lesson about leadership was given in one of the episodes of Star Trek that I watched. I do love this show but swear I don’t belong to any fan clubs nor do I dress up like any characters. That being said, I’ll admit that if I had a figure like Seven of Nine, and didn’t think that the dimples in my butt would show through the fabric of my one piece spandex suit, I would wear one to work too.

In the episode I saw, the Starship Enterprise comes upon another ship that has been destroyed, on board is a teenage boy who is the only survivor of a mysterious attack on the ship. Shortly after this discovery Enterprise is hit with a wave of energy that rattles Enterprise quite severely. Of course Captain Picard orders the shields to be put up, for you non fans that is what you do when your ship is under attack.  They survive the energy wave attack, unfortunately another comes, and then another. With each subsequent attack the energy wave gains strength and the Starship Enterprise is forced to divert critical energy from other systems in the ship to strengthen the shields. Around this time the kid that survived the attack on the other starship explains that the identical scenario took place on his ship; ultimately the waves intensified to a point where they had exhausted all of their reserve power and were unable to combat the attack.

Suspense mounts; the starship enterprise is headed for imminent destruction. At this point Lieutenant Commander Data, who is a robot, begins to do some calculations in his head. Data is quite brilliant and has a mind like a calculator, a bit like Amanda Wood but she is human and her skin is not green. The next energy wave is set to hit the ship in minutes when Data tells the captain to shut down all of the shields. He explains that the wave is using the energy of the ship’s shields to gain strength; effectively the ship’s energy is being used against it. Data suggest that they lower all shields and “go with the flow” similar to surfers riding the rip tide out rather than exhausting themselves paddling out against the surf.

The idea of joining forces to create one that is more powerful is not dissimilar to Edward DeBono’s concepts of lateral thinking. Using the talents that we have to focus toward a common goal rather than exhausting energy and effort picking a side or proving a point. DeBono suggest an effective way to make decisions it to insist everyone involved view the issue from a variety of different view points, effectively focusing the room’s energy to get the best information and thinking around a topic exposed. Then when everyone has viewed the situation from a variety of angles you make an informed decision.

It is a bit obtuse but this is the message I get from that Star Trek episode, another is the complete faith and trust that Captain Pickard had in Data. With the possibility of imminent destruction of the ship the captain took the word of his crew. Had he hesitated, had he said wait a minute Data can you explain those calculations to me, or if he was the sort of leader who could not stand to not be the one that produced the answer, the ship would have been destroyed. Maybe this is why none of the crew on the Starship Enterprise resigns, or goes to join the Borg. They are a team who benefits from one another, and they have the up most respect for each others ability. Of course maybe they all stay because it is TV show? But I choose to think they have faith in the leader.

Leaders have different types of “action logic” which is the way that they interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged. There are seven identified ways of leading, and knowing your action logic can be the first step in developing a more effective style. According to HBR (okay I did read something besides Who Weekly) the seven action logics are:

Opportunist – They win any way possible. Self – oriented; manipulative; might makes right

Diplomat – Avoids overt conflict. Wants to belong; obeys group norms; rarely rocks the boat

Expert – Rules by logic and expertise. Seeks rational efficiency

Achiever – Meets strategic goals. Effectively achieves goals through teams; juggles managerial duties and market demands

Individualist – Interweaves competing personal and company action logics. Creates unique structures to resolve gaps between strategy and performance.

Strategist – Generates organizational and personal transformations. Exercises the power of mutual inquiry, vigilance, and vulnerability for both the short and long term.

Alchemist – Generates social transformations. Integrates material, spiritual, and societal transformation

As you might imagine each type of action logic lends it self to different situations. The least effective for organizational leadership are the Opportunists and Diplomat; the most effective, the Strategist and Alchemist.

Generally I do prefer to read more and hope to get back to that in time for next months Futures Rambling. Somehow reading about business is not as depressing as reading about Tom jumping on Oprah’s couch because some 20 year old agreed to marry him,  or realizing that no matter what you do no one is going to let you drop the shields.

