Should I be content to do a poor job?
April 16, 2011 4:01 AM   Subscribe

Career: New job, rapidly discovering I don't like the way the place works, but need to stick it out. How to adjust my expectations in order to survive?

2 months into a new job with a creative agency I had admired for quite a while. Thrilled to get the job, but am discovering quickly that there is a business model in place that I find really difficult to deal with.

Basically, we sell ourselves in as experts, and are very expensive. When work comes in, however, we do it as quickly and badly as we can get away with, rushing things and producing sub-par work. The agency is over capacity and several people have told me that this is how it is, and everyone is always terrified when new jobs come in about how we are going to find the time to do them. Morale is low, and there are frequent crises.

Unfortunately, my job involves both quality control and allocating time to jobs. so I can't hide from this. In fact, it's my job to make this whole thing work. My job also has a creative element (which is the reason I took it), but I'm the organisation person, basically.

I approached my manager and was told that I needed to become more pragmatic and lower my standards, because this is how agencies work and I should just get used to it, and work harder on making the jobs fit the time we have instead of doing more creative things that are also part of my job. "Bring me solutions, not problems".

I feel so disillusioned. I need to stay at this job for at least a year to make my CV less patchy (I left the last couple of jobs I had after 8 months and 10 months respectively), so quitting isn't an option for me at this stage. I can still get something out of it in terms of creative experience, but I'm feeling both angry and bewildered by the revelation that the management are content with this type of working.

Is he right? Do all agencies do this? Am I just not cut out for this industry? Can anyone share any stories of creative agencies or departments where people actually budget for taking the time to do adequate work, instead of rushing things and dropping standards to maximise profit?
posted by Franny26 to Work & Money (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Bring me solutions, not problems"

I don't know your industry but about this, at least, he is right. It's your job to keep the system working, but that doesn't mean you've got to keep it working the way it is now. Look for ways to make it better. It seems entirely possible that some of your expectations are unrealistic, but that doesn't mean you have to swallow the status quo whole.
posted by jon1270 at 4:24 AM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Bring me solutions, not problems"

That's what works for most bosses and most industries. If you find in the long run you can't come up with a solution that works for you (even though it may work for your bosses) you evaluate your long-term plans with the current employer or even in the industry, if what makes you unhappy is how the industry works.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:11 AM on April 16, 2011

Response by poster: Guys, I have solutions - and I've spent a lot of time thinking them through. The issue is that he doesn't mind having the problems, he's in no rush to solve them. Stressed staff and shitty work are OK by him. He doesn't want my solutions, which involve reviewing processes and using the skills and time we have more efficiently.

I get that that phrase is wheeled out to try and get whining staff to think constructively, so it's probably the bit you're seeing and you're assuming that's what I am.
posted by Franny26 at 5:17 AM on April 16, 2011

Stressed staff and shitty work are OK by him

Or, have you considered that they're not "OK by him," but rather, he realizes that in the current market/economic climate that perfection is not possible?

I was talking to a building contractor the other day who was telling me about how it's impossible to get jobs done on time anymore. Because construction activity has plummeted, suppliers don't keep as much stock on hand, so when you place orders the suppliers demand payment upfront and the supplier has to order the supplies from THEIR supplier. And there are delays. In the meantime the client gets pissed. Clients demand refunds, cancel and hire someone else, refuse to pay any more, etc., so the contractor has to take on more jobs to keep cash flow coming in.

There are similar forces at work in my field, law, that are pushing fees down and forcing lawyers to take on more work, reducing quality. We have to get creative and resourceful to handle the increased workload.

It seems possible that there are economic constraints your firm is facing, that you don't understand, that REQUIRE the firm to take on more work than you would prefer. And that it really is your job to figure out ways to make thus manageable ... I.e., bring your boss solutions and not problems.
posted by jayder at 5:54 AM on April 16, 2011

Best answer: whining staff... you're assuming that's what I am.

No. "Whiner" isn't a term I'm in the habit of using to describe anyone at all.

