When dealing with projects, it’s funny to me how people assume the slightest missed detail will lead to the zombie apocalypse.
By slightest missed detail I mean some aspect of the project that could go wrong or differently than planned and by zombie apocalypse I mean that the whole thing will come crashing down in abject failure and pink slips for everyone. I always try to get zombies into things at least once a quarter.
It’s interesting to see how some people believe unless every aspect, every nuance, every possible problem is psychically predicted, mitigated and guarded against, the whole thing won’t work.
That’s not to say planning isn’t necessary or that we should all live by the Spirit and just hope things magically happen, but there are always two extremes—two ditches to fall off the road from. As a man who has been a doer and a planner for the better part of 10 years, I put some observations forward.
Now, there are many strata of people in the corporate world. For our discussion today we will talk about two of them: the planners and the doers.
The military has these two levels of people too—typically officers as planners and enlisted as doers. Anyone who has ever served as an enlisted person knows when the brain trust finishes their decades-long planning process and asks for execution, the drama hardly stops. All manner of status update briefs, freakouts and FRAGOS (fragmentary orders…as in “Hey, we were thinking and something else came up, change your plan and stand by for more instructions”) ensue when the brain trust catches wind of what’s going on in their climate controlled buildings.
One of the things often overlooked is that the doers are people. That is to say, they think. That is to say, they aren’t Roombas stuck on a dining room table leg, unable to free themselves. And, contrary to what the brain trust might think, many doers are experienced and know how to adapt.
But I understand where the thinkers get nervous. After all, there are usually many organizational and physical barriers between planning meetings and where the leg work of execution happens. Planners can’t see how their plans are actually going until they get some sort of report back—sort of like how parents need their kids to call after travelling or whatever. They worry.
And it’s sweet, but often the planners’ incessant prodding and second guessing creates mountains more work than if planners cultivated a sense of trust between themselves and their workers.
Because when an event or whatever is actually going on—when chairs aren’t in place or there are hiccups with the microphone, good people will not just collapse and cry, waiting for the planners to tell them what to do. They will work on solutions. They will fix things.
Or maybe they won’t, which speaks to the quality of the doers. But as for me and my former enlisted compatriots, we get sh*t done. We adapt. We think things through. We work at it.
In the end, when a project or event is actually happening, a missed detail won’t cause the whole thing to combust. I know it’s hard for planners to realize this, but when the gears of production are in motion, pure inertia will keep things flowing—maybe with a couple of bumps, but nothing that will keep the mission from happening.
During graduation ceremonies, someone would be late, a slideshow wouldn’t be ready, an announcement was forgotten—you know, life happens. My planning overseers would suddenly disappear into their rooms and return in a sweaty panic. “OMG! What is going on?! We’re all going to die!”
“Chill,” I would say. “It’s been handled.”
“But how? With whom? The thing isn’t working. What can we do? Did the audience notice? Did they think we were failures? We need to formulate a strategy to ensure no hiccups of any kind ever happen again. We’ll meet Friday night and go through rehearsals all weekend to stop this from ever happening again!”
“Yeah but I just restarted the computer and it works now, so we don’t—”
“You had to what? Are we allowed to do that? What if IT has a problem with that? What if it messed up a setting?”
“It happens all the time. It didn’t mess up anything; we’re on track now, please stop making a scene. People are looking over.”
“A scene? There’s gonna be a scene when the IT director catches wind of what you did and I’m called into a meeting. There’s a scene! Now I’ll have to work through a process augmentation memo to suggest methods of avoiding this sort of thing.”
On and on. Dozens of people, stressing out, trying to read tea leaves and organize the future, while the majority of the work is done by men and women on the ground, seeing and adapting.
It’s something that gets a lot of cheers and jeers. Some people celebrate the free market, the captains of industry, all that jazz. Some people lament the cubicles, the Office Space and Dilbert characters that seem to be everywhere.
And, like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Things aren’t so amazing that I soil my pants with joy every hour. Things aren’t so bad that I’m vitamin D deficient from the life-siphoning fluorescent lights.
A few military friends have asked what it’s like. I went into a bit of what it isn’t a couple of posts back, where I talked about all the ways I didn’t have to stay on edge. So this time, I’ll get into a little bit of what it is.
