Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Star Wars Rogue One - a Cautionary Tale about the Dangers of Bad Upper Management

When we watch Star Wars films, we expect action and adventure, plucky heroes who defy the odds, and stories that reassure us that good eventually triumphs over evil. The newest instalment in the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, delivers all of that, though in a darker, grittier fashion than its predecessors. But what's most interesting is something else that it does: Rogue One offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of bad upper management.

This movie doesn't just contain flat depictions of tyrants who are evil simply because they want to rule the universe. It's an in-depth study of the different types of real, toxic personalities who get into positions of power and weaken organizations; their failings; and the consequences of these problems. What's particularly impressive is that it's not just the Empire that's held up to the microscope; the flaws of the good guys — the leaders of the Rebel Alliance — are exposed too.

Yes, yes. Of course. Spoilers ahead and all that.

Rogue One is told through the eyes of two people trying to find their way in the world. The first is orphan Jyn Erso, a young woman trying to escape from Imperial custody, find her lost father (who was kidnapped by the Empire to help with the Death Star project), and — eventually — bring freedom to the galaxy. The other is Orson Krennic, an Imperial officer who's enthusiastic about his work (as the project leader for the Death Star's construction), and wants some recognition for a job well done — and maybe a promotion.

Both run tragically afoul of bad upper managers in their respective workplaces. Unless you're very fortunate, at some point you've probably worked for, or with, one or more of these types of executives, and you understand the havoc they can wreak on employees and organizations.

Krennic would seem to be the most obvious example of someone who's been victimized by bad managers. Ranking somewhere in the fluid wilderness of middle management on the Imperial org chart (sure, the Death Star is the Empire's biggest project at the moment — that we know about — but Krennic's pay grade isn't as high as a regional governor/Grand Moff, probably not as high as an admiral, certainly not on the level of one of the Emperor's ministers, and definitely not anywhere near a Sith Lord), Krennic is dedicated to doing anything and everything to make his assignment a success. Is he evil? Absolutely. It's hard to feel much pity for someone who's cavalier about mass murder as a measure of his project's success, and who includes kidnapping and murder as part of acceptable human resources practices (even if these activities are accepted part of the Empire's corporate culture). And yet there's no denying that Krennic gets a raw deal. Never mind the expected challenges of having to recruit the right talent (I mean, come on, flying all the way out to the middle of nowhere for a head-hunting meeting to land Galen Erso must have been a real scheduling hassle), obtain the necessary resources, deal with the actual designing of the battlestation (after all, we don't know how much effort the Seperatist forces actually put into the Death Star's blueprints during the Clone Wars — Darth Tyranus might have left Geonosis with nothing more than an exterior appearance concept sketch saved to a jpg file waiting to be printed on a big foamcore sheet for a public information/zoning hearing), planning the construction logistics, and actually getting the thing built, the guy's gotta deal with some of the worst senior management in the galaxy. Starting with Grand Moff/Governor Tarkin.

Because Tarkin is a bully.

Without getting involved in any of the hard work himself, Tarkin constantly tells Krennic that his work isn't good enough, pressures him to get to the job done faster, and threatens him with punishment if the Death Star project fails or has operational shortcomings. It goes without saying that  threatening an employee and putting him or her down all the time doesn't foster top-notch work or loyalty. And demanding faster work on a complex project leads to corner-cutting, stress- and fatigue-induced mistakes, and the potential for disaster.

Moreover, Tarkin's refusal to take any responsibility for delay or failure (also the hallmark of a bullying manager) is done without a hint of irony on his part, even though the governor always reminds Krennic that he is in charge. Tarkin complains about security breaches even though he's heaped security oversight duties onto Krennic, who's specialty is R&D engineering and wearing crisp white tunics and capes, and who's already overworked as the construction foreman. The fault lies with Tarkin for not doing the smart thing and hand-picking oh, I don't know, maybe an actual veteran security expert from the ranks of the Imperial Starfleet or the Emperor's red-robed praetorian guard to handle security for the Empire's biggest and most expensive weapon right from the start. Rather than admitting his mistake or responsibility, Tarkin heaps more pressure and blame on Krennic. You just know that if there was a mis-fire of the Death Star's planetkiller laser, and if the Emperor then called a project post-mortem meeting to discuss what went wrong, Tarkin would bring Krennic along to make a PowerPoint presentation prior to the next item on the agenda: screaming, writhing death by Force lightning.

