Doing stuff…

I’ve mostly accepted that aside from making a quick stop to top off groceries or for fuel, weekdays are going to be mostly consumed by going to, being at, and returning from work. By the time I get home, tend the herd, and have a bit of dinner, my brain has pretty much turned to mush. All I’m good for after that is mixing a decent drink and maybe a passingly interesting blog post.

The weekends, for their part, aren’t much better with their time eaten up with errands, cleaning, yard work, and generally keeping the homestead from falling down around my ears. By the time that all gets knocked out, it’s usually already late Sunday afternoon.

What perplexes me, and in fact makes me a little bit jealous, is how other people seem to carve out time to actually go do things for recreation. Of course I’m not likely to show up in a stadium full of people, but I wouldn’t mind so much getting out to stomp around the high ground at Gettysburg or take the tour at Independence Hall. Those things take time, though, and I know the minute I pull out of the driveway my mind is already going to ticking off the things that are lurking around not getting done.

I’m telling you folks, inside my head is a damned strange place to live sometimes.

Tools of the Devil (Part I)…

PowerPoint is a tool of the devil. This is apparently obvious to the casual observer after a long week of slogging through slides changing “happy” to “glad” and making sure that every bullet is lined up within +/- one micron. Apparently there’s nothing that makes a senior manager feistier than an ever-so-slightly misaligned bullet. Better for key content to be left out than to risk it violating the sanctity of the holy format. I’ve been doing this a long time now and I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the hours of obsession that some men can pour into finessing their slides so they’re juuuusssssssst right. I remember reading somewhere that perfect is the enemy of the good. In an imperfect world, I’ve always been happy when I find myself in the neighborhood of good. Apparently that is a very lonesome neighborhood.

I like to think that if we lived in some bizarro universe and I were a senior leader, I’d be more concerned with the content over how it happens to be displayed as long as it was in some semblance of logical order. Then again, maybe that’s the part of the brain you give up upon being elevated to echelons above reality. There’s not much chance of my ever finding out for myself, so I’m left once again to ponder the importance of issues of style over substance.

I’m reminded of the Army colonel who was relieved because of this epic rant against PowerPoint. As it turns out, the Army would probably have been better served to promote the guy rather than tossing him out.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

On the virtue of low expectations…

I feel sure that somewhere in these pages I’ve told the story of a supervisor who worked in the same organization I did many years ago. One of her standard responses to things that were anything beyond easy to do was, “Well, don’t expect too much.” That was the better part of fifteen years ago, but I’m beginning to see the virtue of low expectations.

Today, for instance, a “hot” information requested landed on my desk around lunch time. That’s not unusual in and of itself. What gets problematic is when someone wants a complex issue distilled down and answers provided within 48 hours. As I tell anyone who will listen, I’m a facilitator, not a subject matter expert. My specialty is in putting people who need information together with the people who have the information. Doing that right takes time. It takes even more time when whatever answer they come up with needs to be approved back through four additional levels of the bureaucracy sometime within the next 36 hours.

Look, I’ll get you to the right answer. That’s what I do. It could just come sailing back through the ether with no problems. Stranger things have happened… but not often. I think the most important thing here is that you don’t expect too much. It’s the only sure way to avoid disappointment.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The Obvious. Headlines screaming “America in Deep Freeze,” or “Arctic Blast Cripples East Coast,” or “The Big Chill,” seem a bit superfluous at the moment. It’s mid-December here in the northern hemisphere. We’re right up against the winter solstice. For those who need it spelled out, that means for the next three months or so, cold is perfectly normal and should, generally, be expected. If for some reason the arrival of winter and cold weather have caught you off guard and unprepared, well, you’re an idiot. The fact that so many people are idiots, however, still does not make “it’s cold in the winter” a breaking news story.

2. Election Meddling. It’s cute that we’ve collectively decided that foreign powers meddling in a US election has raised the collective hackles of the press. Anyone familiar with their history over the last 200 years will tell you that we meddle every bit as much as the Russians. Ask the Iranians who ousted the Shah. Ask the Vietnamese about the Diem brothers. Ask any number of Latin American countries about our “helpful” deployment of Marines to ensure their elections turned out the way we wanted them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as angry about Russian interference as anyone, but for us to pretend we don’t do the exact same thing everywhere else on the planet is the height of hypocrisy.

3. Competing priorities. Given the lack of guidance I currently operate under, I’m put in a position where I have to make decisions about what problems get my attention and which ones don’t. I imagine I get it right more often than not (but that’s a complete guess since feedback is also something we don’t do). So when you stop me in the hall at the end of the day and wonder why I wasn’t in some meeting I was “supposed” to be in, there’s fair chance that time got allocated to one of the competing priorities that appeared to be more pressing. I’d be more than happy to work the issues in any order leadership sees fit if they’d just bother to tell me the flavor of the day. If they are going to leave me to my own devices, I’d mostly appreciate not getting blind sided in those rare moments when they choose to care.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Throughput. I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: When you have X amount of time and Y amount of work, unless you’re managing things pretty closely the sum is almost never going to be zero. There will always be more work than time. The best most of us can manage is to prioritize the effort and try to get to the important stuff. If there’s important stuff that’s not being tended, it’s probably a good idea to tell someone it’s important rather than relying on them to read you bloody mind.

2. Scheduling. It’s Thursday night. The list of things to get done between now and Sunday evening is already twice what I should reasonably expect to get done. I shouldn’t complain since I make my own list, but still, I’d love to at some point have one of these nice restful weekends I hear people talking about. At least there’s a hard stop at about 8:30 Sunday night. The Dead are back and a man has to know where his limits are.

3. Election. Oh dear god how is this election not over yet? Please make it stop.

The day wherein I get nothing accomplished…

I had four meetings today, which isn’t unusual in and of itself. The real issue was they were scheduled in such a way as to make sure that I had no more than 45 minutes between any of them. The longest uninterrupted stretch of “work” time I had today was the 90 minutes at the start of the day… and the first thirty of those minutes were spent rebooting repeatedly and trying to coax my computer into playing nicely with the network.

That’s pretty much a nice way of saying that I did absolutely nothing productive today. I listened to a number of people talk about the many, many productive things they thing we should be doing, though. If my understanding of bureaucracy is in any way accurate, we give full credit in either case. It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference whether you talk about doing things or you actually do them. More and more of my time seems committed to the former.

I’m fighting an ongoing battle with my innate sense that getting things done is important versus the reality that just showing up in the meeting about the thing that needs done. On days like this it’s helpful to be reminded that there are eight hours in every work day and however Uncle wants me to spend them is his business. For as long as I’ve been doing it, it still feels like an awfully strange way to spend the day.