#178 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 9          September 1995

FORUM—from our readers

Retreating from Reality

My 12-year-old company of approximately 150 employees just had its first one-day retreat at a nearby resort.  The executives all gave very positive speeches about the future of the company.  They said nothing but nice things about all of our projects.  A bunch of us received special recognition (checks, gift certificates, or plaques).  There was talk of growth and building.  We closed the day laughing hysterically to an after-dinner professional comedian who made fun of various management styles.  Anyone attending would have thought we were well-managed and on the way to enormous successes.

Turns out, however, that we're in real trouble--at least that's what these same executives have been saying for the past year, including weeks prior to this retreat.  And from the internal rumor mill, “trouble” seems to be reality.  Within the last two months, a vice president and two managers (among the company’s best) quit.  Our newest product isn’t turning out nearly as well as we hoped.  Our older product is losing its competitive advantage.  We’re having serious financial trouble.  It's been a pretty gloomy time here over the past year, and management--until this retreat--had been talking rather pessimistically.

I don't believe anyone was fooled by the rhetoric at the resort.  While the speeches went on, many of us exchanged quizzical glances.  The person next to me asked if the people leading our company (and our future) had been taking drugs.  Are they living in a dream world?  It's difficult to imagine that they believe that their speeches will turn our attitudes around.  In fact, this retreat only made us more concerned about the company’s viability.  The undercurrent was one of rumors.  I’ll bet the executives thought that whatever they said would be accepted without question.

It would have been much more valuable if the executives would have been open as to the problems.  They, personally, would have received more respect.  And, more important, their leadership role would have been more effective.  In other words, we would all understand the problems and work to come to solutions.  Or, if things are that bad, we should be warned to be on the lookout for new jobs; but, meanwhile, we would try hard to get our company on the way to success again.

Management could have included a question-and-answer period, at the retreat, where executives would honestly answer concerns from any employee.  In fact, the executives always sat together, making it difficult for us to chat with them.  This retreat just underscores the barrier between the two cultures: executives and "others."  If you’re an executive, consider the consequences of maintaining this barrier--it can only harm the quality of R&D, as researchers will be concentrating on their own future rather than on their projects.


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