Now, I do need to qualify some things. I’m not in full-blown corporate America, as much as people seem to slap that label on every circumstance they are personally in—like how troops say they’ve “been to war” whether they were in the Korengal or lounging poolside in Qatar. Are both extremes closer to war than those at Starbucks? Yes. Am I so deep into corporate America that I can claim to know what it’s all really like? Not really.
So, that said. It’s pretty cool, from a guy who tries to take things in stride. A lot of movie and comic stereotypes are here. I guess that’s why all those movies are so funny.
There are the people who live in total fear that their every move is watched.
There are those who have been around the company for a decade or two, working themselves to the bone, but always in ways that create more burdens for themselves without getting ahead.
There are the meetings…lots of meetings…lots. I have five hour-long meetings today alone. Geez.
There are the power walkers in the halls. There are the gym guys who say “boss”…or is it “hoss?” Dunno.
There is the aversion for all things provided. Eating at the cafes is so passé for some. Screw that, there are like five different cafes here! I’m hungry!
There are motivational banners up. There are core values and virtues posted on all the walls like some recruiting drive.
There are coupons! Cell phone belt holsters. I’m asked to focus my efforts on what is good for the member.
People laugh. They like being around people who laugh. There are the fashion conscious and those (especially guys) who need a couple of issues of GQ.
All to say it seems pretty “normal” from a guy who is new to “normal.” I like it, but I’m at a different point in life.
Already there have been a few projects that have come up where my coworkers flip into full freak-out mode because of some perceived need or expectation from higher ups.
It’s EXACTLY the attitude that followed generals around. There would be the “good idea fairies” who would create a crap-ton of work for the average Joe, all to anticipate unstated needs by the big bosses.
So, being a former NCO who has seen this scurrying-around-for-no-reason hundreds of times, I just get a soda and let people freak out. Once they settle down, I’m able to ask questions like “Did she say she wanted it three weeks early? No? Then why are we thinking she does? Ah, she’s going on vacation next week? Did someone ask if we could send it to her while on vacation? No? Let’s do that.” Turns out the boss would love a one-way-one-time update on the status of the big project. Problem solved.
So, corporate America? Sure, it works. I don’t let the small stuff hang me up. Five hours of meetings? No prob. Paycheck still goes through whether I’m working or listening to people talk all day. Doesn’t bother me at all.
People can be so mean.
Seriously. People can really go out of their way to fuss, cuss and generally put others “in their place.” I think maybe we’re in love with being that person in the movie who shouts down the antagonist or sits in comfortable smugness after telling off someone who was clearly wrong. I think we are programmed where any infringement on the sovereign territory of “our calm” should be met with a jolt of anger, hatred and meanness. Mess up my coffee order and I break your face. Ask me for something and I roll my eyes, laugh about you to my coworkers and not care if you hear me or not.
The meanness can show itself in many subtle forms. It can be a curt email. It can be several audible sighs during presentations. It can be in a condescending attitude over the phone. There are glares, frowns, head shakes or snide comments…all sorts of stuff.
The thing is it’s not necessary. Now, I’m saying this as a man who has endured a few infuriating customer service situations and a couple of bummer circumstances with military SNAFUS. Meaning I’ve had a lot of opportunities to fill up with righteous indignation. Many of my friends have looked at how calm I attempt to remain during these trying times and say, “You’re a better man than I.”
And while I appreciate that they are indirectly saying I need to get angry more often, I persist that a calm response is the wiser approach in situations.
I mean, seriously. Srsly. It takes as much effort to engineer a jerk thing to say as it does to let things go. It takes as much time (sometimes more) to chew out and curse than it does to say “thanks” and move on. What do we get out of one of these tirades? Satisfaction? Some sort of revenge? Fulfilment? Is there some committee out there silently keeping score? Does it get us a better job? Does it give us more friends?
When I was working retail and jobs in the service industry, I had a few doozies when it came to angry customers. Hell, as an Army journalist, I’ve been chewed out by every rank from E1 to O6 (parents of high school athletes are the most vitriolic). Every once in a while the situation was because of something I did, but most of the time the person was raging against circumstances completely out of my control.
