For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations (2015)
• Wednesday, September 3
I drink my coffee as I open up my laptop at 7:30 a.m., hoping to get through my e-mails and voicemails before my 8 a.m. meeting. I stare at the screen. In the twenty-two hours since I was promoted, 526 new e-mails have arrived in my inbox.
I skip all the messages about yesterday’s failure and am startled by all the congratulatory notes from vendors, wanting to meet for lunch. How did they find out? I’m pretty sure most of my organization still doesn’t know.
I read an e-mail from Ellen, my former boss’ assistant, who is now assigned to support me, congratulating me and asking when we can meet. I reply, telling her I’d like to take her out for coffee this morning. I send a note to the IT service desk, requesting that Ellen be granted access to my calendar.
A blinking red light on my desk phone catches my attention. It reads, “7:50 a.m. 62 new voicemails.”
My jaw drops. It would take an hour I don’t have just to listen to them. I e-mail Ellen again, asking her to go through all my voicemails, transcribing any that require action.
Before I hit send, I quickly add, “If there are any messages from Steve or Dick, please call me right away on my cell phone.”
Grabbing my clipboard, I hurry toward my first meeting when my phone vibrates. It’s an urgent e-mail:
From: Sarah Moulton
To: Bill Palmer
Cc: Steve Masters
Date: September 3, 7:58 AM
Subject: Latest Phoenix slip
Bill, as you know, Project Phoenix is the most important project this company is undertaking. I’ve heard disturbing rumors that you are holding up the release.
I don’t need to remind you that our competition isn’t standing still. Each day that goes by, our market share goes down. I need everyone to have a sense of urgency. Especially from you, Bill.
We have an emergency project management meeting at 10 AM today. Please join us, and be prepared to explain these unacceptable delays.
Steve, I know how important this project is for you, given the commitments you’ve made to the board. Please feel free to attend. We’d love your perspective.
I forward the e-mail to Wes and Patty, flagging it as high priority. Something seems wrong in a world where half the e-mail messages sent are urgent. Can everything really be that important?
I call Wes’ cell phone. “I just got your e-mail from Sarah,” he says. “What utter bullshit.”
“What’s this all this about?” I ask.
He says, “I’m pretty sure it’s about Brent not finishing up that configuration work for the Phoenix developers. Everyone is chasing their tails because the developers can’t actually tell us what the test environment should look like. We’re doing our best, but every time we deliver something, they tell us we did it wrong.”
“When did they tell us about it?” I ask.
“Two weeks ago. It’s the typical bullshit with Development, but worse. They’re so freaked out about hitting their deadlines, they’re only now starting to think about how to test and deploy it. Apparently, they’re making it our problem. I hope you’re wearing your asbestos underwear like me. Sarah is going to be at that meeting with torches, wanting to throw us onto the bonfire.”
It’s amazing to me how handoffs between Development and IT Operations always get screwed up. But given the perpetual tribal warfare between the two groups, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
I reply, “I get the picture. Look, make sure you dig into this Dev specification issue personally. We’ve got to get this nailed down—grab everyone involved, whether they’re in Dev or Ops, and lock them in a room until they come up with a written specification. Phoenix is so important, we can’t afford to screw this up.”
Wes says he’s on it, and I ask, “Is there anything else Sarah could pop on us?”
He pauses to think and finally says, “No, I don’t think so. We have a pretty valid reason, with the payroll run failure, for why Brent wasn’t able to complete his work.”
I agree. Feeling like our asses are sufficiently covered, I say, “See you at ten.”
Less than an hour later, I’m walking to Building 9 in the hot sunshine, where many of the Marketing folks call home. To my surprise, I join a small army of IT people walking the same way. Why?
Then it hits me. The majority of our marketing projects can’t be done without IT. High touch marketing requires high tech. But if there’s so many of us assigned to these Marketing projects, shouldn’t they be coming to us?
I imagine that Sarah likes it this way, the spider sitting back, enjoying seeing all the company minions making their way to her lair.
I arrive and immediately see Kirsten Fingle, who runs the Project Management Office sitting at the head of the table. I am a big fan of hers. She is organized, levelheaded, and a stickler for accountability. When she first joined the company five years ago, she brought a whole new level of professionalism to our organization.
