Spetner: Reliving the projects from hell

The year-end calls for a time of reflection, especially regarding the unpleasant occurrences.

I was facilitating a planning session for a client recently when we began plotting initiatives for the coming year. After laying out a 12-month plan, we took a look at the corresponding budget to make sure there were adequate funds. During the discussion, someone mentioned we needed to earmark money for the annual corporate holiday card.

"Ugh," said the head of communications, "that’s the project from hell."

I almost laughed out loud, because it rang so true. It immediately brought back memories of squabbling over the card with the HR department, the purchasing department, and the chairman’s office. I also remembered having unproductive discussions in the executive committee over the holiday card, usually ending with a stern rebuke from the CEO and a command to "figure it out."

It feels as though there were consistent conflicts and strong opinions over color, typeface, iconography, and copy. There was also the challenge of representing the holiday season without excluding or offending any religious or ethnic group.

After reliving the bad holiday card memories, I started thinking of other projects that had bedeviled my colleagues and me at other companies. Following discussions with a few friends, I came up with a ranking of the top three recurring projects from hell: the holiday card, the clip report, and senior personnel announcements.

In terms of no-win, high-vulnerability projects, the daily clip report consistently ranks near the top. It is a compilation of news articles that are assembled and shared with senior management. In the pre-­internet days, it was a weekly report that required a full-time intern to read through key publications, cut out articles, and assemble a thick report for management. We also subscribed to a news-clipping service that provided us weekly batches of clips from around the world.

These days it’s electronic, but the land mines are as relevant as they were 30 years ago. Everything about it causes headaches.

First, there’s the selection of news categories for inclusion. Then there is the question about which publications are relevant, and how comprehensive the report should be. And my favorite trouble­making aspect: Do you include the clip that contains something embarrassing or moronic an internal person did or said, but management might not be aware of?

I hated the clip report.

In third place on the list are senior personnel announcements. The technical side of producing the announcements is easy. There is a rote formula for writing and distributing the press release. But the political side is treacherous and fascinating.

The trouble starts when an executive is being replaced against his or her will. If the executive is exiting the company, the rationale for leaving must be agreed upon, such as "to pursue other interests" or "to spend more time with family."

For the promoted executive, there is often a delicate behind-the-scenes nego­tiation that takes place over reporting relationships, titles, and scope of responsibility. In many cases, I had members of senior management put pressure on me to influence the wording of the announcement, which was both awkward and slightly perilous. It usually culminated in a showdown with HR or the CEO.

Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe the card wasn’t as hellish as I thought. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

 

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