The following Dilbert-ish story is by Алексей Березин (Aleksey Beryozin), translated to English by klapaucjusz. Sadly, such companies actually exist and most of us have been in meetings of this nature. My friend Peter Lock (who sometimes moderates the Brisbane Upstarta meetings) suspects that some managers mistake Dilbert books for management instruction.
The meeting was held on Tuesday.
Mary, the project manager, addressed the room first. “A new set of requirements from a very important client just came in; the client wants a couple of red lines to be added to the design. What do you think?”
“That’s not a problem!” Paul, the senior director, was always willing to volunteer since someone else would have to do the actual work. Then he thought it over for a moment, and added cautiously, to no one in particular “I think we can…Can we?”
The design group manager nodded enthusiastically. “Absolutely! Here’s John, our best red-line drawing resource. He’s a domain expert on red lines, and was invited specifically to provide us with his expert advice”.
“Very good!” Mary glanced over the room. “Before we get any further, allow me to introduce Jennifer, our leading design specialist.”
Jennifer blushed, and flashed an uncertain smile. She had just graduated from on-line university with a degree in Women’s Studies and Basket Weaving, and knew as much about design as a platypus knows about architecture…
Mary pulled out a document from her file . “The client needs seven red lines to be added to the design; the lines have to be perfectly perpendicular, some need to be painted green, some must be transparent, and all in a simple two-dimensional design. Make sense?
“No” replied John.
“No need to be hasty” Scott, a business analyst, cut in “Our client has a problem, and now it’s up to us to come up with a solution. After all, you are professional, right? You wouldn’t want us to think otherwise, would you?”
“Well, “ John stood up “the definition of ‘red’ implies that the line is of red color. It will be virtually impossible to draw a red line of green color…”
“What do you mean ‘virtually’ impossible? “ Scott asked, somewhat pensively.
“I’m just stating a fact.” John replied… wishing he were hundreds of miles from this meeting. “I imagine that for color-blind people it would make no difference what color the lines are, but I doubt that your entire target audience falls into that category.”
Mary perked up “In other words, this is possible – in principle?”
John suddenly realized that his expanded explanation has backfired… And that hyperbole wasn’t a familiar concept in this room.
“Let me put it this way” John started again “A line can be drawn with any color, but a red line can only be drawn with a red color.”
“John, you’re changing your story – just a minute ago you said it was possible!” Mary sounded a little annoyed “So, which is it?”
“No, you got it all wrong!” John swore under his breath “All I wanted to say was that in some extremely rare occasions a line’s color would be irrelevant, but that doesn’t mean that the line would not have a color! Lines always have color… And if you paint a line with a green color it won’t be red, it will be green. And you said you need it to be red.”
The silence in the room was so deep that John could hear the fruitless firing of synapses in the heads of the management team.
“What if we use blue?” Before becoming an IT director, Paul had been in sales, and still thought he was known and valued for his analytical skills.
“That won’t work.” John said flatly. “If you use blue color, you will get blue lines.”
The managers all looked away and surreptitiously checked their iPad schedulers. The uncomfortable silence eventually broken by John “ and by the way… what exactly did you mean some lines ‘must be transparent’?’”
Mary gave him a condescending look; the sort of a look a teacher might give to an especially slow student. “Let me explain it to you…. Do you know what ‘transparent’ is?”
“Do I need to explain you what ‘red line’ is?”
“No,I think I got it.”
“So, what’s the problem to draw transparent red lines, then?!” – Mary threw up her hands in exasperation.
John tried to say something but stopped in mid-sentence. Then he tried a different route: “Ok. Could you please describe to me the desired outcome? How would it look?”
“You can’t be serious!” Scott, the business analyst, exploded “Do we look like your kindergarten buddies? Who’s supposed to be the red line expert here – you or Mary?!”
“I am just trying to clarify some details…”
“What is there to clarify?” intervened Paul, the IT director “You do know what a red line is, don’t you?”
“And you do know what ‘transparent’ means?”
“Yes, of course! But…”
“So, what else do you need!?” Paul was almost apoplectic “Let’s be constructive here, and not waste our time on non-productive discussions. Mary has just formulated the task with a crystal clear precision; if you have concrete questions, ask… But don’t waste our time!”
“You are professional, after all!” added Scott from across the room, accusingly.
