Non-answer answers…

The language of bureaucracy is full of many ways to admit that you have no idea what’s going on in interesting and completely non-committal ways. This afternoon I was in a meeting where I’m pretty sure I used all of them. It’s an awkward feeling, though not in any way surprising or unusual. 

You see, I find myself in the not unfamiliar position of being told that I’m “in charge” of something without being given the corresponding authority to make any actual decisions. This means I’ll spend more time running back to higher echelons and asking “mother may I” and waiting for mother’s response than I will doing anything that might accidentally resemble planning.  

Sure, I’ll perch out on a limb from time to time and make a decision that’s time sensitive. There’s a cost associated with doing that – a limited pool of good will that occasionally lets you execute an end run around the powers that be. It usually ends up with either being required to beg forgiveness or listening to one of the Olympians opine on how it had been their idea all along. 

Mercifully the last thing on earth I want is credit. All I really want is to do a job quietly, professionally, and then head myself towards the barn at the first available opportunity. Frankly I’d prefer than my name stay out of the record as much as possible – because public recognition has a funny way of only serving to attracting more work and I’m not looking to expand into new markets here.

Today was the first of many meetings where most of my responses will inevitably be some variation of “I don’t know.” This is the time of year when I approach peak bureaucrat-ing. It’s a close run contest to decide whether I’ll respond “don’t know” or “that depends” more often over the the next few months.

Executive parking…

Being a “senior leader” can’t be easy. I speculate that at best they’re surrounded by a few dozen “true believers” who have wholeheartedly embraced their vision of the future and then six thousand other assholes who only show up because they’re being paid to and don’t much care about someone’s vision beyond how it may impact them and their continued ability to pay a mortgage and put food on the table.

The biggest difference I notice isn’t actually in the conference room, though. It’s in the parking lot first thing in the morning. The run of the mill line employees start showing up at 6:00, maybe 6:30, basically as early as whoever they report to will allow them to come in. The flood gates open between 7:00 and 8:00. While the cubicles fill, I’ve noticed the reserved “executive” parking spots directly in front of the building remain almost consistently unoccupied until 8:30 or maybe 9:00. 

I’m not in any way assuming that means the people whose cars occupy those spaces are lazing about in bed while a weary workforce struggles into the office. It’s just that they are thinking and operating differently. For me, and I assume most of the rest of the masses, the operational intent is to start the day as early as possible, let 8.5 hours elapse, and then get the hell home as expeditiously as possible. 

The seniors, either by choice or necessity, start their days later and inevitably end up ending them later – much later in many cases. They’re the ones who wonder why people rolls their eyes when they mention scheduling a 6pm meeting or why their workforce doesn’t want to participate in evening or “non-duty hours” social events. Again, I can only speculate that because they don’t see the cars in the parking lot at 6:30 AM, they feel slightly betrayed that theirs are the only ones left in it at 6:30 PM.

One on one, outside of the cubicle hell that we inhabit, senior leaders are probably decent enough people with their own interests and personalities. Their lofty position in the c-suite gives them a necessarily different perspective. On a day to day basis, though, my assessment is that we are simply two very different creatures, with distinctly different motivations, who just happen to be residing under the same roof for about a third of every weekday. 

The shitstorm that didn’t…

Based on years of experience I’ve developed a pretty finely honed sense of when a shitstorm is brewing and about to unleash it’s sewer-tinged fury about my little part of the world. I walked out the office with my storm flags flying yesterday afternoon and fully expected to arrive back today to a feces coated disaster.

I was braced for it. I was ready. And then nothing happened. There wasn’t even a ripple. I don’t have any particular problem with being wrong. I’ve often enough turned left when I should have turned right. It happens.

It’s not so much that I’m upset that I was wrong today as it is that I know someday soon I’m going to be “not wrong” and the lid is going to come flying off the thunderpot. I’m not wrong that there’s a shitstorm brewing, just expected it to hit sooner rather than later. Now all I can do is hunker down and wait.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Inefficiency. Look, I’m delighted that Big Pharma is reimbursing me 93% of my out of pocket costs for the meds that one of the smart docs from Hopkins tells me will contribute to being able to continue to living better through chemistry. I’d be even more appreciative if their reimbursement scheme allowed for ordering more than a 30-day supply of the stuff at a time. Everything else rolls in as a 3-month supply that’s simple enough to refill once a quarter except this one little pill. It feels like I’m online getting that one refilled or coordinating the refund about every seven days. If you’re going to spend the money either way you could save us both processing time and effort by doing it four times a year instead of 12.

2. Single points of failure. The world is full of people who want to gather all decision making and power unto themselves. I’ve never understood that particular logic for several reasons. First, the ones who seem to be drawn to absolute power are generally the last ones who should be engaged in decision making. Second, there’s nothing more ridiculous than a few dozen people standing around knowing what needs done but being paralyzed for lack of having someone explicitly telling them to do it.

