Only two people were there – me, and my boss at the time – plus, there were recurrences with new managers.
(Front note: Here is where my creative inspiration flourished. However, here also highlights my ineptitude in the occupation I was associated with – marketing. I survived twenty-five years because of my adequacy at marketing support – systems and programming technical assistance, demonstrations, and marketing and technical documentation, and skit writing for branch office or larger meetings.)
Pre-thinking this post, I realized three things are required for a successful sales pitch – a good idea, justification, and pitching to the decision maker. In these cases, my great ideas were offered with no financial justification, far down the decision chain. This made for some interesting run-up-the-flags for various managers, but repeated “no sales” for me.
In order of appearance:
Don’t do this at work #1: Bad timing for a rookie. This was not a creative idea, just a bad-judgment-in-context quirk. Over time, I became adequate at first-responding to beat the silence when a speaker ended his presentation with “Any questions?” But not this first time: A high IBM executive speaking to an assembly of several branch offices from the region, in a large auditorium in Boston. “Any questions?” Silence. Rookie from near the back row: “IBM is the seventh largest corporation in America. Are we also the seventh largest polluter?” (Said rookie was commenting on a major issue of the late sixties.) Response: Pause – check with assistant – “We’ll get back to you.” Later, in boss’s office, after a mild hand-slap for appropriateness in context – “Our manufacturing is primarily assembly, we are not high on the pollution chart.” I wouldn’t claim this was the trigger incident for future planted “state-of-the-business questions” for executive presentations, or the questions from “just folks” – scripted by press secretaries – at political town meetings, but I do note a lack of surprises in such events.
#2. Chairman of the Board. Vaulting from liberal arts into big business was mesmerizing, and a sometimes traumatic reality check – from “profits = greed” to “no profits = business closed.” The infant System 360 was flourishing, and every day the bulletin board announced promotions and new, often convoluted, job titles. After three years in the company, I began to consolidate my impressions into a board game, hoping it would amusingly teach principles of living and climbing the ladder in the corporate world, as Monopoly does in the real estate world. With near OCD creative energy, I effectively “moonlighted” for five years producing the game. Details will appear under a future “Foibles and Follies” post, as numero uno.
Just as the game was ready to market, Boston Globe business satirist Susan Trausch (http://freestreetpress.com/bio-susan-trausch/) wrote a column “Out to Lunch” poking fun at long corporate job titles (such as “Second Assistant Executive Vice President in Charge of Corporate Job Titles.” On a lark, I sent her a copy of the game, newly minted. Response: Come for an interview.
Nerves spiraling, I tumbled through the inquisition with the sophisticated reporter. When I got home, my wife said Susan had called for her comments, and she replied, “If this damn game doesn’t ruin our marriage, nothing will! – just joking.” I was told the article would appear on Thursday, November 13, 1975, unless New York City’s financial difficulties had resulted in a default, which would dominate the day’s news. NYC held on, and I looked in the business section but couldn’t find the article. Back to the front page, and there I was in the lower left corner, sharing the front page with images of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas announcing his retirement, and reactionary Governor George Wallace announcing his run for President.
Realizing my company was averse to unauthorized publicity, I had been careful to avoid anything approaching a business secret or practice, but I still arrived sheepishly into the office, quickly confronted with peer curiosity, then financial reality, when a manager asked, “How many have you sold?” The rest of the story later (“Foibles and Follies”) .
#3. Corporate Imagery – Progress is our most important product also! This great idea was inspired by conversing with my Aunt, a college-educated postmistress. On a family vacation visit, I was explaining that I was working with computers, and every time I used the word “computer,” her hands went up and she exclaimed, “They’re ruining the country!” There was a near-comic imagery, every time I said “the magic word,” of the duck coming down and bonus money awarded in Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life” tv quiz show (you had to be there, back then).
