Are You Waiting to Be Laid Off?

Back in June, when I was writing a blog for Harvard Business, I was thinking a lot about folks (including my former colleagues) who were waiting to hear whether they’d “get the axe” at work. Eight months earlier, I had quit my full-time job to pursue some long-neglected passions, but most people I knew were still plugging away in full-time positions that they needed to keep. For some of them, the almost-certain prospect of layoffs had been looming for what seemed like an eternity. So I submitted a blog post that attempted to give a voice to people forced to play this all-too-familiar waiting game.

The post was a little unconventional because, well, it featured an original poem of mine. I do write a fair amount of poetry, but this was something of a parody of my own style, even though I thought it kind of fit the bill. Not surprisingly, my editor didn’t go for it, as it was off-brand for the website. Not to mention that Harvard Business was gearing up to announce its own layoffs as June (and the end of the fiscal year) wound down, and the timing would have been a bit too perfect.

Now, with the calendar year winding down and some people (perhaps not as many) still awaiting news about layoffs, I offer up that odd little poem from June. It is what it is. Happy new year.

 

Lay Me Off

As the end of your fiscal year

approaches, your hands are nearing

my neck, your knife in reach

of my knees.  Because I cannot walk

on my own, I am stiff

for the sound of your severance —

crisp for the snap

of executive fingers.  A clean break

 

will not crack me — my skull

has already quit this corporation.

 

Let me go now, I urge you.  But please

do not thank me for my labor, give lip

to my service.  Platitudes fall

flatter than a pink slip,

slice rougher than any across-the-board

decision.  You have slowly taken

my years, but — please —

lay off my ears.

 

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Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant

As any project manager knows, finding good freelancers can be tough. Once you have one who efficiently delivers high-quality work, the seamlessness of the operation is addictive. Everything’s functioning beautifully, so you just keep running the well-oiled machine. That’s a success to celebrate, of course, but it can lull you into overlooking additional value that the freelancer could offer, if only you’d pause a moment to extract it. I’ve seen that value both as an in-house project manager and as a freelancer.

Where is the value hidden? It’s buried among the insights that the freelancer is constantly acquiring about your systems. Not every reliable freelancer will be able to articulate those insights in a form that can be put to practical use; that’s something you have to gauge based on your interactions with her. And even if she is a good candidate for this kind of meta-analysis, her time does mean money. But it’s a fraction of what you’d pay for a high-priced consultant, not least because the freelancer has already done the up-front investigational work. That’s low-hanging fruit you’d be wise to pluck.

Here are some small-scale assessments you can ask a freelancer to do. Different types of outsourced work are likely to merit different types of assessments, many not in this list. And, clearly, they cannot substitute for a consulting task that requires a very broad scope.

1. On an isolated job, have the freelancer keep a running catalogue of things that went better or worse than expected. Ask her to briefly explain why she thinks each outcome was unanticipated, focusing in particular on systems- and process-related obstacles.

2. Over time, have her note which parts of the work you deliver to her have become easier to handle, and which less. If she finds that the level of difficulty fluctuates, have her identify the contingencies, systemic and otherwise, that seem to be responsible.

3. If your relationship with the freelancer is especially trusting, ask her to identify one process or protocol that she uses with one of her other clients that she thinks would serve your needs. Have her explain how it might best be integrated with your existing systems, even if modest ripple effects would be unavoidable. Obviously, make clear that you are not interested in the name of, or any proprietary information from, the other client and that if either revelation cannot be avoided, she should skip this task altogether.

4. Ask her to write a one-page analysis of how your overall systems can be improved. The analysis should include both a brief narrative assessment and specific, bulleted suggestions. Encourage her to be honest yet practical in her recommendations.

Small-scale consultative tasks like these should be assigned to a freelancer only on a periodic, or even a one-time, basis. You obviously don’t want to gum up the gears of the well-oiled machine. Also, be clear about how much time you’d like the freelancer to spend. If in the end you derive value from her assessment, compare it — and the cost — with what you got from your last consultant. There’s no guarantee of comparatively better value, but the experiment certainly will have been worth the low price you paid to conduct it.

How have you managed to derive value from your freelancers, beyond the usual deliverables?

The Quiet Tyranny of Online Tips

What I am about to say will smack of hypocrisy. But I’ll say it anyway, because I think it’s true.

The growing popularity of blogs that offer advice in the form of take-home tips is dangerous.

Disclosure: I enjoy a set of wise, well-crafted tips as much as the next person. They provide elegantly simple guideposts for coping with real challenges, both large and small. Their value can even be proved, as people derive measurable benefits from what they read. Indeed, I have written quite a few of these tips for my recent blog at HBR.org, and I like to think they are useful. People who consume them tell me that I’m not deluding myself. So what’s the harm?

It’s, in part, the addictive allure of ready-made things. They give us what we need when we need it. And the more they serve us well, the more we seek them out. Each one provides a tasty reward, with all the flavor and portability of a chicken nugget. But unlike fast food, ready-made advice does not come at any obvious price to the individual, such as weight gain.

The hidden danger, it seems to me, is not in what these tips are or what they do, but in what they can displace if we’re not careful. Given their immediate rewards and apparent lack of risk, their popularity increases and content producers step up to meet the demand for items that promise “how to,” “five steps,” or “the secret.” In the process, we start to get fewer pieces in which writers (even the good ones) actually wrestle with a problem rather than serving up a pat solution. Slowly but surely, fewer online offerings plant rich seeds in the minds of readers; instead, many of them hand over, to borrow John Gardner‘s nearly 50-year-old metaphor, “cut flowers.”

“Who has time for real essays?” you might ask. Well, for one thing, they need not be long. Actually, many of the long ones don’t really earn their length; they often grow an entire intellectual plant for the reader, in large part to show what a brilliant gardener the writer is. Precious few demand or invite any more from the beholder than cut flowers do, even if they deserve more awe. But does either stay with me, the reader, for the long term? One influences my opinion of the writer; the other influences my habits. Neither transforms my mind.

The habit-changing pieces are the seductive ones, of course. Even though I still have to put in follow-up work to alter the way I behave, I have my trusty manual in tow, and the ease with which I can pocket it pleases me instantly. I may simply click away, or I may post a comment about what I have just read. Then I’m on my merry way. Whatever my method of departure, my visit has been logged and my appetite assumed. Reader, writer, and online publisher feed the habit. More tips, please. Coming right up!

It’s all good. We’re all better for the experience, aren’t we? I, for one, will continue to read — and to write — these practical pieces. I’m addicted to my own chicken nuggets. In a Styrofoam take-away container. Next to my vase of cut flowers.