This is one of those stories that has nothing to do with what the title suggests.
Normans abound. I’m not talking about the Normans who won the Battle of Hastings as part of “1066 and all that.” (1) I’m talking about people named Norman, of which there were two who stood out in my experience.
One we called Norm (never Norman); the other, Norman (never Norm).
Let’s start with Norm. (Norman will wait until Part Two.)
Norm was a guy who’d reached nearly the end of his career by the time he started working for me. He was the kind of guy who’d bounced around from place to place, a sort of Brownian motion career (2). Norm did just enough to keep from being let go, but not enough to advance above a ledge not far up the corporate rock face — a level attained early in a neat demonstration of the Peter Principle (3).
Norms of this kind (4) exist everywhere. They’re like some cute, cuddly animal you’d use as a model for a stuffed toy. On the other hand, when you’re not watching, they’ll dig up all the vegetables in your garden.
How do you deal with one of these cuddly things? The easy solution is to move them along. (Hence, the Brownian motion thing.) This presents its own problems. You have to find a supervisor who’s either (a) kind, (b) clueless, (c) new, or (d) some combination of a, b, and c. The ruthless ones will never tolerate Norms for more than, say, a week before taking some drastic action; the experienced ones will say to you, “Oh, no; I’ve had one of these before, and I’m not doing it again.” Moving the Norms is called, in far fancier terms, risk transference. It doesn’t help the organization, but it certainly helps you.
Back to my cuddly animal. In my case, Norm was a likable guy (they usually are, unless you get a BOF (5)). Norm had been at his particular level of incompetence for so long, he was comfortable. He didn’t know he was incompetent; he just made mistakes. Lots of them. Of course, to err is human (6), and Norm knew that. The problem in business (as in baseball, incidentally) is that to err continually is to make a royal mess of things (and, in baseball, to end up in last place, with the blame laid on bad coaching — usually, but not always, the case).
Norm was the kind of person you ended up assigning harmless work. Harmless work is that which (a) needs to get done and (b) won’t cause much difficulty if it isn’t always done on time or isn’t always quite right (7). In Norm’s case, I gave him The Books.
The Books exist in every section of every department of every division in every organization that has people, capital, and expense mashed together. The Books are populated with all kinds of internal accounts to keep track of people costs, tooling, supplies, property rents, training, and even the cost of maintaining The Books. Somebody’s got to sift through all of that stuff, if only because all of that stuff contributes to the overall Cost of Goods Sold (8). If this stuff gets out of hand, well, then, your affordable cost structure (a fancy way of saying the price of the sum total of your products, minus the sum total of all the work and expenses in the business) is no longer affordable. Your margins shrink, or worse, go negative. At this point, you spend even more money trying to figure out where the other money went. Or, as a poor substitute for effective cost management, you just fire a bunch of people and hope for the best.
Hence, The Books. Almost nobody wants to do The Books. They want to be working on the product (or, in IT’s case, the information that’s needed to make the product and that more and more comprises a significant portion of the product).
Still, some folks like The Books, and they’re not just the accounting types. They’re a department’s administrative overhead, and they really don’t mind being called that. After all, somebody has to do the work, and if you do a relatively decent job, you can get by, day after day. I knew a worker who once summed his career aspirations thus: “Low profile.” He’d risen far enough; and fair enough to him for realizing it.
Getting by day after day was Norm. He got by. When you asked him to explain how he was cooking The Books (9), he was able to provide just enough information, sprinkled with just enough “Normisms,” that allowed you to believe that the numbers were being appropriately handled. Except for the few cases where they weren’t. Like the time Norm famously didn’t realize he was entering budget numbers into a spreadsheet whose column head had “$(000)” in it (which is Finance shorthand for, Multiply everything in this column by 1000). This led to the somewhat astounding conclusion that our simple department budget was somehow more than the entire budget for all of IT for the enterprise. Hm.
Norm also admitted that he didn’t really understand whether a given entry belonged on the capital or expense part of the ledger, which naturally led to some interesting conversations with his partners in Finance, who of course did make such distinctions.
Norm also subscribed to every free IT and business magazine there was. Today, this would be digital. Not so then. In they would come, a mini supply chain of advertisement-caked information packets, each only about an eighth of an inch thick, each harmless. But Norm would receive them and stick them on the pile, a ziggurat built up with sedimentary layers of knowledge accreting into a teetering tower that just had to topple at some point.
