S07E16: Rapid Response!

This week I was offered an opportunity that may seem deeply boring but I’m quite excited about: developing a business case at pace from scratch. Well, scratch-ish. From itch, maybe? Anyway, it’s a great way to end the season: an exciting cliffhanger, with your hero hunched over their laptop.

I’m not really hunched. I’ve actually got a really lovely setup. But it adds drama.

The absolute highlight of my week – apart from the above, obviously – was enjoying a chat in terrible Russian with a lovely colleague from another mysterious part of the organisation. We are both very bad, despite having spent more than a year trying to learn, but even so it was immense fun. Sucking at something together is a brilliant, bond-building experience. We’re going to do these chats every couple of weeks and see if we can make slightly faster progress together.

Learning Russian is a really interesting challenge. I’ve talked about it before, but I can’t get over how brain-bending it is. But also how much inertia seems to build up: switching from writing in Cyrillic to Latin letters always gives me a sort of weird vertigo. My brain will think ‘Write a Latin “d”‘, and then I will watch in amazement as my hand writes a Cyrillic ‘d’, which looks like a Latin ‘g’. Or I’ll think ‘Latin “g”‘, write a Latin ‘g’, and then my own brain will just gaslight me and ask why I’ve written a Cyrillic ‘d’.

Confused? I certainly am.

So: for the next few weeks I’m on a crunchy business-case writing assignment. The details are currently pretty vague, so week one is going to be discovery and trying to find out all the component parts I need. Writing a business case is something I’ve done before, but writing a business case according to the Treasury Green Book is a whole different kettle of tea. I have a lot to learn and not a lot of time to learn it in.

I’ve been given the chance to lead a multi-disciplinary team to try to swarm this project, a reminder that when you need to get stuff done a small group of people with varied expertise is the best way to do it. The content of the business case is incredibly boring – hence the hiatus – but I wanted to reflect on an interesting experience in my first meeting.

We were breaking down what needed to be done. One of the obvious tasks is “write the thing”, but when I said that I saw that as my responsibility the project management expert pushed back very strongly. They said – more gently than I represent them – that it wasn’t my job to do that, and I risked being a bottleneck if I insisted.

A couple of things. Sitting down now, a day or two later (time is weird in weeknotes), I am embarrassed that I proposed that I’d do it. I’m doubly embarrassed because it’s the exact thing I’ve complained about before: senior managers whose skill lies in a particular area abandoning their job (managing and leading) to do what they like to do (writing/coding/fighting). I’ve been asked to lead this team, and that’s a full-time job. Deciding I’m going to write the thing as well – deciding I’ll somehow do a second full-time job at the same time – is very silly. If I think I’m the only person who can write the thing, I should embrace that but also stop pretending that I can manage and lead at the same time.

The second thing is that in the meeting, right in that moment, I felt angry and upset and resentful. I interpreted their words as me not being good enough, or not having the right skills. I brushed off their challenge and moved on with the next item, but I was seething. Reflecting on that feeling is really tough, because they didn’t make me feel like this. I felt things, and the source of those feelings is me. And I think I reacted that way because deep down – no, not deep down, really on the surface – I feel like I want to do the thing I’m good at so that people will like me. I am unlikely to be told off, or fail, or get in trouble if I stick to something I’m great at. If I stick to that stuff, people will like me, and they will say nice things about me to me.

And so when someone challenges me doing that – questions whether I should do that – I feel like I’m being pushed into danger, into a space where I could be attacked or I could fail.

I want to be clear that the next step of “when people say this, I feel this, and I don’t like to feel like this” isn’t necessarily “…so they shouldn’t say that”. I’m only going to grow if I face up to these feelings and let them play out, let them go.

In the end, the answers to both of my problems is the same, and it’s part of my stoicism that I am going to revise. I understand it as a suggestion to hold things lightly. To love things – or hate them! – but not to cling to them. Clinging only to what I’m good at means stagnation. Clinging to feeling scared means I’ll never move.

This season has been long, and a joy to write. A lot has happened. I’m going to take a break; take some antihistamines; take stock.

I miss you terribly. Let’s hang out soon.

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