Pushing on

Friday morning I headed to Crown for a marketing seminar. I’m not a marketing guy, and if I can I try to avoid marketers en masse. I have a marketing clue, but I’m no –one’s idea of a marketing type. I’m part of a couple of projects which overlap with marketing and so I thought it a good idea to get some background.

Breakfast was served, and then a host of speakers got up to present their little pearls of marketing wisdom. I was probably the only non-marketing person in the room, so there was a lot of preaching to the already converted. As a result there were acronyms and trade lingo which took me a moment to parse, but overall it made sense and was interesting, but it was the final speaker who elevated it from being just another promotional breakfast.

He was a marketing dude from Uber, flown in for the occasion. He was dynamic, confident and fascinating. For someone like me, a marketing novice, it was very educational. In a strange way it was also inspiring.

It’s not so much what he said or how he said it, but rather it was an attitude he embodied, and the fact that he had his own very individual ideas. That he had managed to parlay those ideas into functional reality was the crowning triumph. And here he was on the far side of the world telling us about it.

It forced me to reflect on my own circumstances. I’ve always fancied myself a similar type of character, confident, creative, determined, a big thinker. I’ve been lucky enough to use those attributes consistently through my career, and generally been valued for them. It’s different now. I struggle and strain, but I’m in a state of almost perpetual frustration. I still think big, but whatever I push is filtered and compromised by a conservative leadership and an incompetent system. I’m left to fiddle at the edges, doing small things and pushing against ever encroaching constraints.

Listening to the speaker from Uber I remembered how it used to be. I remembered how bold I had once been. The many thoughts and ideas repressed by circumstance bobbed to the surface. I felt energised, wanting to be that person again, to do those things. There are no meant to be’s, but I can confidently say I’m better suited to taking things on than I am simply maintaining an inadequate status quo.

I caught the tram back to work afterwards with these thoughts buzzing in my head. It was self-evident that – regardless of the glittering promotions they promise me – it was impossible to be the person I wanted to at an organisation such as the one I work at. They are fatally compromised both structurally and philosophically. They are a mess of competing objectives, managed in ad hoc fashion. I don’t fit in.

I still have a lot of ideas. I was mildly surprised, and much gratified, to find that getting back into the system that I had lost none of that in my absence. I’m just as capable and just as driven as ever I was. What’s different, I’ve discovered, is that the fripperies of behaviour and attitude have fallen away. I’m blunt, honest and direct, just as I’ve ever been, but more so.

Directness has its own simplicity. You see in straight lines. The way there may not be as straight-forward as that, but you know what you want, what you need, what must be. The question is how to get there. End of the day you just want to be what you can be. You want to be true to what’s inside you.

It’s that truth I want to live by, and ultimately that means I have to find a different pathway. I have no faith in this organisation. I don’t want to be a part of it. This is not the way for me. I’ve put things off at the promise of things different, none of which have yet eventuated, and may never.

I won’t rush things, but I’ve made up my mind. I can’t work like this. I applied for a couple of roles over the weekend, and I’ll keep applying until something comes up.

Absurd truths

Wednesday night TV is the most fun night of TV in my house. I start off with Micallef on the ABC at 8.30. I couldn’t miss this. Not only is it bloody funny, it’s right on the money more often than not.

I reckon Shaun Micallef is some kind of absurdist genius. He takes the events of the week, most of them political, and presents them satirically. There’s a lot of material these days, and much of it naturally absurd – which is the pity of the times we live in. Doesn’t matter how much they are mocked by clever comedians, our politicians blithely continue doing their dumb and evil things.

Despite that Micallef has a unique take on things that will often get me laughing out loud – a rare event, believe me – and sometimes wanting to cry at the cruel truth of it. If you haven’t caught it you should.

Right after that is Working Dog’s production of Utopia. This is probably the fourth season, but just as with Micallef there’s a never ending stream of material.

For those who haven’t seen it it’s another satire, this one set in a government organisation called the Nation Building Authority, or NBA. They are tasked with conceiving and executing huge nationwide infrastructure projects. It’s a sexy sort of organisation and naturally subject to the whims, fancies and political nonsense of the minister and the government of the day.