When the angry customer was done telling me I’d never amount to anything and that I was an oxygen thief, that I had ruined Thanksgiving (actual story) or whatever else they had pent-up, I went about my day. I still had other customers to get to or other stories to write. I don’t know what the angry person thought would happen—maybe that I would collapse and weep, maybe that I would burst into flames. Who knows. After each tantrum, I would say my obligatory apologies and go about my life.
The Kingdom of God was still intact. I still had however-many credits toward a degree. My mom still loved me. I was good.
And, on the giving end of such an exchange, the few times I have blown my top and called down columns of fire from heaven to swallow up my bookstore-cashier-adversary, what have I really accomplished? I’ve satisfied some twisted prideful need, but I’m not any better of a person. Other than a few times with bullies in school, it’s not like rage or anger ever protected me or made me into a better person.
So when my coworker talks about how evasive, mean and terse a colleague is over the phone—how a simple “can you send me XYZ?” turns into a back and forth exchange where my coworker has to defend how and why her boss wants XYZ from our colleague’s boss—I shake my head. Why does it have to be so difficult? Why do we, the normal people—not prime ministers, not executives, not kings/queens, princesses nor princes—but people who aren’t bound by national consequence and are free to live and love as freely as the birds—why are we so mean?
Call me too patient all you want, but that’s not really an insult. I’m immovable in my self identity. I’m damn proud of where God has put me after 29 years. He’s even seen fit to bless me a bit—give me a job, a good clutch of friends. If I don’t see fit to erupt into a fit of rage at the Blockbuster guy, maybe it’s because not only would anger not resolve anything, but maybe it’s because I’m more of a guy who thinks the world could do with less meanness.
There have been a lot of things to get used to after hanging up the uniform.
- People don’t use pockets for anything in particular. They just shove their hands in there. For whole minutes.
- People lean against walls.
- First names predominate.
- You can potentially not work out for days!
- Work doesn’t usually call on the weekends. Pt. 2, coworkers don’t call, needing to be bailed out after a DUI.
- Saying “yeah” won’t incur extra duty.
- Walking either on the right or left of someone is completely acceptable.
- You can walk around, completely *^%$^&@ oblivious.
The last point has been getting to me. I mentioned it to a coworker. I’m actually not too keen on it. People are generally clueless to their surroundings. They bump into things, block doorways, block aisles, cut off vehicles in traffic, talk too loudly, trip other people, knock over stuff, on and on.
In the service, there’s this state of mind called “situational awareness.” It’s almost this Zen-like state, where a service member is imbued with the near-godlike ability to know where he or she is in relationship to the universe.
No, seriously. It’s pretty frikkin’ epic. You may not realize it, but most service members who haven’t gotten away with standing at parade pretty (entire other series of posts) know where they are. It’s awesome!
What does that mean? It means a service member will wait for others to go through doors. He or she will say “sir” or “ma’am” when encountering another human being in the general vicinity. And generally, although American road rage trumps all, they will know when the hell to stop, yield and accelerate when it comes to vehicular traffic.
It all starts at basic training. I remember it well. My particular unit stood outside in the January South Carolina evening air, which, contrary to what you might think, is pretty blasted freezing.
We were told to exit the bus, quick like, arrange our backpacks in an orderly fashion, and extricate ourselves into a line all in a span of about 15 seconds. Of course, you might imagine what happened, all manner of hell broke loose. There was no coordination. There was no consideration. It was every person for him or herself. We bumped, tripped and shoved our way into the drill sergeant’s escalating rage once the requisite 15 seconds passed.
Tests like that were designed for us to fail. Passing the test wasn’t the point. The point was to show how absolutely clumsy and self-centered the average person is. We’re like heifers, chewing the cud, oblivious to the semi trucks attempting to pass us on the road. We’re completely self-centered, expecting the world to pay us mind, pay us heed and worship us at our feet. We have more cars, clothes and money than 90 percent of the GD world, after all, there’s definitely a sense of entitlement that comes with that sort of nobility.
So, it is the job of the drill sergeant (or drill instructor for our maritime friends) to undo the worthless, clumsiness of the average U.S. civilian. Thus begins our quest toward situational awareness.
