“Hurry up and wait” is one of the great tropes of my particular Big Bureaucratic Organization. I suspect though that tropes become time worn examples because they have far more than a grain of truth about them.
My experiences, not unusual, are of long stretches of boredom interspersed with shorter moments of intense action, chaos, or panic.
Today was, if nothing else, a perfect example of the two… the morning was spent waiting, mostly for other people to deliver a product or otherwise show up wherever they were supposed to be. In contrast the afternoon was a misadventure of dashing between rooms and meetings trying to keep a coherent thought in my head without pausing to come up for air. That’s the way of things here, at least for me, during this particular part of the year.
Tomorrow will be more of the same. Perhaps a little more wait than hurry up… a chance to sit down, gather my thoughts, and try to deconflict the data dump from today wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I can do analysis on the fly… but you shouldn’t want me to. It’s better for everyone if I’ve had a chance to think through the right solutions before firing from the hip with what feels like it could possibly be the answer. Under those circumstances, the conclusions I draw might be correct, but they could just as easily be well reasoned, justified based on the available data, and absolutely wrong on every count.
Today was mostly a day of blank stares, of getting questions loosely related to one another heaved towards me, of trying to clarify, and of creating the illusion of progress.
It was, for all outward appearances, a very busy day. There was much heat and motion, but if you found yourself seeking forward progress, you’d have been gravely disappointed… unless you count sending a shit ton of emails as a gainfully productive use of time. Believe me when I say you shouldn’t.
The simple fact is my gears are stripped from shifting focus from one thing to the next from minute to minute today. There’s a pretty good chance that at least some of what I churned through today could have benefited from a bit of thoughtful analysis, but today wasn’t the day for that. I don’t expect many of the next 60 or so days are going to be the kind of days when thoughtful analysis happens. It’s more about input, response, new input, new response, ad infinitum.
If anyone needs me I’ll be over here with the television making background noise, staring off into the middle distance, with my brain kicked into idle.
I’m not an expert, not in this field anyway. I am however, due to many years of experience at wading into topic areas where I lack formal education or training, a generalist of remarkably broad scope. I’m good at looking for connections – or for the places where connections should be but aren’t. It’s a knack I have for reading, comprehending, and then synthesizing material into something approximating a coherent and rational bit of information. On my very best day I’m a pretty brilliant analyst. On an average day, I like to think I’m still awfully good, just maybe getting the job done with a little less flourish.
I need to point out in no uncertain terms that what people do with the information once I give it to them isn’t really my field. I’m not a decision maker. I don’t want to be one. What I will do is present you with the best, most coherent information I can pull together in whatever time is allotted for the task. That’s my one iron clad, most absolute guarantee.
Still, though, I need you to always remember one thing. When the information I’m working with is incomplete, wrong, folded, spindled, or mutilated in some way, the results you get are going to be suspect. When the amount of time available doesn’t allow for a full detailed analysis, the results are going to be suspect. Now the good news is I’m always going to present my assessments with those limiting factors highlighted for the world to see. I’m never going to shirk the analysis because it’s too hard, but damned if I can help it when you’re caught up in shitty input leading to shitty results.
More and more often I’m running into links on “news” sites that dump you off at a video rather than at an article. For me at least, if I’m interested enough to click on a link, I’m interested enough to learn more than whatever can be offered up in a 13 second video clip. Call me a curmudgeon but I like my news stories to have a little bit of depth, maybe some background, and even a touch of analysis if the editors are feeling a little froggy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of digital media, but there’s a big part of me that still likes getting my news in the written word format. I’m not advocating for an immediate return to running newspapers in a morning and evening edition, but I don’t think it’s too big an ask to expect generally reputable news sources to include a little more meat on the bone. Then again, maybe that’s just another art form dying in the modern age.
