Friday, August 28, 2015

Watching Grass Grow

Grass won't grow on my levee.

We have checked all the boxes, followed all of the regs.  We have compacted the right parts, and we have seeded according to spec. The levee is tall and strong, and able to withstand winds, rising river, and storm surge.  It serves as both a river levee - keeping the Mississippi River from overflowing its banks, and as a hurricane storm surge levee.  A rogue barge will not be able to breach it, and it even has a foundation made of dirt mixed with concrete (it is a fascinating process called deep soil mixing, where they inject grout deep into the soil and then mix it with the soil to make an in-place concrete). 

The last step of levee construction is to create an armor on the surface.  Concrete is the ideal, but it is cost prohibitive.  Grass, however, is an acceptable solution - it will resist erosion and will mean that if water overtops the levee, it does not rip the levee apart. 

After a couple of years of building and flattening and working on the levee, we are ready to turn it over to the locals.  Except for the grass.

Shockingly, we have struggled to get grass to grow,  It seems as though we are creating a land feature with two functions.  The first is to act like iron.  The more it resembles concrete - strong, resistant, unbending - the better the levee is.  So we use clay that compacts well and we smush the clay flat (smush is the technical term, of course).  We do the deep soil mixing so that the stuff underneath is hard and solid, and resists intrusion.  After everything has been compacted as much as it can....

...we sow it with grass seed.

Yes, grass will grow in concrete.  Getting enough coverage, however, will take time.

We have had some unexpected hiccoughs - the nature conditions have been atrocious for growing seed.  At the beginning, we planted grass seed, fertilized, and stood back to watch the grass grow.   It rained torrential rainfall for months.  As soon as the rains stopped, we filled in the ruts, we re-seeded, re-fertilized, and stood back to watch grass grow.  And it stopped raining.  Altogether.  This summer has been abominably hot and dry, and the baking heat has turned the clay into iron. 

And even worse, the soil in some places has ended up being saltier than expected.  Salt, as you would guess, is not exactly the best thing for growing grass.  In fact, it is pretty toxic, and it is the rare blade of grass that can flourish.  And the higher the level of salt, the harder it is to flourish.

We are working to figure out how to deal with it.

Meanwhile, we are having an agency-wide problem with morale.  I have been in a number of meetings just in the past month where senior leaders are trying to figure out why people are dissatisfied with their work. And there is no question.  In the ten years since the target was placed on the back of my agency, the people in my building have worked tirelessly...

That's not true.   They are tired. 

Like with the levees, we are in an environment that is toxic.  We have become accustomed to the enormous pressure and responsibility, and we have been working like mad to serve the people (we are getting smushed). We fight to get the work done that we are charged to do, expected to do more and more with less and less.  People burn out, and leave, and their positions are not replaced. Budgets are tightening. Timelines are shortening.  Expectations are ever higher, and with less institutional knowledge than ever.

We have become the sun-baked clay of the levees.  And we are not growing grass.

In a 'morale' meeting that I attended yesterday, the senior leader asked for my opinion.  I answered with a metaphor.  And it works for any situation where people are struggling with morale.

You don't try to grow grass on concrete.  You don't make the conditions ideal for one scenario, and then expect a different element to blossom.   If you want grass to grow, you have to give it the right conditions.

1. The soil needs to be loose.  Hard packed soil resists growth.  Without the flexibility in the soil, the grass shoots fight to break through and establish.  Our rules need to help encourage flexibility, not create hard-and-fast rules that destroy any creativity and inhibit growth. Destroy creativity, kill the joy in creation of a product that I can be proud of.

2. Fertilizer is needed.  All of the manure jokes aside, the best way to grow organics is by providing them an environment rich in organics.  We need to be around a variety of people, and we take some strength from them, and provide our strength back to them.  One plant needs nitrogenated soil, another plant can provide the nitrogen fixing bacteria needed to let it thrive. Provide the resources your people need.  It is critical to watching the grass grow.

3. Birds love to eat the seeds, killing off the plant before it ever gets to grow. There are external forces that make life more difficult.  The media portray us as incompetent, and we begin to believe it ourselves.  Neighbors share unkind jokes about how many government workers it takes to fill the open water of the wetlands.  Congressman lambaste our efforts, and call for us to take pay cuts and denigrate us at every turn.  Birds everywhere, looking to demoralize us and demonize us.  A little bit of positive reinforcement energizes us.  Protecting us from the birds needs to be a priority.

4. Weeds choke us out. It is tough enough to work in a toxic environment, but when we are fighting not only external forces, but also internal policy, it makes our jobs impossible.  Many of our projects die from the crab bucket mentality - as soon as one crab looks like it is going to escape, the other crabs grab and drag him back in.  Morale improves when the impediments are removed - when we can do our jobs to the best of our ability without fighting for permission to do what we are supposed to do at every step.

A few years ago, a jewish rabbi pointed out that there were certain conditions where a plant would thrive.  Hard, stony ground?  Not so much - it might start out OK, but then the sun bakes the life out of it.  Bramble thicket?  The plant gets choked.  Open area?  The birds eat their fill.

But then, he said, when you have some plants that get planted in good, well-tilled, fertilized soil, they produce like crazy.  100-fold.  1000-fold.  The field becomes filled with productive plants.

The rabbi focused on the seeds that succeeded.  I think if we are to make more plants succeed, we need to make sure that we help the plants along.  Plough a little ground for those around you.  Fertilize those relationships (not by heaping crap on them.... but by giving them what they need). Protect your people against outside attackers, and cut down those who provide impediments from within. 

The grass will grow.  And we will all reap the benefits.

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