Rocket Science – May 11, 2005

Rocket Science

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 10 – May 11, 2005

I may have told some of you that one of my brothers is a rocket scientist, no I am not joking. He lives in Houston by Cape Canaveral and works for Lockheed Martin they make plane parts, rockets, WMD’s, they are contracted to NASA. My brother and I don’t talk much, it is not that we don’t like each other or don’t get along, there is just little that someone of my intellectual capacity can share with someone of his intellectual capacity.

My brother is working on a new project which he hopes will go better than his last; the last project was called Columbia. You may have heard about the Space Shuttle, it disintegrated on returning from a mission after hot gasses entered the craft through a hole punched in its wing. The hole was made by foam debris that fell off the shuttle during ascent, all seven crew members on board Columbia died that day. Can you imagine what that would feel like to have your colleagues blow up? Sometimes we wish it would happen, which is why my Mother always said you must be careful of what you wish for, but if it did what would that do for workplace moral?  What would be even worse for workplace moral would be to learn after investigations that it wasn’t just the foams fault. The real reasons that Columbia blew up are far more complex and unsettling.

According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Report NASA suffered from the symptoms of the perfect place. Its decision making was marked with unwarranted optimism and overconfidence, and this led to a warped outlook on safety. Frontline engineers had requested photos of the damaged shuttle, but these were denied, the big guys didn’t think it was important to listen those in the trenches.  The result was the engineer’s feared ridicule for expressing their concern about the foam that flew off, so remained quiet. The culture at NASA created a situation with the engineers that is similar to Shapelle Corby’s predicament with the Indonesian court system – they had to prove that the situation was unsafe rather than prove it was safe, backwards considering what was at stake.

According to Karl Weick who has studied NASA in depth, viewing something as you almost failed rather than barely succeeded can be a great reminder that the system is all too capable of big mistakes. “In general, it just breeds the kind of wariness, a kind of attentiveness.” He goes on to say that “complacence is what you’re worried about”. Maybe it is all semantics, never the less; Weick says there’s a fine line to walk between a proud culture and a prideful one, between celebrating a healthy history of successes and resting on your laurels. “Delusions of a dream company” is what Sydney Finkelstein, professor of management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and author of Why Smart Executives Fail, calls it. That honest pride starts going toward self-confidence, overconfidence, complacency, and arrogance.

You may have heard that NASA has delayed the launch of the next shuttle because they realized that ice can cause as much damage as the foam caused. According to James D. Wetherbee the former commander and critic of NASA this is a “healthy change for the better in culture” I should hope so after blowing up two shuttles and losing 14 people! Don’t get me wrong I love using my taxpayer dollars (yes I still pay US taxes) for space exploration, and after all as long as that goes on, my brother has a job. Also in this case the money is being spent on real science, unlike when NASA spent ridiculous sums developing a ball point pen that can write in zero gravity – the Russians just use a pencil. Nope, I don’t mind my money being spent on science. What I mind, what really chaps my ass, is dumb leadership.

The Columbia disaster highlights the ultimate price of poor leadership and organizations not communicating internally. Getting people in an organization to communicate is tricky business. In some cases the opportunities are not there, and in other cases people only trust those that they know, which has obvious limitations. Creating opportunities for people to work together creates social networks that can develop the kind of trust that enables people to communicate information in a way that gains value from the exchange. Establishment of networks is good, but they will not work if leaders don’t let them.

Leaders must listen on all levels and embrace what is unconventional. If they shape cultures that are open to possibility and failure they will learn how to combat the problems that lay ahead. They need to imagine the unimaginable. I read a story in the February 2005 edition of Fast Company about a guy named Elon Musk. Musk is a dotcom zillionaire at  30 years of age, he has taken his money and is using it to fund a new company called Space Exploration Technologies (Space X), they plan to take on NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the rest of the big rocket makers and with Musk’s leadership and their companies attitude they just might do it.

