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19. My Question Will Make Waves and Making Waves Is Bad

Your question, depending on when it is asked, could indeed make waves. However, if it is an important question with a solid business purpose, it should be recognized as such and asked immediately. Of course, this is altruistic crap.

I would not ask anyone to sacrifice his or her career just to ask a question that can make waves. However, on occasion, a wave now is better than a tsunami later. Think about Global Crossing, Enron, and other companies that have ruined people, sent executives to jail, and hurt thousands of loyal hardworking employees.

Where were all the questions? Who on their boards was responsible for corporate governance? Why did abnormal numbers (whether unusually high or unusually low) go unchallenged? Perhaps someone attempted to challenge them and make waves. Perhaps they did not. We can never know the answers, and someone will eventually write the definitive business cases of these incidents. However, we do know that wave making is necessary in some situations.

Once again, the question that is neglected might be the one that saves the business. Of course, it could also be the one that gets you fired.

I was called into my boss’s boss’s office one afternoon. This was not unusual. Bill had a good rapport with the organization and had called me in on many previous occasions. This time, well, let’s just say this time I was surprised.

A review of his favorite project had just been held in the morning, and I had challenged some of the underlying assumptions of the project. This was normal for me—I challenged the assumptions of the project I was working on, too. My job at that time was to develop markets for new technology products where customers were sensitive to any product deficiencies—the medical market.

So, my general habit was to quiz the product team on the details of the product deemed important to customers as a result of exhaustive market research. Although I worked primarily with my product team, I occasionally spent time with another major technology development team. They were used to my habits.

I sat through a review of the “other” project—the one that was “not mine” but was extremely important to the business. As a matter of fact, it was the number one product priority for the business. The product team I worked on was developing another “number one” most important product for the company.1

I sat in Bill’s office, and he said, “I want to ask you something.” He then drew a picture of a man standing behind a tree with a rifle showing a bullet whizzing out of the barrel. His sketching ability was quite impressive.

“Does this look familiar?”

“No.”

“Is this you?” he asked, pointing to the sniper behind the tree.

I was speechless. I had no idea what he was getting at, although I had a feeling that it was not a good thing. His picture was pretty good. He may have missed his real calling.

“Are you sniping at the team?” Oh, now I got it. I was a little slow and just dumbfounded at his behavior.

“No, Bill. I do all my firing in full view—in public. I don’t snipe.” I got up and walked out of the bastard’s office. I had already been fired once by this company, and it mattered not if it actually happened for real this time. The team was building a product that had some serious flaws, and they needed to be challenged. A product problem in the market would affect not only this particular product, but our whole product line. To me, this was a clear case of my losing the battle by being fired or transferred away to enable the business to win the war.

Two weeks later, another assignment was immediately made available to me, in a completely different division of the company. Plus, a promotion accompanied the transfer. I was happy to get away from the mess that was about to be created. The promotion was also welcome. However, this is not a recommended strategy for getting promoted. It is more likely to lead to your dismissal.

Bill’s favorite product suffered cost overruns, delays, and was a market failure when it was released to the test market. The business was damaged by this and other failures in his division. He squelched any question that appeared to be in the way of his strategic plan and his favorite projects or people. Consequently, all critical questioning dried up. The parent company eventually sold off the business.

Rule of thumb for asking questions that you know ahead of time will make waves: Ask what is at stake? Then, look at the size wave that will be generated and what could possibly happen if the question goes unasked.

Then ask yourself, “If making waves can or will save the company, prevent a catastrophe, perhaps result in the saving of careers or pensions, is that bad?” It might be. In this case, even if I had been fired as a result of asking the question, it would have made no difference. Almost all the people working on the new development projects lost their jobs—it was just a matter of time.

While traveling in France, I stopped in a small bakery for a croissant. The baker tried to interest me in some serious pastry. At that time, my travel and entertainment budget was beginning to make my suits shrink, so I politely declined.

“No, thank you,” I said, “I am trying to be good,” as I grabbed the portion of me that was starting to drip over my belt.

“Ah, what is good for one is bad for another,” said the French baker.

So it is.

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