Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Art in a Demur

It doesn't happen too frequently, but every once in a long while you will get partway into the design stage of a project and run into political interference under the dreaded guise of "company policy." It goes against company policy to purchase abc. It's against the policy to outsource this. Et cetera. And in your heart and in your experience you know that the manner you had planned is the correct method, regardless. For times like this keep this little story in your back pocket; it's a handy urban legend I use to employ just for the purpose.


Back in the 80's a gentleman gained control of an airline in an effort to turn them around from bankruptcy. On one of his earliest flights on his new airline, he flew into Washington D.C. during the middle of winter to meet with federal regulators at the FAA. After his meeting, he boarded a passenger flight on his airline again to head back home. It had sleeted earlier and was now quite cold; the plane sat grounded on the runway. After half an hour, feeling frustrated, the new owner motioned to the stewardess and asked her what the problem was. She explained that, due to the inclement weather, the wings were covered with ice, so they couldn't take off. The gentleman identified himself as the new company president, and asked to leave the plane.

They reconnected a portable stairway exit ramp, and the owner grabbed his carry-on luggage and walked down the stairway and onto the tarmac. He approached the crew chief, identified himself as the new company president, and asked what the problem was. The crew chief explained the icing problem. "Well," the new president answered, "that's easy to fix." He opened up his carry-on bag and took out a portable cordless hair dryer. "Here", he motioned with the hairdryer on, back and forth over the wings. "Just use this." He handed the mechanic the hair dryer and reboarded the plane. After a half hour of de-icing, the plane was able to take off and the new president flew back home. The chief mechanic spread word of how he had been approached by the new president and given instructions.

Sometime later in the year, in the middle of the summer, the new president had occasion to once again visit Washington D.C. After his meeting, he boarded his airline on a passenger flight to head back home. He sat on the plane, waiting for it to leave the terminal, growing more and more impatient. When he glanced out the window, he saw a mechanic, standing on the top of a four-step rollable staircase, gliding a hair dryer back and forth over the wing. He motioned for the stewardess, identified himself, and asked to leave the plane. Once on the tarmac, he walked over to the mechanic, and being angry and in a rush, without even a hello, he tapped the mechanic on the shoulder and asked "what in the hell are you doing?". The mechanic turned to him and said "sorry for the delay sir, but it's company policy".


The moral of the story of course is that just because an important person does something, it doesn't make it a policy. And an action that might make sense to perform some times is not universally correct. So listen to the wisdom in a company policy, but use your noggin and demur when appropriate. (ed. note: I checked with the owner mentioned in the story and he assured me it was entirely fiction).