I’m feeling bad that we can’t get the message about progress out to the general public, so I pitch to my boss that the whole phenomena can be explained with commercials during a weekly tv series based on my favorite book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – a nineteenth century mechanic concussed back to medieval times with everyday tools overcoming ancient superstitions, an easy winner with Mark Twain-King Arthur associations. She runs it up the flagpole, all the way up to the IBM Director of Advertising. Response (paraphrased): “All our data shows we are highly regarded by executives in the business community.” Accurate, but not my point. The future was ahead of us.
(A related aside: Future planning manager the late First National Bank of Boston, circa 1970, on hearing my presentation for a new IBM storage device that could hold 240 million characters of data, when the current disc drive held only 7 million: “We’ll never have that much data in this bank!”)
#4. “It’s a small world, after all.” Triggered by a family trauma (in 1976 my four-year-old son had his arm caught in an escalator in Disney World’s Contemporary Hotel, with two subsequent skin graft surgeries), I added some Disney shares to my portfolio. An annual report soon afterward announced that Disney was asking IBM to sponsor the computer pavilion in the coming-soon EPCOT Center. I rush into my new boss, his first day on the job, introducing myself and saying I want to work on this project. (Don’t do this on first day with new boss!) He runs it up the flagpole: Chairman assembles a six-month task force, he’ll let me know. Six months later: Task force recommends yes, Chairman doesn’t like terms – $25 million for ten year logo privilege with Disney in creative control, only four IBM administrative jobs – asks for three-months additional study. I respond I’ll sweep floors if I’m one of those four. I’m thinking, not even knowing personal computers are on the horizon, twenty-million visitors a year seeing a soft-sell advertisement for a progress company can’t be bad. Three months later, chairman declares, nix on EPCOT. On our next Disney visit, I see a holograph of someone (maybe Tommy Tune) dancing on an NCR mainframe computer and talking to onlookers about progress.
I had maintained diligent work performance, programming the first real-time banking application and, with considerable overtime, publishing with IBM the product and documentation in 1980. The boss, whose first impression was probably I’m not all that interested in this assignment, nominated me for a ten-week sabbatical in New York City, hoping I would find a more appropriate direction. Onward to #4!
#5. The Adventures of Tom Watson. In the first years of my IBM career, the early System/360 days, William Rodger’s Think: A Biography of the Watsons and IBM, excited many of us in the then-paternal organization. In Tom Sr.’s youth I saw parallels to another Tom’s adventures. Young boy who likes horses; whose father failed at forestry (losing to a Rockefeller) and settled on farming in Painted Post, New York, wanting son to be like the big man in town (a lawyer); Tom teaching school but quitting after one day, taking one year of business school, working in local butcher shop for six dollars a week, upping to ten a week driving horse carriage for travelling salesman, learning sales, moving to big city (Rochester), losing sewing machine sales job after one week then hooking up with stock salesman who absconds with profits, then opening butcher shop which fails, returns cash register but talks his way into job with NCR, becomes sales hero, advances up the ladder, sent “underground” to buy up used machines to make way for new sales, returns triumphantly to headquarters and rises to sales VP, then indicted with company president for illegal activities; exonerated after helping save headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, after great flood of 1913, fired by CEO for increasing popularity with salesmen, marries at forty with no job – end of act one!; second act, gestation and birth of IBM (and his four children), conflict with emerging irresponsible son (a la Henry IV and Henry V, and GHWB and GWB), conflict with courts over monopolizing punch card industry, giving up control at age 82 after palace revolt led by matured son, then passing on, “the sun never setting” (from company slogan) on his handiwork. Knowing I am unable to sell the concept, I wrote the script during this sabbatical.
Several years later, a manager said she would be interested in reading the script; but eighteen months later, I had to ask for it back – she hadn’t had the hour available for reading.
