Corporate Dysfunction
April 19, 2010 6:10 AM   Subscribe

Is your company as dysfunctional as mine? From the outside looking in, everything seems great. From a customers point of view our product is quite polished. But....if you sit where I am, everything is a mess. Procedures that make no sense. Technology infrastructure that looks like spaghetti. Horrible data. Broken lines of communication. Inability to book a simple meeting room. People bitching about leaving stuff in the refrigerator. Meetings that go nowhere. I have seen this at other companies. Is this par for the course or do I need to get a new job? If this isn't the case in your company, what things ( process / procedure / software / behaviours/ etc. ) have made the biggest positive impact? If your company is as messy as mine, what things make you say WTF? Learn me about what happens in your corporate black box.....for better or worse.
posted by jasondigitized to Work & Money (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have worked for large companies (worldwide, thousands of employees, seven buildings here in the metro area), small companies (twenty employees, one location), and tiny companies (two guys).
The large places made a good show of "we got it together" but were effed up beyond repair. Same with the small places.
posted by Drasher at 6:41 AM on April 19, 2010

I recently discovered that 50% of the company is running IE8 ( Yeah Tabbed Browsing ), while the other 50% is running IE6. WTF? I sent the service desk a request to please upgrade me to IE8 so I could used tabbed browsing to efficiently review issues in Sharepoint. I received a message stating that I would have to fill out a paper-based AMR ( Account Modification Report ) form, send it to a another person for approval, and then they would send it back to our field services team, so I could then get IE8 installed. WTF?
posted by kaizen at 6:46 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The kinds of problems you're discussing are endemic to all large organizations, whether business, educational, governmental, NGO, etc.

It is best to make peace with this fact and continue your job.
posted by dfriedman at 6:47 AM on April 19, 2010

Weirdly enough, the most "functional" workplace I've ever been in was with the government. Although we do a fairly bad job of hiding our problems, the day-to-day stuff actually seems to run pretty well.

There are exceptions, of course, but the bureaucracy actually helps to take out most of the drama.
posted by schmod at 6:47 AM on April 19, 2010

This sounds like my company.

Back in the late 90s I was involved with a project that was forcibly removed from the company mainstream. We were in a separate building, we chose our own suppliers and did our own manufacturing. Interactions with the rest of the company were limited and we only followed corporate processes where absolutely necessary. The initial product was moderately successful but monumentally unpopular within the corporation as a whole. We might have done better with more experience but the corporation canceled the follow-on products and disbanded the group (after they were required to train a Chinese subsidiary on how to make the product).

Despite its unpopularity, the company just recently shut down the last of the replacement unit manufacturing for the product (which was launched world-wide in 1998). The company's willingness to ignore it, despite the 12 years of revenue, taught those of us on the team that created it a valuable lesson.
posted by tommasz at 6:52 AM on April 19, 2010

I worked for a large company that was part of an even larger global mega corp and what you describe sounds very typical of my experience there.

The dysfunction wasn't a constant however, it would ebb and flow, becoming more dysfunctional in worse economic times and less so during better times.

A little more than a year ago, they made the stellar decision to offer to pay people to leave (in lieu of layoffs) when the economy really started to tank. Of course all the worthless people clung to their jobs even harder and the talented people or people close to retirement, with a metric fuckton of business knowledge in their heads, left with a wad of cash. (I consider myself one of the talented ones)

I believe that most large companies are dysfunctional to a degree. That comes with bureaucracy and the personalities of the executives. Some dysfunctions are more satisfying than others. Maybe Ultra Mega Corp's dysfunction drives you batty but Mega Ultra Corp's dysfunction isn't a big deal.

I currently work for a much smaller company (less than 100 people) and it's like a breath of fresh air. At this scale, office dysfunction is really directly related to an individual's personality, and not systemic to the organization. (e.g. you can fire problem people and the problem goes away)
posted by device55 at 6:57 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