At her right, Sarah leans back in her chair, tapping away on her iPhone, oblivious to the rest of us.
Sarah is my age: thirty-nine. She’s very guarded about her age, always saying things in a way that would lead one to conclude she’s much older, but never actually lying.
Yet another maddening thing about Sarah.
There are about twenty-five people in the room. Many of the business line owners are here, some of whom work for Sarah. Chris Allers is also here. Chris is a little older than me and looks lean and fit. He’ll just as often be seen joking with someone as kicking their ass about missing a deadline. He has a reputation as a capable and no-nonsense manager. With nearly two hundred developers working for him, he needs to be.
To help with Phoenix, his team has grown by fifty people in the last two years, many through offshore development shops. Chris is constantly asked to deliver more features and do it in less time, with less money.
Several of his managers are in the room, too. Wes is also here, sitting right next to Chris. As I start to look for an open chair, I note how everyone seems unusually tense. And then I see why.
There, sitting right next to the only open seat at the table, is Steve.
Everyone seems to be going to great lengths to not stare at him. As I casually take my seat next to Steve, my phone vibrates. It’s a text message from Wes:
Shit. Steve has never attended a project management meeting. We are totally screwed.
Kirsten clears her throat. “First on our agenda is Phoenix. The news isn’t good. This project went from yellow to red about four weeks ago, and it’s my personal assessment that the deadline is in grave jeopardy.”
She continues in her professional voice, “To refresh your memory, last week there were twelve tasks in the critical path of Phoenix Phase 1. Only three of those tasks were completed.”
There is a collective groan in the room, and several people mutter to one another. Steve turns to look at me. “Well?”
I explain, “The critical resource in question is Brent, who has been one hundred percent utilized helping to recover from the payroll failure, which we all know about. This was a totally unforeseen emergency but obviously one that we had to handle. Everyone knows how important Phoenix is, and we are doing everything we can to make sure Brent can stay focused.”
“Thanks for that super creative explanation, Bill,” Sarah immediately responds. “The real issue here is that your people don’t seem to grasp how important Phoenix is to the company. Our competition is killing us in the market. You’ve all seen and heard the commercials about their new services. They’re beating us on innovation, both in the retail stores and online. They’ve already lured away some of our biggest partners, and our sales force is starting to panic. I’m not the type to say, ‘I told you so,’ but their latest product announcement shows why we can’t be acting as if this is just business as usual.”
She continues, “See, Bill, in order for us to increase market share, we must ship Phoenix. But for some reason, you and your team keep dragging your feet. Maybe you’re not prioritizing correctly? Or maybe you’re just not used to supporting a project this important?”
Despite all my mental preparation, I feel my face get hot with anger. Maybe it was the condescending way she was parroting Steve to me. Or how she wasn’t even looking at me while she was addressing me, instead looking at Steve to see how he reacts. Or the way she basically called me out-of-touch and incompetent.
Everyone is silent as I force myself to take a deep breath.
My anger dissipates. This is all just corporate theater. I don’t like it but accept it for what it is. I almost made the Marines my career when I was up for promotion to staff sergeant. You don’t become a senior NCO in the Marines without being able to play politics.
“Interesting,” I say to Sarah. “You tell me which is more important: getting our factory employees paid or getting the Phoenix tasks done? Steve told me to resolve the payroll failure. How would you have prioritized this differently than Steve?”
At my mention of Steve, Sarah’s expression changes. “Well, maybe if IT didn’t cause the failure in the first place, you wouldn’t have blown your commitments to us. I don’t think we can depend on you and your team.”
I nod slowly, not taking the bait. “I look forward to any suggestions you have to offer, Sarah.”
She looks at me, then at Steve. Apparently deciding there are no more points to be gained here, she rolls her eyes. I see Wes shaking his head in disbelief at this discussion, staying uncharacteristically quiet.
Sarah continues, “We’ve spent over $20 million on Phoenix, and we’re nearly two years late. We must get to market.” Looking over at Chris, she asks, “Given the delays from Bill’s group, when is the soonest we can go live?”