And, while doing none of the actual work, Tarkin is also the kind of senior manager who relishes in taking all of the credit for successful projects. When Krennic announces that the Death Star is complete and it's main gun is ready for its first firing, Tarkin denies him the opportunity to blow up an entire planet (as the weapon was designed to do), limiting the test to the destruction of a mere city. Tarkin's excuse: "We need a statement, not a manifesto." But that's a lie. If you build a planetkiller, it needs to be tested on a planet, or at least a good-sized moon. But Tarkin doesn't want that to happen while Krennic is around, because Tarkin refuses to allow for the possibility of anyone other than himself getting credit for the success of Project Death Star. He allows Krennic to be present for the destruction of the temple city on Jedha just to make sure that the gun works — a statement, if you will, of its functionality for his own progress reports — but Tarkin clearly wants the public destruction of an entire planet — the issuing of the Empire's manifesto of its supreme power — to be ordered, overseen by, and credited to himself alone. There's a real emphasis on Tarkin being associated with the weapon's first major test, and with that being necessarily highly publicly visible. We see this later (in the overall timeline of the franchise) in the governor's statement to Princess Leia in A New Hope about the need to destroy Alderaan because Dantooine was too remote. It's pretty clear that Tarkin had two criteria to determine the completeness of the project: the successful test fire of the main gun (because, hey, if you can take out a city and the surrounding countryside, the planetkiller setting will probably work too), and the elimination of any possible security leaks around the battlestation's plans. Once the city on  Jedha was destroyed, Tarkin's only use for Krennic was to do the mop-up dirty work of killing anyone who might have leaked the details of the station's schematics. After that, Tarkin could get rid of Krennic so he could take all the credit for the Death Star's success for himself.

And there's no doubt that getting rid of Krennic was always part of Tarkin's plan. As stated before, the governor was all too willing to throw Krennic under the bus in the event of failure, but the outcome of the raid on Scarif also makes it pretty clear that Tarkin was going to eliminate him one way or another even if the project was a success. Tarkin blows up the Imperial archive base on Scarif knowing full well that Krennic is down there (on Tarkin's orders). Could Krennic have been killed in the fighting? Sure. But he could also still be alive. Tarkin doesn't even bother to call and check. Given his success on the Death Star, Krennic is obviously one of, if not the most effective project managers currently in the Empire — an important staff resource for any organization. And yet Tarkin's all to willing to vaporize him with a giant laser or see him crushed by a tsunami just to ensure that the governor gets all the credit for himself. Under these circumstances, it's not unreasonable to speculate that even if Krennic and the archive base's general had succeeded in crushing the Rebel raid and prevented the Death Star plans from being transmitted off-site, Tarkin would still have found a way to remove him. Best case scenario: Tarkin would have banished Krennic to some unimportant outpost in the middle of nowhere where no-one of rank would ever hear from him again. No further work on major projects like "Black Sabre" or "Scruffy Nerf-herder" or whatever other labels get put on the Emperor's X-files, just assignments like designing a new sewage system for an abandoned industrial park on Coruscant, or testing the cold resistance of Wookiee hair versus Wampa fur, or evaluating the nutritional value of blue milk versus Gorax armpit sweat. Worst case scenario: Tarkin would have had Krennic executed as soon as he was back aboard the Death Star, if not blown out of the sky when his shuttle was on final approach. You could argue that if Krennic had survived, he would have been a risk to the Empire if Tarkin ignored or marginalized him, because, for revenge, he could have defected to the Rebellion or at least sold the battlestation's blueprints to them. But it's a lot simpler than that. Tarkin is type of manager who's insecure about staff who do good work and have ambition about advancing through the company ranks. Tarkin wanted all of the credit, Krennic demanded to be recognized for his efforts, and so Krennic was going to die.

