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Stress And The Art Of Self-destruction

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Subeer Bhattacharya grabbed his mobile phone and peered at who was calling. It was 4.40 a.m. The name was not clear. He reached for his glasses. It was Arundhati Raina. So early? People have gone mad. Maybe she was still in the lab? “What happened?” he asked worried.

Arundhati: Harry has called for a video conference at 5 a.m. our time. Be there!

Subeer was confused. Why an unscheduled meeting? He opened his mailbox on his phone and saw an invitation from Harry Sugarman, Luxetta’s global head of Product R&D (research & development). The meeting would start in 20 minutes, and the entire global R&D team was invited. He dialled in and saw that very few of the Indian staff were on the call. After all, there was not much notice given…

A few desultory side chats started up, as they waited for Harry to come on and start the meeting. No one knew why this meeting had been called and at such a time. There had been rumours of a management change. There were rumours that a few people would be laid off. A few product developments had gone awry or at least that was the verdict. The entire energy was negative, there was a lot of tension in the air. The annual R&D team meeting had not been held this year. Budget cuts, they said. Vacant positions had not been filled for over a year and everyone was stretched. Often they did work that they were not actually qualified to do….

Subeer yawned. He had come home at 3 a.m. after an R&D audit — an accessory on a home appliance had been found to be faulty after the launch and the heat had been turned on by marketing. If it was not rework then it was because ‘technology changed while you were brushing your teeth …’

The entire R&D team at Luxetta had been living on the edge for over a year. New technologies were coming at R&D every day. Jamie from the European region was yawning too as he said, “SOS meeting was called last night; someone in the auto industry invented something and suddenly there was this idea that ‘it could be borrowed into one of our products to make it more interesting’. (Others laughed) Seriously! None of us knew what it was about and yet, we were all giving an opinion about it. We were all having these conversations and getting super worked up about it, and reading up on it. But seldom do we pause to ask the question, ‘Is it really necessary to load more features onto a refrigerator or microwave oven, even if it sounds like a grand idea?”

Subeer: Crazy times. Our managers are being pushed to squeeze more productivity out of all of us, so working in areas that were not our specialisation. We would be passed off as experts to the 3P vendors to give them specifications for product design. No idea what they were asking about but we would emphasise the learning and then brainstorm with friends in industry, old colleagues, classmates, whoever we could find.

Of course, sometimes this resulted in hilarious situations like when Govind got some numbers mixed up and blew up the prototype of C16-8X that was nearly ready for marketing to comment on. We lost weeks of work and, of course, the frustration got to all of us.

Nalpat: Oh, yes, there was even this time when someone sabotaged the computer that Andre was working on. We were all very stressed.

Graham: And John (Kramer, head of Europe R&D), the star of the organisation in the eyes of the CEO, was turning cartwheels trying to meet the growing and larger than life global expectations. It is absurd. But super hero that he is, he made no mistakes.

Bill Denver (Florida, USA): Not a good super hero though. I had heard from his previous team in the US that he passed on most of that stress to them, asking them to perform unrealistic tasks in unrealistic time frames, asking them for answers to questions that they had no idea about, and all that “in the next two hours”. He has been pretty manic.

Subeer heard them through his half sleepy state. He did not think John passed the buck. He liked John. On impulse he said, “We like John. He is going to spend three months in a year in India. He has spunk.

Arundhati (interrupting): …and the raw end of the US’ convoluted strategy…

Bill: How do you mean? I am US …

Arundhati: HQ expectations have been rising higher every quarter. We are working odd hours to keep pace with work. We have to work with teams in other parts of the world in order to help them meet those tough deadlines. Come on, what is all this if not convoluted?

the announcement had come a week ago. John was moving to Asia. John Kramer, head of Europe region’s R&D, was moving to Asia. (but John was the rope in a tug of war … More on that later). He had chosen Indonesia as headquarter, but was toying with India too. He loved India, really loved India. But the clutter was insane he said. Just too much of everything and the traffic. But he would work summers in India when most people went away on vacation. The load will be less, he had laughed. Jenna in New Delhi was already talking to some real estate chaps in Vasant Vihar and Gurgaon. John had said he would like to be close to a golf course.

So, what did John’s move herald? Someone said John was likely not happy with the move. More speculation flew around.

The call started and Harry Sugarman thanked everyone for being on the call. He then broke the news: John, the new Asia regional head, had died a few hours ago following a massive heart attack.

A chorus of gasps left the 11 who were online and for some time there was chaos. Harry had expected this. He waited as the incredulous teams expressed shock in turns.

