Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Essay - The importance of connection

It's been a fairly frantic few weeks settling back into the rhythms of full time work in a reasonably demanding job with longish daily travel times. I haven't had time to scratch myself.

There are advantages to being an older worker with lots of experiences if you find yourself in a job where you can actually use them. Too often in recent years I have found myself using only a narrow slice of  experience and capacities. Broad experience can be a significant disadvantage in these circumstances. You see the things that need to be done, would like to bring them about, but they are outside scope. If you push too far you become a nuisance, a distraction.  

If I had to define my single most important work "failure" in recent years, it would be my inability to bring about changes that were clearly needed, that I identified, that I pushed for. I have put "failure" in inverted commas because the changes were not part of my mandate. I did not fail in delivery of my job, just failed to bring about changes that I realised were important, that were outside my defined role.

You can see why people and organisations are sometimes reluctant to employ older workers, especially those who haven't lost their fire. They are harder to manage, can be a threat. They do the immediately defined task, but are likely to push for more. How do you manage them? It can be hard, especially for the immediate manager.

There is an entire subject area here that I will no doubt write about later: how should you manage the older worker; if you are an older worker, how should you operate? For the moment, I just note that I am enjoying the job.

One of the advantages of staying in the workforce lies in connection, the way that work connects you with the current, with people, with ideas. This can sometimes be difficult. It's hard to believe, but I have been in the workforce for fifty years. That may be the flick of an eye-lid in historical terms, but it is a long time at a personal level.

People assume that the older worker is stuck in the past, that they are less flexible, less able to adjust, victim of now past ideas. This can happen, but the reality is a little different. The real problem is that when you have been around for a long time you have seen the pattern of changing fads and fashions, each proclaimed as a revolution, a challenge that will improve the way we do things.

Some older workers do become stuck in particular times and resist change. Others, more dangerously, look at the current orthodoxy and say this will not work, is not working, we have become stuck, change is required. Drawing from their experience, they can become revolutionaries, a new generation of change agents. They do not want to return to the past, but to use the past to affect the future.

Fairly obviously, I place myself in this group. But to identify the required changes and then agitate to bring them about, you must be connected. You have to know how things work or don't work now, what the systems are, what are the underlying assumptions, what are the defined relationships within the systems currently in place. If you don't know this, then you are always responding to symptoms.

Identification of the elements involved requires you to ask what is, not what should be. If you don't understand what is, you can't understand what should be done. You also have to understand the limits on action. There is no point in pushing for something if it's so far outside scope to be impossible in the short term.

The real revolutionaries among us are those who say damn this, I will stand outside and try to change the whole system. I admire them even when I disagree with them, they are the ones who bring about big changes, but I'm more concerned with making what we have work better. Certainly I argue for bigger changes, but in a day to day sense I'm more concerned with incremental change, changes at the margin that might make things better. I can measure that.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a woman on the New England Tablelands. Living out of town, she had read a column, part of a series, on the history of Armidale's museums, in the dentist's surgery. I really laughed. How do you respond to being read in a dentists's surgery, that repository of bedraggled magazines and papers?  It was a first!

Her comment was a simple one. Why wasn't the Armidale Folk Museum better signposted? It's a fair point. I forwarded her email to a couple of Armidale Dumaresq councilors saying what about it? There may or may not be a change in signage, but if there is it will be due to my correspondent.

This is a second example of connection, the connection that comes through active participation, in my case through writing. Really, my writing is the equivalent of a second job if measured by the time involved. It gives me connection to ideas, makes me think. I'm a naturally curious person, so I find the whole process very interesting.

William Tydd Taylor is a case in point. My current History Revisited series in the Armidale Express is loosely focused on some of the early European settlers in Northern NSW. Taylor and wife Margaretta Lucy Lind arrived in the colony in March 1840 and almost immediately embarked on the steam packet 'William the Fourth" for Port Macquarie where Taylor's cousin, Archibald Clunes Innes had his headquarters. Later that year, he took up a Tablelands run, Terrible Valley now known as Terrible Vale, in partnership with Joseph Middleton.

I already knew quite a bit about Innes and the early days of Port Macquarie partly through Annabella Boswell whose diaries provide an almost Jane Austin style picture of life at Lake Innes. I also knew about Innes' various connections, although I had not known that William Taylor was a cousin. However, I had no idea that Taylor's mother was Harriet Taylor Mill, the wife of John Stuart Mill. 

