Ir’s Monday, June 20, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. This June we’ve had about twice as much the average rainfall and it’s nowhere near as hot as it was last year, when temperatures hit the high 110s, or over 43.3c. It’s going to get hot this weekend, though.
Yesterday was Juneteenth1, so today is a Federal holiday, and also a day in which Google has superimposed an animated ticker-tape parade over search results, which is better than nothing and yet also not enough. Actually, just typing that makes me think of an entirely cheesy phrase: a step is not the destination, which is something I would stick on a yard sign next to IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE. It’s not that I think the sentiment is wrong (it’s not), it’s just the overwhelming resignation about how discourse happens in this country.
I got an email the other day from American Express offering an “upgrade” to the Limited Edition Delta SkyMiles Reserve Business Card, a card that has the exclusive privilege of you paying $750/year to use it.
The thing about this card, though, is that it’s
the only Card design made with metal from an iconic Delta 747*
where the asterisk disclaimer reads
The Limited Edition Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business Card Boeing 747 design is made with 25% metal from a retired Delta Boeing 747 aircraft.
which okay, fine, that might be a more specific way of saying “recycled aircraft-grade aluminium” (Boeing 7478s are made mostly of aluminium (81%), and then steel (13%), titanium (4%), composites (1%) and “other”2)
This is all very well and good but I am afraid I’m not that interested because I don’t have that much of an attachment to the Boeing 747 as a charismatic megastructure. There’s a few things that caught my attention about this, namely the increasing (and desperate feeling) efforts at differentiation in financial instruments such as credit cards.
After the Points War and the Concierge War came the Exclusive Color War (i.e. Black) and the Material War (i.e. titanium).
The material war has now escalated past type of material into provenance of material, which is to say the Overton Window of What Your Credit Cards has been jimmied open (presumably, using a credit card) to allow the possibility of credit card materials of other provenance. May I humbly suggest credit cards made of:
It’s left as an exercise to the reader to come up with more possibilities.
Last episode, I wrote about how you can’t make people decide to do something, but what you can do is make it easier for people to decide what to do.
So. You’re in a situation where your job is to Do Things Differently, where Differently is implied to also be Better. The problem is, nobody actually reports to you, which means you can’t make people do things differently.
The thing is, even if people did report to you, you can’t really make people do what you want to do either. If you are a parent, you will understand how this works, for example see situations like: please put on your shoes, or could you not just brush your teeth, or I need you to eat these vegetables otherwise you will wither away and die and I will feel horrible.
First, pick your battles.
Second, this is where some people might start using the word alignment which is all very well and good (sure, let’s all be pointing in the same direction toward the same goal), but how are you supposed to do that? You are supposed to influence, and yet you have no authority so, what, are you supposed to nudge people? Who don’t want to be nudged? That sounds like a pretty difficult and frustrating job. One thing you could do is to talk to the team at Wherewithall and do a workshop or get some coaching.
Over the past twenty-odd years, I’ve found that alignment in practice means spending a lot of time talking to people to find out what it is they think they’re supposed to be achieving and why, right from the bottom all the way to LEO, which I’ve just decided actually means low-executive orbit, or even SSO, which isn’t single sign-on, but instead silo-stationary orbit, if we’re going to flog the orbital mechanics metaphor to death.
You can do all that though, which is to say if you have the time to go on some sort of listening tour, as if you’re signaling that you’re going to throw your hat into the ring as a presidential candidate in the U.S., but what you’re going to have to also do is to repeat back what it is people want to do, and also repeat back why it is that they want to do that. Because you are not just trying to discover alignment, but you must create some, so that you (and all the dependencies involved in you achieving your work) can actually get things done and achieve whatever your goal is.
If you want to do start building alignment, you’re going to figure out if you’re in an environment where you’re able to do at least a little bit of truth-telling. Nothing you’re going to say is going to be untrue. But the reaction to what you’re going to say may be predominantly on the dismay/dislike/active denial end of the spectrum of reception.
