"Arrrrgh! Damn you Corporate America! Why do you mock me so? You haunt me to my doom!" Although you may not be so Shakespearian in lamenting your lot in work-life, I am near certain that you have felt this sense of resignation and frustration in almost every corporate job you have held.
Misery Doesn't Give a Crap About Company
Despite what others will tell you, it is cold comfort to know that you are not alone in this regard. For some reason this situation seems to be the exception to the adage "happiness shared is doubled, sorrow shared is halved." I believe there are several reasons for the sheer depth of this dark pit of despair, the most primary being that people do not see any reason for their suffering. Most hard-working people don't mind suffering, as long as it is for a cause and they see an end. Even a very distant end for the people that come after them is good enough, and that can be a cause in itself.
I hope to shed some light on the cause for the suffering. In doing so, I am attempting to give people some perspective and hope in preparation for the next time they are faced with the soul-crushing weight felt from being under the thumb of "The Man." Although the darkness seems to lurk around many corners with a seemingly endless variety of sources, most of the scenarios can be classified into two different themes -- getting things started and getting things finished.
Hardest Thing #1 - Getting Things Started
Getting things started in medium and large enterprises is the hardest the thing to do in Corporate America (except for the other hardest thing to do -- getting things finished). Executive management is fond of saying "Just get started!" This mantra is a direct result of the "veto effect" that seems to dominate so many corporate cultures.
You may be unaware of the veto effect, but I would argue that you are not unfamiliar with it. How many times have you seen ideas and concepts go nowhere because of one or two negative voices who seem to see only the obstacles rather than the possibility? The manner in which this one "no" shuts down efforts to improve can be highly baffling, as it doesn't seem to be correlated with authority as much as it is to consensus.
The resulting stagnation of the veto effect is akin to a turd in the punch bowl because, once there, no one even likes the thought of drinking punch. This "aversion to punch" is a direct result of people not wanting to be attached to an idea that might fail after someone highlighted a concern.
Being able to pivot conversations back into constructive possibility, after the turd has been dropped, is ridiculously hard. When faced with the turd, every instinct compels you towards one of two reactions: direct confrontation or complete surrender. Successfully pivoting back into possibility and helping others to see boundaries, as in the words of Dr. Randy Pausch "tests to see how much you want something," is an art form that few people inside the corporate machine have mastered.
Hardest Thing #2 - Getting Things Finished
Getting things finished in medium and large enterprises is the hardest thing to do in Corporate America (except for the other, aforementioned, hardest thing to do). Just following the executive management mantra of "Just get started!" comes the inevitable follow up -- "Push the complex scope to phase 2." I cannot speak to everyone else's experience, but in mine, perseverance and lasting commitment are just as rare inside corporate walls as consensus.
Thanks to the secret masters of corporate strategy, publishers of airline magazines, sustaining multi-year programs, especially in UX and IT departments, is almost impossible. The allure of the next shiny object is so powerful and omnipresent it seems to derail the sustained effort necessary to get big things accomplished.
Legacy platforms (or should I say anchors?) are akin to communicable diseases. The cost benefit analysis for stamping out the last case of small pox will never be as attractive or beneficial as starting the fight with bird flu.
The same can be said with old and new paradigms and platforms. Removing the last few instances of a clunky and obsolete implementation will never make it past the investment boards who look at ROI as the holy grail. Even if a project is underway to sunset something, there is always the lurking shadow of executive management deciding on a new strategy.
So, Just How is this Supposed To Help?
The secret to not letting these ever so frustrating dynamics get you down is this: Realizing that they are actually good. Good for the world, good for the company, good for the team and good for you.
To show that this is true, imagine the mirror universe and decide which one you would rather be in. In the mirror universe where things are easy to start and finish:
- Nothing is challenging anymore
- There is neither a sense of, nor opportunity for, learning and growth
- There is no place for talents and gifts
- There is no place for rewards and recognition
- There is no place for highly paid staff
Remember that we humans don't do things because they are easy. We do hard things because they are hard! Easy is fun once or twice and only for a few minutes. Challenging tasks beckon you back over and over because of the challenge.
Next time you see or sense the dread, don't share the misery. Reframe the situation and share the joy. It might be just the thing that keeps the team going long enough to get something big started (or finished)!
Editor's Note: Check out some of Fishman's How To's: How To: Getting Started in User Experience (UX) and How To: Overcoming the Rogues Gallery in Workshops.