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.
Even if I didn’t have a calendar I’d know that we were inside the last three weeks of planning before our latest Big Event kicks off. I’d know it just based on the number of emails that are currently sitting in both my in and outboxes. I’d know it because my phone was ringing when I got to my desk this morning and was ringing when I walked away from my desk at the end of the day.
The current Big Event is now close enough on the calendar that it’s starting to attract the attention of the gods on Olympus… and they’re asking questions and very much interested in making sure their thumb prints are present and undeniable.
That’s fine, of course, none of this is a point of personal pride for me. I’ve long ago accepted that staff work is a land where blame piles up like cord wood and all credit is owed to the gods. As a poor simple planner in the hands of an angry god, though, it would be nice if time to time, the Olympians took a passing interest way the hell back in December when I started agitating about needing to kick off the planning process… and when grand sweeping changes are awfully easy to make.
We all have our own twisted fantasies about how things are supposed to work. I don’t suppose there’s any real problem with that unless you start laboring under the delusion that there’s any chance they might accidentally work that way at some point.
I’ve done well for myself. I’ve taken advantage of my educational opportunities all along the path of life. Occasionally I even think that I’ve done better for myself that a simple boy fron down the crick really has any right to expect. Don’t think for a moment that I take any of that for granted.
I’ve seen a lot of the world and had the opportunity to have some truly remarkable experiences. At heart, though, I ultimately think of myself as a technician – a wrench turner in the data economy. I’ve tried the whole management and supervision thing and we’re all better off for my having given it up.
Mostly, I really just want to be left alone to do the work. That’s where my talents and interests are applied to the most effect.
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: Hard won experience tells me that I can either spend six hours doing the work or spend those same six hours sitting in meetings talking about the work. If I’m doing the latter, there’s absolutely no progress being made on the former. Putting more simply, I can talk about the damned work or I can do the damned work. I cannot, however, do both simultaniously. Personally, I know which one I’d greatly prefer.
However, my opinion on the subject is clearly not of any great significance. If it were I wouldn’t regularly be spending 50% or more of my days sitting around jibberjabbering instead of getting the job done.