Friday, April 17, 2015

Hair on FIRE!

I need this information today.
Needed soonest. (Really?  A relational adjective made superlative?)
Please provide by COB today.
Early in my career here in the Federal Burrocrazy, I had a couple of friends who helped me negotiate the difference between the 'urgent' and the 'important' tasks I found myself deluged with. There were  Form 17s, J-sheets, Budget data calls, Congressional Fact Sheets, form and data call after form and data call and they all end up blurring together in an impressionist painting from hell.
All of them, every single one of them, has to be done right NOW.  The urgency is so overwhelming. 
My two friends would help me negotiate the boundary between the urgent and the important.  I was freaking out daily because I was getting inundated with these data calls.  Trying to understand what was being asked of me, figuring out which way was up...
And any time that Bobby or Vic would see me with that wild look in my eyes, they would pull me into their cube.  "Whatcha working on, Crorey?  Yeah, that one is a pain.  But it is not terribly important.  Just make it up."
And that was the only guidance I was getting on what was important.
(Side note, one of those that I just 'made up' ended up getting me in a LOT of trouble with a congressional office.  But it got my project into the president's budget, which was an unheard-of feat at that time.  I accepted the ear-gnawing as part of the process.)
Later on, in one of the training sessions I was sent to, the image above was given to us, and we had explained the distinction between urgent and important. The instructor confided to us that our agency tends to over-emphasize the urgent-and-not-important data calls, and undervalue the not-urgent but important pieces.
The rest of my work does not pass through quite so smoothly. Last week, I got hit with a "Rogue Report".
This is new, I thought.
The RR is an enormous spreadsheet that details how much a project has scheduled in labor costs for the coming year. To make it work, you have to anticipate how much effort each office is going to put into your project in the coming year.  My office is managing about 35 projects, and they are either being designed or constructed.  For each one, I needed to go through and identify whether the offices charging were really expected to be charging in fiscal year 2015.
There were some obvious problems that I identified and corrected. 
Construction on BD-6b.4 (we have sexy names for ALL of our projects) begins in August of this year?  My guys are probably not going to spend $100k on developing Plans and Specs on that project. Cut.
Construction on MPB 14 completed in September?  October should not show us using $250k in Engineering During Construction funds.  Cut some more.
But then there are others.  Do we really support 12 people full time in the Construction office for these other two projects?  I don't know.  I asked the construction manager, and he said that it was justified.  His numbers were almost exactly what I was seeing on the infernal spreadsheet.
Is it too much?  Too little?  Should I cut?  If I do, can I give it back, or does that take an Act of Congress? (In my line of work, that is often exactly what it takes, so I have to be careful).
The next morning, the woman I was working with sent an email that reduced our numbers significantly. 
I called her and asked her how she had decided.  "I just panicked.  I found some big numbers in the spreadsheet and cut them in half. Or more."  $1.4M in labor becomes a more reasonable $500k. (And yes, I do know how that sounds).
The result? We have not heard one peep about the results.  Apparently, we got underneath the red line, and nobody notices any more.  
I now have another file for the "Urgent, but not Important" folder.
I think it is one of the reasons I like the Emergency Operations work I do. The urgency is real - decisions are made that affect people's lives immediately. There is little patience with the unimportant - it is ignored or put off.
And then, once the threat is past, the preparations for the next work begin - all of which fall into the Important but not Urgent category.

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