The first rule of staying alive in dangerous conditions is to pay attention to your surroundings. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger argues that this rule applies every bit as much to business operations as it does to crossing a busy street.
Many times, the best analogies come from the worst experiences. This last weekend, I watched a car-on-pedestrian accident occur right in front of me and realized (while swerving) that there was a direct parallel between the unfolding road accident and a common business problem that I’d been planning for several days to write a column on.
For context, the accident occurred on Sunday, 26th November. Around 8 pm, well past sundown on a highly-overcast night. My son and I were driving Northbound on Martin Road, a 55-kmh two-by-two connector road that links the major East-West thoroughfares that cut through our town of Bedford. There’s generally very little traffic on Martin Road outside of school hours; at night, when the local elementary and junior high schools are closed, only the locals use Martin. The trees from the homes on either side of Martin Road are cut back so as not to obscure the road’s arrow-straight climb. During the day, a driver can expect to see almost two-thirds up- or down the gradually-sloping rise. At night … not so much. There are a few lonely streetlights marking the entrances to the neighbourhoods, but they’re few and far between.
So, there we were: dark night, dark road, and no on-coming traffic. My son and I were in the left lane, going a bit below the speed limit out of habit. Beside us, a young man in a battered white hatchback began to pass us on the right. It was only dumb luck that I glanced over to where a jogging trail crossed the road and noticed a flash of movement. A large white dog began crossing the road fifty metres ahead of us. I hit the brakes, wondering if the dog had escaped his yard. The hatchback surged ahead … and the thrice-damned idiot who was out walking his big, beautiful dog marched brazenly in front of our cars as if daring us not to run him down.
That attitude might play in pedestrian-friendly New York. In car-obsessed Texas, it’s likely to get you flattened.
The hatchback driver had fast reflexes. As soon as the dog appeared in the cone of his headlights, he tried to swerve left and avoid it. Then he saw the dog’s master strolling leisurely in my lane, holding on to a ridiculously long pet leash. The hatchback driver aborted his swerve and braked as hard as he could. The dog strained against its leash, trying to escape the source of the bright lights. The dog’s owner jumped back, yanking on the leash, until the slowing hatchback clipped the dog’s hindquarters, sending the poor mutt rolling.
You could argue that the man and dog had the legal right of way, but that’s not entirely accurate under Texas law. Per Chapter 552 (Pedestrians) of the Texas Transportation Code, the man was entering a roadway at an established crossing, but not one that had traffic control lights. § 552.003 says that ‘The operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing a roadway in a crosswalk if: (1) no traffic control signal is in place or in operation; and (2) the pedestrian is (A) on the half of the roadway in which the vehicle is traveling; or (B) approaching so closely from the opposite half of the roadway as to be in danger.’ 
That part was all correct. There was no signal, and the man entered the roadway from the opposite side so quickly as to immediately be in the path of our oncoming vehicles – vehicles which he could absolutely both see and hear from his starting position. The thing is, § 552.003 goes on to say that ‘(b) Notwithstanding Subsection (a), a pedestrian may not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and proceed into a crosswalk in the path of a vehicle so close that it is impossible for the vehicle operator to yield.’ That second clause is absolutely true: given the reduced visibility conditions, and the speed at which he entered the road, the man wasn’t giving us drivers a chance to react to his presence. 
The deer in this stock photo is about three times further away from the car than the man and his dog were when the hatchback’s driver noticed him.
Compounding the problem, the man was dressed ALL IN BLACK with NO reflective bits.  It was a moonless night, and this yahoo was out brazenly striding into a road into oncoming traffic with the rising slope of a hill behind him. He blended in perfectly with the asphalt. There was no way to see him unless a driver just happened to be looking at the exact right spot under the jogging trail streetlight at just the right moment. I saw the dog because I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for nearly twenty years. I’m accustomed to checking both sides of the jogging trail for just this sort of threat, and even I didn’t see the man – I only saw the dog. I doubt that the young driver of the hatchback had any hope in hell of noticing the danger until it was too late to react.
Before we drove away, we saw that the driver of the white hatchback was visibly distraught. The dog was alive and yelping in pain, probably from a broken leg or hip. The man with the leash in the all-black skulking ensemble was bellowing at the rattled young driver for not having come to a dead stop on the 55-kph thoroughfare so that he and his dog could meander where they pleased.
