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.

Wartime leadership…

If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes and watch Ukrainian President Zelensky address members of the US Congress. The man displays more leadership in ten minutes than the Congress has shown in the last ten years.

https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2022/03/16/volodymyr-zelensky-congress-speech-ukraine-video-newsroom-vpx.cnn

An awful lot of time…

Sitting in the office all day gives you time to think.

It gives you time to think about smelling other people’s meals, and listening to their phone conversations, and their wandering around from cube to cube looking for an ear to bend, and the hour wasted traveling to and then another hour wasted going from that monument to early 20th century management philosophy.

Yes, sir, sitting in the office gives you an awful lot of time to think.

I’m quite sure there are people out there who are dying to get back to the office full time. God knows there will be plenty of senior leaders who can’t wait to get back to preening in front of town hall meetings and capacity crowds conferences – and seeing their toiling minions stacked elbow to asshole across whole floors filled with cubicles.

More than anything, though, sitting in the office is full of time to think about how utterly ridiculous it is to sit in an office when every single touch point of your day involves email, phone calls, and shuffling electronic information from one place to another. If you’re heart doesn’t seeth with just a little bit of rage knowing it could all be accomplished from any place on the globe with a reliable internet connection and a cell phone, well, I’m not entirely sure you’re thinking about work as a product and not as some kind of half-assed social activity.

As long as those running the show put as much or more premium on the quasi-social elements like maintaining a “corporate culture” and the farcical notion that “real” communication can only happen face to face, no amount of real world evidence seems likely to move the needle away from 1950s ideas of what working looks like.

There’s still no formal guidance on what the new and improved “return to work” plan will look like here in the belly of the bureaucracy. I’m told they’re working on an updated plan at echelons higher than reality. If precedent is prologue, I’ll expect this new plan to cleave as close as humanly possible to exactly how things were done in the Before Times and ignore as much as possible the last two years happened at all.

The way we used to…

My Facebook feed has been flooded over the last week or two with “promoted” articles heralding the end of the Great Plague… notwithstanding the fact that the case rate remains 2/3 of what it was at the peak of the “second wave” in the fall of 2021. Admittedly, we’re well off the highs seen at the peak of the omicron variant, so that’s something. 

The articles I’ve seen have a few things in common. They all want everything to go “back to normal.” Like New York’s new mayor, they want to see office buildings filled to the rafters and busy hot dog carts on every corner. I get it. There’s intense pressure from politicians, landlords, and service sector business owners that have seen taxes and profits slashed over the last two years while information workers realized they can conduct business from anywhere.

Mayor Adams argues that by not working from the office, people are not going to the drycleaner, or restaurants, or spending money on other services. That feels like a bit of a specious argument. I’m still doing most of those things, but I’m doing them and spending that money in the community where I live rather than at places that are in geographic proximity to a random office building. It sounds a lot like the arguments of “back to work” proponents like Mayor Adams boil down to wanting to get back to treating office workers as cash cows versus presenting an argument for why it’s in any way beneficial for them to go back to spending 40 or more hours a week sitting in a cubicle. 

A million years ago when I was boss, I had team members all over the damned country. While I sat in west Tennessee, others sat in Texas, Illinois, and Virginia. For all practical purposes we were all “working remotely” from each other even if we happened to be working in an office building. The trick was, as long as the work got done, I didn’t care where they were physically sitting, or if they took a two-hour lunch, or if they knocked off early on a Friday afternoon. In my mind, it’s about the work, not about taking attendance like some kind of 19th century schoolmarm. 

When politicians, business leaders, and managers, tell me they want everything to be normal again, they’ve obviously got their own axe to grind. I suspect they’re missing the larger point, though. There’s a pretty large subset of high value employees who are no longer going to be satisfied schlepping into an office every day just because that’s what used to be normal… and management is going to run an unanticipated risk in trying to jam that recently squared peg back into a round hole. 

To put in another way, there’s no reason to expect “normal again” will mean we’ll do everything the way we used to. The sooner that sinks in, the better.

Time, distance, and the laws of men…

It’s that special time of year again when the gods on Olympus like to pretend that they are not in any way constrained by time, distance, or the laws of men. It’s a few days before Thanksgiving and those high and mighty gods have, right on schedule, realized that the minions on whom they depend to work their will will increasingly be unavailable thanks to end of the year leave taking.

Now what someone with a modicum of common sense might do, is prioritize whatever effort or efforts are legitimately “most important” and concentrate on getting those through the gate first. What we’ll actually be doing, of course, is piling on increasing levels of stuff to do and then watching as “leaders” gnash their teeth and rend their garments because it’s not getting done.

The pool of available people to keep up with whatever wild-ass new ideas the bosses dream up will get a little smaller every day between now and the end of the year. It would be comical if it weren’t absolutely predictable. I’ve watched this spectacle first hand since 2003 and can only assume this great green machine has been up to the same kind of pre-holiday fuckery since Washington was a Lieutenant.

Look, I really am sorry… but if you’re looking for a guy who’s going to jump through his own ass, moan, and wail, because your failure to plan has become an “emergency,” I’m just not your huckleberry. Never have been. Never will be. You have my word on it.

The eighth time around…

This morning I was granted official permission from the gods on Olympus to begin preliminary planning for the annually reoccurring piece of this job that I hate the most. Yay.

Putting a six month long planning process that stretches across a dozen different organizations, nearly a hundred separate contacts, and relies on offering a happy, welcoming face to our partners from the private sector into the hands of a well known introvert and misanthrope feels like the height of bureaucratic folly. It’s the kind of thing I’d intuitively want to give to someone who didn’t unflinchingly use the phrases “wedding planner,” “circus roustabout,”, and “welcoming the great unwashed masses” to describe his role even to the most senior of leaders.

