Monday, April 23, 2007

Irritating Ideas

From an alien land.

This from HuffPo caught me wrong.

Release 0.9: Open ToDo Lists
READ MORE: Esther Dyson

[the final Simonyi tour post is coming very soon now; it's in fact-check currently.]

Dina Kaplan of, Astro Teller of BodyMedia, John Hagel formerly of McKinsey, Matt Cohler of Facebook, Steve Starr from Revver and I were sitting around at Dialog yesterday and Dina came up with the notion of open to-do lists.

It's so hard to set priorities.... why not let the people who want things from you have a voice, too? Instead of moaning and sighing and telling people "Oh I'm so busy" - which often comes off as "Oh I'm so important" - why not post your to-do list and let people see for themselves...

The idea is not exactly to make a market or auction for your time - because money is not (or shouldn't be) the point. And what else could people bid for your time with? Perhaps a closed social network in which everyone is allocated timepoints to bid for others' time? What exchange rate would operate between, say, Sergey Brin and some young entrepreneur eager for his attention? Or between Tom Friedman and his many fans? [Shades of the attention economy here.]

Instead, the notion is to provide transparency so that people can (ideally) calibrate for themselves whether you will be interested/have time for their request. Of course, it wouldn't really work: People at either end of the spectrum are likely to miscalculate. The clueless will think their request is important no matter what else you have to do, and the people you really want to go out of the way for, may be too humble in their demands.

But it's an interesting thought experiment.... Thanks, Dina!

It sure sounds like fun to be in one of the upper berths of the economy. To dwell in an ecosystem where claims on one's time can perhaps be dealt with entrepreneurially; in ways that involve bidding, load balancing and the rational allocation of resources.

Thing is, I don't know of a single human operating in the labor market whose work-life functions in any way that even remotely resembles that world. Mind you I am not even arguing the efficacy of the proposition; rather, I am amused by the notion of the existence of such a rarified, moneyed, cultural orangery in which such an idea would even occur to someone as meriting serious consideration.

I am equally amused by the suggestion that it would fail due to “miscalculation[s]” on the part of the clueless and the humble.

Such are the musings of the…lolling class. Our American Eloi who ruminate on whether or not the garden in the south lawn would look better in pastels this year, or dressed in more vivid, primary colors.

I have nothing against such people; I do not begrudge them their good fortunes. But listening to them opine on the subject of the division of labor - on work, essentially -- reminds me of the parable of the two horses. One horse was clean of limb and eye, straight-backed and used to a life of frisking around the paddock, taking the children of the manor on little rides, and eating sugar and sweet grasses. The other horse's back was bent from years of hauling too-heavy sacks of grain. Its legs were splayed and its breath came in short pants.

The two came upon each other - one gamboling and one slogging under the weight of a load of oats - and the unencumbered horse recoiled in horror.

“How can you stand upright under such a murderous burden?” he asked.

“What burden?” came the answer.

In the world of work the classes so completely talk past each other's experiences and day-to-day realities that I thought I would take the opportunity afforded by Ms. Dyson's frivolous article to ask a different question.

Thing is, after a fashion I do share my “To Do” list with peers and friends and even my employer(s). Their responses run the Aristotle’s dramaturgical gamut from pity (“Holy shit. I had no idea.”) to terror (“Tell me, oh Ghost of Employment Yet to Come, are these the shadows of jobs that Will be, or are they shadows of what May be, only?”)

My employer(s) as a rule haven't given a shit.

The origins of this are lost in the mists of time, but I clearly remember the dawning of the Third Age of Fucking over Employees.

T'was in the Spring, in 1993 it was, and this book – “Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution” – was greeted by CEOs slavering to lay into their employees with threshers like the fall of Paris was greeted by the Nazis.

By 1995, James Champy had written another book - “Reengineering Management: Mandate for New Leadership” - which, among other things, was a carefully couched apologia for his first book, but the damage was done. Corporations had eagerly taken the book as a kind of a corporate indulgence; a permission slip that let them be butchers without any twinge of regret.

This from The Improvement Encyclopedia puts is pretty well:

In the early 90's Michael Hammer sparked one of the business/quality fads with a Harvard Business Review article entitled 'Don't Automate, Obliterate', in which he argued that continuous improvement and the use of technology in business processes was insufficient in a climate of rapidly increasing competition. In Hammer and Champy's follow-up book, they defined reengineering as:
"The fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical, contemporary measure of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed."

Reengineering, then, means throwing away previous concepts and starting again. At its best, it is creative and impressive, adding significant new value to the company. At its worst, it is an excuse for firing people (and it has been used for this). In many cases, what was called reengineering was (and still is), in reality, just restructuring or downsizing.

