Steve McKevitt: Busy doing nothing

Every firm has a city slacker: they're always on the go but they never achieve anything. Steve McKevitt on the workers who understand that appearances are everything

Do your bosses tell you that "cream rises to the top"? They're lying. In October Investors in People published a poll that showed 70% of the UK workers think that some of their colleagues aren't pulling their weight. They are dead right. As anyone with any commercial experience will testify, the deadwood floats.

We live in the age of the city slacker: a new breed of urban professional who understands that the rules of business have changed and that to survive and prosper, you don't have to do your job well, you just need to look like you're doing it well. Your success depends upon how good you are at pulling off this performance and demands that you take every opportunity you can to be seen that you are doing the job.

Modern businesses appear to have been set up with the city slacker in mind, providing an environment in which they can thrive. The move from corporate hierarchical structures to more flexible project teams, and outsourcing services to third parties, has brought with it ambiguity. Audit any medium-sized organisation today, and you will quickly find a surprising number of people who command a great deal of authority, but have no genuine accountability for anything. The edges have been blurred and, as a result, nobody is quite sure where the buck stops.

The first thing to make clear is that the city slacker is completely different to the old-school office layabout: the guy who puts his coat on the back of his chair and leaves his computer on when really he's down the pub, or the girl who spends most of her days organising the office's social calendar. The city slacker is a much more sophisticated character. Many companies will believe that a city slacker is their biggest asset: a rising star who's never put a foot wrong, but the truth is that they never will have delivered anything.

They will be armed with all the latest industry buzzwords, which will be rotated regularly to make them look well informed. City slackers are big on "strategic realignment", "corporate rebranding" and "brand repositioning"- anything with "re" at the front is good, because it means they don't have to innovate. You will usually find mature versions "up to their neck" in a soft project with high visibility and no real chance of evaluation, for example, leading a team charged with redesigning the company's logo. This is a highly visible project which will elicit a strong emotional response internally, but will have zero impact on the performance of the business. For the slacker, this is perfect.

A city slacker is always busy. Everything about them will seem to have a sense of urgency: holding folders wherever they go, always on the mobile - yet, conversely, almost impossible to get hold of, because they're always in meetings. If you work alongside one, you will find they are a great source of ideas for your project: the kind of person you can expect to send you an email outlining a few "blue-sky" ideas at 11pm, or slap in the middle of the weekend. You know they are always thinking about the company, even when they're asleep.

The reality is very different. The folders are no more than a prop, the mobile calls will be mostly personal or meaningless, those great ideas will be carried out at your own risk, to be immediately reclaimed in the unlikely event that they succeed (usually by sending a congratulatory email to you that is copied to the boss with the initial idea attached to the bottom as evidence). Even those late-night emails are most probably the result of a few subtle changes to his internal PC clock and mail client setup, courtesy of a helpful soul in the IT department.

Being a city slacker might be a sensible option, but as you can see, it's not necessarily a soft one, demanding a large amount of planning, effort and, not least, talent. The question is why don't city slackers simply transfer this effort into doing the job they've been paid to do? The answer is simply, it's not that simple.

The salient characteristic of our economy is failure. 85% of FMCG products launched this year - the items found on shelves in supermarkets and high street shops, like baked beans, recordable DVDs or lipstick - will fail. In the music industry, 90% of releases fail to recoup their investment. In videogames, 10% of titles account for 55% of sales. Success has never been as difficult to sustain as it is today.

Across marketing, sales, technology, PR, journalism, senior management and consultancy the disconnection between companies and employees creates the perfect environment for value avoidance.

Despite the fact that nobody is going to take any notice, I'd like to make the following point: not everyone who works in the communications and media sector is a city slacker and not every city slacker works in the communications and media sector. For the record, I think this sector attracts some of the most dynamic, interesting and creative minds.

However, in much the same way that I think light is an intrinsically good and useful thing, yet can't deny it attracts wasps, PR, marketing and journalism do attract more than their fair share of city slackers.

For example, the average lifespan of a product or brand manager is just 18 months. If we allow them three months to get into the role at the start and six months to find another job at the end, that means they are actively doing the job for nine months.

The joy for the city slacker is that if they're moderately careful they can coast through project after project, safe in the knowledge that if they manage to achieve a modest one-in-five success rate, they'll still outperform most of their contemporaries in product marketing. The city slacker quickly realises that all they have to do is to breeze through on autopilot, taking care to look as busy as possible and deliver failure after failure. No one will be expecting success and so no one will be subjecting your performance to the kind of 24/7 scrutiny experienced by candidates in The Apprentice.

The long-term outlook for the city slacker looks brighter still, because most corporate organisations believe that there is still no substitute for experience. So, once you've got a few failures under your belt, people will really start to believe in you.

