Archives for the month of: August, 2009

Last night, on vacation with extended family, a few of us stayed up late playing Risk. As players of this game know, these episodes can go on for hours and hours. We laughed harder than I had laughed in a long time.

Board Game Meetup #1 @ Firenze by Flickr user katsuma

"Board Game Meetup #1 @ Firenze" by Flickr user katsuma

As I went to bed (of course the game is not finished, it is likely to last for another day at least), I remarked to myself on what a good time we had talking. It’s not often people spend such extended time together in conversation. It seemed to me that one of the functions of board games and card games is to create a diversion for people, so that when conversation ebbs we can focus on something else. Then, renewed, we can focus again on the conversation. Without this alternative focus, the conversation might burn out.

The game also provides a constant stream  of fodder for conversation, adding in new minor events on which to comment.

It felt good and this morning I am thankful for the role board games play in our lives. It makes me wonder how we can translate that second focus into other things too — it’s helpful to be able to take a break within the intensity of conversation, to be able to keep it rolling. For instance, in a very intense project, how could we use an alternate focus to create the opportunity for a little rest, to help maintain intensity?

Tortoise and the hare by Flickr user Bad Rabbit, Inc.

"Tortoise and the hare" by Flickr user Bad Rabbit, Inc.

The White House has announced that it will divulge details shortly about how it will wind down the seemingly successful Cash for Clunkers program. As of July, car dealers nationwide had done $1.8 billion in deals under the program, and are on track to exhaust the $3 billion available for the program. The initiative has been held up as an unmitigated success, burning through its initial capital quickly and needing more because it’s just so popular.

But there are cracks showing. Car dealers are complaining about slow reimbursements from the government. In some states, half of the car dealers have ceased offering Clunker deals because they can’t afford to wait for the funds anymore. Automobile manufacturer financing arms have stepped in to offer short term loans to dealers who are in trouble.

These difficulties show what can happen when two cultures that operate at fundamentally different paces have to work together. These are the same kinds of problems that can get in the way when any two organizations hook up as partners.

On the one hand, you’ve got the car dealer world, where things operate on a monthly basis but where deals need to get sewn up within days. Dealers operate on very slim margins and need to stay afloat from month to month. They’ve got payroll and debts to service.

On the other hand, you’ve got government, which has to make sure it does the right things and doesn’t make rash actions that can’t be undone. Government has to take the long view. It also is hard to get it moving. There aren’t many (any) mechanisms to get money flowing into the commercial sector easily or quickly.

These are two worlds that just operate on a fundamentally different pace. Each one must see the other as behaving unreasonably.

Sometimes, when organizations are planning to work together, they come from worlds that operate at different paces. For instance, foundations and service organizations have wildly different time horizons. This isn’t something that can just be papered over, but there may be some ways to plan ahead and mitigate troubles:

  • Be honest about comparing your timelines. Often, organizations will like to say they are “responsive” when their default rhythms are 60 or 90 days and more. Other organizations operate to the rhythms of their semiannual board meetings. Still others look at the end of each week as a make-or-break deadline. Compare these — honestly.
  • Recognize there may be pace-related problems. Once you see the different paces involved, you can see if there may be problems. If you recognize this ahead of time, it will be easier to handle them with equanimity. That way if trouble brews it won’t be seen immediately as failure.
  • Acknowledge the need to change course if need be. There may need to be creative solutions to problems that crop up (for instance, short term loans from auto financing arms). There needs to be room to make these happen.
  • Create a no-hard-feelings exit path. Sometimes it just doesn’t work for organizations with different paces to work together. That doesn’t mean it’s anyone’s fault that the plan failed — it’s just the way things are. If there’s an easy way for organizations to get out of the deal without engendering ill will, maybe they can come back around later.

What is your experience when organizations with different paces collide?

Mannakee Circle

Mannakee Circle

I live near a crossroads of sorts in our town. It’s a large traffic circle at the intersection of two residential roads that serve as thoroughfares. It’s not a big Boston rotary, it’s more like a village square – only round. There’s a park in the middle that was recently named for a longtime resident, but I continue to think of it under its more prosaic name, Mannakee Circle.