Tony is the much put upon head of the NBA. He’s a voice of sense and reason who each week is overwhelmed by the collective nonsense of marketing spin and political expedience. I watch it laughing, knowing that so much of it is real. It echoes the headlines, and sometimes anticipates them. It’s true all over.

It’s familiar in a more personal sense too. Often I’ll watch with a knowing eye having witnessed or been the victim of similar shenanigans within the office.

This weeks episode was a case in point. It focussed on a doomed government portal which had been much hyped, but proven to be a technical disaster through it’s many manifestations. The experts at the NBA, asked to assess it, advised it was too expensive to fix and it should be dumped. The minister seized upon the idea that it could be fixed, and with a political glee chose that option, waving off the cost.

Recently in my office there was a substantial and poorly managed project rolling out a new function to customers, which included as key requirement a website customers had to log into. I sat listening to all the stories of woe as the project rolled out, sometimes shaking my head, sometimes laughing at the absurd improbability, and sometimes at the blind incompetence.

The website broke several times. It was replaced with different versions. Each one failed. In the end they created a simple façade without the functionality they originally conceived, but at least it would crash. It meant a whole lot of extra work though.

Most of that could have been prevented had it been properly planned and tested. There should have been load testing and testers should have been asked to try and break it, and all the usual things, none of which happened. Typical of the planning was a date field that had no validation, and so when people entered a date in a format other than what was expected an error would occur. Elementary stuff really, but very real.

Last week I was involved in something which is a good example of how political and marketing imperatives overtake operational need.

One of the issues in ops here is that people don’t close jobs. They keep them open because they’re not sure, or because they over-service, or because they want to game the system. The result of that is open jobs clogging the system and poor productivity.

Now these people have been told repeatedly they should close these jobs and have been provided with data sheets telling them what to do. It still happens, and it frustrates management mightily.

One of the things I know about people is that everyone takes in information and direction differently. Some people are visual, others verbal. Some like detailed instructions, others just want the vibe. Some need to understand themselves before they take it on board, and others don’t need a reason.

In any case I created a pithy solution to make it simple, and complement the other advice that’s been provided.

I created a poster. It was simple, direct, but had a little humour. Have you…then close the job. Have you…then close the job. And so on. Do not pass go, close the job.

The kicker was at the end. It needs to resonate. Slogans are good. Catchcry’s. You want to get their imagination and have them engage with the concept.

The poster finished with: Pull the trigger! Close the job.

That lodges in their mind. Pull the trigger. They get reminded by their colleagues: have you pulled the trigger?

Naturally it got knocked back. Too politically incorrect. Too violent.

Good grief!

Unfamiliar paths, and the people you meet

I’ve just come back from having lunch with Jeep, the Thai girl who managed the massage shop for me. It’s her birthday so I shouted a meal at one of the small Thai cafes that sprinkle the city, this one in an arcade off Flinders Street.

I always look forward to catching up with her, and with the others when they occasionally join her. I have strong memories of the shop. It seems a strange time in a strange period of my life. It was not an easy time, but there was good that come of it.

You have to be open to things I reckon, if you mean to live fully. If you were sensible you would suggest taking on the shop was a serious misstep, and you’d be right. Except living is more than just about sense and practicality. I could have maintained the straight and narrow and I wouldn’t have learned anything much, and certainly wouldn’t have a bunch of good stories to tell. Sometimes you have to venture off the familiar path. It was an experience, and one of the positives of the experience were the people I encountered along the way.

For a guy used to working as a corporate taking on a massage shop will always be a daring idea. You reckon you’re smart, you reckon you’re savvy, you even reckon you’ve got some toughness about you, but gee, it’s a steep learning curve.

I would never have managed without huge amounts of help. The nature of the business is that you need human bodies, and the more you need the more complex it becomes. Machines are predictable, humans aren’t.

It’s a transient type of business and there is constant turnover of staff. You employ students, travellers, massage professionals, and they come from all over, Australia and Europe but most of all from Asia. Most are pretty good, though not always reliable, and some not so good. It’s the nature of things, the odds you play. But you have to manage it. As an Aussie private schoolboy from the ‘burbs you’re not really equipped to take this on without trial and much error.

I was lucky in that I got help. Over the journey probably most of my staff were Thai, and most of them hard-working, bright, considerate and kind by nature. I had genuine relationships with a lot of them. I liked them and they liked me.

