Good places -> Good routines -> Good work.

Routines have a certain magical quality.
In my experience, good routines create a virtuous spiral – good routines increase efficiency, work quality and satisfaction with work. You feel in-control, you manage relationships well enough and manage to have fun while getting shit done.

The secret to forming these routines isn’t in our ‘will power’ or whatever the new-age gurus want us to believe. It is simply a function of good work atmosphere where we look forward to meeting co-workers and doing work together. (or at-least not actively hating the work or colleagues.)

In one of my earlier roles, I was handling in excess of 10 brands. It was made possible because clients were kind and considerate (so scope of work never was in doubt and we worked on actual problems, not manufactured ones. This was made possible by senior management setting the right expectations.), servicing team was smart and earnest (so I could delegate some amount of strategy work with them. This was possible because they were driven to grow in their career by the management.) and creative teams actually trusted me with my briefs and feedback (so we interacted more and more fruitfully. The agency had a culture of respecting the planner’s role. So when I entered the role, I did my best to preserve that expectation too.). The owner of the agency was instrumental in inspiring a hunger for success. He was a hard taskmaster but was generous too. All of these things allowed me to form a coherent routine.

I would start my day by writing for an half an hour – often this blog, or notes on a strategy project or a brief. This habit of writing everyday would intellectually stimulate me. Due to this, I would enter any new project with a charged up mind.

The second habit was to clarify the brief during the meeting itself. I was lucky to get some good clients who would engage in a dialogue and not misunderstand the questions with ego. Often, a well articulated problem statement is enough to kickstart great creative work. I would try to get that agreed upon during the first meeting itself.
The third habit was to write my brief as soon as I got back to office from the meeting, often on the way to office itself. I was usually excited by the brief, would have a few hypothesis already in my mind. Writing thoughts down helps find out errors in thinking. It helps build a coherent logic. So my argument/ ppt and briefs would be done on the day of meeting with clients itself.

Fourth habit was getting my brief vetted with the Chief creative officer. Thankfully, it was an excellent partnership where conversations led to interesting possibilities and ideation.

So essentially, good people enabled me to form good routine and consequently we did some great work together.

On the other hand, if there is no routine – chaos ensues. Chaos ensues because people don’t feel that they are in control. And that is a function of how badly the leadership runs the organisation.
At another place, we were forever fire-fighting – either imagined or real. Often because senior management had not set right expectations with clients or right processes internally. The work is forever delegated and junior-most person does all the work. this approach is bound to fuck up. A place where senior people do not deign to even write down their thoughts in an email or put together a slide or even think of an idea is bound to fail. The place was stratified – those who work as underclass, those who brow-beat (manage) the underclass during meetings/ email/ phone call as the ruling class. This kind of stratification cannot possibly lead to respect for work and hence creation of good work.

People would turn up late at work, because they were dreading what was going to hit them. So even a slow day would not bring a break, it only meant limbo.

There was a deep mistrust among people and leaders didn’t do much to change that. No one was celebrated, but blame was distributed handsomely. So people were busy avoiding blame, not chasing possibilities.

Which meant, I couldn’t depend on servicing team for basic things like competitive analysis, creative teams to listen to my briefs in good faith or have an honest conversation, leadership team to solve issues and not blame in return instead.

So we couldn’t plan our work well enough. Which meant no possible routine to build.

Without a drive to win, we kept on dragging. Projects took needlessly long time to get completed. There were numerous meetings that only served to break the flow and waste time. The agency was forever on backfoot.

The agency is on a downward spiral. The organisational structure ensures it. It is not led by owners but by ageing bureaucrats. They are whiling their time until they hit retirement. They hide behind hierarchies. They are jaded and can’t will themselves to learn new things. Which is not to say that they don’t know the buzzwords though. They throw meetings and new hires at new problems, instead of pausing, thinking and honestly changing something about the way they work. They have no thesis for their future. They are hurtling blindly into future and they won’t let the young unfetter their vision. They are doomed.

People are not idiots. They sense this. They call it bad energy. They call it a dump. The sincere most among them try to patch things over, work hard. The cynical merely enjoy the chaos. Neither can form a routine. Neither can work meaningfully.

Fool’s pride

Are you not a fool if you take pride in doing something that imprisons you, that belittles you, that curtails you, that is detrimental to your interests?

