Promotion through Failure

I was working a job with a large government contractor recently and came across a funny expression that I

thought was just perfect.  My boss was ten years younger then me, he had been recruited into the

company right out of college, and had been there for six years.  In short it was the only thing he had ever

known.  He was completely indoctrinated into this particular corporate culture.

One day I was talking with him about how the people who don’t know what they are doing get put in

charge.  He said, “Yeah, we call that promotion through failure.”  I laughed a bit but it was not funny it was

just sad.  It was sad because it was true.

The day before he had me join in on a conference call with all the decision makers and a couple of lead

level techies to figure out what would be the best way, if it could be done at all, to link the eight layers of

organizational structure codes with employee level data and then interpret it into plain English for

reporting.  I was to just listen in on mute, so I got a head start on reporting and really understand what was

going on.  After wasting an hour and forty-five minutes of my time I really did understand what was going

on.  This project was being managed by idiots who had no idea what they were doing.  Don’t get me wrong

the call wasn’t over at that point.  That was just the moment when after working through all the issues,

hearing from everyone, and apparently making progress from a starting point to a generally agreed upon

conclusion; One of the big wigs sighed and said, “…and that brings us back to the problem we started

with.”  At which point everyone agreed and they decided to do some more investigation and meet again

later.  The call continued for another hour and a half as the discussion circled around twice more, this time

at speed.  It felt like I was watching NASCAR on TV.  The cars just keep going around in circles and no one

pays attention until there is an accident or the race ends.  All I could think was, “No, it doesn’t bring us

back to the start.  This is done. You all agreed on what needed to be done and how to do it.  So, just do it.  

Are you all really this stupid?”

The next day when I ran into my boss I commented on how much more I appreciated his situation as a

supervisor.  He had to interact with the upper management who just made circles all day and the techies,

such as me, who complained that we couldn’t get any clear direction and when we did it always seemed to

be the worst of all the possible obvious choices. (See consensus)

He laughed a little in agreement probably thinking he should not have asked me to join the call.  It is a tuff

line for the lower middle management to walk between relating enough with the people at the bottom to get

the work done and holding the curtain closed for the wizard.

Then he commented and said, “Yea, it can be an experience.”  In typical none answer format.

I continued to comment in an attempt to break him open and said, “In all the various contracts I’ve worked

and projects I’ve been on it’s always the same.  The people that are actually doing the work know what

they’re doing because they are doing it.  The people at the very top have no clue what is being done at

the bottom; that’s why they hire people to do it.  And the people in the middle are just confused.”

Realizing that I was a contractor and would not be around forever he broke and said, “Your right.  I used to

work with this one supervisor.  We were working on a big project and he never seemed to know what was

going on but before anyone else could figure out that he was lost he was transferred to another project.”  

The first project never did get completed nor did the next project he was on but he had been transferred

before that one died also.  I heard he was promoted to management and I couldn’t understand it.”

I explained that from the perspective of the senior management this guy had all the experience.  He had

been in key positions on at least three major projects.  He had been around longer then most people in the

department (likely because most of them were contractors).  It made sense that he should be put in

charge.  It never occurred to the guys at the top to ask if the projects he had been involved in had been

successful or what role he had played in their outcome.  By continually moving from project to project he

was able to gain street cred without ever getting the dirt of failure on him.  This is the talent of successful

middle management.  He said, “My buddy (another supervisor) calls that promotion through failure.”

The Point:

There are a lot of people and most of middle management who really don’t care if the tasks get done as

long as they survive.  The goal of all middle management is to become senior management.  The easiest

way to do that is to simply avoid connection with failure.  Note that I said avoid connection to failure not to

avoid failure itself.  When the workers on a project have the mindset that they are just there temporarily

while they are trying to get to something better the project suffers and usually fails to some degree.  This is

where the arts of avoidance, insinuation, and blame become keys in the development of a manager on the

rise.  Also note that blame is the last option of the three.  The successful manager moves best by

avoidance not by blaming others.  Blame seems ugly and often causes resentment and creates enemies.  

It’s better to be Teflon or have a force shield.     

The Lesson to Learn:

The people in charge don’t always know what’s going on and the higher in the structure you are the less in

contact you tend to be.  Owners deal with senior managers, they in turn deal with middle managers, who in

turn deal with supervisors, who deal with workers.  In an ideal world this structure would facilitate

communication and allow those at the top to control a larger work force then they could do directly.  The

problem is that we don’t live in an ideal world.  The various levels work in two ways to restrict growth and

reduce productivity.  One: communication is retard at each level by the uneven abilities of the various

people in the chain.  No two people are the same so two of them are not going to understand, convey, or

respond to a message the same way.  This will lead to delay at best and confusion at worst.  Two:

corruption is encouraged.  I don’t mean direct obvious theft or graft which does happen.  I mean that

people are motivated be self interest.  Like it or not, given the opportunity to do something in a way that

benefits them over someone else they will do what works best for them.  So if an owner issues a set of

plain clear instructions it is likely they will be misunderstood and if they are understood they will be twisted

to benefit the various level down the chain.  It should also be noted that this pattern of contortion works

both ways and the people at the top are aware of it and use it to their benefit.  Owners and senior

management tend to use the structure to issue instructions that they would be uncomfortable to deliver in

person and they relay on the structure to shield them from complaints raising from the bottom.

Brutal Truth:

Most people just want to get by while they are looking for something better.