Nine bosses…

I started working in my little corner of this big, faceless bureaucracy almost seven years ago. In that time, I’ve had nine different direct line bosses. With a bit of rounding that means I can expect to see a new boss approving my leave requests and fussing over my use of passive voice every nine and one third months on average. Breaking in a new boss is something of a process. Personally, I strongly oppose asking anyone to do that consistently every nine months.

Because life in the bureaucracy resembles farce almost as much as it does tragedy, it’s not all bad news. The new boss that I found out about having this morning has been my new boss on three other separate occasions during these last seven years. At least he’s a known quantity to me and me to him. It smooths the rough edges of the transition a bit.

Still, when the powers that be are making a big pitch for “earning back the trust of the employees,” a surprise reorganization first thing on Monday morning doesn’t exactly instill confidence. With Communications with a Capital C right there in the name on the sign, you might think that would be a skill we’d try to practice from time to time.

You might think that, but you’d mostly be wrong.


When all other practical solutions fail our response is to launch a reorganization and add an extra layer or two of management. Actually, we don’t even wait for other solutions to present themselves. Reorg-and-add is the default solution to most every situation. It’s become as regular an expected as the tides at this point.

I’ve been with my present organization a little over six years now. In that time I’ve had seven different first line supervisors, sat in five different cubes, and have had at least three wholesale changes in what my job is actually supposed to entail. It’s all the kind of churn you learn to live with as part of the big, faceless bureaucracy. The cogs in the machine aren’t precisely interchangeable, but that never stops someone who’s been visited by the Good Idea Fairy from trying to cram the pieces in anyway.

I met my newest boss briefly today. He mostly said hello in passing and didn’t stop to chat. I like that in a boss. The only question, really, is will he stick around long enough for it to matter whether he’s one of the good ones or one of the bad ones. Most come and go with such regularity that the difference between good and bad is negligible. Old boss, new boss, it doesn’t much matter anyway; just tell me what you want and I’ll get it done.

I’m already hearing the rumors that in a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months, we’ll be on the move again. If the rumor mill can be believed, the next move is back to the set of cubes I first occupied way back in summer 2011. If you’ve got just the right amount of cynicism in your system, there’s something poetic about riding through six years of churn and turbulence and finding yourself right back in the same place that you started.

I’m debating on whether or not it’s even worth unpacking my office boxes this time, because surely in six months the Good Idea Fairy will make a return appearance and we’ll be adding another layer and shuffling about again. Past performance is no guarantee of future behavior, but experience tells me it’s an awfully strong indicator of what to expect.​

Flexible and transparent…

I wish I could tell you that I was about to launch into a sales pitch for the newest cell phone by telling you how it’s improved screen was flexible and transparent, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to lament that I sat in a meeting today where we were told that things are changing rapidly and that we should smile more because that makes things better. We were also told on three separate occasions that it’s really, really important to “be flexible,” and that the powers at echelons higher than reality want to make the whole experience “transparent” for everyone.

Honest to God I don’t know how anyone is expected to sit through that kind of putting-lipstick-on-a-pig banality without fierce eye rolling. Worse yet I don’t know if it’s what people say because they don’t know what else to say or if they say it because they believe it. Frankly neither option is particularly palatable.

After the 100 minutes of my life sacrificed today that I’ll never be able to get back, I wish I could tell you that I have a warm fuzzy that anyone has some kind of clue what’s going on, but again that would probably induce another massive eye roll. The truth is, I haven’t had a clue what’s happening in six months or more. What I do know is that now “everything we do” has to somehow be tied in to the newest overlord’s three main priorities… Which, of course, addresses a couple of big showy ideas, but does precious little to address the everyday issues of running an organization of 70,000+ people.

I guess as long as we’re ever smiling, flexible, and endlessly transparent, it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference whether we know what the end state is actually supposed to look like… since when you don’t know where you’re going anyplace can be a destination.

Just to be on the safe side, if anyone needs me I’ll just be taking another shot at rearranging these deck chairs, because slamming directly into an iceberg feels every bit (if not more) likely than anything good happening at this point.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Baby on board. It takes a special kind human being to believe that installing a small yellow “Baby on Board” sign is going to imbue their vehicle with some extra protective abilities. As if someone would be driving along and otherwise decide to drive into them until the moment when they realized that a baby might be involved. When the driver of one of these vehicles decides that they’re going to weave in and out of traffic, tailgate a dump truck, and jump a curb because they cut a turn too short, well, I’m just not sure how much I or anyone else should care about whatever baby you happen to have on board. I mean if the driver doesn’t have any regard for their own health, safety, or welfare or that of their offspring, asking their fellow drivers to be careful sort of defeats the purpose.

2. Reorganizing. One of the best parts of any reorganization is learning all about the new tasks you’ll be doing. As everyone shuffles their seats you’ll be picking up new assignments and passing along some of your old work to other people. That’s always how the concept is pitched, anyway. In reality though no specific method of casting off those old duties is ever really defined so if you’re not paying attention you just sort of end up doing all the old jobs plus all the new ones too. If you don’t mind being an obnoxious little shit, though, you can feel free to start making unilateral decisions about what activities get thrown over the side and what you keep doing. In the absence of clear guidance from leadership, it has always been my policy to create my own. Eventually someone will notice that some percentage of things aren’t getting done and start asking questions and shuffle that work off to the appropriate person… or they won’t. In business school that’s what we learned to call a win-win solution.

