Eating the strawberry

Human beings are not known for our ability be present. Nor are we known for our ability to see details. We do not approach situations with beginner’s mind – that state of possibilities rather than knowledge.

We tend instead to cling an imagined, romanticized version of the past; we call this nostalgia. We tend to anticipate and extrapolate based on previous experiences which may have only the slightest bit in common with a situation in which we find ourselves. And it is these two actions – clinging and extrapolating – that often cause us to make the worst decisions.

For the past five and a half months I have been working at a job that I loathe. It’s not particularly onerous as jobs go: my life is never in jeopardy while working; my boss isn’t physically abusing me; and I am paid a decent wage for the hours I am expected to work. But other than money, which in this economy is not something to be rejected, this job provides absolutely no rewards:

  • The work is not interesting.
  • I have no autonomy or control over my work flow.
  • I’ve repeatedly asked to use a broader portion of my skill set even going so far as to volunteer to take on massive responsibilities only to be told no because the skills I want to use do not fit management’s narrow definition of my job duties.
  • The physical working conditions are inherently dismal with no privacy, no ventilation, and no access to natural light.
  • My expertise, that for which I was theoretically hired, is consistently disregarded in favor of decisions, when decisions are made at all, that risk nothing and benefit only the few.
  • My bosses’ management style is not management so much as a series of conflicting games with ever changing rules.
  • In the five and a half months I’ve been there five people have left for other jobs

Because of this not merely lack of reward but soul sucking despond, I have found myself lately looking back on my previous job with loving longing and good feelings something for which I have roundly slapped myself.

My previous job at FlounderingNonProfit was filled with conflict:

Once there was a monk being chased by a group of tigers. The monk ran and ran until he found himself at the edge of a cliff. When he looked over he saw a ledge but it held another group of tigers. Then the monk noticed a perfect, ripe strawberry growing in the grass. He reached down, picked it, and ate it.

I am a firm believer in the theory that my job is not my life but because I am so miserable for so many hours in the day my job is taking over my life substituting seething anger at Management’s audacity and SeniorManagement’s inability to see Management’s incompetence for relaxation and enjoyment of my hobbies. Creativity sailed out the window months ago as is clearly evidenced by the gaps between, and the one note theme of, these essays.

My last job was not perfect but it provided me with some intangible rewards I was unaware previously how much I value, and it is those rewards and that value that incline me to ignore its conflicts and to cloak that time in a haze of nostalgia.

The challenge is to see through that nostalgia and to figure out how to apply what I value – autonomy, broad range of tasks that allow me to solve problems creatively instead of just enforcing management’s whims, flexibility in my schedule along the order of “your job is something you do, not necessarily some place you go,” and access to natural light – to not only the job search but to the rest of my life.

The concurrent challenge is to figure out how to be present and eat the strawberry.

Thank you, but no

Yesterday evening I walked away from a “final interview” for a job that while it would have underpaid me both based on my market value and based on my inflated Federal salary would have allowed me to work within walking distance of my house, at home part of the time, in casual clothes, and for an organization for which I already provide my support with my donor dollars. Why?

A combination of existing circumstances and simple ethics.

Monday I had my “mid-year” (read: I’ve been there 4.5 months but this is the time when mid-year review forms are do so check, check, check off that box we must) at LoathsomeJob during which UberDirector wanted an “honest assessment of my time in the department.” What I told her:

  1. All of my co-workers have been very nice and great in helping me get oriented.
  2. I’m working with co-worker K. on getting more familiar with our blast email system and we’re getting some templates in place to make those communications more useful to subscribers.
  3. I’m having difficulty adjusting to working with so many people after coming from a small organization.
  4. I’m an introvert so I do not thrive a culture that includes regular, large group meetings. I’d much rather meet with people informally or in a small group.
  5. I don’t understand why the non-web communications staff feels the need to bounce around like a pinball inside a super collider when it comes to deadlines.
  6. I am used to having more autonomy when it comes to getting my tasks done.

