And so it begins. The two weeks a year when I’m forced to put on a brave face and transform into a cheerleader, a producer, a confessor, a circus roustabout, a tyrant, and a Chatty Cathy all in the name of passing along some information that could just as easily be set loose into the world by putting it on a website.
“But that misses the personal touch,” they cry. Knowing how much money you’re going to spend and how isn’t enough. We can’t do without the networking, the back slapping, the crab puffs, and little finger sandwiches. Though they’ll howl just as loudly when we go back to charging $700 a head instead of giving the information away for free online.
COVID and the Plague Era has given me a great respite in that at least the last few iterations of this great dog and pony show have been online. No vast sea of party tents, no outdoor equipment displays, no tickets, no 700 extra people jammed elbow to asshole in an auditorium to listen to presentations they could have heard just as easily from home. Next year might be back to “normal”… and that’s a threat that hangs over me like a goddamned death sentence.
A big part of my philosophy of project management can be distilled down to one simple rule: Never have a meeting when an email will do. I conservatively estimate that on any given project that eliminates approximately 95% of meetings that otherwise would have taken place.
There’s a catch, of course. Periodically, the Gods on Olympus sneak into their questions about the status of whatever project interests them in the moment an inquiry like “When was the last meeting on this?” I can tell you from experience that the answer they’re not looking for is, “Uh, I think we had a meeting about three months ago.”
It won’t matter to them that you’ve got full command of all the pertinent information. It won’t matter that you’ve checked in weekly or even more often with all the people developing content and know that everything is on track. The only thing that will matter is that you haven’t had a meeting. You’ll never convince me that this minor obsession with meetings isn’t one of the big driving influences of why so many bosses are still hellbent on putting asses in cubes. Then, not only can they ask if meetings are happening, they can walk past and see people crowded into a conference room – pure management bliss.
Even though it’s not strictly necessary, I’ve been running a meeting once a month since before the new year. At least that way I can say with a straight face we’ve had meetings. Now that we’re closing in on the curtain going up, I’ve switched it to weekly meetings – because inside the 30-day window Olympian interest can become intense. At least I can tell them that, yes sir, of course we met on that just a few days ago and be 100% honest.
What I won’t mention, of course, is that these weekly meetings never take more than 20 minutes. In fact, today’s lasted a grand total of 21 minutes and conveyed exactly three new bits of information that I’d already sent out this morning by email. We’d have put up a better time but there were one or two technical snags that cost precious seconds.
But, by God, now we’ve had a meeting about it and nothing makes officialdom happier than knowing there was a meeting. I’ll shoot to get next week’s down to sub-15 minutes times. I feel like that level of success is really within my reach.
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.
I sat through ten separate briefings about contracts today. Maybe it was one very long briefing. After the first hour, it mostly tends to bleed together with one contract being much the same as all the others. I’m sure to those who’ve dedicated their careers to the exciting world of government contracting or those companies who are hoping to score the next billion dollar contract from their Uncle Sugar, it’s all entirely fascinating. Being neither of those two things, it’s all largely something that just must be endured.
I’ve said for years that I’m completely agnostic about what people say or do once they’re on stage. I’ve rented you the hall, made sure everyone has a place to sit, talked to the guys who run the sound and video, and otherwise set conditions for you to succeed or fail on your own merits. What anyone chooses to do with it from there, is entirely between them and whatever gods they follow.
As a mostly disinterested third party, these several days of talking contracts does nothing for me so much as make me want to lay down and take a hard sleep. With no vested interest in any of the content one way or another, it’s all a jumbled wreck of dull, duller, and dullest when it hits my ears. You’d think after seven years of sitting through these some affinity for the stuff would rub off just due to long familiarity. Alas, it seem familiarity has only bred that other thing it’s famous for creating.
I spent most of the morning updating slides that were allegedly “final” three weeks ago. There’s always one more opportunity to swap out “glad” for “happy” for the 36th time, I suppose.
I should probably be happy. The inertia of large events is about to take control of this one and guide it down the slipway towards “mission complete” on Thursday afternoon. The only promise I ever make in the days before a Tharp and Associates Production is “Some things will go well. Some things will go badly. And a week after it’s over, no one will care except that it means we’ve checked that particular box for another circuit around the sun.”
This is the second year in a row that we’ve been forced to do everything “remotely.” Despite it being infinitely more manageable and cost effective, I can’t imagine that COVID-enforced way of doing things being allowed to persist in a post- COVID world. Before you know it, I’ll be back to talking to caterers, circus tent rental companies, stage and lighting designers, and the gaggle of other vendors you need to deal with to make sure every year is just a little bit bigger and more extravagant than the one before.
There are loads of future dates and activities that I look forward to, but I try not to make a habit of wishing my life away. All the same, if I were to go to sleep tonight and somehow wake up on Friday morning, I wouldn’t raise a word of protest.
One of the many exciting “other duties as assigned” I enjoy during this, the worst month of the year, is that of circus roustabout. It’s toting, hauling, setting up, shifting, tearing down, followed by more hauling and toting. This time of year, my position description might as well read “Laborer, General” as opposed to anything that has “analyst” in its title.