3. Political party conventions. Once upon a time, party conventions met to do important things like actually select their nominee for the presidency. Our pesky habit of voting has largely made the selection of a candidate a foregone conclusion long before the party loyalists show up in the designated city. In fact no major party convention has selected a nominee outright in my lifetime. That leaves the conventions as largely a four day, made for TV pep rally. That’s fine, I suppose, but even major news outlets are spending less time covering “events” the outcome of which are a foregone conclusion. So I say spend the money on something more effective like direct mailers or TV spots in contested states… and leave the awkward hugs between people who hate each other in the dustbin of electoral history.

Selling snake oil…

Today is apparently time for another friendly tip from your kindly Uncle Jeff. This week we’ll take a look at how not to build trust in your audience when presenting information. Staying away from a few key missteps will go a long way towards creating the illusion of a connection between you and your audience.

First, do your best to avoid generic phrasing such as listing “increased synergy” or “maximizing capabilities” when talking about your goals. This makes you sound like someone who maybe hasn’t really given their actual goals very much thought. Try building your presentation based on actual information, ideas, and measurable goals.

Second, if in the first 30 minutes of your discussion you have found six different ways to tell the audience that everyone is in this together and extolling them to “think of it as an opportunity,” everyone in the room will automatically be suspicious of you and your scheme. That kind of power of positive thought jackassery might sounds good to an intern, but to the more jaded and cynical members of your audience, it sounds like another sales pitch for Ye Olde Oil of Snake.

So in conclusion, let me just remind you that it’s generally not necessary to work so hard to sell good ideas. Everyone knows that change can’t be stopped. It can, however, be managed. Whether it’s managed well or badly depends almost entirely on how you choose to present it, but once your audience thinks you’re up to something you might as well forget ever getting them on your side in any meaningful way.

The deep end…

We’re reorganizing. By my count that brings me up to the 5th full scale reorg I’ve participated in since coming to work for Uncle in 2003. For purposes of this discussion I’m leaving out the myriad of minor moves, tweaks, and changes that have only tangentially touched whatever position I happened to occupy at any given time. If those were included, we’d easily be well over one reorg a year. As it is, one major reorganization every other year feels like it happens far more often than it really needs to.

Reorganization. Realignment. Operational efficiency. Synergy. Improved customer focus. Empowered team members. Leveraged resources. Cross-leveled workload.

Yep. All the right buzz words are there to make sure that this reorganization gets it just right and that six months from now we won’t all be engaged in a counter-reorg to undo most of what was just done. Except of course that we will. Maybe not in six months, but certainly before the year and a half mark some or all of this brave new structure will fall away as ungainly, unworkable, and ultimately unsustainable. They all do in the end.

There will be some new boss at echelons higher than reality who, applying every little thing he thinks he learned at B-school, will have some brave new scheme for how things can work better. Or he’ll need a job for a favored underling. Or he’ll just want to “leave his mark” on the organization.

Big organizations are surprisingly resilient to the finicky twiddling of the Olympians on high. They tend to muddle along despite what damage transient leaders try to do to them. Organizational inertia pushes things along, ensuring that today looks a lot like yesterday and that tomorrow won’t look all that much different. Wait a while and all the changes, both good and bad, will be undone in favor of some other idea. There will always be another reorg just over the horizon. They ebb and flow like the tides.

For some reason I can’t help but think about a ship steaming across the deep ocean. A massive tsunami may pass under its keel unnoticed and unremarked. It’s only when that vast wave washes up on a far shore that it’s really a problem. Get too attached to what you’re doing and where you’re sitting and you’re the one sitting on the shore… but if you stay out there in the deep water, you can just watch it slide on past and inflict its damage on other people.

If anyone needs me I’ll be out here paddling in the deep end until this whole thing blows over.

Bleed a little longer…

Two days into the week, it looks like it’s going to be another exercise in triage – in trying to figure out which high priority item is going to bleed to death if I don’t tend to it immediately and which I can put off to let bleed a little longer. It’s a hell of a way to try to get things done and nearly impossible if any of what you’re trying to accomplish requires deep thought and analysis. Thank God nothing I deal with ever needs any of that. You can’t see it, but I’m rolling my eyes while I wrote that last bit.

Due in part to to what feels like the never ending variations on a hiring freeze, our preternatural ability to reorganize ourselves every six months, decisions (or lack thereof) made by high management, and people moving on to better opportunities, we’re at least three hands shy of where we should be. That doesn’t sound like a lot except it roughly translates to 1/4 of the total number of people who should be working in my office. Add into that mix the normal and customary sick days, vacation days, and alternative work schedule days off, it means as often as not we’re operating half staffed or less. Some days it’s much, much less.

Whether echelons higher than reality want to accept or admit it, it creates an environment where even if good work were encouraged, it would be nearly impossible to achieve. I won’t speak for anyone other than myself, but just now it feels like any day that doesn’t end in taking water over the transom was a good one. Running flat out just to avoid sliding backwards is a lot of things, but it’s not a recipe for encouraging or enabling anyone to do their best work. It’s a recipe for struggling to stave off disaster just enough to get through the day. When that’s what passes for a win, we’re all in trouble.