Your Company Needs an Intercessor
intercessor (n.) a representative empowered to act on behalf of others
If your company has more than a few hundred employees, a series of failures happen all the time:
- conflicting goals
- internal sabotage
- corporate obliviousness
- unbalanced incentives
We know every company is weird and inept in its own unique way. Companies spend their entire existence trying to dominate competitive markets, yet companies aren't competitive on the inside. Companies allocate resources as if they had perfect knowledge and were centrally planned utopias, resulting in as much success as every centrally planned society we've ever seen.
Eventually one of two things happen: internal corporate low-level dysfunction is eventually found out by a "higher up" and remedied — or internal dysfunction lasts for years resulting in damage the value of the company in immeasurable ways.
The problem with waiting for a higher up to spontaneously discover dysfunctions is: people with the authority to fix bad problems are either too sparse or too inaccessible. As an employee, if you see fraud or decisions being made today by your boss with future negative repercussions, you're stuck. How far over your boss's head do you go to fix problems? What if higher management is where the ideas for corruption originated? Do you skip you're entire line of managers and go to the CEO? That's a good way to get fired, at worst, or blacklisted from promotions and advancements, at best (annual review commentary: "not a team player").
What companies need is an intercessor: someone with unilateral authority to modify internal company behavior and processes and plans and products with the goal of maintaining long-term integrity of the company and its products in the public eye. Essentially, create a hyper-powered user advocate. Give your intercessor enough authority so they don't need to corrupt the company itself for advancing productive goals.
An intercessor is an internal-facing roving role with full acting authority of the CEO. They focus on the integrity of products and procedures. An intercessor goes between all departments and evaluates everything, as much as can be practically evaluated.
An intercessor is a corporate fire putter-outer. Did you release a new product with fatal flaws customers keep complaining about every day, but the fix isn't on your internal roadmap for another 8 months? Your intercessor has the authority to re-prioritize entire departments based on user impact, not based on abstract executive ego goals.
An intercessor exists as a stop-gap against uncoordinated company behavior accidentally compounding into unfixable multi-year train wrecks. Intercessors do not exist to be gate keepers or sign off on anything as plans are being made. They may be consulted, but they aren't a blocking force. They are a corrective and guiding force to keep everything appearing consistently implemented by one company (instead of products appearing like they were implemented by 8 independent departments acting as isolated sub-companies inside your larger corporate brand).
An intercessor is not a bottleneck on the org chart. An intercessor is functionally directly under the CEO, but does not conduct their oversight only by talking to managers. Intercessors do their jobs by having hands-on candid chats with everybody from line employees in development and support and QA all the way up to their managers and department heads and division heads. Intercessorship is a hybrid people and product role.
Communication with an intercessor is open to any employee in the company. There's no such thing as "going over your boss's head" to talk to an intercessor. Intercessors exist to be talked to.
Types of Failures
Goal conflict happens when different departments or teams work on the same idea in mutually incompatible ways.
Examples include: why does Google have 8 messaging services? Why does Amazon have 4 music services? Why does Google have 3 music services?
Clearly nobody is working towards a long term user-friendly grand plan. People are just creating random products with no regard for other departments then users and brand both suffer.
Why isn't there someone who can cross between all departments and declare "Enough! We will have one music service!"
Sabotage falls into to categories:
Intentional sabotage is when an employee (or team) exercises a vendetta against another employee (or team) to deny them power/promotions/bonuses/progress/advancement.
Unintentional sabotage is when an employee (or team) is naturally inept and drags down other employee (or team) productivity due to their inability to recognize their own incompetence.
Unintentional sabotage also takes the form of go-nowhere-employees who have stuck around for years and years, fall into senescence, yet neither move on, or move up, or move anywhere. They end up falling behind what average employees at their level should be accomplishing and dragging the company down with them, yet they never quit and nobody thinks to fire them because they've been around "forever."
Fire your dead weight and move on.
Corporate obliviousness is when a company gets its head so far up its corporate ass they don't consider the real world when making decisions. These problems can be exacerbated by powerful (and unquestionable) people's friendships and egos.
