So many tails, so few dogs…

I just turned in a commissioned article for a well-know magazine and was surprised to receive back an edited copy to proof that had all of my stylized text eliminated. Words I had deliberately put into bold or even had quoted were no longer any different from the prose around them. Given that my subject is of a technical bent, this was a definite problem.
When queried about the situation, the production editor informed me that their workflow starts with them stripping out all non-textual elements, pouring the text into an XML markup system, then applying standard styles based on their corporate style guidelines. Words that I wanted offset would always be lost because what I wanted to have highlighted and what they were able to highlight and keep highlighted throughout the production cycle were very different.
Once I stopped grinding my teeth in frustration, I recognized another instance of one of the greatest problems in modern business, a problem I call the tail wagging the dog.


If you’ve spent any time around any sort of company, even just a customer support department, you know exactly what I mean. It’s when the accounting department determines what airlines you can use because the airline has a “better accounting backend” or when your expenditures have to be approved by someone in accounting who doesn’t actually know your job, but has control over the corporate purse strings.
Tom Peters has written about this subject extensively in superb books like Re:Imagine, and even with so many of us business thinkers stating again and again that it’s the customer that should be the center of the circle of innovation and service, it’s still amazing to me how often I encounter stupid corporate policies that are the result of human resources, accounting, building and grounds, or even security dictating policy. Mark Cuban just wrote about this very subject too: Because that’s the way we’ve always done it…
Another powerful example is health care. For the majority of people in the United States, the tests required to diagnose an illness and treatments that can be prescribed are defined by employees of insurance companies, not doctors or other healthcare providers.
The most egregious of these tail wagging dog problems in healthcare, though, is with childbirth. Ready to give birth? The insurance company won’t cover the five hundred dollars or so to hire a qualified midwife for a home birth, but the thousands of dollars for a hospital birth or likely unnecessary Caesarean are all happily covered by a standard policy.
But just like the author being the owner and final authority on his or her words, shouldn’t it be the woman who decides what birth experience will be best for her, not some insurance adjustors? Not even doctors, note, but actuaries who spend all day analyzing tables of data and statistical spreads.
That’s the tail wagging the dog, and from my days working at Fortune 250 companies, it’s hands down the worst part of any bureaucracy.
For the record, let’s get this straight, then: accounting, human resources, legal and similar departments existing to meet the needs of the rest of the employees, not to define, dictate or constrain those needs.
This is one very important reason why entrepreneurs are the ones reinventing the future and producing the majority of innovation too. Innovation and creativity are anathema to this command and control approach that’s still pervasive at too many traditional corporations.
Me? I’m now lobbying for the magazine to change its entire production process so that, darn it, if I put a word in bold or italics that my reader gets to see it that way too.
I mean, really! Who is the dog and who is the tail?

5 comments on “So many tails, so few dogs…

  1. Have had to fight ‘the tail’ on behalf of the client, which is ‘the dogs’ lifeline, from the frontlines for the better part of a working life. Excellent post- Thanks.

  2. Excellent post, Dave. You are so right. Every day I see examples of this in action — systems that are not designed for customers or end users, the attitude that “we’ve always done it this way” and my personal favorite, “it’s easier for the computer system this way.” Grrrrrrr.

  3. In other words, Micro-management. I served in the USAF for over 20 years and experienced this type of “Business Management” on a daily basis. It is usually implemented by someone who is trying to make a name for him/herself. They seem to think that something can always be made better, and they have just the solution. And they think it puts another notch in their belt in the higher-ups eyes. (Can you say Kiss-up?)
    Then there is the supervisors/managers that feel all their silly little pet peeve changes and policies give them a sense of accomplishing something positive, all while jamming up the system.
    As a supervisor/manager I always stuck to the philosophy “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Unfortunately I couldn’t control the upper managements policies and procedures that trickled down into my area of supervision/management, and had to suffer the “One step forward, two steps back” outcome……

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