Some Paradigms Don't Shift
by Jerrod Cotosman
Diaz was wearing a checkered shirt, Dockers and sandals with brown dress socks. Business conference casual, thought Ripley and he couldn't blame the man. After almost twenty years of working for DiTech, the novelty of wearing a suit and tie every day had worn off. He longed for the times when he was able to wear jeans to work, but that era was past, a casualty of his rise in the corporate hierarchy. Ripley was now the CFO of the company's Rocky Mountain Division, responsible for the financial reporting of branches scattered throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana. His conference casual wardrobe consisted of a dress shirt sans tie, slacks and a pair of sensible brown loafers. No sandals for him -- once an MBA, always an MBA.
Diaz was the Operations Manager for the Southwest Division based out of Phoenix, a stocky Hispanic man who worked his way up through the ranks and was more comfortable shooting shit with the salesman and warehouse stockers than the corporate suits. He was also approaching twenty years with DiTech, a magic time when stock options became vested and full severance plans were in effect.
"How are you doing, Eddie," said Ripley with a smile as he shook the offered hand. Diaz had a strong grip and for a brief instant of terror, Ripley thought that a hug was in the offing, but it was only an affectionate double-pump handshake.
"Great, Bob. Good to see you. You still cooking the books so Rocky Mountain is a top earner?"
Ripley laughed. "It's called prudent financial management, Eddie. You just need to get the right accountant down there."
He glanced at his watch and gestured with his head. "Almost show time. You want to go grab a seat?"
Diaz nodded and the two men began to move down the hallway. The Airport LaQuinta outside of Dallas was not the most luxurious accommodations, but it had the look and feel of a steady veteran of the seminar game. The standard continental breakfast fare sat on folding tables along the outside wall and each man helped himself to the assortment of fruit, bagels and muffins.
"There is coffee inside," said a smiling hotel staffer as the men walked into the banquet room. The Mesquite Room was a rectangle with a series of round tables covered with white table cloths and a podium and screen at the head. It was obviously part of a larger ballroom that was partitioned into thirds, due to the size of the seminar. Ripley counted about ten people seated and maybe that number coming in with them.
"Small crowd," he said and Diaz nodded as they took a table midway toward the front.
"All old-timers, too," came the reply. "I actually feel young."
Ripley glanced around and, sure enough, their fellow attendees were all middle-aged men and women. He guessed that none of them was under forty or even under forty-five. No one looked familiar, but even after the layoffs DiTech had nearly 50,000 employees worldwide, so that wasn't unusual.
Ripley poured a cup of coffee from a pot near the door and took a sip and grimaced at the taste. He pulled a couple of packets of Sweet'N Low from a glass dish and stirred them in the mug. "Remind me again what today's program is?"
Diaz picked up the handout and glanced at the front page. It was a standard power-point presentation printed out so the audience could follow along with the presenter and take notes.
"Shifting the Paradigm: A New Sales Focus presented by Joseph Crowley," he read. "Ah hell. This looks awful."
Ripley read his handout and dropped it in disgust. "I see why sales guys like you are out here, Eddie, but why do I have to suffer through this?"
Diaz shrugged. "Look at it this way. If DiTech wants to pay the money to fly us out to Dallas and spend a couple of nights here, more power to them. This is going to be boring, but it isn't going to kill us. Then we can hit the town tonight."
"DFW Airport is in the middle of nowhere in case you haven't noticed. The only thing within walking distance is the hotel bar."
"Leave that to me," said Diaz. "I got my twenty years in effective next Monday and it's time to celebrate. I'll get us a ride downtown."
"My twenty is effective then, too," said Ripley. "I'll be glad when we officially get there. With all the cuts, I'm surprised they didn't either lay us off or drop the severance program."
"Well, they didn't, my man. The options are nice, but the severance package is what I want. They fire me, fine, pay me a year's salary and I'll go work as a consultant somewhere. I've got two kids about to go into college and they don't want to go nowhere cheap."
Chairs shifted as people turned their heads to the sudden activity at the podium as the speaker appeared and tapped on the microphone.
"Holy shit, look at that guy," said Diaz.
Ripley turned and laid eyes on the man who could only be Joseph Crowley, then flinched in shock. At first glance, Mr. Crowley was an older man of medium height and build wearing a conservative dark suit. When you looked closer, however, you could see that he seemed shrunken, cadaverous. The bony ridges of his eyebrows and cheeks pressed out against sallow skin that was stretched tight and his suit was several sizes too big.
