Salad Days

    by Thomas Goebel

    Robert Frost said, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” 

    Afternoon has arrived for the Boomers.  Soon, it will be evening, and they will gaze after the dying sun from their porches, hoarding what little remaining heat they can from long and rewarding lives, and reaching for the aspirin. 

    Don’t let that trick knee mislead you, though.  There has been no debilitating injury to the mind.  All systems are go there.  Collectively, the Boomer generation has the mental capacity and experience to rule the world.  So what’s keeping the Sixties bunch from exercising complete power? 

    Culture.  Or, more accurately, pop culture.  Oh, and technology.  Don’t worry.  It’s not like Boomers don’t get the multiple streams of technology.  It’s more likely that it doesn’t excite them.  Most of them can’t be bothered.  When they do find something that interests them, they approach it cautiously, as if dipping a toe in the water.   That makes Millenials laugh.  

    Ah, the Millenials. 

    Who are the Millenials?  The name is whispered among older workers as if referring to a Dark Menace.  Millenials are at once spoken of with awe and scorn.  Awe because they alone possess the keys that can unlock the multiple media in which their generation traffics.  Scorn because they are perceived to be disconnected from any ties to what got us to this point.  In fact, older citizens often see Millenials (those born between the years of 1980 and 1999, roughly speaking) as out-of-touch as the younger set see them.  A standoff will surely ensue.  

    The Boomers predate the Millenials by 35 years, and are the next big wave to start checking out of the workforce, voluntarily or not.  Corporate leaders, more and more, are embracing the benefits of the latter approach, and are tripping over themselves to replace exiting Boomers with fresh new faces.  We know these faces are fresh and new because we can see them in the glow of the phone screens they’re affixed to. 

    To discriminate against somebody because we think they are too old is illegal in the United States and in many other places.  For proof of how effective this law is, we’ve made it illegal to ask somebody how old they are when they are applying for a job; that is to say, we don’t have much faith in ability of prospective employers to self-police.  Reality is a harsh mistress, though, and age is not a hard quality to discern.  While advanced age is an indication of wisdom and experience in some cultures, it can often be viewed as a disadvantage here in the States. 

    What can be done?  A realistic approach is to accept that many companies will – either actively or passively – be reluctant to make a long-term investment in what they see as a short-term payoff.  We know all the arguments: health-care, too-high salaries, etc.  Armed with this, the mature job-seeker has alternatives. 

    The first is networking.  Networking isn’t easy, and it is a skill that requires development.  Unemployment support groups feature speakers who tout the magical qualities of robust networking with the glow of the recently converted.  Indeed, realizations of the power of networking often descend on people only when they are ready to accept it.  Once you’ve crossed this Rubicon, you can get to work opening other doors. 

    Everyone talks about consulting, but it boils down to this: you need to have a skill or talent that somebody is willing to pay for.  Sometimes you have one that you don’t know you have.  Sometimes you think you have one and you don’t.  As you network, ask questions and listen, you will gain greater understanding of what you can offer the market.  The same holds true for purchasing or owning a business.  It’s never too late to go down this path, but the experience you’ve gained over a lifetime should help you to wisely avoid many pitfalls unseen in youth. 

    Smaller companies are ripe for exploring.  The important thing to remember here is that smaller companies often pay smaller salaries.  But accepting that you may not be able to reach your previous level is probably the smart thing to do.  In doing so, though, you are gaining leverage in the marketplace by offering more (knowledge and experience) for less (salary and headache). 

    Finally, there are “back door” approaches that can open up opportunities.  Volunteering or pro bono work gives you exposure through a variety of venues, often ones that excite repressed passions.  Involvement in multiple enterprises and activities also increases your visibility.  In your perambulations, you will discover that your options aren’t disappearing.  They’re just changing. 

    And don’t be too hard on the kids.  They’re as confused as you are.

    The Velvet Glove

    The Velvet Glove

    Thomas Goebel

    I’m not a desk-pounder.  You know the type of person I mean.  The desk-pounder is the guy in the meeting who is adamant about what he wants to accomplish in his project, and he wants you to know that he is adamant.  He drives home his message by adamantly (figuratively or literally) pounding the table in meetings.

    I’m adamantly opposed to this.

    My style is more give-and-take.  I say something.  They say something.  Of course, if the other person is a desk-pounder, they interrupt before I’m finished.  Being a somewhat slow talker exacerbates the situation (an old boss thought I should come with a “progress bar”!).  But this is the nature of civil discourse.  Developing means for coping with the desk-pounding colleague sis truly the way the best progress gets made.

    What’s bad about one-sided conversations?

    When considering this question, the most obvious answer is that only a portion of potentially good ideas get aired.  Eventually, the project team winds up with monolithic and dictatorial solutions.  There is another side effect: the people whose ideas are being ignored also see their (cost-cutting, scope-limiting) dissent dismissed.  Lack of alternative viewpoints can be devastating to a project.

    Take risk management.  This is a field that is rife with preconceptions and biases.  Rushing headlong into a project phase after considering only one risk scenario can lead to project destruction.  The desk-pounder typically presses for rapid agreement to his proposed solution.  Evaluation and management of risk benefits greatly from the input and experience of all project participants.  (The caveat here, of course, is that this process cannot go on indefinitely; the good project manager processes the input and arrives at a decision in short order.)

    Urgency is the enemy of sound decision-making.  Unscrupulous salesmen often use urgency as a tool to keep you from having enough time to arrive at a decision that might not benefit them, especially if the product they’re selling is questionable.  In the same way, the desk-pounder will at times employ urgency to push through his solution.  Rare is the instance when dedicating a little-time to consideration of a decision turns out to be a bad thing.  Furthermore, better decisions make for fewer problems – and fewer opportunities for assigning blame – later in the project.

    The fist pounding the desk can often belong to the customer, and it’s hard to ignore a loud voice when it’s providing the funding.  Probably the most common problem associated with this is scope creep.  It’s in every human’s DNA to want to get a little extra.  While a well-place/well-timed concession may be helpful for the provider-client relationship, it is clear that the project manager must be careful to reign in requests before they get out of control.  The charter and the contract are two of the most important tools at the project manager’s disposal, and provide a great defense against demanding desk-pounding.

    “I’m over here!”

    So how do we get managers and colleagues to engage in dialogue where everbody gets heard?

    It’s critical for the project manager to get a handle on controls and stakeholders at the start.  Setting reasonable ground rules about meetings and other interactions goes a long way toward establishing and maintaining control.

    It’s also important to remove as many “fire-starters” – or opportunities for conflict and tension to arise – as possible.  For instance, pre-assignment (without too much detail) of duties for team members often eliminates much territorial squabbling, and can help limit desk-pounding.  Developing techniques for respectfully shutting down desk-pounders helps the project manager give voice to all contributors while maintaining control.  Comedians do this all the time.  Great comedians do it without inflaming the situation.

    Many people working internationally don’t take the time to learn about the culture they’re interacting with.  Consequently, they can sometimes end up being like a bull in a china shop, destroying relationships and good ideas before they see the light of day.  Worse, they come across as a desk-pounder.  It’s important to know one’s audience.

    Saving the desk

    The project manager who wants to be an effective leader needs to cultivate ways to deal with the desk-pounder in his meetings, and that takes time.  But the sooner the project manager starts initiating steps to deal with people who want to drive the ship, the sooner he or she can confidently take the help.  The good project manager will find with experience that pounding the desk is rarely necessary.

    Still, you might want to keep an iron fist inside that velvet glove.