Like a lot of communities, our neighborhood is not a walk-everywhere kind of place, but you are always assured of seeing a pedestrian or two wherever you go. There’s an elementary school a few blocks in one direction, a community college in the other direction, and a community pool nearby too. So people seem to collect informally on Mannakee Circle. Sometimes people walking will stop and talk to one another about whatever is going on. There’s nothing special here, a small garden, some shrubs, and a few benches. But it’s comfortable.

You’ll also see, if you wait long enough, just about all your neighbors drive by. Like I said, it’s a thoroughfare. It’s not a big, fast road, but the circle is at the heart of things.

People use Mannakee Circle for a lot of different purposes. In the early morning hours you can see and hear groups of people being put through their paces by a drill sergeant type as they do calisthenics in a “boot camp” style exercise program. There’s a teenager who seems to practice Tai Chi every afternoon around three. Midmorning brings a local grandmother who stops off and sits with her grandchild, watching the cars go around. Sometimes I sit on the circle and strum my guitar while knots of people walk by on their way to a local Italian ice store that is nearby.

While there are sometimes ceremonies that take place here, that’s not its main function. It’s not an official town center. It’s ad hoc.

I think of Mannakee Circle as one of my favorite public spaces. It embodies a number of characteristics:

  • It’s a meeting place. We don’t have enough places where you can just happen upon people these days. This is one of those places.
  • It’s informal. Mannakee Circle was not set aside for this or that civic purpose. It’s just a place. People go through it and meet up without having the feeling of entered some official realm.
  • People make of it what they want. People use Mannakee Circle for all sorts of things, from a simple way from here to there, to a conversation salon, and even an exercise studio. It does not require a certain kind of behavior, set-up, or special rules. Just ordinary common sense.
  • It knits together the community without being the focus. Mannakee Circle is by no means the main focus of town, but it is a presence and most people in the neighborhood have been there and know it. You can use it as a landmark, as a destination, as a Frisbee field, as a meeting place. Because it’s so gently in everyone’s consciousness, it connects us.
  • It’s all potential. The circle is really just a large expanse of grass with some benches and shrubs. The only limits are safety (it’s in the middle of roads, after all) and imagination. It’s not an official “meeting room” in a civic building, nor is it even a “recreation area” in a park. It just is there.
  • It can be more if desired. There is so much more that could be done. Why not have a block party there? How about an open air concert? Or maybe a community meeting? All these things are possible. No one has yet done them – but they could.

Today, almost every space in our lives has to be built have a purpose. Even a new park has months of planning behind it, as it gets laid out for maximum recreational impact and the proper playground equipment gets ordered in.

There are many groups that seek to build community, trying to recapture the magic that happens when people work out together, and for themselves, how they ought to approach a public issue. There’s even an office in the White House designed to do this. Many of these efforts seem formal, mechanized. It’s hard for ordinary people to grab a hold of them.

This is why I love this circle. It is unassuming and informal – just a space that people fill in their own ways, at their own pace, for their own purposes.

And out of this informality and possibility emerge meaning and community.

tickle me quynh by Flickr user deadplace

"tickle me quynh" by Flickr user deadplace

One of my children used to love to be tickled, surprised, pounced upon, – still does. Back in the toddler days, it would be a repeated request. “Tickle me! Get me!” Eventually, the tickling and surprising doesn’t work and Daddy gets tired. “I’ll surprise you when you least expect it,” I would promise.

The reply would come back: “I least expect it! I least expect it!”

I know that behavior so well. I do it all the time. Often, there’s some hoped-for outcome I have pinned my whole emotional state upon. Maybe it’s a work thing, maybe it’s my personal life. Maybe it’s money. I know deep down, from bitter experience, that the only way many such things come to fruition is for me to let go entirely of the outcome. Don’t try so hard, loosen up. But it’s impossible to will yourself into that state.

So I push myself to let go. I fool myself: Yes, now I really have given up on the outcome, so surely this thing must happen.

Bupkis.

