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.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- How to Get Promoted in Place
- Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us do, judging by the number of Web pages that
talk about promotions, getting promoted, or asking for promotions. What you do to get a promotion depends
on what you're aiming for.
- The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy
- Much of what we call work is about as effective and relevant as rearranging the deck chairs
of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing
behaviors related to strategy.
- Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
- Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they
function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
- Much of what we call backstabbing is actually just straightforward attack — nasty, unethical,
even evil, but not backstabbing. What is backstabbing?
- Congruent Decision Making: II
- Decision makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that
don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info