Subeer sliced the cacophony when he said, “I don’t believe this at all!  Just last week we were talking. He had seemed so excited to come to the region from the US. He had never lived in Asia before and the variety of the work we were doing seemed to interest him a lot. He would be moving over in about 20 days’ time and had discussed with the local staff the various possible housing options before him. And here … O boy!

Jamie: What happened? How come … I mean, what happened?

Harry: A sudden heart attack, a massive one. Not sure what led to it. May be runs in the family…

Joshua: Brought on by work-related stress, clearly.

This was the first thought that had come to Subeer too. John was hit by a silent killer. But Madhav? Was Madhav’s paralysis also a silent stalker that pervades some stressed out lives?

Harry said the entire region in Europe was overcome. They did not want John to go and he had said they should try and hold him back … he was being funny.

Or was he? The many computers that held on to Harry’s had one question, “Did you not see it coming?”
Harry took a deep breath and said, “John had seemed so enthusiastic about his move to Asia, how could you not believe him? He has been nuts about Indonesia all his life and here it was coming true. He had turned some brilliant work for Kitch (Luxetta’s home appliances product division) in the last two weeks, that our CEO Marcus Marsh had commended — you should watch the video of John’s wonderful presentation at the worldwide conference last month — he was in form! And all in all, he seemed to have an infinite amount of energy to do all the things he was doing. He did not look like a man harbouring any illness. What happened was sudden, he had not complained of any symptoms until then.”

Subeer thought. A massive heart attack happened because of some neglect. Either knowingly or unknowingly and both were controllable factors to a very large extent, he thought. But there must have been some symptom, some prelude…

The funeral took place the next day with a whole lot of people from the company attending. News filtered in from some colleagues who had met John’s wife Mariann. She told them that John had been having occasional discomfort in the neck and jaw and there had been shortness of breath after some soccer games he played with the boys. “But we never once thought he was ‘unwell’ or needed help. Rather unusual for him,” she had said and added, “I wish I had taken that seriously.” But because John was 6’7, he alluded that to his cervical pain brought on by too much work in the lab. “He told me he would be better once we moved to Asia,” said Mariann. “I just had not shared this with his co-workers, after all any admission of sickness would be a wimpish thing to do. Moreover, the CEO had said he depended on John to turn things around at Kitch, which was facing so much competition — John was telling me. And this high visibility event at which they both presented the latest breakthrough idea, meant so much to John. He kept telling me that the idea launch could not wait as ‘we have to be the first to enter the market with the idea’.”
Mariann’s words held some pointers to the pressures on John but they were pressures in the course of business, most felt.

Luxetta Worldwide had been experiencing a churn for some time. The Chinese market had put paid to some of its key initiatives or so Luxetta bosses claimed in conferences. Last year, Luxetta’s competitors from China had stolen a march over them. “Someone even said that the Chinese competitor had simply hired our entire senior research team, leaving us high and dry just as we were getting close to the end product,” Graham had told Subeer. “We were under pressure from our shareholders and board to show some quick results.”

That situation had soon resulted in the entire global company becoming one large pressure cooker. Tempers flew, global R&D head Harry had a tiff with CEO Marcus, he was sidelined for a few months, which then gave rise to rumours that the new R&D diagnostics division would be shut down. Luxetta had set up a new diagnostics R&D division to include new product development diagnostics, which also examined post-purchase usage, consumer disappointment and particularly usage situation behaviours.

A flurry of activity got generated by the seeming fluster and frustration hitting Luxetta. Unproductive conversations, pointless speculations … and some of the younger folks started scanning job sites for newer opportunities. Some in R&D also moved to sales in sheer desperation. It was sad, because some were thorough misfits in the sales organisation, and the stress quotient shot up carrying the ripple all over the organisation.

Luxetta was hurting everywhere. The China bogeyman reared its head up every now and then. So every meeting would have flavours of : ‘Now China has launched it but in a shorter time. So we must cut short our development time and R&D must also take responsibility for quality.’

This had been John’s nemesis — speed versus quality.

Everyone wanted new packaging, new product, and they wanted it ‘now’. And if you delivered ‘today’ but your product failed on quality, then you were told you are a hard worker but not a smart worker. It was funny how nobody was willing to face failure. Subeer told Graham, “I know we work for success, sure. But if something fails, we have never been willing to examine and study the failure. It is absurd how people go off the handle! Nobody wants negative fallout on a brand. Do you know our noiseless juicer failed in three markets rather badly and was withdrawn from the market but marketing carried it on the website anyway? Because we were in denial, we did not want to admit our juicer had failed.”