With that said, a few weeks ago a friend turned me on to a site that specializes in collecting a sort of “best of” series of long form articles from across the web. Longform.org tends to be a bit eclectic in its offerings. It’s certainly not all the news that’s fit to print. What it lacks in width on a day to day basis, it almost always makes up for in depth. Right now on the main page articles range from campus activism to nursing to Swiss banking. I check in a few times a week when I’m feeling myself fall into the normal routine of things being a thousand feet wide but only three inches deep. It’s a helpful reminder if nothing else that somewhere, someone is practicing some deep thinking skills – even when I reject their premise or conclusions.
Sometimes a picture and a paragraph just aren’t enough. Mercifully there is at least a small group of people on the internet who agree.
1. Friday afternoon. What kind of jackass sets up a meeting on a Friday after 4PM? Time, being the precious resource that it is, the start of the weekend should be even more sacrosanct. It should be inviolable. It should be the most iron-clad and immutable moment of the week. But no, because no one has the good sense to tell someone with a little bit of power that it’s a stupid idea, the weekend will be indefinitely delayed by another meeting that could have probably been an email.
2. Diagnostic analysis. I’m an analyst. It’s what I do and probably does a good job describing who I am as a human being. Generally when someone wants an analysis “on the fly,” I can reach into my back of tricks and give them the back of the napkin version without much trouble. Now when you tell me that the issue is a non-replicable fault, can’t identify who discovered the issue or what was actually reported, want it done without the benefit of credible trouble tickets or help requests, and no other direct method of measurement, well, basically what’s left is polling the operators and asking if everything is performing within normal parameters. If they say yes and the automated metrics agree with them, then the analysis is complete, there was no fault, and all systems are behaving normally. Analysis complete. I don’t know what else to tell you.
3. A good week ruined. I started off on Tuesday with a less than usually jaundiced view of the world. I was well rested for the first time in I don’t remember how long. Dare I say I was optimistic of having a reasonably good week. That nonsense didn’t last out the day of course and it’s been a straight mud-soaked slog through to Thursday night. If I can put my head down and bull my way through the next three weeks without a heart attack, a stroke, or setting the building on fire, I should probably consider it a job well done and never think of it again. Until next summer. When they whole damned thing starts over again.
Today was another one of those days. You know, the kind you spend dashing from Very Important Thing to Very Important Thing without ever slowing down to do any kind of analysis about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. Those days are becoming more and more common lately. My read of the future is that they’ll probably become the norm rather than the exception and that it’ll happen sooner rather than later.
I’m not saying I want to be one of those occasional government employees I ran across in DC who unfolded the Post when they got in and proceeded to spend the day reading it from cover to cover, but it would be nice to be able to do more than race from one meeting to the next until they all start bleeding together into one great endless timesuck. I’m a little envious of the people who seem to be able to sit through meetings and digest all the information on the fly, compiling it into some intra-cranial database with perfect recall of how it fits in with all the other information from all the other meetings they’ve sat in. My brain, of course, doesn’t work like that. I process information best when I have time to think on it, write things out, and then aggregate it into a comprehensive whole. That’s why given the choice I’d be better served sticking with PowerPoints and information papers and distilling big ideas down into their essential elements. Needing to do it on the wing quite literally makes my head hurt.
Based on the way the last couple of weeks have gone, I’m projecting the need to lay on a bulk supply of aspirin. As “those days” become the new normal, I’m going to need them. There are a number of management philosophies that apply here – some say do more with less, some say do less with less, the one that seems to be in play at the moment is “do more and quit your bitching.”
Rest assured as long as I have a blog and an internet connection they may be able to make me do more, but I will never, ever quit my bitching.
I consider myself lucky to rarely be afflicted with the trouble some people seem to have when it comes to making decisions. I might not always make the “right” decision, but I’ll make one on the fly if for no other reason than even a wrong decision feels more productive than dithering back and forth about what to do. I’m a great many things (some of them even good), but a ditherer I am not.
Under normal circumstances, I don’t see that as a weakness, but the problem comes when I find myself in a position of having too many moving parts demanding attention at once. That leads me to making reactionary decisions about everything. Jumping from one issue to the next with no real rhyme or reason behind it is not exactly the recipe for great decision making. It is, however, the recipe for making a metric shitload of otherwise easily avoidable mistakes. Easily avoidable mistakes make me sad.
