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.