Like all fads, it was implemented poorly and had a failure rate of around 70% to 80% (spot the Pareto Principle!). The problem lay both with the inadequate understanding of companies (and consultants!), and also with Hammer and Champy's insufficient attention to the people side of things.

Reengineering gave a meat-axe to management morons, and moved the “other duties as required” paragraph of one's employment agreement out from from boilerplate bog of the last page and into new and merciless prominence.

Suddenly there were absolutely no upper limits on what your employer could demand of you. Suddenly, under the banner of “The Reengineering Revolution” you could show up to the job one day and find that the workforce had been mass-purged of the disloyal, the most senior, inconvenient nooners who had exceeded their shelf-lives and the pricey. S

Difficult issues of race and gender and age discrimination could be “solved” in bulk by simply “reinventing” people's jobs to require of them credentials they did not possess. And, poof, like magic they were gone.

Suddenly every office was “Glengarry Glen Ross”.

Consider that on a weekly basis I am given more work than I can possibly reasonably manage. By several different people. Each insist that their projects are The Projects and all insisting that the mutually contradictory Prime Directives I am being given aren’t their problem.

Tiny dump trucks just pull up and drop it on my desk.

Over time I have tried many variants of the time-point scheme Ms. Dyson suggests, even going so far as printing up time-vouchers, suggesting that people "let the market decide" which priorities were the most important with a 20% set-aside for emergencies.

Didn't work.

I have worked out calendars tracking the predictable cyclical ups and downs inherent in the business. Shown how, instead of insisting that every waking hour that employees are not sweating blood is wasted time, downtime can be used to “sharpen the axe" and be better prepared for actual surges and high tides.

Didn't work.

In my time I have been hired to bring just such temporal discipline to bear on out-of-control organizations. To stand between the drunks and the liquor cabinet, so to speak.

Didn't work.

Doesn't work.

And so long as the “drunk” can fire you and hire three yes-men the minute they're tired of playing, ain't ever gonna work.

Because what is “reasonable” is no longer defined or negotiated reasonably.

Because as any working person with a pair of eyes and a brain quickly figures out, whim and panic and a quest for bureaucratic glory almost always far outweigh reason and strategic thinking when it comes to setting and re-setting organizational priorities.

Ask any secretary who has had to serve two bosses. Ask any project manager who has had to orchestrate multiple initiatives for different cost centers. Ask any not-for-profit that has tried to work under multiple grants.

The idea of a hierarchy which rises smoothly to a coordinated decision caste inside of which conflicting priorities can be harmonized is long dead, and buried alongside it is the corpse of the last middle manager who was able to say “No, my team has too much on its plate already” to the suits and make it stick.

Instead we now live deep within the age of

Evilene the CEO.

The one who sings:

When you’re talkin’ to me
Don’t be cryin’ the blues
‘Cause don’t nobody bring me no bad news.
You can verbalize and vocalize
But just bring me the clues
But don’t nobody bring me no bad news.

The Boss does not want to hear no bad news. The Boss wants to hear his or her decisions are genius. And that they will be carried out at relativistic speeds.

This is what now passes for “visionary”.

And beneath the Boss – like baby birds waiting for their happy meals – we have the Executive Caste. Antennae cranked way, waaaay out and attuned to the Boss’ every chirp and twitter.

Whatever the request – a new global strategy, going fully wireless, or moving the home office three feet to the left -- the Executive Caste promises very lavishly. They are always getting right on it, and the Boss is always Steven Fracking Hawkings.

I’ve sat in meetings where manager after manager promised to deliver on some Giant Throbbing Imperative, never bothering to mention to the boss that their piece of the “work” would come to nothing more than passing the actual labor off to me with a bright red, ASAP priority tag. Where one manager for whom I did not work after another confidently promised away my time and never mention my name (I waited, largely for optimal dramatic effect, before nipping that shit in the bud.)

In ages past I've watched senior decision-makers punt on hiring really good people because those people would not commit to delivering on some batshit crazy deadlines that the senior exec had promised his boss, and then hire the first clown with executive hair and a firm handshake who would promise that, yeah…sure…I can build Rome in a day.

Of course Rome never gets built in a day. Or in six weeks, or six months, or two years. Or at all, because any competent Rome-builders have already been weeded out from day one because of their disruptive habit of telling the simple truth.

But by the time of the Great Reorganization Which Will Solve Whateverthefuck We Are Now Pretending The Problem Was, there will be a whole queue of demoralized, exhaustion-addled underlings who can be Pez-ed onto the grenade.

We who work know the routine.

Days evaporate. Evenings, weekends and holidays are all swallowed up into the “other duties as assigned” sinkhole.

Any discussion of the Sisyphusian impossibility of what we have been told to do is greeted with cavil lecture on the subject of better time management.