There are no R&D labs at SpaceX, no PhDs and no government subsidies. Space X is a place where innovation is a state of mind. It’s about process. Even though they don’t have the training or business connections they do have an entrepreneurial culture that dreams big. Space X plans to derive its success from small improvements done on the cheap. Since he has funded the company with his own money, Musk has challenged his employees to do more with less. The company borrows parts and buys others on e bay. They find inspiration in odd places such as making fuel tanks out of milk truck – which didn’t work but they gave it a go. Rather than toiling away for years on something till it is perfect, Space X has a commitment to fast prototyping and testing.  They build as quickly as possible and then they “test the crap out of it”. The people that work at Space X have been cherry-picked from other companies that they were bored working at with the draw at Space X being they have freedom to do their job. No all day meetings, no waiting for months to get parts they requested or wading through bureaucracy. They just build rockets.

Reading all of this you cannot help but wonder where we fall in the whole mix. Do we have “delusions of a dream company” are we overconfident, complacent, arrogant, or are we more like Space X? If we’re not can we be? Unfortunately, if we are not what we want to be, the scientifically studied odds of us changing are nine to one. This taken from studies of people who are given the choice of changing or dieing, i.e. they had a life or death situation that required change. Face it; people don’t like to change, especially the way they act.  Sadly, changing behaviours is the most important challenge for businesses trying to compete in a turbulent world says John Kotter from HarvardBusinessSchool. The CEO’s who are supposed to be the leaders of change are often the most resistant, and as the change or die studies shows, crisis is not a motivator. So what is, how can you be the one in ten? Kotter believes it is by talking to people about their feelings and appealing to their emotional side. This can be done, Louis Gerstner turned IBM around in the 90’s and he did so by making powerful emotional appeals to “shake them out of their depressed stupor, remind them of who they were – you’re IBM damn it!” Not saying that we are like NASA, but if we did want to change we could.  AFTER ALL WERE GEYER DAMN IT.


Women in the Workforce – April 29, 2005

Women in the workforce

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 9 –  April 29, 2005

There is much debate, and I am sure more to come in our office soon with the new and soon to be Moms, about something coined by the Harvard Business Review as the “opt – out revolution”. This refers to what has been identified as a surprising number of women dropping out of main stream careers. The figures are substantial: a survey of the class of 1981 at Stanford University showed that  57% of women graduates leave the workforce. Of three graduating classes at The Harvard Business School only 38% ended up with full time careers. A study of MBA’s showed that of women holding MBA’s only one in three works full time compared with one in 20 for men.

To understand why women leave the workforce the Center for Work Life Policy (a New York based not-for-profit organization) formed a private sector multi year task force in 2004. The task force entitled “The hidden brain drain: Women and Minorities as Unrealized Assets” was sponsored by Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers. From the study of 2,443 women with graduate degrees, professional degrees, and high honors undergraduate degrees a portrait of women’s career paths was charted.

What did they and others find? There are a variety of reasons. One identified by Fast Company in Where are the Women? Feb 2004 is that there is still a lingering bias in the system. Women interviewed for the article say that while overt discrimination is rare, the executive suites of most major corporations remain largely boys’ clubs. Catalyst ( a women’s business group) blames the gap on the fact that women often choose staff jobs like marketing and HR and not what they called ‘line jobs’ – those responsible for profit and loss and it is from this rank that executives are normally chosen.

Another reason identified by Fast Company comes out in the story of Brenda Barnes president and chief executive of the North American arm of PepsiCo. Brenda was considered a top contender for the CEO position but she decided to ‘take this job and shove it’ in 1997. When asked why she offered “When you talk about those big jobs, those CEO jobs, you just have to give them your life. You can’t alter them to make them accommodate women any better than men. It’s just the way it is” In a workplace where women CEO’s of major corporations are so scare it is a true disappointment when any contender voluntarily steps down.