Chris looks up from his papers. “I’ve looked into this since we talked last week. If we expedite some things and if the virtualized environments from Bill’s team work as expected, we can go into production one week from Friday.”
I gape at Chris. He just made up an arbitrary date to go into production, with complete disregard for all the things we need to do before deployment.
I have a sudden flashback. In the Marines, we had a ritual for all the senior NCOs. We’ d hang out with beers and watch Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Every time Admiral Ackbar would cry, “It’s a trap!” we’ d all laugh uproariously, yelling for a replay.
This time, I’m not laughing.
“Now just wait a minute here!” Wes interjects, pounding the table. “What the hell are you trying to pull? We just found out two weeks ago about the specifics of the Phoenix deployment. Your guys still haven’t told us what sort of infrastructure we need, so we can’t even order the necessary server and networking gear. And by the way, the vendors are already quoting us three-week delivery times!”
He is now facing Chris, pointing at him angrily. “Oh, and I’ve heard that the performance of your code is so shitty, we’re going to need the hottest, fastest gear out there. You’re supposed to support 250 transactions per second, and you’re barely doing even four! We’re going to need so much hardware that we’ll need another chassis to put it all in and probably have to pay a custom-manufacturing fee to get it in time. God knows what this will do to the budget.”
Chris wants to respond, but Wes is relentless. “We still don’t have a concrete specification of how the production and test systems should be configured. Oh, do you guys not need a test environment anymore? You haven’t even done any real testing of your code yet, because that fell off the schedule, too!”
My heart lurches as all the implications sink in. I’ve seen this movie before. The plot is simple: First, you take an urgent date-driven project, where the shipment date cannot be delayed because of external commitments made to Wall Street or customers. Then you add a bunch of developers who use up all the time in the schedule, leaving no time for testing or operations deployment. And because no one is willing to slip the deployment date, everyone after Development has to take outrageous and unacceptable shortcuts to hit the date.
The results are never pretty. Usually, the software product is so unstable and unusable that even the people who were screaming for it end up saying that it’s not worth shipping. And it’s always IT Operations who still has to stay up all night, rebooting servers hourly to compensate for crappy code, doing whatever heroics are required to hide from the rest of the world just how bad things really are.
“Guys, I understand the desire to get Phoenix into production as quickly as possible,” I say to Steve and Chris as calmly as I can. “But based on what we’ve heard from Wes, I think it is incredibly premature to deploy. We still don’t know what equipment we need to hit the performance objectives, nor have we done any capacity testing to confirm our guesses. It’s unlikely we have adequate documentation to run this thing in production, let alone get everything monitored and backed up.”
In my most persuasive voice, I continue, “I want Phoenix in the market as badly as anyone else, but if the user experience is bad enough, we’ll end up driving our customers to the competition.”
I turn to Chris. “You can’t just throw the pig over the wall to us, and then high-five each other in the parking lot, congratulating yourselves on how you made the deadline. Wes is telling us that the pig will probably break its leg, and it’ll be my guys who work all-nighters and weekends to keep that pig alive.”
Chris replies hotly, “Don’t give me that bullshit about ‘throwing the pig over the wall.’ We invited your people to our architecture and planning meetings, but I can count on one hand the number of times you guys actually showed up. We routinely have had to wait days or even weeks to get anything we need from you guys!”
Then he just holds up his hands, as if everything is outside of his control. “Look, I’d like more time, too. But from the very beginning, we all knew that this was a date-driven project. That was a business decision we all made.”
“Exactly!” Sarah exclaims before I can respond. “This just shows how Bill and his team lack the necessary sense of urgency. Perfection is the enemy of good. Bill, we simply do not have the luxury of time to polish this to whatever gold standard you’re proposing. We need to create positive cash flow, and we cannot do that without taking back market share. And to do that, we need to deploy Phoenix.”
She looks over at Steve. “We understand risk, don’t we, Steve? You’ve been doing an absolutely amazing job selling this to analysts and even the guys on CNBC—I don’t think we want egg on our face by shipping even later than we already are.”
