Archive for July, 2011
I moved back to the east coast recently, to be near my family again. The cool thing about that is I get to spend time on the lake where I spent summers growing up. I have friends here that I’ve known for 40 years.
I think we all go through that momentary shock when we can say we’ve done anything for 40 years. How did I get to be so old?
The shared history is fun. Here’s my friend Allison:
We go back to when Allison was five and I was six. We were neighbors and we did everything together in the summer; we made clam soup and built dock forts and blanket forts and pine needle forts. We wrote “drop dead” plays and produced them for the neighborhood. I’m sure you’re wondering what a drop dead play is. It’s a play where the only requirement for the script is that all the characters drop dead at the end.
Everything was great until we burnt Allison’s house down in the middle of the night. No really, we did. We didn’t do it on purpose, but our summer cottage caught fire and the fire spread to the houses on either side. After that, Allison’s parents decided that they didn’t want to live next to us anymore, so they moved down the beach and built a new house.
The good news is that Allison and I are still friends and she didn’t get mad at me about the house. In fact, now I have my own bedroom at her new house. Here’s what our dogs do at Allison’s house:
It doesn’t look like they’re having fun, but really they are. They just wish Allison and I would stop reminiscing about the past and take them for a hike.
The thing about moving back home is that people really know who you are. That can be good, and that can be bad. On the good side you don’t have to work very hard to feel connected, to have a sense of community. On the bad side sometimes your friends bring up things you really would rather not remember. But I’ll take the good with the bad.
In 2001, I quit my job, sold my car, put all my furniture in storage and traveled around the world for seven months, backpacker-style. When I came back, everyone said, “Wow, the trip of a lifetime. You must be glad you did it while you’re still relatively young.” And I said, “That’s not the trip of a lifetime. I’m going to do this all the time now.” And I went on to plan my next trip, a four-month jaunt through Central and South America.
Here it is ten years later. I never took that trip to South America; in fact, I haven’t been out of the country since, until two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I popped over to Germany for a couple days to teach a team building class and it was like a wake-up call. There isn’t any culture shock in Western Europe, but there’s just enough culture difference to make you think about how different cultures expand your mind. And so I thought, what happened to me over the past ten years?
I was reading posts by my favorite blogger Penelope Trunk this morning. She had a really popular post last year called Test: Is your life happy or interesting? The gist of the test is that you can get out of your comfort zone in search of learning, or you can stay in your comfort zone and be happy, but for the most part you can’t do both. It’s not that I haven’t sought adventure in the past ten years; I’ve done a lot of adventurous things. But something was lost, especially last year when I moved east to be near family again (which gives you a point in favor of happy over interesting in Penelope’s test). The older I get, the closer I move to the comfort zone. No wonder I haven’t been blogging so much lately; I don’t have anything interesting to write about. Who wants to read about happiness? We want to read about interestingness.
All the same, I can’t take off to South America right now. Besides, I’m not going anywhere without my dog. But I’ve decided to do something different with this blog for a while. I’ll use it for virtual journeys, a revisiting of my adventures and everything I learned. And while I’m sure we’ll still get some workplace lessons from that, more importantly, I’ll be interesting instead of happy.
During a recent team building class with an agency group, employees began to complain about their headquarters back in Washington, DC. “They have no idea what we do out here,” one of them said. “Yeah,” said another, “and they just sit there and issue directives that make no sense, given how much our funding has been cut.”
I was thinking this morning about what a ubiquitous paradigm that seems to be. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a private sector organization or a government agency, there seems to always be an “us versus them” mentality between the field offices and the headquarters or corporate office. The field believes the head office people sit around creating policies and procedures that are out of touch with reality and designed simply to drive everyone crazy; and the head office people believe that the field people have no empathy for how busy they are and no recognition for the importance of their work. It’s a classic case of everyone thinking that everyone else needs to walk a mile in my shoes. And rarely is anyone willing to try those other shoes on.
Why is that? It seems like a classic case of fundamental attribution error. Lacking information about corporate mission, vision, goals and objectives, field staff members fill in the gaps in their knowledge with stories about the HQ’s motivation for every directive and assume they must have bad intentions, a lack of competence, or poor work ethic. HQ, likewise, assumes that when something doesn’t get done or doesn’t get done to specs, it must be deliberate on the part of the field staff.
So how do you fix it? Cross-training and shadowing opportunities between field and corporate staff would obviously be a step in the right direction, but it’s expensive and most organizations have had their travel budgets cut lately. I think it comes down to how you create more virtual communication avenues between offices. More and more I’m seeing federal agencies using video teleconference technology for meetings rather than having people travel, and in fact I’m even starting to get requests to do multi-day training workshops via VTC. What about having “walk a mile in my shoes” sessions by VTC? Participants could share information about their objectives, challenges, communication preferences and daily routines, with the goal of understanding how to work better together.