Jeep became my manager. She’s someone I would recommend her for anything. She had a brusque efficiency and innate integrity. She had a great ability to bring order and intelligence to complex situations. It’s pretty hairy running a massage shop, let me tell you. We were open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. You have to manage rostering and salaries, bookings and customers. Every day there’s a challenge. Someone is sick or turns up late. The phone doesn’t work or the air-con is broken. Or, worst of all, there are no customers.

It’s stressful because – as an owner – you never really rest. Even when you’re home you’ve got half a mind on what’s happening at the shop, and as it’s open 84 hours a week there are few moments when you could relax.

You have to have someone you can trust implicitly. Jeep was that person for me. She was never flustered, sometimes stern, and often funny. She had the respect and affection of everyone, which is one reason we still keep up.

She’s always given me a bit of cheek. In the years since the shop closed we catch up erratically and otherwise connect by social media and the odd message. She’s never shy of calling me for help with her tax, her CV, a job application, or pretty well anything. I don’t mind helping. I sort of feel I owe her that, and good karma, etc.

What I represent to her I’m not sure. They – the girls – used to call me best manager ever. So maybe that’s it. I always treated them with respect and affection, and we had fun. It was what I believed in, treat everyone as an individual. Whatever the reason I’m always chuffed when we catch up. Regardless of how the shop wound up, it feels a worthwhile achievement. I expect we’ll be friends for life.

Seeking fair work outcome

Received a kick to the gut today.

When I took on this job I was promised that when payment reviews were conducted at the EOFY then I would receive an automatic pay rise of $6K annually. As I took on the role I had further discussions about my role and how it was classified, and the salary that went with it. At the time I contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman seeking information. When they offered to represent my complaints to the company I demurred, deciding to see how things played out. You may recall I made comment on it at the time.

My two major issues are that I was classified within a clerical award when my role does not fit within it. I am basically a business analyst, with a bit of project manager thrown in. I believed the classification was a rort to justify the modest wage. In terms of dollars I am being paid approximately $30k – $40K beneath the market rate.

I was made a variety of promises at the time, none of which have eventuated in any meaningful way, but I was willing to give them a chance.

In discussions leading into the pay review my manager told me she had recommended a substantial pay rise for me. Today, when I was called in to receive notification of my revised salary, I learned that my pay-rise was a measly $2,600, including super.

I didn’t say much. There’s not much to say at this point. Had I a handy shotgun I might have made a scene, but really I’m the pretty calm type. I returned to my desk and checked again to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake. I was stunned. I couldn’t quite believe it. I was a sceptic going into the process, but I presumed that at a minimum they would pay what they had promised me. Aren’t I the fool?

Whatever loyalty I felt towards the business evaporated. It’s hard not think them a bunch of nasty cunts.

Look, the money is important, not just the principle of it but for practical reasons – but what really riles me is the sheer arrogance of the organisation. I tried to be fair and reasonable with them, I was patient, and they go and snub their nose at me without even bothering to uphold their commitment. They could offer me an extra $20K now and I’d still want them to burn. It’s a shocking organisation and it’s time they became accountable.

I’ve gone back to the Fair Work Ombudsman, making the additional point that it is company practice to fill roles from internal staff knowing that they don’t have to match market rates. Basically it’s exploitation, and pretty widespread.

What that means for me I don’t know. I suspect it makes my tenure here untenable, but I’m not about to resign. I can deal with some awkwardness, and if they want to be rid of me then they can pay for it. Otherwise, naturally, I’m on the lookout.

Scary times, again, but I don’t think I could do otherwise.

Becoming immune

My experience of life is that over a period you build up an immunity to the things you regularly engage with or use. It’s well known that we are acquiring an immunity to antibiotics, for example. I’ve now acquired an immunity to coffee and vegemite. The coffee must be stronger now to have the same impact as when I was younger, and where once I’d scrape vegemite on my toast in the prescribed manner, I now slather it on to get the same hit. It even applies to sex, more or less. It’s not quite an immunity – I still get a kick from it – but the familiar ways have become a tad boring and the adventurous more alluring. Keeping it new has a great appeal.