I’m not asking for an endless buffet of free time, but a few minutes now and then to evaluate, plan, and analyze would go a long way towards letting me churn out a product that’s not halfway embarrassing. Absent the time to do the required leg work, I’d advise everyone to go ahead and get ready for a lot of checking off whatever box needs checked without giving any actual thought to how any of it relates to the bigger picture. Look, I’m fine playing it that way, as long as we’re all willing to concede that running half blind from reaction to reaction is a piss poor way of getting anything done. Really, I just want to make sure I’m on the record as having said that here in print.
The 50% of my job that doesn’t deal with PowerPoint is almost exclusively taken up by reading and writing. (We’re going to pretend for purposes of this discussion that good productive time isn’t serially wasted by the requirement to attend meetings.) This week I’ve been reading up on some rather elderly documents that led me all the way back to late August 2005. To set the stage, it was hot and humid in Washington, DC and all hell was breaking loose along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana.
My memories from Katrina differ pretty significantly from what most people remember seeing on the news. I remember a federal response effort that practically pleaded and begged state and local leaders in Louisiana to ask for assistance and that staged people, equipment, and mountains of “stuff” as close to the Louisiana border as possible when it became obvious to everyone but those officials that Katrina was going to overwhelm their capacity to respond. The Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor had a different perspective, of course. All I know is the information showing up hourly on my desk in stacks of reports didn’t jive with the story they were telling in front of the camera. The real truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
I’d be hard pressed to reveal myself to be a bigger geek than you already think I am, but for me it was fascinating combing through the files of a different organization with a wholly different mission and reading their take on what was going on in Louisiana that summer. Reading accounts that weren’t filled with statistics of water, ice, temporary roofing material, and body bags on hand or tons of debris removed gave me a little fresh appreciation for what we were trying to do that summer. I guess that’s not all that surprising. With a degree in history I’ve always had a penchant for looking to the past to make informed guesses about what the future may hold.
Katrina was what one might call a significant emotional event for many and I’m not trying to make light of that in any way. At the same time, for me, Katrina started 60 days of some of the best professional work I’ve ever done. It was equal parts rewarding and exhausting – often simultaneously. Eight years after the fact, I won’t deny that I’m finding myself looking back on it with a bit of fond nostalgia. I suppose that’s fairly easy to do when you rode out the storm and its aftermath hunkered down in DC with electricity, running water, and a Starbucks in the lobby.
I was going to blog some of my first thoughts about the election results this morning, but between the Natty Boh headache, the rare opportunity to make breakfast on a weekday, and The Belligerent Ginger already beating me to a cogent and thoughtful analysis of the situation, I’m just going to go on the record and say that he’s spot on. Nicely done, sir. I hope you’ll excuse me for shamelessly stealing your work.
In theory, I work with responsible adults who have the ability to both read and understand the English language. The majority have an undergraduate degree and many have at least one master’s degree. Therefore, you’d think it would be easy enough to follow a set of directions that said simply:
Review the attached documents and provide your written feedback via email to Mr. Random Bureaucrat at email@example.com not later than 10:00 AM.
Of course, what actually happens is you get flooded with messages that say things like “I didn’t like the way things were formatted, so I changed the layout and increased the font because I can’t see so good. Oh, and I changed some of the numbers because I don’t think they were right.” Or someone wanders to your cube wanting you to take dictation about the 37.25 things they want to change. Or someone sends in their changes at 4:32 PM and is then offended when you don’t drop everything, immediately recall the data that had been sent up the chain of command at noon and make their “critical” changes.
Look jerkwater, we spent three months crunching the numbers you sent us. Don’t blame the analysis because you don’t like how things turned out. And definitely don’t blame the analyst when you want to send in “updated” data six hours after the absolute last deadline for changes has passed.
For the love of God and all things good, right, and holy, spare us all the embarrassment of how badly it must suck to be you and read the instructions next time.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.