This isn't a company thing, this happens whenever you mix people, budgets, and power. It can be alleviated somewhat with everyone sharing a common goal and clearly delineated power structures, but it's only alleviated, not eliminated.
It gets exponentially worse when departmental or personal initiatives focus on their local benefit vs the shared organizational objectives. My personal pet peeve is IT security, but horror stories abound, and I'm sure you'll see plenty in this thread.
The solution is best if it comes from the top down, but this is rare. Even more rare (to be almost non-existent) is a bottoms-up organizational shift since this requires peered groups to put common organizational goals over group goals AND to convince their higher-ups to do so as well.
The sad truth is that when things get really bad, rather than fixing the problem you can expect a group of outside consultants to come in and point out all the surface problems (processes, communication, organization, etc) rather than fixing the underlying faults.
posted by forforf at 6:58 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a reason Scott Adams can sell Dilbert to roughly 40 gazillion newspapers every day.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:01 AM on April 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you can see what your company is doing wrong and how things can be improved, why don't you start trying to get some solutions implemented? Make suggestions to your boss about how to make your department more efficient and productive and volunteer to do some of the work involved.
posted by orange swan at 7:18 AM on April 19, 2010

I'm a contractor who has worked with many different companies, from ginormous corporations to three-person startups.

The problems you describe are basically endemic to large companies. Past a certain size, companies just start to get complicated.

If this isn't the case in your company, what things ( process / procedure / software / behaviours/ etc. ) have made the biggest positive impact?

Literally the only large companies I've seen where this sort of thing hasn't been a problem are the departments where a very strong manager basically separates his department from the rest of the company and runs it more like a skunkworks project, insulating it from the corporate bureaucracy as much as possible. This can be anything from a tiny two-or-three person group tucked away in a back room somewhere, to a few hundred people working in a separate building (or even a separate city.)

It's not sustainable for long periods of time. If the skunkworks is too successful, other departments will move in to claim some of the credit and you wind up in turf war hell, or the strong manager will be promoted to a level too high for his group to continue functioning as a separate entity. And if it's unsuccessful it eventually gets shut down or absorbed into a different group.
posted by ook at 7:43 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is par the course. Companies turn into big inefficient blobs. It is very annoying, but you have to try your best to just ignore it. If you are towards the bottom of your companie's power structure, suggesting changes is often futile. Just make sure you take every break you're entitled to and leave on time with your paycheck.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:35 AM on April 19, 2010

The romantic image that corporations are innately efficient and effective organizations is, for the most part, a big fat lie meant to define the private sector in opposition to the "inefficient" public sector (i.e. government)

As you are experiencing, reality is quite the opposite.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:42 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

This happens everywhere to a greater or lesser extent. Also, where things seem to be calm or less chaotic, you often have the problem that process is often unmalleable or slow to react to change. That makes sense when you are developing the avionics for an airplane but when that mindset creeps into everything that you do it becomes just as big a problem as the unstructured chaos.
posted by mmascolino at 8:58 AM on April 19, 2010

Another data point, I work for a company that has probably less than 75 employees and I have heard or seen all of those exact same problems. I honestly feel like every place is like this, I've never worked anywhere that wasn't!
posted by trinkatot at 9:41 AM on April 19, 2010

About meetings...I've been in two main situations, one where there was plenty of meeting rooms so no problem grabbing one, and the other where they were booked through MS Outlook and if you booked it for an hour, you had to out of be there within that hour, because someone else had it booked immediately following. Both cases had their advantages and disadvantages. Case 1, "lets go grab a meeting room so we don't disturb the adjacent cube dwellers". Case 2, the room is booked, and there's a fixed length it can go on for, so agendas are critical, but you're also not stuck in what was supposed to be a 1 hour meeting for half the day.

Yes, every company I've been at has been dysfunctional.

Everything from 100 grit toilet paper, rotting food in the fridges, vending machines that steal money, unclean microwaves, annoying co-worker behavior in the next cube, micro-managing, insufficient computers - ok I'll just sit here for an hour while this thing compiles - great use of salary, washrooms at way the hell at the other end of the building, ...

That said, you've got to weigh it all in based on perks. BBQ every Friday, free coffee and tea, HR social events to keep moral and team spirit up - such as your manager + a dunk tank, a friendly front-desk person, that cute semi-co-worker to look forward to every day, free parking, IT guys who can be called on the phone for a quick response and who look the other way when you may be using the computer for questionable things, quick replacement of flickering fluorescent light ballasts, flex-time, ...

So, basically, for your particular workplace, do-up a pros and cons list.

If necessary, take at least a 3-day vacation away from everything, such as camping. Helps put some of the minor things back into perspective.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:04 AM on April 19, 2010

I've worked for Fortune 500 companies and small companies. The only company that didn't have all that corporate BS and nonsense was the smallest one, where it was the owner/boss and three employees (a bookkeeper, adm. assistant (me), and a salesman). There were no team building exercises, progress meetings, memorandums, etc. We were more like a small family and all concentrated on the job at hand, because the boss was very generous - when sales were good, we each received a commensurate bonus.