It applies to work to. I’ve been motivated most of my working life. Notwithstanding the story I told yesterday, my self-expectation has always been that I would push myself. Push to do more and be more. I set standards of performance and conduct that I proudly measured myself against. I wanted responsibility and authority. I wanted it as a matter of course, wanted it because it seemed more interesting, and wanted it because I saw the only way to go was up. It was a mindset that created opportunities and drove performance. For many years it worked, and it was both satisfying and fun.

Not everyone was as driven as I was, and back in the day I always found that surprising. It was like setting off climbing a mountain and pitching camp or turning back before the peak. What was the sense in that? There’s still more to climb. Still a flag to plant. And then, more mountains to climb. I couldn’t stop halfway there.

That is still in me. I haven’t lost that urge, but I’ve become jaded by the act of climbing. In a way, I’ve acquired a kind of immunity to the exercise.

I speak to friends who feel similar to me. They never started off as ambitious as me, and so the difference for them is less. Still, I understand it. I wondered if it was a part of getting older. Certainly, I could understand a family man feeling that way because he has other, more important priorities. And his life is full, he doesn’t need to validate anything.

That’s very true, but the common theme is a sense of professional staleness. It’s all so familiar. The same old routines, the same old tropes. You become cynical by incompetence, opportunism and politics. When once you might have waved it off, or used it to spur you on, now it is weary justification of your disinterest. You do your job and you go home.

I’ve always resisted that, and even today I’m more stubborn and hard-nosed than any of my friends – but I know the feeling. It’s something I’ve forced myself to come to terms with because I felt my pride was driving me to be someone I no longer really was. There was a disconnect in me for that reason. I’m a lot happier now because I have accepted who I am and can be that person without shame. I am but me, and true only to myself.

Acceptance has made me easier. I understand the old things have no power over me. There is still something in me ready to leap at the opportunity, but it can’t be any old opportunity. As with sex, it must be new and adventurous. I can take on the world, or work in my corner – it’s the bland middle I have no truck with.

What is left is someone immune to the temptations that once lured me on. I hope that makes me wiser; it certainly makes me more seasoned. I am freer now because I’m not toeing any expectation of self, except to be true. And in being true I am liberated. I say what I think. I do what I believe. I am dismissive of the small. I have perspective. I hope to keep it.


Do it like PJK

A few weeks back when I went to the Friends of the ABC event there were copies of Kerry O’Brien’s biography of Paul Keating after the event. Kerry was mobbed by adoring fans and was kept busy signing copies of the book as he sold them. My friend was of those who bought a copy and, as we parted that day, he handed it to me saying he wouldn’t get around to reading soon so why don’t I start on it first? I accepted it hesitantly, promising not to spoil it by telling him how it ends.

The book was born out of a series of interviews between O’Brien and Keating a few years back broadcast on the ABC. I remember watching it, as always absorbed in the wit, intelligence and sheer vision of Keating. It was great viewing for a policy wonk like me, especially if you share my admiration for the great man himself.

It’s a thick tome, and given its genesis an unconventional biography. Each chapter begins with O’Brien giving an overview of the politics, the events, the issues and the personalities of the particular period. He then begins to question Keating in depth about the period in question, and Keating responds with customary confidence and panache. His recall is vivid, aided by an extensive library of articles he kept from the time. His ability to explain complex themes simply was always a great strength of his, and even many years after the fact he is still able to clearly articulate the salient issues. All of this is articulated with his usual wit and idiosyncratic style. I could listen to him all day, full stop, but for an economics buff like me to hear him explain the mechanics of what he did is fascinating. It’s a long way from dry.

I’m about halfway through and I’m reminded just about every page of all he achieved. I knew what the Hawke/Keating government did, I know it, and occasionally I will reel them off when I’m in company to people unaware or ignorant. I don’t know if there has ever been a more significant Australian government than this. Even knowing all of that I find myself surprised again at the breadth and depth of achievement. It was a true transformative government, and while much of it was economic – floating the dollar, opening up the financial markets, the superannuation guarantee, the accord, and so on – much also was cultural, nothing more so than Mabo.

Just about everything he did met resistance, and often fierce resistance. None of it was easy. He had to find ways to persuade, compel, coerce, cajole, bribe and occasionally threaten to get his nation building initiatives through. It’s something I’ve taken notice of, and am looking to learn from.

