Technology / Keil Hubert: The Colour Out of Place

Keil Hubert: The Colour Out of Place

A leader's worldview is an amalgamation of their personal experiences. Business Reporter's resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that some leaders simply can’t transition successfully into an environment that’s radically different than anything they’ve previous experienced. The end result can be… horrifying.

A person’s functioning mental model of the works is based largely on what he or she is accustomed to. People build their worldview around what they’ve personally experienced, even if what they’ve experienced is atypical or downright bizarre. This subconscious modelling influences people’s beliefs and actions, causing them to react poorly to inputs that deviate from their expectations of How Things Are, even when they intellectually ‘know’ that their own experiences may not be a reliable reference for understanding a new experience.

As an example: many years back, I was recruited by a global Dot Com to help launch their in-house consulting practice. The idea was that the company had alienated valuable clients by screwing up large service delivery jobs. The company’s internet broadcasting service tended to destabilize and choke poorly designed networks. We’d ‘deliver’ a broadcast to a company and their network would collapse under the strain. After several false starts, the company realized that they needed a professional services arm to help new customers ‘prepare’ themselves for our coming, as a sort of prophylactic measure. The fellow that they hired to build the service showed that the preparation service itself could be monetized, adding to profitability while decreasing customer dissatisfaction.

Since the company had never dabbled in consulting services before, it was up to us outsiders to build the service offerings, calculate the workloads, design the deliverables and demo the entire programme to upper management. We spent the entire autumn and early winter designing the programme and cobbling together all of the prototypes – marketing flyers, mock reports, work-breakdown structure plans, etc.

James believed in the ‘Miyagi school’ of professional development: ‘Wax rhapsodic on, wax rhapsodic off.’

James believed in the ‘Miyagi school’ of professional development: ‘Wax rhapsodic on, wax rhapsodic off.’

Of course, when I say ‘we’ there, I really mean ‘me’. My boss James had all the answers regarding how to structure the business-within-a-business. I was his secretary. James came up with killer ideas and I generated all of the paperwork that brought his ideas to life. Ours was a very effective working relationship, if a bit of an imbalanced one from a labour perspective.

One of the products that I assembled for James was a mock-up of a custom site survey. The idea was that we’d send a consulting team to walk the ground with a client and show them all of the things that they needed to change in order to prepare their network for our service(s). Upper management was convinced that we’d only ever sell one of these reports. They were afraid that the first client that we sold one to would post our work to the internet, thereby giving all of our ‘secrets’ away for free. They… weren’t wrong. Some resentful customers were known to ‘leak’ content under the whole ‘information wants to be free’ ethos.

To assuage upper management, we decided to saturate our site survey reports with original photographs of each client’s site and pepper in references on every page to the client’s proprietary network so that a client didn’t dare let their customized report escape onto the net. Even though 90 per cent of the core content would be identical between clients – the engineering work was actually pretty standard – the reports themselves would all be unique enough to be traceable.

The thing was, we hadn’t actually delivered a consulting job yet, so we didn’t have any real content to work with when building the mock-ups. We didn’t have any sort of media library to tap, since all of our company marketing was done with static logos and simple animated GIFs. To compensate, I used my stash of digital photos that I’d taken during our live broadcast operations in Australia.

Don’t let the rumours fool you. My photos of Australia weren’t 99% man-killing spiders.

Don’t let the rumours fool you. My photos of Australia weren’t 99 per cent man-killing spiders.

It should have been obvious when we first presented our mock-ups that we weren’t showing a real client’s environment; this was all happening during the rapid-prototyping phase in order to present an idea rather than show off a finished product. We needed placeholder content. The members of upper management that James pitched our programme to understood this instinctively and focused on the service delivery details (as one should).

Unfortunately, our first-line manager simply couldn’t wrap his head around what he saw. He threw a hissy fit. He railed at us that our programme was doomed to failure. He told us that we were fools and idiots. He chastised us for ‘wasting time’ on ‘nonsense’. When pressed as to what he was upset about, he launched into one of the most bizarre list of complaints that I’d ever heard:

‘There can’t be photographs in a company product,’ he said. ‘We don’t have photographers.’

I explained that I’d taken all of the photos myself while on official company business.

‘That’s not possible!’ he said. ‘Your team doesn’t have an official company camera.’

I showed him both the official company camera that I’d used to take the photos and the purchase order for said camera that his predecessor had approved.

‘You’re not in marketing,’ he countered. ‘You don’t know anything about multimedia publishing.’

I blinked, then explained that I designed and published glossy colour magazines for the Air Force on the weekends, and I had been to a formal school to learn how to do that.

The idiot’s eyes bugged out like he was about to have a stroke. It seemed like he’d never had anyone talk back to him before. He didn’t know how to deal with calm, rational resistance to his shouting.

Our exchange resembled nothing so much as an Aikido match. Our idiot would clumsily attack, then find himself metaphorically flat on his back wondering what the Hell had just happened.

Our exchange resembled nothing so much as an Aikido match. Our idiot would clumsily attack, then find himself metaphorically flat on his back wondering what the hell had just happened.