You may not be somewhere you can do this safely: you may be in an abusive work environment, you may be systemically dismissed and unheard, in which case I’m afraid this advice isn’t going to quite work for you. You have different issues, and one of the ways of resolving them may involve leaving. That’s outside the scope of today’s episode.
Truth-telling looks a bit like this:
You’ll do some homework. You’ll read what your organization has to say about itself, both internally (like reading your OKRs, or other goal-setting exercises) and externally. You’ll read the external stuff because you want to keep it in your back pocket: what’s publicly said are promises and positions that your organization likes to present, sort of its best-self. How it wants to be perceived. People – usually but not always leadership – will not want to disagree with these things.
What you’ll discover is that much of this internal documentation and writing and presentations and PowerPoints are, more or less, meaningless. They are meaningless because they’re abstract (they will end up saying things like “improve” or “more efficient”), and you’ll know they’re abstract because it will be difficult to figure out how they apply to specific things that your organization does, or specific outputs. In other words, they may be difficult to measure or verify. Is it easy for you to check whether an objective has been achieved? Does it say the equivalent of “be more efficient”? Do you know why more efficiency is required? How much is enough, or how much is too much? If an objective ends up saying something like “implement modern practices”, then which ones, and why, and to what end?
The thing is, everyone involved in setting these goals is a smart person (let’s just assume and give the benefit of the doubt, yes?), and everyone will also likely know that these goals should also be SMART, that is, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
Coming up with SMART goals is hard. It is so hard that you would be forgiven for giving up in a large, many-person environment. It requires lots of negotiation, lots of contextual understanding and lots of alignment, otherwise people will just give up, by which I mean the phenomenon where a meeting or presentation happens and there are clearly people who do not understand, or disagree, and yet nobody says anything, for a variety of reasons3.
The obvious thing to say here is: well, if you don’t know and you’re not encouraged to ask why, then you’re just going to not know for longer. It’s easy for me to sit here and say: “well, try asking”, and you know your work environment more than I do, clearly. I would say that every single time, my experience has been that once someone has asked or brought something up, it is so stupendously easier for the next person to, and so on. In other words, it just takes one person to go first, and then it’s more likely (but not at all a sure thing) to turn into a slowly-and-then-all-at-once situation.
You need to be able to have a level of openness in conversations about what these goals mean, why they exist, and how you’ll know when they’ve been achieved. There are ways you can make that conversation safer.
Sympathy is a good technique, by agreeing that the goals are unclear, by agreeing that you collectively had not had much training in actually coming up with more useful goals, that you have heard that other people also have had trouble understanding what they mean in practice.
I said you wouldn’t be lying. That example above, I know I said it was a technique, which might sound like it is manipulative, but remember: what you’re saying is true. You may not like it, and yes, you are using it as a method to achieve what you want, but unless what you want is to, I don’t know, kill a bunch of people, or consciously perpetrate in systemic and institutional sexism, racism and so on, then I wouldn’t be overly worried about it. You are creating alignment.
Sympathy works because it is creating alignment. You are kind of outing yourself (by saying true statements that are otherwise unhidden) and making the bet that the people you’re talking to have a reasonable likelihood of also feeling the same way.
I say sympathy because that’s more specific than empathy. Empathy is just being able to take another person’s situation into account, sympathy and compassion are ways of acting. You could (if it’s true for you) also say something like:
sigh, I am supposed to be creating alignment so I can work on my goals, but you know the whole deal with corporate bullshit, what does alignment mean, even?!
And then you can both laugh about corporate bullshit, which is good, because you both know you’ve both written corporate bullshit, because corporate bullshit words are filler words, just, like, like, right?
What you’re going to end up doing is not writing a whole bunch of new OKRs or throwing out goals and coming up with new ones. That is not helpful, even though certain people may feel an unmanageable tension and pull to do so. You will probably need to let this go, even if you think it’s the proper thing to do. There is not enough time, and you have a job to do. You can afford to take a step.
