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Case Study No. 2

by Steven Cerri

In this article I’m going to analyze one technical management case. In this case study I’ll set up the initial conditions and then tell you what I did and how it turned out. These are real world cases. These situations happened to me. I’ve changed the names.

Management Case Study #2: Computers Into Thin Air

Initial Conditions: I was the general manager of a corporate division office. Our company developed large software systems. I had four program managers reporting to me, each with a program worth between $3 and $5 million. Bob was one of those program managers.

I arrived at work one Monday morning at 8:00 am. By 8:01am every member of the finance department was lined up outside my office complaining that someone had stolen all their PC’s right off their desks.

The first question I asked was, “Had we been robbed?” By 8:15am we knew the answer. No robbery had occurred. The PCs weren’t taken from the building, they had just been moved. All the PCs from the finance department had been found on the desks of Bob’s engineering team. Bob’s team was made up of 15 system analysts and programmers working on a 2-year program worth about $3.5 million.

I instructed the financial staff to leave the computers on the engineer’s desks for now, until we could figure out exactly what happened. The financial staff was understandably ready to tar and feather Bob, while my job was to keep everybody calm. Without any real information, my goal was to make sure everybody remained calm and didn’t come to their own conclusions.

By 8:30am Bob had arrived at the office, but none of his team had yet arrived. When Bob arrived I asked to see him in my office… alone. “What the heck happened, Bob?” I didn’t yell it out, I just said it with emphasis on the word “What”.

Bob calmly explained that his team had committed to the customer that a specific deliverable would be in the customer’s hands by Monday morning. The team decided the only way to get it done was to work through the weekend. By Saturday afternoon they realized they were not going to get it done unless they had more computing power. So they took the computers off the desks of the finance department. They worked through Sunday and late into Sunday night and got the product delivered to the customer on time, Monday morning. When they left Sunday evening they were just too tired to put the PCs back on the desks of the financial staff. So Monday morning when the financial staff arrived they found no messages, no thank-you notes, no explanations, and no computers.

Bob’s team had worked hard, and had delivered the product to the customer on time. The financial staff was upset but the customer was happy.

There you have the case. What would you do? Would you chastise Bob for not anticipating the problem and tell him he should have foreseen the problem? Would you praise him for getting the product to the customer on time regardless of the consequences to the staff?

Would you tell the financial staff to “just forget about it”, or “get over it”? Would you stay out of it and let Bob and his team and the financial department solve their own issue to get past this? Would you get in the middle of this situation or stay out? What would you have told Bob? What would you have told the financial team?

My Response:

Now I had several choices. Bob was in charge of a very important program with a very important customer. Bob was also what I called a “race horse”. He was a relatively independent employee. I could point Bob in a direction, give him minimal direction and get out of his way. I could be confident that he would get the job done. He had relatively good judgment. I didn’t want to do anything that would reduce his drive or independence. I often gave him freedom to exercise his judgment.

If I disciplined Bob severely, I would be sending him mixed signals. He would get the impression that sometimes I would give him a great deal of independence. He would also get the message that sometimes, if he did something I didn’t approve of, I would reprimand him. Which message did I want to send? It was important from my point of view to give Bob a consistent set of signals and clear direction.

On the other hand, the members of the finance department were upset. I had to respect their feelings and their sense of ownership as well. Could I find a middle ground that would provide a positive outcome for both Bob and the finance department?

This is the dilemma that managers often face and this is also why management seldom has a “right” answer. As engineers and scientists we often look for the right answers to problems. However, as managers, a right answer often doesn’t exist. Often there are effective answers and usually several of them. The best approach for me in this situation was to find a win-win for both parties as opposed to a win-loose. There was no “right” answer. There were only more or less effective answers.

