As human beings, we appear to be the only animal on this planet that organises lengthy business meetings to discuss long-term plans that we have no intention, inclination or budget to adhere to. You don’t hear of any zebra or wildebeest that run their own fast food businesses, let alone hold meetings to discuss their long-term goals, nor are there any lions opening their own shops on the high street any day soon, although this is most probably because they would prefer to eat their customers rather than serve them. As a member of the human race, however, I’m lucky. Centuries of evolution have endowed me with a big brain capable of rational and intellectual thought, as well as fingers and opposable thumbs. I can do a lot with my big brain and fingers and opposable thumbs. I can hold a pen for a start and I can use that pen to write words on a sheet of paper. And I can take that pen and that sheet of paper to a meeting and write down meaningful, bullet-pointed phrases. I’m not saying I’ve ever done that. In fact, all the business meetings I ever attended were mostly a waste of my time, in which I was bored stiff, listening to self-important people using the latest buzz words and empty meaningless phrases that I either had no interest in and/or didn’t understand in the first place. At the end of these meetings my sheet of paper would be covered in scribbles and undecipherable sentences that I must have written down whilst dribbling onto my lap as my big brain was beginning to zone out.
In the headquarters of an acquisition organisation I worked for in Huntingdon, meetings were called for the most trivial of reasons. Every day there would be one or two meetings going on somewhere or other, often lasting for hours at a time and presided over by people who liked the sound of their own voices. At the end of these meetings, those instructed to attend would return to their desks no wiser than they had been before, and with fresh information that amounted to the sum total of zero. The number and frequency of these meetings reached such epidemic proportions that hundreds of man-hours were being lost to egotistic chairmen who achieved nothing of any value. As a result, the top brass decided to ban all meetings that were not directly relevant to the smooth running of the organisation. But the meetings went on anyway. In a desperate attempt to stop them, the top brass had all the meeting rooms locked and the keys hidden away in secure locations where they could only be signed out by nominated, security-vetted personnel. This action only made matters worse because egotistic chairmen had, by now, become addicted to meetings and had to have at least one fix a day or they would suffer from the serious and debilitating effects of the withdrawal symptoms that inevitably followed. To satisfy their cravings they began holding their meetings in corridors until the top brass finally gave in and handed back the keys to their meeting rooms, on the proviso that no meeting was to last more than thirty minutes.
Let’s get back to those zebra, wildebeest and lions I mentioned earlier. It’s midday on the Serengeti Plain and the zebra and wildebeest have gathered at the only watering hole for miles around to take a drink. All is peace and tranquillity while they’re chilling out by washing each other down and having a good gossip about what’s going on in their different herds – until one of them notices that the lions are closing in for the kill. Now, the zebra and wildebeest of the African plains are not stupid. They are aware that danger is approaching and they remain alert and responsive until one of their number raises the alarm by calling out, “The lions are coming! Run away! Run away!" It’s what we call instinct and it’s at this point they become the perfect example of fast food as the lions break cover.
Now, let’s now look at that scene in a different way. Let’s say the zebra are workers, the wildebeest are management and the lions are the top brass in a large organisation. The zebra will sense that they are being surrounded by lions and turn to their managers for guidance. The wildebeest, however, know there are lions out there – it’s their job to know these things – but they reassure the zebra that there’s really nothing to worry about. They know best. They are managers. They have experience in these matters. You see, it’s not the job of the wildebeest to cause panic and confusion in the early stages of any structural change – that will come later. Instead of shouting, “The lions are coming! Run away! Run away!” the wildebeest will organise a series of meetings to assure the zebra that the lions are most definitely not coming and the last thing any of them should do is to run away. And they will keep on doing this until the first zebra is killed and eaten.
Does that sound familiar to anyone? It should do. Management all over have done that sort of thing in the past, and they keep on doing it. It’s their job to reassure everyone that rumours of major structural changes, like redundancies, are just that – rumours – even though they know that in two or three weeks redundancies will be announced. I’m an ex serving member of the Royal Air Force and during all the cuts in the 1990s we took to watching the contractors after we had received assurances that our unit would not be closing. If new married quarters were being built and existing ones were being re-decorated then it was a sure sign that the unit was going to be closing and the married quarters sold off to unscrupulous developers in the very near future.
There’s never smoke without fire.
At the start of the 21st century, when I was working in the training department for the acquisition organisation I mentioned earlier, it was announced in our in-house monthly publication that plans were underway for a merger of our side of the organisation with another in the south west, signalling a move of personnel from the relatively cheap area of Huntingdon to a much more expensive area in Bristol. It was called a collocation, and, according to our esteemed overarching leader in Bristol, it presented an exciting prospect for those of us in the acquisition community.
He didn’t exactly state who would be excited by the prospect, but I’m sure that would have been discussed in the many exciting meetings that must have been held before the news was broken to the management and workers within the organisation.
The statement was printed next to a photograph of our leader smiling warmly at all those people in the acquisition community at Huntingdon who were being offered the choice of collocating to Bristol or losing their jobs. I seriously doubted whether they were as excited as our leader, especially as those same people would also be, as he put it, “putting in the effort over the coming months”. No mention was made of the additional stress that would be placed on staff who were being forced to up sticks and move to the Bristol area, leaving behind their friends, their children’s schools and their partners second incomes? I’m sure they were really excited about that prospect. It must have seemed such an adventure to move from a reasonably priced area to an area that was three times as expensive on half their family incomes.
Our side of the organisation was relocated once before, from North Yorkshire to Huntingdon and we were promised that there would be no more further relocations. It is interesting then that our leader used the word collocation and not relocation. Was this merely a case of semantics or was he deliberately attempting to conceal the fact that the organisation was reneging on a promise that was made to the people who made the move first time around? The fact that no-one at Huntingdon wanted to move was proof positive that it was only our leader and his planners that were excited by the prospect of relocation – sorry, collocation – and the not the average member of staff. After all, what’s exciting about moving to a more expensive area to do – well – exactly the same job?
It seemed like a one-sided exercise to me and, at the expense of being accused of cynicism, I suspect the decision to move our side of the organisation from Huntingdon to Bristol and not the other way around was based on the fact that our esteemed leader and his cronies all owned rather grand and expensive houses in the surrounding area. I mean, let’s face it, if I lived in the rolling countryside of southwest England on the doorstep of the beautiful city of Bath, with its natural hot springs and 18th-century Georgian architecture, its Abbey, noted for its fan-vaulting, tower and large stained-glass windows, its Roman-era Baths, statues and temple, would I have wanted to move to Huntingdon, a concrete town that would have caused any pre-Glasnost East German Stasi to swoon with nostalgia and homesickness?
Of course, I wouldn’t. But if I had been a fly-on-the-wall in those initial meetings, I would have at least have had the opportunity to shout, “The lions are coming! Run away! Run away!”