Grand Moff Tarkin: the type of senior manager who bullies staff by threatening them and telling them that they're of no consequence, who makes unreasonable demands on project completion, who refuses to share any responsibility for failure, and who buries staff who do good work so he can take all the credit.

But he's not the only example of a toxic senior management style. There's also Darth Vader: the wagon circler.

When things get bad working under Tarkin, Krennic goes to the next executive on the ladder (or, even if Vader isn't Tarkin's superior, he's at least another vice-president-level boss who has some interest in the project) and asks for some intervention, or at least clarification of roles and responsibilities. As is proper. After all, most organizations would say that ideally, if a staffer has a problem with his or her boss, the staffer should try to work things out with the boss, and, failing that, go up the ladder or to HR. Krennic does that. And is told by the Dark Lord of the Sith to fall in line, quit whining and get the job done, and forget about any aspirations for a promotion. There's obviously a problem with Tarkin's behaviour, but instead of doing anything about it, Vader's the type of senior manager who circles the wagons with other executives when something goes wrong. Whether it's because Vader and Tarkin are golf buddies at the Emperor's annual Texas scramble tournament, or because the Sith Lord thinks he's already got enough on his plate without having to deal with an HR issue in someone else's department, or because he wants to avoid getting into a pissing match with another VP, or because the Emperor's apprentice thinks that dealing with a problem involving another senior manager would expose a weakness in the organization's overall management staffing and strategy that would make all the executives look bad, or because Ani just doesn't give a shit about the little people, he does nothing. It's a management style that's bad for any organization because it hurts morale, increases the likelihood of losing good workers, and can ultimately cause operations to go off the rails because the people in charge are making poor decisions. Need proof? Vader does nothing about Tarkin's behaviour during the Death Star's construction, initial testing, and the raid on Scarif, resulting in not only the loss of a talented engineer and project manager, but an entire archiving base (and who knows how many important documents contained therein that didn't have copies in other locations), two Star Destroyers, several fighters, and countless personnel. One might even argue that Tarkin's behaviour in Rogue One planted the seeds for the Death Star's destruction in A New Hope. And Vader could have intervened and prevented the whole affair. Instead he chose to back, or at least tolerate, Tarkin and his bad management practices.

But don't think that having toxic executives is a failing exclusive to the Empire. It would be too easy to dismiss it as simply being a case of an evil begetting evil and necessarily attracting people to senior management who are flawed to the point of weakening their organization. After all, look at Hank Scorpio (The Simpsons), Aunty Entity (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), or Thulsa Doom (1982's Conan the Barbarian). These are badguys who have built fairly solid organizations, expanding the reach and success of their operations, building infrastructure, hiring effective and unified senior managers (mostly), recognizing risks and trying to deal with them, and generally treating their staff well. Bad upper management is a risk any organization (large or small, public or private sector, corporate or non-profit, good or evil) runs if it doesn't honestly look at and monitor its senior management as scrupulously as it does its front-line staff. Rogue One makes it abundantly clear that the Rebel Alliance has this problem too. And it's a problem that ultimately gets Jyn Erso killed.

Let's start with General Draven: the close-minded manager.

