Monday, February 22, 2010

Really, It Depends

I'm filling out a self assessment form for my Organizational Design class. The form asks questions with two possible answers and asks you to "score" the two answers by assigning them a number such that the two responses add up to five. You're supposed to give the higher number to the choice you prefer.

So if the question is
Which do you prefer?
Vanilla 1
Chocolate 4

You are clearly all about the chocolate. I think this questionnaire is supposed to tell you how comfortable you are with change (since this weeks reading was all about being a change agent, and it asks questions like "It is harder to adjust to 1) Standard Procedures 2) Frequent Changes.")

I noticed a few things while filling out this questionnaire. As background, part of what I do for a living is implement new software-and I love doing it-but at the same time I can sympathize with the users' frustration when they discover that whatever new system I've just imposed on them isn't as comfortable as the old one. All of this is to say I've done a decent amount of thinking about change. In fact, part of *why* I do what I do for a living is that change is scary and one of the best ways to deal with scary things is to gain some measure of control over them.

This brings me to the main point of what is missing from this questionnaire about change. One of the most important indicators of whether or not any given person is going to be comfortable with change is how much control they have over the situation. I am much more comfortable with a change that I have helped shape than with one that is imposed on me from above and I bet I'm not the only one who feels that way. It's true that I cause changes to happen for a living, so perhaps my perspective is a little different than that of most people. But with the exception of the hard core, heels in the mud "No change is acceptable at all" position, it seems to me that most people are more receptive to change they helped design and that ultimately, people's preference for their own ideas is much more important than how they feel about change.

Less important, but also interesting to me was that context matters. For example, one of the questions asked whether I preferred people who were visionaries to people who were hard-nosed realists. Another (really the starting point for this blog post) asked if I preferred people with vivid imaginations or people with good common sense. Now I realize that this questionnaire is from a textbook for an MBA program, so there is an implication that when it asks about your preferences for people it means coworkers-not friends. But the answer I'd give to that one question is widely different in the personal realm than it is in the professional realm. I want my friends to be creative. And so long as I don't have to split the electric bill with them, I mostly don't care how practical they are. NB-This is not to say that I want my friends to be impractical-it just means that I would prefer that they had good imaginations (and in fact, if you examine my friends you will find a host of imaginative humans-many of them with the letters MFA after their names.)

What I'd want in a business partner is not what I'd want in a friend. In a business partner (or, even just a coworker) I'm much more interested in someone who is a member of the reality based community than someone who has five new business plans a week.

On another note, I have noticed positive changes in myself since I last filled out one of these silly questionnaires (A Myers Briggs assessment in 2008.) I am much less afraid of other people than I was at the time. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. For one, I no longer live with someone who tells me what a bad job I do talking to other people. For another, I have had to learn to stand on my own two feet professionally this past year and while I'm not crazy about the environment in which I work (although, as I have noted in other posts 1) I'm pretty sure that I have the respect of everyone but my boss-which is comforting and 2) it's really not such a bad place to work when the owners are absent.) Being accepted into the MBA program probably helped as well. But while I'm still nervous and shy, I'm not as afraid of other people any more. Which is a good thing-possibly the only good thing this annoying little questionnaire will do for me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Let me tell you about my day

Really, I like the place I work an awful lot-when my boss is absent.

Today was Friday and I had nothing on fire and half the staff was out. I have been feeling kind of squished for the past few days, so instead of aggressively going after the stuff that needed to be done (and there were things that today was perfect for-like updating software.) I just wanted to sit and stare at the Internet.

Half way through the morning one of my coworkers reminded me that she had a problem with her signature file (in spite of the fact that it's based on exactly the same html file as every other sig file in the office, all the rest of them show our logo and hers just shows a red, broken jpg x.) So I screwed around with it for a while. I deleted the signatures folder from the application data file for her user account and recreated it, and re-copied the files from somewhere else on the network (this has always done the trick in the past) all with no joy. And with her and another co-worker offering suggestions. To be fair, these are some of the more tech savvy coworkers I have, but I have come to the conclusion that geek cred is not straightforward and universal. What do I mean by that? job is to keep the desktops and their software happy. As such, I know a great deal about the documents and settings folder and I've become more comfortable with the command line and regedit*, but this doesn't mean that I can write Excel Macros or Perl scripts. Conversely, neither my coworker who writes nice Excel macros nor my coworker who used to write software for a living were being particularly helpful with their suggestions. ("Maybe the problem is that it's a gif not a jpg." "are you sure it's pointing to the right directory?")

