In the mid-to-late 90s, with the dot-com boom in full swing, tech companies were getting insane amounts of funding for even the most obviously rubbish scenarios. It was pretty much impossible for a tech company NOT to get funding. In fact, I can only think of a single startup in this era that didn't. Damn. But I digress.
My friend the Cog started working at one such company in '98. It was a new business, but after one month and one idea, it had already amassed a staff of over sixty employees. The Cog, being a cog and all, was not privvy to said idea. In telling the story to me, he did use the term "vaporware" a lot. Basically, the company made its money by selling a non-existent product to a bunch of eager clients. [On an unrelated note for potential investors: the "soon to be released" version of BYOND boosts your cpu speed by over 1000%. Send $$$ for details!]
Around this time, the CEO of Square Wheel, Inc. decided to hold a big team-retreat to encourage the workers to use teamwork to meet all of his unfulfilled and unreasonable demands. All sixty employees were carted off to a fancy hotel for a day of snacks and inspiring team-building exercises. The main activity was this:
- The employees sectioned off into groups of six.
- Each group selected two "visionaries", two "analysts", and two "developers". Nothing was said of what these terms meant. My friend got to be a developer.
- Every group was given a standard, 100-piece box of legos.
- The visionaries were called to the front to look over plans for a lego structure, presumably the instructions included with the box.
- The analysts met with the visionaries, who would describe the plan to them.
- The analysts went back to relay the instructions to the developers, who were responsible for building the structure.
- The team had one hour to complete the lego assembly.
So basically what we had here was a lego-building contest among people whose one-day salaries probably totalled over $20K. Money was plentiful in the late 90s. In principle, this exercise was supposed to encapsulate the checks and balances of the various positions within a company. It was supposed to show how teamwork influences accomplishment. In retrospect, that's exactly what it did.
While the analysts were meeting with the visionaries to understand the plan, the Cog and his developer buddy did what any engineers would do with a box of legos in front of them. They opened it and started building.
"Look at these wings and this hull. This is obviously a watercraft."
"Yep. Look, there's a partial picture on the side of the box."
And so they began. By the time the analysts showed up with the initial instructions, they only had a dozen pieces left.
Analyst #1, we'll call her Debbie Downer, was quite dismayed.
"What do you think you are doing?"
"Building the plane. Looks pretty good, eh?" said the Cog.
Debbie was quite grumpy. "Look, you guys are messing this up. You have to take the long thin piece and hook it up to the wing..."
"We already did that. What next?"
"Um. I'll have to go talk to the visionaries for the next instructions."
The analysts left. This was pleasing to the developers, who proceeded to finish the watercraft. And with a half hour to spare.
"Excellent. We used all of the pieces!" High fives all around.
Ten minutes later, the analysts returned. Upon seeing the completed structure, Debbie became agitated.
"You are doing this all wrong. Take it apart!"
"Fine," said the Cog, breaking the structure up. "We've only got twenty minutes left. What do you want us to do?"
Debbie tried to recall the instructions from the visionaries. "Ok, first off, attach the thin pieces to the four wings."
"Well, we had already done that... but whatever." The developers grabbed at the pieces. "Hey, there are only three wings here."
"What?" Debbie looked puzzled. "We'd better go talk to the visionaries. Don't move!"
Now the developers were grumpy, but knowing the scolding they'd get for working on the craft, they sat tight for ten more minutes. At that point, the analysts came back with a message.
"Screw it. We'll have to make due with three wings. Just attach them like this..."
They relayed a few instructions. The developers complied.
"It looks like a disabled bird."
"We've got over fifty pieces left."
"We're never gonna make it."
"You shut up."
Time ran out. The team looked at the pathetic lego structure in front of them. It no longer resembled the picture on the box.
The CEO walked to the podium. "Nice work, everyone. Do you see how teamwork improves productivity? Let's see how you did."
He walked to each team's table and looked at the structure. The Cog intercepted him before he could comment on their assembly.
"Just so you know, it looked a lot better before the analysts tore it apart."
"We were just doing as we were told." responded Debbie.
Rather than be upset, the CEO smiled.
"I see the wing situation threw you off!"
"Yeah, when you weren't looking, I took one of your wings."
"Why would you do that?"
"In business, you have to get used to adversity."
He walked back to the front.
"Well, I'm sorry to see that not all of the teams succeeded. But I hope you learned the importance of teamwork."
Indeed, as they marched out of the auditorium, the employee comments revealed that the day's lesson had truly been informative.
"We had it working until the analysts started buggging us."
"Did the visionaries even do anything?"
"Why didn't they just hand the developers the instructions? Most of us can read."
"So basically, the lesson is that the visionaries hoard the plans, the analysts get in the way, the engineers do all of the work, and the CEO screws everything up?"
"I don't care, I got paid. Salary, baby!"
And that, my young friends, is how it works in the real world. FYI, Square Wheel, Inc. still exists to this day, but as far as I know they continue to have no product. If I understood how that worked, I'd be a visionary, not a lowly developer!