What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Counting. Look, I’m about as math challenged as any adult human being can be. I avoid dealing with numbers whenever possible, but there are some moments when it just can’t be avoided. Taking a quick look around and finding out how many people should be in a room, how many are in that room, and then figuring out where the balance of the people actually are shouldn’t not create the most difficult task known to man. It shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. And it definitely shouldn’t take six hours to arrive at an “inconclusive” answer. Being able to find your people in the event bad shit happens is kind of a hallmark of supervision – or it least it was back a million years ago when I had that particular rose pinned on me. Being forced to admit in public that you can’t count up your people should be a source of great shame to you and your family.

2. Layers. You know what would make an already pretty top heavy organization even more frustrating to deal with? Yeah, adding another layer of management on top of the five already in place between the working level and decision makers. For all of the vaunted effort put in to “right sizing” and “workforce shaping” it’s like no one can get past doing it the same way we’ve been doing it since George Washington was a private… because additional layers of management are exactly the cure for anything that ails a big, bureaucratic organization.

3. Patience. Some greybeard long ago said that patience is a virtue. I can only assume that this individual didn’t actually have anything he was looking forward to. So polite society says we’re supposed to be demure and pretend that the waiting around doesn’t bother us. It’s not something we’re supposed to admit, but in my humble estimation, the very notion that we should be happily patient reeks of utter bullshit.

On leadership and decision making…

As I was Frankensteining together another PowerPoint slide deck from lightly used and discarded pieces of other briefings, it really started to sink in that I’m working on the 6th yearly iteration of this project. It’s a project that was originally slated to be part of my life for “a year or two max” and then get handed off to the next lucky victim. It’s another in Uncle’s long train of bright, shiny promises that may or may not in any way be reflected in eventual reality. It’s something you get use to after enough years have sheered away.

I’m really only stuck on this topic today because it set me thinking about the various ways that whoever is sitting in the big chair influences all sorts of relatively minor details that can make life an unmitigated shitshow. What I’ll call “leadership personality” appears to be the only driving difference between a small, no frills, meeting the requirement sort of job, and one that has all the stops pulled out and all safeties disarmed.

For a moment there this afternoon, I was stuck with the towering reality of just how little years of collective expertise and experience count against a single moment of “Yeah, but I want to do it this other way.” It’s probably best that I don’t spend too much time dwelling on that. I’m sure I’d be told that’s a feature of the system rather than a bug. It’s a reasonable assessment that some people would even believe that.

The fact is, I’m very nearly agnostic when it comes to what decisions are made – especially if they’re only made just that one time and not jiggered about every six days thereafter until the inevitable heat death of the universe. I’ll provide the best insight and information I have, but once someone points out the approved direction of travel, I’ll head that way and keep moving until apprehended.

We’re maybe, possibly, somewhere in the general vicinity of a decision that may or may not have a large impact on something I’ve spent months out of the last five years tinkering around with. I’m just going to assume that level of interest in anything goin on in my sandbox is what has my nerves set to “on edge.”

Climate survey…

Every job I’ve ever had was driven, at least in part, by the recurring rhythms unique to the organization. Cycles are everywhere if you’re paying attention – fiscal year end, annual conferences, daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports… and my very favorite, changes of command.

One of the perks of working for our Big Bureaucratic Organization is that someone new ends up occupying the top spot every two or three years. When you’ve got a good one, the time goes a little faster, but when you have a bad one at least you know they won’t be there forever. In the age old tradition of the bureaucracy, when all else fails, bureaucrats know we can outlast even the worst of the worst in their tenure. The bureaucracy was here long before any individual leader and will endure long after any individual has departed. To quote Ronald Reagan, the bureaucracy “nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

As sure is night follows day and summer follow spring, a change up at the top of the org chart is followed by conducting a climate survey. It’s one of the tools by witch the new guy is supposed to “get to know” his organization – or at least what people are brave enough to say about it when they’ve been promised anonymity and non-attribution.

