Opinion

'BMW design and the sorry slide from quiet confidence to muddled mediocrity'

It's contagious. And when you catch it, it's game over. Suddenly you've no idea what's right and good any more

Are you good at your job? Once upon a time you thought you were. No one likes to believe they’re lousy at the thing that occupies such a thick percentage of the average week. And chances are, you were good. Took pride in your work. Approached each new day with a spring in your step and a twinkle in your eye, thinking, ‘Today I’m going to crack this one.’ Natural aptitude flowed from you and sprinkled everything you did with a little stardust. It inspired others too, dragging the whole team up to your level. A rolling ball of skill and experience, that was you wasn’t it? And your brilliance lifted the people you worked with. A dream team. The A squad. Hit after hit after hit. That was you.

Well, it was you some of the time. I mean, no one’s that good all the time, are they? Not when it’s raining and Wednesday and the bloody kids wouldn’t get their stuff together and you arrived at work in a grumpy funk. No one can do their best work then, can they? Of course not. Maybe that’s why the last project didn’t turn out so well. Maybe you just weren’t in the right mood. It happens. Deep down you’re good at this, but get you on the back foot and next thing you know two years have passed and you never quite found that rhythm.

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It’s not your fault. The timing was wrong, perhaps you never felt it in your bones. And don’t get you started on the rest of the team for that one. God, they were no help, were they? Old whatsisname with his stupid ideas that never quite seem right. And her, with the hair, and the shrill, spiny laugh that slices through your nerves as you try to explain that pairing this with that with this is never going to work. Yes, you’re still good, but they were really trying your patience, and that’s why it didn’t work out. Sucked the marrow from the core of your skills. And come on, the idea was bad in the first place. You could tell it was going wrong. Confusion and delusion from those around you and, before you know it, your enthusiasm is evaporating like the puddles on the grey flat roof you can see from your desk.

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It happened to the other teams too. You could see it, creeping in like a low mist of muddle and mediocrity. Bouncing walks and tinkling laughter crushed over months and years into a defeated trudge and a tide of sighs. It’s hard to be good at your job when you’re surrounded by all that. This disease, it’s contagious. And when you catch it, it’s game over. Suddenly you’ve no idea what’s right and good any more, flailing about as you start to confuse boldness with things that are simply bad.

It kills you at work, of course. Spending longer and longer in the canteen each day. Once you’d make the dash for food as quickly as you could and fly back upstairs, propelled by puppyish enthusiasm. Sometimes you’d forget to eat altogether, finally realising at 4pm that the knot in your belly wasn’t just excitement at getting the job nailed. That feels like a long time ago now. It’s no better at home, either. Gentle remarks that would once have disappeared harmlessly down the drain after the rest of the pasta sauce are now flash points for fireworks and another night in the spare room.

You’re drinking too much, you know that. And you’re getting fat, aren’t you? What happened to that gym regime? It’s amazing what slides when the effortless assurance of being professionally brilliant is pulled from under you like that f***ing rug you told your wife not to buy. These things didn’t used to bother you but your once-sunny disposition is now more like the flat pale light just before a storm. And all because you know in your heart your work isn’t good. The whole department’s work isn’t good. Being no good has seeped in like poisonous gas and now everyone’s making angry stabs against the awful collective realisation that you’ve replaced quiet confidence with confused crap.

Once you were good. Once the department was good. And when the department was good it made the whole company look good. Not any more. Now you’re too embarrassed to tell people what you do. It’s just too hard. They’ll only ask questions, and they’re questions you don’t want to answer, leading to the question you don’t think you can answer: how did it get like this? You don’t know any more. You don’t know how something once so good could become so bad, and then evolve into the ugly, unstoppable collective consciousness that seems to say, ‘Let’s see if we can make this better by making it even worse.’ The department is a laughing stock. You’re a laughing stock. You used to be good. Yes, you. You were really good. You must have been. You were good at your job. You could be good at your job again. You just need to leave the BMW design department.

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