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The Web Conference from Hell

The following article is a popular reprint penned by the Spitzer Center’s inaugural editor, John Keenan.
Seven years ago, in the aftermath of a major corporate merger, I was asked to update a large, well-trafficked website. I had created the site and led the team that used it to communicate with employees. The bright software engineer who took two months to build the first version wasn’t available. Instead, I was given a small brigade of in-house IT professionals led by a suave and dapper Brit I’ll refer to as “Geoffrey.”

I thought our goals could be met by tweaking the old site, but Geoffrey favored a start-from-scratch approach. He dismissed my pleas for a quick fix on technical grounds using technical jargon, then proceeded to spend the next 10 months exploring options and bringing in software vendors. I suspected Geoffrey didn’t want a fast and simple solution. He was having too much fun being wooed by vendors and putting his personal stamp on the project.

Eventually, Geoffrey had to deliver a “test drive” of the new site. The forum was a global web meeting delivered from a conference room in London. The U.S.-based communicators were linked in by phone and computer. The team in the conference room included Geoffrey, his assistants, consultants, and vendors, and one communicator, who gave me the gory details later that day.

The first problem was that those of us on the phone could barely hear anything because none of the table-top microphones were working. It took 10 minutes for Geoffrey to find a spot from where we could hear him, but once he did his website presentation slowed to a crawl. There were long delays between each change on the screen and Geoffrey’s ensuing explanation.

What seemed strange to the U.S. contingent listening in was downright bizarre to those in attendance. Geoffrey’s laptop was at the back of the room. The only functioning microphone was at the front of the room – in the ceiling. The only way for Geoffrey to be heard was to stand on a chair underneath that spot. Since no one else knew the roadmap for the “test drive,” he was scurrying back and forth between his laptop and the chair, hence the delays. “It looked like something straight out of Monty Python,” my witness told me.

To make matters worse, the presentation itself was just plain awful. The features he was demonstrating were downscale versions of features we already had. I tried to make this point, but there was no answer. The audio link from London had been lost.

But those of us in the States were still connected, and we proceeded to voice our exasperation. “I can’t believe how lame this is!” I fumed. “Geoffrey hasn’t listened to a word we’ve been telling him for close to a year now! And now he’s trying to sell us this pile of rubbish!” The others on the phone chimed in with similar observations, and the whole discussion quickly became a roast of Geoffrey’s pretensions and incompetence. It stopped five minutes later when we heard muffled English voices in the background.

“Hello!” I shouted. “Can you hear us now? “

A meek voice replied, “You couldn’t hear us, but we could hear you just fine. We’ve heard everything you’ve said for the last five minutes.”

When word of the debacle reached Geoffrey’s bosses in IT, he was yanked from the project. We were given a new team, which finished the project per my specifications. The new website was deemed a success, and word reached me later that Geoffrey was no longer with the company.

In subsequent years, the “Web Conference from Hell” became part of the company’s lore. I liked to tell the story because it always made people cringe and laugh simultaneously.

Almost always. I shared it once over drinks with a fellow I held in great esteem, and instead of laughing, he winced and shook his head. “That poor guy,” he said of Geoffrey with genuine pity. “Can you imagine what it must have been like to be him that day?”

That simple expression of empathy drained the story of its pleasure, and it made me feel ignoble for having enjoyed it so much in the first place.

I didn’t have the prism of the Four Levels at the time, but having it now makes the story all the more painful to recollect. Geoffrey was a bit of a Level 2 jerk, there’s no denying that. But the way I achieved my Level 2 victory made me the bigger jerk. All Geoffrey did was mismanage a project; I subjected a man to intense humiliation. All it took was one Level 3 comment to remind me the latter is always worse than the former.