If your agree, then let’s check if you are a fool or not. Imagine you are a middle management guy, with a team of 5-6 people reporting to you. Among the following statements, which ones do you agree with?

  1. I am proud of working late/ weekends often. I respect those who stay late at office.
  2. I am proud of being a doer. Thinking is for pansies, let’s just do it.  I don’t like it when people ask too many question. I like when they do as they are told.
  3. I am proud for being available to my boss and subordinates, 24×7. I like it when people are accessible at all times for the smallest of queries or requests.
  4. I am proud for not having taken a holiday in the last two years. I don’t like people taking holidays.
  5. I don’t like hiring women, because they get pregnant.
  6. I am proud for taking care of things in the nick of time. I like people who are flexible, who can take additional duties at any time.
  7. I am a shoot-from-the-hip, on-the-fly decision maker. I don’t like these new-fangled things called plans, strategies. Who thinks ahead in time, anyways. I react!
    I like enterprising young talent who can make sense of my chaos. I hate taking decision or thinking ahead in time. Which means you will have to be ready to respond to escalations, unexpectedly long reworks, expensive detours, deadend meetings, scrapped projects…
  8. I like people who ‘hit the ground running’, who would start working on day one. Training is a waste of time and money.
  9. I don’t like giving feedback. Too much work to think about someone else. Just do your job.

And so on. you get the picture. So for how many of these statement were you in agreement with? and now imagine how many of these statements your boss would be in agreement with? Is there an alignment?

Is it really in your interest to be this person or to work for such a person?

 

 

We can do this.

In a smoke-free meeting room, a tin box of crackers goes around with a dozen people munching, masticating, marauding the little round rascals. The biscuit is no good, someone opines. But that doesn’t stop him from dredging a fistful of those from the tin box. The box’s golden underbelly is now visible and that is causing visible disbelief to a few.  They had hoped it to be bottomless. Alas, they don’t make magical ever-full tinboxes of yummy, crunchy biscuits any more.

Is it the biscuit or the clank and clink of the golden box? The eyes in the room are narrowed and the smiles almost reach them. Must be the evening. A good way to leave office – on full happy tummies after hearty bouts and jousts of the brain. The preceding hour had been one of ideas been coaxed out, thrown around – like a beach volleyball. The idea gets tossed from one person to another. The difference being, in this game of volleyball, the ball mutates with every bounce – it changes colour, shape and its feel. The CCO sitting there gets worried from time to time – he is worried the ball will mutate into a lemon. But when the game is on, there is no stopping the mutation. It is a delicate art to stop the game when the ball is a pristine orb of furious energy and shining originality. It is easy for it to end on a sour lemon of an idea, if someone holds on to it too dearly. The chief creative offer then has to coax it out of the biased hands and set to back and forth bounce again.

Like a bunch of bandicoots made to wake up by digging them up at the height of noon, the end of game feels disorienting to many. But the CCO has found the shining beacon of originality and awesomeness. It’s time to make the idea happen.

The chief and the planner walk in, “so what’s the idea?”.

There is a moment of silence as no one is ready to start the new conversation. There is alarm in their eyes – eyes that are also dying to roll at the profusion of what-they-think-is, bullshit that is to follow. They are worried that the chief and planner duo will shoot out darts and puncture the various mutated globes they are holding in their arms so dearly. Most of their ideas would be punctured now. Only one idea will leave the room alive. Most will be killed pretty mercilessly.

The CCO makes an attack. Attack as in the music, not war. A confident start to the symphony that leads to the crescendo of ideas. It starts playfully, with laughter and grand pronunciations, with witty observations segueing into grand visions. Like an experienced conductor, he shores up confidence among his fellow team mates and encourages their ideas to be pronounced in sync with his melody. The rhythm unfortunately is set by a misogynist joke. But people weather it, knowing well that the joke is the support that swells the confidence in the conductor and questioning it now, will derail the symphony. The composition is more like jazz – improved upon as it gets performed.  The planner and the chief, seeing that the ideas are not ‘too bad’ and ‘to the brief’, sing along too. They add bass of reason and strategic perspective to shore up the melody. They envision what the client will react to and steer the idea in a direction that would be better appreciated.

The music changes – now it’s a call and response gig. The planner suggests, the creative team reacts, the chief questions, the team builds upon. The give and take goes on until everyone in the room is confident enough of winning hearts with the idea.

There is palpable excitement in the air. We can do this. Goddamnit we are gold.