Technology was changing so fast that it had them gasping. Technology was not just ‘convenience’; that was primitive and ‘old fashioned village talk’. Technology was deconstructing existing businesses and in some cases demolishing them. No doubt it was also creating new markets as in the case of cell phones, and naturally a crazy, large segment of new users, which is what made business even more efficient and lives more productive, but then looking at some of the debris, John and his team had been aghast and often floundered when they had to recommend new product ideas because even as it remained in research, chances were somebody was already standing there with a hammer that would come down heavily as soon as the next technologically fabulous product was in the market.

For example, just yesterday in India, exactly this played out much to the confusion of R&D. There was this fabulous five-door refrigerator which John and his team had kept in research for three years. In 1980, ‘three years in research’ would have won them bonuses and gold medals. In 2013, John nearly lost his job for not pulling the refrigerator into the market faster.

So the Liza Extra, the fabulous multi-door with a central panel that stored wine, which was meant to knock the winds off the sails of three competing brands, failed in the test round as the through-the-door ice and water dispenser feature failed again and again…and again. John had been unhappy with the failures but he was unwilling to push it into the market. He had said that this one feature would ruin the brand name as these were the most repair prone parts of the fridge. And there had been an argument over whether the ice-dispenser was a male thing or a female expression of convenience too and many veered to the view that ice-through-door was the cool-factor that men sought for it allowed them to enter the kitchen and seem like self-help kings which they were not.

John had laughed then. He agreed. His footfall would increase in the kitchen as a result but, jokes aside, he didn’t want the product to be declared a failure as a result. He had explained to marketing that if the door dispenser failed as it was prone to, the whole contraption on the door was going to be the ad for the fridge. “Imagine your young lady friend walks up to the fridge to shake some ice into her glass and you say, Oh-oh, honey, the ice thingy is temporarily out of order…. And her eyes go straight to the brand name…. you want that?”

Marketing had said he was overstating a small feature problem but when John took it to his team they were angry.

John’s Europe team — Joey, Sally, Theo and Larry — was indignant. Graham, part of the support team of this same team shared with the rest on Hangout: “We had worked on this thing for months and were proud of it. We wanted to see the product succeed. Every time I see a Kitch product in the multi-brand stores on my way home, I swagger just that little bit. I know my department has had a role to play in creating those beauties.... So, when John came back and said that marketing wanted to get the thing into production right away, we were mortified. ‘How can you allow this to happen, John?’ everyone yelled. John explained the importance of getting it out — the MR team had intelligence that showed at least three other brands were about to announce their products this year-end and our company was behind on schedules. No, the problem had to be fixed. But Sally and Theo were certain it wasn’t a design issue. It was in engineering and production…”

Raul Magor from the Washington team had also been at John’s funeral. Raul now shared the discussion he heard the others have, as he stood by politely. There had been Mariann, John’s wife, Harry and Sara Woods from Operations. Mariann was saying, “He never talked detail, he was always a smiling, ‘Hi honey’ kind of person, loved the kids to distraction, took it to heart when he missed their soccer game… so he was not going to sit and tell me this went wrong or that. But he asked me if I cared about an ice dispenser on my fridge...Later, you Harry, told me there had been a battle over the ice dispenser?”

At another web meeting three days after the funeral, people had the same questions. Today Nalpat from India asked, “Harry, never mind the ice dispenser. Are we saying John was under stress? Are we saying the ice thing built his blood pressure upwards? Or are we saying he had a proneness to hypertension? Which one is it?

Harry: His last medical tests had shown his BP was erratic. So, he was on mild medication.

Jaffer Nenzee: It had to be much more to knock him out for good.

But they sat alone in their work stations after the lights on their laptops had been shut… each one roasting in the confusion of John’s sudden passing. What the hell, they thought. It is not that they did not know of life’s unpredictablility but they knew that some things were so easily predicted. Such as their own product sales. Such as stress and the heart’s response. Then what was a company like theirs, that was known the world over for its technological greatness, limply falling prey to a cardiac arrest? This was immensely stupid.

Jaffer called his doctor Dr Nathani, “Doc saab, our boss who was to move to Asia and who has been in touch with us almost round the clock, just died of a massive heart attack. Are these things so silent and secretive?”

Dr Nathani: In today’s day and age to die of cardiac conditions is easy and difficult as well. Easy, if you are a careless idiot. Difficult if you know the simple rules of the game. There are rules of diet and discipline and respect for the body machinery. It is as simple as that. But it demands discipline.

Jaffer: That is what is tough. Work keeps me till 9, 10 p.m.… I eat dinner at 11… what should I do?
Dr Nathani: I can tell you, but will you do it? Quit your job!

But John had instead quit life ….. no, this was not as simple as that, felt Jaffer.  

To be continued...

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 24-08-2015)

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