3. Consistency in the space program. I really wish we lived in a country that had consistent and achievable, manned and unmanned space exploration goals. I want NASA to be above politics and be maybe the one instrument of government that is the best reflection of ourselves. I want to see big rockets with the stars and stripes plastered to the side hurtling American astronauts back to the moon and then getting their ass to Mars. To think that’s not the next logical step in exploration is nonsensical and flies in the face of humanity’s eternal struggle to expand into the unknown. Other people will tell you this should be way down on the list of priorities, but those people are wrong and should be quiet.

The difference a day makes…

I’ve been working one day a week from home for a little over a year now. There are many reasons I’d recommend it to anyone who is even marginally a self-directed individual. It does, however, feature two distinct problems that I’ve found so far.

The first is that in those rare moments when you actually need to talk to someone immediately you’re limited to phone, email, or text. If you happened to be sitting in a cube farm in those moments you could at least add “wander over to wherever that person is supposed to be” to the list of ways to get in touch with them. Needing someone right-the-hell-now, though, is such a rare occurrence in my experience that the issue is hardly worth considering.

The second, and more problematic issue, is that doing the work from the comfort of your own home establishes in clear terms just how utterly unnecessary sitting in one specified desk in one specified room of one specified building really is in the course of day to day activities. It makes then going to sit at that desk, in that room, in that building on the four other days of the work week even more difficult than it would be otherwise. Sure, I suppose there are a handful of good and legitimate reasons for needing to spend time in an actual office, but for all other times I have not one single clue why anyone would want to endure more time in cubicle hell than is absolutely necessary to getting the job done.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Surprises. I will never in my life understand why anyone likes being surprised. In my experience being caught off guard, having a bombshell dropped in your lap, getting a wake-up call, or enduring a rude awakening are all fundamentally bad things. It is, sadly, impossible for any one person to know all the things and to be prepared for all the eventualities. Even so, that doesn’t mean we have to like getting blindsided even in the exceedingly rare case where it’s a “good” surprise.

2. Decisions. Look, if you’re not going to “empower” me to be a decision maker, the very least I should be able to expect is that someone up the line will actually be making decisions in something approaching a timely manner. Sure, some questions are difficult and need great thought and discussion, but mostly are run of the mill and answerable as part of a simple yes/no or this/that dyad. Getting the answer shouldn’t take weeks and slow every project down to the point where forward progress can only be measured in a lab environment by high-precision lasers.

3. Training. My employer has made a few stuttering baby steps towards eliminating some of the onerous annual training requirements that eat up time and net very little in the way of return on investment. However, they still insist of gaggling everyone up for far too many of these “valuable opportunities to learn.” After fifteen years on the job if I haven’t learned not to be a rapist or walk around making sexually suggestive comments to my coworkers, I’m not sure the 16th time around is going to generate that magical “aha moment” they seem to want. At least the box is checked for another year… and that’s what really matters.

Cubicle hell…

I’ve been a cube dweller for all of my 15 years working for Uncle. The one constant across all those years is a firm belief that if there is a hell, at least one level of it has cubicles stretching out to the horizon in all directions. In effect, to work in a cube is to already be condemned to toil in a hellscape to get credit for your eight daily ours.

Most days, cubicle hell is a land of minor irritations – of people who talk too loudly, non-existent air conditioning, 30 conversations happening simultaneously, an utter lack of privacy, and an endless parade of small distractions seemingly devised to prevent anything that could be mistaken for productivity.

The small annoyances are punctuated occasionally by the large distractions. These are what you may expect to find when the Powers That Be will decide that everyone in the room needs to face a different direction or that the cube walls are one row too tall or too short. The Powers will then, in their infinite wisdom and goodness, decide to address these grave shortcomings in the most expeditious way possible.

If you’ve never tried to conduct business in the middle of a construction zone, I think you owe it to yourself to give it a try. At any given time your 30 square feet of cubicle hell could be made inoperable when they have to re-route the electric or network cables, when they have to disassemble your desk, or when they need to remove a panel so you can stare obnoxiously across 30 inches of open space at the face of the person with whom you use to share a “wall.” Now the Powers have removed even the pretense that you aren’t packed in elbows to assholes with your fellow condemned souls.

Even if your desk happens to be one spared that day, there’s the general construction noise – the power drills, and shifting metal, dropped tools and banging. All the while, you’re careful to pretend that everything is business as usual. There are no distractions. Everything is going according to plan. You love the new floorplan that the Powers have granted unto you, for they, in their spacious offices, behind actual closing doors, are secure from what they wrought. Surely they know best.

As it turns out, cubicle hell isn’t so much a place as it is a process – ongoing, evolving, and always looking for ways to make every day just a little bit harder and such just one more drop of joy from the marrow. We have met the enemy and it truly is us.