Productivity vs. Quality Control: What’s Your Top Priority? or The Story of Headless Chickens Running around in the “Moonlight”

It was a typical Monday evening about six weeks ago. Our graduate marketing class discussion began with a simple question: What news article caught your attention this week?

One student sitting in the second row on the far right side of the room piped up. She anxiously blurted out, “What led to the debacle at the Academy Awards?”

Recap: As you recall, when the final 2017 Oscar presentation unfolded, during the big announcement everyone had been waiting for, a miscue by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway led to the wrong film being announced as the winner. A few minutes later, and after the supposed winners had already wrapped up their acceptance speeches, it was announced that Moonlight, not La La Land, had actually won the coveted Oscar for Best Picture.

Of course, the real culprit was later identified as an employee at the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers who had handed the wrong envelope to the presenters.

“How could this happen?” the student asked. “The guy had one job to do!”

The room erupted. After a minute or two of buzzing conversation, one student on the opposite side of the room spoke up.

He said, “Because companies these days require employees to wear too many hats.”

Huh?

The room settled down. He continued, “I think things like this happen in companies because the employees are stretched too thin.”

Interestingly, just as quickly as the room had been filled with silence, it buzzed again with heated discussion. Nodding heads and phrases of agreement dominated the classroom now as everyone clamored to chime in.

The decibel level lowered just long enough for me to squeeze in a request for the student to elaborate. He went on, “Well, perhaps in the case of the Oscars, the presence of Emma Stone was a valid distraction for the accountant.”

Another recap: Right before the final Best Picture announcement, the poor chap in charge of handing out the envelopes had been caught snapping and tweeting a photo of the lovely actress as she walked by, distracting him just long enough to mess up the order of his envelopes. Hence. he handed the wrong envelope (for best actress) to the unwary presenters. That was enough to throw them off and announce the wrong film as the winner.

“But,” the student stressed, “In many instances, I am seeing mistakes being made in my firm all the time and it’s not due to distractions but because we’re all so damn busy.”

Now I was fully intrigued. In today’s distraction-laden world, I questioned the validity of this. But upon gazing around the room I witnessed countless “I agree!” and “Totally true!” and “Exactly!” comments coming from all corners. One comment that I recall clear as day was, “I am constantly running around like a chicken with its head cut off!”

Wow!

Somehow we had switched gears from the Oscar gaffe to a discussion on how companies were “doing more with less” and how overworked employees felt like “headless chickens”. But a valid discussion nonetheless! #EdInsights

I thought about it a few seconds and asked for more examples from the class where they as employees felt overworked in today’s business climate.

One student threw out the example of her company’s buyout of a rival company. She mentioned that instead of acquiring the services of the staff of the new company, the purchasing firm had instead asked their own workers to absorb the extra workload.

Another student told a story about how a colleague regularly cut corners on the quality of his work in order to satisfy the “checklist” handed out by senior management.

Another piped in citing a loss in overall company quality control due to being short staffed.

Of course, all of these examples came from the perspective of the employee so I asked for an opposing viewpoint.

One student offered this insight from the management side: “Our budgets have been so constrained that we are forced to load our personnel with more and more work. Adding headcount is often so frowned upon that managers don’t ask for it, but either continue to pile on their team or take on a portion of the workload themselves.”

However you wish to slice it, the consensus is that many companies are seeking lower cost ways to achieve the same level of productivity. I have seen this myself with many clients over the years who, as a result, have relied on me or my colleagues to act as an extension of their marketing department. And as the economy improves, this phenomenon is playing out more and more… particularly with small and medium sized companies.

But I have to admit I was surprised by the number of students who claimed to witness this every day.

A student who managed a small group at her company shared the story of how she dealt with this problem by outsourcing to an agency and was surprised by how they only wanted to focus on adding digital media to her mix. She said she was stunned by their inability to understand the level of complexity in the approval process within her firm. They did not ask about her company objectives, her personal KPIs, and when asked about budget recommendations… told her that was up to her to decide.

So in her experience, the agency provided little help with what she really needed most.

While she was surprised by this treatment, I was not. Having worked with agencies on the client side for years, and having worked at agencies myself, not to mention owning one now, I have the advantage of a holistic view. Getting an outsourced team to focus on the right things (and often times a client needs help figuring out what these “right things” are) is difficult and takes patience, understanding, and most of all, the experience of having sat on both sides of the desk.

Fortunately, having spent well over a dozen years in marketing director and management roles on the client side, I know my way around marketing planning and budgeting. So I could certainly relate to her plight.

Based on her experience, this student was stressing her frustration with the fact that while the creativity offered by the agency was important, what was more important would be knowing how to align marketing tactics to strategic goals and initiatives that will impact the bottom line positively, not just create more work for whatever it happens to be that the creative firm is selling. Yet, in her defense, pretty much every creative firm out there claims “strategic” expertise. So it can be quite confusing.

Based on my experience from her side of the desk, I agreed with her. Having an MBA from a renowned program has opened doors and allowed me to speak the language of business yet also understand any corporate climate quickly and seamlessly. This goes beyond tangible processes and fancy chart generation to the intangibles of picking up on what the real challenge may be: the old “give them what they need, not what they want” rule. It’s much easier to give into the want, but that’s not how you build long-term value for either side.

It is hard to be business focused. It takes experience, discipline and a willingness to sacrifice the short-term gains for a longer-term relationship. Unless you’ve lived it, you won’t really understand what this student was dealing with: the internal politics, the need to be lean, and the constant internal pressure to produce more with less. This was all clearly overwhelming her to the point of exhaustion and certainly explains what the rest of the students were clamoring about.

Hence, outsourcing with “strategic” partners can take the stress off… as long as it’s the right partner. Resist the urge to select yes-men; a devil’s advocate will serve you much better. You just have to find the right partner… one who has been in your shoes and on your side of the desk before.

Of course, when you find that real strategic expert who has walked a mile in your moccasins, you’ll have found a true partner who not only can help things look good on paper, but also make your life a heck of a lot easier.

So, the next time you or your staff feel like chickens running around with their heads cut off, know this: There is a solution that can help satisfy management’s challenges of doing more with less, prevent the overworking of employees, and keep everything within budget.

You’ll feel much better when you do. And best of all, you won’t find yourself working late into the Moonlight hours until you feel like a permanent resident of La La Land.

–Paul Gassett is an instructor of MBA students specializing in marketing, international business, business ethics and business strategy. He is a principal at the international strategic branding and marketing firm, Yank and Limey.