Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 2010: Getting Organized

On Monday September 20th, I awoke in a panic. I thought I had missed an appointment the day before. I thought I had missed picking up my old friend Franklin Schargel from the airport. I was then supposed to have driven him to his hotel downtown, and have had dinner with him.

What horrors. I was ashamed with myself though I suspected I had the wrong date in mind. Frankin would have called and asked where I was. As that did not happen logic would have dictated that the date in my mind was wrong. My embarrassment was overwhelming any logic. Furthermore, I was a good stretch or three away from being fully awake.

When I did get to my computer, I checked my calendar and realized that Franklin was coming to Chicago on the following Sunday, September 26th. Whew! A huge gigantic whew!!

Why would I feel such panic and then such relief? Why did the panic and pending embarrassment diminish the reasoning that would have made me realize that I simply had the wrong date? Seriously, my phone was charged, on, and, in arm’s reach all day.

The reason I had reacted this way is simply because this kind of thing has happened to me before. Thankfully, it has not happened often. But, it has happened. I know I am not alone in this and many people occasionally forget moderately important things. But that does not make it better.

The first band I ever played in was the Johnites in Detroit. John Tosoian was our leader and handled all the bookings. He did a great job for the twenty-some years I played with those fellows. I never realized how good John was until I began booking my own gigs and keeping my new guys all informed. It was, as they say, like herding cats. Only the leader cares about being organized, the other guys… well they like to drink, play music, and have fun. They forget dates, times, locations, and what to wear. It is actually funny. We joke about it a lot. This is not a complaint but more an illustration that, as Joni Mitchell said, “I’ve seen life from both sides now.”

One Friday afternoon in the 1980s, John called me at work. “Hey Marko, you won’t believe what happened?” I took a stab probably channeling off of the tone of his voice and responded, “We have a band job tonight and it was totally off of you radar screen.” “How did you guess?” John was embarrassed he could not rationalize how it happened. I told him it was OK. It wasn’t like we missed the gig; it was a near miss and that only made for a great story. Heck, I am relating the story twenty plus years later.

When these kinds of gaffes happen to me it is horrifying, unforgiveable, embarrassing. When it happens to someone else, it is OK, forgivable, and warmly amusing. I suppose that is human nature.

It all comes down to organization and execution. It all begins with organization. I attribute any failures mostly to a failure first in organization and planning. This letter is about exploring the ins and outs of being organized, the appearance of being organized, and how things fall through the cracks.

One reason this is a little bit of a big deal is because of my age. I am, after all, on that “other side of fifty.” At this age, I look older than I feel most of the time. I also know that feeling younger than I feel requires effort. Amongst friends and peers, we joke more and more often about the so called “senior moments.” We wonder if the frequency of these senior moments is constant or is it increasing. Oddly, we never discuss the decreasing frequency. I figure that if we are cognizant of these moments and their frequency, then dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the issue. Honestly, I am not so worried about such things. I am laughing because I claim not to be worried, yet I am indeed writing about it. Sounds like conflicting messages to me.

What worries me more and more is being organized enough to manage all the meetings, appointments, and events I need to attend and participate in. I need to be aware of the objectives and tasks I need to accomplish including the work breakdown that transforms large complicated endeavors into doable daily or weekly chunks.

I want to be better and even excel at this. It is necessary to be better and better at this kind of organization. The world is definitely more and more complicated and requires a level of organization that I have not necessarily needed.

Let me make a confession. I have been pretty cavalier about career and business up to this point. I have been smart enough or energetic enough to get by. I do not mean to sound arrogant but for me it is smarter than energetic. Energetic and having a sense of urgency is not my strong suit. Postponing until the last minute and relying on being clever is how I operate. Of course, waiting until the last minute does tend to create a sense of urgency.

I have seen others that were not necessarily the brightest survive and excel purely on attacking everything with a sense of urgency. If they make an error or forget something, so be it they energetically fight and stomp out each fire. This is another way of getting things done and many more people are rewarded and promoted who are good at this.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.
~ George S. Patton
Is the pit bull the smartest dog? I do not know. But, a pit bull never gives up. A pit bull is relentless. It has intense focus. The sense of urgency guys I have known remind of the pit bull. They are full of energy and relentless intensity.

