Long, long ago, so long ago in fact that people didn’t even think Band of Brothers was a documentary (It was the American Rangers who somewhat foolishly parachuted into Arnhem was it? Really? Not the British at all. Let’s move on, shall we?), Tom Hanks made a film called Big.
It was about a boy who makes a wish and turns into a good-looking man in his twenties. Except only his body does. He doesn’t know the rules. While he’d grown-up, (and yes, obviously he checks and yes, obviously) he hadn’t at all where it counts, inside his head. He hadn’t any of the knowledge and experience people assumed he had by looking at him. And it mattered, not least because it left him bewildered and frightened knowing that as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there are known unknowns. Lots of them.
I had much the same thing dealing with the AA this week, exploring the gap between the fact of them being a huge corporation and people sharing knowledge. Because they don’t.
Once upon a time I used to be a partner in a research consultancy. Two of us started it and at one point we had over fifty people working there. But an issue we faced again and again pitching to large corporations was size.
But you’re not very big, it goes. What happens if something happens to one of you when you’re working on our project? That’s the reason we’re reluctant to use you.
Which was true, because although or maybe because we were small, we were extraordinarily good. We did things nobody had ever done before. Interviewed sailors on ships, for example. First face to face all over the world, then by satellite phone. When one of us had a cerebral aneurism in the middle of the most massive job we’d ever had, when the other of us had five DVT episodes, in other words when you could have flipped a coin to predict the odds of either of us ending up dead within the day the client didn’t even notice. Because nothing at all happened to their projects. The other partner picked it up. That’s what partners do. If they’re proper partners, anyway.
The joke is that is emphatically NOT what happens in a corporation. When someone goes on holiday or off sick, more often than not whatever it is they’re working on comes to a halt. Then you’re told ‘it’s only ten days. It’s a planned event.’ But the job’s still stopped dead. One corporate client told me it was ‘impossible’ to get a piece of paper three doors down a corridor in the same time that I was supposed to get a team of interviewers from Luton to Singapore. It couldn’t be done. Hiring a smaller agency creates risk. In that specific case the risk was the smaller agency saying that the Terms & Conditions hadn’t been agreed for the fun of it and if they weren’t honoured the job was stopping until they had, your choice. Apparently this falls under the category ‘difficult to work with.’
The risk was the same this week. I’d sent email to someone at a corporation. They p0honed me up and we had a chat and everything was proceeding smoothly. Then they phoned in sick. And nobody but nobody, knew anything about the conversation, the email or anything else. We had to start again. Which we did and it was fine, except it took a week instead of the day it should have done. I don’t particularly mind that, although it’s inconvenient. I mind the total, over-riding assumption that this is exactly and precisely what doesn’t happen specifically because a large organisation has more people, when so far as I’ve seen it’s exactly and precisely what does.
As for Tom Hanks, at least he had the good grace to get shot in Private Ryan.