Those last two garnered excuses:

  • non-web communications staff have very demanding jobs and that’s both “just the system” and “just how Communications people work.” I responded by saying that a system is really just the people in it and if you want to change the system just change the way the people behave and also that I spent 5 years working in multi-national non-profit that required our press and print communications staff to consult with our international office and regional offices around the globe on a daily basis to coordinate multiple external communications events and that I’d never seen a comms staff function in this way.
  • UberDirector “has been very concerned because” I’m used to “operating on my own and making all the decisions.” For this I allowed as how I understood that there was a decision hierarchy and that I wasn’t objecting to lack of final authority but that I was used to getting a goal and parameters on achieving that goal and being trusted to apply my skills and experience without a lot of supervision, and, frankly, that hadn’t been my experience over the past few months of how things operate in our group. Then I gave her a specific example from the previous week that clearly illustrated how her meddling got in the way of efficiently achieving a goal. Well, that’s “just how things are here.”

All of that said, they wanted to know how I wanted to “shape the job to” me rather than just having me “mold to the job and the environment.” Using more of my technical skills is out because “we have certain contracts that restrict what people can do.” and that just letting me work on two sites, even though the workload would be tremendous and would be something I’d enjoy, “wasn’t really feasible right now.” I was, however, encouraged to get training so let me extend my thanks to the American taxpayer for the user experience design training for which you are about to pay. But all in all I walked out of my “mid-year” feeling a little bit like the person who had beat the crap out of me on Friday night had just given me two dozen roses on Monday afternoon.

It’s in this environment that I walked away from potential out.

I had a phone interview last week that was scheduled for 15 minutes. It ran for forty. Admittedly, I enjoyed hearing more about the organization’s plans and the job and how I might fit in but that doesn’t change the fact that the time used was nearly 200% over what was requested. That was my first clue.

My second clue was that even after telling this man that I worked downtown and that I’m in the process of getting ready to leave town on vacation he suggested a second interview time of 3:00 pm on the day before I leave. That would have required a minimum of 2.5 hours of either sick or annual leave for me to be on time. It took us about half a day to arrange for a 6pm on Wednesday interview.

The final straw, though, was about 25 hours before my scheduled interview getting an email asking me to provide a “…sample online assessment/audit or strategic online/new media plan for which you were the main author, and for you to review your approach, what you discovered, how you helped the organization, what tactics you used, etc. Do you have any such document that you could share with me ahead of time?”

While I understand that if you’re hiring someone who is going to help you evaluate not only your web communications systems but your internal systems you would want to see process documents, requesting that information at what is effectively the eleventh hour indicates to me that this gentleman and I have fundamentally different approaches to project management, or indicates a certain manipulativeness on his part. At this point in time I am prepared to deal with neither of those as individual possibilities nor both of them in combination.

Also, the end product of about 95% of my portfolio is public facing work, and while I’m happy to step through those projects and describe starting points, goal formation, assessment processes, and the operating strategies that enabled the projects to succeed, even if I could pull those documents together into an interview worthy package on such short notice that someone would ask to see proprietary work product documents produced for another, local organization seems inappropriate to me and indicates a basic business ethics incompatibility.

I am willing to admit that I may be oversensitive to manipulation at this point but really, am I not the one who would have had to live in the job? If I’m going to be miserable, it should at least be lucrative.

And if turning down this interview was a mistake, well, at least it’s my mistake.

How was your day?

In the spirit of Indexed

How was your day? cartoon

These are the things I know

We spent 40 minutes of a 60 minute meeting last week considering whether or not “using” or “managing” was the right word for a site’s secondary navigation. Normally this could be a fun exercise involving Mr. Roget’s most famous product, handwaving, and a lot of colored markers but in this case it mostly consisted of Management talking and the rest of us staring into space. Management, after all, calls these meetings primarily to hear themselves talk and really don’t want our opinions or input.

