My own personal hell…

The only sure things in life, it’s said, are death and taxes. Those do seem to come with alarming regularity while most other aspects of getting by are a bit more sporadic.

There are, though, other truisms of life in the bureaucracy that feel as if they are just as certain. Unsurprisingly, the one I’m most focused on today relates directly to events… because no bureaucracy worth its salt can seem to resist the temptation to throw itself big, showy parties for no discernable reason whatsoever.

In terms of bang for the buck, I’d be hard pressed to give you any real return on investment for these adventures. I’m sure it makes someone, somewhere, probably those managerial gods on high Olympus, feel good. For the rest of us, it’s nothing so much as a good old-fashioned pain in the ass. One more thing to do on a list that never, ever gets any shorter regardless of how many items a day you manage to strike down.

The only thing consistent across the universe of these parties and events is that they start more or less on time, some bits in the middle go well, some others slide off the rails, and then they end slightly earlier than scheduled. Everything else is details and by the time the next week starts, no one remembers any of those as they race off to do the next Very Important Thing and try to scratch out a modicum of credit from whatever bosses they serve.

My career is well into its back half now. Mercifully the days of feeling the need to get every attaboy or head pat are long gone. Now, my only love language comes in the form of a time off. I’ve already got a box full of certificates and general officer notes that will never see the light of day again. Cash awards end up being taxed away before you even know you’ve gotten one. There’s no appetite for time off awards at echelons higher than reality, though. They mean for some fixed amount of time there’s some other Very Important Thing you’re not working on… and the bosses hate that.

I’ve reached a stage of bureaucratic enlightenment beyond the trivialities of cash, certificates, or time off awards. All I really want is for this thing to start so that it can eventually end and we can all forget the part in the middle. With this agonizing exercise in organizational self-gratification wrapped up, so I can think about something – anything – else for the next six months before the planning cycle starts for the 2023 version of my own personal hell.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Failure to plan. I’ve rented you the hall. I’ve provided the stage. I’ve laid on the cameras and the furniture. I’ve blocked off all the time in the world for people to rehearse, dry run, and generally get to feel comfortable with their part. What I can’t make people do, of course, is actually show up and do any of those things. Mostly I put in the effort because I want people to be successful – or at least I want to set the conditions for their success. What I’ll be intensely intolerant of, however, is when those same people who have displayed conspicuous indifference in planning find themselves in a panic five minutes before things go live next week… Because that’s almost inevitable while also being nearly 100% avoidable.

2. Work clothes. Having spent the majority of the last two years working from home, it hasn’t been necessary to keep much in the way of a “work” wardrobe. I mean mine almost exclusively consists of khakis and polos, anyway, but that’s all stuff I’d wear day-to-day in my real life. After two years of little exposure to the general public some, perhaps most of it, is starting to look a little tatty around the edges. That’s an issue I hadn’t noticed until I realized I needed something more or less presentable for five days this week instead of my normal one or two. If you think the idea of needing to buy clothes specifically so I can drive 40 minutes to sit in a cubicle isn’t grinding my gears, you must be new here.

3. The end of April. The back half of April is my hardest two weeks of the year. The only thing holding my temper just barely in check is not wanting to be unemployed. Stress is up because I’m supposed to be delivering a product that no one else gives a shit about until the day it goes live. My blood pressure is through the roof. I can track it year over year and it consistently spikes during these two weeks. I’m eating like shit, tossing and turning through the night, and generally just not taking the time to do the normal things that more or less keep me on an even keel the rest of the year. All in all, it’s not a great time when your general outlook is often described in such glowing terms as “bleak” and “kind of dark” on the good days.

Twelve chairs…

One of the many exciting “other duties as assigned” I enjoy during this, the worst month of the year, is that of circus roustabout. It’s toting, hauling, setting up, shifting, tearing down, followed by more hauling and toting. This time of year, my position description might as well read “Laborer, General” as opposed to anything that has “analyst” in its title.

Today’s major project was retrieving a dozen “VIP chairs” from one auditorium, loading them onto pickup trucks, driving them a thousand yards, and then unloading them into another auditorium so there could be a nice matching set on stage. I was reminded with every bit of toting and hauling why furniture moving is the kind of thing I happily pay someone else to do these days.

