Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Doctor Follow-Up

I've been helping the UNC SKS organize some of their events, and while things went relatively well with their lecture last night, there was definitely lots of room for improvement. I've been doing this sort of thing for so long that I keep forgetting that it's a definable skill that needs to be learned and which can and should be taught. It got me to thinking about what principles are core to being an effective organizer of people and processes.

Augie drilled a few principles into my head about organizing people:
  1. What's the plan, Stan? Or, "Nothing happens by accident." If you want something to happen, then you need to have a plan for it to happen. A plan is an explicit who-what-where-when-why for the particular task or objective. If you don't say who is going to do it, or when it's going to get done, or even define the ultimate purpose for why the task is being done, you can't expect that things will get done right, much less done at all.
  2. What's in it for them? Augie constantly exhorted us to put ourselves in the other person's position, and to understand what they wanted and needed, and to keep those factors in mind when we dealt with them for anything. So much of organizing people boils down to getting people to do things for you, and so you're constantly put in a position of asking people to go out of their way for you. Whether it was your peers, your boss, your workers, or someone else entirely, you always have to start with: "What's in it for them? Why should they care about this?" Some people would see this as slippery sales-talk, but it's actually very genuinely spiritual: people want to help you, when you genuinely want to help them.
  3. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. One eventually learns by hard experience that Murphey's Law is especially applicable to project planning: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The only known antidote is follow-up: constantly checking to make sure things are going the way you want them to go. Everything has to be verified. If you ask someone to do something, you have to check in with them to see if they actually did it. If they tell you that they did it, you sometimes have to check that they actually did do it, and did it correctly. Nothing is ever really done so much as it is contantly in the process of being done. How much follow-up is enough? I think the standard to strive for is "prove beyond reasonable doubt." If you have any doubt that something has actually been done, you probably need to do more follow-up.
  4. Communicate constantly. Organizations that excel at logistics (the U.S. Army comes to mind) emphasize communication. Lots and lots of communication. There's a lot that can be said about communicating effectively, but the most important things with organizational work is that the communication is constant and redundant. Constant communication means that nothing is done without information being shared: if you do something, you tell people about it. If you don't do something, you tell people about that. Redundant communication means that both sides of the communication are constantly mirroring their understanding of each other back to the other party, to avoid all possibility of misunderstanding. For instance, if the commanding officer asks his recon, "How many enemy units do you see? Over," the recon will answer, "I see one, two, three, four, five enemy units, over." The CO doesn't say, "How many are there?" nor does the recon simply say, "Five." Every question defines the exact answer; every answer includes the question that was asked.

I think if someone internalized these principles, all other organizational best practices would become natural and obvious.


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