Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Career Development Made Easy!

I will readily admit that I am not a big fan of books that have the purpose simplifying the complexities of life. Whether it’s Fulghum’s “Everything I needed to know I learned on Star Trek” or Blanchard’s “One Minute Emperor of the Universe” or Covey’s “Seven Habits of Reasonably Laid Back Slackers.” Before we go further, I would like to add that I have, in fact, read multiple titles by all three of these guys and from time to time recommend them to emotionally and cognitively stable people who will not believe them to be the distillation of centuries of consciousness. They do not, however, substitute for being an acute political and sociological observer of your workplace. Today’s post.

Shortcuts may get you there quicker, but that simply increases the chances that the waiting room will not be open.

This may sound like my post from a few weeks ago about slowing down, but I assure you it is not. Human beings are very interesting creatures who are constantly looking for quicker, simpler way to do things… particularly repetitive tasks. Albert Einstein became famous for his seminal work in physics in trying to develop a formula for everything. It is important to note that he also became depressed, withdrawn, and just a little bit whacky later in life trying to find achieve this goal. So, I am here to tell you that there is no unified theory of career development. No golden plan that will assure your dominance in the world of work. No easy way to the top. I can, however, offer to you, a few variables that you should attend to in charting your course.

There are no foolproof systems, because fools are so damned ingenious.

Elegant solutions are like good software. That is, they are the product of extensive study, intensive engineering, and thousands of lines of highly detailed programming code. The result, however, is a pretty little piece of technology with a very simplified interface and the more simple the interface, the higher its “user-friendliness” rating. Decision-making within an organization often functions the same way. That is, a committee will devote time to looking at many possible outcomes, survey stakeholders, pilot several programs, before recommending a protocol.

Just as software is subject to obsolescence when new operating systems arrive, so too, our decision-making templates at work become obsolete as new challenges arise. One caution here… In the software world, applications will simply refuse to work when confronted with a new operating system. Humans, however, are much less likely to recognize that the system in which they are working has changed.

A great example of this is a department that I worked for a few years ago which kept reams and reams of paper application forms filled out by students long after the forms had migrated online. Students would fill out the forms online and then highly paid professional staff members would complete several blanks in the form by hand. Duplicates of the forms were kept in another office in another building and each office maintained seven years of these forms, even though the institutional document retention policy had changed to five years, either online or in hardcopy. Once a year, the two departments would get together and spend several days reconciling paper files because from time to time there were differences in the forms. At the end of the year a report to the funding agency was required. This report was generated from the online forms with the push of a button. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the paper forms had not been used for the report in several years. After these changes were pointed out to the two offices and their personnel it still took over six months to eliminate the storing of seven years files, the annual reconciliation meeting, and the maintenance of paper copies.

Look for evidence that inertia, not good sense, guides decision-making in your organization and seek to change it. Remember, however, that it will be an uphill battle and by the time you change things, there will be other things that need attention.

I go to school, but I never learn what I want to know.

This was uttered by Calvin back in the days when there was a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip and life had actual meaning. It is reminiscent of something that happened in my first teaching job. I had put the Fall Semester to bed and was beginning the process of prepping lectures for the Spring. Walking through the administration building one day while students were still on break, I heard my name being called by the provost.

Darryl, Darryl. Student class evaluations are in. Can we talk for a moment?

Uh. Sure. When?” I replied in a tone that clearly communicated my fear. What on earth could I have messed up this time.

We walked the long, dark hall to her office and entered a room that had stack upon stack of manila folders full of class evaluations. She surveyed the piles for a moment and eventually located the “psychology” stack. After few seconds, she found it.

Here it is!” she said as she thumbed through the evals. “Here. Read this one. Pay particular attention to question seven.

I breezed by questions one through six and focused on question seven. I forget exactly what it said, but the gist of it was, “What changes could the instructor have made that would have enhanced the learning environment?” On the particular evaluation that she had handed me the student had written in a very precise, symmetrical style,

Dr. Stevens was not fair at all. He expected us to learn stuff we didn’t already know.

I looked at the provost who was smiling broadly and said, “I suppose this is a good thing, huh?

Yes. It is a very good thing.

Folks, here is my ultimate wisdom for the day. Not knowing is the beginning point for knowing. The primary reason that I hear for wasteful or stupid procedures at work is “We’ve always done it that way.” If I am ever the absolute monarch of my country, I plan to make it a capital offense without appeal to say, “We’ve always done it that way.” (WADITW) Here’s the deal. Somebody you work with is going to say this to you. You may even slip up and say it yourself. Spend some of your time at work ferreting out the WADITW situations and begin a subtle, compassionate effort to change them. Understand that WADITW is highly resistant to change and WADITW adherents will tend to see you as an invading force when you recommend change. Do not expect to be successful. Pick your battles by reaching for the low-hanging fruit first.

It’s only work if somebody makes you do it.

Okay, Calvin and Hobbes aficionados will realize this is my second quote from the strip today. I’m generally a bit more low-key with such stuff, but it fits today’s thread. This will be quick and to the point. If the only thing you ever do at work is what you are required to do, you will hate it. Like many other geezers my age, I have gotten to the station in life where I can simply start a project because it interests me. When I was younger and I realized to my horror that I would be doing this work stuff for another 40 or 50 years, I freaked out. Luckily, I worked with a guy who had been around for a long time and he gave me the best advice I ever had. It went something like this:

Every once in a while, look around at work a make two lists. The first list should be things that obviously need to be done, but no one is doing them. The second list should be things that other people are doing that they obviously hate doing. Choose one thing from each list and ask if you can do them.

Over the years, I have developed a small arsenal of skills that include website design, network maintenance, statistical methodology design, report-writing, event-planning, etc. all because I asked. The best part was that these were things that either nobody else wanted to do or nobody else knew how to do, so I was seldom bothered and was allowed to develop things in my own way. A side benefit has been that I am generally seen as an independent worker who can be trusted with complex tasks. Sometimes, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit begging not to be thrown in the briar patch. Ultimately, if you step up and ask to do the things you like doing, it will squeeze out more of the things you do not like doing.

If you are not being criticized, you may not be doing very much.

I cannot believe that I am going to end today’s post with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld! He is, however, correct. I am quite suspicious of anyone who manages to go to work 40 hours per week 52 weeks per year and somewhere in that mountain of 2080 hours of work does not get at least a little blow back from something done poorly. We all begin our careers from a position of ignorance and ineptitude. If all goes well, we move from being criticized and questioned fairly often to being criticized and questioned less often. I make it clear to the folks who work for me that I expect that if they are trying new things and taking risks, I expect a reasonable number of setbacks.

Think about these things.

If you are avoiding potential failure, you are also avoiding possible success.

If you are waiting for others to tell you what they want you to do, you are never doing what you want to do.

Doing things the way they have always been done assures you will never learn anything new.

Simple solutions only work for simple problems.

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