Thoughts on the dynamics of successful organizational change

The Thinker by Rodin

This week a few light bulbs went off over my head. Unfortunately, I was kept too busy to have time to document them until now (hence the dearth of blog entries). What follows are some insights into how large organizations effect large changes.

Organizations of sufficient age will naturally resist change. They are typically optimized to solve known problems. This has the consequence of meaning that they are not well positioned to retrofit to solve new ones. Change is usually painful and the larger the change the more painful it is. Yet change is inevitable. While change is usually painful, change can also bring new rewards and new opportunities. Large government bureaucracies, such as the one I work in, are especially resistant to change. It is one thing for the senior leadership of an organization to make a decision. It is quite another thing to implement effectively their decision, particularly when the organization is distributed, the change is very large, the teams are highly matrixed and multiple managers have competing interests and goals.

Adroitly managing change is perhaps an organization’s toughest challenge. In the private sector, this ability translates into a company’s survivability and profitability. Which is why it is so interesting to observe how major changes happen successfully. I have discovered that inside my organization is a hidden group of change artists who have no name or formal affiliation.

I should point out that the movers and shakers are not necessarily its management. Senior leadership consists of people who are essentially directors. They tell people what to do in visionary terms. To be effective, successful senior leaders need to acquire two critical skills. First, they must develop an instinct of who to hire, since they must trust and delegate most of their work to them. Second, they must be excellent listeners. They need to be able to slip through organizational boundaries and listen to those in the organization’s middle and lower ranks. In particular, since change is inevitable they need to listen closely to those who have a proven record of accomplishment implementing change.

Managers are not necessarily movers and shakers either, although they can be and arguably should be. Managers come in all flavors too, from the dysfunctional pointy-haired boss to the exceptionally competent. Managers generally decide at a high level what things should be done and who should do them. However, their control is limited to those they supervise or direct. They may be brilliant managers of their own domains, but exceptionally poor at working relationships between other managers. If they possess both then they can be movers and shakers. Otherwise, they are just managers.

Organizational change is multidirectional. It flows down through the management chain in the form of decisions. It also should flow up, as expressed in the ideas, passions and implemented practices of those at the lower and middle levels. Change also operates laterally across groups of people engaged in similar missions. The ability of an organization to effect lateral change is critical to making large changes happen. It depends largely on the social networking skills and passions of people generally at and near or just below the management layer. In particular, it depends on the social networking skills of those people who need to work across organizational boundaries. If they have these skills, organizational change is more likely to succeed.

Organizational changes happen most rapidly and efficiently in organizations where every employee is empowered to the maximum extent possible. This is because the more an employee can infuse a job with his own skills and passion the happier he is likely to be in his job. Consequently, it is more likely that he will provide his best effort. When an employee is empowered, he becomes vested in the outcome of the change.

Who are the movers and shakers in your organization? Look for those with a passion for excellence and the internal wherewithal to focus like a laser beam on a successful outcome. Even when they have other problems that must be managed, they will be tenacious and continually work on implementing change even while they do their normal business. They tend to be determined people, skilled in the culture of the organization and relentlessly focused on the success of a particular endeavor.

I like to think of myself as one of the movers and shakers where I work, but I am not sure I am there yet. For one thing, I have been with my current organization only four years, which means I am still an apprentice when it comes to working the institutional kudzu. I do not always have the 24×7 passion of the best movers and shakers. However, I have been successful in promoting some my ideas for major changes. I noticed that the more passionate I felt about an idea, the more likely it was to see be realized. It occurred sometimes to the chagrin of my chain of command. They resist in part because they feel overwhelmed with change and do not want to foster any more of it. Were I more socially adroit, I perhaps could have sold these changes with less friction. Nonetheless, my passion for them kept me motivated and eventually persuaded those who could effect change to agree with me.

These movers and shakers though rarely are rewarded commensurate with the skill and passion they bring to their jobs. Yet they are invaluable. Without them, the organization would either cease to exist or devolve toward inertia.

I feel like I have one foot in their domain and the other foot in the past. As I absorb their lessons, I have a goal for myself to assume the rank of a full-fledged mover and shaker too.

Some Observations on Management

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m coming up on my first year anniversary of being a manager. I’m figuratively still dipping my toes into the management waters. I’ve made more than a few stumbles, but I think I am at least beginning to understand a few things about what it really means to be a manager.

In many ways it is a very different sort of job. It is true that someone else manages every employee, even me. The president of the United States is still accountable to the people. Even the self-employed have to manage themselves (and their customers) or they starve. What’s really different being in the management role is that as a manager you set direction.

Maybe this is not all that surprising to you. I can just tell you that as a manager it feels surprising. Being a manager is in many ways like being a driver of a car. The car would just sit there inert if the driver did not start the ignition. While it may seem trivial that is the essence of management, but it is also its most crucial aspect: you get to turn the key. The system does not work at all if someone doesn’t turn the key.

But it’s not always a great thing to be someone who has to make decisions. If you are indecisive by nature then management is not for you. But if you are comfortable making decisions and (just as importantly) comfortable dealing with the consequences of your decisions then you may be management material.

I must confess the “turning the key” part of management is something I like. I’ve directed people in their work for many years. But they were always multitasked. They were not directly accountable to me. When push came to shove my projects often got short shrift. Someone else, usually a manager, had more clout than I did. Now at least some of the people who work for me are accountable to me and no one else. I provide direction on what needs to be done. But just as a driver does not tell the engine how to do its work I rarely tell my staff how things should be done. I assume they are competent in their field.