It never did. Perhaps Norm was a structural engineer somewhere in his past.
That’s the thing.
When you inherit a Norm, what do you really know?
I know this. Norm didn’t err on purpose. Norm just couldn’t figure stuff out, sometimes. I have a hunch Norm didn’t start out this way. None of us do. But some folks tumble through the world of work, perpetually landing in some foreign place, never quite finding the right place to fit. It’s as though what talents they have remain perpetually ill-suited to the tasks at hand. Or they may start out well enough, but something derails them.
Or they may be very well-suited and focused when it comes to one thing, and not good at all when it comes to another. And for whatever reason, they can never find that other.
By the way, if you think this happens to people who just don’t seem to measure up, consider Oskar Schindler, who, after his exceptional (and exceptionally brave) activities saving over 1,000 Jews in World War II, was never able afterward to create any successful business, indeed had several bankruptcies and business failures, and needed handouts from Jewish supporters in order to survive. (10)
So for Norm, my Norm (and yours), it may be that he was simply an incompetent older worker. Or it may be that he had lost his competence, his drive, when one of many things happened — a personal crisis, a change in the company direction, a boss or coworker who successfully cut off his career at the knees; or a long slow decision over time that the world was sailing into a future he didn’t care to inhabit. Thus marking time, this man, this Norm — who, many years past, was a young father, with new responsibilities, new desires, directions to go, choices to make.
You see, when you inherit a Norm - or any employee with any experience - you have the Today of that person. And unless you find the time (ever more rare in our perpetually accelerating, breathless world) to get to know, to invite trust, to explore your Norm, you won’t know who he was — and, not knowing who he was, you can hardly expect to fully appreciate who he is.
We are all our own Yesterdays or This Mornings when we come to work, never mind what happened to us a year ago, last month, last night, even a few minutes ago. We put on the face we must, in order to face the world. We don’t know — and it’s too much to ask, really — the similar situations affecting those with whom we’re interacting — Norms or anyone else.
So I was kind — I suppose, by any standard, too kind — to my Norm. After all, kindness to someone who isn’t cutting it also creates resentment among other team members, who measure their value against the achievements — or mistakes — of Norm.
But that was my failing — if failing it was. I don’t know. Kindness versus tough love is a subtlety we don’t always get right. In fact, we probably rarely do, which is why we tell ourselves how well we’re doing it when we try.
Norm is long gone. He was old when I supervised him, these decades ago; almost certainly he’s passed from this earth.
Except he hasn’t. I remember him — his voice, his appearance, the things he got wrong, the ziggurat of magazines.
Norm is us. And we are him. Something sufficiently Norm-like squats in us all (11), no matter how successful we may appear to others. Always the sense, if we’re not climbing, of what is going wrong. Always the sense, if we’ve made it, that somehow the pinnacle is undeserved; that, given time, the Norm part of us will be exposed.
I suppose that’s why I was kind, likely too kind, to Norm. And why, when many other colleagues have come and gone, Norm remains in my memory.
Because Norm is me. (12)
(1) Borrowed from the title of a book funny at one time, likely less so now. “1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England.” Satire whose humor makes more sense to the Brits (and maybe even the Brits of yesteryear) than it does to us today. Sample history quote: “One day when George III was insane he heard that the Americans never had afternoon tea. This made him very obstinate and he invited them all to a compulsory tea-party at Boston: the Americans, however, started pouring the tea into Boston harbour and went on pouring things into Boston harbour until they were quite Independent, thus causing the United States.”
(2) Brownian motion, from https://byjus.com/chemistry/brownian-motion-zig-zag-motion/: “Brownian motion refers to the random movement displayed by small particles that are suspended in fluids.” This also explains a whole lot of random career moves within the fluid that constitutes an organization, made by (or made to) people engaged in what can best be described as “accidental personal development.”
(3) Boy, this is old, but still often true - paraphrased, that a person will rise in the organization to his or her level of incompetence and then stay there, often to the detriment of the person, the department, the company, and in some small way, to society, divided as it is between those yearning for progress, those yearning to be free, and those yearning for everything to stay the way it is. Contributes in a small way to the notion, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
(4) I’m deliberately allowing confusion between the name and the sociological term. There are more Norms in our world than are dreamt of in our business philosophy. (Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare; reader, did I have to tell you that? Hamlet.)
