Work Heroics

I have a fatal flaw when it comes to work. I'm too quick to jump in and save the day. It’s not performative. It’s not for others — it’s for me. It’s a self-imposed desire, or need, to not let things fail. It's probably always been there - but I'd never really had a way of defining it before.

My Work Heroics

These heroics have been an asset in a lot of my work. They encourage my creativity by engaging with problems and seeking solutions. For projects that are off the rails or find themselves in dire straits or all good conscience will fall over — I come along and rescue them. I plug holes, I pull together resources, and more often than not, I throw myself into the breach. As an expert generalist, this encourages and feeds my broad skill set. So, for many reasons, this is a positive for me.

However, for the last couple of years, it hasn’t felt that positive. When problems are occasional, this heroism can be useful and rewarding. For the last couple of years, it’s been a hindrance. The projects I’ve been working on have been new initiatives. They don’t have a playbook and a track to follow. Resourcing was a guesstimate, and much of what I've spent my time doing could be considered known unknowns. There were always expectations that we wouldn't have issues or that problems would arise.

The thing is, rather than the exception to the rule - problems have become the rule. In the beginning, we joked in the team that fires were always springing up. You put one out, and another would sprint up. For the last 18 months, it's felt very different — everything is on fire.

From the comic strip from KC Green – This is fine

What I can see now is that while the heroics got things across the line and helped create success, they did nothing to reduce many of the underlying problems. Many solutions happened at an operational level through dialogue and conversation because most of the problems were human. Therefore, most of the knowledge about this work was tacit. It never had to be written down or documented. In fact - a lot of the heroics were to prevent things from becoming explicit.

Work was done to prevent deadlines from being missed, overcome or remove problems, and work with staff so complaints and issues weren’t filed or issues logged. My work really has been so focused on patching over the cracks and delivering things that are of high quality and timely that the projects look flawless. All of the structural deficiencies don’t show up. I applied the fix before the break has been noticed. I’ve been the hero again.

But now I’m tired.

I’ve tried to address the underlying issues and have not really had the success I anticipated. I seem to have been met with a “Problem? What problem?” reaction. All the work I’ve poured myself into is invisible to everyone except those it directly affects. I’ve had some fantastic working relationships along the way, which has been great. But relationships are invisible, too. So much of my work is intangible, the effort of thinking of a solution to a problem, the mitigation of an issue so that it doesn't happen. If the organisation doesn’t see it, it doesn't really matter. It doesn't care about relationships, even though it likes to say it does. There's lots of talk about Stakeholder Engagement but very little about dialogue, discussion, compromise and understanding - all tacit components of getting things done. The explicit, Have a Meeting, is more important than the tacit, Achieve a Result.

There might be a case for making my work more explicit, but that changes the work.

There might be a case for letting things fail, but failure has consequences.

Do you let things fail when you don’t have to? Do you continue playing out the trolley problem when the emergency brake is right there?

This heroic mindset probably grew from a habit of procrastination. Work that I don’t find engaging gets left to last. Rather than being planned and methodical, I opted to be fast and dramatic. Last-ditch appointments, late nights, last-minute saves - it becomes a habit.

My early career was in small businesses where a fuck up would not just lose me a job but close down a business. My heroics probably got more formalised in this environment. I came to expect it from myself. I could make impossible things happen. I could move a mountain. And I felt I needed to. There was a duty and pride wrapped up in not letting things fail. I could save everyone.

Knowing enough superhero lore, I can see all of this being played out by Marvel and DC characters in comics and movies. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Ben Affleck’s Batman - there was a distinct “I’m over this shit” vibe that resonated with me. There's a limit to the heroics, and it gets to you.

That’s it, though — I don’t have a solution. Just a description of the problem. I can’t seem to perform heroics on myself.