Just as it behooves a driver to check the oil and the tire pressure before taking off on a long drive, it behooves me as a manager to monitor my employees’ work. The key though is to monitor, not micromanage. If you notice your engine kicking up you don’t necessarily take it immediately to the mechanic. Maybe it will smooth itself out, or maybe you need to add a quart of oil. The same is true with management. You learn to respond cautiously to perceived problems. I have to figure out when the situation requires me to initiate some maintenance. And this becomes a judgment call. Often a can of oil solves the problem but if it doesn’t then it’s time to call the mechanic.

It would be pointless to suggest that no work would get done if management were not there. Prior to my hire work continued for a couple of years anyhow. My staff rotated through the management position as temporary details. The engine kept running because a lot of inertia was in place. What was missing though was vision. My team excelled on handling the tactical problems of the day. But they couldn’t implement a long-term strategy. Instead they operated like an airplane in a holding pattern.

I often wonder just what the heck I do all day. How do I add value? I do not modify a line of code. If the system goes down I can’t fix it. On the surface my days look pretty trivial. I read a lot of email, much of which is way too micro for me to read all the way through. I prepare briefings for management. I listen to employees and pass relevant information up the chain of command. I schmooze with customers and suppliers. I listen to employees who come in my door and want to rant. It doesn’t seem like these things should justify my inflated salary.

But I have come to understand that I am not there to punch a clock. My job is not to turn out so many widgets per day. My job is to make sure the team is oriented and moving in the direction that I largely set. So in some sense it really doesn’t matter whether I work four or twenty hours a day. There is not necessarily a correlation between effort and effectiveness. The driver does not always have his attention completely on driving either. Part of his mind is listening to the radio, or thinking about other problems, or wanting to boink the cute chick in the car next to him. It is important that he drives well and is mindful of other cars and obstacles around him. On a more complex level this is what a manager does. He tries to be very aware of the environment around him and move his team through the various obstacle courses called reality so that the work gets done.

And this, alas, is where I need more schooling. Being decisive and confident in my driving doesn’t necessarily mean that I have earned the trust of the drivers around me. In fact I bump into them regularly and they are not happy about it. But slowly I am leaving my trainee status behind and feeling like I have earned my operator’s license. I understand I can’t treat my customers quite the same way I treat other drivers. They are not peers. They are my customers. I spend more and more of my time listening to their concerns and figuring out ways to make them happy. I have to do this while keeping my team happy.

And that’s the biggest challenge of management. It often feels like being between a rock and a hard place. Customers always have more demands than can be fulfilled. They always want something bigger, better and faster and they want it yesterday. Employees want to do a good job and feel valued, but they also want to have a life. And work has to be done efficiently. Processes cannot always stop to satisfy the special request of the day. So a lot of management is learning to say no in ways that sound like you are actually saying yes, and smoothing out feelings among employees so that they system works with the maximum efficiency.

In some ways it sounds like a virtual job and not a real job. At its essence management is a people job. And it is a necessary job because whether we like to admit it or not we need management. (Or more precise, we need effective management.) A team runs for a while without leadership but eventually it peters out and stalls.

The effective driver is usually not just concerned with what is immediately in front of the car, but is also thinking about what is around the bend and miles down the road. To make that sharp curve he must have all the car’s components tuned just right. When he does the car slides around the curve smoothly. When he doesn’t the car runs off the road. It’s not so much the effort required to turn the steering wheel that makes an effective driver, but knowing how much to turn it, when to turn it and how carefully to apply the brakes.

For a manager though it’s like being driving with a hazy bandana in front of your eyes. So if you think about it making that curve is quite a feat. When done smoothly and professionally you have a very effective manager. I hope I will get there someday.

A Lesson in Leadership

The Thinker by Rodin

Management is a blessing and a curse. I’ve experienced a lot of the downside of management recently. Perhaps that is why it was such a pleasure to experience the upside this week.

To be fair I shouldn’t have much to complain about. My employees, geographically scattered though they may be, are all terrific. Each gives 150% or more of themselves than most employees, and all but one are civil servants. Most of the time I don’t need to direct them. If something needs doing they just take the initiative and do it. This week for example one of my employees volunteered to sift through a user requirement document, pick out the requirements that were meaningful to my team, work them into something we can use and organize them into a meaningful engineering specification. I didn’t even have a chance to ask if anyone wanted to do this grunt work. She just jumped in there with both feet.

I have another employee, a super geek type, who routinely goes way beyond the call of duty. His job is mostly investigating emerging technologies. I frequently find that he has visited the local Barnes & Noble and returned with some dense computer books on things like web services or current practices in software testing that he bought with his own money. But he digs into the not so interesting stuff too. He’s passionate about high technology but is still disciplined enough not to let the high tech stuff interfere with the routine work that has to get done. And all my employees are this way.

But still management often feels like navigating a minefield with a gauzy bandana tied over my eyes. I expect eventually I will step on fewer mines. But it has been a rough first nine months at times. I don’t feel all that great when I learn that I’ve inadvertently stepped on some toes in the organization. Nor do I like discovering I made a mistake by doing work traditionally done by others. And these are just but a few of the mistakes I have made. There were times when I wondered if I should have stayed working for Health and Human Services. I should take some comfort in knowing that many of these issues predate my arrival. Perceptions about my team, good and bad, formed years ago. It doesn’t help that we are geographically separated and rarely meet in person. Consequently inferences get made based on words heard over speakerphones or in snippets of email. There is no body language to read.

