What I learned this week…

Sometimes I wish I’d never started underwriting Fridays to feature “What I learned this week.” As often as not, the answer, really, is “not much.”

As it turns out, unless something is running wildly out of tolerance, most of my weeks are remarkably consistent. There’s enough different most weeks to not be entirely Groundhog Day, but the similarity is enough that it’s not exactly the environment for learning new and interesting things.

This week has been another like the others – not so much full of new ideas or experiences, but heavy with reminders of lesson already learned – like nothing will be critical to the Uberbosses until it’s close enough to bite them in the ass. My personal favorite this week is the old tale of waiting to the last possible moment to throw up a new, completely undiscussed requirement which threatens to derail weeks of work.

There’s very little I do that should be particularly difficult, but Lord don’t we find a way to make even the easiest things into the heaviest of lifts… and all for no apparent reason.

Lord save me from the Bureaucracy. Maybe it’s time to get working on that sequel to Nobody Told Me…

Jeffrey Tharp and the Zombie Conference from Hell…

For the last six years I’ve found myself saddled with one project that I haven’t been able to shake. Reorganizations and realignments have come and gone and yet this project hangs on grimly, like Marley’s suffering in spectral chains for a life misspent. It’s the classic example of creating a massive boondoggle where having a simple website would be sufficient. Circus tents, cigar bars, catered lunches, live bands, and evening socials… for some reason, the Gods on Olympus have pegged me as they guy you want running your social extravaganzas. Yeah, the guy whose idea of a good time is getting home early and tucking in with a good book and avoiding people as much as possible. That’s exactly who you want to plan your biggest party of the year. 

You’ll never convince me that the universe doesn’t have a particularly fucked up sense of humor. 

It’s really only on my mind today because, in the era before the Great Plague, today would have been opening day for this particular event… and I’d have been two wake ups away from getting the shitshow over for another year.

Other, more reasonable organizations, have decided this isn’t the time to do big productions. They’re being cancelled left and right, being pushed into the fall or into 2021. We’ve gone with a different option of kicking the can down the road a scant five weeks and “reimagining” the whole thing as an online event. That’s fine. I’m sure there won’t be any problems at all with scrapping nine months of planning and collapsing three days of material into a single day using a webcast platform that none of us has ever used while coordinating with 30-40 key players via email and phone because we’re mostly home hiding out from the Great Plague. Seriously, I mean what could possibly go wrong with this plan that’s been too-quickly conceived, barely coordinated, and will be almost completely unrehearsed?

Even in the face of mayhem, chaos, plague, supply disruption, fear, anguish, loathing, and common goddamned sense, we will drive this project forward. For reasons that defy any mere human logic, it’s the unkillable zombie conference from hell and the absolute bane of my existence.

I’m sure it will be the best doggone conference ever. 

Tempo…

Most work days during the Great Plague have had a tempo. An ebb and flow. A period of hurry up and then one of wait. There are days that don’t conform to that simple pattern, though. It’s been easy to forget about those outliers these last few weeks – because almost uniformly the pace since mid-March scratched along somewhere between slow and steady. 

The last couple of days were a reminder that the other kind of days are still lurking out there – the days when it feels like you barely look up from spending hours trying to swat down email as fast as it arrives and wondering what ridiculous shit is going to land on your desk next.

It’s a reminder, if nothing else, that working from home still finds its base in that most ugly of all the 4-letter words. There’s more to the story. There always is, but this little bit of it is what I’m going to focus on while a bigger, far more ridiculous effort rises in the distance. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll start to chronicle that little gem right here very soon, because it’s the zombie conference from hell that just won’t die and it’s a story worth telling.

The bitterest end…

I was sitting in the kitchen this morning and the realization came that this – endless early weekday mornings of the cat expectantly watching for the first birds to arrive at the feeders, dogs snoring comfortably after their breakfast, and a book in my hand – this is going to end eventually. 

This is going to end and mornings will again be about rushing madly to leave the house on time and get to the office. We’ll go back to sitting for 8.5 hours doing the things that the last month have proven don’t need to be done in a special box, in a certain room, in a specific building. 

It will end because old management philosophies die hard. It will end because despite evidence to the contrary the bosses are never likely to accept that work gets done if they can’t see asses in chairs. There are outliers, of course. People who can’t or won’t function on their own initiative or a few tasks that for reasons can’t be conducted “in the clear.” Those are the outliers, though, and could be resolved through proper performance management or innovative scheduling. That’s likely too big an ask for a creaking old bureaucracy.

Eventually this will end and the relentless tentacles of Cubicle Hell will reach out and pull us all back down into the pit forever.

It’s the most bitter of bitter ends.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Sheetz. The quintessential gas station of my youth which has grown to be a regional juggernaut. For the last couple of years I was able to order ground coffee and k cups through their online sales arm. I went to plug in a reorder this week and find that their site has gone defunct. Twitter confirms that there are currently no options for ordering online. I’ll either have to start buying the stuff 20 pounds at a time when I’m west of Baltimore or just go ahead and give up on the idea of being able to brew the good stuff at home. Both options are… disappointing.

2. Bureaucracy and decision making. Very rarely some things benefit from the application of a little bit of bureaucracy. Most things don’t. Mostly all ratcheting up the bureaucracy does is make sure that decisions happen more slowly and result in shit tons of extra work for everyone involved. I’ve encountered a rare few leaders who can manage to slice through the bureaucracy and get things done… though it’s hard to remember the last time I saw one of those in person.