Corporate obliviousness happens when executives prefer to check off a to-do list of abstract goals rather than understanding day-to-day user experience.
- Apple forcing shitty U2 music on everybody. Just because Apple Corporate loves Bono doesn't mean we have to tolerate him.
- Apple Maps, anybody? 5 years after launch, it shows the house I grew up in at the middle of a non-existent park on the wrong part of the street.
- Apple Music Launch destroying music libraries.
- Google's 18 attempts at "social" between 2005 and 2015.
- Amazon Phone — who told Amazon executives it would be a viable product (besides the egos of Amazon Executives themselves)?
- Amazon Product Pages — why can't anybody tell Jeff every Amazon product page is a usability disaster?
- Yahoo — basically, Yahoo. Everything Yahoo. Oh right, that's why.
Each instance is either friend engineering (lol elderly bono! we love you so the world must too!) or deadline engineering (keynote time! gotta launch maps regardless of quality! keynote time! gotta launch Music regardless of quality! keynote time! gotta launch a new social service!) or ego engineering (amazon great! amazon make phone! amazon phone great!).
Corporate obliviousness is difficult to organically snuff out because it's based on egos of powerful higher ups who are usually beyond reproach. Your intercessor is allowed to call you on your bullshit when you're making boneheaded decisions.
Our mental model of employment is viable, but broken. Basically once a person is employed, they continuously do their job at the same level of performance forever regardless of pay. Often, that mental model works. You can hire two people for the same job, pay one twice as much as the other, and both will do the same amount of work as long as neither learn of the pay discrepancy.
When an employee learns their compensation is disadvantaged compared to other employees or other departments, you end up with a management failure: you get to tell the disadvantaged employee, yes, they are worth less than other employees even for the same (or less useful) work due to market/incentive reasons.
Even if a comp comparison can't be made directly, you still end up with philosophical employee dilemmas. Does our executive asshat deserve his $100 million salary for working three months a year? Why does the new college hire have my salary, but I've been here five years? Why did the CEO get a $300 million golden parachute for driving the company into the ground?
Intercessors have the authority to stop crooked managers from advantaging their friend-employees too much and also to re-balance compensation among all departments, which HR should be doing, but they rarely have the authority to push through accurate market-level changes on sub-5-year time spans.
The most important part of implementing an internal company-wide intercessor program: you must not "promote" an existing high-ranking employee to the position of intercessor.
Intercessors must not use their position for their own enrichment, to enact their own vindictive ends, or to pull any unjust levels of power.
If your corporate intercessor cannot be trusted by everybody, they have already failed in their role and must be replaced immediately. Think of corporate intercessorship as internal-facing corporate therapy. Their job is to obtain the best outcome possible without damaging extant structures, unless extant structures are restricting positive outcomes.
WHICH MEANS new intercessor(s) to your company must be, ideally, from best to wost:
- a new party external to your company hired just for this role
- act as a new set of eyes without years or decades of in-company cult-ure holding them back
- be the internal user and brand advocate to smooth over operations and products in favor of user happiness and ideal experience goals
- a current non-managerial employee with wide enough vision and sight to see the big picture of the company
- still act as a new set of eyes, except with in-company experience, but no baggage from failed management experience
- job isn't to manage anyway, job is to ensure the company's output is logical, consistent, user accessible, and not damaging to the company itself.
- move current CEO to internal intercessor role, while a new external-facing CEO is hired for all inter-company, interview, celebrity activities, etc
- if you still have a founder/ceo, they would likely be a good fit to smooth over rough edges in the company, if only they weren't busy flying around the world having their face plastered on magazine covers and running pointless TV interviews
Intercessors hold an important position requiring focus and dedication to the single idea: users matter.
If your company isn't in position itself to serve daily user interactions in delightful ways, either your company needs to be re-evaluated from the inside out or your company will slowly fail.
Re-evaluation through intercessorship is an easer route to swallow than outright corporate failure and stock devaluation. If your user experience is a failure, your company is a failure.
Happy Corporate Un-Failing!