GRRRRRR … There’s an accurate word for this sort of self-righteous person. I can’t include it here, so please imagine it.
Anyway. There’s a transferable business lesson to be taken away from this encounter was that just because you think that other parts of your business are aware of your group’s activities doesn’t mean that they actually are aware. It’s every head-of-section’s personal responsibility to reach out early to affected and supporting sections in order to pre-emptively resolve conflicts before there’s an accidental collision. It’s is never the supported agencies’ responsibility to read your freaking mind.
We’re already reading your e-mail and listening to your phone calls. Even if we couldn’t we don’t WANT to know what you’re thinking.
This happens a lot in the IT world; more often than you’d expect. This is because an organisation’s IT element exists to ensure that everyone else in the company can function. IT provides the gear, infrastructure, services, support, and security needed to keep the business in business. IT tends to move only as fast as budgets, equipment, work hours, and expertise will allow. IT services usually lag well behind the cutting edge because there are always too many corrective tasks to perform every day to shift limited resources over to support modernisation or expansion. This is normal.
Business units, meanwhile, often take IT for granted. Each business unit focuses on its own speciality: finance manages money, manufacturing makes stuff, etc. As business units discover opportunities to improve their core functions via technology, they often dare to take ambitious gambles. That makes sense; getting better at delivering your core service makes the organisation overall more competitive, reduces costs, delights customers, etc. There’s nothing inherently wrong with leveraging new tech to do whatever it is that you do, but do it better, faster, and/or cheaper.
Major problems arise when a business unit either launches a new technology-dependent process or changes an existing one without checking with IT first to ensure that the ‘hip new thing’ won’t either conflict with the company’s existing technical service catalogue or else won’t require capabilities that IT can’t deliver in time. This is also normal. See previous, re: taking IT for granted.
I’ve seen this happen too many times: an ambitious new head of ops or supply or finance or HR decides to make a name for him-/herself by launching process X. Unwisely, said head does all of hir or her planning and preparations in a vacuum. The ‘big launch,’ when it finally happens, is – at best – a pathetic flop. Often, it’s a catastrophic disaster for all involved. Humiliated executives demand answers, and the embarrassed section head points an accusing finger at IT and screeches: ‘IT’s infrastructure wasn’t good enough!’ or ‘IT didn’t support us!’ or my all-time personal favourite ‘IT deliberately sabotaged our project!’
Looking back, I wistfully regret not having throttled that evil, lying dirtbag when I had the chance. Ah, well.
As you can imagine, this sort of pistols-at-dawn level of zero-sum conflict can utterly destroy trust between executives and between departments. Assuming everyone keeps their jobs (not a guarantee by any means), the bitterness left over after such a heated exchange can poison interdepartmental relations for generations. Workers will be educated during new hire orientation that ‘such-and-such department’ is their department’s mortal enemy long after the duelling managers have moved on. Support and cooperation between business units will vanish, trust will erode, and finally there really will be active sabotage. Not to mention play-for-keeps power politics.
The thing is, all of this wasteful drama could be avoided if only the affected parties freaking talked to one another! Inexperienced and overloaded IT leaders act like that young hatchback driver in my road accident story: they’re so busy paying attention to what’s in their immediate field of view that they forget to look outside their lane for possible conflict. Once they’re surprised by unexpected action, they have little time or room left to react. Likewise, a headstrong business unit leader is like the arrogant dog-walking man: focused on their own needs, convinced of their own right-ness, and daft enough to think that the rest of the world will all swerve to accommodate them. When their foolish choices inevitably lead to disaster, they lash out viciously at others to mark their own missteps.
The most depressing element of all – in both the road accident story and the corresponding business analogy — is that it’s usually the innocents who take the brunt of the pain. The dog out for a lovely evening’s walk and the guys and gals at the bottom of the hierarchy who did what they were told are the ones who suffer the most from their masters’ bad decisions. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right … but it’s pretty much guaranteed that they’re the ones who get cold-bloodedly sacrificed so that their boss isn’t negatively impacted.
 and  Italics added by me for emphasis.
 Yes, that’s meant to be me shouting angrily. I am really angry at how this jack-wagon endangered an innocent dog.
Title Allusion: a famous exchange from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze (1892 short story)
Detective Gregory “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil 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.