Several years ago I quit a job with a company I felt was similarly mismanaged. I still feel that company was poorly managed, but I can also see that some of my convictions at the time were simplistic and naive.

One of the big things I was wrong about was my feeling that the work we were doing wasn't "adequate." I had this perfectionist idea that all work should be done to a particular standard. At the time it didn't occur to me that it might be difficult to find customers willing to pay for work of that standard. It now seems obvious that it's the customers who decide whether the work is adequate, not you or me. Does your company have repeat customers? Do they pay their bills? Do they refrain from suing your boss for breach of contract? If yes, then the work your company does is probably 'adequate.' These business relationships, which can seem so distasteful, are consensual.

Reviewing processes and using the skills and time we have more efficiently is the strategy perennially touted by politicians running for public office when public money is tight. Have you noticed that it rarely works out the way one might hope? This sort of change is not easy even with a clear mandate.

Your boss's 'contentment' may actually be learned helplessness. He doesn't have to like the way things are to say the things you're quoting back from him.

If you are to win support for any real change, you'll need to talk about those changes in language your boss understands. How can improved morale among the rank and file make his life easier? How can higher-quality output make the company more profitable? But a prerequisite to being able to make such a case is that he believe you to be capable of figuring out what ought to be done. That's a tough case to make 2 months into a new job.
posted by jon1270 at 5:57 AM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: This situation pre-dates the economic crisis by some years, apparently. And it's not about money, it's just the way the business model was set up, and it has been like that for more than a decade. I don't like my chances of changing anything. What I'm really looking for (trying my best to be realistic here) is a way to adjust my expectations so I can cope with it without driving myself nuts.
posted by Franny26 at 6:13 AM on April 16, 2011

Not to be flip, but try reformulating that.

What I'm really looking for is a way to adjust let go of my expectations so I can cope with it without driving myself nuts.

Comparing your actual circumstances to an imagined conception of how things should work only makes things harder. This is the sort of problem that midfulness is meant to address. Try to observe without characterizing, interpreting and judging. This doesn't mean that you have to give up your values; you don't have to convince yourself to like your current situation in order to learn from it.
posted by jon1270 at 7:29 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: But if people are stressed and unhappy, is it really OK to accept that?
posted by Franny26 at 7:31 AM on April 16, 2011

It is not up to you to decide if your colleagues should accept their work environment - it is up to each and every one of them to make that decision for themselves. If they are there for more than a few weeks they have decided to accept the bargain for the time being or even long-term.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:02 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Right - there are some really helpful and constructive answers here (I suspect from the management side of the fence). Certainly, it is my job to find the solutions, and I'll be getting on with doing that. It's a shame that things are shitty, but I get it, I have to work with it. I can do that.

But I guess what I really wanted to know was - has anyone experienced taking a job because they were attracted by the company's reputation for excellence, and then found that the reality was very different? That you wouldn't actually be getting to do amazing stuff and learn amazing things, rather you'd be expending all your energy trying to deal with crisis after crisis, and that perhaps it would be the same everywhere? Is it the same everywhere? And if so, how did you cope with that wake-up call?
posted by Franny26 at 8:12 AM on April 16, 2011

Best answer: I have been in your position! In fact, i am right now! And what i've decided is that i'm going to ensure that my contributions to my projects are the best they can be, that i'm going to propose the processes that i think are right, and that it is out of my control what happens otherwise, and that stressing about it is literaly a waste of energy and time.