Our weekly content project meeting followed this and was made extra, extra special this week by DeputyDirector insisting that the visual design of a web site “didn’t necessarily” have anything to do with the site’s CSS.

While I understand that it is possible to institute standards for a web site that mandate things like minimum and maximum size or font for certain elements (e.g. body text should be no smaller than the equivalent of 10 pt and all headings should be in a serif font such as Georgia or Times New Roman) you are placing constraints on a site’s visual design when you do this.

These constraints placed on a site’s visual design do not mean that the design is not expressed in the style sheet. They simply mean you are starting with an existing set of styles already in place when you create new sites.

The people in my group largely focus on content. Some of them have a bit of experience with front-end web development technologies (i.e. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) but for most of them their understanding only goes as far as knowing that when they request that “developers” add new content to an existing site they need to match the new content to the site’s structure with respect to headings, lists, and the like. Most of them, however, know enough to know that Management doesn’t like to be challenged. The net effect of this is that we all sit around while pronouncements that are if not obviously untrue are so dodgy they border on mealymouthed become the basis if decisions we are required to implement and use as a basis for our daily functioning. I’m also finding that such pronouncements and the lack of challenge to them are affecting my confidence in my subject matter knowledge and skills. As such, I’ve decided to lay out what I know to be true so that I can consult it as the months wear on and, hopefully, maintain my ability to be hired somewhere outside this hot mess of a web group.

  1. HTML controls the structure of documents on the web.
    Describing the structure of a document – what is a heading, what is a paragraph, what is a list – is the unique and specific job of HTML. XHMTL is just HTML written to particular, slightly stricter standards than the HTML 4.01 specification requires. Even if a piece of software is written in another language when its output is displayed on the web 9.9 times out of 10 it is displayed in HTML. 

    I have been hand coding HTML since version 2.3 was the specification and know the how to create well-formed, semantic HTML documents. I also know that the term “inline link” has various meanings none of which include using the id attribute to link from the top of the page to a specific section of a document.

  2. CSS controls the presentation of documents on the web.
    Cascading Style Sheets allow the front-end coder to separate a document’s structure from its presentation. They express the visual design of a site.

    For media=”screen” expressing the visual design is the only purpose of a cascading style sheet.

  3. Usability and Accessibility are related but they are not the same thing.
    Accessibility is about making the web available to people with disabilities. Usability is about making the web easy to use. 

    It is possible to have an accessible web site that it totally unusable. It is also possible to have an intuitive, well designed, easily learned site that is totally inaccessible.

    The fact that both of these conditions can exist precludes usability and accessibility from being the same thing.

  4. Standards are generally a good thing to have but not for the sake of having them.
    It’s important to have standards. They are the foundation of any good work. In order to be good standards, however, they have to flex at least a little based on need and situation.

    If your metrics show your audience is primarily accessing your site using a mobile device you optimize for mobile. A site optimized for mobile may not allow for your precious social media geegaw with the icons that jump up on mouseover.

    There is no point in applying standards simply to apply them. Ralph Waldo Emerson would agree with me on this.

  5. If you don’t treat people with respect don’t be surprised when they return the favor.
    While it possible to motivate people using fear, true leaders understand that motivating people by gaining their respect and trust is often an easier, more effective tactic. They way to gain people’s respect is to make them believe they are valuable. Once they trust you and like you they’ll bend over backwards to implement your vision. 

    If you motivate through fear the only reward you offer your staff is their pay checks and what you instead create is an operant conditioning system in which the reward phase is completely disconnected from actual behavior. The nearly 100% turn-over rate in two years within your full-time staff should be a clue that whatever you’re doing isn’t working.

OK, so maybe that last one isn’t really something concrete that I know but is more of something that I’ve observed with regularity during my working life. Regardless, these are all things I need to keep in mind as I attempt to retain my sanity, my dignity, and my skills.