The visible results of all this effort are all around us: the world is full of useless things. Recently I went into the shops to buy a bar of chocolate. I decided to take the faux-healthy option of buying a Wispa. The Wispa bar was launched by Cadbury in the mid 1980s. Unfortunately, I discovered that in August 2003 Cadbury withdrew the Wispa bar forever, replacing it with an extension of its Dairy Milk Brand.

To get from Wispa to Dairy Milk extension will have been a very lengthy journey, involving various creative, advertising and branding agencies, internal and external focus group testing, proposals for packaging and extensive PR and advertising campaigns to communicate all these changes to Wispa fans everywhere.

This begs just three questions: Why? Why? And why? The net result of hundreds of expensive man hours spent on this task is that now, when I want a Wispa, I'm supposed to ask for something called a Dairy Milk Bubbly. Well stuff them, I'm having an Aero.

City Slackers by Steve McKevitt is published by Cyan. To order a copy for £9.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875

Award yourself five extra points if you are doing this quiz during work time.

1. You discover your company is going to commission a new logo. How do you respond?

a) March into the chief executive's office and demand you be allowed to take on all the extra work yourself. The company logo is a salient communication vehicle and you really want to be involved, to make sure it's done right.

b) Actively get involved. You've got a lot on as it is and the rebrand is just a distraction from the real work that needs doing.

c) Take no notice. It's not your department, so best not to get involved.

2. And how long should this rebranding exercise take?

a) At least six months. And even then the results will have to be focus group tested. "Measure twice, cut once", that's your philosophy.

b) One month. Because that's how long it'll take everyone to agree on a logo and stationery.

c) The longer the better. More time spent on rebranding means less time wondering what you're up to.

3. You get a call from an irate customer, who wants to know why, after 1,000 hours of testing, the software program you've delivered has a major crash bug in it. How do you respond?

a) Apologise, but blame it on unforeseen problems involved in making sure it was integrated with the sloppily programmed existing system.

b) Accept responsibility, but take care to explain that no amount of testing can guarantee the software is 100% bug free.

c) Try to pass it off as a feature, and if that doesn't work, blame it on the boogie.

4. The launch of your company's latest product has been a disaster. You are summoned to a postmortem meeting during which the CEO berates the head of marketing. How do you react?

a) Support your beleaguered colleague. Show how the better aspects of his campaign helped to deliver elements of the project.

b) Wait for the chief executive's ire to subside then suggest that it might be better to "take a holistic view of all the issues and identify some key learnings".

c) With relief. It's not you he's getting stuck into, so take care not to make eye contact with anyone else.

5. You've slept in and now you're going to be half an hour late for work. What do you do?

a) Turn over and go back to sleep. You will arrive at work two hours later pretending you've had a last-minute breakfast meeting with a key client.

b) Get up immediately and rush to work, blaming your late arrival on an accident or bad traffic.

c) Throw a sickie.

6. A colleague has a major success with an idea you gave them and seems to be taking all the credit. Do you?

a) Send them a congratulatory email with your initial idea attached to the bottom as evidence and copying in the boss.

b) Shake hands and say that if they need more help with anything else then you'll be happy to oblige.

c) Tell anyone who'll listen that it was really your idea. Offer to email it to them as proof.

7. What is email?

a) A superb 24/7 business communications tool.

b) Something that creates as many problems as it solves.

c) A great way of distributing gags and keeping in touch with your mates while you're supposed to be working.

8. Excluding spam, how many emails do you receive each day?

a) Over 100 b) 0-50 c) 50-100

8. You are asked to present an important paper to the board. How do you prepare?

a) Pay a consultant to write it for you, pull in a favour from a design agency to make sure it looks slick and then put your name on the cover.

b) Put in extra effort after hours to make sure this is the best piece of work you could possibly do.

c) Leave it until the last minute and then wing it. They don't know anything about your specialism, so blinding them with science will be easy.

10. Which of these three jobs appeals to you the most?

a) One that is paying you the same salary as you earn now, but with a much better job title and less responsibility.

b) A more junior, yet more interesting role, for 30% more money.

c) The same job you've got now.

Mostly As

Congratulations - you're heading for the boardroom. You're ambitious and capable but you've realised hard work isn't going to get you to the top. A real City Slacker (just don't tell anyone the results of this quiz).

Mostly Bs

You're a real asset to your company, although they probably don't realise it. Others are grabbing the glory, while it's you doing most of the work. That makes you either an unsung hero, or a drone. Perhaps you need to show off more.

Mostly Cs

You're too lazy to even contemplate putting in the effort required to become a city slacker. Have another doughnut and console yourself with the fact that despite this, you're probably just as productive.

Steve McKevitt

The GuardianTramp

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