Today’s major project was retrieving a dozen “VIP chairs” from one auditorium, loading them onto pickup trucks, driving them a thousand yards, and then unloading them into another auditorium so there could be a nice matching set on stage. I was reminded with every bit of toting and hauling why furniture moving is the kind of thing I happily pay someone else to do these days.
Believe me when I tell you I don’t in any way presume that moving furniture is beneath my dignity. I’ve had far worse jobs for far less pay… but then that’s kind of the point, I suppose. By the time you add up the hourly rate of all the people involved in shifting these twelve chairs and account for their individual overhead rates (to account for non-salary payroll costs), it would be far more cost effective to outfit each auditorium with twelve matching chairs instead of paying people to shuffle them from building to building as needed. If you assume a fifteen year life cycle for a chair that’s only used a few times a month, it’s an investment that would pay for itself in the first five years. That’s before you even look at lost productive time or basic opportunity cost of having a bunch of analysts move furniture around instead of working more “high value” tasks.
I’m sure there’s a parable about the nature of bureaucracy here. I try not to dwell on it too much.
I spent the morning starting to think about the next iteration of the project that over the last seven years has become the bane of my existence. I’d have rather spent the morning crushing my thumbs in my bench vice… but since I used up most of the last two weeks finding other things to do that could theoretically excuse the lack of progress on this particular project, I had a hunch the forbearance of those at pay grades above mine was nearing its end.
We laid the 2020 version of this benighted event to bed back in June – all online and a shadow of the usual circus of a boondoggle we throw each spring. Maybe I had fever dreams that somehow it would never come back. More likely I had secret hopes that someone, somewhere would have realize that by being online we can get the same results without acres of “stuff” tacked on because everyone likes a party.
But here we are, starting to gin up a 2019-style plan as if we have learned exactly nothing from this plague year. I won’t even pretend I’m in any way shocked… but I will say a two-month break from this mess wasn’t nearly enough.
1. Embedded links. We have you a nice, prettied up agenda. We even tucked the event links into the text of the document so it wasn’t a three line line long ugly-assed URL. But that doesn’t stop several hundred of you from not reading for comprehension and emailing that you can’t find the URLs. I mean how the hell hard is it to either click the embedded link directly or to right click and copy the link to paste it in your browser? Given that two thirds of your contemporaries managed to get it done without our help, I’m forced to conclude that one third of the total are just total mouth breathing wastes of space.
2. Podcasts. I haven’t deleted any social media friends as a result of COVID-19, protests, riots, or political affiliation but in the last week I’ve dropped a shit ton of podcasts that have vered way the fuck off topic. Everyone’s entitled to their position and perfectly free to use their platform to do whatever they want, but if I show up expecting insights on contemporary television and find deep dives on politics and current events, I’m out. I’m headed to my podcast list to avoid the general fuckery on television, not to find more of it. Hard pass.
3. Steady working. So far during the Great Plague, I’ve been steady working. I’ve missed my scheduled vacation and now the couple of days I usually take off immediately following the massive organizational vanity exercise that I’m nominally charged with carrying off every year. Yes, I’ve been working from home… but it’s still very much working and having my head in that space continually. Physically being back “on campus” these last few days just feels like heaping insult atop injury and it’s got me moody as fuck. Plague or not I think I’m going to need to start burning some days off that sweet, sweet pile of vacation time sooner rather than later.
Some will say I’m wrong, but for my money the happiest word in the English language, at least today, is EndEx.
Twelve months of bashing my head against the wall is now concluded – more with a whimper than with a bang. I’m fine with that. It means whatever cockups happened were transparent to anyone who didn’t know what should have happened. Ignorance truly is bliss for an audience.
So the big show is over for another year. Now we’ll unpack it, look at what didn’t work, and make recommendations for next year that we’ll all later ignore. The heavy lift is finished, but I’ve still got a few weeks of living left to do with it’s corpse.
Once it’s well and truly in the ground, it’ll be time to start planning for 2021. That effort usually kicks off in June – delayed this year because the Great Plague has delayed everything.
Every year someone cheerfully says, “Oh, we’ll tag someone else with this next year.” It’s a happy fiction, but organizational dynamics tell me that I won’t be relieved of this particular opportunity to excel except by retirement, resignation, or death. So I’ve got that to look forward to in the next few weeks too.
But today is EndEx for Big Event 2020. I’ll be savoring the moment for the next twelve hour or so before schlepping back to the office to deal with whatever fresh hell Outlook brought me overnight.
I started working on one particularly benighted project a year ago this month. It was supposed to be long over by now, but thanks to the Great Plague it lives on. It lives on and goes critical for two days starting tomorrow. It will either go well or it will crash and burn over those two days. I don’t see any obvious path to “it went ok.”
By this time tomorrow we’ll know which path it’s taking… which is why I’m currently sitting here with a gin and tonic staring blankly at the back yard and occasionally tapping in a few words on my phone. We’ve reached the point now where there’s nothing left to do but show up and hope the thing unfolds the way it’s supposed to, that one or more of the key players don’t spaz out, and that the tech doesn’t suddenly, catastrophically fail.
There’s effectively nothing I can do about any of those issues now. Except wait and see how it all falls together or apart.
I hate the wondering. I hate the waiting. Let’s get on with it and get it finished.