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Going My Way? It’s Hard to Tell.

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October 25, 2016
General Information
Michael Schubach - michaelschubach@me.com

Picture it: Present day New Orleans

There is a RTA streetcar line that runs alongside the western bank of the Mississippi River as it meanders through the city.  Undeniably, The Big Muddy sets its own course, but the 0.1 of 1 percent of the river’s total length that is served by a RTA streetcar is about as straight a shot as nature provides.  Two railroad tracks run in parallel — one accommodating northbound traffic and its counterpart handling the southbound.  Station platforms are located between the track sets; the passengers board and disembark centrally in the common area.  Service begins near the French Quarter’s famous French Market (beignets, anyone?)  And runs to the New Orleans Convention Center in the Arts District.  There are no more than eight stops on a line that spans less than two miles, and it can be traveled end-to-end in less than 20 minutes. This simple journey occurs in both directions three times every hour, from sunup to sundown.  The entire process couldn’t be less complicated if it tried.

And yet, real life intervenes.

Posted at every streetcar boarding station are city street maps, RTA route guides and fare options.  But then come the overhead signs that point to the track sets.  These signs introduce new naming conventions that appear on none of the collateral maps or route guides: “Inbound” and “Outbound.” Finally come the trolley cars themselves, which are not labeled in any distinguishing manner – no direction, no final stop, no hint or clue for the literate or otherwise.  Out-of-town visitors face the difficult task of determining if their destination is inbound or outbound from where they’re boarding.  Their confusion complicates the boarding process, annoys the streetcar drivers and extends the time spent at each stop along the way.  Would you care to take a guess at the rider demographics for a quaint streetcar that only runs from the convention center to the principal tourist district?  If you guessed the majority Going My Way? It’s Hard to Tell. If you guessed the majority of the riders are out-of-town visitors who are mildly to chronically lost, you would be entirely correct.

>>> How is it that I am so wickedly well acquainted with the habits and characteristics of New Orleans’s streetcar-riding visitors?  I was recently inducted into their cult, riding the rails from hotel to convention center during last June’s HITEC fandango.  And why do I care so passionately about New Orleans’s mass transit system?  I don’t.  I care about the principle it so obviously demonstrates: the experts who helped specify and create the system and its features clearly have little or nothing to do with its daily operation.  And, unfortunately, the story is no longer location specific – it’s a pandemic in systems and management.

Those who pay attention to the dynamics of the workplace are familiar with the Peter Principle, the theory that workers are promoted based on past and current success rather than aptitude for the upcoming assignment.  Accordingly, they are promoted until they fail, having reached their own level of incompetence.  With the Peter Principle in play, a workplace failure is relatively sudden; the worker rises steadily and successfully until that very last assignment.  Peter’s climb to incompetence is a case of the proverbial camel’s back being broken by just one straw too many.

In real life, I think a different cycle is very evident; Ivory Tower Syndrome (ITS) is a progressively degenerative disorder rather than a sudden onset of incompetence. ITS is the prolonged stagnation of basic skills that occurs while you’re off busy climbing Peter’s success ladder toward failure.  In the ITS scenario, you run into reasonably competent workers who are still functionally successful at their current level, but who have risen far enough above daily operations that their point of view is outdated and their business solutions fail to solve the new basic problems at hand.  The expert isn’t incompetent, but is out of touch with those who have more recent experiences and more relevant insights into the issues.

The Ivory Tower Syndrome is typical in technical arenas; the business community is particularly fond of using it to destroy brilliant technicians in the making.  It’s a common practice: take your best <enter a specific job title here> on staff and put him in as the lead in charge of all the other <that same specific job title here>.  Just to make that last sentence comprehensible in English, let’s say you promote your very best developer to the head of development.  Although it seems like the logical move, Peter would tell you that being a great developer does not signal any real skill, inclination or interest in leading the other developers.  I would tell you that something more sinister is at hand – you’ve not only hobbled your most productive resource, but you have also begun to isolate that worker from the precise skillset that justified this stupid idea in the first place.  Ask any developer who, armed with lofty goals, starry eyes and the promise of mass disposable income, has discovered that being the development lead means that you no longer have any time to develop: Your new job is to perpetuate and defend results you no longer control, attend countless meetings for no apparent reason, and to see if it is possible to literally drown in administrative minutiae.