Steve nods his head and rubs his chin, rocking back and forth in his chair as he thinks. “Agreed,” he finally says, leaning forward. “We’ve made commitments to our investors and analysts that we were going to launch Phoenix this quarter.”
My jaw drops. Sarah has blunted all my arguments, leading Steve down a reckless, destructive path.
Exasperated, I say, “Does anyone think this is really odd? I’ve been in this room when we discussed installing new water fountains in the front of every store. We gave that team nine months to plan the rollout. Nine months! And all of us agreed that was reasonable.
“Now we’re talking about Phoenix, which impacts thousands of point of sale systems, and all of the back-office order entry systems. This is at least ten thousand times more complex than rolling out new water fountains, with way more risk to the business. And you’re only giving us one week to plan and execute the rollout?”
I throw my hands up, imploring Steve, “Doesn’t this seem a bit reckless and unfair?”
Kirsten nods, but Sarah says dismissively, “Bill, that’s a touching story but we’re not discussing water fountains, we’re discussing Phoenix. Besides, I believe the decision has already been made.”
Steve says, “Yes, it has. Thank you for sharing what you view as the risks, Bill.” He turns to Sarah. “When is the launch date?”
Sarah replies quickly, “Marketing launch is next Saturday, September 13. Phoenix will deploy at 5 p.m. the previous day.”
Steve writes the date in the back of his notebook and says, “Good. Keep me posted on progress, and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
I look over at Wes, who mimes with his hands an airplane crashing into the table in front of him and bursting into flames.
In the hallway, Wes says, “I thought that went pretty well, boss.”
I’m not laughing. “What the hell happened in there? How did we get into this position? Does anyone know what’s required from us to support this launch?”
“No one has a clue,” he says, shaking his head in disgust. “We haven’t even agreed on how to do the handoff with Development. In the past, they’ve just pointed to a network folder and said, ‘Deploy that.’ There are newborn babies dropped off at church doorsteps with more operating instructions than what they’re giving us.”
I shake my head at his awful imagery, but he’s right. We’ve got a serious problem here.
He continues, “We’re going to have to assemble a huge team, including Chris’ guys, to figure out how we’re going to pull this off. We have problems at every layer: networking, servers, databases, operating systems, applications, Layer 7 switching—the whole wad of crap. It’s going to be late nights for all of us for the next nine days.”
I nod unhappily. This type of all-hands effort is just another part of life in IT, but it makes me angry when we need to make some heroic, diving catch because of someone else’s lack of planning.
I say, “Get your team assembled, and ask Chris to assemble his respective team as well. Stop trying to do this by e-mail and in the ticketing system. We need everyone in the same room.”
“Speaking of commitments,” I say, “What was Chris referring to when he said that our guys never showed up to the Phoenix architecture and planning meetings? Is that true?”
Wes rolls his eyes in frustration. “Yeah, it’s true that his people would invite us at the last minute. Seriously, who can clear their calendar on less than a day’s notice?”
“Although, in fairness,” he says, after a moment, “we did get ample notice on a couple of the big planning meetings. And one of the most critical people who needed to be there wasn’t able to make it, due to escalations. You can probably guess who that is…”
I groan. “Brent?”
Wes nods, “Yep. He’s the guy we need at those meetings to tell those idiotic developers how things work in the real world and what type of things keep breaking in production. The irony, of course, is that he can’t tell the developers, because he’s too busy repairing the things that are already broken.”
He’s right. Unless we can break this cycle, we’ll stay in our terrible downward spiral. Brent needs to work with developers to fix issues at the source so we can stop fighting fires. But Brent can’t attend, because he’s too busy fighting fires.
I say, “We need our best minds to prepare for this deployment, so make sure Brent is there.”
Wes looks sheepish for a moment. I ask him, “What?”
“I think he’s working a network outage right now.” he replies.
“Not anymore,” I say. “They’re going to have to fix it without him. If someone has a problem with that, send them to me.”
“Okay, whatever you want, boss.” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
After the project management meeting, I’m in no mood to talk to anyone. I sit at my desk and grumble when my laptop doesn’t wake up. The disk drive light just keeps blinking. When nothing shows on the screen, I grab my empty mug that I keep on my desk by the picture of Paige and my two sons and walk to the coffee machine in the corner.