When a sergeant walks to work, you may see a confident stride and a sharp-looking man or woman; but inside, there are all manner of processes and checklists going off in that person’s head. Every single person that walks into a service member’s viewable area (six paces radius from all living things, for your information) must be checked for rank, uniform, disposition, proximity to others. A service member will see if there’s something in the person’s right hand (which there shouldn’t be, since he or she needs that hand to salute at a moment’s notice), and that hands are out of pockets. Service members will salute, if appropriate (depending on the rank, uniform, time of day). They will check to make sure others are behaving, that they are being respectful. They will stand ready to correct junior troops, alter their course if needed to stay on sidewalks, stop completely if a cell phone rings. They won’t chew gum or eat while walking. They will walk tall, taking 30-inch steps, their hands held in loose fists, as per regulation. They will scan passing vehicles to render honors if officer rank placards are displayed. They will watch for the right time of day to render honors to the flag in the mornings and evenings.
All of it, just from walking to frikkin’ work, is to hone a person’s acumen for situational awareness.
And it doesn’t stop in the states. There are a whole mess of other checklists service members go through in deployed environments.
Over there, weapons must be carried properly, cleaned, uniforms maintained. Service members must keep a sharp ear out for incoming mortars, alarms, approaching vehicles. On patrols, they must watch out for piles of debris in the road, quiet streets before an ambush, influx of onlookers before an ambush, pot holes, wires, discoloration on curbs, orderly piles of trash compared with disorderly piles of trash. Vehicles must be listened to. Is the engine sounding healthy? Do the brakes feel right? Are there fluid leaks? How about the radio? Do the headsets work? Got enough ammo? Got trash bags? Got the stretcher? How’s the .50-cal? Barrel clicked in (learned about that one the hard way)? Sights clean? Pedestal pin in (yet another story)?
When walking around, service members need to know where their barrels are pointing AT ALL TIMES. As they pass each other, as they walk to the chow hall, as they go to bed; is the chamber empty? Has the weapon been cleared? Where are all the other accountable items? Body armor? Ballistic goggles?
Leaders must know when and where incidents occur, in the states, the field or downrange. What time did the rounds hit? What grid location? Whose battlespace are they in? What frequency should they use to call the medics? What’s the alternate in case there’s no response? Where are they? Where’s an alternate route to get around the roadblock?
None of this aimless walking around. A troop’s mind needs to be on, sharp, at all times. Is it, always? Ideally, sure, but all troops are human. There are lapses, sometimes a lot. But they should be paying attention. “Get your head out of your @$$!” is a common verbal exchange as one troop points out the spacial perception lapses of another.
I’m newly a civilian, and while it’s sort of cute it’s also a little unsettling to see how frequently people walk down halls, ear buds in, running into others, or seeing people back into people while looking for birthday cards, or how accidents occur with cell phone users in cars, nearly hitting me as I go to H.E.B. to get toilet paper.
I guess it’s because most people haven’t had the pleasure of having situational awareness drilled into them almost literally. So it remains a quintessential skill possessed by few—that ability to analyze and categorize a dozen characteristics and traits of people, places and things entering and leaving a service members proximity every step and every second of the day.
So, some people would like to know more about USAA. Cool, let us discuss.
These guys have employed a lot of retired generals and colonels in the past. They spent a lot of time at the Pentagon and, in turn, didn’t want the USAA campus to turn out like that. So, while the building is massive and boasts more square footage than the Pentagon, it is laid out much better. It’s actually nine buildings that have been joined together into a long chain. The company would grow to a point and decide to build another building at the ass end of the complex. So, naturally, There was A, the oldest portion, then AB (guess it came after B was already there), then B, then C, etc….all the way down to H. As soon as they finished H, they started renovating A. So even though it’s the oldest actual building, the company has been revamping the interiors so that the whole place is still pretty legit.
Where the Pentagon has acres and acres of parking (ugh!), requiring shuttle buses to take most people from Lot ZZ232 to the building, each building at USAA has several levels of parking below the buildings and there are three separate garages that are attached to the complex. Since I was able to score an apartment with an attached garage, I don’t have to step outside when going to or from work. It’s garage to garage, baby! Ginger’s paradise!
There is a service level that runs, unimpeded, down the entire length of the complex. People do their little fitness walking things up and down it through the day. They have programs where people can log their distances and time and have friendly low-impact competitions with other employees.
For the more active employees, there are four gyms at the complex. The main fitness center in building A is open 24 hours. All day, son! I can get my kettlebells on!