In 1986 Charles A. O’Reilly III, professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford followed up a group of Berkeley MBA’s to see if he could isolate the qualities that led to the corner office. His conclusion: Success in a corporation is less a function of gender discrimination than of how hard a person chooses to compete. And the folks who tend to compete the hardest are generally the stereotypical manly men. In 1999 Marta Cabrera was vice president at JP Morgan Chase, one of only two women in the emerging – markets trading desk. She had a great job, a happy marriage, and two healthy beautiful children – she managed to pull off the career woman’s trifecta. In May of 2000 Cabrera quit. When asked to comment she said “There’s a different quality of what men give up versus what women give up. The sacrifices for women are deeper, and you must weigh them very consciously if you want to continue. I didn’t want to be the biggest, best, greatest. I didn’t feel compelled to be number one”. In his book The Myth of Male Power  William Farrell says the fact that few women make it to the top is a measure of their power not their powerlessness. “They’ve learned they can get respect and love in a variety of different ways – from being a good parent, from being a top executive or a combination of both” He says women are free of the ego needs driving male colleagues. Hmmm.

Another significant reason for women leaving is that corporations don’t do enough to accommodate women’s more significant family responsibilities. Nearly four out of ten highly qualified women 37% have left the work force voluntarily at some point in their careers. There are factors other than having children, there is personal health and caring for elderly parents that rank among the leading reasons. This can be particularly tough with women in the 41 to 55 age group called the “sandwich generation” that are caring for children and aging parents. Sadly there is still a highly traditional division of labor on the home front (and now for my personal favorite statistic, one that will end the debate in the Aznavoorian household that has been going on since I became Mrs. S Aznavoorian in 1989) A survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy said 40% of highly qualified women with spouses felt that their husbands create more work around the house than they perform.

When asked to create a workplace wish list women describe the following as important: the ability to associate with people they respect, the freedom to be themselves, opportunity to be flexible with schedule, and 61% of women consider it very important to have the opportunity to collaborate and be part of a team. The importance of work relationships, of being a part of the team, has been highlighted in research done by Sydney Uni. in their Quality of work/Life index they found that relationships at work are the major factor in what people consider a good quality of work/life.

Work relationships are considered important, however there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. In “Forget about home…the real family is at work” AFR April 16-17 2005 states we place a greater importance on our work lives now because we are spending more time at work and have deeper and more nurturing relationships – partly because open plan offices encourage interaction. The article introduces the idea of the “office spouse”. You know you have one when you do what Condoleezza Rice did when she called GW Bush her husb… I mean the president. Or for an example closer to home, Peter Mac meant to ring his mother and instead rang Lyn Lennard. Isn’t that special!

Among women who take “off-ramps” the overwhelming majority (93%) have every intention of returning to work. For many the reasons are financial – they have to work to make ends meet. For others it is because they find pleasure in their chosen careers and what to reconnect with something they love. In focus groups conducted by HBR women talked about how work gives “shape and structure to their lives, boost confidence and self –esteem and confers status in their community.” Their professional identity is their primary identity. Interestingly, focus group participants also spoke of a deepened desire to give back to the community after they took time off work. For these women they went back to work, but not to their previous job because they did not find their careers satisfying or enjoyable.

Unfortunately, only 74% of women who off ramp and want to rejoin the workforce actually do, which goes to show you girls, On the career highway there are many off ramps but few on ramps. More good news, women on average lose 18% of their earning power when they take time off, in business sectors the penalties are more severe where wages drop 28% on average. It is worse if you spend a longer period of time away, women who spend three or more years out of the workforce can expect to lose 37% of their earning power. Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2003 (in the article “Nice Girls don’t ask” showed fewer women attempt to negotiate pay increases. The article concluded that women were less likely to negotiate because of their social conditioning with results in an aversion to promoting their own interests; and many companies penalize women who do ask, by tagging them pushy and aggressive.

So now that I have painted this happy picture, and you look around you and see that in fact a whole lot of Geyer employees are women, and if fact many have had or will have children, what can we do. Fortunately, the data suggested actions that companies could take to ensure female potential does not go unrecognized. Smart companies can develop policies and practices to tap into the female talent pool, and create strategies around retention and reattachment of highly qualified women. Those that do will enjoy a substantial competitive advantage, especially as we all wonder how we will find enough high- caliber talent to drive growth. Such policies include:

1. Create reduced hour jobs – The survey indicates that 89% of women think this is important.

2. Provide flexibility in the day – Many women, like me, don’t require reduced work hours they merely need flexibility.

3. Provide flexibility in the arc of a career – Booze Allen Hamilton, the management consulting firm, recognized that it is not just workday, or work week flexibility that is required. Flexibility must be present across the arc of ones career.

