What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The perceived speed of time. An entire Saturday runs its course in approximately 1 hour and 37 minutes. By contrast a typical Tuesday afternoon drags on for something like 14 days. Yes, I know it’s largely just a function of the way the conscious mind processes routine experiences and memory building, but damn. I wish I could find a way to bottle that 6am Saturday morning just after I’ve had my first cub of coffee and the whole weekend is still spread out before me feeling. I could use a strong shot of that at least three times a day on any given Monday-Friday. 

2. Moving with purpose. Wherever you go, no matter the time of day, you will find yourself surrounded on all sides by people who seem to be loose roaming out in the world with no particular place to go and no particular time when they need to be there. They walk slow, they drive slow, the veer left or right without warning and for no obvious reason. It’s like these poor misbegotten souls are in need of some basic purpose in life. Any semblance of purpose would be a wild improvement from the norm. Day in and day out it’s these absolute shitbirds that are the most constantly infuriating aspects of any activity that requires leaving the house and interacting with people. 

3. Ask for what you want (but first know what you’re looking for). I’ve been at this kind of work almost 16 years now. I generally know the back story. I know where the bodies are buried. I know why some projects succeeded and why others failed. I’ve been around long enough now to remember the last time someone had your “brilliant new idea.” If you want my help, all you really need to do is ask for it… but when you do, it’s best to ask for what you actually want. Don’t ask me for a brief history of Process X and then tell me that wasn’t what you wanted once I gin up the information for you. If you don’t know the name of the thing you want me to talk to you about, try describing it. Give me some detail. Don’t just keep saying Project X repeatedly and thinking that we are in any way communicating. If it’s obvious by the information I’ve provided that my attempt at deciphering your meaning has failed, you should probably come at it from a different angle of attack. I don’t generally want to stonewall anyone. My goal is to get the information you want processed and off my desk as quickly as possible – because that’s the most direct path to reach my overall objective of getting you to stop bothering me. I’ve developed many skills over the first half of my career – but reading entrails and divination remain, sadly, beyond my grasp.

Slide monkey…

Being the designated slide monkey, there are an outsized number of meetings I sit in for no other reason than they need someone well trained and fully capable of hitting the forward arrow and advancing to the next slide. I’m mostly resigned to that being my fate for the foreseeable future. Whatever. As long as the checks don’t start bouncing, what the hell do I care about how my time is allocated, right?

Human Chess.jpg

It’s a rare day when something in a meeting catches me off guard. This last couple of weeks, though, has been a string of exactly that – surprise piled on surprise. Today I had the distinction of being designed “the human forward arrow.” This distinction comes along with the mission of flipping the three foot by five foot printed foam core posters that we’ll be using this week to replace the information that every other office on the planet would present using some kind of electronic presentation tool.

I’m fairly sure that this isn’t what anyone meant when they said we should think about briefing information without using PowerPoint. Taking what would be projected on three 60-inch monitors and printing it on one 60-inch poster doesn’t quite feel like fully embracing the call to do things differently.

Then again, what do I know. I’m just this meeting’s equivalent of a pawn on a human chess board.

Hypothetical…

Let me ask you a hypothetical question… Let’s assume for a moment that you are hosting an event for somewhere between 50 and 75 of your closest friends. An absolutely unavoidable part of that event is providing those people with between 300-400 pages of information, some of which changes on a daily basis.

Knowing no other information than what was provided, would you rather:

A) Get all 300-400 pages in hard copy, knowing that some of the information contained therein is already two versions out of date.

B) Get 100 pages of hard copy that’s pretty much set in stone and a link to the additional 200-300 pages that is updated daily/weekly.

C) Get a link to all 300-400 pages of information so you can access it electronically, because this is the 21st century and who wants to lug around 400 pages worth of binder all day.

D) Neither. Timely and accurate delivery of information has no place in the contemporary decision-making environment.

Take your time. Your answer won’t be graded, but it’s very possible I’ll judge you based on your answer.

The dark art of staff work…

For going on fifteen years now, I’ve heard how PowerPoint is making us stupid and is at least a contributing factor in people not being developing actual communication skills. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle back in 2010 about a brave lieutenant colonel who was booted out of Afghanistan for daring to admit he spent his days in “endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

That’s the kind of snark we appreciate here at jeffreytharp.com, but it is not the kind of truth-laden sarcasm that is much appreciated by most at echelons higher than reality. There are a few exceptions though, officers like H. R. McMaster (now National Security Advisor) and James Mattis (now Secretary of Defense) are both well-known critics of PowerPoint. Mattis, has gone so far as noting that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” McMasters, more diplomatically, notes that “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control… Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Although these two leading lights are notable exceptions to an establishment that has drawn PowerPoint into an ever closer embrace, they are the exceptions (even now almost a decade later). The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to staff work on an average day, he who controls the PowerPoint controls the meeting – the flow of information, what gets presented and what doesn’t make the cut, how far (if at all) in advance someone will get an early version of whatever information is hiding in plain sight on those slides.

