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How to Cop-Out

2011 January 23
by Greg Satell

Okay, here’s an exercise.  Go to your bathroom mirror and practice a serious face.  Furrow your brow, tighten your lips and lower your gaze.

Got it?  Good.  You are now ready to cop-out.  Often much maligned, copping out is a time honored tradition in corporate life.  It will save you time, keep underlings at a safe distance and help you avoid pesky questions.

It’s not all about appearances though.  You have to master the lingo.  Here are some choice phrases that will help you along.

“We Need To Unsilo Our Organization”

This should be ridiculous on its face.  Every organization has different functions, types of customers, lines of business, etc. Over time, it becomes important to allocate specialists to focus on specific areas. You can, of course, reorganize, but only in such a way that would create new and different silos.

In truth, siloed organizations are not a problem, siloed people are.  In most organizations people dedicate their careers to performing a fairly narrow set of tasks.  That makes it hard for them to interact with people who spend their careers performing an altogether different set of tasks.  Changing the structure of institutions rarely achieves anything.

See the beauty of it all?  Reorganizations are costly and time consuming.  They give the illusion that something serious is being done when very little is.  Even when it’s over, nobody expects instant results and when none show up you can reorganize again!  Hah!

“The Sample Size is Too Small”

It never fails.  Once you have your strategy in place and you’re ready to go, some nitwit comes in with some research that calls everything into question.

Now, research is always problematic.  People will respond differently to seemingly identical questions.  Samples need to be representative of the market as a whole and results are often open to varied interpretations.  However, nothing works better than sample size.

You see, research companies have an interest in sample size.  It is the one source of error that can’t be their fault.  Besides, raising sample size makes them more money.  So they’ve been going around for decades crowing on about sample sizes and even arbitrarily set minimums for reliable results (usually 100 respondents).

In actuality, there is relatively little difference between sample error using 100 (+/-5%), 50 (+/- 7%) and 25 (+/- 10%) respondents, but who cares?  Raise the issue, sit back and watch it all go your way.

“Show Me The Numbers”

Sometimes when you’re kicking back, thinking about just how it was that you got to be such a brilliant master of the universe, some jackass bursts in with a new idea.  He (or perhaps she) is really excited about it and wants to tell you everything down to the mind-numbingly boring minutiae, which will seriously cut down on your daydreaming time.

This is where you need quick and decisive action.  Tell the little snot, “show me the numbers!”  That’ll stop ‘em in their tracks!  Make them do endless Excel spreadsheets, revenue projections and show an IRR of over 25%.  And make sure everything is backed up by research! (See above).

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the numbers say.  After all, numbers don’t really “say” anything.  They’re always based on assumptions and open to varying interpretations.  But by the time anybody realizes that, they’ll be just as jaded as you are.  Then you can have a beer together and complain about how incompetent everybody else is!

“We Need to Find Better People”

Now, this is serious.  At some point, there’s going to be someone higher up who wants you to show results.  It could be because you’ve just completed your fifth reorganization or maybe it’s all really about the enormous tab you ran up at the strip club last week .

Whatever the reason, that somebody has a bug up his (or her) ass and has come gunning for you.  This is it.  Your career is on the line.  You have a very small margin for error.  This one needs to be handled just right.  You need to muster up that serious face you’ve been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror and show that you understand the gravity of the situation.

Then you blame it on your people.  Those bums!  You’ve told them time and time again to get real, to innovate, but all they do is run numbers in Excel and bitch about sample sizes.  If you could offer better salaries, you could attract real talent.  Instead, you’re stuck with these losers!

Besides, the real problem is that we’re not unlocking synergies.  We need to break down silos…

The Genius of the Status Quo

At the heart of copping out is recognizing the genius of the status quo.  After all, that’s what put you in charge in the first place.

As much as things change, they always stay the same.  All that competition from the Chinese?  They still eat with chopsticks.  That’s their secret!  And all those guys in Silicon Valley?  They still smoke dope and practice free love at Burning Man.  Don’t mess around when you have a good thing going?  Look what happened to New Coke!

For every example of innovative success you can find a counter example of innovative failure.  That’s the secret of copping out.  It all becomes easier once you realize that as long as you’re standing in the way, nothing ever has to change…

– Greg

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