John decided to try different approach: “Ok, whatever… forget the color. You have also mentioned something about the lines having to be perpendicular…?”
“Yes.” Mary responded patiently “Seven lines, all perfectly perpendicular.”
“Perpendicular to what?” John inquired.
After a long pause Mary consulted a document from her file
“Ummm… “ She replied hesitantly “You know… To everything. Between themselves. Or vice versa. How would I know “ Suddenly inspired, she beamed: “It’s your job to know about this stuff.”
“Well of course he knows!” Energetically affirmed Scott. Ever since he’d heard he was up for promotion, he was painfully aware of the necessity to maintain his image as a can-do guy. “We’re all professionals here, after all!”
“But only two lines could be perpendicular at any time!” John tried to explain “seven lines cannot be perpendicular to each other in 2 dimensions. That’s 8th grade geometry.”
Mary involuntarily shook her head, trying to ward off the ghost of her long forgotten middle school woes.
“John, let’s keep our boardroom a civil place, and be respectful of each other. No need for insinuations and insults! We’re all adults, and we can carry on our discussion as such” admonished Paul with a pedantically stern voice.
“Absolutely! “ Scott sprung into action. “Remember – we’re all professionals here!”
“Ok, then” John pulled a piece of paper – “I’ll try to draw a diagram for you. Here’s a line, right?”
Mary nodded affirmatively.
“Now, let’s draw another one… See, “ John showed the drawing to the room by raising it up in the air. “this line is perpendicular to the first line, right?”
“Yes, it is perpendicular.” asserted John.
“You see, I knew you could do it!” Mary was ecstatic.
“Just a second, I’m not quite done” John put the drawing back on the table “Now let’s add a third line. Is it perpendicular to the first line?”
After a momentary pause, John supplied the answer himself: “It is perpendicular to the first line, but parallel to the second one”
The silence that fell in the room was almost palpable. Mary lifted the drawing from the table and gave it a long thoughtful look.
“Ok…” She sounded a bit uncertain “It looks like…”
“This is exactly what I am talking about!” John exclaimed “As long as we have only two lines on the plane, they could be perfectly perpendicular to each other; as soon as we add even…”
“May I have a pen, please?” – immersed in thought, Mary extended her hand without taking her eyes away from the drawing.
John handed over his pen.
“What about this?” Mary drew a shaky line across the page.
John took a look at the paper, and briefly thought of screaming and running from the building “That’s a triangle”
Mary pursed her lips.
“But the lines are blue! “ Suddenly, Paul was very alert.
“Indeed! I was about to ask the same question myself” Added Scott, not wanting to be left out.
John blinked: “That’s because I drew it with a blue pen… to demonstrate the concept”
“But maybe that’s why it didn’t work?” Paul was not about to let anything or anyone to derail him from the epiphany he has just had. “Your lines are all blue! Try using red color and you’ll see”
“What you’ll see will be exactly the same” John sighed.
“How can be so sure if you haven’t tried it?” Paul grumbled acerbically “Try using red lines and we’ll see.”
“I don’t have red pen with me” John admitted almost sheepishly
“How could you come to the meeting completely unprepared?” Scott shook his head as if he couldn’t believe how irresponsible these engineering folks were. “ You were told you about this meeting a long time ago, weren’t you?”
“Trust me “John burst out in frustration “that red color wouldn’t change anything!”
“But you said this yourself – ‘red lines should be drawn with a red pen’!” retorted Scott “I even made a note of it. And now you’re drawing red lines with a blue pen! Look here – are they red or blue?”
“By the way” chimed in Paul “I remember specifically asking you about blue color! And your answer was … what was it?”
Unexpectedly, Jennifer came to the rescue.
“I think I get it” She said apprehensively “It is not about color here, right? What was this thing you said … – perpendi… whatchamacallit ?”
“Perpendicular lines.” John replied appreciatively “No connection with color: none, zero, zilch, nada…”
“Now I am utterly confused!” Paul pulled the drawing closer “What is your problem? Color or perpendicularity?”
Mary shook her head, and poured herself a glass of water.
“Both” John replied almost inaudibly.
“I don’t get it!” There was a tinge of exasperation in Paul’s voice “We have a simple requirement: to draw seven lousy lines. I would understand if they were asking for twenty – but we only need seven… Seven! This can’t get any simpler. Seven perpendicular lines for our client, right?