Then, as IBM was experiencing actuarial reality in the early 90’s slowdown, I finally went to the top, writing to the founder’s son and then president and chairman, Tom Jr., about the script, not revealing I was an employee, and I added a minimal justification: All media depictions of “big business” focus on ambition and greed – hardly any (other than History Channel) on positive character traits, achievements, and energy. (Also, all bio musicals I know of, except for Fiorello, are about show-business people.) The response was from his attorney: If you proceed, remove IBM and the Watson name from the project. But no one would believe a fictional version, so I wrote back in November, 1993, that I was a faithful employee, and handled with care the sensitive topic of IBM Hollerith machines used by the Third Reich, and his father’s returning the medal he had received for “World Peace through World Trade” from Hitler. (Tom Jr. alluded to the problem in his autobiography, Father, Son, and Company.) There was no response. Tom Jr. died on December 31 of that year. (My early mentor at IBM suggested my letter was responsible, but I was not amused.) Together with the next entry, I’m sure the official response was, “If we want one, we will commission one.”
(A similar response greeted my retired high school English teacher, the late Mary Lou Burkett, who on retirement became a “Grandma Moses” of musical script writing. The local mega oil company in Texas had no interest in her story, Big Hill: the Saga of Spindletop, about a reformed roustabout who had lost an arm in a saw mill fight; “got religion”; studied the 1859 oil discoveries in Titusville, Pennsylvania; sensed black gold in the ground when taking his Baptist Sunday school class on an outing; evangelized, explored, and formed several partnerships in the last years of the 1800’s, resulting in early dry holes; but was backgrounded when Spindletop gushed in Texas for new investors in 1901. Patillo Higgins is regarded as the “Prophet of Spindletop,” but is not credited with “strike one.” Another unusual character engineering world-changing events, an adventure not of interest to bottom-line executives.)
#6. Don’t do this too often – you will become type-cast. My successful creative forays were on assignment in the branch office – skit writing for marketing meetings. I couldn’t spontaneously group brainstorm a la “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Mad Men” or other creative media scenes, but I could listen, then give written form to collective ideas. I was trying to shed this identity, when my small unit was assigned to manage the fun games at a regional outing of three hundred employees. The intent is always “teamwork,” and for this I was eager to volunteer, to introduce the best “teamwork” game ever, which my dear sister Mary and her friend had invented during a volunteer summer at an Appalachian camp for children. I dubbed the game “Volleyballoon,” and spent ten minutes explaining how the projectiles are water balloons, and the propellants are sheets or blankets held by four to eight players. (We had played this at family reunions, with participants from age three to eighty, of all shapes and sizes.) One team launches the water balloon from the blanket, over the regulation net, the other attempts a catch and return volley. A volleyballoon landing in a team’s side of the court earns a point for the opponent; an out-of-bounds volley earns a point for the launcher’s opponent. Any macho of either gender destroys teamwork by rushing the net, dragging the blanket and teammates toward the projectile. The presentation went over so well that the big boss, managing our billion dollar region, uncharacteristically grabbed one of the team hats and joined the game (then disputed every out-of-bounds call).
Volleyballoon came into play twice more. The first encore was for a small group outing. The second for a large branch outing. After introducing the game, then conducting an introductory lip-sync contest, participants supposedly “randomly drawn” from a hat, and enthusiastic group performances by each team, the branch boss indicated it was the longest skit in history (about forty-five minutes). A former college football player, he led the office outdoors and organized a touch football game. Those of us on the committee consulted on whether to end the fun and return to the agenda, and decided wisely. The two hundred water balloons were then used to cool off the football players, and my primary skill skitted off into obscurity.
#7. “Look, Dad – and eye, a bee, and an M!” Shuffling through the daily delivery of bills, advertisements, and magazines, I was alerted by my nine-year-old son to the cover image of Think, IBM’s monthly journal – an image as described above (available by googling IBM creative logo). I had noticed Think, but had not focused on the image, but the child caught it instantly. Inside text said the creative logo was commissioned but would never be used on products.
Meanwhile, the Six Sigma flag (meaning continual improvement) was being raised over IBM. Theoretically, low-level employees had good ideas that should percolate upwards to some assigned category executive and improve the company.
