PAY ATTENTION: 1. What have you been asked to do? 2. Do that. 3. Forget everything else.

Can Dell jumpstart it's own batteries

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in business.

1. What have you been asked to do? 2. Do that. 3. Forget everything else, it’s just drama and dysfunction.

I love teamwork. I love teams. I thrive in relationships. And when the force is disturbed by anti-bodies, or re-orgs, or lack of clear communication, I get frustrated. The biggest organization I’ve ever worked for was Dell. And if you can imagine a more siloed organization, I can’t think of one.

Imagine teams within the same company competing for internal marketing dollars to suppor their own projects, AND then turning and competing with each other in the market place. Why is Dell having a hard time in today’s agile market place? I don’t know… You tell me the difference between an Inspiron, Latitude, XPS, Vostro, and Precision. And then KNOW that in the war of business, each of these global product units are in fierce competition with each other for every dollar Dell earns.

I’m sorry, but that’s messed up.

Can you imagine the MacBook Pro being marketed and sold AGAINST the MacBook Air? Sure it happens. Everyone is suffering from the transition away from laptops and desktops to tablets and phones. But ONE company has managed to dominate the new markets even before troglodyte-like organizations like Dell, struggle to even understand their OWN value in the marketplace.

I’m glad MSFT bought a stake in Dell. Maybe the Windows 8 touch services will have a life beyond the miserable Surface and Surface Pro.

But I’m not sure Dell is going to thrive as they work to go private and give even more royal leadership back to Michael Dell and his inner team. Sure, there are possibilities, but he’s no Steve Jobs. The return of Michael Dell has been fraught with missteps, SEC investigations, and outright fumbles. It’s not Michael that can save Dell, it’s something much bigger.

Only in suffering grave defeat will Dell begin to consolidate their product lines into something that makes sense. Only from their very own failure will someone INSIDE DELL actually try and shop for a Dell on and turn to Apple and buy their own children a MacBook Air or iPad Mini.

Dell is in a shambles. Partially from the silos and infighting inherent in a matrix organization. Dell’s product groups hate each other. They are like different companies. And if your project spans multiple business lines, forget about it, each team member will be looking out for THEIR performance review over the PERFORMANCE of the project or product. That’s just how it is in matrix orgs. And even more within a super-silo structure like Dell’s business units.

So here were the marching orders that I learned early from my first (and best) manager at Dell.

1. What have you been asked to do?

2. Do that.

3. Forget everything else, it’s just drama and dysfunction.

The last step is critical path. I’m struggling with a bit of that in my non-Dell work life as well. Drama will enter your life anytime you let it. Someone thinks a project should be progressing in a different direction or different speed than you have in mind. Okay, they are entitled to their opinion. If they are the boss they are uber-entitled to their opinion. And when the communications get strained, often the best course of action is to focus on what you can do and what you have been asked to do.




It’s easy to see how this discipline is required when things become ambiguous or dramatic. But it’s not the best way for teams to succeed at collaborative and necessarily cooperative projects.

Back in 2007, my first major project as part of the Dell team was working on the global launch of Dell’s small business computer, VOSTRO. I was proud of the work these huge teams did to bring an integrated (all marketing channels: online, offline, radio, television, direct mail) campaign together for this new Dell brand. And I really loved the campaign that told the story of Michael Dell’s small business success. The teams at Dell working on VOSTRO, for a minute, were integrated, we were a rogue unit, we did not have ROI pressures yet, we were new, agile, feisty.

The advertising campaign revolved around the slogan, “We believe…” And several of the threads on the radio told about how Dell started in Michael Dell’s dorm room at the University of Texas. “Dell was a small business. We believe in small business. Introducing VOSTRO the computer just for you.”

Like so many rally cries and ad campaigns before it, the campaign also faded. (for a long time, the URL generated an error, today it at least goes to [SMB] small and medium business solutions.)  The photos of us in the Dell parking lot raising our hands to the sky, with Michael smiling proudly in the middle of us, well, those photos faded, were taken down off cube walls, and VOSTRO was sucked back into the morass of inner-Dell competition.

Back in 2007 as a new member of Michael Dell’s company, a company I had admired and and worked for since 1996 (as an ad agency member) felt like they really did believe. I wasn’t sure that the Return of Michael Dell was going to turn around the company, but I did believe in our mission to help small business.

I was crushed to see the URL go 404 along with so many others before and after it.

What do you think? Does Dell believe in small and medium business? Should they? Will Dell 3.0 make things better or worse in their organizational power structure?

John McElhenney


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