I’ve lost track of how many of these surveys I’ve responded to over the years, but I can count on not all the fingers of my left hand the number of things that have ever been improved in any meaningful as a result of them. Still, I play along, mostly because if the bosses are dumb enough to ask me how I really feel, I’m absolutely dumb enough to give them an honest answer. Since it might be the only chance during any particular boss’s tenure where I’m invited to tell truth to power, it feels like it’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Fortunately, after years of answering questions and very little changing I have built up quite a repository of stock responses that, after a bit of tweaking, are every bit as applicable today as they were the day I first wrote them… two, five,, seven years ago, or more. It’s just another in a increasingly long line of times when saving every scrap of previous work products as part of my Official Papers archive really pays dividends.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Douchebags who litter. Driving through the historic summer tourist trap of North East, Maryland I was following a SUV towing a jet ski who eventually turned into one of the local marinas. There’s nothing unusual about that this time of year. Also not unusual, because people are mostly awful, was the fact that the passenger kept throwing cigarette butts and trash out the window. I assume, because of the jet ski, that these people enjoy being outside and on the water… which is about 50 yards away from where the last butt fell. That’s the head scratcher, for me. Where exactly to asshats like this think their ash and trash is going to end up the next time it rains? Then again, that question implies that they’re the kind of people who bother thinking at all and that’s probably a poor assumption on my part.

2. Online marketing. I brought home my newest pup over a month ago. While I appreciate the mission of the several dozen rescue organizations I looked at prior to that, I don’t now need to see the animals that are currently available… every time I log in to a social media account. It feels like the algorithms should take into account that the average person, regardless of how much they’d like to, is not going to adopt ALL the animals. Rest assured when the time comes I will seek these organizations out… but just now you’re wasting their marketing dollars by targeting me.

3. Panic as management strategy. I assume there’s a time and a place for panic. I’m not entirely clear what that time or place would be on an average day, though. Losing your head and making shit decisions as a result doesn’t feel like a best management practice. Especially when there are stacks and stacks of paperwork that tell you how to respond to almost any conceivable situation. I haven’t read them all… but I’ve read enough of them to know that flailing your arms and calling all hands to the pumps isn’t usually featured prominently as a how to recommendation.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The 80/20 rule. The reward for good work is more work. The reward for bad work is less work. Other than a sense of personal satisfaction of doing a job well, there’s damned little incentive to do top notch work in an environment that doesn’t really reward anything above the baseline or punish anything below the baseline. Things just slide along while everyone hopes equilibrium is maintained and no one makes too many waves. Meanwhile we’ll just keep throwing stuff at those that can instead of demanding performance from those who should.

2. Puppy energy. Folding a new dog into the routine is has been challenging – probably in large part because the resident dog is old and happy to spend most of her day sleeping. By contrast, the now 7-month old pup, is still full of teenaged asshole dog energy and requires constant oversight. It’s no so bad on the days when I’m home with ample time to wear his fuzzy little ass, but God help us on the days when I’m working and he gets to rest up. We were all a decade younger the last time there was a puppy in the house. I don’t remember being better rested at 30 than I am at 40, but maybe I was. Who knows. Maybe I was even energetic myself way back when. Somehow I doubt that. Jorah is going to be a fantastic dog… just as soon as I get him through the stage where he’s a total pain in the ass.

3. The FCC. The FCC has spent decades chasing “crude and rude” broadcasters across the airwaves – levying fines and trying to make sure all the poor sensitive souls don’t accidentally get offended by something. If the honorable commissioners of the FCC want to do something even remotely beneficial to actual people, they’d dragoon the Special Operations Command into hunting down and killingly the people responsible for spam and scam cell phone calls and text messages. Slap a bounty on the scammers heads and pay out dead or alive for every one drug across the threshold of their glass and steal headquarters building lobby. That’s the kind of proactive service I want to see them providing instead of page after page of tips on how to not get scammed.

On the transient nature of management…

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.

In which I oppose mandatory fun…

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.