"Hello," he said in a monotone voice. "My name is Joseph Crowley and I'll be your speaker today. I apologize in advance for my appearance, but I've been recovering from a long illness and I'm still not 100 percent. I am getting better, however, and I am happy DiTech has asked me to be here to help you implement a variety of innovative solutions to your day-to-day problems. I'm scheduled for three hours and I have a full presentation so I'm going to jump right in. I will allow time for questions at the end of the session, so please hold on until then. I have found that things go better when I can lay out all the information without interruption."
"Oh my God," whispered Diaz. "I won't make three hours with this guy. I'll die first."
Ripley shook his head to clear it of the cobwebs that had suddenly sprung up inside. He had deliberately taken an earlier flight so he could get a good night's sleep and be ready for a long day of corporate doubletalk. If he was already beginning to drift off, it was going to be a long three hours. But Crowley wasn't going to make it easy, not with that droning voice and decidedly non-dynamic style.
He glanced at the table to their left and the sole occupant was already dozing, arms folded across his ample stomach. Ripley checked his watch and saw both hands on the number nine -- it was only 8:45 and lunch wasn't until noon. Crowley was scheduled to end at 11:30 but the open schedule left him leeway to go over. Fifteen minutes into the presentation and the guy had already lost the audience.
"Businesses have certain things that they do well. We will call these things core competencies. As long as an organization stays focused on these core competencies it will thrive. However, all things tend toward entropy, especially in a centralized environment and given the large amount of stakeholders, their various demands tend to pull an organization's focus from what the main goal should be..."
This was horrible and he tried to shoot Diaz a glance, but the man was already doodling on the presentation handout, head propped on his left hand. Ripley tried to see the drawing, but all he could make out was random lines and squiggles. His eyelids were heavy and actually drooped for a moment before he snapped back. There was no way Bob Ripley was going to mail it in as blatantly as sleeping at a corporate training. Maybe water would help and he poured himself a glass and sucked on the ice and tried to focus on the presentation and thought of...
... Hawaii. Katie and the kids on the beach having fun, laying out in the sun having a Corona with a lime in it, away from the normal 50 hour weeks that jumped up past 60 during the monthly close. The sand was warm and the water was cool and Katie had lost ten pounds for the trip and looked so good standing there in the surf and...
Ripley jerked forward and snapped back into the present. Damn, he had faded out just like he swore he wouldn't. He shook his head again and saw that it was now 8:55 and that there was still almost three hours of this torture left. There was no way he could make it without getting up and walking around a little. He was about to rise when he felt a spreading wetness on his upper lip and when he touched it, a drop of blood fell onto the tablecloth and spread out into the white fabric.
There was a napkin handy and Ripley pressed it against his nose. What the hell is this? I haven't had a nosebleed since college. Now he really needed to get up. But then he turned and saw that all the doors were closed when they had been open at the start of the session. He glanced at Diaz, but the man was totally gone, head on the table pillowed atop his arms.
"If you turn to page two of the materials, you will see a continuum. Surely, all of you must remember the Production Productivity Frontier from your basic economics courses? You can only have so many guns and so much butter until you shift the PPF outwards, but that requires more resources. As corporate managers you are obligated to overcome the inherent scarcity of resources and help shift the PPF. We don't have guns and butter on this continuum, because that would be silly wouldn't it? Ha, ha. Well, we actually have Richness and Reward here and before I show you the applicability of this to your daily activities, I would like to provide some background..."
Ripley sat down...
... And rubbed his eyes as he sat behind his desk. It was late and the numbers were due to Corporate tomorrow at ten and there was no way in hell that the branch managers were going to hit their targets. Then they wouldn't get their bonuses and they would bitch at him, as if he made the rules. Nothing to do, they were screwed unless- wait a minute. We bought ten PCs for about two grand a pop and we expensed them because they were under the policy threshold, but if I capitalize them, that $20,000 goes straight to the bottom line. He punched the numbers into his spreadsheet and, yep, that did it, just enough net income. They were going to owe him big and he knew he could get something out of this. Katie had always wanted to go to Hawaii...