But here we are. This year will be my eighth as wedding planner in charge of this particular effort. Years ago the bosses promised “just one more year” and we’ll get someone else to do it. They don’t even bother with those lies now… so I guess it’s eight down and thirteen more to go… unless I manage to cock it up in some truly spectacular and unanticipated manner. I’m not one to go in for sabotage, but I’m told that accidents happen, so a boy can dream.

That happy dream notwithstanding, I’ll get it done on time and to standard, but don’t think for a moment that I’ll be enjoying any of what I must do these next six months. It’ll be a product not done for love or pride of a job well handled, but purely because I enjoy getting paid every two weeks and would like nothing to interfere with that continuing well into the future. Nothing more, nothing less.

One of my best friends from college had a simple sign in his dorm room. It said “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” On such words, whole careers are built.

We don’t really do consistency here…

One of the great joys of working for my employer is that we’re absolutely comfortable delivering mixed messages. It’s such a regular part of business that I doubt most people even notice. I notice, of course, because it’s exactly the kind of random foible that I enjoy writing about. 

I present the following by way of example:

On one hand, the message from the very top is that COVID-19 remains an existential threat to our ability to contest and not lose the nation’s wars. In light of that, every one and all of us must stay masked, be vaccinated, maintain social distance, and keep working from home because it’s dangerous out there.

On the other hand, the same organization is holding its last frenzied meetings about piling people from around the country into a large convention center for three days next week. I’m sure it will be a glittering affair with everyone fully following all published best practices and risk reduction strategies. You just can’t beat the synergistic effects of breathing all over each other to enhance lethality and multi-domain readiness… because it’s not so dangerous out there.

One of the great lessons I’ve learned during my career is that we are very serious about following rules and procedures, unless, of course, those rules and procedures are in any way inconvenient or interfere with what the gods on Olympus want to do. Then, it helps if you just think of them as suggestions and don’t take them seriously in any way. If you came looking for consistency, boy did you come to the wrong place. 

Weak in size and spirit…

The occupant of the White House is a member of the Democratic Party. Members of the Democratic Party also constitute the majority, though a slim one, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This week they’ll be struggling mightily to pass monumentally large spending bills, not crash headlong into the debt ceiling, and keep the lights on at federal departments and agencies across the country.

One thing I think we’re going to have to give up now is the illusion that our legislative process is broken because one party or another is made up entirely of obstructionists who live to say “no.” When one of those parties holding all the reigns of power is still struggling or fails to get their agenda passed, the fiction of blaming the opposition party is awfully hard to sustain.

If the party in power fails to pass signature portions of their own president’s agenda or fails to gin up the votes for their own spending priorities, or can’t manage that most basic of Congressional functions – passing the federal budget – that tells me not only is the majority weak in size, but also weak in spirit. If the Congressional Democrats can’t get the job done when they hold all the reigns, they’re ripe to be picked off in the 2022 election cycle.

So as it turns out both of our dominate political parties are bad. One because it will cheerfully burn the republic to the ground if it means they get to hang on to power and the other because they can’t find the matches with both hands and a flashlight.

Shutdown prep…

Years ago, the federal government was touted as stable employment, promising a career that wouldn’t make you rich, but ensured that you wouldn’t die poor. It was a guarantee of a solidly middle class lifestyle during your working years and a comfortable retirement when the time came. The trade off, for such stability was forgoing the big salaries that could sometimes be had for similar work in the private sector. Those salaries, of course, came with risk that the contract that paid so well could disappear overnight.

Stable is a relative term, of course. Over the last fifteen years I’ve worked through hiring freezes, furloughs, and more government shut downs than I can really remember. That’s not the hallmark of a particularly stable employer. Then again, when I look at the elected officials who the people, in their questionable wisdom, have sent to Washington to represent them, “stable” isn’t a world I’d choose to use for many of them – both the politicians and the electorate.

So here I am, with the next government shut down hovering in the wings, once again preparing to defer or stop payments and dramatically reduce the scope and scale of operations at Fortress Jeff.

I’ve got enough years on me now to ride out a run of the mill government shutdown if I must. Still, planning for a few weeks or months without pay does make you question going with the “stable” choice all those years ago. If you’re going to be planning how to cut spending down to the bone every couple of years anyway, maybe some of those contract jobs would have been better in the end.

Our elected representatives are increasingly incapable of acting like grown adults, but then again, the same is true of the people who elect them. The curse of democracy is we continue to get exactly the kind of politicians, government, and society that we deserve.

Blood and treasure…

I went to work as a very small cog in our uncle’s great green machine in January 2003. America’s war in Afghanistan was already more than a year old by then. I worked every day from then until now as part of an organization “at war,” even if the rest of the country wasn’t. Even on days when it didn’t seem to be, Afghanistan was always in the background of everything.

I’m not a grand strategist and don’t intend to pass myself off as anything other than someone who has done some reading and existed, tangentially, on the far extremity of the fight for the last two decades. There are too many people whose real world experience and voices should be rightly amplified as we come to terms with the debacle that ends our benighted involvement in Afghanistan.

Having grown up seeing the grainy images of the fall of Saigon – taken three years before I was born – I never imagined I’d see an echo of that moment played out live on the weekend news. How we could so badly bungle this “final act” of the long war, how we could have squandered so much blood and treasure, and how it went to shit so very quickly can and should haunt this generation of bureaucrats, soldiers, and statesmen as an example of what happens when we get it exactly wrong.

These last couple of days have got me feeling some kind of way. I don’t recommend it.