Believe me when I tell you I don’t in any way presume that moving furniture is beneath my dignity. I’ve had far worse jobs for far less pay… but then that’s kind of the point, I suppose. By the time you add up the hourly rate of all the people involved in shifting these twelve chairs and account for their individual overhead rates (to account for non-salary payroll costs), it would be far more cost effective to outfit each auditorium with twelve matching chairs instead of paying people to shuffle them from building to building as needed. If you assume a fifteen year life cycle for a chair that’s only used a few times a month, it’s an investment that would pay for itself in the first five years. That’s before you even look at lost productive time or basic opportunity cost of having a bunch of analysts move furniture around instead of working more “high value” tasks.

I’m sure there’s a parable about the nature of bureaucracy here. I try not to dwell on it too much.

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. 

When the help isn’t…

It’s the third day back from vacation. The restive and restorative effects of having a long and happy break have long since worn off. Frankly they didn’t make it past Tuesday morning.

I’ve spent most of this week trying desperately to uncluster a Special High Interest (SHIt) event that, not unexpectedly, spent the last two weeks teetering dangerously on the verge of flying off the rails. It’s the kind of thing that happens when too many people who don’t know all the background information try to give things a little extra help.

I’m sure it was all well intentioned, but I could have done without the added mess in need of fixing this week. Easing back into the routine and building up a slow head of steam for the haul through the next four months doesn’t feel like it should have been too big an ask… and yet here we are, with me looking for the nearest load bearing structure to repeatedly bang my head against.

People will tell you that it’s good to feel needed. All things considered, I think I’d probably enjoy sitting in the corner being ignored far more than I do being the guy who gets tapped when the next SHIt event is in dire need of fixing.

Sigh. Some boys have all the luck. It’s me. I’m some boys. And all the luck is bad.

Personally…

I think it’s adorable when someone calls me sounding apologetic and forlorn because they need to make a major change to one of the events managed by Tharp Parties and Events Ltd. (A division of Big Bureaucracy Productions).

Look, chief, we all work for someone. You answer to your bosses. I answer to mine. If yours and mine provide conflicting guidance and we can’t sort it out together, I have absolutely no problem pushing it up the chain for resolution somewhere at echelons higher than reality. Your bosses and mine are allegedly professional adults who should be more than capable of decision making when their staff can’t come to agreement.

Believe me when I tell you that if you come to me saying “I know this is going to blow a hole in the schedule, but my bosses don’t want to do A, B, or C,” I’m just going to shrug, pass the word to the next level up, and move on with the day. The chance of my taking it personally is precisely zero-point-zero.

You see, there are a limited number of hours in the day and I’ve only got so much energy to apply to whatever batshit crazy things happen during any given 24-hour period. I do my level best to wast as little of that time and energy on anything that is absolutely beyond my ability to control or even to exert influence upon.

So, you see, if you ever find yourself in a position of delivering me “bad news,” and I take it with what might generously be called ambivalence, know that it’s not exactly because I don’t care, but rather because even as you were speaking, I assessed the situation as being something well outside my scope and I’ve already made the decision to refer it to higher for further evaluation and action.

I’m nothing if not a man who recognizes his own professional limitations.

Tables, or A lifetime of questionable career decisions…

Note: Yes, I know this place and time is usually reserved for the weekly edition of What Annoys Jeff this Week. Go ahead and read to the end and let me know if you don’t understand why I called a quick audible this week instead.

If you guys are tired of the current trend of posts I’ve been thinking of as “Chronicles of an Event Planner,” you’ll have to take my word that I’m even more tired of writing them. Sadly, though, life happens where we are and not necessarily where we want to be. That’s my way of saying sorry, but you’re going to have to live with at least a few more days of the jackassery that ensues when you try to drag 60-odd people into a room and make them talk about things they don’t really want to talk about.

Today’s illustration in the extraordinarily limited scope of my influence revolves around the size of the tables we’ll be using. Let me start off by saying the original floor plan – the one we’ve used repeatedly, over the last few years, was on target right up until some point late yesterday afternoon when it was not. Different configuration? Sure. Can do easy. Except for the part where someone at echelons higher than reality didn’t like the size of the other available tables – wanting six person tables instead of the standard eight person tables that were readily available.

This demand for smaller tables triggered the standard paper chase into which two senior analysts lost an ninety minutes each of productive time. The end result of this particular goat rope was that the eight person tables ended up being fine. All it took was sending a guy over to the venue, setting one of them up, snapping a few pictures showing it in its natural environment, and coming back to illustrate that believe it or not, we really do know what the hell we’re talking about.

