Monday, July 29, 2013

Breaking the vortex

A vortex is created when you drain liquid from an enclosed container. Once formed, they are hard to stop, and tend to suck anything nearby into their maw. Some of the largest appear in Norway where the tides are extremely strong, or when a tsunami hits, like this video on YouTube captured in Japan.

The Vortex that LTJG Kelly Ryan describes here at Connecting The Dots though, is one created by human beings. It is the disruptive craziness created by seniors that make everything a hot tasker that must be done right now. We can make the best of plans, have great intentions about developing our sailors...only to have it all defused because we must complete the twenty items every day our boss inevitably drops on us to do. LTJG Ryan rightly asks, how exactly you are supposed to solve this problem when you are the person on the bottom?

Sadly I don't think LTJG Ryan ever got a good answer to her question, and she is likely still suffering that same problem. It's sad to think this admin vortex causes her to think she is not a leader, but I don't think she is alone with these thoughts. Having been in her situation before, I've got some advice that should help her work her way out of that problem.

First, recognize the problem for what it is: your boss has a time management problem. He or she can't get out of the vortex of crisis management. When your day is always spent managing the latest crisis, you don't think past 24 hours, you can't plan, and at best you will be doing things the same way a year from now. This vortex is a powerful force and it will continue to drain your time and energy.

You must become the vortex breaker. In a fluid system, a vortex breaker sometimes takes the form of a plate with several holes in it. Since the fluid is allowed to drain in different areas, there isn't enough turbulent flow created to generate a vortex, and the fluid quickly drains out. While this engineering example might help if you're a mechanical does it help you as a division officer?

First, realize that your entire division, department, branch, watchfloor, etc., works for you. You need to sit down with your senior enlisted leader and brainstorm the most common problems that hit you. Is it last minute training? Tracking down a missing sailor? Data calls for the XO? You'll likely have a list of things that just blow your day away after you step in the door.

Once you have this list, you need to build a process for each tasker. For example, if you get tasked with doing last minute training, build an SOP that describes how to reserve a room, how you'll get everyone together, where you'll put the training brief so it's accessible to everyone, etc. Every common hot tasker you get can be broken down like this.

Take these SOPs and make them readily accessible to all. Make it a requirement for your division to read and understand each one. Every person needs to know where the right share folder is, or how to use the room reservation system at your site. These SOPs become vortex breakers, because they take large complex tasks that would normally consume your every waking moment and break them down into smaller tasks that other people can tackle, freeing you up for different work. They take the one drain (you) and create many drains (your staff).

Now, plan your day like you want to, and when the hot tasker comes in, hand it to one of your junior personnel to assign out and track completion of, trust them to make it happen, and most importantly, alter your daily plan as little as possible. When you've setup your people for success, you have to make them believe that it really depends on them to get things done. If they think you're simply going to come riding in on a white horse to save them everytime they fumble a tasker, they will gladly fumble the task and hand it to you at the end of the day.

This part will potentially be a bit painful at first, but it both empowers your staff to take on the work being dumped on you, and it empowers you to hold fast to a schedule, so you can do things like staff development that are so critical for our sailors, yet so quickly cast aside when the tasking gets high.

The second part of this involves changing your boss' behavior. While the above steps will give you some breathing room, you need your boss to have better time management skills in order to really be effective. Wait until you get a hot tasker that your staff knocks out of the park, then get a meeting with your boss to briefly discuss how you completed it. Use that opportunity to ask your boss where that tasking came from and what kind of time frame it arrived on. Now (and this is the important part) offer to build your boss a process to better solve this tasker problem.

For example, with the sequestration in effect, our TDY travel became micromanaged to death. We had to constantly justify where we were sending people, and for our operations department, this meant four large divisions sending a multitude of emails up at various times of the day. We could have succumbed to the vortex and just continually had our day sucked away, but instead we built a weekly process for gathering inputs and updating an online spreadsheet that we sent once a week to our ISIC for approval. This process killed off the multiple data calls and questions our N3 Department Head received, and it gave his division officers more hours in the day to be a real leader again and not just an email weenie. While this excel sheet was created by our Department Head, it easily could have been made by one of his Division Officers and sent as a friendly suggestion for how to make the department run more smoothly.

On a ship, we build casualty procedures that sailors memorize to make dealing with casualties almost automatic. On a staff, your casualties doesn't involve equipment breaking, but they do involve admin that can suck up your whole day. You need to do your own casualty procedure development, both for your staff and your boss, or you will succumb to the constant vortex and never escape.