After sixteen years in harness, I’ve more or less lost track of the number of different first-line supervisors I’ve had. It would have to be somewhere north of 10 and even at that I feel like I could be miscounting on the low side just a bit.
The nature of the bureaucracy is that the cogs are more or less interchangeable to a certain degree. It’s perhaps even more true of management positions than those where people need to be technical experts. The fact is, though, that some bosses are just better than others. I’ve had bosses I dearly loved working for and other who I drove a third of the way across the country to get away from. The good ones are to be savored. The bad ones to be endured. The mediocre ones, well, you mostly hope they’re indifferent or are at least willing to stay the hell out of your way.
In a few weeks we’ll be getting the next new boss in my little corner of the bureaucracy – a mercifully known quantity who seems to have good pre-existing relationships with people in other corners of the cube farm who could be helpful in getting things done. It’s an infinite improvement over the grab bag possibilities of someone dropped into the role from somewhere “outside the family.”
I’ve worked for the current boss off and on for various lengths of time over the last four years – making him probably the boss I’ve worked longest for during my entire run as cog #2674323 in this Large Bureaucratic Organization. Settling in with a new hand on the tiller should, be, uhhhh… interesting times for all involved.
Immediately after this small transition we’ll endure the arrival of a new Olympian high atop the org chart, so whatever rumbles and ruffles occur during changes here near the bottom will surely pale to insignificance when compared to the mayhem and chaos that sort of transition can carry with it… so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
Mandatory fun is bad. I don’t mean it’s badly intentioned. I’m sure whatever powers that be inflict mandatory fun on the rest of us probably think they’re doing something positive, if not exactly something wonderful. It just seems to me that the forced joviality of people who work together pretending to be the best of friends feels awful in just about every possible way. Consider, if you will, when was the last time you had an unadulterated good time at the office Christmas party or the company picnic? For the record, I don’t consider going because you need to “make an appearance” or because it’s slightly better than spending those hours at your desk to qualify as fun in this instance.
Most people make at least some small effort to have a firewall between what they do for fun and what they do to make a living. Maybe there was a time long ago, before everyone was an easily offended, uptight stick in the mud, when these official organizational celebrations were good times. Today they mostly feel like a formality – just a small nod to that bygone era. Most people will go along with it, of course, because making waves is rarely the best tactic to endear yourself to whatever bosses you serve. Go along. Get along. It’s one of the oldest stories in the working world.
If you insist on mandatory fun, my recommendation is to keep it simple. Make sure there’s lots of food, back up a beer truck, and maybe hire a band. Let people self-select with what and who they choose to engage. That’s probably about as good a situation as you’re likely to manufacture. There are ways to screw that up, though. You could overlay the lukewarm pay as you go food with several mandatory training events and dispense with the beer truck, thus ensuring that even the illusion of a “fun day away from the office” is shattered completely.
It’s easy in cases like this to blame the planners… but I can reasonably assure you that they want to deliver a better product than the specified and implied guidance allows. Experience tells me that the real fault in these cases lies in the realm of leadership and the good idea fairies that dwell with them. I mean if someone really was all that interested in boosting my morale, all they’d have to do was give me a couple of hours off and point me towards the closest used book shop. I don’t expect there would be a line for that, but then again I don’t subscribe to the idea that a good time necessarily has to be a team activity.
I’ve spent more of the last three months engaged in the pursuit of one single line of effort than is strictly healthy for someone. That’s fine. Someone has to be the institutional memory – even if only to remind you of why something sounds good on paper but goes to hell in a handbasket in practice.
The bigger trouble comes when people who haven’t been paying meticulously close attention realize a Big Thing is about to happen. Then they want to get focused on it. They want to deep dive it and know all that there is to know. That, too, is fine… as long as one remembers that the more often you have to tell the backstory and provide months worth of details, the more limited the time remaining to actually do the work becomes. It’s a corollary to Tharp’s Maxim #1 – I can either go to meetings about the work or I can do the work. I cannot, however, do both simultaneously.
In any case, we’re racing from fire to fire, from crisis to crisis, in hopes that somehow we manage to deliver a final product that isn’t ridiculous in the eyes of gods and men. It’s a tall order – especially when we keep inflicting wounds on ourselves.