And then in a year, i'm going to quit. Or, in less than a year i'll have more context and information about the situation and i'll be in a position to effect change, and i won't want to quit any more, because its really satisfying to be part of the solution. One or the other!
posted by Kololo at 8:20 AM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also on a read of your last comment, i have a few thoughts:

- re-evaluate your conceptions about there being a 'management side of the fence'. You're all on the same side. The managers are people like you who have been working long enough to get promoted. They probably have similar goals but more information.
- I have taken a job because of an attraction to reputation and then found it was different. A few years ago when this happened, I quit, because i thought that staying there wouldn't be helpful to my career.
- Try to reframe what you perceive as 'crisis after crisis'. They might only be crises if you plan and expect for something different. If you can decide to accept the situation at your work 'as it is', then you'll probably start to see some of these situations as being predictable and therefore something you can plan for.
- You have a year to work there. Spend the rest of it remembering that the overall performance of the company or your teams is not your responsiblity. Your responsibility lies solely in doing your own job as a well as you can within the context you find yourself in. That is all.
posted by Kololo at 8:26 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer:
But I guess what I really wanted to know was - has anyone experienced taking a job because they were attracted by the company's reputation for excellence, and then found that the reality was very different?
The Devil Wears Prada?

I sympathize with your plight, though. I think at the end of the day you need to pick your battles, and "the way the place works" isn't your responsibility. I know it's probably tough in a job that carries high status in your personal world, but I'd really recommending depersonalizing a bit. I'm a very loyal employee who does give a crap about morale and rushed schedules and such, but after the last job I quit because of it (~5yrs ago) I've realized that some things are "just business." You don't have to care about them emotionally, professionally, or anything except maybe comedically for your sanity. You dont' have to lower your own standards, just those you expect from the company and your coworkers. As the saying goes, everyone's probably fighting a hard battle there.
posted by rhizome at 10:30 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry, last reponse I promise. Having looked through your history I am getting the impression that you are finding reality of successive workplaces not quite matching your expectations. And that you come up with plans to improve things that get rejected because you're too junior and too new in the company to implement much change. And you are clearly finding it very frustrating.

Finding your happy place at work will require both adjusting your expectations to be more aligned with workplace realities and finding a job that is a better match for you in the long run. It is true that some work places are more fast paced than others and put more pressure on people than others - and some people thrive under pressure and others hate out what works for you and why you were attracted to this and previous jobs and not to others that may actually be a better fit for you.

As to your crises - you need to reframe what you call a crises into "a new fact that needs to be evaluated and may mean that the initial plan has to change, or even to be scrapped completely". You can't control these things, you can't plan for the specific cause of the 'crises' - all you can do is know that stuff is always going to happen that renders your original carefully developed plans inoperable and sends you back to the drawing board. And if that is your expectation then whatever happens is no longer a crises but part of the normal day to day stuff that happens at work making it normal and not extra stressful.

Again it is worth remembering that you can't stop somebody else thinking of it as a crises, all you can do is fix the problem one way or another from a scheduling side. And ideally you will try to find solutions that don't cause undue pressures on individuals but if the resource level is tight whatever solution you come up with is going to put extra pressure on people already working (very) hard. All you can do is identify specific peaks as soon as possible to give yourself and others the best chance to spread things out better.

As for the "quality" concerns - quality is whatever your customer is willing to pay for as long as it is compatible with whatever regulatory environment you're operating in. So your job is to make sure the output meets those parameters - quality is commercial environments is never (or very rarely) about striving for perfection as you see it, it is about meeting your customers expectations whilst remaining profitable and legal. All you can do is take pride in the outputs you produce.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:31 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I work at a newspaper (certainly a creative endeavor) and we're down to about 1/3 the staff we had when I started over 10 years ago. Oh, boy, it's crazy...

After reading your previous question it sounds like you're involved in the media too. It's HARD out there for our business right now. Whether you're a writer, advertiser, salesperson, editor, project manager or even the person who drives the truck or administers the servers -- it's going to be chaotic and you're going to be wearing more than one hat and working on more than one thing. And nobody knows what "the model" is going to evolve into.

My company will not see the success that we saw 10 years ago if we use the same metrics we used then. Not going to happen. So we have to change how we measure things. And change is hard and chaotic.

I think you need to remember this: that HR person who is interviewing you for a job is trying to SELL you on that job, and trying to fill an empty space with a warm body. This person is NOT going to tell you about the surrounding chaos.

