Layoffs in the VUCA World

(August 22, 2011)

Pondering change: Friday the 18th marked the last day of work at my company for a dear friend of mine, and several thousand other colleagues.

I’m not sure of the total number of employees laid off, because the layoffs are continuing outside of Canada and the United States. The total workforce reduction, I understand, will be nearly eleven thousand people. This is about ten percent of the work force.

I have been in the workforce long enough to have gone through this process far too many times. Like most sad affairs, it’s too bad, but we have work to do no matter what we might feel.

Meanwhile, I am hearing a great deal about change, about embracing change and about being positive about change. Change, I am told, is good.

This is hogwash, fiddlesticks and codswallop.

Change is change. It is not necessarily good or necessarily bad. It is the inferred difference between at least two observations of the values of certain variables in a given set of data measured at different times.

A directed change, wisely chosen for a meaningful purpose can be good. That is, if we determine goals that meaningfully represent a quality of life we desire to create or improve, then the direction of our desired change is probably a good thing. If our action plan to produce a material change in the world is wisely conceived and adeptly applied, then our plan for change is probably good. If our reason to believe the action we are taking will produce conditions more in line with our desired quality of life, then we have reason to be believe that our change, as a whole, will be good.

If it’s not, then we have to go back to the beginning and try again. If we did the thing we said we would do and got the result we expected, but we’re still not happy, then we have to question our goals. If we failed to do what we set out to do, we have to question our plan. If we executed well, but failed to achieve our goal, then our theory linking the action to the goal must be internally flawed or externally blocked. We fail, and from failure we learn, we adapt, and we continue.

This is applied epistemology. If we learn to do this well and wisely, then we will have better lives.

Spencer Johnson teaches us that change is good, however, and that we should embrace it happily. That is, as change inevitably happens, we should anticipate that the world will change and watch for signs that the world is changing around us. Adopting an attitude of change drives action. Given this, we should savor this opportunity to change and be prepared to change again and again in a cycle of continuous enjoyment of the uncertain and entropic world around us.

This is applied bullshit, and I think it’s the kind of thinking we’d do well to ignore on the whole; and if we can’t then we should apply Who Moved My Cheese for a better purpose, like throwing it at the television, starting a fire, or stabilizing a wobbling table.

The core of what Johnson says is undeniably true, because it is obvious.

We must accept that change happens, since it will occur with our without our acceptance. We should be prepared to act on changing circumstances in a directed way, since failing to respond this way is the kind of folly that leads to poverty, starvation, and death. To survive in the world, we must be prepared for and capable of managing change.

The balance of Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese is sentimental clap trap.

Unwise managers can use this sentimental clap trap to rationalize any change as being good change and use it to require subordinates to enjoy it. Of course, no one can be forced to enjoy anything. What someone can do, however, is punish people who do not enjoy the change (or adopt the plastic smile of agreement). This is goes to the root of the joke, “beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Fortunately, not all managers are unwise, and happily many of them use Who Moved My Cheese under the foot of one leg to their conference table.

Naturally, people must respond to change with a learning attitude and directed action. If we fail to accept change, prepare for the uncertainty change brings, and respond to it with guided action, we will fail – at everything.

That being said, Friday the 18th was the last day of work for a friend of mine, and several thousand other colleagues. I have work to complete and stakeholders to satisfy. I will continue to do this in a guided and directed way. I will continue to be as good a team member as I can be, working collaboratively with my peers to deliver the program. I would prefer, for the sake of dignity, that people stop suggesting that I should enjoy the taste of the new cheese.

(29 October 2017)

Cisco moved my cheese about a year ago.

I got the news the day I returned from vacation during my my first meeting of the day.

Apparently, Cisco doesn’t need experts in Agile software delivery, having stated a need to restructure the company to become more Agile.

The mind boggles.

I am irrationally annoyed at having been laid off.

After Cisco, my life is significantly improved. I found Cisco an experience out of Joseph Heller novel: somewhat comical, frequently absurd, and at key moments painful. The problem with Cisco, one former exec told me, was that they continue to make way too much money. If you can blunder your way into a Market Cap of about $160B, then blunder is by definition success. It drove me nuts.

For me, also, Cisco confused the ability to adjust rapidly to changing conditions in the marketplace with randomness. The groups I worked with adapted to changes in the marketplace they way cockroaches reach when the light flicks on. Leadership seemed both aware of this and unconcerned about it.

One execute instructed us “to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I always considered this as useful guidance as “get dead with being undead.” Another executive had equally useful advice about the rate and pace of change at Cisco: “If you don’t like it, leave.”

I should have.

The problem is that I liked the people that I worked with and that no issues we might be encountering were insurmountable. My mother — who is full of insights — believes that first sentence is nonsense and what kept me at Cisco is that I am “the perfect Irishman: someone who loves a lost cause, where the more it’s lost the more it’s loved.” I’ll leave it at that.

Cisco milled my crazy into a fine powered flour.

Cisco was a place where relationships mattered above all. As an introvert, this is hard to adjust to. As an empiricist, it was hard to tolerate.

Others thrived in it, and I’m going to circle back to the fact that Cisco seemed to thrive on it with that Market Cap at $160B.

Yet, I think the leadership team sees doom on the horizon at every sunset. The rule is adapt or die, and we’ve seen the stalwart leaders of our industry falter and fade. They know that a core business of router and switching hardware is over — there will always be a need for routing and switching, but this isn’t the same as routers and switches.

So, on a regular basis, Cisco jettisons a hell of a lot of people in the effort to reinvent itself. Partly, they do this by shifting salary to priority roles. Partly, they do this by sacrificing loyal employees on the alter of quarterly earnings to appease the Wall Street analysts.

If you work for Cisco, just be aware, that alter is only about tomorrow’s money. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or even what you are doing right now. It only matters what the company thinks you will do tomorrow and whether they need your salary back.

I knew this. I paid off my mortgage. I paid off my car loans. I socked a bunch a capital away for that inevitable rainy day. If I wasn’t prepared for psychologically, I was certainly prepared for it financially.

So, I tried to enjoy being laid off. I hated not being connected to the world through work. I felt disconnected and unattached from the community I lived in. I felt that I was “of the world,” but not “in the world.”

It left me with an uncharitable view of the Cisco. I have moments of malice, where I want to see Cisco fail miserably. I have friends at Cisco. I hold Cisco stock. Wanting this is against the interests of people I care about, including myself. It’s purely irrational.

But, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel it.

I see the social media campaigns and HR promotions, and I think, “gambling only pays when your winning.” Cisco wants to be the company you retire from, until they don’t.

I have a lingering definition of my career as “no longer at Cisco.” Since leaving, I’ve improved my professional certifications, become a leader and mentor in the Agile community in RTP — co-coordinating an Open Space Conference, leading several professional sessions, and contributing a white paper at a conference. I’ve made a difference in the work lives of the teams I’m now working with. In all, I’m thriving…

… because I was laid off from Cisco.

Time solves the problem of grief, and I think that’s what I felt for be expelled from Cisco. It makes no sense, since I should be singling like bird released.

I’ll get there.


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