The best of both worlds is, of course, the way to go. Being wicked smart with a sense of urgency is tough to beat. This combination makes for the best leaders, intellectuals, scholars, and artists.

Those that are the brightest and the hardest working clearly stand out. They are impressive. If they have charisma to boot, then these folks are amongst the most impressive I have ever met. While I have not met the man, Barack Obama immediately comes to mind in this regard. (Try to factor out if you disagree with him politically.)

Organization & Complexity: Complexity is the enemy of organization. Operating in a complex environment of conflicting priorities, tradeoffs, and more work than one can accomplish actually requires both a high level of organization and an intense sense of urgency to succeed.

I have a friend from my Colgate days. Eric Morales was one of the better manufacturing directors in the company. He ran operations in his home country of Panama. He moved up over the years to Ecuador, Colombia, and now in Mexico. Between Ecuador and Colombia, he worked in the Latin America Division with me in New York. Eric is a man of few words. He embodied what is best quoted by General Colin Powell:
Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.
Eric was indeed the greatest simplifier I have ever met. He wanted to reduce everything: the number of plants, the number products, the number of materials that went into the product, the number of warehouses, the number of suppliers, the number of layers in the organization, etc. Complexity requires more precise organization and execution to function. He and Colin Powell are absolutely right.

Eric always had a dual agenda. He worked to achieve the operational objectives that were assigned to him and he simultaneously drove simplification. Simplification enabled him to achieve the main objectives faster.

Eric was able to do this in an organization that did not fully buy in. It was not part of the culture. Yet, this was his modus operandi and it worked quite effectively for him.

September 24: In the midst of writing this letter, I was able to execute or rather not execute something I had planned to do.

My method of working is really passé. I use Microsoft Office. I am still under the belief and very hard to break habit of saving everything on my hard drive. I am not unique in this. The problem is that I am using several hard drives: one on my personal laptop, one on my client’s desktop, and another on the College of Lake County server. You can all probably see where this is going.

I worked on a file at home. I needed it work. I made a mental note, yes a mental note, to mail it myself and then retrieve it while on the client’s desk top the next day. Well, the post-its I use for mental notes are most definitely a bargain brand. They do not stick that well. This mental note came loose and drifted to a dank dark corner of my mind. When I needed the file today, I went to retrieve it and, of course, it was not there. Profanities were muttered.

Not everything belongs on a to-do list. Not everything can be ensured with technology. Some things require rote behavior and routines that are essentially rituals.

Actually, and I can hear my partner’s voice in my head as I type this, I should be using Google Docs. It is a cloud based document management system. What is a cloud? I certainly do not need to be any cloudier than I already am. In this case, a cloud is a good thing. Documents are stored on a Google Server that I can retrieve from any computer and even smart phones with internet access. It is like a cloud because as one moves around the cloud is always overhead.

Organization and Technology: I have written before that when I was in grade school I never used a planner or calendar of any kind. No one I know used one. We just remembered what was due and when it was due. The weeks were routine so things were easier to remember. There were not very many special projects and even the homework was routine. There was no need for organizational tools.

In fact, I never used a calendar through any of my schooling. There were no syllabi in college or graduate school. Assignments were written on the blackboard and I wrote them in my notebook. Simple.

I teach statistics these days at College of Lake County. I prepare a syllabus with all the homework and other important and legal mumbo jumbo. This is passed out to the students on the first night of class. It is also posted on-line using a very powerful course management software product ironically called BlackBoard. I post Excel assignments there as well as what will be on quizzes and exams. What I post is automatically emailed to the students. Excel assignments can be uploaded where I can grade and comment on them. There is an on-line grade book. It is all totally customizable and the students use it as well only seeing their own work and grades. It is very cool and full of all kinds of bells and whistles.

It is designed to make things easier and for the most part it does. But there are a lot of features that I believe do not are not all that intuitive to use. One can lose hours trying to make them work as either student or professor.

Much of technology is this way. Most of us only use a fraction of the utilities and functions available on our phones, cameras, and inside of software products like Microsoft Word and Excel. We naturally use basic functionality and keep it simple and eschew complexity.