For whatever reason there have been long standing bad feelings between my team and another team. I didn’t quite understand the depth of the animosity until recently. I have been groping for a way forward. But this week when the team leader of the other team came to town I had an opportunity to sit down with her and work through some of these thorny communications issues. It was valuable face time. I learned the history of frustrations from her perspective. I went through some of the issues on my team that contributed to the problem. Simply airing the issues in a business-like manner was enormously helpful. We put a plan in place to get the key people together (via teleconference of course) and resolve these issues. It involves first acknowledging the problems of the past then putting them behind them once they have been vented. Then we hope to move rapidly forward because we have issues that need to be settled soon. Neither side can afford any more bad feelings. As a manager I have the duty to get past them so that we can do our work.

This was also the week that my user group came to town. The group had been formed twice before and had failed both times. All this preceded my arrival. In past groups there had been personality issues and presumptions of empowerment on issues that did not exist. For six months we had been working through tedious but necessary issues of creating a new group charter and getting executive sponsorship. Finally we got around to picking members for the group. Most had never met each other before and I only knew about half of them, and all superficially. I delegated most of that work to the chairman of the group. We spent weeks preparing for the meeting. We worked through agendas several times. The list of issues, many of which needed quick action, was very daunting. To hedge my bets I beat the organization looking for a professional facilitator and finally found one. My chairman and I met with her before the meeting and outlined our needs carefully. Would all this preplanning make a difference this time?

8:30 AM on Wednesday found us all meeting each other for the first time in a conference room. I had packets of material on the table prepared for them, and table tent tags with their names on them. But I had no idea if this combination of a dozen people would actually be able to work together. Would it become yet another toxic team experience? Was it the gods, the good preparation or just blind luck? For whatever reason we all quickly bonded with each other. When I suggested we all go out to dinner that night everyone enthusiastically agreed. I realized that I too was getting this management stuff. Social engineering had become an important part of my job. If I couldn’t relate to these people as people then I figured our team was doomed. Over dinner at an Italian restaurant we relaxed, joked, traded our life stories and basically discovered we enjoyed each other’s company. I had no more worries about my new team. We had jelled. One guy even came over and put his arm around my neck. I was both surprised and flattered.

But could we get through our daunting agenda? Fortunately our facilitator Cheryl was with us every step of the way. It turned out she didn’t have to do that much facilitating, but she let us know when we were getting long winded. I had no one to take notes so I tried to take them myself. This was hard to do when I was doing a lot of the speaking. Cheryl took up the slack. She captured ideas on large pieces of paper that were being continually stuck and restuck to the walls of our conference room. In the evenings she assembled formal notes of the day’s events in electronic form. I was free to do what I needed to do: engage in conversation and lead the team where it needed to go.

Having a terrific facilitator was such a blessing. We had focus, we had organization, and we were liberated to do what we did best. I kept a close watch on the clock and made sure we were meeting our expected outcomes for each segment of the meeting. I led many of the discussions. When I made suggestions they were largely listened to seriously. But it is hard or impossible to effectively lead if the elements are not in place. But this time they were. With our excellent facilitator Cheryl, careful preparation, a good bunch of people and everyone’s commitment to excellence we ended our meeting today on time and with our goals accomplished. We formed the sub-teams we needed, set out agendas for future meetings, made some tentative decisions and worked through thorny issues of how we would work together in the future.

I figure this is about as good as it gets in the leadership business. The days were long, but the people were fun to be with. It was terrific to feel so organized, empowered and to lead a team in the direction I wanted them to go. And I know I led the team because they followed me with great enthusiasm and with a genuine sense of commitment.

I felt pumped and energized. From out of nothing we created something very important to our little universe. I don’t think this team will fail like the other teams have. We will move forward with confident strides and with genuine respect for each other.

It’s Not the Scorecard, It’s the Mission

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been at my new employer (the U.S. Geological Survey) about a month now. Last week I was surprised to get in the mail a survey from my old federal agency asking for a candid assessment of why I left.

There were a lot of reasons why I left. The primary reason I left remains the same: the new job is 3 miles from my house, old job was 25 miles from my house. But the timesavings weren’t the only reason I left. I also left in part because the guy who sent me the survey really pissed me off. But it wasn’t until I filled out the exit survey and sent it back to him that I was able to fully articulate my feelings.

It was pissed because this “brilliant” guy in the Senior Executive Service had confused a scorecard with actual success.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe you were watching the former White House terrorism czar, Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes Sunday night. He was upset because he tried diligently to get the attention of the latest Bush Administration to the threat of al Qaeda and was largely ignored. There were bigger fish for the Bush Administration to fry in those sweet pre 9/11 days, like missile defense spending for a bogus threat from rogue nations and tax cuts for the rich.

But no matter. Bush must have remembered one lesson at Yale when he was working on that MBA. It must have been the lecture on metrics. Measure progress by keeping metrics. We saw it after we invaded Iraq. Bush has this obsession to get the whole top Iraqi leadership, the “Deck of Cards”. According to Clarke, Bush would check them off one by one. By golly, as soon as he got all of them problem over! Cross Iraq off the list of national security problems! (It was never one to begin with, but that’s another story.)

Events in Iraq proved that this approach was painfully naive. But it’s not surprising, because Bush came into office and put in place the President’s Management Agenda (PMA). In principle the goals seem sound: get results and don’t make empty promises. But the PMA’s modus operandi is interesting. They include such dubious approaches as “competitive sourcing” (i.e. replace federal employees with contractors) and “faith-based and community initiatives”. I guess it does take a lot of faith to buy into both of these dubious notions.