Sigh. I’ve spent more time thinking about the various sizes and shapes of tables and how they can best be configured to create an intimate café feeling today than I would have ever expected to spend in my lifetime. It’s hard to imagine this was the job Uncle had in mind when he trained me to move Armies across the globe or provide relief supplies to those stricken by natural disaster.

Talk about the leading edge of a life marked with so very many questionable career decisions.

The leadership vortex…

I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s a moment in the life of every event when the big day is close enough to finally attract the attention of the greatest of the high and mighty. It’s the moment when your rater, and his rater, and his rater, and his rater, and the big daddy rater of them all finally start paying attention. It’s a little bit like setting your desk up in the center of a hurricane. For lack of a better phrase I like to think of these last few days before an event starts as finding myself at the heart of the Leadership Vortex, where you’ll be assailed on all fronts by people who outrank you who have all, finally, been visited by the Good Idea Fairy. These moments represent a direct opposite condition to business as usual, which I so often charitably describe as finding yourself victim of the Black Hole of Leadership – in which everything you throw towards them for a decision disappears over the event horizon never to be seen again.

Friends, today I can report with equal parts joy and trepidation that we have reached the Leadership Vortex point in the current event’s planning cycle today. I’m joyful because it means the end is in sight while the trepidation stems from a dozen experiences of knowing how truly awful the center of the Vortex can get before you’re pushed clear on the other side. Yeah, currently I’m being provided leadership from every quarter to within an inch of my professional life.

There are a few things you need remember when you find yourself squarely in the middle of the leadership vortex:

1. The guidance you got yesterday or even an hour ago may or may not apply.

2. For the duration of the Vortex, every single person in your rating chain is now your immediate supervisor.

3. When you receive conflicting guidance, always defer to the ranking manager. You can’t shift the blame up, but it’s your best bet to find some modicum of top cover.

4. It can’t be escaped, simply endured.

5. This too will pass. Probably.

Sigh. The things we do for King and Country.

Lead time…

Despite all outward appearances, I’m not a magician. Admittedly, the things I do look easy from the outside, but that’s mostly because a) I try very hard to follow the path of least resistance; b) I’ve done more than a few of these things; and c) Even when things are truly falling apart I refuse to give in to the temptation of running in circles while flailing my arms wildly in the air. There’s also a healthy dose of faking it until you make it at work in most of the things I do.

Frankly I’m often not sure right up until the last minute that things are going to come together like their supposed to. Although experience tells me that they will, you must proceed there with caution because past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Knowing that and knowing me, when I tell you that something is going to be problematic or that it requires lead time, you should know that I’m not in any way exaggerating. I will not be rending my garments or gnashing my teeth. That may give you a false sense of security. It shouldn’t. It also shouldn’t be a surprise when the thing I’ve been saying for weeks needs the longest lead time and will be the biggest problem if not managed closely is suddenly in danger of not being delivered on time or to standard.

Maybe next time I should just go ahead and flail my arms.

On the week before…

Next week will be my personal version of hell, featuring 12 hour days, 750 of my new best friends all crammed into one room, and having all the responsibility to make it go right, none of the authority to make any actual decisions, and every bit of the blame if the wheels fall off for any reason. If I were in any way in control of my own destiny this would basically be the very last thing in which I would ever knowingly engage. Yet, party planning sticks with me from job to job like some kind of Gypsy curse.

If next week is hell, this week is a strong contender for that title. It’s the week in which everyone who has been ignoring the impending arrival of hell week has their “oh shit” moment and realizes if they don’t do something they’re going to look like utter twatwaffles in front of a live studio audience. When I was teaching this was the part of the year when I got to tell students that no, they really were going to fail because they didn’t bother to do any homework. I’m told, however, that letting these people fail, regardless of how deserving they may be of it, is “unprofessional.”

It all means that in many ways I’m spoon feeding adult humans a lot of information that was previously made available in slides, and memos, and email, and through various and sundry face to face conversations. I’m paying for the same ground five or six times a day in some cases… and paying for the same ground over and over and over again makes Jeff very, very surly.

Whatever else may be in doubt this week, you can rest assured that behind this serene exterior is a stroke or heart attack just waiting for the right moment to strike me down.