Operational Momentum

“We need you” was the message going in — “we” being them, “you” being us. They need us because by their own admission they understand workstreams, not content. They have a sense of how things move and at what speeds but not of the particular things/parts to be put in motion. That’s our job, evidently, to build the raft and people it so they can steer the whole party downriver before winter sets in. Cold, frightful weather at our backs. A warm budding spring downstream.

From the beginning it’s been a battle over concepts, framework and the ownership of ideas. They dropped a time bomb in the middle of the conference room and it was all we could do to pluck madly at the wires before the whole thing went kablooey. We rallied the troops and after a rushed 3-week in-house R&D workshop we had a working MODEL. That model went on the smart board yesterday, and I’m hear to report that everything (surprisingly) went well, but with a catch.

Consider the forces — neatly dualistic — at work here: We see ourselves as the new traditionalists working desperately to defend an old idea. We see the other side as rash, impetuous, short-sighted. Conversely, they position themselves as radical futurists on the cutting edge of institutional and programmatic progress. They see us as stale, stuck-in-the-mud obstructionists, afraid of change, mired in habit. Driving it all is an unchecked operational momentum — that vague force behind any reform movement that pushes people into ‘streams’ of action without anyone really truly understanding where they’re headed. This momentum is a kind of slow, persistent churn, a multifaceted gesturing toward structural reinvention. That anything actually changes in the end is kind of beside the point.

So they liked our model and said so. But, they noted toward the end of our presentation, there’s something missing. Missing? we asked. We want you to consider adding this piece. We considered adding that piece, we countered, and decided it was a bad idea. In fact, we can prove (from our research) that it’s a bad idea. But if you look at it this way, they said. And so on. We agreed to reconsider, and the cynical among us think we may have cooked our own goose in so doing.

Operational momentum is always about adding pieces to a puzzle with no clearly discernible shape or edge. When operational momentum is the driving force, any counter-pressure from without — any attempt to slow that momentum (with research, with reasoned debate, experimentation, program pilots and what not) — is dismissed as a threat to whatever oblique future they keep dreaming about.

We seem to be living in separate worlds governed by different laws of motion. For them nothing exists beyond operational momentum. Which is why ‘work’ is now a ‘stream’ and doing is a perpetual striving.


Re Treats

The first thing we notice are the food offerings. We’re confident the donuts and coffee have not been laced with truth serum or something else to coax a resigned complicity, but who knows.

No doubt this horseshoe arrangement in the meeting chamber, the assigned seating, all these individually-wrapped peppermint Life Savers gathered in clusters on tables–let’s just say someone has invested some serious thought into keeping us both separated and oriented in a particular way, breath perpetually fresh and other-directed. We’ve been instructed not to speak to ourselves, meaning a deliberate attempt to divide us now underwrites all subsequent interactions.

Getting started we talk initially about how to plan to get along today, once we begin. On the whiteboard to my left is the PARKING LOT reserved, we’re told, for really great ideas, should any alight. The ice breaker challenges us to reflect on our own pasts in the interest (we presume) of anticipating some radically new and potentially communal, streamlined futures. There’s talk of confidence vs. uncertainty, of cultural stigmas, of anxiety and expectation.

By now we’re waking to the notion that either they have no concrete plan for today or the plan is just that — to have no concrete plan. There’s an odd tumbling sensation that presents when you spend a little time in a room with people whose plan is to have no plan. Still there appears to be a driving force, an over-arching master will or uber-momentum. I sense this by 11:30am as a new pressure builds behind the eyeballs that could be caused, my neighbor from downtown proposes, by the bright neon lights overhead. I don’t think so.

For my own part I’ve decided that trying to second guess their intentions is a fool’s errand. We’re dealing here with a headless monster whose multiple arms flail uncontrollably. Which is not to say this monster attacks without purpose. We just don’t know enough yet to understand what that purpose is–beyond, of course, the slow churning force of institutional change whose justification, as always, is the need for institutional change. A big monster at that scale seems to move at a very slow pace. On the ground, though, the mood is acceleration, speed at any cost and the removal of all obstacles, impediments to speedy progress. The monster’s food is time-the-enemy, and we know if the monster had eyes it would see in us a bunch of plump tasty slowpokes.

Time, then, is the threshold, the edge along which we must wage our opposition. Time as constructive illusion, not the stuff of programmatic efficiency. We’ll see how it goes.

The Dawn of Design

They have made their first move. Shadowy forms (strangers to this hub) shuffle about with the awkward grace of the undead. We have questions about demographics, timing, justification, communication protocols and larger forces (of nature and beyond). They have questions about favorite snacks and preferred morning beverages. There’s a meeting on Monday whose first agenda item is to write an agenda for Friday’s meeting. For us it’s all about protecting what we love. For them it’s about subverting a despised status quo. The temperature outside is a lean zero jazzed by an occasional arctic blast.

The big concern shared by most everyone is how to wrap our heads around a circle with no center. I for one know I was born into a different world, and I can’t say I recognize the one now forming around me. Somewhere west-by-southwest of the Pleiades, Comet Lovejoy darts across the night sky at a predictable comet’s pace, but there’s been serious cloud cover for the last three nights so, once again: opportunities obscured.

With all probability we’re in for some big change mitigated by the trundling ineptitude of those pretending to be in charge. Such is the path a moribund star might follow. We want to imagine good results coming in the end. We baste our reticence, as it were, in a clarifying optimism. We’re content specialists, after all, so it’s hard not to get excited when the bosses approach with yet another solution to a problem no one knew ever existed. (An old conundrum.)

So only the most bludgeoned among us are too sore and bruised after repeated attacks to take any of this too seriously. The rest proceed with caution: Perhaps there’s something to this idea? If we own it… if we make it our own…?