Which doesn't mean I particularly minded them making suggestions. No that's not quite right-in hindsight I don't mind them trying to second guess me, because being able to answer their questions meant I was doing a thorough job and understood what I was dealing with. Either way it beats having to help the technically incompetent and I was pleased to see that I could explain the problem to them (more or less) instead of saying "look it's supposed to work but it just doesn't okay?"

I tried a few things off the interwebs to try to fix the problem (including the one that involved the regedit), but none of them worked. So I called back the software vendor who was supposed to help me re-integrate our document management system and our crm and attempted to restore another piece of software to its "pre-server 2008" state, and listened to a coworker bitch about the state of the trading policy (sympathetically, I might add. My vision may be a bit skewed by the political analysis paper I wrote, but when I think about the place I work I think about Aesop's fable about how the most powerful person is always right.)

And then the office manager sent out a request for help stuffing envelopes. I started as the office manager and I've stuffed plenty of envelopes in my life and I know how much it sucks to have to deal with a giant pile of papers to be folded and stickers to be attached all by yourself, so when my help at envelope stuffing is requested, I try to offer it if I can. (On the other hand, when it is imposed on me from above I avoid it. Envelope Stuffing is no longer part of my job description.) In fact, I judge my coworkers (especially those on the "support staff" side of the house) on how willing they are to respond to such requests and I have to say they all show up to help when they can.

So. We're sending a letter to all our clients telling them that we will donate funds to our Donor Advised Fund if they refer people who become clients to us (we had planned to donate money to the charity of their choice, but our compliance attorney said that wouldn't fly. So instead we're essentially offering to put some money aside for future donations to charitable organizations of our choice if clients refer people to us.) We have a letter explaining all this and a pretty flier that our marketing people produced along with a CD from the Boston Children's Chorus (one of our charities of choice) to send out.

Unfortunately, the envelopes that we have don't fit all of this comfortably. Plus, someone insisted that this letter be mail merged-even though we can't send it out in windowed envelopes. So someone has to make sure that the sticker that goes on the bubble envelope (bubble because of the CD) matches the name on the letter inserted. To do otherwise would be Very Bad because our privacy policy states that we do not disclose the names of our clients. So if you are Jenny Smith and you get a letter that has Bob Smith's name on it we have failed. For the most part we've managed this by buying windowed envelopes and stopping printing clients names on things, but someone (my boss) decided that we needed to print client names on this letter.

I spent an hour or so folding and stapling letters. I was pleasantly surprised to see my coworkers show up and ask to help. First Em-a financial planning associate who always tries to help out (partly because she is friends with the other young ladies who do the envelope stuffing) but also Er, the financial analyst dude who sits behind me. When I went back to my desk to see if the software vendor I had left a message for had gotten back to me (she had) I kicked another coworker off of her computer but she said it was all good because she had planned to help with the envelope stuffing anyhow.

So, all good people. All willing to lend a hand (while discussing what pranks we'd played on the owners and all sorts of amusing internal-non-bitchy gossip).

Why can't it be like this all the time anymore?

*although I still maintain that any day that involves a visit to regedit is a bad day. In part because it means someone whose software you need has screwed up.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Personal observations about study

I am sitting in my apartment in Beverly at my kitchen counter. In my lap is a copy of Managing_For_The_Future_Organizational_Behavior_and _Processes. I am reading a case study of a fictional MA business called Dynacorp and typing notes for the paper on this case study on my Macbook as I read.

And this is all a bit weird. For several reasons. I spent most of my undergrad career writing papers on a computer that made Strong Bad's first PC look good. I couldn't type while staring at the textbook and until October 2009, I had roommates. So this is all a set of relatively new developments. Hopefully, it will be enough to get me through this class.

I graduated from college in 1997. That was the last time I wrote a paper. I've taken classes since then, but they were classes in Access or Linux or SQL. I had problem sets for those classes-not papers. I have written things for business since 1997, but those were password policies or marketing pieces (Dear Client- here's why you should use this great new service of ours) not papers. And of course, I've written a thing or two on this blog I have, but none of it's been about Organizational Design (me bitching about work doesn't count.)