Anyway, take a deep breath & dive into your job. Unless you are being abused/harassed, stick with it for a year. Do the best work you can given the restraints you have. Keep in touch with people in your old jobs and people who leave for greener pastures. You'll probably see that it's the same everywhere. Then reevaluate if this is the proper career path for you. It might not be and that's okay too! Use your resources (salary, contacts, etc) to shoot you into a new field.
posted by ladygypsy at 10:44 AM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

This sounds like your first editorial management job. Boy do I feel sorry for you, sucker. Thinking editorial management is a cakewalk because the company has nice digs. So you're cramped. Make room for yourself and assemble a team that can handle rushed work while not putting everyone to work every time. Assemble strike teams and crack commando units or whatever you want to call them that will go out doing fast jobs while others handle internal product creation modes that are also in their way temporary work but is mixed up with an account they can think they are running in some relative expert way.
posted by parmanparman at 12:06 PM on April 16, 2011

Response by poster: parmanparman, is it really helpful to call me a sucker?

I never wanted a cakewalk. If anything, the problem is the opposite - that I want to work hard and achieve (unrealistically) high standards. And nice digs? I wish!

Unfortunately I don't have the authority to make room at this stage - this is a small and highly political company, not a big editorial dept, and there are strong (if confused) ideas about how I should be doing things. I've only got 3 or 4 heads to work with. Been thinking about trying to do some subtle specialising of the team based on their strengths, but this too seems to go against the business principle of "everyone must do everything". I will work under the radar to get things a bit more organised...
posted by Franny26 at 12:52 PM on April 16, 2011

Pick up the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. It's about how to change things when you have absolutely no authority. I haven't finished it, but applying what I've read so far to your situation:

According to the book, you have to make change emotionally & rationally attractive. Honestly, why would he want to change anything since he's getting what wants right now? You need to find a way to get your boss emotionally involved. If your boss doesn't care about stressed employees, then he doesn't care. You have to find some other emotional hook.

Your proposed change should be really specific. reviewing processes and using the skills and time we have more efficiently. is vague as hell.

Paint a really vivid picture of what great things will happen if the company changes. If we do Y, then you get X. Where X is really awesome thing that everyone would want.

Start small. Pick something that will be fairly easy to achieve and have a visible impact.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:07 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is an anedocte from the book about emotionally motivating people to change. I copied it to better illustrate the point.

Jon Stegner believed the company he worked for, a large manufacturer, was wasting vast sums of money. "I thought we had an opportunity to drive down purchasing costs not by 2 percent but by something on the order of $1 billion over the next five years," said Stegner, who is quoted in John Kotter and Dan Cohen's essential book The Heart of Change.

To reap these savings, a big process shift would be required, and for that shift to occur, Stegner knew that he'd have to convince his bosses. He also knew that they'd never embrace such a big shift unless they believed in the opportunity, and for the most part, they didn't.

Seeking a compelling example of the company's poor purchasing habits, Stegner assigned a summer student intern to investigate a single item—work gloves, which workers in most of the company's factories wore. The student embarked on a mission to identify all the types of gloves used in all the company's factories and then trace back what the company was paying for them.

The intrepid intern soon reported that the factories were purchasing 424 different kinds of gloves! Furthermore, they were using different glove suppliers, and they were all negotiating their own prices. The same pair of gloves that cost $5 at one factory might cost $17 at another.

At Stegner's request, the student collected a specimen of every one of the 424 different types of gloves and tagged each with the price paid. Then all the gloves were gathered up, brought to the boardroom, and piled up on the conference table. Stegner invited all the division presidents to come visit the Glove Shrine. He recalled the scene:

What they saw was a large expensive table, normally clean or with a few papers, now stacked high with gloves. Each of our executives stared at this display for a minute. Then each said something like, "We really buy all these different kinds of gloves?" Well, as a matter of fact, yes we do. "Really?" Yes, really. Then they walked around the table ... They could see the prices. They looked at two gloves that seemed exactly alike, yet one was marked $3.22 and the other $10.55. It's a rare event when these people don't have anything to say. But that day, they just stood with their mouths gaping.

