Saturday, April 26, 2014

The opaque insane spaghetti situation

Today's word is "frenetic."

As in, "Creating content stuff without a real strategy creates frenetic activity with no purpose" [italics mine] (Chief Content Officer, April 2014).

This is not a particularly revolutionary concept -- that strategy is needed to keep stuff on track. But it's one that gets regularly ignored in just about every context imaginable. And I don't think it's possible to have purposeful frenetic activity, but I could be wrong.

But it was that word "frenetic" used so close to "strategy" that caught my eye and like Proust's biscuit put me in mind again of a situation I'd recently been chatting with friends about.

Now, so as not to impugn anyone's character or cast stony aspersions, I'm going to be intentionally vague and continue to refer to it as simply "The Situation." And I'll be equally vague about whether "The Leader" was a he or she. And, just so we're clear, I could be referring to multiple situations, melding elements of many into one.

Just bear with me as today's word is "frenetic."

The American Heritage Dictionary defines frenetic as "Wildly excited or active; frantic; frenzied."

I guess there are some situations where these could be good qualities, but when you're talking about a business, ministry, organization, job, church, position, school, relationship, and the like, not so much.

The Situation was marked by three characteristics that drove the freneticism and that eventually did me and others in, pushing us out:

1. Spaghetti

I'm sure you've heard the "spaghetti on the wall" adage about how some go about selecting a "good" idea to pursue. The ideas (aka spaghetti) are thrown against a metaphorical wall to see which ones stick.

Now, if this was done once or seldom, a few ideas that stuck could be pursued and implemented. However, if this is the normal practice of trying to sort through endless ideas, it just gets really messy.

In The Situation, the leader was an idea machine. Spaghetti hit the wall like it was shot from a Gatling gun.

Splatsplatsplatsplatsplatsplatsplatsplatsplat!

Any ideas that did stick were quickly knocked off by new ideas. Sometimes old fallen ideas that were left a-mouldering on the floor against the wall were picked up and tossed into the mix again.

Frankly, I got the idea that The Leader wasn't really serious about bringing to fruition those few ideas that did manage to persist. For this person, it was just about generating lots of ideas.

More than once solutions were offered for how to bring one or more pet idea to reality only to be charmingly pooh-poohed. There was always a reason the solution being provided wasn't the right one, really wouldn't work, was not the right time, or wasn't what The Leader really wanted to do.

And so, more frenetic spaghetti hit the wall.

2. Insanity

It's claimed that insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. That may not define insanity but it's a practice that will definitely drive most people crazy.

In The Situation, The Leader had developed training, tools, and processes he insisted needed to be implemented exactly the same way over and over. Eventually, it was insisted, they would work as intended.

However, the desired results of training, tools, and processes were never truly realized. Tweaking and change needed to be implemented, or new training, tools, and processes developed.

Nope.

Just keep doing the same things over and over. Eventually the right result would be achieved, so thought The Leader, who claimed to always be happy to hear suggestions.

It's like being stuck on ice and spinning your tires trying to get moving. You just get more stuck and damage your tires.

3. Opacity

Often, since the leader of The Situation didn't fully share her goals and visions, we were never sure if we were getting close to success or not. And if we began to get a clue, the goals and visions seemed to shift.

You could say The Leader was transparency avoidant.

What direction we did receive was like getting a map with no route or destination marked and being told you'll know you're there when you arrive.

You could kind of sorta maybe get a possible vibe that perhaps you were more or less on target-ish. But never anything definite.

Work groups within The Situation were saddled with confidentiality requirements that prevented them from sharing information openly beyond hinting. When asked what was happening behind closed doors, the few answers offered were always vague and cryptic.

Plus, there was little to no central coordination of the workgroups. No one really knew what others were doing.

Vision, what there was of one, was proprietary to The Leader and communicated muddily if at all.

Plain tuckered out

While The Leader in The Situation, a genuinely nice person, was, technically, not doing anything wrong in the sense of illegal or immoral, there was a lot that wasn't right. Or at least not productive. And potentially unhealthy.

The combination of shifting ideas, tail-chasing, and lack of clarity around goals, left The Situation marked by endless frenetic activity. It was unstructured and chaotic and always in motion. There was purpose but the pursuit was pointless.

This meant it could feel like progress was being made because stuff was happening. Lots and lots of stuff. But not real progress. Mostly everyone was just getting tuckered out, emotionally and otherwise.

Statistics could be derived from all the activity and plunked into a PowerPoint slide or annual report that gave the impression progressive stuff was happening. But trying to pin down exactly what that stuff was was like seeing something move in your peripheral vision that disappears when you try to look directly at it. Kind of ghostlike and foggy.

As a result resources were regularly squandered by the chaos. Good people with great talents and generous spirits would come along, get involved, and be totally misused and wasted.

Let's get strategery-ish

In the article I referenced at the beginning, the author claims that all a frenetic situation needs is a little strategy worked into the mix.

Yes and no.

Strategy can be a good thing when it's developed correctly, embraced by leadership, and implemented intelligently.

In The Situation, none of this was the case.

Some years prior some work toward strategy had been done. However, The Leader did all the facilitating, controlled what was a convoluted and complex process, and resulted in a strategy that fit whatever was in The Leader's mind.

In fact, many who were present at those strategy sessions admitted it was all very confusing.

To remedy this, another strategy development session was held with a different facilitator who, oddly, really didn't know how to do strategic planning. The result was the addition of even more obfuscation.

In fact, The Leader even admitted to me more than once, in a self-effacing charming manner, an aversion to anything strategic-like.

Charmed I'm sure

Many raised questions, some very pointed. Many expressed frustration, some very deep. The Leader would gently swat them away with a sincerely humble smile and a gentle non-answer.

The Leader would listen carefully to objections or issues, make very sure you felt you were heard, apologize for any unintended slight, and then go on as if nothing had happened, unfazed and unchanged.

You were heard. You were acknowledged. You felt momentary hope. You were ultimately ignored, albeit very sweetly.

Occasionally, when faced with especially pressing questions or critique, The Leader would react with melodramatic emotion, claim to feel attacked and misunderstood, and feign defeat. Then, once consoled, again get up and walk away as if nothing had happened.

But lots of stuff was going on! Good stuff! Happy stuff! The stuff of dreams!

While a core group of people were able to endure The Situation, many eventually moved on, burnt out, frustrated, dizzy from the freneticism. A lot of resources were squandered, great talent lost.

Getting out to move on

So what could save The Situation?

In a word, nothing.

At least not with all things remaining equal.

If you feel this is the kind of situation you are in, you may need to think about moving on before it does you in.

The Situation could change if a less controlling leader were put in place, a few of the best and most achievable ideas were focused on for implementation, processes were revamped with needed changes, and transparency became the norm.

But this was not happening in The Situation and so I had to get away from it. If I hadn't, it would have been emotionally more damaging than it was.

It was tough because there were good people there and there was a lot to like about The Situation. Despite the challenges, I and others had been able to effect some small change. Some good was accomplished, but at great cost.

Frenetic activity was the rule. Chaos persisted. And that was not a good situation for me to be in.

Besides, I prefer my spaghetti on a plate and not the wall.

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Have you ever been in a frenetic situation? How did you deal with it? Describe your situation in the comments!

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