There is a story I’ve heard repeatedly and I have no idea if it’s apocryphal or true. It’s a gem of a story, one I’ve (sadly) seen in action in several companies (quite recently, too) and it so-o-o-oo-o applies to business that I’m going to share it here.
Most people know about the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island. What some might not know is that Gilligan’s Island was a fluke. It was a mid-season replacement that nobody (except the creator) believed in. Executives gave it such a poor chance of success that only six episodes were originally purchased (back then, a short buy would have been 11 episodes, what’s now considered a full season). The only reason it got on CBS at all was because they needed to fill a time slot and this was the only thing they could get for real short money.
Well, everybody now knows what a success Gilligan’s Island became.
About half-way through the first full season, everybody in Hollywood was attempting to attach themselves to the show. If there was some way — any way — to affiliate yourself to this show’s success, people were doing it. This, of course, included all the executives and all the people down the line who didn’t give the show any chance for success at all.
So everybody wanted to state that they had a claim on the show’s success. This meant everybody wanted to put their mark on the show, something so unique that people would be able to point and say, “See that? I did that.” and get a pat on the back, a drink at the bar and so on.
One such thing was giving Gilligan a pet dinosaur. One got built. One got used. There was no CGI or any other kind of embedding technology in that day so this was a (poorly) working model. Also it was expensive. Extremely expensive. The cost of the model, its makers, crafters, controllers, etc., came to well over an entire season’s production cost.
Everybody thought it was a great idea. Except the show’s creator.
The model was such a cost point, it so delayed production, it so bombed when shown to a test audience, that CBS execs gave up on it (pieces of it showed up in one episode when Gilligan et al had to face down a giant spider in a cave. Amortization, you know).
Everybody also stopped attempting to put their mark on the show. Gilligan’s Island went on for several seasons and several TV-movie follow-ups.
The creator merely smiled.
Gilligan’s Dinosaur in Business
I’ve often seen someone come into a company, build up a small, poorly managed group into a whole division, guide it into becoming a significant profit center only to be given Gilligan’s Dinosaur as a reward.
It usually starts with management giving the Gilligan assistants the Gilligan didn’t ask for or even truly interview. These assistants are there to “keep track of things”. Then marketing is taken away and handed to someone else “to improve the pipeline”. This is followed up with contracts being negotiated without the Gilligan having any say in timelines, milestones, … . Often the final blow is having a client toured through the division without the Gilligan being notified ahead of time and having to run after the prospect when they pass the Gilligan’s office so the Gilligan can hand them a business card.
You get the idea.
Taming Gilligan’s Dinosaur
There are several ways to tame Gilligan’s dinosaur and I’ll share only a few.
- First, go on the job market when a) you’ve demonstrated your ability to take a poorly managed, underfunded group to profitability and b) before the dinosaur strikes.
- Politely and politically ask management to defend every decision they make. Remember, numbers count! If your group is doing better than other groups make sure they explain why they feel a sudden need to muck up your success.
- Insist on milestones for management’s decisions and get in writing that if their decisions don’t work out, authority returns to you.
- And did I say “go on the job market”?
Unlike Gilligan’s Island, businesses love dinosaurs. I have no idea why. I mean, dinosaurs went extinct, didn’t they? That recognized, a way to prevent your own extinction is to become your own dinosaur killer. The steps above provide a good start.
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