Now that I’ve set the stage for you, before I tell you exactly what I did, I want to make certain you understand my motivations. I had specific outcomes that I wanted to achieve and they were as follows:

1.    I wanted Bob to continue feeling that he could exercise his judgment and that I would support him

2.    I wanted to make sure that Bob and his team understood that satisfying the customer was their number one priority

3.    I wanted to make certain that Bob and his team understood that honoring their commitments to the customer was one piece of evidence of their number one priority

4.    I wanted the finance department to feel I respected what they did and that I respected their territory as well

5.    I wanted the finance department to feel part of the commitment to Bob’s customer as well

6.    I wanted Bob to make “amends” or to apologize in some fashion to the finance department

7.    I wanted to give Bob some guidance about how to handle this kind of situation in the future if it ever came up again

As you can see, this list has some potentially contradictory aspects to it. My goal was to determine how to achieve all seven outcomes.

My decision was to do the following two steps:

Step #1:

I took Bob into a spare office, (i.e., neutral ground) closed the door and asked Bob exactly what he was thinking and what he had done. I then told him that I was torn regarding my response.

I wanted to train Bob to be a manager so I let him understand what I was going through. I told that I didn’t like his action, but I did approve of his intention. I indicated that I would not want to tell him not to do it again because I was pleased that he did what it took to get the product to the customer on time. But we had to figure out a way to do it more effectively if the circumstances ever warranted such behavior in the future. He agreed.

I asked Bob what he would do differently now that he had the benefit of hindsight.

He indicated that he would probably have called someone and told them he was going to take the computers. I responded that it might be difficult to get someone on the phone and if he couldn’t reach someone on the phone what would be his fall back position? He indicated that he didn’t know what he could do in that case.

I told him that he could have taken a whole host of actions:

First: He could have called someone in the finance department to tell them what he was doing (his idea).

Second: He could have called me.

Third: He could have returned the computers back to the desks of each of the finance members before Monday morning

Fourth: He could have written a note to each person whose computer had been taken explaining what had happened

After discussing these four choices, it was clear that the only available action left for Bob was to apologize to each of the people whose computers had been taken. Bob agreed.

I ended my meeting with Bob by telling him that I really appreciated his actions toward getting the product to the customer on time. I told him that I wanted him to continue taking that kind of initiative. I also told him that in the future, I wanted him to think carefully about how his actions might impact others and to take actions to minimize that impact. He agreed.

Now that Bob and I had had our discussion and I knew that Bob would be apologizing to each of the members of the finance department, my next step was to talk to the finance department.

Step #2:

I quickly set up a meeting with the finance department. My goal was for them to feel respected and at the same time, support the actions Bob and his team had taken.

I gathered the finance department members in our conference room. I began by telling the members of the finance department about my meeting with Bob. I told them exactly what my thoughts were and exactly what I said to Bob and what he said in return.

There was no reason to keep my discussion with Bob secret. This was not a confidential negotiation. And, by telling the finance department what I had said to Bob I was also telling them indirectly what I valued and what my boundaries were in this situation. By doing this I was letting them know how I would have wanted Bob to behave. I was telling them what I expected acceptable behavior to be for Bob. If they were going to demand a different standard from Bob than what I expected, they were going to have to explain it and defend it.

If I wanted them to support Bob and at the same time feel respected, then why wouldn’t I tell them that, straight up. By doing this I am achieving two outcomes at once. First I’m telling them that I respect them and second, I’m telling them that I want them to respect Bob as well.

By the time I got to the point where I told them that Bob would be apologizing to each of them, they all felt that the apology would be sufficient. They all agreed that it was important for Bob and his team to satisfy the customer and to deliver on our commitments. But they also wanted Bob to remember to take a slightly different approach in the future.

By the time the meeting was over they had a great attitude. They all agreed that it was important for Bob and his team to deliver the product to the customer as promised. No problem.

They also felt that Bob had not done everything he could have done to make the removal of the PCs as painless as possible to the finance department members. Therefore, they were going to hold Bob’s feet to the fire and make him deliver the apology which they would graciously accept. And that would be the end of it.

By the end of the day, Bob had returned the PCs to the finance department, Bob had apologized to each of the finance department members (individually) and it was as if the event never took place.

For further information regarding STCerri International, our training and coaching programs, check out the website www.stevencerri.com or call me, Steven, directly at 925-735-9500.

Be well,