Working and supervising workers are two very different jobs; being talented at the former almost inescapably leads to the latter.  While it is possible that your career might proceed without imploding, the act of assuming a leadership role almost inescapably leads to exchanging job skills for what I call “strong supervisory inclinations” such as the ability to provide political advice, color commentary and/or arbitrary criticism without actually accomplishing anything tangible.  The irony in this situation is that by virtue of your leadership position, the rest of the organization assumes that you are the most talented at delivering the product or service that you supervise.  As career supervisors will candidly admit – once you get them into the bar for a cocktail or two – the more time you spend supervising, the more removed you are from production.  Practical skills give way to a theoretical understanding, which, in turn, fades into passing familiarity, and eventually devolves into vague notions and distant memories of how it used to be done.  Once you’re firmly ensconced in the ivory tower and addicted to whatever money and power it offers, there are no practical career exits until Peter arrives.  At that point, you either start again or decide to open a margarita stand on a beach in Mexico.

Now back to New Orleans: how did I know that ITS had gripped the NOLA RTA?  To me, it was obvious at every stop that transit supervisors didn’t take the streetcar to work… or anywhere else for that matter. Would-be riders didn’t line up at the streetcar door to get in; they queued to ask if we were heading toward or away from the beignets.  I realize that literacy is no longer considered America’s strong suit, but the sad fact was that no one in that crowd ever had a fighting chance, since no map, guide or streetcar declared north or south to be inbound or outbound. There were incredibly easy solutions, but not one official was on hand to experience the problem.

On day one of riding the rails, I took my place in the madding crowd, forced to line up to ask the same stupid question in order to get my bearings.  However by day two, I was the RTA’s unofficial ambassador at large and admiral of the fleet.  Despite the fact that I had convention show credentials hanging around my neck and was obviously from out of town, I was out there directing traffic. This was either because I am a selfless and compassionate humanitarian or I am easily and completely annoyed by incompetence.  Either way, somebody had to do it – somebody had to compensate for the gap between good intentions and the shortcomings imposed by the dreaded ITS.

My brief railroad career confirmed what I learned long ago from hotel system installations: If you want to know how the hotel operates, ask the clerks.  Like RTA drivers, they are the process owners.  As you scale the corporate pyramid, you will fi nd that department managers have a theoretical understanding of operations and general managers will tell you how it used to be done.  In most organizations, the home office holds sway over the tip of the peak, the furthest point from the company’s foundation.  There you typically hear fine ideas being passed with great authority across vast expanses of space and time.  Any similarity between the original view from the top and actual perceptions at the base is largely coincidental.

Of course, there are exceptions, and in lieu of exceptions there are fixes.  RTA supervisors would see the same problems and solutions I saw, assuming they spent a day in streetcars instead of in meetings.  The undoing of an ivory tower is to step out of it...frequently. If getting out is completely impossible, then the second best fix is to invite the outlanders to the tower – not to learn but to teach.

Real world validation of needs and solution alternatives is essential.  Fighting to keep current, to understand today’s problems presented by today’s travelers in today’s perilous market is essential.  What isn’t essential is another dose of the conventional wisdom that is found in abundant supply inside the tower.  The power of tried-and-true thought is that it has produced remarkable results in the past, but it can be a crutch or an even an impediment in the present. Breakthrough potential lies in experiencing the world first hand, or, at the very least, listening very carefully to those who do.  With fresh insights, the flexibility to embrace change and a willingness to ride the streetcar less traveled, it is possible to head confidently, profitably and efficiently toward the beignets...on purpose.


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