The Fortune 500 company was a nightmare of ridiculousness...we once received a company-wide memo from a vice-president of something or other about (I'm not making this up) the use of Scotch tape on inter-office envelopes that came equipped with tie strings (he was against it, by the way). At the smallish company (about 20 office employees) it wasn't much better; when the company was preparing for its ISO 9000 audit, I (a female) was asked by the president of the company to sit in on the many meetings held while we were writing the quality manual. When he told me he wanted me included in the proceedings he said "You're good with words, so you're going to write the you know shorthand and you can jot down everyone's thoughts." And even though this was 1996, a supposedly more enlightened era, other female colleagues constantly asked me who I was "doing" that I got to get out of work and sit in the conference room (like taking notes, translating them into sequential steps and assembling a quality manual wasn't work).

In summary, I've found that your experience mirrors that of millions of American workers. Unless you go into business for yourself, you're going to have to deal with all sorts of insane bureaucracy.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:30 AM on April 19, 2010

Every company is less organized than it appears. Every relationship, too. Every person, in fact. An individual person knows more about what's going on in their head than everyone else, and tries to display only the best stuff. Relationships and organizations, too, the people inside it know about all the troubles and imperfections that they work hard not to share with the outside world. Totally normal. You may have specific dysfunctions in your company that most don't have, but they all have some.
posted by davejay at 12:11 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you may be ready to learn about The Gervais Principle.
posted by Bron at 6:09 PM on April 19, 2010

"Unless you go into business for yourself, you're going to have to deal with all sorts of insane bureaucracy."

My current boss went into business for himself, I believe,to get away from all the WTF he had hated at the larger companies he had worked for.But now the business model that has ended up being most successful and sustaining for his small business is to accept longterm contracts from these large companies. We are essentially a satellite office of several different, annoying large corporations...

Not that I think our independent actions are all that effective....we pay all our bills at the last minute, pissing off all vendors and never getting any sort of volume discount. We also always buy plane tickets the day before even for int'l trips and there's always tons of change to everybody's itinerary,which leads to tons of wastage... which is probably why we can't afford to pay the other bills on time, and why our 401K's are not up-to-date....oy vay.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:30 PM on April 19, 2010

One of my first jobs was in a megacorporation and MAN was it dysfunctional. I was just in disbelief for around 6 months, then I felt it was becoming more normal; as in, I was starting to get used to it. Then I quit. I've also worked in the 5 people startup and it was (as someone wrote above) like a little family, the best workplace ever. I currently work at a senior level in higher education. Massive organisation and it looked great from the outside... but hey, soon again I found a big gooey underbelly of dysfunctionality. It does go in waves - all fine, then suddenly there is a situation where sanity is totally going out of the window. This is what I currently do to keep a supply of sanity:

- I never to give in to the temptation to panic (it hasn't ever helped before)
- Realising it hurts because I care, because I'm trying "to do it the right way"; taking a step back
- I try to keep my 'approaching, open-minded, creative' attitude; my problem-solving really gets into tunnelvision if defense mode is on. As long as I'm not scared it's very fun, though.
- Learned to spot when teh crazyness is starting to build up, and then taking a quick break.
- I know this one is actually insane - but take a few days sick leave (not isolated days - careful HR will spot you) to get some actual work done

- Investing the most in relationships with colleagues who are "generating sanity" (if you will)
- Seriously, talk to all of your colleagues and stick with the ones who have good common sense.
- Using their support. There's a fine line between moaning and having to talk about something. However the right people will let me get things off your chest. I feel better. More work gets done. My team as a whole fares better.
- Using external support, too. (Have a union?)

Lastly, I don't like to resort to this one but I journal things if I have to. And I read Kafka. LOL. Kafka worked in an insurance company, knew this stuff well (several notches up from Dilbert). Shit, I recently asked the guy running the linux servers whether they took inspiration for their security policies from Kafka and the guy responded, "you're closer to the truth than you can possibly imagine." I'm not making this up.
posted by yoHighness at 3:07 AM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

...will let me get things off my chest. Ha.
posted by yoHighness at 3:08 AM on April 20, 2010

...and make that UNIX servers. Damn.
posted by yoHighness at 3:09 AM on April 20, 2010

or this comment I just found in another thread...
posted by yoHighness at 3:39 AM on April 20, 2010

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