Knowing Better

Today was one of those rare days when the stars aligned to allow an incredible amount of work to get done at the day job. Colleagues were busy with their own tasks, managers were focussed on other people, and, for a little over eight hours, I could focus not on the work I should have been doing but the work that needs to be done. While I may fall behind on some of my tasks, I am confident that my efforts last week and this week will save a lot of time, hassle, and money over the coming months because “I know better”.

The quotes are important in that statement. There are literally tens of thousands of people around the globe who I can consider a colleague. There are hundreds of managers as well. To declare that I, an individual employee who spends more time talking to his dog than his boss, can know better than the scores of hard working thinkers across the company can seem a little too hubristic even for me. Sometimes, though, good things can result from the efforts of a single person.

Looking at the recent efforts in context can provide a more complete picture of the dilemma that I’m faced with. Here’s the gist of the situation at the day job:

  • several hundred colleagues across the country are not at all happy with a new piece of software from HQ that they’re forced to use
  • they have organized amongst themselves to write up a list of grievances with the software, ranking them from high to low priority
  • they have explained how they need the software changed to better do their jobs, complete with pictures

First of all, I’m really impressed with the list everyone put together. It provides actionable information that a person can actually use to make something better. Just saying “the software sucks” is not at all productive. Second, the fact that there are diagrams to look at is just outstanding. Could they make the work any easier?

The problem, however, is that senior management is deaf to these issues. They believe the new software tool is both the future and absolutely perfect in its current incarnation. Senior management has never used the software, though, but the middle management that surrounds them is quite happy with the tool despite also not using it in a classroom setting. Having worked in the classroom for almost a decade, I can tell you that bad software can make a great teacher look mediocre, and an uninitiated teacher look far worse. The schools need something better and fast, which is where my little act of disobedience comes in. The company needs someone to listen to the teachers and provide solutions and, as they’re not being responsive enough, I’ve taken it upon myself to provide the solution. This is the correct use of my time, though it may not seem like it at the moment.

A lot of people who have worked for a large organization have likely run into this sort of situation a number of times, where colleagues are dealing with friction and something needs to be done. Given the freedom and flexibility to self-manage, the average employee might have the requisite knowledge or skill set to provide a solution, but management refuses to permit the problem from being solved because of various reasons1. The only way forward is to redirect some time towards the bigger problem and hope the consequences are sufficiently light to warrant the risk. It’s generally easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission. If the solution a person provides is a good one, permission can always be retroactively granted and followed up with a “thank you”.

  1. Some of these reasons may be completely reasonable, too.