3. Jealousy. The state of Maryland is kicking off a great big batch of telework for eligible employees in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. Uncle Sam is opting for the more traditional, approach of telling employees to wash their hands and disinfect hard surfaces (supplies not included), and wanting as many people as possible sitting asshole to elbow breathing on each other in his vast cubicle farm. In this case it’s more jealousy than annoyance. Once the Feds collapse, I guess it’ll free up some job opportunities for our friends in state government, so it’s not all down side.

Peak bureaucrating…

So this week I’m engaged in something of a thought exercise. In one file, I’m continuing to develop, refine, and otherwise prepare a program of events suitable to feed and entertain 800-1000 guests. In another folder, I’m starting to build a list of what would go in to turning the whole thing off with little to no notice.

I’m planning for the success and demise of this particular product simultaneously. It’s like trying to hold two mutually exclusive thoughts in your head at the same time. It’s possible that I’m starting to smell colors and see music. It’s like I’m dangerously close to reaching Peak Bureaucrat… or possibly having a stroke. I won’t rule out either option at this point.

In any case, I’m now officially rooting for COVID-19 and the collapse of civilization. We had a good run, but it’s time to go.

Fifty days…

There are a grand total of 50 working days between me and kicking off a what I affectionately think of as The Greatest Shitshow on Earth. Fifty days sounds like a fair amount of time. Maybe it should. The reality, in the belly of the one of the world’s great bureaucratic organizations, though, is that 50 days is almost nothing. It’s closer to the time it takes to order and receive supplies than it is to what it takes to deliver a major project.

It’s fifty days to start, two more to do the thing, and a grand total of fifty two more days before this particular piece of work slips astern. It means I’m going to wake up every morning for the next fifty two days a little bit more annoyed than I was on the previous morning. It’s possible that at some point during this endless march of days, my eyes will physically roll right out of my skull.

I’d love to tell you it’s all for a good cause or that the return on investment makes the sheer weight of aggravation somehow worth it. I can’t and it isn’t. The whole thing is a fucking vanity exercise devised and propagated by echelons higher than reality. Look, I’ll go whatever way someone points me, and deliver whatever they ask for as best I can, but don’t ever expect me to pretend it’s an exciting opportunity to do great things. It’s just one more dumbass thing I’m doing to stay off the breadline.

The well of motivation…

I’ve often thought that motivation is one of those qualities that ebbs and flows over time. Some days you may be full of piss and vinegar and other days just getting out of bed could count as a major accomplishment. Maybe that’s an overly simplistic way of looking at it, but I can tell you for sure that motivation is not a static thing. What you had yesterday is in no way reflective of what you might have tomorrow.

It’s hard to believe now, but there have been times in my life when I could have been considered highly motivated. Some of those times were even fairly recent, at least in relative terms. Recent in this sense should in no way imply that reflects my current level of motivation… or maybe it’s just that I’m motivated by different things.

I should probably say I’m motivated to deliver a great product on time and budget… but the only real motivation I have tonight is in knowing that this particular shitshow has an end date. Holding myself together to get past that marker is just about the only goal I have. I simply don’t have the bandwidth to think about what comes after that… because it will most assuredly be just a different flavor of ridiculous and ill advised.

My well of motivation is tapped the fuck out.

There be plague here…

There’s some kind of plague in the office that seems to be slowly afflicting everyone in the place. One of the people I interact with most on a current project has the good sense to stay home today. The other crawled from bed like a corpse hacking and wheezing its way through a day of meetings.

I’m feeling fine. But given the current prevailing circumstances I’m feeling confident this bug will take me down sooner or later. You won’t find mock heroics here. Hard life lessons have taught me that no one cares if you drag you’re near-dead carcass from your sickbed to make sure that one meeting gets covered.

Even if someone did care, the meeting and giant bureaucratic organization for which it stands, will roll along forever with or without you… So if it truly couldn’t matter less, you might as well stay in bed and make an effort to recover – or at least make the effort not to spread the plague to everyone who has to work with you.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here dipping my whole self in lysol.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Language. There are times when the English language fails to deliver words of sufficient force to reflect what I’m trying to convey. No matter how shrill, “I told you so” lacks the kind of punch you’re looking for when you’re screaming wildly into the void. There really should be a more succinct and dramatic way of saying “This thing has turned into an enormous flaming shitshow that’s almost certain to collapse under the groaning weight of indecision and apathy.” Yeah. We definitely need a word for that in English.

2. Versioning. I’m now tracking the third or fourth iteration of documents that should have been approved weeks ago. Some have been kicking around for months. One in particular just took on significant enough changes to warrant shifting from v.7.2 to v.8. Good times, that.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that my employer is ever criticized for being the poster child for bloated, bureaucratic inefficiency. This week, however, is not one of those times. This week, the reasons why are perfectly clear and on display for all to see.

3. Delete me. At the grand old age of 41, I’ve had the good fortune to develop friendships with people whose views place them firmly on all parts of the political spectrum. I’ve got friends who are socialists, libertarians, social liberals, economic conservatives, hawks, peaceniks, and run of the mill Republicans and Democrats. It’s only with the rise of social media that I’ve found the attitude of “if you support x, we can’t be friends and you should delete me” has become prevalent. I’ve never picked my friends based on their politics and nothing else. It strikes me as an awfully narrow basis for friendship, but I accept that’s just me. To date, I’ve deleted no one because of political views or affiliation and I don’t intent to start now. If your friendships and world view are so fragile that they can’t withstand a differing opinion, I suppose you’ll have to do what you have to do… but I’ll keep picking mine based on criteria that is a lot more open and inclusive.