4. Remove the stigma – Don’t penalize people for taking off work, or for wanting to be paid the same as their male colleagues.

5. Stop burning bridges – Only 5% of women in the survey are interested in rejoining the companies they left. Managers will not stay in a departing employee’s good graces unless they take time to explore the reasons highly qualified women leave the work force, and are able and willing to offer options.

6. Provide outlets for altruism – Employers would be well advised to recognize and harness the altruism of women, support their female professionals in their advocacy and public service efforts. 7. Nurture ambition – Implement mentoring and networking programs that help women expand and sustain their professional aspirations.





Collaboration – March 29, 2005

Collaboration  – March 29, 2005

I think that I would fall off my chair if I went into a workshop and didn’t hear the organization we were talking with want to be at least one, if not all of the following: an employer of choice, flexible, innovative, be the market leaders. It is not surprising that most organizations have the same goals, after all they are all businesses and even though they produce different services and products most are there to remain in business and to make money.

It is also not a big surprise that so many of the organizations we talk to feel that one of the ways they can achieve their goals is by promoting greater collaboration on every level: manager to staff, department to department, office to office. After all, it is a complex world we live in, the problems we solve are not simple; in fact the most significant changes in human history for good or bad have come about through individuals combining their forces in groups, like the Coalition of the Willing (sorry couldn’t help myself). As competitive pressures force companies to do more with less, there will be a greater need for organizations to rely on one part of their company to help another, putting a greater demand on the need to collaborate. The challenge will be how you get people to work across the organization, many of whom have different priorities, incentives and ways of doing things.

Getting this kind of collaboration right promises great benefits for companies. As a result the focus of the workplace in the past ten years has been away from individual spaces toward collaborative spaces of various types. It is expected that in the next five years individual / dedicated workspaces will be on average 10% smaller and the expected floor area dedicated to individual use will drop 16%. Today we design for small collaborations, big collaboration formal and informal – we provide mood lighting, comfy furniture, white boards etc. to promote interaction. We have done nothing short of providing  a few Barry White CD’s to get the sparks flying. A survey of Global 500 companies indiactes an average of 41% of their staff work collaboratively for significant portions of their workday. The average ratio of individual to collaborative workspace today is 3:1 over the next five years it is expected to reach 3:2.  All of this is great news when it comes to our ability to enable collaboration. Unfortunately, when it comes to making a real difference in terms of collaboration, it takes much more than a “space” to get groups working together.

Companies are hot to foster collaboration and in fact spend billions of dollars on initiatives to improve collaboration. However according to a recent Harvard Business Journal article the results of these initiatives are disappointing. They identified three myths in companies attempts to foster collaboration:

1. building a strong team will ensure collaboration.

2. An effective incentive system will ensure collaboration

3. Companies can be structured to encourage greater collaboration.

All of these they say are ineffective “seemingly sensible but ultimately misguided assumptions” because they focus on the systems and not the root cause of failures in cooperation. They believe that you cannot improve collaboration until you have addressed the issue of conflict.

The inevitability and importance to the organization of conflict is underestimated by most company leaders.“ The disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, access to information, and strategic focus within a company actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration across organizational boundaries.” HBR recommends a clear step by step process for conflict resolution be integrated into a companies day to day decision making process. Conflict should not be viewed as a nuisance but as a valuable resource that should be managed, and exploited to gain greater insight into companies issues. Internal friction is often caused by unaddressed strain within the organization, or between the organization and its environment, there is great benefit in setting up methods to track and examine conflict that can lead to interesting new perspectives on a variety of issues.

In the Sage Allen New Business training some of us attended we were taught to probe to discover our clients needs, and their “real need” those that are not talked about as openly and are often personal. When thinking about collaboration and conflict we may be able to apply the same ideas. By probing to discover the issues that are not discussed, the ones that cause conflicts, we can encourage greater collaboration.