Mary nodded in agreement.
“And Scott here” Paul pointed across the table where Scott was busily taking notes “ Scott also sees no problem. Right, Scotty? So why can’t you give us a solution? Why aren’t you a part of the solution?”
“It’s geometry” John said with a heavy sigh.
“Then forget geometry! As simple as that! “ Mary was very pleased with her problem solving skills.
John fell silent for a moment, trying to compose a deserving response to the situation. Unfortunately, every response that crossed his mind involved the F-word at least once… And that would be inappropriate business communication protocol, even in these circumstances.
Finally, Paul broke the silence.
“John, could you give us a simple yes or no answer? Can it be done – or not? I understand that you are a specialist, and it is hard for you to see a bigger picture in enterprise context… but how hard could it be to draw seven lines?! I mean, two hours spent discussing a simple request, and not a glimpse of a solution!”
“Exactly!” Chimed in Scott “All you do is to repeat ‘Impossible, impossible!’ … Try to be less negative and a solution will present itself! Integrity! Respect! Teamwork! It’s easy to be a critic but … you are a professional, after all!”
“Ok” John suddenly felt he couldn’t take anymore “How about this: I’ll draw you two red, perfectly perpendicular lines, and the rest will be absolutely transparent – meaning that no one would be able to see them. Ever. Would this work for you?”
“Does that work for us?” Mary looked questioningly at Jennifer, who nodded “Yes that will work!”
“And at least two more lines – in green. And they can be transparent.” added Jennifer. “But I have one more request.”
“Could you draw one of the lines in a shape of a kitten?”
“A … what?” John was too exhausted to even contemplate surprise.
“A kitten” eagerly repeated Jennifer “A little adorable kitten. Our clients love animals. It would be so cool!..”
“But why? Don’t you like kittens?!” Jennifer was flabbergasted.
“I do. And I can draw you a kitten. Not that I am painter or anything, but I could try… Only it won’t be a straight line, it will be a cat. A straight line and a cat are two different things.” resigned, John decided to just go along with the new madness.
“Not a cat – a little kitten. A cute little kitten. You see, cats are different, they are bigger and…” started explaining Mary helpfully.
“It doesn’t matter” cut John off.
“Maybe a really, really tiny kitten? It could be white” Jennifer didn’t want to give up just yet.
“John, may be you could try and listen.“ Paul didn’t bother hiding his irritation. “ Why do you always have to say ‘NO’?!”
“I understood the question perfectly. But I can’t draw a straight line that would look like a kitten.” John stared a little dazedly at the wall across from him.
“Oh, well, if you can’t draw a kitten…” Jennifer sounded a bit disappointed “How about a little bird?”
From the pained look on John’s face Jennifer understood that a little bird was also not going to happen.
“Oh, well” she sighed, “In that case we’ll have to do without.”
“Ok, so what are we agreeing to? What’s the plan?” Paul straightened up in his chair.
“Seven red lines” summed up Mary. “Two red, two green, the rest transparent. The green lines will be transparent, too. Did I miss anything?”
“No, you absolutely nailed it!”- beamed Scott before John could say anything.
Paul smiled, and with satisfaction in his voice moved to adjourn the meeting: “Great job, thank you everyone! Are there any questions still left on the table?”
“Oh, yes – one last thing” – suddenly recalled Jennifer – “We also have a red balloon, and we need to pump it up”
“Right” – Mary returned to her seat – “Let’s take care of this now.”
“John “ – Paul turned to the engineer – “ can we do it?”
“I don’t… What does it have to do with me?” – John was past the point to sound surprised.
“It’s red” – helpfully explained Jennifer
“John?” – The tone of the IT Director indicated plainly that he has about had it.
“In principle, I could …” – replied John cautiously.
“Great! Do it then” – Paul was relieved to be able to finally give orders.
“Tomorrow?” – Mary looked at her schedule.
“Of course. There should be no problems” – Paul stood up. – “This would be all. Thank you for your time, and let’s cycle back in a week”
John slowly started moving towards the door, and then Jennifer caught up with him.
“If you could do me a favor” – blushed Jennifer – “when you’re pumping the balloon… could you make it in a shape of a kitten?”
John looked into her round innocent eyes, and replied with resignation: “Yes, of course. I am professional, after all”