Harriet Taylor and Mill initially became involved through shared intellectual interests, an involvement that deepened into something more intense although they did not marry until after husband John Taylor's death.

So my journey had taken me from my starting point, William Tydd Taylor and the foundation of Terrible Vale Station, back to a famous economist and philosopher and his wife, one of the noted feminists of the nineteenth century. Further, both William Tayor and wife Margaretta Lind seem to have been children of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment.Connections indeed!

If writing gives me connection with ideas and indeed people through the interactions generated from the blogs and columns, it does not provide the type of daily personal interactions that you find in a working environment. There you have to respond in real time to the myriad small interactions connected with the daily work flow. 

I have spent quite a lot of time over the last two decades working alone from a home office, something I have written about in both a personal and professional sense. This can become alienating, cutting you off to some degree from life, reducing stimulation and indeed the need to accommodate others. You need to make a special effort to get out and sometimes one just doesn't want to do so.

I really have been enjoying the working interactions once again. However, I am struggling a little to re-establish the balance between work, writing and personal life. I don't object to the challenge, but I do find the need to pace myself a little more, to try to set priorities. There in lies the rub - I do like my meanders down the by-ways of life and history! 


2 tanners said...

Some of the things I say, in writing now so that later there can be no denials, are:
. We start from where we are, not from where we'd like to start
. We do what we can, not what it should be "obvious" to those around us, should be the first priority
. The perfect is the enemy of the good
. In trying to institute change, start with baby steps AND prepare the ground.

Of course, this goes down poorly with careerists who have 3 years to save the world before going on to somewhere else to save the world.

The thought of us fogeys being disruptors had not occurred to me, as I had really followed the media hype of 'disruptive change' being linked to technology and younger people with a great idea and the ability to institute it. I find I rather like the concept and it does match my experience.

Rod said...

A very interesting post Jim. 'failure' at work is common!!!! I think especially with those knowledgeable people that want to make positive change but are not permitted to do so. I think that works with younger people as well as older too.

I used to supervise a very intelligent and driven 50-something year old. I was less than 30 when given responsibility of managing him. There were times when he wanted to make positive changes for the organisation but his position description limited his influence. He tried to use me and I would agree with him 95% of the time and try to push the ideas. I felt that I should be able to help him. However, I was seen by the entrenched career-path managers as s young upstart and I was getting involved in things that were not my 'responsibility'. In the end I think we all 'failed'... but my employer, managers and directors failed the most. But since it was a local government organisation wasting money was not considered a failure (plenty more rate payers where that money came from!). Failing to follow procedures was a failure even if the procedures meant that there would never be an outcome!

I've been reading books about successful (and unsuccessful) generals in the last few hundred years - not the most famous ones but just a rank or two below the big boys. Heinz Guderian, Charles De Gaulle, "Papa" Ringel, Stonewall Jackson and others. I have found a common tread with those that succeeded. They ignored their superiors when they'd been told how to do things. However, those that failed, failed when they were actually following the procedures! A historian at the Australian Defence Force Academy offered this lesson to new Australian Army officers: "Defeat is a poor excuse for following a procedure". Sadly the same advice is not given for any other 'leaders' in the public service today.

Oh... and exciting news... I just got a redundancy! Yay! No more following procedures for a little while! I might even move back to Armidale!

Rod said...

I got the quote around the wrong way "Following a procedure is a poor excuse for defeat"

oops... must proof read my comments!

Anonymous said...

In any large organisation there are always those who believe they "know better" than those in charge, or those higher up. I just wonder sometimes if this quite natural human trait (displayed best by most 15-18 y/olds) is a feature or a bug in the human condition?

Because it is rarely true.


Rod said...

I agree kvd, but how do those few that actually have a good idea succeed in getting through the barrier of entrenched ideas? May not be so much of a cultural problem in the private sector but certainly entrenched ideas are the theme for government.

2 tanners said...

Good point kvd.

I have too often seeing a bold new initiative being introduced which only had two downsides: it would alienate the decision makers or those who voted for them so had no hope of success and I'd already seen people try to introduce the same thing in the same way before. Often the lessons learned had been more poignant when I had been the first cock-up off the rank!

