If you've ever encountered an organizational leader who seemed nearly totally unfit for the job, you might have asked a reasonable question: how does this person (I'll use the name Bean) avoid getting sacked? pink-slipped? canned? fired? terminated? Many explanations are possible, but one category is what I call hidden missions. Although Bean seems incompetent with respect to the mission he's supposedly charged with fulfilling, his progress with respect to the hidden mission is what actually matters.
Hidden missions are the actual objectives of the enterprise or, at least, some of its managers. Hidden missions aren't generally discussed openly, but they're achievable, in part, because Bean is in place. In some cases, Bean is aware of the hidden mission, and actually facilitates success. In other cases, Bean is unaware of the hidden mission, and his incompetence is what leads to achieving the hidden mission.
Below are some examples of hidden missions.
- Token organization
- Bean's Hidden missions are achievable,
in part, because an incompetent leader
is in place. The leader's incompetence
is what makes the mission achievable.entire organization might be a token. For example, it could be an energy company's biofuels division. The enterprise isn't depending on Bean's organization's success. If success happens, that's great. But product success isn't necessary. The hidden mission is the ability to claim that the enterprise is researching biofuel production as part of its commitment to addressing climate change. The company makes this claim despite the fact that Bean's organization has no realistic prospects of ever becoming viable, and all company profits are derived from fossil fuel exploitation.
- Token mission
- In its role as a hidden mission, the token mission is similar to the token organization, but instead of an entire organization, it's just one mission. For example, Bean might have responsibility for a portfolio element that enables the enterprise to obtain favorable tax treatment for other activities. The hidden mission in that case would be tax avoidance. Product success for Bean's organization might be irrelevant.
- Token "leader"
- Bean's demographic attributes (gender, age, race, …) might provide financial or legal coverage to the enterprise. In this case, the hidden mission is personnel diversity. That mission might be deemed more important to the enterprise than success of Bean's business unit. This strategy is unethical and probably illegal, but it does happen.
- Blocking competitors
- Increasing market share can provide a direct route to increasing net income when participation in the market in question is profitable. But market participation can provide an indirect route to increasing net income even when participation in that market isn't profitable. For example, consider a strategy used by MegaCorp Inc. (a fictitious name). MegaCorp is a diversified company. By offering a barely adequate product at an irresistibly low price, MegaCorp can block access to the market by NanoCorp, Inc., (also a fictitious name), a much smaller, legitimate competitor offering a superior product at a fair price. Because the financial viability of NanoCorp depends on its success in the market in question, MegaCorp can keep NanoCorp out of the market, and perhaps strangle it altogether. Success doesn't depend on competence of the leader of MegaCorp's product unit. Indeed, incompetence is probably best. The hidden mission here is prevention of the development of NanoCorp by offering a barely adequate product, possibly at a loss.
- Disproof of concept
- Jack, one of the executives of Innovatron, Inc., (yet another fictitious name), has a brilliant idea that will disrupt a market in which Innovatron is the leader. Jill runs that market-leading product division for Innovatron. After months of lobbying, Jack has been able to secure funding for his idea, but he had to make a concession. Jill demanded that Bean run the unit that will develop and market Jack's new product. The problem is that Bean is of barely marginal ability, and maybe less than that. Jack had to consent to Jill's requirement in order to secure the needed internal funding.
- Jill's strategy is to strangle Jack's idea by exploiting Bean's incompetence, thereby saving her own division from disruption by the success of Jack's idea. Bean's incompetence is the key. The hidden mission here is prevention of disruption of Jill's division by stifling the success of Jack's new idea.
- Gathering evidence for dismissal
- The leader, Larry, has recently been placed in charge of Innovatron's Department T, a troubled department that's scheduled to be absorbed by several other departments in a forthcoming reorganization. For some time now, Moe, a rival peer of Larry, has been lobbying for Larry's dismissal, but hasn't been able to find sufficient cause. By arranging for Larry's transfer to Department T, Moe hopes that his co-conspirator Curly, who heads up Department U's operations, will be able to cause enough trouble to result in Larry's spectacular failure, and ultimate dismissal. But Innovatron, which makes devices for recycling respirator masks, has achieved sudden success because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moe's plot has failed. Although Larry is truly incompetent, Innovatron is doing so well that Larry cannot now be dismissed.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
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