Some can be bent, others can be broken

Our educational system in this country has from the primary grades right through post-graduate education many, many deficits among them:

  • teaching to the middle;
  • teaching to the test;
  • an improper balance of structure and openness to creative thinking;
  • outdated materials;
  • politicians interfering with the exploration of ideas and concepts.

All of these things combine to shortchange students in preparing them for life as an adult.

Among its many flaws, though, the one that never gets discussed is the fact that despite the web of them that surround us in a modern society students aren’t taught to recognize systems and to think in terms of systems.

Systems are everywhere, from computer networks to the ecology of the natural world. They can be extremely simple or incredibly complex depending upon the factors and components of the system.

A systems’s boundaries, the availability of resources, feedback and control mechanisms within the system, the degree of openness in a system, whether or not a system takes on new qualities via interaction with other systems and non-systemic elements, and constraints on the system are all factors taken into account when learning the rules of a given system and evaluating its health.1

Systems also exist in places most people don’t recognize, such as in the relationships among staff members and between staff members and management. This type of system, like all systems, has rules.

Some of those rules are externally imposed: you have to show up for work and do the work in order to get paid. Some of those rules are internally and organically generated: we have staff meetings on Wednesday afternoons. Many of those rules, particularly in a dysfunctional system, are unspoken and shift at the whim of those who obviously hold the power within the system.

I’ve always been pretty good at recognizing the relationship between things and at seeing the systems. What I haven’t always been good at is understanding when a system is so hopelessly dysfunctional that my only choice is to cope within it until I can find a way out. The other flaw I’m noticing in myself recently is something I’ve known about for a while, something that trips me up in all of my relationships, systemic or not, with my fellow human beings: I want to know why.

Once you understand those rules of a given system you can figure out which of them can be bent and which can be broken without completely destroying the system or having the system take note of you2. If you know a system’s rules well you can sometimes get it to do things within those rules that its designers may not have intended it to do. Why is the answer to the question “what are the rules of this system?” as often as it is the explanation for how those rules came to be. In some systems, though, why is impossible to determine.

I find myself in one of those situations in which why is inexplicable. I’ve been at the new job for about three months now. My boss, UberDirector, has finally signed my PMAP document and told me that while I have been “doing a good job so far” now is the time when I need to find something to “specialize in and excel at” the same way many of my colleagues have taken on areas of specialty like SEO or video or social media. She wanted me to do this not just for the good of the team, because it’s obviously useful to have in-house experts on which to rely, but also because “if you do the same thing over and over again every day your job just becomes plodding and work should be interesting.”

It was at this point that I told her I was 1) glad to hear that, and 2) that I’d already been thinking out this very thing. I mentioned for the second time in the context of a discussion like this that I was a little frustrated with my duties, that I felt like I was doing a lot of project management but not really using any of my other web related skills and that maybe it would be a good idea for me to try to bridge the gap between the content group where I sit and the operations group that runs the technical side of my division’s business.

It was an interesting gambit as I’ve already been told by my colleagues that as a content manager showing any hint of technical interest or prowess is the fastest route to Management’s shit list. My boss countered with a suggestion that I take a look at the list of subjects generated when the content group met last Fall and discussed the areas in which they felt they needed more instruction or depth of knowledge. As counter moves go, this was pure manipulative genius.

The content group had met the previous week with UberDirector and DeputyDirector to discuss this very list. Because this particular system, the group in which I find myself working, is process rather than outcome oriented, the notes from our discussion, as well as the list of topics, were loaded into an online collaboration tool and we were given a chance to vote on which ones we wanted to bubble up to the top of the list so we knew where it would be best to start our discussions. It wasn’t immediately obvious from the way the poll was set up if we had an opportunity to vote more than one time but it was the discussion that made the exercise interesting.