I work on a much smaller scale, but much of my job is – in theory – defining, creating and implementing business and process solutions. Many of the solutions I propose are bold, some evolutionary, and some radical in terms of where they’re at (which is in the stone age). I’m great at defining and creating solutions, and have a lot of confidence in what I do. The problem I have is implementing them. It’s not that they’re well received – generally they are – it’s just for political or budgetary reasons it’s hard to get them implemented.

I’m a bull. I advocate hard. I’m not a fanatic, but for everything I propose I document in detail the benefits of it – generally increased productivity, swifter and more efficient processing, and happier customers and staff. Often it’s hard to quantify such things, but generally the benefits are clear. I realise that I have to sell more than just a cool idea, and so I break it down to a granular level. I try to answer the questions before they ask them.

Mostly it’s not enough. The politics here are pretty tangled. Resourcing is very tight and budgets keenly managed. On top of that IT is pretty much dysfunctional, and senior management are very conservative (that’s to put it kindly). As a general rule they’d prefer to retain an inefficient process than make the effort and incur the upfront expense (in resources or dollars) to implement something that will be much more efficient, productive and cost-effective over the longer term. As I result I have about 8 stalled initiatives, and it’s frustrating to the pint of utter exasperation.

I have to find other ways, and this is what reading Keating has made me realise. I can be blunt, but I can also be a persuasive advocate. I use that to get people on board, either as supporters or with promises of partnership. Even that has not been enough – there’s no-one who says my ideas are bad, and in general they are much applauded. They’re just too unpalatable to an organisation that thinks small.

So being persuasive, even charming, is not enough, and nor is occasional blunt force. I’m now re-shaping what I propose. I still seek support, but I’m breaking things down into smaller, more easily digestible chunks. If I break the big idea into parts then I can sell the parts separately. Once we get the first part in place it leads on naturally to the second part. And so on – that’s the theory.

I’m still dubious. There’s such a backlog of work, and so much structural inefficiency (not to mention managerial timidity) that even so it’s hard to get anything done. It makes a lot of what I do purely theoretical, and practically pointless. I’m persistent though, as always, and hopefully channelling the great PJK will be the difference.


Buddies with the boss

Last Monday as I was coming into work I glanced at my phone and found I had a new friend request on Facebook. As I delved further I discovered it was from my manager. Uh oh, I thought.

I did nothing about it then, wanting to think about it more. It was an inconvenience. No matter what I decided – to accept the request, or reject it – it was an uncomfortable and awkward situation.

I’m friendly with my manager, but then I’m friendly with most people. I might have a reputation for being a hard arse, but separate to that I’m pretty affable, and occasionally expansive. She has said before how she enjoys my banter, which really is not much more than some outspoken cheek with a bit of wit. I think she likes the sort of man I am. For the most part we get on fine, but I wouldn’t describe her as anything close to being a friend.

I had resigned myself to accepting her request when I went back to my Facebook at lunchtime. Knock her back and potentially I put my manager offside. Accept her request she gets access to my updates and contacts, but, I thought I could curate that perhaps, and anyway I don’t post much to Facebook (these days it’s not much more than updates of my Quora posts). On reflection, accepting her request was possibly the lesser of two evils – except when I went to click on accept the request had disappeared.

Interesting, I thought, she’s withdrawn her request already. It was as if she was herself uncertain as to whether it was appropriate to friend me and decided it wasn’t. It let me off the hook.

From there though I seemed to be in the bad books. There was a distinct change of attitude towards me, as if I had rejected her. I wondered if I was imagining it, or if there were other reasons. Then in a meeting on Wednesday I contradicted something she’d said. She’d been saying it for weeks and I’d let it go not wanting to make a big deal out of it. Then I was asked directly about it and I was honest, dismissing what she had said and explaining why it was wrong. It was perhaps not the most diplomatic thing to do, but none of it was incorrect.

After that I was in no doubt that I was in trouble. I cocked an eyebrow at that, but let it go.

Then yesterday browsing Facebook I saw that the request had popped up again. Was it a new request? Or was it the same one – it seems to me sometimes that Facebook appears and disappears things randomly. I faced the same dilemma all over again. I sighed. I waited an hour or two and accepted it.

Today I’m back in the good books. Maybe it’s just because it’s a new week. I don’t really believe managers should engage in social media with their staff, but then maybe that’s just a sign of how old school I am. We’re buddies now and that’s all there is to it.