Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Chapter 21


When I first started working, every facet of my job was laid out for me in minute detail. I worked for an insurance brokerage. I worked in a big room with nine other people, but I didn’t have to worry about what anybody was doing but me. I typed residential homeowners policies. Other people typed other kinds of policies. They had to be perfect, because they were legal documents. The policies were pre-numbered so my supervisor had to log every one that was messed up (black marks for me). She checked them all thoroughly. I didn’t have a computer and a correcting typewriter wouldn’t have done me any good because there were two carbons, so I had to concentrate and be very careful.

That first experience helped to make me very meticulous about my work. But I also learned to focus only on what I was doing. They had it planned that way. They had mapped out every task for maximum efficiency, like an assembly line. As you can imagine, it was pretty boring. If I had still been there when they brought in computers to do the work, as they did a few years later, I doubt that I would have minded losing my job to automation. Of course, I didn’t know how to do anything else there, just that one thing, so there would have been no other job for me.

I have never worked in an environment that structured again, but I have often acted as if I did. Most of the time, that has seemed like the higher good -- to concentrate on what I was doing, not to worry about what other people were doing, and that is also what I wanted from the people who worked for me. But I have learned since then that people do need to understand how their job affects other people’s jobs and the whole process.

Even when people are doing jobs so different that they can’t be cross-trained or do each other’s work for a day, I have come to believe that everyone in the company should know something about everyone else’s job. And the closer that job is to their own, the more they should know about it.

Many of the conflicts that I have been involved in and that I have seen other people involved in over the years have occurred because someone didn’t understand what responsibilities and problems another person had. In the past, it has often seemed to me that other people were favored with a lighter workload or easier work than I was and I have often resented it. But when I was a consultant and a truly neutral observer, people often told me things like that about each other, and it was almost never true. It’s just that if you don’t know what someone is doing, they don’t seem to be doing anything.

Another consideration is that jobs do change from time to time, even if they have remained the same for many years. There have been transcriptionists, I suppose, as long as there have been tape recorders, all of my life, at least. But someday soon someone will get voice recognition to work consistently and then what? It’s better to be valuable to your company or your industry in many ways instead of just one way.

I participated in a game at a company retreat one time. We broke up into teams of five. Four of us were blindfolded and one person was not. That person knew what the task was and had to get the rest of us to do it without telling us what it was. Those of us who were blindfolded started out kneeling on the floor. Our leader put the end of a string in my hand and said, “Hold this.” I held it. I could hear her telling the others the same. Then she came back to me and told me to pull the string taut. I did. “Good,” she said. “Raise the string about an inch, keeping it taut.” “A little higher.” “Okay, hold it.” She gave similar instructions to the other people. She told some to go a little higher or a little lower, to pull tighter. She had us each slowly raise our strings. At one point, we had to get up off our knees and stand up, keeping the string at the same height and keeping it taut. I could feel pressure on the string, but I didn’t know what it was. It took about 10 minutes for us to accomplish the task. Then we took our blindfolds off.

The four of us who were blindfolded had raised a cup of water about four feet off the floor by the four strings that were tied around it. We did it again with our blindfolds off. It took about 10 seconds. I was really impressed that we had lifted a cup of water without spilling it, by strings, blindfolded, without even knowing what we were doing. I was so fascinated by the fact that our tiny actions could add up to that just by trusting the person who was guiding us and doing exactly what we were told that I missed the point. It came to me later.

I used to think that people couldn’t help me because they weren’t me, they didn’t have the intelligence, experience, and/or skills that I did or care about the work as much I did. As a co-worker of mine once said, “I wanted it done right, so I did it myself.” But I have finally noticed that most people do care about any work that they “own” and will complain about the same thing when other people try to help them with it. Most of us, it seems, have been taught to own just our piece of the work, whatever is within our immediate control, but we need to own the goal. I know now that it doesn’t matter much how well I finesse my part if the project is a failure.

The only way we can own the goal is to know what it is. We need to understand how our work contributes to it. We need to be able to see how other people’s work fits into it. If we know that, we can be another set of eyes and ears collecting information that the other people who share our goals need. We can help keep things moving in the right direction, we can be on the lookout for strays, we might even avert a disaster by being able to respond immediately to an unforeseen event.

It is not enough that managers know what is going on and talk to other managers. Everyone needs to know what is going on. I was talking to another manager once, telling her about a problem that one of my team had discovered in an area that was not her immediate responsibility and what we were going to have to do to correct it. It wasn’t going to be an easy fix.

“Don’t you wish they would just mind their own business?” she asked me.

“Well, I really needed to know about this problem,” I said, “and, anyway, everything we do is her business.”

Teach everyone to do everything so they can all learn new skills, so they can recognize an opportunity to help each other accomplish their common goals, and so they don't get in each other's way.


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