Because the entire group had been subscribed to receive messages related to this poll when someone posted that very question about voting it went out to all of us. The mechanics of how DeputyDirector’s illuminating reply of “????” went to all of us are pretty simple: he didn’t pay attention to the fact that Reply went to a distribution list not to an individual person. The mechanics of how UberDirector’s reply went to all of us are exactly the same but her response of “I don’t have a clue but was so disappointed in the list. Not big thinking at all!!!!” was extremely illuminating, and it also wasn’t for us to see.

Her formal response to the group, which came the next morning about an hour into the business day, also expressed disappointment and nudged us in the direction she wants us to go – big picture, strategic thinking rather than all that pesky detail stuff that actually makes up our jobs.

Ignoring the fact that the topics on the list – accessibility, usability, HTML and CSS, how to help our client offices plan for new sites, how to help them plan redesigns, plain language writing, information architecture, SEO and meta data, analytics, and social media marketing (among others) – make up not only the core of what we do but can also require a lot of big picture, strategic thinking, it is the list the group created when asked where its members felt they needed help or guidance. It’s also the same list that has already disappointed her with its narrow focus and small thinking from which UberDirector explicitly told me to draw my area of specialty and to find my place to excel.

At this juncture, my need to know why ran head first into the rules of the system in which I now find myself.

My boss has deliberately set me up to fail. By directing me to pick an area of specialty from a list in which she has already expressed disappointment the very best outcome I can achieve in my efforts to meet the goal is disappointment. I can not excel, and in her eyes my efforts are already not useful.

Directing me in a task at which I am bound to fail is a waste of resources and counter productive to her stated outcome orientation for the group she manages. It doesn’t get work done for our internal clients and it won’t help my fellow staff members do their jobs any better. There is no explanation for her behavior that ties to any external goal which means that the only why for how she acts is because she derives some personal pleasure from the results of her actions.

Not being a complete idiot or ignorant of either her behavior or how Government works, I told her that I’d be happy to take a look at the list and see if I found anything interesting.

I estimate I’ve got about a month, maybe 6 weeks before she remembers that she’s tasked me with this. Depending on how things play out, I may actually have to find something on that list to work on. Or she may forget the whole thing.

The thing is that one of the unspoken rules of this system is that UberDirector likes to control everything. Despite proclamations declaring support for independent thinking, every bit of evidence supports the idea that she wants to be consulted about every move.

As I’ve already demonstrated an awareness of this rule and she has responded accordingly she knows that I know how things work. Given that, and given that her response to my statement that I’d look at the list and see if I can find something interesting was a positive one, I’ll be able to truthfully when asked how my efforts to find something to “specialize in and excel at” are going.

According to the rules of this system it’s not my responsibility to create that list and if the outcome is that I find nothing interesting the absence of any further instructions, and any light in UberDirector’s oh so busy schedule to sit down with her to discuss this problem, I have completed my task.

Because a system has rules and when you know how to work them you can make the system work for you.

  1. F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn (1992): “What is Systems Theory?“, in: F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels)

  2. All due respect to the Wachowski brothers, the idea of manipulating a system’s rules to get it to act in different ways was not new in 1999.

Sometimes it’s not good to be king

I think I’ve finally figured out what’s bothering me about my new job. It’s not that I’m only using a sixth of my available skill set. It’s not that they’ve got the work chopped up so finely that they’ve got 25 people doing basically all the same things I did as a shop of one at my last job. And it’s also, not really, the fact that everyone seems to have “it’s not my job”-itis.

What bothers me about my new job is that it’s intellectually dishonest.

The people I work for, UberDirector and DeputyDirector, only have the vaguest idea of what they’re trying to do and an even vaguer idea of how to go about doing it. I base this conclusion on two behaviors:

  1. they keep using key terms from my profession to mean something that they absolutely do not mean anywhere else, and
  2. not only do they expect everyone to but everyone does indulge them in this by altering their vocabulary, work methods, and products to fit these incorrect meanings.

