Rabbit Hole

My boss is on leave. I have a number of tasks to complete. Two of these involve providing instructions about using software to people in the office. The office has installed a video capture/presentation program on my computer to help with exactly this sort of thing. I am inexpert in its use, alas, but the end products genuinely seem to help people understand how to do the stuff they’re being asked to do. One of these tasks is Urgent and Important and potentially complicated; the other is neither, in comparison, but it has fewer moving parts.

I decided to spend a few minutes on the one with fewer moving parts this afternoon – you know, because it would be easier and help me do the other one (Urgent and Important) faster and better. Four hours later, I had a poorly edited video which I will have to totally redo before it will be of much use to anyone.

The Business Management Institute at Muppet Labs ™ is quoting reliable sources as saying that saving work frequently on a computer may prevent wasted effort. They are also reporting that doing the most important work first is more likely to result in faster completion of important work.

In unrelated news, I just spent the last 90 minutes playing Solitaire (with an actual deck of cards) over and over again.

Distractions Continue

My work trip to Dallas has been excellent so far. I got in a couple days’ worth of happy fun time to start, which was an incredible mood boost. My hotel is charming and old-fashioned, combining the fragrance of old wood under multiple coats of paint with a spring breeze smell. It evokes memories of traveling the world in my 20s. That illusion of youth must account for my extreme emotional volatility today. I started the day almost giddy, but now it’s raining and grey. I’m tired and I want a cigarette. I won’t have one, though. I’m gonna eat some bon-bons and look pensively out the window* instead. Take that, world!

* Actually going to do stuff for work on computer until the next event on my schedule. I will not actually stare out the window, but I will sigh and scowl a lot. Chocolate bon-bons will be consumed.

Participation/Consent

I once worked for a Senior Leader who believed that addressing people’s fears out loud would legitimize the objects of their fear. This was an otherwise skilled political appointee whose good opinion I coveted but failed to secure. She appeared to think that if we addressed employee concerns about a building system malfunction or an impending government shutdown, we would be somehow endorsing those things as acceptable outcomes. I couldn’t get my brain around the idea that sharing information about something we didn’t control might constitute acceptance or that recognizing an unpleasant reality might constitute endorsement thereof. (Since I am still bitter, let me add that I’m glad no one put this person in charge of responding to actual environmental or public health problems. Radiation? What radiation?)

Reality is not waiting for our participation. The building ventilation system will continue to function (or not) whether I talk about it. Congress will do what it does without my endorsement. The lab will continue to send me bills whether I open them or not. Employees are still subject to office policies whether they acknowledge them or not. The government will validate the results of the elections regardless of the opposition party boycott. Unless you’re living as a revolutionary – or a hermit in a remote freehold, healing your own ailments with roots and berries – there isn’t a valid “opt-out” option for most institutionalized life processes.

When I’m in a funk, I feel like withholding or withdrawing my consent from the early 21st century suburban wage slave wife-and-mom terms of service. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In either event, I often confuse consent with participation. I stop opening envelopes and don’t clean up the pile of crap that’s accumulated near my basement desk because I just don’t want to participate anymore. I don’t want to be responsible for these people. I don’t want to make the effort. In those moments, I fantasize about opting out in terms that range from impractical to immoral to downright irreversible.

(Sooner or later something wakes me up and reminds me that it would be smarter to participate in such a way that I can find my way to some version of the aforementioned freehold (or at least a comfortable approximation thereof) without bringing shame upon myself or surplus sorrow upon my family. I’m rooting for that something to kick in soon, because damn. Dino Spouse and Mouse both look worried, and the basement is a mess.)

I wonder how many bosses refrain from talking about problems in the office because deep down they’re annoyed at people for getting distracted by unpleasant realities (like malfunctioning building systems or looming shutdowns) and demanding reassurance.

Failing Successfully

At work, I’m on the board of an organization that supports the advancement of women into senior positions in my federal agency. Some time in the next month, I am supposed to host an informal brown-bag on the topic of failure. Failure is a topic near and dear to my heart. Professional and personal failures have taught me lots. Sometimes I imagine developing an instruction manual for failure akin to the Handbook For The Recently Deceased in “Beetlejuice.”

There were two posts this weekend that piqued my interest in this regard. One was the Washington Post item April 25 about Martha Johnson, the former director of the General Services Administration who resigned in 2012 in the wake of a scandal. The other was a recently released study of professionalism in the U.S. military circa 1970. Two thoughts occur to me:

  • Encountering professional near-death experiences at the beginning and middle of your career is a blessing, assuming you learn from your mistakes and the reactions of others. I am eager to read Martha Johnson’s book to see what her experiences were earlier in her career. The people I know who have suffered the worst from career catastrophe have been people who never crashed and burned until they were already in senior positions.
  • Failing to analyze mistakes and missed opportunities is a major source of future failure. I recall participating in an exercise at the Army War College in 2000 and being blown away by the military culture of after-action reviews, in which all parties were encouraged to discuss what went right and wrong in a given activity. I don’t know how many of the recommendations from the study were implemented, but I wonder how many federal agencies have undertaken similar studies.

I would love to hear about personal or institutional episodes of failure and recovery from your experiences. Will you share?