I console myself with knowing that good, bad, or otherwise, in short order a Big Thing is going to happen no matter how hard we try to fuck it up in the closing hours. One way or another we limp across the finish line a week from tomorrow.
I was invited to tea with the queen. Well, not exactly tea and not with the queen, but there’s a rough equivalency. It certainly felt a lot like being a bit player serving at a 16th century royal court.
What I was really invited to to was to spend the better part of 90 minutes sitting quietly against the wall watching the gods on Olympus eat their lunch while discussing the important matters of the day. Let me repeat that for those in the back… I was summoned into the elite presence to watch people eat their lunch.
Yes, I was also there to provide deep background information on the flying circus and traveling medicine show that I’m nominally charged with running, but in reality I was there, missing my own lunch, in order to watch a large group of other people eat theirs.
It’s hard to imagine that was the best possible use of 90 minutes with less than two weeks to go until zero hour, but I suppose the pay’s the same whether I’m getting anything done or not. So, if anyone out there is in need of someone to stop by and watch you eat, feel free to get in touch. I’m quite sure I’ve had these experiences enough now to qualify expert.
We’ve entered a particularly dangerous part of the year… the point where the volume of information flowing towards me surpasses the available time in which to process it. Forget about trying to do any reasonable analysis, synchronizing or integrating data, or otherwise trying to build a comprehensive framework for whatever is happening.
For the next seven business days I’m operating purely on the the input – reaction model. It’s triage, which incidentally isn’t a great way to function over any sustained duration, but isn’t awful in the short term… as long as you don’t particularly mind that while you’re making decisions based on short term convenience, there may be no one assessing the longer-term impact of those decisions.
In fact, some would probably tell you longly and loudly that I am, in fact, not a “decision maker.” Technically that’s absolutely correct. My function in life is to provide information to the deciders and then carry out the decision as best I can. The reality, of course, is that there’s not always a decider around when you need one…. and even when they are around the time it takes to get them to make the actual decision is so long that 57 other decision points have piled up waiting for someone to do something with them.
Sometimes permission is a luxury the ticking clock just doesn’t accommodate. Fortunately I’m 100% comfortable begging for forgiveness as needed.
In my little corner of the Giant Bureaucratic Organization, very few pieces of paper ever move further than one’s own desk without passing through one or more layers of review. These reviews are almost the very definition of what it means to exist within the bureaucracy – the very reason the term “paper pusher” came into existence.
It’s hard enough to move a single piece of paper, say something as simple as a memo. The complexity and convolutions involved in getting something larger – say a document of several dozens of pages is mind boggling. It’s a herculean feat of bureaucratic mastery involving three layers of review at a bare minimum. I’ve personally seen the number of reviewers go as high as 14 on a single document. I’ve heard stories that the numbers can grow even larger as one progresses through echelons higher than reality towards the beating, five-sided heart of our bureaucratic empire. Each and every non-concur along the way carries the risk of sending you back to the starting block to try again.
I’m not saying that reviews are entirely pointless or without merit. In some cases I’d even argue that they are absolutely necessary. When it becomes the reviews themselves that drive the process rather what is being reviewed, I can’t help but believe that there is a flaw in the system. Then again, I’m a poor simple history major who learned to read original source documents that may have virtually no relationship to standard English usage so what the hell do I know.
I had three things all laid out for today. But all three of them combined don’t hold a candle to the one big thing that has been absolutely crazymaking this week… and that’s waiting until the last fucking minute to decide to pay attention to the onrushing train bearing down on you.
It’s not that I have a philosophical problem with needing to do things at the last minutes in and of itself. Sometimes a crisis really is a crisis, something that arrived by surprise and was otherwise unavoidable. However, what we here treat as a crisis is almost always something that we’ve seen coming for months, but have elected to ignore until it shows up on the front stoop like a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. That is to say that nearly all of the chaos brought on by suddenly engaging at the last minute is completely self inflicted.
If there’s nothing else I’ve learned in my 16+ years here in the heart of the Great American Bureaucracy it’s that no amount of planning I can do that will offset late-in-the-cycle visits from the Executive Good Idea Fairy. No amount of anticipating needs, or prep work, or casting entrails will ever get you ready for things that should have been mentioned three months ago but show up with less than three weeks to go.