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When flip charts and duck tape were management tools

David Brooks  23.09.2016

The 1980's was a time when  various management theories surfaced, were eagerly adopted and  then often quickly abandoned. It was a time when management was being re-invented as a science to which formulae could be applied, rather than the amateur style or leadership cult that was considered the normal state of affairs.

On a Sunday evening, in late January 1988 I - think, we were leaving a grim looking hotel near to New York's Kennedy Airport. A collection of Diet Coke cans and  discarded Danish pastries and littered the American end of the room, empty tea cups the British end. The flock wall paper bore the scars caused by the removal of 65 sheets of flip chart paper that had been taped to the wall all round the room. It was the end of a M.A.P.S. session. The first in which I  had participated. The management concept of a MAPS  session as I  recall some 30 years later, was quite simple. The managers were gathered together and invited to say what issues were stopping them doing their job properly. These could be complex things or simple things.  Managers were lulled into dropping their guard in volunteering their most private concerns as to what was holding them back. The subjects of concern were written on a flip-chart page. For example -"Don't have a secretary" or more vaguely "Don't have enough time" and this continued until approximately 65 sheets were completed. Then the real fun began. The flip chart was turned back to the first page and the person who had raised the issue had to  explain what this meant. The team chipped in with various ideas until choosing one of these as the answer. This solution  was written below the issue statement, then one lucky person was appointed to carry out the agreed solution. Another was delegated to ensure the tasks were actioned.Where no solution was agreed, the problem was parked and labelled 'back-in-the-box'. But and it was a big but, out of 65 issues, problems or challenges in whatever management speak was in vogue, there were two written by the president himself that were there real show stoppers. He wrote his first problem, 'the Americans don't trust the Brits' and the mirror version, 'the Brits don't trust the Americans'. I  don't recall what the comments were, if indeed there were any, but a glance round the room told its own story. The Americans turned up dressed in casual clothes that would work well at a barbecue, the English wore suits and ties.

Until then I  had never heard of MAPS. Apparently the format had been devised by Egon Ronay's brother. Egon Ronay was a renowned food critic, his brother seemed to favour black and had the air or demeanour of a funeral director. In the short time I had been with my new employer I  had turned over  a stone or two and exposed some surprises. My second week with the firm was to visit  the America arm of the company located in Los Angeles. The purpose of this visit being to review a number of new product that had been developed by the LA team for global sales. Not long before my appointment the company had consolidated the American and British companies under the control of the man previously running the American business and as part of this set up the R&D was also based in LA. I was accompanied on the visit with a product manager from my inherited UK  marketing team. He had briefed me that all was not well with the new product development programme. Towards the end of the week it was becoming apparent that this was a case of the 'emperor's new clothes'.  It was largely all smoke and mirrors. The R&D team were clearly under pressure to deliver this ambitious programme of new products, there was an air of anxiety emanating from the team which probably wasn't helped by a pair of Brits poking around their labs. And here was  the concern. A number of products were basically merely models lacking working parts, such as the electronics. Demonstrations of systems relied on various 'behind the scenes' trickery to illustrate the working product. When reading the story of Enron all these years later, there is a description of how an elaborate demonstration had been laid on for Wall Street investment analysts of a similar pretence to display their new found expertise in broadband. The situation in LA had been of the same ilk, even going as far as a demo to a team from NASA. 

The MAPS  session was a direct result of my report on the status of the R & D programme. The next blog will explain the back story here.  I just wish, all these years later that I  had an insight into that Enron management style. 

... to be continued

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