Do it differently, learn from history and small steps, small steps. It's not guaranteed success (like onion, garlic, coriander, peppercorn, fenugreek, chicken and wilted green stir fries are). And yet I'm seen as a disruptive innovator.

Not a job positive in my field, I can tell you.

Jim Belshaw said...

Some interesting responses that I wanted to pick up.

If you want an example of an older disruptor, think of Bernie Sanders. While we focus on technology, 2t,the biggeat disruption comes from people and process. And that's not always a good thing. Even though I have wanted to bring about change, I don't support change for the sake of change but rather an incremental process that links present and past.

Looking at local histories is very instructive. You can trace patterns in which people tried and failed at a point to add to their communities well being through a particular activity or building dream. But as the time horizon widens, you can see how contribution builds, how failures lead to later successes, how successes then lay the base for further success. And how, sometimes, it can all be swept away.

Picking up your final point, sometimes we can be seen as disruptive innovators. Then you have to ask yourself whether the mistake is in ourselves or in our stars!

Not sure where to go with that, kvd, beyond feeling that you are unduly cynical. Nit picking, there are very few 15-18 year olds in large organisations outside fast food chains, The new "young" is 26-28. My most recent experience has been with large public sector organisations. There are still idealistic workers who want to contribute and bring about change, to make a contribution beyond personal ambition, but many are just burnt out because it has become too hard.

The burn out is most pronounced, I think, for those in their forties who are committed but not necessarily ambitious in a personal sense; the personally ambitious tend to look after themselves first, to move on.

I said that my recent experience was especially focused in large public sector organisations. However, from observation I'm not sure that the private sector equivalents are much different.

Rod, I look forward to seeing you in Armidale.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I wasn't being cynical - although I can see how my comment may be read as such.

It is my simple observation over many years that there are always those who come new to an organisation, and believe they "can do it better" than the way things are done, have been done, in the organisation. My point is simply that, without an intimate knowledge of the whole endeavour, or an understanding of why things have resolved to where they presently are, then sometimes change can be disruptive in a bad way.

To take the simplest example I can think of - and something which I am sure you would recognise from your own country past - how would you as a newcomer to a large farm approach the problem of a closed (or open) gate?

The rule is always that you leave it as you found it - closed or open - even though, for you as the visitor, its present state is less convenient (closed: you have to stop, open it, move through, close again) or seems careless (open: why have a fence if you leave the damn gate open?) given earlier gates you have travelled through.

There is good sense in that; it needs no great explanation; it just needs recognition that you may not have all the relevant facts. Yet it is amazing just how many times it is ignored.

And I meant to say earlier that I appreciate tanners' list of precepts in his first comment, but I'd add that "doing nothing should be regarded as a high bar".


Anonymous said...

Just a last thought on my 'cynical' attitude:

The only (and it was fairly serious) injury suffered by one of my employees was the direct result of her ignoring specific instructions. "Faster, easier, more convenient" for her resulted in permanent nerve damage in her wrist. But that didn't assist me in the inevitable workers' compensation claim.

Not cynical; more just naturally wary of people who believe they know better.


Jim Belshaw said...

Fair points, kvd. Liked the gate example; laughed. It depends a little on level. The biggest problem lies with "new brooms". Usually at senior level, they come in wanting to put their stamp on the organisation, shake things up, get rid of deadwood. Sometimes they are mandated to do this, always they want to deliver on the things they promised in interview, they apply experience developed in a different structure and culture. The result is usually something of a mess. That applies in politics too, of course.

My experience as a change agent at more senior level is that you need to take a little time to understand structure and culture in the new organisation, testing the conclusions you have reached. This need not take a long time, but has to be done with deliberation. As part of this, you have to be prepared to drop things.

My most recent experience, and its in the nature of the contract work I have been doing, has been at a lower level looking up. I wrote from that perspective. The examples you gave strike me as discipline questions, unwillingness to accept rules or think about their intent. That's a different question.

We talk about organisation capture. The newest, freshest ideas can come from people when they are new, notice things, ask why. Then for many of us, we become absorbed in the way things are done round here, captured by the what is.

Anonymous said...

Danger, Will Robinson!! My sensors detect the approach of an agreement between JB, kvd and 2t!!

Anonymous said...

LOL anon! That takes me (way too far) back!


Jim Belshaw said...

What a fearsome prospect, anon!