The gloves exhibit soon became a traveling road show, visiting dozens of plants. The reaction was visceral: This is crazy. We're crazy. And we've got to make sure this stops happening. Soon Stegner had exactly the mandate for change that he'd sought. The company changed its purchasing process and saved a great deal of money. This was exactly the happy ending everyone wanted (except, of course, for the glove salesmen who'd managed to sell the $5 gloves for $17).

posted by nooneyouknow at 1:15 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

has anyone experienced taking a job because they were attracted by the company's reputation for excellence, and then found that the reality was very different? [...] Is it the same everywhere? And if so, how did you cope with that wake-up call?

nooneyouknow has it. You will always have responsibility before you have authority, and Promulgation of a Diktat from On High is probably not where you want to go. Getting a problem solved is very often a matter of wandering around, making suggestions, talking about concerns, and hoping there are sparks bright enough to figure out pieces of what is needed.

Every job - the following example is just because I lived it recently - has big, dirty messes stacked in corners and under rugs. In my case, I joined a really cool, really innovative little firm because a) I could make a difference myself and b) they were ambitious - they had an idea of moving from being a boutique supplier to being a powerhouse in their industry. They had just gotten a contract to develop a device about an order of magnitude more complex than they'd built before.

Except - and this was one of those messes - nobody knew how to get Tab A into Slot B. They tried to use the processes they had for simple systems and when faced with a complex one they pretty much hid under their desks. I had no authority and no mandate to show how you build on ability to create simple systems, but it was something I had done before and it was, in my view, necessary.

This business of wandering around, planting suggestions and encouraging people to think worked. By the time of a big pow-wow conducted with hundreds of Post-Its on a wall, there were three or four people in the room who knew what was needed, they simply needed a tool to get moving. We built, at that point, the work breakdown structure of the whole project. That was what it took for the group to stop fretting about how big the job was, and start figuring out how to do it.

I don't think anybody thought about why the meeting happened. A sense of "we can figure this out" gradually grew and the project came together. The fact there was no budget for that meeting, WBS creation or a formal flowdown was at that point irrelevant, it was clear that that's what it took to move forward and when something really, truly works, you don't need to worry much about bureaucracy. Even bureaucracy bends when the alternative is worse.
posted by jet_silver at 1:47 PM on April 16, 2011

If you keep your head down and work hard, and show your bosses that you are someone to be trusted, you will be in a position to help change the organization. I'm still of the mind that whatever problems bother you at this job and your previous job are just effects of larger pressures you don't understand. You seem to assume that the businesses are poorly run because they're managed by idiots; maybe, but probably not, and it sure isn't something that person-who-has-been-there-two-months is qualified to determine.

You've got to prove yourself before you can change things. I think the early stages of anyone's career is kind of like combat experience ... We often get our start in hectic, busy, chaotic firms. They usually don't live up to our idealistic expectations about What Such A Firm Ought To Be Like. Nothing is what it ought to be like, in my experience. But our challenge day to day is to work hard and prove ourselves worthy of changing the places where we work.

A kind of stoicism and acceptance that this is what working life is like would benefit you, I think.
posted by jayder at 2:41 PM on April 16, 2011

Response by poster: Can I just say that I've had other jobs before, and I *do know* that perfection is impossible. I feel like I'm coming off as some bratty naive idiot, and being told I need to just suck it up. I feel like I'm putting people on the defensive here, and some the answers aren't making me feel great either.

I know that it's difficult for me to convey the picture here, in words, to people who don't know the situation. I know that I sound like I'm a stupid kid throwing my toys out of the pram. But I also know that it is possible for stuff to be muddled through and sorted out without making people ill with stress (and people in this company have been hospitalised before, literally taken from the office in an ambulance).
posted by Franny26 at 5:12 PM on April 16, 2011

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