Naturally federal agencies are bending themselves over backwards to show they are becoming leaner, efficient and results oriented. Their scorecard is the PMA. My last agency was no different. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration was hired because he had a reputation of being a no-nonsense, results oriented guy.

And I have to report our scorecard looked great. Throughout the government agencies are competing hard to show they are making a “clean sweep”, changing old practices and putting in these great new practices (like competitive sourcing) that Republicans believe will make the government more responsive. Outside the wall of his office my SESer had hung a broom spray painted green with the words “Clean Sweep” embossed on the stick in gold letters. Next to it was an enlarged chart showing the key points in the President’s Management Agenda and how ACF was doing. Our metrics were great! We were getting all greens! We were doing so well our SESer was favorably written up in Government Executive magazine.

Yup, I expect he will get an outstanding performance rating this year, and even a bonus.

Too bad it is all spinning wheels.

It’s all bullshit.

He wouldn’t agree of course. The Bush Administration wouldn’t agree either. But it’s bullshit. The reason it’s BS is because it is all window dressing. It hasn’t made my old agency any more effective or efficient. Far from it. The outsourcing, for example, has left the staff shell-shocked and demoralized. Cutting so many managers from the hierarchy may have looked good on paper, but it disconnected employees from their managers. In effect managers didn’t have the time to proactively manage. Instead they were spending their time heeding instructions from those above them and making motions like they were getting things done, but having little idea what their own people were doing. Here’s a clue: it wasn’t always that way. But in buying into this management philosophy no one bothered to figure out if the philosophy could really work in a government culture.

Management today is like sending a novice to a computer certification boot camp. Put someone with half a brain in a room for 12 hours a day, make them cram for a test every night, teach them exactly what they need to know to pass the test and watch them ace it. Then watch them take their certificate to an employer and try to solve a real problem. Then watch them fail. Knowing how to follow the business ideology of the moment doesn’t qualify you to solve real world problems. Intimately understanding the problem domain and effectively working in that domain solves the problems.

As I said in my critique, it’s not how well you score on the President’s Management Agenda that counts, Mr. SES. It’s how effectively you and your staff do the agency’s mission that matters. If you cut expenses by 20% but productivity is down 50% you are not effectively managing. If you take the domain knowledge of a highly talented and dedicated staff of federal employees and give the task to some contractors who are out the door in a year or two, you are not effectively managing. If your agency gives more money to faith based organizations and they cannot show good or better results with the money than a nonsectarian organization, you are not effectively managing.

At USGS we live in a bit of a time warp. Not that we aren’t also subjected to the PMA and similar nonsense. But we are a scientist-heavy organization where federal employees are plentiful and contractors are still largely on the sidelines. With the exception of one person every member of my team is a federal employee.

I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I am with my new team. These people are engaged. They are on the ball. Work is not a chore to them. Work is fun and more importantly work is meaningful. Go look at our NWISWeb system. Get real time information on stream flow, water quality and ground water information for your site, county, state or the whole darn country.

Contractors from SRA with impressive credentials and $200 an hour billing rates didn’t put this together. Ordinary federal scientists and engineers who were trusted and empowered by their managers put this together. These employees had a vision back in 1995: to put the vast National Water Information System data onto the web for the world to see and use. Management said “Go for it. We trust you.” Guess what? They did it. The system was an instant success. Today our hit rates are phenomenal. School districts open or close based on the quality and accuracy of the real time information we provide.

I got an email today from our office in Puerto Rico saying that Caribbean countries depend on the timeliness and accuracy of our data so they can make accurate predictions of their own. Our information not only tells fisherman when might be a good day to catch some trout, but it saves lives.

This administration doesn’t get it but maybe the next one will. But here’s an idea: try truly empowering your federal workforce. Instead of nickel and dime-ing them to death and constantly frightening them with the grim reaper of outsourcing tell them you trust them and have confidence in their ability. You will have in place a workforce that will not only do the people’s business but also do it brilliantly.

Maybe results oriented government isn’t so hard after all.

Boxed in by my computer

The Thinker by Rodin

My office came together this week. On Tuesday I had it repainted and on Thursday I had the furniture people come in. They removed the 70s furniture and assembled modular furniture. I can now sit at my desk without my thighs touching the bottom of my desk drawer. I don’t have to elevate my arms to use the computer keyboard. All this is good and I appreciate the improved ergonomics. Clearly the computer is the means by which most of my work is accomplished so I have to be comfortable. I’m fortunate to have a boss more than willing to outlay a couple grand to make sure I can be productive. This would have never happened in my old agency.

But for someone whose job it is to be a web chief I find that in many ways a computer is a seriously inadequate tool for doing my work. Despite 25 years or so trying to perfect the personal computer using it is still a tedious, difficult and frequently frustrating means for accomplishing my work.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than with my computer monitor. I have a 17-inch monitor, which is standard these days. But it’s not nearly enough space. What I really need is for one whole wall of my office to be a gigantic computer monitor with 600 dots per inch resolution. That’s because like most people in the management business I multitask a lot. I have way more things on my plate that I have to manage than can fit on a 17-inch monitor or can be managed using an Outlook Task list. I can, of course, ALT-TAB to numerous other screens to get the same information. But what I need is a big picture of all my work and literally hundreds of tasks I must coordinate. And I can’t get that from a computer.

