Called In, Got No Answer

June 27, 2010

Years ago, I worked for a huge health insurance conglomerate as a Data Integrity Manager, or some such. I hesitate to name the firm, but its employees often referred to its labyrinthine automated phone system as “Called In, Got No Answer”, a phrase which happens to bear similar initial letters as the mother company, surely a coincidence. I was clearly not cut out for a corporate environment: my daily ability to arrive to the office in a timely manner was suspect at best, although I did my best to make up for that by leaving immediately at the close of the work day; my attitude vis-à-vis authority was execrable; my political correctness, always a weak point, occasionally dropped off the scale entirely.

On one memorable occasion, I was summoned to the home office in Connecticut, along with my immediate supervisor, to attend a series of seminars on such hot-button topics as sensitivity, the delivery of bad news, delegation of authority, and the granddaddy of all workplace issues, Teamwork. The TEAMWORK COACH (the capital letters were not my idea; he clearly thought he deserved them, as his name badge fairly shouted out his title) was named Bob, although he pronounced it “Bawb”, and I shall refer to him in this manner henceforth. Bawb was clearly a teamwork guy, and over the course of an afternoon, he intended to make all his charges teamwork guys (and gals) as well. He chose to demonstrate the value of teamwork by giving us a math problem to solve individually. It was a verbal problem, and we had to write it down as he explained it. It went something like: “(Three times nine, plus four), divided by (seventeen, times two, minus six, plus fourteen), plus (four, plus eight…)”; there was more, but you get the idea. So as I was writing down the problem, I was solving it as I went along, and of course I had the answer about three seconds after he stopped talking. He pulled out his stopwatch and said “Okay, begin; you have thirty seconds.” To be fair, I worked the problem again from the beginning, ensured that I had the right answer, and raised my hand when I finished. A couple of other hands went up about the same time as mine, but Bawb called on me.

“Thirty-four,” I said. “Bingo,” Bawb replied. “And it took you twenty-two seconds to arrive at the solution. Now let’s take the problem, break it down into its component parts, assign each part to one member of the team, and see how quickly we solve it.” (Wait a minute; he’s giving us the same problem that we just finished, the one for which we already know the answer? Something is fishy…) As you might imagine, the group of six, each tackling only one element of the equation (the very same equation we had just done, in case you haven’t been following closely), finished much more quickly, in about thirteen seconds. “There you go,” Bawb said, beaming at us. “Teamwork shaved off almost fifty percent of the time to solve the problem.”

I raised my hand again. “Um, Bawb, I’ve got a little problem with your math there. Because, um, there were six of us working on the problem for thirteen seconds, thus using an aggregate of seventy-eight seconds, so actually the team took more than three times as long to solve the problem as an individual. And that was not just one clever individual, mind you; several of us had our hands up around the same time.” A murmur among the other attendees turned into a titter, and Bawb was clearly at a loss as to how to get the group back under control. Shortly afterward we broke for lunch, and my boss and I were having a private chuckle about Bawb’s discomfiture. Bawb strode over to us, clearly peeved. “I don’t appreciate being made to look like an ass in front of my class,” he said, glaring at me.

“I think maybe that was the doing of someone other than me,” I offered drily, giving Bawb a long moment to figure out to whom I might be referring. “As far as I can tell,” I continued, “there are only two possible scenarios here: 1) you didn’t realize the inherent error of the “teamwork model”, in which case perhaps you should not be the one teaching it, or 2) you are trying to sell us, and simplistically at that, on something that you can’t back up with solid data, in which case you underestimated your audience. I mean, we are insurance guys, after all; did you not think we’d have some grasp of numbers?” Once again, Bawb was at a loss for words.

Fast forward several years, and I suppose Bawb had the last laugh, though. Last I heard, he was still basking in the security of a mid-level insurance industry gig, whereas I have been reduced to seeking my fortune in the far-flung corners of the world, a failure of epic proportions in the corporate world. Such are the vagaries of life.