I said AHA! A logo than can compete with the bite out of the Macintosh! Run this idea up the flagpole – use this new logo on our PC’s to counteract the Apple advertisement about five white-shirted middle-aged men typing #$%^&*$!@ before every computer command, versus a five-year-old iconing away on his IMac. Appeal to younger imaginations! The flagpole responded: We don’t have an executive assigned to this category.
The Six Sigma exercise, with executives and managers in retreats streamlining the organization, usually portended downsizing or merging, and I never received an official answer for my email suggestion. However, in later years, when IBM was still selling PC’s, I saw a picture of a flag with the creative logo flying over IBM offices in Belgium, and later noticed in a Staples store a laptop with an eye winking, and a bee circling and landing, on the solid but stolid M stanchion.
Gone, but not forgotten. A short time after a very nice manager hosted my twenty-fifth anniversary luncheon, she outlined my options during IBM’s first official layoff in history, declared a “right-sizing”: My skills were needed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Rochester, New York, or I could take a five-year leave of absence, come back for a day and retire, pensioned with thirty years service. That was a no-decision for those of us not enjoying our current assignment. A few months later, as the ensuing re-organization resulted in a new regional alignment, she offered me a consulting gig, writing three newsletters for the new Northern New England region. Finally, I was paid to wordsmith, and, as editor-in-chief, reporter, and typesetter for the three-edition run, coined the logo/slogan syNNErgy. It was like a promotion, albeit short-lived.
And then there were none. My five years at BancBoston and four at Fidelity offered no comparable creative diversions, but my total concentration then was focused on defense: tuition paying, single parenting, and grandparenting, along with at-home creative projects.
“The Progress of Progress” Review (in the eyes and experience of this beholder):
#1. IBM gets a big jump in business world with typewriters in schools. New secretaries demand IBM typewriters.
#2. IBM maintains full employment during WWII, emerges with intact work force and soars on contracts related to new Social Security legislation.
#3. TJ Watson, Sr., enthused with early computers, declares (paraphrase) “We’ll sell a hundred.” TJ Jr. abandons punch cards for future technologies.
#4. IBM out-markets and out-services business community with S/370 breakthrough into third-generation computing, and the world rushes to automate.
#5. Disney seeks IBM presence in Disney World, chairman sees little business usage for new toy computers, NCR computers host the computer pavilion.
#6. Mini-computers emerge, not requiring corporate action, appear in departments instead of headquarters. Companies like Digital Equipment Company and Data General emerge, then merge out of business.
#7. Jobs discovers Xerox interface and takes apples to schools, creating future home and business demand; Gates buys up early software and takes computing to desktops, partnering with, then outflanking, IBM.
#8. Netscape (later absorbed by AOL) trumps Microsoft and webs the world, spawning many clones. Business icons begin falling to newborns, as AOL gobbles up Time Warner.
#9. With several contenders, Google leads the parade into Omniscient World.
#10. Cell phones keep us safe – we can never get lost – and steal our privacy – we can never get lost.
#11. Combination of all these technologies enables maelstrom of organizational consolidations, including ginormous institutions “too big to fail.” For “the rest of the story,” see Titanic.
#12. Progress, as a local football coach says, “is what it is.” Maybe it isn’t what it isn’t?
#13. Business Retrospective: IBM still thrives in the business community, without my suggestions, and without a personal computer business; I am happily pensioned and retired. We survived each other successfully, blessings for blessings.
#14. What the hell is “The Cloud,” anyway?
Tom Comeaux said:
Have you seen “Halt and Catch Fire” on AMC? Your experience makes that show’s depiction of Big Blue seem fairly accurate. The show’s not great, but it is interesting nonetheless.
I’ve had similar inspiration with my company, albeit on a much more miniscule scale, with similarly frustrating results. The corporation seems to be surviving just fine in spite of the executives’ disregard for my ideas.
By the way, “Chairman of the Board” is a fantastic game! You should turn it into an app.