So instead I’m ordering the biggest whiteboard I can find and having that installed on one wall instead. It’s low tech, but it works. People can come into my office and we can discuss things and we can doodle on the white board until we come to a common understanding. But even this is not quite sufficient. And that is because my team is geographically disbursed. I have three employees working for me in Reston, but I have two other full time employees working out west (Montana and Alaska), and a number of part time employees scattered across the continental United States. It’s not often that I will be able to get them into my office. So instead they fly into Reston a couple times a year where we work from large whiteboards with periodic forays to our networked PCs.

It’s not that industry is not trying to respond. We’re a Lotus Notes shop (not a good thing) and part of the Notes suite is this Sametime collaborative software. It lets us have a virtual workspace. It includes a whiteboard and a chat window. We can display PowerPoint slides to each other in real time. I can also share a program and they can see what I am typing into an application. It’s a pretty cool technology and a step in the right direction.

But what I really have to do is manage a lot of disparate ad-hoc requests from all sorts of people. Right now I simply write them down on a piece of paper and cross things out as I do them, but I am reaching the point after four weeks on the job where it’s not enough. Hence I need a white board. I need one huge mother of a white board. I need to scribble my tasks on the white board, erase them, rearrange them, prioritize them and basically see things from a high level macro and a detailed perspective at the same time. I can’t do that on a 17-inch monitor, at least not very easily. I need to be able to glance from one set of tasks to another set of tasks and see the relationships between them. I can’t do that with current computer technology either. And most likely I’ll be retired before that happens.

In Neal Stephenson’s novel “The Diamond Age” he talks about electronic billboards that are floor to ceiling. You can see them emerge today in places like Times Square, but these are still very primitive and lack the resolution I need. In the 2002 movie “Minority Report” actor Tom Cruise plays detective John Anderton who interacts with a computer by standing up and stretching his hands out into space. This is more like what I have in mind. But even this is not ideal. It still requires a lot of physical movement that is time consuming.

Instead I have to live with what the current technology permits. It increasingly feels constraining. While I am not a big fan of Windows technology at least it is reasonably consistent. That’s why it drives me nuts when I have to use a product like Lotus Notes that completely ignores Windows graphical user interface design principles. Something as simple as selecting a block of messages using Shift-Click then pressing a Trash Can icon doesn’t exist. I average at least 200 emails per day. But right now I have to manually delete each message. (Naturally the messages aren’t deleted immediately. They are marked for deletion. If you actually want to get rid of them you have to hit the refresh button (F9) and say “Yes” to a message asking you if you really want to delete them. More of my time is needlessly wasted by a bunch of designers who never envisioned how I would have to use their product.)

And that’s just Lotus Notes. Every software package has its own peculiar and annoying quirks. The Lotus Notes Sametime program, for example, does not start automatically when I start Notes, even after I configure it to do just that. I have to remember to turn it on after I start Lotus Notes. Computer viruses and new security mandates have made it impossible for me to shut down my workstation, or even install a new software package without someone from the help desk coming to my machine. At home my new and improved Quicken software keeps asking me every time I start it if I want to learn more about their bill-paying feature. I never do and tell it to remember this fact. But it never learns. I took the time to talk to their technical support people who shrug their shoulders and say it will be fixed in a future release. Meanwhile: deal with it. My antispam software (ChoiceMail) occasionally sends me duplicates of the same email. Pretty much every program I own, no matter how much I like it, has annoying quirks. They have the effect of continually interrupting my concentration. Instead of focusing on a larger task, I am down in the computer weeds trying to make my software behave like a human would want it to.

Increasingly the whole Windows graphical user interface feels annoying. Why does it have to be so hierarchical? I can understand the logic of putting programs in a Programs folder and my data and settings in a Documents folder but I so often find myself drilling up and down folders to where I want to. Why is it so stupid? With hard drives holding ten gigabytes or more routinely these days, does an old fashioned hierarchical folder based system make any sense at all?

A computer should be like a screwdriver. Using it should be instinctive. I am grateful that my Windows 2000 operating system at least doesn’t crash on my several times day like Windows ME did. But you shouldn’t have to be your own software mechanic to continue to use a PC. Security should just work. Viruses should be automatically detected and squashed. Hardware firewalls should be built into a card on the back of the PC. Software upgrades should be tested by a certification service and installed automatically. I shouldn’t have to know what file extension things are stored in. I shouldn’t have to traverse folders or have the computer spend minutes using a Find function to locate a file. I should give the computer itself no more thought than I give my car’s dashboard. When I am driving I never think, “Gosh, I should press the accelerator” or “Maybe I should press the brake to avoid crashing into the car ahead of me”. My computer should let me manipulate it instinctively.

Clearly we have a very long way to go. Meanwhile, I will have my old fashioned whiteboard. I will continually erase it manually and rewrite it. It will require me to periodically buy new dry erase markers from the supply store. But I will be able to at least track my work, prioritize it in a way that makes sense to me, and meet my deadlines. I doubt many of us can truly do that with our computers alone.

Management: A Blessing and a Curse

The Thinker by Rodin

For 47 years I’ve avoided management. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it undoubtedly came from emulating my Dad. He was an electrical engineer and stayed an electrical engineer for his nearly forty-year career. Occasionally he was nudged toward the management track but he always said “no thanks”. Maybe he was a geek at heart. Maybe he just wasn’t a people person. Maybe he had enough stress at home with eight of us rugrats running around and didn’t need the ulcers of management too. I think he wasn’t all that ambitious about advancing his career. He was satisfied with a modest life and didn’t think it would be improved with a fancier house and twice the income. But mainly I think he knew his own weaknesses and limitations. Motivating groups of coworkers simply wasn’t something he believed he could do well. He was true to himself.