Any suggestion that it is a long-term bad idea to work a staff insane hours like grunts on PT for some passing whim that will be abandoned as soon as something newer and shinier catches the CEOs eye while he flips through “In Flight” magazine might as well come with a letter of resignation.

Because the dirty little secret of the world of work is that a vast number of working people spend the days and nights of their lives flogging dead, dying and wholly imaginary horses for no better reason than their boss thinks that it makes them look good.

From the Entertainment Guild:


In a bottom-line business like television, that's a cardinal sin. Already-low morale in the news division is dropping, says a veteran correspondent there.

"It's a disaster. Everybody knows it's not working. CBS may not cut her loose, but I guarantee you, somebody's thinking about it. We're all hunkered down, waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Seven correspondents, producers and executives at CBS and other networks interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity, given the sensitive nature of the Couric situation.

Couric's viewership has dropped nearly 30 percent since her Sept. 5 premiere week, when she averaged an inflated 10.2 million viewers and led CBS News to its first Nielsen win since June 2001.

In separate interviews, CBS News president Sean McManus and Evening News executive producer Rick Kaplan vehemently deny that Couric's future as anchor of the broadcast is in peril.

Couric "is the current anchor and the anchor of the future," McManus says. "Everyone at the network, from my boss [CBS Corp. president and chief executive Leslie Moonves] on down, is 100 percent behind her."

"Katie is the anchor until she decides to ride off into the sunset and do something else," says Kaplan, named e.p. March 8. "There is no one, no one, wringing their hands around here."

Others say CBS is in denial. "It's over. The only one who doesn't know it is CBS," says an executive at a rival network.
"I guess the evening news isn't ready for the morning news," quips Robert Lichter, president of Washington's Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Or, in the words of an NBC producer, "it's like asking a centerfielder to pitch. It's the same game, but requires totally different skills."

Contrary to popular opinion, gender is not an issue in the Couric situation, says analyst Marc Berman. "I give CBS a lot of credit for picking a woman. They just didn't pick the right woman."

Jennifer Pozner, executive director of New York's Women in Media & News, an educational and advocacy group, labels it "an infotainment issue."

"Couric came from Today, where bits of hard news are interspersed with diet tips and fall fashions." Had CBS hired Today coanchor Matt Lauer, the results would have been the same, Pozner says.

"Neither of them has the journalistic chops for the job. It's absolutely ridiculous that CBS wouldn't have predicted this."

To the chairmen of the business of making illegal war (shamelessly self-citing here):

Some of us knew full-well what it would probably be like to have a vicious, stupid, cowardly Imperial CEO, buffered from scrutiny a gutless, complicit Republican Congress.

A man who was hired by swine who view government – not Small government, or Large government, or Smart government or Responsive government…but ANY Government – as a failed product line full of nags and auditors to be gutted and outsourced so that Corporations could complete their evolution and take direct control of the United States. And use all of that yummy-yummy jurisprudent and military power to advance the causes and fortunes of the few.

And now, after five years of this tragedy of a Presidency and comedy of a Congress we can see the results: The craven bleatings of Kenny-Boy Lay and Heckuva-Job Dubya have become indistinguishable from one another, because they are both spun from the same ethically debased DNA.

Both men are the most degenerate example of the CEO culture where leaders not only are unaccountable, but arrogantly braying that they deserve to be unaccountable. That how DARE any mere mortal tread on that special set of Divine Law vouchsafed to them and them alone by their Boards and Almighty God to do whatever the fuck they want, whenever they damned well feel like it.

End Part 1.

Much of our world is run by such as these, and so, as I take my ease in the few unallocated hours between one very long day and the next, I cannot help but find the notion of an alien land where people have the time and leisure to ponder the best ways to apportion claims on their time -- “…because money is not (or shouldn't be) the point.” -- to occupy a region somewhere between back pain and bad porn.


Bob Munck said...

You're reading way, way too much into Esther Dyson's post. Her intent was simply to drop as many names as possible and tell us what a truly marvelous human being she is. That's pretty much what she does for a living.

I do agree with your main point, however, and was impressed that you managed to make it without reference to either Dilbert or The Office. That the country's increased productivity and soaring corporate profits is based on massive increases of the pressure to perform on the worker bees is just another aspect of our journey to a full-blown caste system.

Stephen A said...

That was a world class beatdown, drifty. You and Lower Manhattanite are really establishing a murderer's row of bloggers. Once Steve G returns the ground will tremble.

Anonymous said...

Drifty, your writing is so far superior to anything in the major mainstream media outlets these days...

Here I'm wondering how much time we have before we "worker bees" start to demonstrate "Colony Collapse Disorder"?

driftglass said...