The noise jerked him back to the present and his head whipped around, spraying droplets of red across the table and carpeting. His vision swam and then he righted the ship and his eyes cleared, focusing on the room. The fat guy from the next table had collapsed to the floor and lay in the aisle, eyes closed but darting back and forth behind the lids. His lips were drawn back from his teeth in a snarl as if he was fighting something in a nightmare.
There was a wheezing sound from Ripley's right and he could see Diaz, face down with a thin trickle of spit dribbling from his open mouth onto the table. Something was wrong here, something was happening that shouldn't. A man had passed out, might even be having a heart attack in the middle of the aisle and no one was doing anything. Then he looked up and saw the reason why.
Everyone was asleep, heads down, heads back, drooling, snoring, panting, you name it, but all of the attendees were out like lights. Everyone except for him.
Another thud and someone across the room had fallen, a woman who had toppled from her chair and was now invisible save for a nylon-covered leg sticking up above the surface of her table like an exclamation point.
"The age-old conundrum involving centralization and decentralization will not be decided here today, not by me, but I can certainly shed some light on where we need to go in order to produce an integrated vision for the organization..."
Crowley broke into his thoughts and Ripley looked up at the podium and gasped. The presenter looked like a new man, his face had fleshed out and his suit actually fit. Instead of a corpse-like seventy-year-old at Death's door, he appeared to be hale and hearty and in his early sixties. That was impossible, because no one changed like that, you couldn't reverse the aging process in thirty years, let alone thirty minutes.
The fat man in the aisle began to thrash and kick as if in the grip of a seizure as blood began trickling from his ears.
"When a company decentralizes, it must look to the various productive nodes and decide how to position them in the organizational schema," continued Crowley.
Something was pulling him back, a voice in his head telling him to relax, to give in and go to sleep. Everything would be better after a little nap.
Ripley gripped the table hard, felt the cloth in his hands and forced himself up. He lurched drunkenly on legs filled with pins and needles, staggering around the man on the floor and moving toward the podium. Crowley. Crowley was the reason this was happening. The man was doing something, hypnotizing them, feeding off of them. People would say that was crazy, but those people weren't here and couldn't see the inescapable correlation that had presented itself to Ripley's orderly accountant's mind. The audience was dying and Crowley was looking better by the moment.
Behind him, Eddie Diaz moaned and began to claw out his eyes.
Ripley saw Crowley glance down, momentarily distracted from the rhythm of his presentation. Their eyes met as the former struggled the thirty-foot distance to the podium. Normally the walk of an easy five seconds, it was a death march under these conditions, and every step required a heroic effort. Blood gushed from Ripley's nose, soaking the light blue of his dress shirt and he focused on moving one foot forward, then the other. Just a few more steps and he looked up again, almost within arm's reach of the presenter. He could see fear in Crowley's eyes - how hadn't he noticed before that they were a glowing red? A few more steps and he would reach his tormentor and break this terrible spell.
Then Crowley pulled out the big guns.
"Of course we must seek the best alternative for the organization. We must proactively seek productive synergies and shift, yes I said shift the paradigm!!"
No mortal man could withstand such an assault and Ripley toppled forward, hands limp at his sides. His eyes closed and he was in Hawaii again forever before he hit the ground.
Crowley went on for another twenty minutes before stopping, making sure that all of the delightful life essence had been drained from his audience. If he had a mirror, he would see a man in his early forties, a man that obviously watched what he ate and exercised regularly. Before he had been empty and now he felt restored, refreshed and ready to go out and play eighteen holes of golf.
Crowley surveyed the ballroom for a few minutes before being satisfied that it was over and all of them were dead. He turned off the projector and began to unhook the laptop, winding up the cables and power cord and replacing them in the carrying bag. The best thing was that companies like DiTech paid him big money for this when he would do it for free. Then again, he supposed that paying Joe Crowley $50,000 a pop was much cheaper than the future benefits that all these people would have been owed if they had made it to Monday and their twenty year vesting.
He zipped up the bag and walked toward the door. Someone would be along to clean up the mess, because that was part of the contract. Explanations were DiTech's problem, not his. Two weeks until the next seminar in Miami and he had plenty lined up after that, because there was no shortages of corporations that had latched onto this particular way to improve the bottom line. God bless capitalism, thought Crowley as he stepped over Ripley's body and made his way toward the door.
© 2010 Jerrod Cotosman
Bio: Jerrod Cotosman's stories have appeared in Allegory E-zine, thelightningjournal.com, and theharrow.com.
E-mail: Jerrod Cotosman
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