If I say apple and mean this and you say orange and mean this we have a fundamental knowledge and communications problem.

I realize that I am a bit of a geek and a pedant when it comes to language but I can’t let go of the idea that words matter. Common definitions understood by all are key to knowledge and are the foundation of communication. Without common, consistent definitions only insiders know what is being said and decided. No where is this more in evidence than in business.

Buzzwords are coined to create an elite, to make old concepts sound new, exciting, and most of all, exclusive. Despite how buzzwords masticate language and meaning they are distinct from legitimate professional terminology that describes concepts unique to an area of practice. You could not have the practice of law without habeas corpus, the practice of medicine without viscera, architecture without elevation, or banking without compound interest.

What distinguishes professional language from ordinary speech is how context informs meaning. Elevation in common speech means “augmentation of or increase in the amount or level of something.” Because it attempts to provide a comprehensive reference, includes not only that definition but also the one specific to the practice of architecture: “a drawing or diagram, especially of a building, made by projection on a vertical plane.” This is why using a term in a particular context to mean something unlike what others operating in that same context mean is either ignorant or dishonest.

A week ago I attended yet another in a series of seemingly endless meetings for a refresh on a high profile website. Making any changes to this site requires getting buy-in from a lot of people most of whom have the power to stop the process or to request things that just really don’t make any sense from a communications or usability perspective. It pays to make sure that whatever ideas the web group, the theoretical experts, have are presented in the best light possible. And it is because the stakes are so very high that I found myself wondering if I’d heard what I thought I’d heard when UberDirector and DeputyDirector ask the designer on the team to produce a “working wireframe with live content.”

The reason I found this so shocking is because the term wireframe has a very specific meaning in web site development, one that absolutely precludes the use of live content.

A wireframe, as Wikipedia accurately tells us, is “a visual guide that represents the skeletal framework of a website. The wireframe depicts the page layout or arrangement of the website’s content, including interface elements and navigational systems, and how they work together. The wireframe usually lacks typographic style, color, or graphics, since the main focus lies in functionality, behavior, and priority of content. In other words, it focuses on ‘what a screen does, not what it looks like.'”

Low fidelity wireframe which accurately describes the functionality and layout of the site I managed at my last job

A low-fidelity wireframe is essentially a bunch of boxes on a plain white page that give an idea of where certain elements are going to be placed. A high fidelity wireframe might include some specific language for very high-level elements like the universal navigation. Such a wireframe might also give an indication of colors or shading to better convey what the page will look like.

At no point in time does a wireframe use actual content.

At no point in time does a wireframe actually function. Functional sites with approved designs are called prototypes.

In fact, even a prototype, a working version of an approved design, usually doesn’t use actual content until the very last stage. Actual content that pertains to a client’s business serves only one purpose in the information architecture, design, and development stages of a site: it distracts the client. Most people who are not web professionals zoom directly in on the words if you provide them and immediately begin editing uttering the immortal client comment “We’d never say it like that. That needs to be changed before the site goes live.” And while content editing does need to happen the way to do it is not in the context of approving a restructured information architecture or a color change for one of the main navigation buttons.

I understand that a lot of people are visual thinkers. They need to see something in front of them that is close to the completed idea before they can formulate an opinion. But if you’re going to deliver a design comp with suggested IA labels in place to them ask for that.

This came up on my igoogle page the morning I started this entry.

I know I’m probably splitting hairs, and I felt bad about splitting hairs until I sat down in the meeting in which all of these materials were presented to UberDirector’s boss, DeputyAssistantSecretary, who proceeded to refer to, and I quote, “communications and what we do on the web.”

Now, I’m not arrogant enough to believe I know everything. In fact, I know I don’t know everything and I try to learn something new every day, but for some reason I can’t seem to stop thinking about the aphorism about the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.

The Jeans Trap

Jeans. Almost everyone owns a pair. Many people, including me, regard them as their comfort clothes of choice. Jeans for me are like armor, allowing me to feel more competent and confident than I do in other attire. Jeans have also become a symbol of Management’s magnanimity.