(5) BOF = Bitter Old Fart. You could use a worse word. These are the guys (sorry, gender-equality people, but I don’t think you can use BOF on women - and I’ll let you invent what you want for them) — anyway, these are the guys who, though on the Norm-side of competency, believe they’re deserving of far more in their careers than where they’ve eventually landed. We could do a lot more here: people burned by bad bosses, bad politics, a single bad decision that created the wrong impression — anything that puts the stigma on the person. Thus begins the descent into instrumental behavior (no, not the orchestra, sheesh — instrumental behavior describes actions performed solely to achieve a goal, in this case a paycheck and a prompt punch-out when the clock says Go Home). Moving these people is like moving mules who don’t want to move: push really hard, and you get a few steps out of them, and then they stop. Push really hard, a few more steps. Eventually, you realize there are other things you need to get done. The mules win. Unless, of course, you’re in an “at will” world, where you can just fire them. But “at will” brings its own set of evils, like job anxiety that runs so deep you get illusions of progress substituting for effective work.
(6) And to forgive, divine. I know. We’re all on the left-hand side of this social ledger. Errors we can easily make include erring on the side of caution (punishment) or erring on the side of bravery (forgiveness). Clearly, over the centuries, we haven’t really done very well with this, forgiving when we should discipline (the business word for punish), and punishing when we should tolerate or accommodate (the business words for forgive).
(7) If you, as a ruthless manager, think that such work is unnecessary, contributes to the coefficient of drag in an organization, and generally is to be despised, hunted down, and eliminated, well I say, good luck to you. Business history is peppered with efforts to stamp out bureaucracy, streamline, create lean operations, do things agile, low-cost, low-effort, on and on. Any new effort creates its own base, its own adherents to the new methods, and its new “eaucracy” - as in Agileaucracy or LowCosteaucracy. You know it’s true.
(8) Ah, yes, Cost of Goods Sold, or COGS. Great little accounting term with its built-in double meaning: we are cogs in the wheels of the organization, therefore we cogs contribute to COGS. (Or maybe we’re clogs in those wheels, maybe some of the time — and for people like Norm, maybe close to all of the time.)
(9) Remember “cooking the books?” Of course you do. Lovely phrase. Enron made a great mess of it, only I think they called it “off the books accounting,” or some such BS finance term. We’re still paying the social cost of Enron. Just ask anyone who’s dealing with the effort to adhere to all the Sarbanes-Oxley stuff, bypassing boatloads of operational risk along the way.
There are two ways to cook the books. The first is intentional. Writ small, it’s what managers do to add a little padding to their budget, knowing it will be sacrificed when the finance folks swoop in with a cost-cutting task. Writ large, it’s — well, it’s Enron. Wells Fargo and its cross-product mess. The Federal Government. And so on. Now, the second way to cook the books is almost artistic. It’s accidental cooking, the kind that Norm did, and if you were fortunate, you spotted the errors before they bubbled up through the financial miasma of the organization. If not, well, I suppose, you ended up with either some kind of unexplained cost or unexplained cost savings. Either way, the truth eludes. Writ large, that’s the Federal Government once again. I know, you must think I’m being snarky about our folks in DC. Don’t take my word for it — here’s the latest from the Government Accountability Office (or the auditors) - from https://www.gao.gov/federal-financial-accountability:
“GAO continues to be unable to render an audit opinion on the government’s accrual-based consolidated financial statements, which present historical information such as assets, liabilities, revenue, and net cost, primarily due to three major impediments:
1. Serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense
2. The federal government’s inability to adequately account for intragovernmental activity and balances between federal entities
3. Weaknesses in the federal government’s process for preparing the consolidated financial statements”
By the way, this kind of “accidental cooking” makes Norm either a genius or a fool. You decide.
(10) Schindler: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Schindler
(11) A poet well worth your time: Philip Larkin. Try Church Going, for a wonderful and still-apt rumination on faith. But “something… -like squats in” is paraphrased from his poem, “Toads.” Consider this, and consider Norm (and you, and me):
“For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,
And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.”
(12) And you, of course.