When I get back to my desk, a window on the screen tells me that it’s going to install some critical new updates. I sit down, click “Ok” and watch the status bar crawl across the screen. Suddenly, I see the dreaded “blue screen of death.” My laptop is now completely locked up and unusable.
It happens again even after I reboot. I mutter in frustration, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Just then, Ellen, my new assistant, pokes her head around the corner. Holding out her hand she says, “Good morning. Congratulations on the promotion, Bill!” Noticing my blue-screened laptop, she says sympathetically, “Ooh, that doesn’t look good.”
“Umm, thanks.” I say, reaching out to shake her hand. “Yeah, about this laptop, can you get a hold of someone in desktop support? There’s some serious crap headed our way from Phoenix, and I’m going to need it.”
“No problem,” she says, nodding with a smile. “I’ll tell them our new VP is hopping mad, demanding that his laptop get fixed. Of all people, you need a working computer, right?
“You know,” she adds, “I’ve heard that a bunch of other people are having problems like this today. I’ll make sure you get to the top of the list. You can’t afford to wait in line.”
More bricked laptops? This is surely evidence that the universe is out to get me today.
“By the way, I need some help coordinating some emergency Phoenix meetings. Has anyone granted you access to my calendar yet?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes. “No. That’s actually why I came down here. I wanted to see if you could print out your next couple of days. Obviously, that’s out of the question. I’ll have the desktop support person do that while he’s here. Sometimes it takes weeks for the e-mail administrators to get around to stuff like this.”
Weeks? That’s unacceptable. I quickly look at my watch and realize I’ll have to tackle this later. I’m already late.
“Do your best,” I say. “I’m off to Patty’s enterprise change management meeting. Call me if you need anything, okay?”
Being ten minutes late to Patty’s meeting, I hurry into the room, expecting to see either a bunch of people waiting for me impatiently or perhaps a meeting already underway.
Instead, I see only Patty sitting at the conference table, typing away on her laptop.
“Welcome to the CAB, Bill. I hope you can find an empty chair,” she says.
“Where is everybody?” I ask.
I’m baffled. When I ran the midrange group, my team would never miss our change management meetings. It was where we coordinated and organized all our work to make sure we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot.
“I told you yesterday that change management around here is hit-or-miss,” Patty says, sighing. “Some groups have their own local change-management process, like yours. But most groups do nothing at all. Yesterday’s outage is just proof that we need to have something at the enterprise level. Right now, the left hand rarely knows what the right hand is doing.”
“So, what’s the problem?” I ask.
She purses her lip. “I don’t know. We sent a bunch of people to ITIL training, so they could get up to speed on all the best practices. We brought in some consultants, who helped us replace our ticketing system with an ITIL-compliant change management tool. People were supposed to put change requests into it, where it would get routed for approvals. But, even after two years, all we have is a great process on paper that no one follows and a tool that no one uses. When I pester people to use them, all I get are complaints and excuses.”
I nod. ITIL stands for IT Infrastructure Library, which documents many IT best practices and processes, and the ITIL program has had a reputation of spending years merely walking in circles.
I’m bothered that Wes isn’t here. I know he’s busy, but if he’s not here, why would any of his people bother to show up? Efforts like this must start and be continually maintained from the top.
“Well, they can bring their complaints and excuses to me,” I say adamantly. “We’re rebooting the change management process. With my total support. Steve’s told me to make sure people can stay focused on Phoenix. Screwups like the SAN failure made us miss a Phoenix deliverable, and now we’re paying for it. If someone wants to skip a change management meeting, they obviously are in need of some special compassionate coaching. From me.”
At Patty’s puzzled expression at my Phoenix reference, I tell her about how Wes and I spent our morning being run over by the bus. Sarah and Chris were at the wheel, but Steve was in back, cheering them on to floor it.
“Not good,” she says, disapprovingly. “They even ran over Kirsten, huh?”
I nod silently but refuse to say more. I always liked that phrase in Saving Private Ryan: “There’s a chain of command: gripes go up, not down.”
Instead, I ask her to walk me through the current change process and the way it’s been automated in the tools. It all sounds good. But there’s only one way to see if the process works.