In the past few years, I have kept my calendar on my computer and phone. Using modern smart phones makes this easy and seamless. It all happens wirelessly. You enter an appointment either in your phone or on the computer and it shows up on the other device. Amazing and yet as with all innovation, it is now commonplace.

The effectiveness is both boon and bane. I know very well that things can be deleted as efficiently as they are created. Mental muddle and fat thumbs seem to make the deleting even easier on “one of those days.” I have missed appointments because of this. Of course, I blame the “dang blasted” technology.

Another problem with technology is that it is always changing. New versions and new products come out with new features, feels, and functions just about when I have mastered and have really gotten comfortable with the old. I view the aforementioned Google Docs that way. I know how to navigate my hard drives using MS Windows Explorer. I am comfortable with MS Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Google Docs is just different enough for using it to have become a mental barrier.

I am not a moron. I know it is a better solution in the long run. Change is good and sometimes infuriating. A change to Google Docs would be good until the next change comes around and the changes seem to come faster and faster.

I have also almost missed or been late for appointments because well… um… I just didn’t look at my calendar that morning. That is not a technology issue unless we classify it as a mental software defect.

Routine: I was recently at a Starbucks and noticed that they have decals on their doors sporting a new slogan “Take comfort in rituals.” I noticed this the day after I wrote the above. It made me think that routine can be as important a factor in being organized as is simplicity.

Many people get up at the same time every day, hit the gym at the same time, have the same cup of coffee at the same place at the same time, sit in the same seat on the same trains, fire up their PCs, check their emails, review their schedules and to-do lists, and get on with their days activities.

I suppose routines are one way of simplifying things.

September 26: This is the day I actually picked up Franklin at Midway. I drove him to the Westin Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Speaking about organization, I was to meet him at his hotel at 5 pm. We were to chat over a cup of coffee for an hour or so until he had to give his speech at the conference. Franklin got a call on Friday, they moved up the time of his speech.

On the way home, I was listening to National Public Radio. There was a show talking about smart phone apps. There are apps that you can use the camera on your phone to capture the bar code on any product and the app would comparison shop the product for you. Another similar app was allowed the happy homemaker, man or woman, to take photos of bar codes which the app would convert into a grocery shopping list. Then in the store you would enter the quantity and price of each product bought. The app would keep a running tally on what your grocery bill would be. I was thinking to myself that it sounded like a lot of effort for very little utility. If the tasks associated with being organized are not simple, routine, and have an obvious positive utility, most people will not do them. The host of the show then uttered the very same sentiment. The app lady being interviewed simply stated: “Being organized is a lot of work.”

Maybe my next letter will be on serendipity.

Sidebar well… actually an end piece: Who is Franklin Schargel? I met Franklin in the early 1990s. He was then assistant principal at George Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn, NY. We met at a conference on Dr. Deming’s approach to Quality sponsored by Fordham University and Metropolitan NY Section of the American Society for Quality. Franklin was there because he was interested in employing the Quality methodology and approach in public schools.

I admired his interest, appreciated his eagerness to learn, and liked him. We became good friends. I visited the school a few times. We hung out and discussed Quality and Education.

Franklin retired from the New York City Public Schools and became a full time consultant, speaker, and author. He has authored or co-authored nine books. His tenth book is currently being published. His recent interest has been fighting the excessively high drop-out rate in this country and around the world.

Franklin was in Chicago to deliver the keynote address at the 100th Conference of the International Association of Truancy & Dropout Prevention. He is busy and happy in his second career. Check out his website at


  1. Mark(o),

    Do you think there is something vaguely poetic about even the thought of being late to pick up an expert in truancy? Go ahead, embrace your inner tardiness. Face it, Armenians were born biologically 8 minutes behind the rest of the global population, because if most of them could ever see in front of their egos they really would be running the whole world. It's God's way of making sure Armenians don't think WE're the ones who created the universe....

    I am a rug merchant's grandson. My grandfather always used to say that it was a custom of Armenian weavers that their most exquisite and valuable carpets always had one bad knot, woven on purpose as a sign of the artisan's humanity.

    --a tardy Armenian

  2. Mark, thanks for referring me to your blog. Love your open, honest sharing.