Through most of my college career I was an indifferent student. I did reasonably well in my major (French literature) because I liked it and I was good at reading things and analyzing them to extract meaning. And because I enjoyed speaking and reading French. But I didn't really apply myself. When a course I took became boring or hard I stopped paying attention and relied on my native intelligence to produce papers or problem sets that were "good enough." In terms of passing classes this worked-most of the time. I wasn't particularly worried about getting enough credits to graduate, and I didn't particularly care about my GPA.

All of my education since then has been different. In 2004 I started taking classes at Bunker Hill Community College. I did this because there were things I wanted to learn, and my employer was willing to pay for them because they fell in line with things that would make me better at my job (Computer Hardware, Access, Operating Systems, etc.) But I also knew I was taking these classes to see if I could get my mind back into academia so that I could apply for some sort of post-graduate education.

I could see the difference in myself as a student immediately-starting with the first course I took (Operating Systems in 2004 for the record). In spite of the fact that I was attending class after working a full day I was often the only one in the room taking notes (and much better notes than I'd have taken at age 18-21). Some of my friends pointed out that I was spending too much time in the "kiddie pool" (Taking undergrad classes) when really I should apply to grad school already, but I don't regret anything I learned at Bunker Hill-even the classes I sat through where I knew as much as the professor on the subject matter because I still learned something in those classes (I learned that I knew something other people were willing to sit through a class to learn-that has value.)

So now here I am in my first graduate school course. It's at U Mass Boston. It's a class that's about teamwork and organizational design. I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. I'm not 22 and starting my first desk job-I've worked in small businesses through my whole career (by choice.) I've been on task forces and long standing committees and I've learned to work with people who work in different "departments." I've learned how to get buy-in for a project from the people who might object before presenting said project to the entire staff. Surely this is going to be a class in Stuff I Already Know.


This class is kicking my ass a bit. Although I read the way most people breathe, and I'm pretty sure that if I had to I still have the skills to put together a decent, short paper on Anna_Karenina or Kristen_Lavrensdatter if I felt like it, reading the textbook for this class makes me feel like I'm dyslexic. Putting together a paper on what I've read feels like I'm working in a second language that I don't know very well. And my classmates are all pretty smart. I'm on a team with two guys who are both taking more than one class and working full time. And in spite of this I feel like I'm playing catch up ball when we meet (some of this might have to do with the 12 day work week I had last week, but still.)

When I left class with one of them I mumbled something like "oy vey so much homework!" and he replied "You knew what you were getting into when you signed up for this." Well no, I had no idea what I'd signed up for. I only knew that it was Necessary. And that's the difference between the undergraduate degree I got in 1997 and the graduate degree I am starting out in 2010. I am not just doing this because it is what one does between the ages of 18 and 21 (along with Learning to Live with Other People and the occasional alcohol poisoning.) I am doing it because I really want to put the letters MBA after my name.

Unlike my undergrad experience, I do care about my GPA. Unfortunately, also unlike my undergrad experience, I can't just take classes in subjects that come easily to me. I am at U Mass Boston to learn things that I do not yet know, not (as I had previously thought) to certify things I already knew. In spite of the fact that this makes things harder, I'm actually okay with this (although I'm awfully glad I'm only taking one class this term.)

Why am I okay with this? (In spite of the fact that as I was getting coffee this morning and talking to two of my coworkers who have MBAs I said "this is harder than undergrad work and one of them said "no it isn't." Oh dear.) Well for one, being surrounded by smart people is always a good thing. It makes you try to be smarter. For another, academia is different from real life in that it is more open and accepting and as such produces confidence. People in my class talk to each other and to me in a way they would not at a staff meeting or a Fidelity conference. In this class, as there was in my undergraduate education, there's the assumption of an even footing-we're all MBA candidates and we all met the criteria to be accepted. As opposed to the business world, where XYZ with a CFP's word is more important than Cantabridgienne's (even if the subject is a piece of software that I have spent 5 years with and XYZ has just bought.

So apparently my social life looks dim and I'm going to ave to work my ass off for class number one of 18 (I'm going to spend Valentine's Day writing a paper) but as I said, I'm okay with this because I'm surrounded by smart people who like me, desire above all else to put the letters MBA after their names.