Whether an office maintains business dress or has relaxed to business casual what both types of offices have in common is “casual Friday.” In most places this means staff are allowed to wear jeans which is fine in temperate weather but in any location that actually has summer weather being allowed to wear jeans on Friday becomes just another control mechanism.

While jeans are worn as the comfort clothes of choice by many they’re worn to do hard, outdoor work, and, increasingly, for a more relaxed but still dressed up look in social settings. Jeans are not cheap. The average cost of a pair of Levi’s 501s is around $50 with some designer pairs costing upwards of $1,000. Jeans are also not light.

Last Friday in DC the heat index at 7:00 was 79degF. At noon, when most people want to leave the office to get lunch, the heat index was 86degF. And if you’ve taken advantage of Management’s largess and worn jeans to the office, and if you’re me, you’re disinclined to leave your desk to get lunch and what do you do when you don’t leave your desk, and when the firewall is locked down tighter than a duck’s butt? Why you work more, of course!

I write this mostly in jest but it seems to me that if I can see the smallest of control mechanisms, which is what dictating what clothes people can wear really is, it’s going to be easier for me to see the larger control mechanisms and to subvert them.

Watch the dove

I’ve been noodling with an essay about work, how the necessity of having to be at work instead of doing whatever it is you’d rather be doing can be made less onerous and about how we all have secret plans for ruling the work world. Right now it’s about 1,100 words and, quite frankly, I haven’t even gotten to laying out my ideal workplace. Part of the reason it’s taking so long is because I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that somehow I’ve managed to land myself in the most toxic, passive-aggressive workplace I’ve ever encountered.

It’s not quite Max Barry’s Company. No, that would require that Management have some awareness of the games they’re playing with staff. As it is, Management not only actively participates but is the principle beneficiary of said games.

So far I’ve spotted the:

  • “conflicting instructions” game (DeputyDirector gives one instruction while UberDirector gives the complete opposite);
  • “no direction” game (You’re told Management wants to have input, you ask for that input, are given none, and then held accountable when you haven’t moved the issue forward.);
  • “your schedule is irrelevant” game (Manifests in two ways: Management summons you without warning for seemingly trivial matters disrupting your work flow or Management schedules meetings then reschedules them at a whim. What these two manifestations have in common is that you have no option to refuse or control your time.);
  • “endless meetings” game (Long meetings that don’t start on time the entire purpose of which is to have the group, and it’s always a group, reenforce whatever decision Management wants to make.); and, of course,
  • “someone has to be a target” game (Management picks someone and decides this person can do no right. There is no rhyme or reason to why this person becomes a target and who is the target shifts without warning.)

The end result of all of these games is a staff completely constrained from any creative thinking or initiative (a cause for reprimand) which does only what it is told (also a cause for reprimand). With the added addition of “there are spies among you” not only does Management not have to do all the work itself, the possibility of the staff banding together to manage up gets eliminated altogether.

The sad part about this is that Management isn’t even very good at playing these games. Usually it takes me a few months to spot that fact that this stuff is going on. This time around, I got it in the first three weeks. And this makes my work day in some ways very amusing and in others completely frustrating: I can see the man behind the curtain but he thinks I can’t see him.

Now I just have to survive my year’s probationary period so I can move to another part of the giant company I happen to work for right now.

Pine or Sea

I understand why people write green crayon letters about things that for the rest of us are of little or no import. Some of them write them because they are possessed of insanity of one flavor or another. The voices tell them to write these letters. They become convinced that the fate of the world hinges on some small thing they think no one else has noticed.

Some people write those green crayon letters because they see something Not Quite Right and it offends their moral sensibilities. Clearly the world would be a better place if people actually knew how to use the apostrophe or if engineers gave a single moment’s thought to how actual people really used the things they were designing and designed those things around that behavior rather than blindly thinking that behavior follows form.