As an employee I’ve been watching managers for a long time. It didn’t take long for me to agree with my father’s observations. Having someone else responsible for deadlines was pretty comforting, but mainly management didn’t look like much fun. I’ve run across very few managers who were actually good at managing. To me an effective manager has to be proactive. But managers I knew were continually reacting. Their boss above them was forever giving them grief. So they spent their days running around hassling their employees. Often it was to meet an arbitrary deadline or vindicate some higher up’s biases. The results were usually not very pretty. Employees sensed it was all BS and as a result were rarely motivated. Rather these continual events turned them into cynics.

It’s a shame there are so few good managers in the world. But because demand for managers seems to continually exceed the supply, the management ranks seem to be populated by the ineffectual. Often those who become managers don’t become one because they want to manager. Rather they want the extra money, or the prestige, or they want to be able to pay for the kid’s braces.

Until two weeks ago I avoided the dread title of “supervisor”. But for years I’ve been a project manager. Ironically I was not hired in my last job to be a project manager. I was hired as a technical expert for an organization that needed someone who really understood information technology. It seemed a good fit. But after a year or so I realized I had been hoodwinked. We are all project managers. We spent our days trying to get others (mostly contractors) to do our bidding. It would have been well and good except, of course, our contractors too were multitasked. Some other project manager’s tasks often trounced your particular needs for someone’s talents. As you might expect the results were schedules that often slipped. After a while I stopped feeling guilty about it. After a much longer time I also realized I didn’t care too much whether my projects got done or not. After all if my supervisors couldn’t care enough about my projects to give them the priority I thought was necessary, why should I?

But it seemed better to be a project manager than to be a supervisor or one of our quasi-supervisors called “team leaders”. The poor things were constantly being hassled. Their days seemed to be spent shuffling from one pointless meeting to another. It seemed like a kind of creeping death to spend one’s professional life moving in a suit from one conference room to another. Give me my desk. At least I could surf the web if I could not get motivated.

After six years of project management though I realized that there was a serious problem with project management in my organization. I had responsibility but I had no real authority. I was cruising through life instead of grasping it by the shoulders and shaking it.

I did though have one project early in the tenure of my last job that was different. I had a team of about half a dozen people. They were all mine. I could direct their work and things would move because we had deadlines to meet. It also helped that in addition to being the project manager I was also the system engineer for the project. I did a fair amount of the programming too. That project was such a kick. Unfortunately after a year it was gone. And I was back to managing lots of little projects with cross-matrixed employees.

At my new job I am a real supervisor. I delegate work, approve leave, assess performance and try to meet fairly well defined goals. But I am still worried about whether this is something I will be able to handle in the long term. I work in information technology. Perhaps you remember what Bill Gates said about programmers: “Managing programmers is like herding cats.” Truer words were never spoken. Just two weeks into the new job I can see that I’ve got a lot of cats working for me. I have crusty UNIX curmudgeons. I have people who love to write Perl programming hacks, but one guy who just can’t get Perl and will only write in Python. I have others who are transfixed with the Java programming language and want to start creating SOAP-oriented web services. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to know what this means.)

Now overall it appears to be a great team. They’ve been running a real time mission critical government web site for years now. Despite being geographically separated between four time zones they have shown a high degree of organization and innovation. Since most of my team is geographically located hundreds or thousands of miles away, we do biweekly telephone conference calls. Minutes get updated in real time by refreshing a web page. I sometimes wonder why they need a supervisor at all.

But because I am their supervisor I hold power over them. Some seem to lay out their all cards. Others keep them close to their chest. Ah, the people problem. I have to figure out a system more complex than the hundreds of thousands of lines of code they maintain. I have to figure out the social network, the eccentricities of each of my employees, their turn-ons, their turn-offs, figure out if they are being productive or just slacking off.

My supervision is complicated by the fact that we are renting more than half of my team. For these folks I am not really their supervisor, but we do buy their time. And I can’t look over their shoulder when they are thousands of miles and many time zones away. It’s hard to measure productivity. Lines of code are not a good metric when most of their work is user support and chasing obscure bugs. Many of them are civil servants and thus impossible to fire unless they engage in incredibly egregious behavior. How does one manage effectively in such an environment? Or is it in the end really an exercise in futility?

Keep reading my blog to find out. Right now I am not making any significant decisions but using a lot of my time learning and observing. I spend my time sniffing around the edges of people. Those I can meet with personally I sit down with. I watch what they do. I ask their opinions about things. I don’t want to stomp on anyone if I can avoid it, but I don’t want to be perceived as weak or wishy-washy either. I think I want to lead by consensus but that takes time and I like to do bold endeavors when I can.

Nor am I completely confident that I am cut out for the management track. But for now at least I’d rather feel empowered. In the process I might be perceived as yet another pointy haired boss. I would prefer to be thought of with some regard and respect. But I know the fact that I wield power is bound to cause a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety.

One irony of all this is that I am taking on all this extra responsibility for no increase in salary. I retain the same grade I had in my last agency. This new job was not just about shrinking a 25-mile commute to a 3-mile commute. It is also about me being excited about my work again. And if that means I have to supervise others then so be it. Meanwhile I will count my blessings. I appear to have a well-motivated staff and a boss who wants to empower me then let me go. If I am going to do this management gig the conditions could hardly be more favorable.

