Tag Archives: organizational culture

Don’t be Pug, the Biker Pooch

I met Pug, the Biker Pooch, yesterday morning at the motorcycle repair shop where my daughter’s death trap – I mean Bike – was getting worked on. Adorable little Pug. All decked out in his doggie goggles and head gear. He looked like a tiny Amelia Earhart. I fussed over him a bit, took his picture with my iPhone, then tweeted his likeness out to the Twitterverse.

But all the while, I kept thinking, “Am I witnessing Poochie abuse?”

I mean, really. Does little Pug have a choice? His owner, Nice Biker Guy, dresses him up, straps him on the back of his motorcycle and off they go. Does Pug, the Biker Pooch, get a choice? Does he like being strapped on the back of a motorcycle? Does he enjoy the outfit he’s wearing? Is he even safe?

At first I was thinking how sad for the little pup to submit to the indignity of doll clothes. Then I realized maybe the goggles really kept him safe. But hold on. His owner, Biker Guy, gets a real helmet, reinforced jacket, and heavy boots to protect him from flying rocks or, heaven forbid, a nasty spill. Will a little bit of head-mounted leather keep Little Biker Pooch from harm?

Nice Biker Guy told me Pug’s story and how he rescued the little pooch 12 years ago in the DMZ when Biker Guy served in the Army. Pug was a stray. He was scheduled to be “put down,” but Biker Guy asked for a chance with him. From that day on, their partnership flourished. Fast forward to today. Pug’s a pretty low-key kinda’ pup. But I have to wonder, is he just old? The little guy barely even moves. (Yes, he’s alive. He blinked at me a few times.)

So, here’s my question: Does Pug like the direction his life has taken, or has he given up the fight and accepted his fate as a teeny circus show animal? 

We’ll never know, now will we? But I started thinking about work. So many parallels.

Sadly, I’ve seen many a Biker Pooch at the office. You know what I’m talking about: employees who appear submissive and lifeless. Each day revolves around doing what they’re told – even if it means dressing up in leather and goggles and hopping on the back of the bike.  Ok, I’m being facetious…but sometimes it looks like that to me

Think about it. Some of your coworkers may seem to check reason at the door when they clock in. They may assume mandates given by a “superior” must be valid, whether or not they make sense. Time and again, I’ve had colleagues tell me our management must know what they’re doing – as if management has some magic formula to make wrong things right.

Now let’s look at that. Just because someone holds a position of authority, it doesn’t make him or her superior – in knowledge, experience, or even skill. A title on a business card can mean nothing more than words printed on paper. Why, oh why, do we condition our children to think that anyone with a title must be respected  – despite actions that prove otherwise? They grow up worshipping authority. Wanting it. Resenting when they don’t have it. Sorry, here I go on another tangent.

Quick story: I worked for a manager who blustered and brow-beat and strong-armed his way through any discussion. He would stake a claim (decision) and stick with it stubbornly, no matter the documented evidence that his claim might be an unwise course of action. At some point in the debate, he would switch his decision and announce that we misunderstood him because this NEW position had been his ONLY position all along. He blew smoke around the room to make others think they’d lost their minds — never admitting he’d changed his mind. I was amazed how easily my colleagues accepted blame, and bought the premise that they simply misinterpreted the manager’s position. One colleague gushed about how brilliant this manager was. His reason: everyone in the room appeared confused and clueless. I suggested perhaps the “brilliant manager” was spreading confusion to mask his own cluelessness. Ah, the heresy. 

My point: Just because management makes a decision, doesn’t mean the decision is right.

So what do you do when the decision doesn’t feel right? Ask questions. Nicely. Discretely. Respectfully. But, don’t just “follow” a decision because someone above you makes it. We all make mistakes – from the lowest to the highest levels. Checks and balances, the foundation of our entire federal system, play an important role in any organization…or family, for that matter. Listen to your gut!

If a decision doesn’t make sense to you, it’s probably because the decision doesn’t make sense. 

So let’s get back to Pug, Little Biker Pooch. He really doesn’t have a choice, now does he? He could bark and fuss and make a stink. But how do we know he didn’t do that in the beginning? How do we know Nice Biker Guy didn’t break down his resistance and force him into submission through the 12 years they’ve been together. How do we know Little Pug didn’t merely gave up trying? 

Moral to the story: Don’t submit to questionable decisions at work (or with family and friends) against your better judgment. Don’t assume others know more than you and, therefore, their decisions must be right.

Think! Question! Probe! Decide for yourself!

If, however, you like the goggles and leather head gear, by all means strap yourself on the back of the bike and enjoy the ride. If you don’t, take steps to STOP the MADness.

Remember: You have a choice, unlike little Pug.

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Filed under federal government, leadership, NASA

Want Change? Bring Your Ax!

“Do you not know, my son, with what LITTLE understanding the world is ruled?”