It’s only after time has passed that the hoped for state of equanimity comes around. Eventually, I notice with a start that I actually don’t care about the outcome. And just thinking about my big plan doesn’t set into motion a new round of pining. It just stays neutral.

When that state comes around, the state of perfect readiness, I have found that things really start to take off. The things I used to want so badly but couldn’t have begin to come true. New things I had not dreamed about come into my life.

It only happens when I truly, really, least expect it.

And that just can’t be forced.

Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.

Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.

For the past few days I have been helping in a small way on a large crowd control effort. My son’s Boy Scout troop parks cars at the local county fair every summer. The boys plan and execute it each year. This is a huge undertaking, as tens of thousands attend the fair. It’s one of the largest in the area. The temperatures out on the fairgrounds can easily reach 95 and above.

The task involves getting cars into the fairgrounds, up to the people who take payment for parking, and then onto the parking lot and directed to the right space. It is a constantly fluid situation and the leader in charge (one of the older boys) has to make decisions about where to direct manpower, how best to fill in parking rows, and how to handle unforeseen situations.

Everyone in the whole troop, boys and adults, pitches in. I was just one of many.

The adults’ roles are few. We drive a golf cart around to the boys at various stations, making sure they have water. We jump in where necessary to help if there are backups (this is amusingly called being a part of a “Fast Action Response Team”). And we flag the cars at the main gate as they enter the fairgrounds, and then at a key turn from the parking payment area into the actual parking lots. These are seen as “unsafe” for the boys because we are actually in (or almost in) traffic.

The Challenges Of Crowds

I mostly worked the main gate, flagging cars in from the road into the fairgrounds. People came in from two directions, and I had to get them to line up into the leftmost two lanes in a three lane road (we kept the right lane free for emergency vehicles).

There were some fundamental issues that made this difficult:

  • Not only are there a lot of people, but each one has his or her own goal: They want to get into the fair and don’t want to wait.
  • While we did our best to make it easy, people were disoriented: They were being asked to follow signs, flags, and hand-waves  in ways they are not used to.
  • Each carload of people is being asked to relinquish control: We tell them where to park; they don’t get to pick their spot.
  • There are many possibilities for special circumstances that can disrupt flow: There were more kinds of unique situations that came up than anyone could have prepared for, as everyone is different.

I came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the role of tradition and institutional knowledge. This troop has been doing this for decades, and there is a vast amount of lore that is passed on from generation to generation. Many of the things that did not make initial sense to me but that were done “because we have always done them this way” turned out to be exactly right.

The Difficulty Of Simplicity

I also came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the difficulty of simplicity. We tried our hardest to make it dead simple for people. In fact, I think it was about as simple as it could possibly be. Enter, follow the flags, park your car.

For many drivers, this was a challenge. Some weren’t paying attention, others wanted to maximize their personal convenience and find the “best” spot, some did not realize it would cost money to pay to park, some had kids yelling in the car about visiting the midway, some were not used to seeing young boys waving flags and telling them where to go, some just were confused.

Many drivers did things that disrupted flow. Some stopped, or tried to park on their own, or just went into the wrong lane. Some wanted special consideration, and not unreasonably so. As workers, it was frustrating because it seemed simple — because we knew the system. Follow it, and all will be well.

But, to the drivers, it was all new. And we were asking them to give up control. “Trust us, follow our lead, we’ll get you parked.” This turned out to be terribly difficult for many people. (As it would be for anyone, I imagine.)

Management Lesson From The Scouts

If you look at the four bullets above that made this overall task difficult, you can see that they can apply to lots of different situations, even ones where there are not crushing volumes of people. Web sites, meetings, publications, strategic plans, organizational change efforts — lots of things.

And the main wrinkle here is this: Even things that look simple, from the inside, may still be quite complex when viewed from the outside. And in the doing, there are always unforeseen special circumstances.

I am going to try to keep this in mind the next time I design a training session, write a report, or develop some new system. No matter how simple I think it is, it can probably be simpler. But then, when I have made it as simple as possible, it may not be that easy. And I will always try to have a way to handle special circumstances.

I am very thankful for this small lesson, taught me by an incredibly dedicated and helpful Boy Scout troop.