Draven is apparently the chief of the Rebellion's covert operations/dirty tricks/black ops/assassination division. Initially, he appears to be ruthlessly effective at the job, coordinating Cassian Andor's activities, identifying Jyn as a potential asset and ordering her extraction from Imperial custody (you can't really say that she was "freed" because the Rebels don't give her her liberty once she's out of the prison wagon — K-2SO knocks her flat), and coordinating an air strike on the Imperial kyber refinery on Eadu. In fact, his goal of engineering the murder of Galen is so single-minded and unremitting that he seems as bloodthirsty as Saw Gererra is rumoured to be. And yet, it's that single-mindedness that makes Draven a poor senior manager in the Rebellion hierarchy. When his operatives bring Jyn to him, his only thought is to use her to flush out her father so the Death Star engineer can be killed. There's no indication that Draven is willing to consider using Jyn to capture Galen to pump him for information, or maybe convert him to the Rebel cause and put him to work helping to actively identify weaknesses in the battlestation and coordinate attacks, or maybe even design some cool weapons or defensive systems for the Alliance that might help even the odds against the superior Imperial fleet. Instead, he's fixated on assassination and wastes a potential resource. In fact, his well-organized airstrike on Eadu proves that he jumps the gun rather than thinking out the possibilities — were it not for the X-wing attack on the refinery, Galen might have been alive for the Rebels to kidnap and exploit.

Draven is also a victim of limited thinking in the wake of the Eadu attack when he refuses to consider the possibility that Jyn (and by extension, Galen) may be telling the truth about the Death Star having a critical weakness in its design. He then goes further and argues against any attempt to try to steal the battlestation's plans. A lack of faith in front-line employees is a sure way to demoralize them and cause the organization to lose talented staff. If Draven had been better at his job and more open to possibilities, the raid on the Imperial archive on Scarif could have been better planned, equipped, and staffed. Rather than merely being a success because Jyn's commandos and Admiral Raddus' fleet were able to get the plans out (and only being a success because of that hand-off, since nearly everybody died in the attempt), a better organized raid might have resulted in the capture of other important information from the archive (like, say, the names of Imperial agents sent to infiltrate the Rebellion, or structural plans that would facilitate a break-in at the Imperial palace on Coruscant, or the list of Emperor Palpatine's favourite hamburger toppings that could be poisoned — or worse, waylaid to create Imperial frustration with an inadequately dresesed burger) and maybe more of the Rebel staff making it out of that raid alive. And Draven has to take some of the blame for those losses. Caution is one thing, but a good manager knows to look at all the possibilities, and is sometimes willing to take a chance on a plan that could have a big pay-off. In many respects, Draven's the kind of person who should never have made it to the executive level. Rather, he'd be more effective at a much lower management level where he could focus on one particular set of tasks, and where he couldn't limit the Rebellion's ability to at least investigate, if not completely exploit, new opportunities.

Speaking of hardasses, Saw Gererra is another senior manager you wouldn't want to have in your organization. He's the brilliant tactician who's doesn't understand long-term planning.

Now, let's get the obligatory detail-obsessed nerdy nitpicking out of the way: technically, no, Gererra is not an official member of the Rebel Alliance. He's the independent leader of a separate terrorist group who's seen as a little too extreme by the Rebel leadership (The Rebels shoot nervous contacts in alleys; Gererra's people start firefights with Imperial transport columns in the middle of busy urban streets where tiny children are present, so it's a matter of degrees between Rebel freedom fighters and Gererra terrorists. I guess.). But that's splitting hairs. Clearly Gererra and the Rebel leaders know each other and it's likely they've worked together in the past, and while they've technically gone their separate ways, Draven's attempt to contact Gererra for info on Galen is clearly and indication that there's a desire to work together again in the future. So he's separate, but not that separate. Like a former partner in a business who's become an independent contractor that might be brought back in at some point, or the head of a stakeholder agency that's in the same field who might be convinced to partner-up on certain sectoral initiatives, or the head of a separate division in a large conglomerate.

