It’s a Total Cluster!

April 14, 2008 at 1:57 pm 1 comment

When I was a corporate citizen one of my favorite and most-used words was cluster&*#$ (rhymes with fustercluck). I, along with many co-workers (with much credit to Justin Foster), developed a colorful vocabulary to describe the escalation of problems and associated emails, meetings and actions one experiences in the corporate world when it all goes bad.

FYIs usually come in the form of emails and are used to inform a superior or other relevant party that a problem (such as a Minor Cluster) may be brewing. They usually do not require further action, but in some cases the recipient may choose to respond with a Little Sit-Down.

Little Sit-Down
Describes the conversation that happens between two professionals when there are issues to be addressed. It’s not usually an acrimonious meeting, but is a bit stronger than a FYI. You might say something like, “I need to have a Little Sit-Down with Jones in advertising to get on the same page vis-à-vis the Widgets-R-Us account.” (It’s my sincere hope you don’t really talk this way, but you get the idea.)

Minor Cluster
A Minor Cluster may follow on the heels of an FYI or come out of the blue.  Somewhere, someone screwed up enough to cause a ripple of angst within the company. A Minor Cluster may result in a Swirl, various Sit-Downs, another FYI, or all of the above (common).

A Swirl is the frenetic-but-unproductive activity that usually follows a Cluster of any type. Swirls may include some or all of the following: executive requests for impossible-to-gather information, 5 p.m. meetings, quickly implementing Cluster fixes only to pull them 30 minutes later, multimedia finger-pointing, crazy idea generation, breathless emails, closed-door office meetings and my favorite, being asked to do something that takes 3 months in less than an hour (i.e. magical thinking).

Total Cluster
A Total Cluster has an especially strong correlation to a Come-to-Jesus (see below). When a Total Cluster happens, the proverbial crapola has hit the fan. A Total Cluster is always followed by a mad flurry of activity to fix the problem, much Swirling and usually more than a little CYA activity as well. There will be some kind of unpleasant fallout from a Total Cluster. You know you’ve hit the cluster hall-of-fame when someone says, “We don’t want this to turn out like another <insert name of cluster event here> again.”

The conversation that happens with the responsible party after a Total Cluster. If this is a client/vendor relationship, the vendor will be put on notice to not do this again or else. There will be a high degree of mea culpa-ing and talk of “make goods.” If the talk is between internal groups, there will likely be blaming and finger-pointing, which may include evidence presented via Excel or PowerPoint. The ideal outcome of a CTJ is that the parties can get past the anger to have a true meeting of the minds (MOM) to resolve the issue and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Sadly, this does not always happen.

Smart corporate denizens will arrange to have a Heart-to-Heart (H2H) with one key person from the “other side” after a Come-to-Jesus (or even before). This is where the two individuals privately air any grievances and attempt to repair the relationship in order to move forward. The Heart-to-Heart is not used nearly enough and can be very effective in heading off future Sit-Downs, Clusters and Come-to-Jesus events. The key to the H2H is to be honest and forthright and willing to see the situation from your compatriot’s point of view.

Tips for Staying Sane in the Face of a Cluster

1. Stay Calm
Do not buy into the hysteria around you. A good rule of thumb is the more intense people get, the calmer you should strive to be. If you need to, take a moment to step outside, have a momentary freak out and then take a deep breath and calm yourself. Not only is this just good for your state of mind, but you’ll be much better equipped to come up with viable solutions to the problem at hand. Plus people will think you’re amazing under pressure.

2. You are not the cluster.
Even if you are unfortunate enough to be at the center of the latest tempest, remember that these events do not define you. This is simply a bump in the road, and no matter how big the bump, it will pass. 

3. Fall on your sword.
Mistakes happen, do your best to clean up the mess, fall on your sword as needed, and move on. Taking responsibility is a much better tactic than denial. You might still be in hot water, but people will respect you for taking responsibility. Just don’t overdo it, martyrdom is going too far and makes others uncomfortable.

4. It’s just clothes.
This is what one of my mentors used to say to remind me to have perspective. We worked for an apparel retailer and ultimately no matter how important we thought our work was, we were just selling clothes. This may not work if you’re an emergency room doc, but it does the trick for most gigs.

5. Remember that you’ll have a funny story later.
Clusters are almost always hilarious in hindsight. It could take a couple of years, but at some point this is going to make a great story.

Have your own cluster or vocabulary word to contribute? Comment and share.


Entry filed under: Levity, Overcoming Adversity. Tags: , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Justin Foster  |  April 14, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    I’m overwhelmed with the wisdom of this posting…


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