Special Needs

By Douglas A. Samuelson

"These feel just right," the OR/MS analyst smiled as he took a brief walk around the store in the fifth pair of shoes he had tried on. "I'll take these. Do you have this size in that other style?" he added, pointing to a pair of shoes on display near where he had been sitting.

The saleswoman went to check and soon came back with another pair of shoes the analyst also liked. "I'll take these, too," he announced happily. "And thanks for your help. I wish I could get this kind of attention from the big bosses at the office."

"What do you mean?" the saleswoman asked as she put the shoes back in their boxes and prepared to put his credit card through the store's machine. "I thought you analytical types always got listened to."

"Not really," the analyst complained. "The big bosses are mostly MBA types. I think the business schools train them that if someone else knows something they don't about whatever decision they're facing, they just say that's all too esoteric to be useful and go with their gut feeling. Of course, if they happen to know something others don't, then that's among the 'Terribly Important Things Everyone Should Know, and how can you hope to be a manager without the fine education that taught me this?' Either way, they 'win' and you lose — and often the organization loses, too."

"The business schools don't have a monopoly on that kind of thinking," the saleswoman responded. "You should talk to some of the doctors I've run into. And one guy I know who graduated from [a big-name technical university, but we will omit the name since the author has a number of friends there; many readers will recognize the fine institution] told me their unofficial motto is, 'Always Certain, Sometimes Right.'"

"True enough," the analyst acknowledged, laughing. (He had some friends from there, too.)

"Besides," the saleswoman pointed out, "sometimes getting it perfectly right is much less important than getting something done soon."

"Also true," the analyst conceded. "In fact, one of the great early management analysts, C. N. Parkinson — the fellow who wrote 'Parkinson's Law,' among other things — wrote that many management decisions are like the one you face when you're crossing the street and see a runaway truck speeding toward you with its brakes gone. It doesn't matter which way you jump out of its path — just pick one and do it quickly!

"But," he continued, "this time, if we don't take the time to think things through and pay attention to the details, we could be headed for real trouble. Two years ago the big bosses created a new division to go after the information technology market in our industry, and they lured a bunch of people, including me, into the new division to make it all happen. Obviously, these people are always clamoring for new and better computers, network hardware, training, software, whatever. My division's needs are different from every other division's, and more expensive! So there's a constant tug-of-war with management to get the support they promised us from the start. But if we don't get what we need, all the equipment we have and the effort so far will be wasted, because we won't get all these new products to work!"

"That sounds like the fights we're having over my daughter's school!" the saleswoman exclaimed. "When we went to the orientation session for this science and technology magnet school two years ago, when she was in eighth grade, the administrators couldn't say enough about how great this school is and how much extra opportunity the kids get there. Well, she got in, and now all we hear is that the county wants to cut back on all the special equipment and teacher training and field trips and other stuff that make this school different from the other high schools."

"That does sound like the same sort of situation, all right," the analyst agreed. "So what did you parents do about it?"

"We're still hammering it out," the saleswoman said, "but I think we've made some progress, and maybe I can take a little of the credit for it."

"How? What did you do?" the analyst inquired eagerly.

"I just got up at a School Board meeting," the saleswoman recounted, "told them who I was and that my daughter went to the school, and then I said, 'Look, did you guys ever see an old sci-fi movie called 'Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman'? They all laughed, and a couple of them nodded. I guess several of them had at least heard the title.

"So I told them, what you've done here is pretty much like the trouble-making scientist in that movie. You created the 50-foot woman, and you've been bragging all over the place about your accomplishment. But you never thought about what she'd need, although it was your responsibility when you created her to think about what she would need and how she would be taken care of. And now you've got the nerve to be annoyed at her when she complains that she can't find shoes in her size!"

Douglas A. Samuelson is president of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting company in Annandale, Va. He is also an adjunct professor at The George Washington University and at the University of Pennsylvania, and an external research professor at the Krasnow Institute, George Mason University.