Thrown into the deep end of the job pool

The Thinker by Rodin

Monday I began my new job at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. It’s been a very fast first week for me. I moved from a lackluster GS-14 job with the Administration for Children and Families, which is headquartered near L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. ACF is an agency where even “casual Friday” meant dressing up like the rest of the week (but it was okay to leave off the tie). I always wore dress pants, dress shoes, a nice shirt and tie working at ACF. I kept a sport coat in my cube for those times when I needed it. One of our contractors required their women to wear dresses and hose. We called their men the “Men in Black” from their dreary utterly black business suits, white shirts and dark ties.

In retrospect ACF was a very dressy government place. At USGS though every day is business casual. My boss, a GS-15, shows up in cords, sandals and an earth mother shirt. Everyone knew I was new because for the first couple days I wore a shirt, tie, my best dress pants, patent leather shoes and my sport coat. In other words I was a fish out of water. It wasn’t until yesterday that my boss told me I could dress down. This will be a big change. I might need a whole new wardrobe –I don’t have enough business casual clothes to get through a workweek!

In this respect the USGS seems a much more relaxed sort of place. But the underlying tensions seem to be pretty much the same as I’ve encountered elsewhere in Club Fed. My new job is three miles from home but my pay is the same. However my responsibilities are much greater than those I had at ACF. I don’t know whether if at ACF we suffered from civil service grade inflation or whether USGS suffers from grade deflation. Being a GS-14 at ACF was no big thing. It’s a big thing at USGS. For one thing, I get an office. But not just an office: an office with a view. And a door that locks. My boss says I can have my office repainted if I want. The furniture in it is rather 70ish and was not meant for personal computers, so she is encouraging me to purchase some computer furniture. This is quite a contrast from ACF where we lived lives of cubicle gypsies. In my last two years I had relocated three times. Sometimes at ACF your cubicle was near a window, and while it was almost always larger than those given to contractors it was nothing special. I feel a bit spoiled at USGS.

Heck I feel catered to. I arrived in my new office to find my name already on the door and the help desk configuring my computer. My speakerphone arrived shortly thereafter. Next was the lady to help me configure my voice mail. Everyone is pleasant and low key. When I looked out my fifth floor window with a southwest exposure it seemed if I could extend my hands far enough out the windows they would touch the Shenandoah Mountains.

But make no mistake: this job demands a lot more responsibility. I am now officially a supervisor and what a strange team I lead. I have two employees who work locally, but also one in Montana, one in Alaska and a number of half time employees working for me in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Oregon. Since Alaska is 4 time zones away we have biweekly conference calls starting at 2 PM. This helps a lot, but a couple times a year the team must get together face-to-face, and that means agreeing on a city to meet. And as boss I guess I can pick the city. My boss said I could basically travel anywhere I need to pretty much anytime I wanted. I am sure our travel budget is not unlimited but it’s a weird and empowering feeling.

It’s also a strange feeling being a supervisor. There is a deference that comes from your employees by default when you hold power over them. It’s hard to tell sometimes when they are being sincere and when they are sucking up. And yet my boss doesn’t seem the least bit like my supervisor. She makes working there feel more like a social club and gossip hall. And if there is no time during work hours to gossip there is lunch hour club (in which I am already a charter member). I won’t be reading the paper much during lunch anymore; it has become that part of my job that seems to involve necessary social networking.

My commuting almost doesn’t exist. My 60-75 minutes commutes in each direction now are 10-15 minutes in rush hour. I haven’t parked at work in more than a dozen years. I’ve forgotten how cold it can be to walk into the office at 7 AM from a distant parking lot. But this is about the only part of my new job that is a detraction. The USGS campus is gorgeous, still looks modern (for being 30 years old) and is surrounded by woods. It is arguably the prettiest federal campus in the nation. Perhaps I am in federal worker paradise. The National Science Foundation has prettier workspace but their space is leased. At USGS in Reston we inhabit real federal office buildings.

Starting any job is at first a little like being thrown into the deep end of a very cold pool. You wonder if you will sink or swim. If you start swimming you wonder how long you can keep going. And it’s been that sort of week. It felt overwhelming at times because the data dump came fast and furious. It was difficult for me to associate names with faces and roles. At the same time I had to learn a new information system and come up on all the jargon and acronyms that were tossed around so freely. But by the end of the week I was not just swimming, I was doing a great backstroke. Thanks in part to my boss who gave me the things I needed to read in the order I needed to read them, and who made herself freely available to answer questions I feel, if not up to speed, at least a good part of the way there.

My job is to be the chief of the National Internet Data Systems Unit. Basically we are the folks that provide the real time water information for the USGS web site. If you have a hankering to know the number of thousands of cubic feet of water moving across a local stream per second we likely have the latest real time data and can serve it up to you in a variety of formats from the convenience of your web browser. (Surprisingly this is a lot of people; you should see our web site statistics!) I am blessed with a talented staff, half programmers, half hydrologists who can aggregate and format vast volumes of real time satellite fed data into something for public consumption. It’s an amazing feat of engineering that inspires something like awe in me. It’s an honor and a bit humbling to be selected as the person who has responsibility for this system.

It is a challenge but one I needed. This job also feels very much like a gift. It feels like the gods decided to smile on me and fulfill my heart’s desire. I hope I continue to feel this way. I sometimes feel a little overwhelmed and scared, but mostly I feel energized and excited by the job. I hope I can continue to feel this way when the inevitable plain of disillusionment sets in. I hope I have the wisdom to make sound choices. I hope I can demonstrate people skills I sometimes have lacked in the past. I hope I live up to the trust that others have placed in me. I believe I will.

