#2903- Get the People Off the Ship

I have been on a sinking ship.  Well, a sinking boat at least.  When we were kids, a friend of my parents rented a boat and after using it for the day, had to return it across the lake to the Marina.  All the kids wanted to go, and so he loaded six of us in this rowboat with a little 10 or so horsepower engine strapped on the back, and started across the lake.

But the chop had increased significantly since he’d brought the boat over in the morning, and we found ourselves still headed away from the shore with waves breaking coming over the sides.  My sister Kate took my sister Mary’s water shoes off and she and I started bailing with them but it was a losing battle.  Between my sister’s tears and the note of panic in my parents’ friend’s voice, I knew we were in trouble, and oh man was I scared.
Looking back I shouldn’t have been- my sisters and I were and still are all strong swimmers, and we were wearing life jackets, and we weren’t altogether that far from the shore, but it was further out than we were allowed to swim, and we were little.

Our plight was not lost on some of the neighbors, though, and just when it seemed like the little boat would founder in twenty feet of water, oars were reaching out to us and hands were pulling us into speedboats that were suddenly all around, and smiling faces and dry towels solved every problem us little kids had.

Someone towed the boat back, as once the load lightened by a couple hundred pounds, it wasn’t in much trouble at all.  Our parents’ friend brought the boat back later in the day.  My dad, unsurprisingly, didn’t seem all that concerned about the whole ordeal.

Not really sure if that anecdote actually fits with the point I’m trying to make here, but I’ll try.  It seems that any logical thinking adult would have known, pretty early on, in that situation, that things were going poorly.  But then all these factors started to creep in.  The old, ‘I’ll look like an idiot if I turn back now’s and the ‘What are people saying that are watching?’s and the ‘I have to pretend that I know what I’m doing’ type of feelings.  They all get in there and they cloud the problem and the solution.  The ship is sinking.  Get the people off.

What I mean is this- many times, whether it’s your business or some social situation, there is a clear problem with a clear solution, and you let all these other things get in the way of an obvious solution.

One time, in college, this kid was setting up flaming Dr. Pepper shots, and after he’d lit the Bacardi 151, he spilt some on the table, and the table was therefore covered in flammable liquid, which quickly lit the table on fire.  There must have been ten of us standing there, watching the table burn.  Afterwards I asked everyone why they didn’t do something.  There were varied reasons, but in general, the gist was, though everyone had nice, cold, non-flammable beers in their hands, it took almost thirty seconds before I dumped my beer on it because everyone was worried, apparently, about having to clean up spilt beer.  While the table was burning.  Definitely not trying to toot my own horn or what have you, but I think it just captures the spirit of what my point is.  There is a clear, simple solution, and when you start to crowd that solution with too many outside factors, it quickly becomes easier to just stand there and watch the table burn.

It’s part Kitty Genovese syndrome (the bystander effect– which is why, in an emergency, you assign roles directly rather than just asking ‘someone dial 9-1-1), part of that attitude of, ‘well, that’s how we do it around here’ when no one can remember why, a fair bit of group think, and a lot of people unwilling to step into the forefront of the situation when what everyone needs is for someone to take charge.

There seems to me to be this tendency to, in, say, the business world, quickly fire people, to try and cover up errors or mistakes, to pass the blame away as quickly as possible, instead of solving the problem first and foremost.  People are quick to accuse other departments of dropping the ball, of talking about how hard it is to work with others, to shift focus and dilute issues so that the ax doesn’t fall to quickly on them, rather than just find the solution.

In the restaurant business, which is the business in which I work, there are some days where everything goes wrong.  The printer to the kitchen isn’t working and a group showed up with double the number for their reservation and you’re slammed with people all at once and the soda gun stopped working an hour ago for no apparent reason and the gas for the grill cut out.  Damn are days like that frustrating.  Nothing goes right, and the anger and resentment just builds and builds- towards coworkers, towards customers, everywhere.

In situations like that it’s so, so easy to just lose it.  To blame your coworkers to your customers and your customers to your coworkers and your coworkers to your other coworkers.  But the thing is, that is the easy thing to do.  Just be frustrated and pissed at everyone and put the whole problem on someone else’s shoulders.

There is nothing in the world I hate more than when a waiter of mine (when I’m out eating), blames the kitchen, or the bartender, or the manager for shit going wrong, for food taking too long, for orders being mixed up.  I can’t stand it because even if it’s true, it’s the easy way out.  Sure there are unreasonable diners out there who aren’t going to be pleased no matter what if they’re not in a mood to be pleased, but 99% of the population of the world is pretty generally understanding if you are honest.  ‘Sorry guys, I haven’t put your drink order in yet, but I’ll do so right now.’  Those words are worth so much more to me than all the bullshit.  I can see.  Your restaurant is busy, you’re understaffed, you’re in the weeds.  That doesn’t bother me.  You forgot my fries?  So what, it happens.  Just don’t be an asshole about it.  ‘I forgot the fries, I’ll get them for you right away.’ No problem!  That doesn’t bother me at all.

When people start to get at each other instead of addressing the actual problem, that’s when shit goes wrong.  Get the people fed and out the door.  We can worry about who forgot to order more Coke and who didn’t pay the gas bill and who jammed the printer later.  Let’s get it done now and we can gripe when there is time to gripe.

I’m not trying to say that every problem has an immediate solution.  I just think that once you start to cloud the issue with office politics and personal grudges and all that other bullshit, it makes finding the simple solutions that much more difficult.

You have to assess the situation honestly, and worry about your reputation and how well this will go over and what an idiot you’ll look like later on.  I know that if my parents’ friend had thought about, for one second, how realistic it was to take six kids across the lake in that kind of weather, with even a shred of ego-less logic, he would have seen it was a bad idea and endured a few whines from some bratty kids and maybe a couple snide comments about what a wimp he was from the other adults, safe with the knowledge that it was the right call.

I mean, isn’t that the whole thing with the Titanic?  No one wanted to be the first dumbass to say that the unsinkable ship was sinking.  Nobody wanted to be the fool that had passengers start evacuating quickly and efficiently because when the ship was still floating and it was fine, they’d be mocked, they’d be fired, they’d be Seward’s newest Folly  without the 49th state and the oil reserves to change everyone’s mind later.
I know they didn’t have enough life boats for everyone and all that, but they were 40% empty.  40 fucking percent.

You have to make the hard call (#381) sometimes, you have to asses the situation as clearly (#4410) as possible, and as plainly as possible, and find the solution that solves the big problem, not the one that satisfies all the tiny little corollary problems.  Deal with the bullshit after (#1801).

I don’t think I’ve done a great job getting at what I’m getting at here, and I will probably have to revisit this one at some point, but I hope that at least the idea of what I’m trying to say makes sense on some level.


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