CXO

Consultant squares off against 'Mafia boss's' resistance to change

Creating change within an organization is tough enough without having to contend with a Mafia-like dictator. Find out how one consultant dealt with a reluctant leader, and weigh in with your criticism or advice.


Resistance to change is something every consultant expects to encounter. From the smallest to the largest of organizations, it seems some people will do almost anything to resist updating processes and equipment. However, few consultants have encountered the kind of organized opposition to change that a TechRepublic member and consultant we’ll call Lawrence experienced.

Lawrence landed a consulting contract for an international defense project; his job was to bring a U.S. firm’s development processes and technologies up to date. The $500 million project called for object-oriented architecture and a nonwaterfall process, and Lawrence’s customer hoped the new methodologies would enable it to spread work to more companies across the world. However, Lawrence met with opposition from a man he came to call “the Mafia boss” because of his totalitarian rule over the staff.

Find out what tactics Mr. Mafia used against Lawrence and how Lawrence dealt with the situation. Then tell us how you would have counteracted the underhanded methods employed by Mr. Mafia.

The setup
As the top consultant on the project, Lawrence was asked to teach, train, mentor, and facilitate the bottom four tiers of employees. His goal was to help the employees fulfill a development and integration contract using up-to-date methods and technology. Most of the staff were Ph.D.s and had enjoyed decades of success using older methods. Lawrence knew he’d meet some adversity with the changes he was bringing, but he had no idea his challenge would come from the top of the organization.

“Within the first two weeks of being there, I heard rumors that the top person for whom I was responsible to consult ran the organization like the Mafia,” he said. “I laughed it off as corporate politics.”

In the beginning, Lawrence ran into difficulties inducing the organizational changes he prescribed. It was particularly frustrating because there appeared to be no internal accountability and thus no motivation for the staff to change its ways, he said.

Lawrence persevered and soon convinced a well-placed and influential architect that the new approach would mean great things for the organization.

“I was relieved that the tide had finally turned,” Lawrence said. “He was going to bat for me. Now it was only a matter of time before everyone else caught on.”

But it didn’t work out that way.

The sting
Soon after Lawrence had convinced the architect to spread the gospel of his new methods, the man disappeared. Lawrence learned that the architect had been “reassigned.” He also learned that Mr. Mafia had “no intention of using the processes and technologies called for in the contract” and, although it wasn’t being publicly announced, the contract would be fulfilled using the firm’s traditional methods.

The new methods Lawrence was hired to teach would mean less work for Mr. Mafia’s firm in the long run. Lawrence speculated that Mr. Mafia, who had enjoyed the power and influence of being the customer’s supplier for this type of work, had no motivation to change his ways, and he felt he could force the customer to do it his way because “it always worked before.”

Lawrence held an unpublicized meeting with the contract manager, Janet, who was responsible for satisfying the customer and internally allocating funds. At Lawrence’s urging, Janet hired Freddy as a short-term advisor in an attempt to “penetrate the shield” Mr. Mafia had laid.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Mafia gave “strict orders” to all his top managers and engineers to “not tell the truth” about the project, and to give some pleasant, blase answers to the advisor about what was going on, Lawrence said.

Despite being an expert in his field and “amazingly perceptive,” Freddy couldn’t ascertain the specifics of the problem due to the staff’s generic answers to his inquiry. Although it had been his idea for the contract manager to hire Freddy, Lawrence said he stayed clear of Freddy during the inquiry for “political and ethical reasons.” Also, he said he fully expected the people he worked with to answer direct questions with some degree of honesty. However, at the end of his inquiry, Freddy couldn’t find enough direct ammunition to cause real change, Lawrence said.

“I was astounded that the team—remember these are smart, well-paid, experienced people—would go along with this,” Lawrence said.

Repercussions
Feeling defeated by the unyielding staff, Lawrence thought he had two choices: He could contact Freddy and detail Mr. Mafia’s underhanded ways, or trudge on and try his best to do what his customer had requested.

“If I did shine a light in the dark places, perhaps I would be finished in this industry,” Lawrence said.

He chose to contact the advisor anonymously and tell him about the goings-on. He included some “hard evidence” of Mr. Mafia’s instructions to lie to the advisor. The reaction from Mr. Mafia was swift and severe, according to Lawrence.

“He sent some people to my office at various times and in different ways tried to get me to admit my guilt in exposing the Mafia boss and the organization,” Lawrence said. “They would say things like, ‘I know you blew our cover. How did you do it?’”

Lawrence also learned that all the e-mail he’d sent through the company’s servers was being reviewed to find evidence of his betrayal.

What happened
Eventually, Mr. Mafia was transferred and Lawrence finished up the contract and moved on. After the project’s end date, Lawrence heard that the project was never delivered.

“The damage to the boondoggled project and the squandering of public money makes my heart ache to this day,” he said. “I guess I could never accept that people would really be willing to do that.”

This and another experience with unethical people have caused Lawrence to become “bitter with consulting,” he said. He got into the business to help people and has been shocked too often to find that “people just don’t have any ethics.” He said he hopes to leave the consulting business as soon as he is financially able.

What would you have done?
How would you rate Lawrence’s tactics against Mr. Mafia? Have you had a similar experience with an on-site bully? What tack would you have taken to thwart his underhanded scheming? Post your thoughts below.

 

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