Information, you see, no matter how badly displayed on a conference room wall, really is the coin of the realm. It’s precious and is so very often guarded jealousy by those who have it against those who want it.

As a staffer in the belly of the beast it’s my job to make those slides say whatever the boss thinks they need to say. It’s not so much about the truth as crafting the message in such a way that nothing comes as a surprise, the rough edges are rubbed smooth, and the viewer is carefully guided away from information someone doesn’t necessarily want them to have or questions they’d really prefer the person being briefed not ask. I find it’s generally helpful if you suspend disbelief and go along with the program. Making waves won’t necessarily get you in trouble, but it will make your life just that little bit harder than it would have been otherwise.

There’s a bit of a dark art to doing staff work – and the better you do it, the darker that art becomes and blossoms well beyond your individual ability to make a PowerPoint briefing dazzle. In fact, the dark art of staff work feels like something that might just be worth talking about in a companion volume to Nobody Told Me… if I can just sit down and muster up the internal fortitude to actually do the writing.

On trying to like people…

Thanks to the Facebook “On This Day” feature I saw an early meme I shared on back in 2012 that read something like “I try to like people, but they’re all so fucking stupid.” I smiled, nodded, and thought “Yep, that’s still pretty much true.

On reflection, though, I realized that statement is getting less and less true. With every day that passes I find myself not Stupid.pngeven attempting to like people. It wasn’t like I started out making a big effort on that front anyway, but frankly my compassion and understanding reserve is all but worn out. Again, not that it was particularly deep to start out, but still.

I’m just sick to death of turning in nearly every direction and seeing people making incredibly stupid life choices. Look, I’m not saying everyone needs to be an Einstein. God knows I’m never going to sit at my desk and churn out a grand unifying theory of anything. I’m tired of playing off bad things that happen as fate or just bad luck when it so very clearly is a result of a piss-poor decision someone made a few steps back.

Every day I’m reminded of the late, great George Carlin who said, “‘Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” That stupider half is out there living among us while we live with the consequences of their actions and decisions. If that doesn’t keep you up nights or put you off people completely, I have no idea what will.

As for me, I’m done smiling and nodding. I’m done trying to like people. If I look in your eyes and can’t find a spark of anything in there keeping the lights on other than habit, I just don’t have the energy to even pretend. There are public libraries in just about every town in America. The internet has given us access to very nearly the sum total of all knowledge accumulated across the vast sweep of human history. We carry that shit around on our telephones. Information is too easy to access for people to walk around just being stupid.

I no longer have the energy required to try liking stupid people. Instead of faking it from here on out, my official policy will be to glare at them and walk away.

Doing the hard work…

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The value of time, or lack thereof. I’m a largely self-directed kind of guy. Give me a task and the day you want it completed and it’ll be on your desk, usually with a few minutes to spare. I prefer operating free from micromanagement. It’s usually when I do my best work. Sometimes, though, additional guidance is necessary, or perhaps one of my five bosses has asked for an update. I’m good with that. They need to know (or at least should know) what’s going on… but what chaps my ass to no end is when they schedule the meeting and then don’t bother showing up for their own update. Things happen, I know, but when you’ve done it six consecutive times, it shows a monumental disregard for anyone who isn’t you. Sooner or later a guy just might start taking that kind of insult a little personally. Thank God we don’t worry about little things like morale.

2. Buying essentials. Shopping for new tires is sucks. It’s a necessary evil, of course, but that doesn’t in any way make it as fun and exciting as say looking for a new puppy. I’ve got a laundry list of widgets I want to add to the Jeep for summer driving enjoyment, but instead of ordering a fancy new head unit or LED headlights I’m spending the week price checking local tire shops and looking at product reviews so I can buy four tires and a new battery for Big Red. Making responsible adult decisions is lame.

3. Any internet site that offers “127 things you didn’t know about Some Random Topic.” Of course I know 99.98% of these sites are pure click bait, but every once in a while one looks interesting enough to make the slog through the land of Click For Next Page feel worth it. The real problem is I read a lot of books, watch a lot of documentaries, pay attention to details, and have a genuinely curious mind. So if you could divide your click bait into separate “general knowledge” and “advanced” categories I’d find it extremely helpful. It would save me a great deal of time muttering “who the hell doesn’t know that?”