So, under the overall umbrella of groups rebelling against the Empire, as executive team members go, Gererra is highly effective at leading his team when he's focussed on challenges in front of him, like organizing an ambush, or roughing-up a defecting Imperial pilot to determine his reliability. But in the final analysis, he's a poor leader because he hasn't planned ahead, addressed major threats to the organization (like the possibility of something big coming along and blowing everybody up), or come up with strategies to prevent, minimize, or evade those threats. Granted, to be fair, something as ridiculously huge as the Death Star and its ability to destroy Jedha's temple city and Gererra's base  and several hundred square kilometres of surrounding territory might be unforeseeable. Except for the fact that the Death Tomato-er-Star (Muppet Babies flashback) was sitting there in orbit for all to see, getting shipments of kyber crystals everyday, which should have tipped him off that something seriously bad could happen. But even beyond that, Gererra doesn't escape criticism because he could have planned for other, entirely reasonable threats to his base, like having its security compromised and its location leaked, and waking up one day to have a Star Destroyer parked overhead about to begin an overwhelming aerial/spatial bombardment — which would have had the same practical effect as the blast wave from the nearby strike from the Death Star's main gun. Gererra should have installed planetary-defence-strength shields like the Rebels later did on Hoth in 'Empire, or, if that strong an energy signature would have advertised his position, then at least a means to evacuate all of his troops quickly and efficiently (like a transport, or set of escape pods, or super high-speed underground rail line). Anything to get his people out safely and allow them to regroup and launch a counter-attack. But he didn't. The very real possibility of having his base wiped off the map in some form of attack didn't occur to him. And it got all of his people — including Gererra himself — killed.

Back within the ranks of the Rebel Alliance proper, if we're looking for more examples of bad management at the executive level, pretty much every faction leader around the board room table is guilty of weakening their organization. With the exception of Admiral Raddus, Senator Bail Organa, and Senator Mon Motha (although her managerial failings will be examined shortly), none of them recognize the opportunity presented by Jyn's Death Star information (either disbelieving her or not bothering to take the time to consider it) to take the initiative in the next phase of the war against the Empire. They're also unable to agree on a single course of action for the common good. There isn't even any talk of compromise: different faction leaders just start threatening to walk away from the table. This leaves the Rebellion in the position of doing nothing in the face of a new threat, and creates the very real possibility that its factions could break apart, rendering each less effective in mounting a resistance (whether armed or merely politically) and making it easier for the Empire to pick them off one by one. This lack of solidarity among the members of the senior management team and their inability to act on opportunity makes them, as much as General Draven, responsible for the raid on Scarif being as ill-planned as it was, and for the deaths of everyone involved and the loss of valuable equipment.

Which takes us right to the top: Senator Mon Motha, the weak leader.

Admittedly, there are differences between being the leader of a coalition engaged in an armed political uprising and the CEO of a corporation or executive director of a non-profit or chief bureaucrat or elected official in a government. More diplomacy is needed; firing people can be difficult when they're volunteers who are armed and don't want to leave; and if one of your faction leaders doesn't like how things are going, they can pack up an entire division of the organization and go their own way — or knock the boss off and take over. Although, a disloyal exec can quit, entice talent away from the company, and set up his/her own shop,  and those with an eye on power can sweet-talk a company or charity's board of directors into changing the leadership. So it is fair to criticize Mon Motha in the context of allowing bad senior managers to hold her organization back.

As the leader of the Rebel Alliance (and it's pretty clear that she is the CEO, or president, or chair of the board, or executive director, based on her interactions with Draven, how she's trying to run the meeting of the heads of the various Rebel factions, and, later in Return of the Jedi, how she's on-site prior to the attack on Death Star II to give the big pep talk), Mon Motha suffers from a pair of related problems: she can't keep control of her senior executives, and she's unable ensure their unity.

From the scenes in the Rebel command centre on the moon of Yavin, we get the impression that Draven reports to Mon Motha. He may plan and coordinate military operations, but it's pretty clear that he has to keep her apprised of the situation, and that she has the final say in what's going to happen. This is emphasized when Jyn and Cassian are about to leave for Eadu, and Draven quietly takes the spy aside and instructs him to kill Galen regardless of how things go. The fact that the general does this so surreptitiously gave me the impression that he wasn't just trying to prevent Jyn from overhearing; he didn't want Mon Motha catching wind of the scheme either because she'd disapprove and possibly override him. The fact that this is happening at all illustrates that the senator doesn't have control over her senior staff. How many other operations are going on without her knowledge or consent that might impact the Rebellion's survival — or it's public image (something a career politician would be especially sensitive to)? If she had control over her executives, this wouldn't have happened.

