White Noise

I was in Manhattan this weekend doing the Broadway show thing, staying at a hotel in the 50’s on Lexington Avenue. Great location but the street noise makes it tough to sleep. No matter how high up you are, you can hear what’s going on in the city at that very moment, the sirens, the loud, perhaps somewhat sloppy couples, the trucks in reverse. The second night I tried to create more white noise by turning the thermostat down, forcing the fan to run continuously. It masked the street noise and, at least for me, made it easier to sleep. But it got me to thinking that white noise isn’t just something you create to sleep in a Manhattan hotel room; white noise is a condition of most organizations. White noise is the foreground of regularly scheduled activities and, dare I say it, make-work that mask the sounds of the real work and concerns of the individuals in your organization.

Being a RecoveringFed, I’m familiar with all the white noise we have in government. President Obama appointed Jeffrey Zients to be the government’s Chief Performance Officer in part to whack away at the white noise in government, although to my knowledge he’s never used those terms to describe his mission. So what are some specific examples of the white noise that get in the way of hearing reality:

  • The litany of regularly-scheduled meetings, all with a specific liturgy, from which one could not deviate. Aaaaargh!! Haven’t you been hungry sometimes to discuss what’s really happening–the true truth–at a meeting? Have you ever been the one to try to initiate that conversation? Fun, huh? So instead of admitting, for example, that the workforce doesn’t take seriously the latest edict from up high because it knows from past experience that we have no mechanism to follow-up on compliance, we instead discuss the text of the official announcement. White Noise!!
  • The entire industry of official announcements and organizational newsletters is a classic example of White Noise. Smart employees, i.e. most of them, approach these documents as if they were deconstructonist literary critics, scouring the texts for hidden meanings and what was not said. (This reminds me of my visits to the area of France known as Languedoc where Nostredamus lived off and on. When you tour the region, you visit this one village, Alet les Bains, which legend paints as a town in which Nostredamus lived. Not because he ever wrote about the town (and he wrote extensively of the region) but because he never wrote about the town–a clue to its importance to him. But…..I digress.)
  • Metrics. Measuring the really important–your organization’s progress toward its goals and your staff’s progress toward their personal bests–is a key executive function. But I’ve seen too many metrics that are nothing but make-work, and boy, do they take a lot of work!! How do you know which category your metrics efforts fall into? Has your organization first had a serious conversation, reviewed at least annually, about what specifically it wants to accomplish in a given timeframe and how tactically it plans to get there? Unless you’ve had that conversation, your metrics are almost certainly White Noise.

And the list could go on.

So, how does one break through White Noise? One tool are in fact social networks, which are, at an elementary level, simply trying to make transparent and persistent the sounds of the city, the conversations that are going on anyway among your employees, your customers, your clients, and your colleagues. There is NO WORSE feeling as a manager than to be the last to know. And there is no worse indictment of your performance as a leader. Encouraging a culture in your organization and within your network where people want you to know the truth is one of the most powerful tools you can have as a manager. And as a tactic nothing makes transparency easier than the simple, intuitive platforms with which most of your employees are already familiar.

But it will be hard at first. Senior leaders, and for some reason I think government executives suffer from this more acutely,  flinch when they hear what their employees and customers really think. They would rather, I guess, not hear the sirens, the loud arguments among their staff, or even about the individuals and processes threatening to throw the entire organization into reverse. They live under the delusion that if you don’t hear about it, it’s not really happening. They turn on the White Noise.

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