The Rest of the Story

The Thinker by Rodin

I try to keep this web log focused on my what I hope are interesting and perhaps even profound observations. I try not to put in it all the trivialities of life that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. But I thought maybe for a change I should fill in some of the gaps so you know just what it is I DO during the days and why this web log stays blank for days at a time.

I’ve been especially busy this week, although I did manage to take yesterday off as a day of much needed leave. But even on my day of leave I was busy keeping doctor’s appointments, shuffling my daughter to summer school, buying bulk items at the superstore and picking her up at a remote friend’s houses. I just didn’t have as many distractions, and for that I felt blessed.

My workdays start at 5:20 a.m. when the alarm clock goes off. I dress in the dark while my wife snoozes, eat a hurried breakfast and I am out the door by 5:53. I need to be at the Reston South Park and Ride commuter lot by 6 AM to catch a vanpool that takes me to work. We sail down the Dulles Toll Road and with luck and the wind at our back I am in my office at 6:45 AM.

This week though I had to relocate to a new office. We were abruptly moved to another building in February 2002 and since then we’ve been gypsies. For three months due to lack of space I shared office space with another guy. When a small office (no door) opened up I pressed my case and with some politicking I was able to inhabit it as long as the lady whose office it was (she was on a long term detail) wasn’t inhabiting it. It was a neat little office: I had a commanding view of the National Archives. I’m unlikely ever to get a better view in the remainder of my career.

But the lady is moving back and I had to relocate. The division that I work is currently scattered over three floors. Once upon a time we were all together in one place – imagine that! We were promised that we would be brought back together again, but strings of promises went unfulfilled. Now I hear that in about three months we’ll be consolidated back in the same area I just vacated.

But I elected to move upstairs to a nice cube along a window that had been long vacated and it seemed I had all the permissions. So Tuesday morning I moved up there only to discover someone else had plans for that cube. So I was shuffled to another larger area, with no window, that is pretty nice. But I also know it will be a transient place.

But if that weren’t enough no sooner had I moved into THAT space when I learned that my move was causing inter office political ripples of some sort. My boss wanted to know if I wanted to move back down to the sixth floor: several offices were vacant. I asked: if we’re moving back there permanently pretty soon would this be my permanent space? Well, no. So I opted to stay where I am and I’m still not even sure this space is semi permanent. But at least I am with my own kind. Room 702 is full of IT (Information Technology) folk. And knowing the way things work in our agency I could be where I am now for years so I might well be in my new permanent space, I just don’t know it yet. Clearly space management is not one of our organization’s strong suits.

As a project manager I shuffle a lot of projects. With a recent degree in Software Systems Engineering it would be nice if I did some of it. But no, my main task at the moment is honchoing an IT opportunity fair for the Department of Health and Human Services. So about 70% of my otherwise busy day is clogged with that: questions from vendors, watching our appointment and registration systems book up, attending meetings, holding conference calls and basically just trying to get other people to do things in a timely basis. What I really do is manage chaos (yes, I know that is an oxymoron but it fits). Ideally I like to get some exercise time during my lunch. But there was no chance for that on either Monday or Tuesday. And no chance to do it at home either.

Meanwhile, other projects are coming due. A long overdue assessment of some enterprise reporting solutions needs to come to a conclusion. So I spend time meeting with the testers and going over issues, pros and cons, and working on PowerPoint slides for my presentation on Monday. While trying to do that email streams in and the phone (once it was reconnected on Wednesday) starts ringing often. Usually phone calls are from vendors with questions about the IT Opportunity Fair. I am the casualty of the moment of the profit motive. As the new outreach coordinator (a position to which I did not aspire) every vendor smelling profits wants to talk with me. I really wish I wasn’t paid to talk to them because I got other crap to do which seems a lot more pressing.

In short there is almost no time for a respite. It’s go from the moment I get in to the moment I leave. And every day I have to sit and judge what I’m working on. What is really important today and what can I safely slack off on? I decided this week I can slack off on finishing the quotes I need to renew some service and support contracts. But that will hit the fan soon too.

The van comes by and picks me up about 4:30 p.m. I am usually home about 5:30. (And on Thursday I was drafted to drive the van; that meant long walks to and from the Department of Agriculture, where the van resides during the day.) But no rest for the weary for this parent. It’s usually something. One night it was take Rosie to see a doctor. The other night it was take her to church (both directions) where she is participating in a play. This usually means I grab a quick dinner by myself after I get home.

So when there is free time it is an hour or so in the evening to catch my breath. You’ll forgive me if I am not up to blogging; at that point I just need to veg a little.

Now I hope I don’t sound like I am whining. I am paid very good money and my days may be long but I have a good job and I tend to work pretty close to 40-hour weeks (although add on commutes and it is more like 60 hour weeks). I have time to attend to both my daughter and my wife and I’m grateful for this too.

Still, as busy as these weeks get sometimes, there is something about the awful franticness of it that invigorates me. I got home from work on Thursday close to exhausted but exhilarated in some sense. I wonder if a juggler gets the same thill when thrown one more ball and still managing to keep them all in the air. It is better to feel exhilarated I guess, than annoyed. Much of this sort of work is boring but if it comes fast enough I don’t have time to notice it.

So I’m recharging this weekend, or trying to. I will leave shortly to go running, but I have already spent close to two hours taking my daughter to the orthodontist and now she is at church again practicing for the play.

And that, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story.