Employees pay something like $24 per month to be a “member” and the gym gives us shirts, shorts and towels to use. That way, we don’t have to babysit sweaty clothes all day. The underwear and socks are up to the employee (as I would hope), but coming from the military, where it’s customary to have sweaty PTs hanging up around everyone’s work area, not having that is pretty awesome.
There are fitness trainers on site whom employees can hire for an additional fee. Otherwise, they just let us do our thing. What’s cool is that the company, being in the insurance biz, after all, wants its employees to be healthy. So, if we use the gym three times a week for the whole year, the company refunds our gym fees. Moreover, the company gives out healthy points, based on how often we buy healthy food options at the cafeterias (most employees pay for everything by scanning their ID cards…which makes buying everything from tshirts to food super easy), how often we go to the gym and if we participate in the PT tests of sorts they give every six months. If we rack up enough healthy points through the year, the company knocks off a few hundred bucks off of our insurance premiums. Monies!
They subsidize the veggie dishes at all the cafes and cafeterias (there are five or six of varying size and “fanciness”). So, healthy lunches end up crazy cheap. There is actually a very large number of veggie stands and dishes–I think because there are a lot of cultures represented at USAA who don’t normally go for intense diets of greasy fast food like we Amurikans. Since most of the cafeterias are open from 6 a.m. to 8 or 9 at night, breakfast and dinners are available. Some of the cafes even have meals-to-go for guys like me to take home more wholesome snacks than Papa Johns or whatever.
The building interiors are awesome. There are lounges and places to sit and chat everywhere. The main walkway runs through the middle of all the buildings, dividing each segment into an east and west side (west sieeeeeede!). The center of the buildings are hollow from roof to floor, with offices and spaces ringing the main square. Each of the buildings has military stuff in this grand hall area to teach employees history and heritage of the company. It’s cool because it blends into the lounges and cafes that exist. It’s not too preachy or pushy. I dig.
Pretty dope, overall.
The 30th of June marked a significant milestone in my life. I’m sure for some, it was a wedding day. For others, there were some birthday wishes to make. And there were a few tens of thousands who woke up to the open Afghan sky, the underside of a Humvee, or even the bunk springs of the top rack as another day away from home checked in.
For me? It was my first day out of the Army. I had been in for seven years, five months and a day (or a “wake up” for you who are fans of military parlance). It hit me like most holidays hit me—with an alarm and ticking seconds. I’m a one-day-at-a-time sort of guy. I didn’t feel any huge weight lifted, I didn’t see the heavens part or hear any angels sing. I just sort of got up, did the shower thing, you know?
I know some people have more spirited first days out, full of introspection or running wild through the streets, singing. For me, it was walking by that closet and seeing that uniform that I actually wasn’t allowed to wear anymore. That’s what marked the day as different.
By God’s grace, sunrise on June 30th found me in a new city, with an alarm that woke me up for a new job. I was in San Antonio, closer to Fort Hood than I ever thought I’d be again. I’d taken a job with USAA, much to the surprise of my peeps in Washington, D.C., who all thought I would snag some big gig in the capital.
I had received a few offers from contractors, a couple of private firms and a couple of GS positions. I went through the hiring process with several of them, did some interviews and got a lot of good vibes from a couple of positions. The USAA gig came pretty late to the party. But, I’ve been a happy member for a while, and there was an offer to whisk me down to San Antonio for some interviews before any offers or decisions were due, so I said, “Why not?”
Did I blog about that? I may have kept all of that pretty close to the chest. There are always feathers to ruffle if too much is said to too many. So, sorry about staying quiet on that–well, on everything it looks like. I slip in and out of routines sometimes. The casualties of this purge were blog writing and working out. I’ve noticed I’ve put on a few after-Army pounds already, so I’m putting a stop to that. The blog writing is another area to work on.
Not that I’ve been away from writing altogether. I’m finishing up the novel too. Okay, I’m not “nearly finished” as I thought I’d be at this point, but laziness and moving takes a lot out of a writer, especially when it’s all pro bono for the writing gig.
So, back to the new job. I am to be a blogger for USAA. And a community manager. And a writing coach. I’m down with anything, really. In the service, you sort of become a lot of things as you go, so I’m used to the adaptable thing. The company is doing a lot of really cool stuff with the social mederas. I’m very excited to be a part of it.
More later. Lots to do. Mmmmmm.