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It’s depressing to watch a mean, lean, fighting machine of a company deteriorate into mediocracy. In Silicon Valley we call this process the “bozo explosion.” This downward slide seems inevitable after a company achieves success–often during the years immediately following an IPO. The purpose of this article is to prevent, or at least postpone, this process in your company.

The first step is to determine whether a bozo explosion is happening. Here are the top ten signs of bozosity to help you decide.

1. The two most popular words in your company are “partner” and “strategic.” In addition, “partner” has become a verb, and “strategic” is used to describe decisions and activities that don’t make sense.

2. Management has two-day offsites at places like the Ritz Carlton to foster communication and to craft a company mission statement.

3. The aforementioned company mission statement contains more than twenty words–two of which are “partner” and “strategic.”

4. Your CEO’s admin has an admin.

5. Your parking lot’s “biorhythm” looks like this:

  • 8:00 am – 10:00 am–Japanese cars exceed German cars
  • 10:00 am – 5:00 pm–German cars exceed Japanese cars
  • 5:00 pm – 10:00 pm–Japanese cars exceed German cars

6. Your HR department requires an MBA degree for any position; it also requires five to ten years work experience in an industry that is only four years old.

7. Time is now considered more important than money so you have a company cafeteria, health club, and pet grooming service. Moreover, the first thing that employees show visitors is the company cafeteria, health club, and pet grooming service.

8. Someone whose music sells in the iTunes music store performs at the company Christmas party.

9. An employee is paid to do nothing but write a blog.

10. The success of a competitor upsets you more than the loss of a customer.

(If you’ve seen other signs of the slide to bozosity, leave them as a comment, and I’ll append to this list.)

Addendumbs (sic) to the list from readers:

11. You have a layer of middle management who worked at big-name companies (usually consumer goods) who like to call meetings and designate “project leads.” (I experienced this first hand.) Zoli Erdo

12. Your hire a big name consulting firm who brings in MBAs with one year of experience to re-think your corporate strategies.

13. The front-desk staff gets better looking and less competent. Jeff Barson

14. Your CEO or CFO spends more time on CNBC than in the office. Laurie Sefton


Did you gulp? Don’t sweat it: you’re not alone. In fact, you’d be alone if you weren’t going through the slide. Here’s what you can do about the situation:

  • Insist that managers hire better than themselves. For example, an engineering manager should hire a programmer who is a better programmer than she is, not worse. By the way, this principle starts at the level of the board of directors when hiring the CEO.
  • Eradicate arrogance. Arrogance manifests itself in two principal areas: first, when your employees describe the competition using terms like “clueless,” “bozo” (ironically), or just plain “stupid.” Second, when your employees start believing in “manifest destiny”–that is, that your company deserves, and will achieve, total market domination. Your competition probably isn’t stupid, and trees don’t grow to the sky.
  • Understaff. Hire fewer people than you’re “sure” you need to accommodate that hockey-stick growth you’re “sure” you’re going to achieve. When you’re in a rush to fill openings to respond to growth, you make mistakes. Unfortunately, many companies adopt the attitude of “Hire any intelligent body, or we’ll lose business–we’ll sort everything out later.”
  • Undergrow. This is the flip side of under-staffing. I am suggesting intentionally forgoing sales. Staying small and fine is a perfectly acceptable management policy. At the very least, calculate the entire impact on head count of getting that additional sale, new line of business, or acquisition.
  • Look beyond the resume. The goal of hiring is building a team of great employees. One proxy for a great employee is a relevant educational or work background. However, the perceived “right” educational background and work experience are not sufficient conditions for excellence. Hiring a bozo with the “right” resume can drag down other employees and increase the probability of hiring more bozos. Not hiring a great person because she lacks the “right” resume is not as harmful but is a mistake too.
  • Diversify. Some companies look like the corporate version of the Stepford Wives: people are too similar. For example, everyone has a PhD. Everyone grew up in a white, upper-middleclass family. Everyone went to an Ivy League school. It’s a bunch of Me and Mini-Mes. When this happens, it means that form is overruling function, and the way people succeed is by representing the right form, not excelling at the right function. That’s back asswards.
  • Merge and purge. You owe it to your employees to take corrective action, and, if necessary, terminate people as soon as issues come to light. You may be thinking, “Let’s wait and see; maybe he’ll improve; our numbers are still great, etc.,” but this is unfair to everyone involved. If there’s a problem, fix it. If you can’t fix it, then make it an “exployee”–thereby, establishing performance excellence as a corporate standard.

Written at: America West, flight #567, seat 4B, Phoenix to Orlando