Imposing impossible demands as a management strategy

There’s a great story in Losing the Signal, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s history of Research In Motion, relating how the management responded to the threat of the iPhone: promise an ever more amazing phone to wireless carriers and then simply demand that the engineering team produce it on a minimal timescale. From pg 142:

RIM was racing to roll out Bold phones for 2008; now it wanted to shift gears and create a new phone in nine months! It took eighteen months to create a new BlackBerry. A touch phone was something else. Although Storm would use BlackBerry’s existing operating system, it would need new hardware, radio and antenna configurations, and additional software. RIM products were reliable, never this rushed. There would be no time for proper “soak-testing”—engineering talk for working bugs out of software. Waving off protests, Conlee, RIM’s product enforcer, asked each engineer to explain what he or she needed to make the touch phone happen. The room of problem solvers reluctantly itemized the parts, software, and staff they would need, immediately. Conlee then turned to Perry Jarmuszewski, a soft-spoken radio engineer who had been with RIM for more than a decade. “Perry I guess you’re good to go. You haven’t said anything,” Conlee offered. Jarmuszewski, who preferred solving problems to making them, had deliberately held his tongue. Prodded by Conlee, he pushed back. “On a scale of 0 to 10, if 10 means no way, then this project is an 11,” he said. “It’s impossible. It’s something I would not be able to deliver.” Conlee shrugged and gave his marching orders: “Well, you guys are the heads of our engineering groups. You are paid accordingly. I expect you to get it done. Verizon wants an answer to the iPhone. We have to do it.”

Is there anything exceptional about this? I’m interested in how certain aspects of managerial culture (a basically suspicious view of the self-reporting of employees concerning workload & feasibility, a valorsation of ‘visionary’ leadership, a competitive pressure to accelerate production timelines) contribute to a reality of intensified work: ‘leadership’ in practice means stressing the fuck out of your staff, taking credit when they meet these demands and punishing them when they don’t. The problem is the competitive escalation that emerges from the fact that sometimes people do meet these demands. If that can be pointed to then it undercuts the potential objection of any other team when confronted with demands they believe to be straight-forwardly impossible.

This is how managers then talk of such a team, once they’ve been leading it for a while. From pg 149:

“This is a team that prides itself on pulling off miracles, pulling all-nighters, working hard, solving the most complex problems, getting things done on time, getting things done under the wire. This is a team with a can-do spirit,” he says.

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