Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Secrets of Hong Kong Management

A State-side friend of mine recently asked me to explain what makes Hong Kong business so dynamic. I had to admit that even after eleven years, the logic of Chinese management has me scratching my head. Nonetheless, I'm willing to take a shot.


There is an old Chinese adage goes that “it is better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a bull” (
宁为鸡口,不作 ) meaning that is better to own and run a small business than to be a manager in a big one. One only has to work for a Hong Kong firm to fully understand the idiom. Entrepreneurs (for convenience, let's call them Chicken Heads) in this part of the world practice ‘Theory XXX’. This does not refer to the wild karaoke nights that Chinese businessmen are known for, rather to Douglas McGregor’s book "The Human Side of Enterprise" which formulated an autocratic Theory X management style based on the assumption that employees are inherently lazy. In an autocratic tradition that would have done the Qin dynasty proud, practitioners of Theory XXX take this to the next level, presuming that employees are devious, slothful, vindictive thieves who need to be managed with an iron hand. If this breeds discontent, so what? If you lose a few to poisoning, pollution or industrial accidents, so what? There are billions more where they came from.

It's not all good news. There is a dark side to Chinese management too. Life in a large Chinese bureaucracy is similar to an American one (think NASA for example) but add a shameless level of puerility and muddled decision making to the mix. Like NASA, most of their decisions are from Outer Space. Imagine 40-year old teenagers who fancy themselves dealmakers, smooth operators and con men extraordinaire; asked to put a man on the moon, they come up with Cyberport. Management is about rolling the dice; operations and strategy are for wimps. Non-performance isn't punished; in fact it is positively encouraged perfect justification to ask for more employees in next year's budget. Managers on the the end nearest the Bull's rear are typically running their own businesses on the side anyway, hoping that they too will someday become successful Chicken Heads.

Even with my weak grasp on the logic underlying Hong Kong management, I've a rough idea of how the whole process works. There are two objectives. The first is never to make a decision; if you make a decision someone might actually have to work (expect to make enemies if you dare to ask for real work). The second is to maximize your entertainment budget; successful managers should be so busy entertaining that they have little or no time for actual work. Here is how it's done in Hong Kong.

(1) A good manager should ignore a problem at all costs. An ignored problem will go away when you don't look at it; and anyway it certainly must be an ‘exception.’ After all, management is doing everything right; otherwise they wouldn’t have been promoted to managerial positions. A good manager will ask his cronies to research and investigate the reason for the problem. Usually it is due to the poor attitude of the person who brought the problem to the manager’s attention.

(2) If you need a decision quickly, set up a committee. Insure monthly hour-long committee meetings where participants sit giggling and nervously looking at the floor, waiting for someone else to start talking. You still might get lucky and the problem could disappear. Roll the dice.

(3) If a decision just must be made, assign a subcommittee consisting of the members who are absent, or even better, consisting of members against whom the manager and his cronies have personal grudges. Never raise a finger, except to point it at someone.

(4) When the problem finally blows up into a larger problem (which it always seems to) blame the members of the subcommittee for not solving the problem. Or if the opportunity arises, blame any one who might have spoken up at one of the regular committee meetings. Management has found a scapegoat; the problem is solved... and for God's sake whatever you do, do not get cornered into actually making a decision.

(5) Hold a banquet to celebrate your success. Make sure that management and cronies are photographed toasting their glasses in front of expensive floral displays. Repeat as needed.

You see how life under such bureaucratic pecking order quickly grows Kafkaesque. In the world of Bull's Tails, managers share a common dream: quit this bullsh*t operation and start up their own chickensh*t pecking order.

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