This is the last posting in the series about being blinded by familiarity.
LeCroy purchased CATC (where I worked) in late 2004. For the next several months, I was tied up in a series of merger-related planning and training meetings at the headquarters in New York. We created new reporting systems. I trained the new sales team. It required a nontrivial amount of time to learn to work with the new people and within the new policies and the new IT systems.
I had a great marketing team back in Santa Clara ensuring that everything ran smoothly. The product managers were domain experts and fully competent in their jobs. We had a great engineering department that produced the products we needed for our customers. There was always plenty to do, but with the good post-acquisition feelings, I decided I could take a breather and relax in between these meetings. We had the same people doing the same things, and everything seemed to be going well.
After a couple of months of moving back and forth at a much more relaxed pace than usual, I felt pretty happy with myself and the situation. Outside my office everything seemed to me moving along nicely. The revenue and market share numbers were great. Maybe I had entered into a new phase of my career where I just prepared presentations and could be a bit more removed from the day-to-day activities of the business.
I can’t remember the exact moment that I realized that my view of reality was seriously flawed, but I do remember what happened shortly afterward when I asked one of the product mangers to come into my office to give a report. He told me that they had been working 50% more than usual because of all of the headaches of the merger. It became very clear after just of few moments of our conversation that he was overwhelmed. I felt terrible. I was sitting within a few yards of the product mangers and yet I hadn’t noticed the problem. I suppose the good numbers and all the pats on my back messed up my vision.
We had a detailed discussion where he told me about all of the things on his plate. He was so tied up with the busywork that he hadn’t been able to do any of the big picture activities. With me being oblivious and he being engulfed in trivialities for a period time, no one had assessed the strategic issues of his product lines. We had to do something about that first. “You’ve got to find a way to check in with key customers and take a look at what’s going around out there.” I insisted.
He proceeded to tell me all of the things that he had to do that would prevent him from doing that. All of these activities had been dumped on him with urgent deadlines. For example, he was assigned by someone in operations to restructure all of the bills of materials of all of his products according to the new system and enter all of that data. “Can’t you get someone there to automate the process?” I asked. He assured me that if there was any way that he could avoid the hassle he would. There was complete defeat in his voice.
Now that I had wiped the blindness from my eyes I had do help him do the same. “OK.” I said, “We’ve got to get past all of these dumb activities so the important things can get done.”
He replied, “There isn’t any way. It’s all got to get done, and I’m the only one who can do it. I’m trapped.”
“There’s got to be a way. We can bring in a temp to do all of the data entry and filing activities. You can assign me a hunk of your work. I can call up the COO, and tell him that the deadlines need to get pushed back and that we need some better tools. We have got to pull ourselves up from the ugliness and take a good look around. The market won’t wait for us.”
I had this same conversation with the entire team. I told them to go home on time and relax. We’d figure it all out over the next few days. It wasn’t easy, but we did get everything on time and continued to build on our market share leadership without too much pain. We just needed to lift ourselves up and take a good look at it together. After that experience, I started using the term “prairie-dogging.” By that, I meant that sometimes we stay down in our holes too long without coming out and looking at things from a different perspective.
It’s always a challenge to balance the immediate, urgent, and small issues with the long-term, strategic, and big-picture challenges, but we’ve all got to do it. There are two good warning signals that we’ve been down in the hole too long: (a) when we are feeling comfortable, and (b) when we feel overwhelmed with tasks are best described as busywork. Get out of that hole and take a good look at the way things really are.