But most people, I think, write those green crayon letters not because they are clinically insane or because their inner pedant has gotten out to play. Most people write green crayon letters because they’ve finally woken up to the fact that they are caught in a gigantic, unfair system with almost no power and what little power they do have would take so much time to exercise that any victory would by Pyrrhic at best.

For the new job I had to buy grown-up clothes. Admittedly, khakis and shirts with a collar aren’t all that grown-up but when you’ve spent about a decade going to work in jeans and a t-shirt the change can be a bit jarring. Because they offer it, and because I like that nice Armani break in my pants, I chose an online retailer that allowed me to order my pants in a custom hemmed length and they have dutifully performed until recently. During their first wash and dry cycle one of these pairs of pants lost an inch worth of inseam length which is fine as long as I either stay standing all the time or I don’t mind that nice band of pasty white skin between the hem of my trousers’ leg and the top of my socks when I sit down.

Now I find myself at one of those decision points: do I spent my precious time hassling with retailer-who-shall-remain-nameless over these pants that are now half an inch shorter than I’d normally buy them if custom hemming weren’t available or do I simple go on their web site and write a green crayon review of their clearly inferior product?

I’m not really sure but what I do know is the next time I order pants I’m ordering them an inch longer than I need them to be.

Be careful what you wish for

One of the problems I had with Floundering Non-Profit was the fact that it was floundering. It suffered from a bad case of Founder’s Syndrome which meant that new ideas were often rejected without any consideration on their own merits. It also meant that structure, what there was of it, was haphazard at best and often hidden from view; a typical example is the simultaneous lack of any sort of coherent inclement weather policy existing right beside the unwritten policy that all leave needed to be taken in either half-day or full-day increments. It’s not surprising, then, that when I went looking for another job I looked for organizations with more structure. And I thought I had that. Turns out, I have it and I don’t.

I have so much structure at my new job that the IT guy for our group only takes care of hardware problems. For software problems, network issues, or password issues, I have to call the help desk. Allot a minimum of 20 minutes per call.

I have to get my software requests, like having Firefox installed on my machine, approved by our operations group but they don’t actually do anything with the request. It’s then up to me to wheedle, cajole, and plead with the IT help desk to actually install the software. Because yes, it’s important to have a web group that is restricted to using only IE 8.

There is, in turn, so little structure at my new job that we’re a web group serving internal clients yet we have no standard document we can offer them to guide them through the items we’ll need to see in order to approve their design or redesign plans. So…we’re expecting them to meet a standard but giving them virtually no guidance on what that standard is. Is that right?

I have so little structure that an original “request” I ended up getting from one of my internal clients when the e-mail chain was already about 6 message, and 5 carbon-copy addresses, deep consisted of “Here’s the Word doc and the PDF. They’ve been checked for accessibility on our side. They need to be posted.” Not only did this “request” not contain any actual information, it crossed internal groups that shouldn’t have seen it at all in order to get to me.

Because I am having to adjust to so much – new issues, a new role, new colleagues, a new way of doing things – I have been working hard to suppress my incredulity the during the past couple of weeks. I could probably bench press a VW Beetle using only my WTF reflex at this point.

If it sounds like I’m complaining a little bit that’s possibly because I am. The only saving grace at this job is that my co-workers realize things are messed up. But, since the organization we work for is so large, mostly they’ve taken a “what can you do?” attitude toward this problems. For the most part, I’m fine with that. I already know that I’m not going to fix the major problem with most of my clients’ web sites. I’m fully prepared to let that one go.

What I can’t let go, what I absolutely refuse to let go, is a work process that makes sense for me. So in between feeling like I wanted to cry and I wanted to punch something today as I waited until nearly noon to get access to my computer, I started to figure out how to systemize the work requests I’ll be getting from my clients.

After all, they should be used to having to fill out forms by now.