This lack of control over her senior management team becomes a full-blown crisis at the end of the film when she's unable to keep the various faction leaders unified as they react to the news of the Death Star's destruction of the temple city on Jedha. Some, like Admiral Raddus, want to keep fighting, others insist on hiding, others think the war's over and they should disband, while some call for open negotiations with the Empire, which is tantamount to surrender. It ends with some groups walking away from the table and threatening to leave the Alliance if other factions insist on fighting and possibly incurring the Empire's planet-killing wrath. It also ends with Jyn and Casssian leading a band of other front-line staff in an impromptu raid on Scarif without the knowledge of Mon Motha and the other executives, and thus without the opportunity for better planning. And Mon Motha is helpless through the whole thing.  She clearly doesn't have enough control over the others — whether through respect or leverage — to make a final decision, issue an order, and have them follow it. She's unable to bring them around to her position through reason or diplomacy. And she fails to inspire them to remain united and redouble their efforts to bring down the Empire. There's no rousing "Will you stand together?" speech like Captain Sheridan's when he returned from Z'ha'dum on Babylon 5, or the not-quite-as-strong-but-still-adequate "Victory or death!" speech from Ambassador Enduran in The Last Starfighter. Rather, she's ringing her hands helplessly, probably dreaming of the future when in Return of the Jedi when she can make a sad little statement about the deaths of many Bothans (thereby alienating everyone else in the Alliance who's worked to expose the secret construction of Death Star II). It's a failure to give them the inspiration for success that they need when they need it the most. The result is a Rebel Alliance so fractious that anyone can do pretty much anything he/she wants.

That's not to say Mon Motha needs to be like her opposite number, Emperor Palapatine. There's no need for Force lightning or choking, Order 66, or Death Stars. But a good CEO needs to have earned the respect of her senior managers so that when she makes an informed decision and issues orders, they'll carry them out. Because Mon Motha fails in this respect, it's amazing the Alliance managed to survive, never mind eventually win control over a sizeable chunk of the galaxy.

The New Republic seems to have been founded in spite of its leadership, not because of it. For that matter, the Empire seems to have rolled along as long as it did on inertia, rather because of any quality in its executive team (at least those presented in the films). Ultimately, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn't standing on a soapbox and shouting a full manifesto on how to build the perfect organization, nor is it a class warrior anarchist screed against all people in positions of power. But it does make a statement about the dangers of having bad upper management. And when we hear regular stories in the news about organizations plagued by workplace bullying and harassment, disaffected and burnt-out employees, companies or whole industries weakened by short-sightedness or dissension among the ranks, or greedy leaders focussed only on their own personal gain, it seems Rogue One is perhaps the most grimly relevant instalment of the Star Wars franchise for our times.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Becoming a Caricature of Myself

Happy New Year, everyone! Whatever you celebrated this past holiday season — even if it was just a chance to sit back and relax for a day — I hope everything went well for you and the new year is off to a good start.

Normally I try not to brag about my holiday haul of presents, but one (well, two, given together) was so nerdily awesome that I just had to share:

My wife had a couple of caricatures done portraying me as Ned Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire and Captain Chaos (perhaps the greatest superhero of all time) from The Cannonball Run (she decided that both should also include representations of our science fictionally-named cats, Ripley and Melanie, making trouble, as usual). The art was done by a friend of hers, Karen Poon, who was one of the animators on My Little Pony.

For years, I'd always thought it would be fun to have a little vanity piece like a personalized comic book cover hanging in my study, and while these pictures aren't quite the same thing, they're pretty cool and will get their place of pride on the wall.