Instead, you’re going to clarify these goals. To the extent that you need to to support what it is you’re supposed to be doing (i.e. doing things Differently and More Modern, with an Industry Best Practices Approach, or doing something like Applying Design Thinking and Doing User Research), you need to remember that you were hired in the first place, and that everything about what your organization says about itself internally and externally supports what you’re trying to do. It just doesn’t say it clearly. Even the documents, presentations and so on that appear to contradict actually do support what it is you’re supposed to be doing.
Because they don’t support you clearly, you’re going to have to create that clarity. Which you’ve started doing by understanding context and the environment. This is the story the organization (and its people, who are the active storytellers) tell itself. If you are down with playing videogames, then all the documentation you see around you is a bit like environmental storytelling and audio logs that you’ve picked up explaining the reasons for things, the motivations of people and so on. You are on a quest to understand! Then you will bring back this understanding to someone (er, yourself) and embark on the next part of this quest chain, which is to deliver clarity to the people in order to achieve your goals.
Delivering clarity does not mean making things simpler. Making things simpler may not help. There may be inherently complex or complicated issues that need to be understood and cannot be usefully simplified. But what you can do and what you should try to do is to make them easier to understand and clearer, so that people can act on that understanding. The reason why you need to make those issues and concepts clearer and easier to understand is that, just like you, nobody has the time to do this, and nobody really has time to read. The thing is, you need to.
Doing this may well be difficult because these concepts and issues are incredibly clear to you because you are an expert and a professional in your field, even if you’re a junior, because you are most likely specialized and you have what we nowadays call “domain knowledge”, which is also “knowing your shit”. If you’re bringing something new to an organization though, you must remind yourself that you’re bringing something new. Nobody knows about it. They may not care about it. They maybe should care about it (i.e. designers should learn to code!), but shoulds don’t matter. Shoulds don’t change history, and you can’t change history either. Only what you do right now can change the future. It sure would save a lot of time if you could just say “doing these things this way is better, therefore we should do things this way”, but really, if you’re reading this, that probably hasn’t worked as well as you would like to.
So if doing things differently, or in a more modern way is what you’re supposed to do, if changing how people do things is what you’re supposed to help with, then you need to place why doing things that way makes sense in context. Which is why you need to understand objectives and goals and, unfortunately, if those goals and objectives are as unclear as a very unclear thing, your quest just got longer and you have to provide a) the context to make those goals clearer, so that b) your approach is understood (and is: you shouldn’t be lying) to be one of the best ways to achieve those goals.
Does one of your goals actually mean your software should be more reliable? Did you figure out that reliability means consistency, or reduction of downtime, or something else? Does what you bring actually contribute to increased reliability? Can you make that case clearly? Can you tell the difference between someone internalizing why your method makes sense now, versus just nodding along in a meeting?
So your mission, Ethan (which is now a gender-neutral name) is:
Because ultimately you need to a whole bunch of people, from execution all the way up to the semi-stable CEO-level Lagrange point if needed, but certainly to your manager and the next level above (i.e. your skip-level) to directly support and set goals related to your work, so that activity related to your work (and achieving your goal) can be managed.
Then you’re ready for some next steps.
That’s it for today. A long one, I’m afraid. Clearly I’ve moved past the “write it in 15 minutes” stage.
How are you doing? We are coping with the transition into summer holidays/vacations, which is to say, barely.
Juneteenth, at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. ↩
Combination of materials used in Boeing aircrafts: a, b-Boeing-747; c, d-Boeing-777 (Dursun, Soutis 2014; Jones et al. 2005) in Influence of dynamic non-equilibrium processes on strength and plasticity of materials of transportation systems (Chausov, Mykola et al. 2017) ↩
Those reasons might be: fear of retribution (being fired, being politically frozen out), fear of looking stupid (the answer is apparently obvious, but clearly it is not obvious because otherwise they wouldn’t be asking the question), fear of being seen as antagonistic, being “the wrong gender”, being “the wrong color”, being seen as “always making trouble”, “wasting time”, “needlessly attacking a colleague or superior” and so on. There are so many reasons not to speak up. ↩