I say, “Schedule another CAB meeting for the same time Friday. I’ll send out an e-mail to all the CAB members letting them know that this is mandatory.”
When I get back to my cubicle, Ellen is at my desk, bending over my laptop, writing a note.
“Everything working, I hope?” I ask.
She startles at the sound of my voice. “Oh, my God. You scared me,” she says laughing. “Support left you a replacement laptop because they couldn’t get your laptop to boot, even after a half hour of trying.”
She points at the far side of my desk, and I do a double take.
My replacement laptop appears to be almost ten years old—it’s twice as large as my old one and looks three times as heavy. The battery has been taped on, and half the keyboard lettering is worn off from heavy use.
For a moment, I wonder if this is a practical joke.
I sit down and bring up my e-mail, but everything is so slow that several times I thought it had locked up.
Ellen has a sympathetic expression on her face. “The support guy said that this is all they have available today. Over two hundred people are having similar problems, and many aren’t getting replacements. Apparently, people with your laptop model also have had their’s break because of some security patch.”
I forgot. It’s Patch Tuesday, when John and his team roll out all their security patches from our major vendors. Once again, John is causing huge issues and disruptions for my team and me.
I merely nod and thank her for the help. After she’s gone, I sit down and type out an e-mail to all the CAB members, my keystrokes often taking ten seconds to show up on the screen.
From: Bill Palmer
To: Wes Davis, Patty McKee, IT Operations Management
Date: September 3, 2:43 PM
Subject: Mandatory CAB meeting Friday, 2 PM
Today, I attended the weekly CAB meeting. I was extremely disappointed that I was the only one there, besides Patty, especially given the totally avoidable, change-related failure yesterday.
Effective immediately, managers (or their assigned delegates) are required to attend all scheduled CAB meetings and to perform their assigned duties. We are resurrecting the Parts Unlimited change management process and it will be followed to the letter.
Any person(s) caught circumventing change management will be subject to disciplinary action.
There will be a mandatory CAB meeting Friday at 2 PM. See you there.
Call me if you have any questions or concerns.
Thanks for your support,
I hit send, waiting fifteen seconds for the e-mail to finally leave my outbox. Almost immediately, my cell phone rings.
It’s Wes. I say, “I was just about to call you about the laptops. We’ve got to get replacements to our managers and employees so they can do their jobs, you hear?”
“Yeah, we’re on it. But I’m not calling about that. And I’m not calling about Phoenix, either,” he says, sounding irritated. “Look, about your memo on change management: I know you’re the boss, but you better know that the last time we did one of these change management kumbayas, we ran IT straight into the ground. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, could get a single thing done. Patty insisted on having everyone take a number and wait for her pointy-heads to authorize and schedule our changes. It was absolutely ridiculous and a total waste of time.”
He’s unstoppable: “That software application she made us use is a total piece of crap. It takes twenty minutes to fill out all those fields for a simple five-minute change! I don’t know who designed the process, but I think they assumed that we all get paid by the hour and want to talk about doing work instead of actually doing work.
“Eventually, the Networking and Server Team staged a rebellion, refusing to use Patty’s tool,” he continues heatedly. “But John waved an audit finding around and went to Luke, our old CIO. And just like you did, Luke said that following policies was a condition of employment, threatening to fire anybody who didn’t follow them.
“My guys were spending half their time doing paperwork and sitting in that damned CAB meeting,” he continues. “Luckily, the effort finally died, and John was too clueless to catch on that no one was actually going to the meetings anymore. Even John hasn’t gone to one of those meetings in over a year!”
“I hear you,” I say. “We can’t repeat that, but we also can’t have another payroll disaster. Wes, I need you there, and I need you to help create the solution. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem. Can I count on you?”
I hear him sigh loudly. “Yeah, sure. But you can also count on me calling ‘bullshit’ if I see Patty trying to create some sort of bureaucracy that sucks out everybody’s will to live.”
Before, I was merely worried that IT Operations was under attack by Development, Information Security, Audit, and the business. Now, I’m starting to realize that my primary managers seem to be at war with each other, as well.
What will it take for us to all get along?