After a half hour of this inane back-and-forth, our idiot’s final complaint was – and I’m not making any of this up – a gripe about the tint in the cover photo. The shot I’d chosen to represent a company headquarters building was a bit muted.

‘It’s too… dark,’ the idiot whinged. ‘It’s all grey, like it was taken while it was raining.’

I complimented our idiot on his perceptiveness. The building in the photo looked dark and rainy in because it was *£&$ing raining when I took the photograph.

Our idiot hemmed and hawed for several seconds, then chastised me because – sigh‘Rain is not one of our official corporate virtues.’

I was utterly exhausted dealing with our idiot by this point in the discussion and solemnly promised to never take another photograph of a building exterior during a rainy day again. Our idiot wandered off, seemingly in a daze. James and I left the building and went straight to the nearest pub.

I groused to James that I was ready to bludgeon our idiot to death, both for his impertinence (the man knew nothing about consulting, and yet dared to condescend to actual consultants) and also for his childish irrationality (complaining about a rainy-day photo, FFS).

James – always the wiser half of our duo – asked me to extend our idiot some charity. After all, the man had spent his entire working life in ‘high-corporate’ space. His worldview came from a dysfunctional operating culture that demanded mindless obedience to initiative-stifling regulations and draconian micromanagers. Our idiot man still wore starched white dress shirts to work every day at a Dot Com company where face tattoos were normal and trousers were optional because he simply couldn’t conceive of doing things any other way. The poor man was overwhelmed by his new environment, and he couldn’t deal with creative people. We terrified him, because we didn’t react to anything the way that everyone else in his experience had always reacted.

To our idiot, James and I were a couple of punk-Goth-anarchists; to the rest of the company, were were hopelessly conservative and old-fashioned. Everything is relative.

To our idiot, James and I were a couple of punk-goth-anarchists. To the rest of the company, were were hopelessly conservative and old-fashioned. Everything is relative.

The more that James explained it, the more I came to understand. Our idiot wasn’t personally malicious because he didn’t like us – he was simply abusive because he couldn’t understand us. He feared what he didn’t understand. He’d never been exposed to the kind of free-wheeling people that work in professional consulting, and the way we operated frightened him.

A few weeks later, perhaps in a moment of vulnerability, our idiot grumbled to James that he couldn’t figure out how to properly manage us – to which James retorted that we had no use for a manager. We needed logistical and administrative support, not day-to-day direction or hand-holding.

That revelation pretty much broke the poor idiot. It wound up breaking up our operation too, over the long run. The idea that he was not only unnecessary but was actively harmful ate away at our idiot until he was consumed with bitterness and impotent rage. Towards the end, he raised his desk to the top of his cubicle walls and got a tall chair to perch in so that he could look down on all of his reports like a prison guard staring into the cells. Our idiot spent his days constantly watching ‘his’ engineers and consultants go about our work without him, growing ever more silent and waspish until corporate finally gave him the opportunity to lay off everyone on the team out of pure spite.

In many respects, the situation with our idiot manager reminds me of one of my favourite H. P. Lovecraft short stories: The Colour Out of Space, first published in the September 1927 edition of Hugo Gernsback’s science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. In brief, the story centres around a meteorite that lands in a rural area and slowly poisons the region. Plants grow, but become inedible. Animals and people slowly sicken, lose their grip on sanity and die. It’s a solid disaster story with an ineffable antagonist. I also like it because it doubles as a telling social allegory.

'The name “blasted heath” seemed to me very odd and theatrical, and I wondered how it had come into the folklore of a Puritan people ...'

‘The name “blasted heath” seemed to me very odd and theatrical, and I wondered how it had come into the folklore of a Puritan people…’

In our case, the ‘toxic outsider’ was our idiot manager. The man was fundamentally and completely incompatible with both creative professions in general, and with our Dot Com culture. His inability to adapt to our environment wound up slowly poisoning his relationships with everyone around him. All of the engineers grew bitter and angry as this fellow’s warped worldview clashed with everyone job performance. Eventually, the entire engineering services division devolved into a social wasteland: no one wanted to come work in our section, and those of us inside of it were relieved when the whole operation came apart during layoffs. We were all sick of working for a damned fool who was just as sick of all of us working without the benefit of his ‘management’.

Despite all this, I have some empathy for the man. He should never have been selected to work in a Dot Com company to begin with. His approaches to both proper interpersonal conduct and general management were terrible fits for the people he was expected to supervise. It’s possible that he might have been redeemed over time if he’d had some active mentoring from a leader who understood both worlds. Instead, our idiot was tossed into a role where his skills were valueless, where no one and nothing acted ‘correctly’ according to his worldview, and where everyone subordinate to him resented his interference.

The most bitter irony of all is that he got to stay on the job after the rest of his team was laid off. Just like the toxic meteorite from The Colour Out of Space, all of the good people left the area pastures, while he stayed behind to keep leeching the life and hope out of everyone unfortunate enough to be within range of his wilting emanations.


Title Allusion: H. P. Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space (1927 Short Story)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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