Bob Munck,
I really need to figure out how to snag that gig. And "The Dilbert Principle" is actually one of the best management books every written.

Stephen A,
Thank you. Here's hoping Gilly makes his return very soon.


dmg said...

the only issue i take is whether bad porn is truly bad. or, as a railyard cop once cackled at me over watered-down beers in what passed for chinatown in ogden, utah: "had the worst sex of my life last night. it was terrific."

other than that, why yes, dyson's post had the appalling la-di-dah timbre of a ladies-who-lunch chorus. and gender has nothing to do with it.

neither she nor any of those she cites has ever been in the position of the true paper-pushing nightmare that most corporate work is --the impossible demands from doorknobs who are not actually sharp enough to do the work themselves, or brave enough to acknowledge that the deadlines can't be met.

and good on them for escaping that hell. but i don't care if she and hers are the biggest donors on emily's list or otherwise have brought the floral designs to the best fund-raisers for "dems who can win." they are as clueless as any other members of the well-off, well-fed, well-taken-care-off classes, at least where it comes to money and life in these working united states.

don't piss on my head and tell me it's raining, sweetheart. and don't offer a doily to clean up your inessential, frivolous mess.

skunqesh said...

The workin folk, like a diesel truck. Capable of tranporting multiple tonnes over long distance and at a steady pace. And when the day arrives you finally slow down, you'll be left on the road side and canabalized for the parts that still work.

Loveandlight said...

Here is what Anonymous was talking about.

And as if that weren't bad enough, there's also a new wheat blight waiting in the wings that could wipe out the world's wheat crop.

I have to think that Glengarry Glen Ross (which I am ashamed to admit I have yet to see) was as successful as it was because it came out at a time when the situation portrayed in that movie was becoming The New Reality for most people who had one of those vaunted "real jobs" involving wearing a suit and working in a cubicle.

There's a reality described by social scientist Joseph Tainter that shows us that investments in social, political, and economic complexity have a way of manifesting diminishing returns over a period of time. The new corporate reality (which has been around long enough for it to be no longer new) is a manifestation of this. The corporate structure was showing diminishing returns on the investment in complexity, so the remedy was to make rank-and-file workers into virtual slaves and managers and executives into virtual dictators in order to squeeze more returns out of the investment in complexity. And it worked.

But ruthlessly squeezing extra productivity out of corporate workers is kind of like forcing an oil well to produce more petroleum than its geological structure can sustain without degrading. Greatly increased gains will be had for a while, but the increased pressure will make the system's collapse (reversion to a much simpler state) sooner and also more rapid and intense in its unfolding. This is not just because of the terrible human toll exacted upon the working drones, but also because of the sociological mechanics of the law of human life that indicates that investments in complexity only yield so much in returns.

Of course, the idiot managers and executives who maintain this system won't realize this until the collapse is well underway and almost complete because they get so drunk and high on the power and money that accrues to them as a result of the new reality. Indeed, this very intoxication makes them think of themselves as tin-plated gods whose very word dictates the shape of all human social realities, so they're automatically insulated against any notion that their inhuman behavior will have destructive consequences.

And of course, as Uncle Drifty sayeth, it's this very same imagined tin-plated godhood so prevalent among people with money and power these days that resulted in fiasco such as Iraq where the reality was the exact opposite of the expectation. And it's just getting worse because these false gods have been trying to fix what is broken with the same morally bankrupt bullshit.

cieran said...


Great post!

But what would you expect from Esther Dyson, anyway? Heck, she INVENTED the position of "Captain Obvious" now held by Tom Friedman of the NYT, and her "Release 2.0" is likely the model for the whole "self-evident pap masquerading as best-seller material" genre of business books that Friedman has so painfully prolonged.

Expecting anything but complacent lunacy from her is a waste of time.

But reading your thoughts on life and work is always a joy!

Scout said...

Esther's post made absolutely no sense to me, but seeing what it spurred you to write made it more than worth having to put up with such nonsensical drivel. Drivel so underwhelming that nobody has bothered to post a comment about it there. Maybe you should fill that void. Maybe Arianna will find it and see what we see and then you can get out from under the corporate foot on your neck. Just sayin.

redoubt said...

I blame the business book culture itself, especially the Airport Bookstore Theory of Managing Change (courtesy of Paul Fussell). Not everyone is going to be a "leader" and not everyone is cut out to be but business books make it seem as if the easiest thing to do is to be a "leader".

Anonymous said...

My experience is that organizations that prattle on the loudest about 'leadership' are the ones that are the most obedience-oriented, yes-man cultures that promote unquestioning, craven followers to management.

jtdub said...

What a crock- Tom Friedman doesn't have any fans.