Pope Julius III

I spoke to a group of  University of Texas LBJ School graduates in Washington DC last night. The sky let loose like a water stampede the VERY moment I stepped to the lobby door at NASA Headquarters to catch a cab for my ride over 19th and Pennsylvania. Great. Nothing like showing up bedraggled (I love that word). Thanks guys for braving the weather to make it there!

For our discussion, I pulled together a list of the undercurrents that prevent progress in the federal government.  In my early years at NASA, I charged forward with starry eyes and idealistic plans, only to trip over unseen obstacles on my way to my grand scheme to:

Change the World for Good. 

I know, I know. Goody two shoes. Believe me, I’ve been called worse. 😉

In my idealism and enthusiasm, I made a good many mistakes. I failed to see all the unwritten rules that govern how work is done — the CULTURE of the organization. Often, people steeped in the organizational culture are blind to it. So was I, at first.

My biggest (and hardest) lesson over the years:

Change does NOT appeal to everyone.

Shocking, I know. But as hard as it was for me to conceive, many are QUITE comfortable with status quo…AND may have built their identities around the Here-and-Now.

Change = Unknown.

The unknown may appear dark and murky and unappealing to some. To others, the unknown is an intriguing, thrilling challenge.

Quick story: When my Mother came up to DC years ago, I suggested she hop on the Metro and explore what the City had to offer. Day after day I came home to find she hadn’t left the house. I couldn’t imagine all those missed opportunities, all the treasures left undiscovered — all within an easy 10 minute ride from the house. I mean, REALLY. WASHINGTON DC!!!!

When I pressed her, she made this comment:

“I don’t explore. YOU do.”

Wow. I’d never thought about it. I realized for the first time that I truly AM an explorer. I want to know what’s behind the unopened door. I look for new pathways, new approaches, new solutions. I want to know what I don’t know. My mother helped me understand why I was such a “pain in the backside” to my colleagues at work who dragged their feet with new projects or new approaches to old processes. They MUST have felt the same frustration with me my Mother did. They were perfectly content doing the same things the same ways as they always did before I entered the mix.

I began to reassess how I viewed those resistance to change. I needed a better understanding on how “the world is ruled” (Pope Julius IIII quote above). I offer a few “unspoken truths” I’ve gleaned about everyday behavior within change-resistant people and the organizations in which they thrive. 

Change-resistant Culture:

  1. Every new idea is an idea that didn’t work in the past.
  2. Don’t ask why. Do it because it’s always been done this way. 
  3. Activity IS the outcome.
  4. The answer is no, no matter the question.
  5. Hole-digging is easier than mountain-climbing. (Or, it’s easier to dig a hole than climb out of one.
  6. Ruts provide a narrow point of view. The deeper the rut…
  7. Comfort in process can mean discomfort with change.
  8. Bureau-train on autopilot. Conductor need not apply.

None of these are solutions. They simply give me a starting point to understand where we get stuck and how we might inch forward from here.

For example, look at #3: Activity=Outcome. I firmly believe this as the #1 reason the government resists telework/telecommuting initiatives. “Managing by Activity” means we measure success by how busy someone looks. We create “activity reports” and spend time filling them — which is “activity” in and of itself. We list the number of phone calls we make, or meetings we attend. Whew! Full day indeed! Yet, what did we accomplish? If managers measure performance by watching employees “be busy” rather than produce results, then how can a manager allow the employee to work outside his/her line of sight? “Managing by OUTCOME”…now that’s a scary thought to a culture steeped in activity-based success. We’re not good at giving employees a project with clear goals and deadline (OUTCOME), then setting them free to make the magic happen. If we were, we wouldn’t care where they got the job done — telework.

Here’s another example. Let’s look at #6: the dreaded rut (read habit). If we’re stuck in the rut and want out, what tools do we need? Maybe it’s as simple as a rope or a ladder. Perhaps we need blasting powder. What next? Do we fill in the rut to prevent backsliding or retreat? How do we fill the rut? Sand bags? Dump truck? Shovel? Now what? Where do we go from here? What new path do we want to forge? Do we need a compass? Do we face barbed wire? Forest? Desert? Sea? Whichever direction we take will require different tools. You get my drift. 

Unspoken “givens” in an organization influence how we get the job done, whether we know it or not.  

I haven’t even TOUCHED the topic of change in a toxic organization, which can represent a direct assault on the power structure. Those in power will resist change with all available resources to preserve even the smallest appearance of authority. But, alas, I’ll leave this for another blog-post.

Kudos to all of you out there COMMITTED to CHANGE in governmental process. Yay! You won’t be at all surprised to learn this:

 the Federal bureaucracy moves at glacier-speed.

Think about it. Have you EVER tried to stop a creeping ice mound? We have MUCH work to do, so GET OUT your PICKAX! But when you do, ALWAYS remember:

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

Hyman Rickover

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Filed under federal government, NASA, space