Payroll systems are the Russian winter of corporate strategy

2016 USARAK Winter Games, by U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK)
2016 USARAK Winter Games.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Alaska.

Is there something about payroll systems that cause everyone who mucks with them to be destroyed?  It’s as if payroll systems have deep dark secrets, requiring years of study to allow people to interact with them safely.  Indiana Jones achieved a doctorate before his most epic physical quests.  How much do we need to learn about payroll systems before attempting to make improvements?

In last week’s blog post I provided a summary of the Auditor General’s report on the Government of Canada’s Phoenix payroll fiasco.  Whenever I read about the Phoenix fiasco, I shed a tear for anyone who has goals.  Payroll is supposed to be one of those things that happens automatically in the background.  The rules are clear, the numbers are known, and most of the decisions have already been made.  All that’s required is that we upgrade the software every few decades.  What could possibly go wrong?

But it is exactly that presumptuousness which is fatal.  Have you ever talked to a payroll person?  These are people who quietly persevere doing intelligent work with no glory.  They are careful, and they discourage foolish moves.  Do they know something I don’t about the risks of screwing everything up?

Payroll Systems are Like Russian Winter

I came up with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Soviet Russia as the right metaphor to describe the Phoenix payroll fiasco. It is a great allegory that demonstrates how grand plans can be ruined by a complex landscape and the blindness of arrogance.

There’s a really good article about winter combat produced by the U.S. Army.  It’s titled Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies, by Dr. Allen F. Chew, December 1981 under the Leavenworth Papers series from the Combat Studies Institute.  It covers three major battles, the third of which is the battle between Germany and Russia in the winter of 1941-42.

With winter combat, preparing well in advance is key.  Combat engagements in the freezing winter are sensitive to whether troops have “…appropriate clothing, weapons, and transport for that harsh environment.  Acclimatization and pertinent training are also essential.”  Appropriate transport means pony carts, as the animals keep warm when busy.  For appropriate weapons, landmines malfunction when the detonator is encrusted with ice.  Burning campfires with charcoal instead of wood reduces the visibility of the plume of smoke.

The Soviets also had larger numbers of trained ski troops because they had learned from their engagement in Finland a few years earlier.  Skis are critical for covering longer distances without getting exhausted.  This lesson was available to anyone who did their homework.  For the Russians, this homework was like an overview of yesterday’s lecture.

Also, defense has the advantage.  Soldiers on the offensive must expose themselves to freezing winds in addition to oncoming gunfire.  Attackers also lose the element of surprise because sound travels better on the snow’s crust.  Those who stay-put are more likely to win.

There is a theme that you must hang back a little, and look for small tactical tips that make a big difference.  Leaders must seek out this information and reflect on what this means for efforts big and small.

The Cold Teaches You Humility in Leadership

Leadership and strategy are all about the embodiment and communication of the most suitable emotional state and mindset.  With winter combat, what is most important is having humility, knowing there is so much to learn.  There’s a traditionalist saying that we stand on the backs of giants.  Those who came before us learned their lessons the hard way, and we must heed their lessons.  Particularly if they lost.

…perhaps the most important lesson is simply the folly of ignoring the pertinent lessons. …the highest German commanders were slow to profit from Russian examples [of the past] because of their feeling of superiority, and some refused to learn until they went down in defeat. There may be a message for others in that conceit. [p. 41, emphasis added]

These lessons echo the Phoenix payroll fiasco, as Phoenix was an epic blunder of arrogance and the negation of contrary evidence.  We can interpret that the size and importance of a major project can warp a leader’s ego.  Unwieldy efforts can be intimidating, and in order to move them forward you may need some bold and reckless courage.  But that’s an emotional posture that you would need to choose, logically.  If you actually are a bold and reckless person whose courage comes from an illogical abandonment of information, then you’re in a pickle.  Instead of advancing emotional strength, you may be advancing emotions that are relatively stronger than a hobbled intellect.  And that spells trouble.

Phoenix was most significantly damaged by the failure to identify that centralizing payroll processing in Miramichi resulted in a skills and productivity dip amongst new staff.  The phenomenon was real, and incoming information that this skills dip was a material problem turned out to be something that could not be overlooked.  Executives negated the evidence, and small problems became part of a landscape that could not be overcome.

A more reasonable goal is to not be destroyed by the landscape.  You would develop this goal because you observed from experience, and from your homework, that the environment is humbling.

Maybe you, too, can adopt the chill demeanor of a payroll representative wearing wool socks by the fire when it’s winter outside.  Who wants to go outside and play?  Not me.  I think I’ll sip hot chocolate while looking out the window, watching the snowfall, ever so slowly.

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