Tennis with an octopus
Some days are just not your days.
You are on the back foot. It’s not clear why, but you are. You are a click too late in working out what is the thing behind the thing. No reason why, but you are. There is no more than normal going on. But it’s an avalanche alright.
Some days, it feels like you are playing tennis with an octopus.
I am not a particularly strong tennis player. More enthusiasm than skill, truth be told. And what I can tell you about tennis is that, watching that ball bounce, trying to work out where it will be and where you need to meet it… that’s not a thing that comes naturally to me. Any shot can surprise me. Maybe they wouldn’t surprise the Nadals of this world, and that’s the difference. But I bet even Rafa would find an octopus a challenge. There’s just too much going on.
The octopus doesn’t even need to be that good if they are relentless.
That’s how mediocre ideas get through sometimes.
That’s how waste-of-time initiatives get through sometimes.
If eight balls are being thrown at you where you were meant to get one, some may get through that shouldn’t by sheer strength in numbers.
Any given shot can surprise you when it comes to tennis. A very mediocre idea can flourish when it comes to start-ups. A seriously unlikeable character can triumph when it comes to founders. A single shot in tennis can go any old way. Lady Luck and all that.
But the pattern won’t shift. The grain of the game won’t change.
This is about tennis. But it’s mostly about life. And work. And your career. And tech transformation, also that.
It took me the best part of a decade to realise that the things that prevail and the instances that flourish are not the same thing. Not even close.
There is randomness at play, make no mistake about it. The whole point about the industry is that there are undeniable trends, but you could play the playbook shot and still hit out. The tech and business model and tone of voice you embrace may be exactly right and on the money, and still you may not make it. And the opposite may also hold true. You may be a total chancer. But you strike gold, you get lucky and there you go. Match point.
We see those guys every day, don’t we? At work.
The ones chancing it. The ones getting away with doing less than or being less than because they worked out how the octopus plays the game.
There’s a beautiful love song hiding among the jokes of the musical Avenue Q.
How’s that for a random twist?
I love finding wonderful things in unexpected places. And you don’t expect a thoughtful love song in the middle of… well… all that. If you’ve seen the show, you know what I mean.
And the song goes, “There’s a fine, fine line between together, and not. There’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.” And it concludes that there is indeed “a fine, fine line between love and a waste of my time”.
It comes to mind a lot, this song. At work.
When the octopus is throwing eight balls at once at you… it comes to mind a lot. You will be working flat out on the thing that was the most important priority last week, and while you are up to your eyeballs in that… the curve balls start coming. Sometimes it will look like colleagues scoring cheap political points because they can. Striking where the blow won’t leave a bruise. Mouthing the words but missing the point of them.
Sometimes it will be the organisation generating a self-congratulatory circular activity for itself. Sometimes it will be form over substance.
The worst sexism I have both witnessed and endured was at the hands of someone celebrated for being a champion of women. He had awards. His team was a complete bingo card of diversity and intersectionality. But he was patronising. He had double standards. He protected bullies and frankly led by example how to get better at it. How to use the octopus while toeing the line of deniability. A fine, fine line, you may say, but there.
The worst presenteeism I have ever seen has been in a business in crisis, where urgent decisions needed to be made and a lot of work needed to be done to inform them… but those who didn’t need to do the work were doing meetings and sending emails, octopus style.
So many meetings. So many emails.
So many unnecessary balls served over the net.
So much concern expressed in endless unnecessary updates that distracted the people who needed to do the work… and forced them to stop doing the work to attend the meetings… only to be called out for not having completed the work they would be doing if they weren’t constantly distracted by the over-enthusiastic octopus backhand.
Do they mean well, these octopi? Do they not? Are they hurting the business even if they don’t realise they are doing just that?
It’s a line, and it’s crossed often.
The line is fine; most people don’t care to notice.
But I do.
And when the octopus is hitting balls at you like crazy, keeping an eye on the line becomes hard because the line is fine and not always spoken of.
Fine it may be, but I for one know the difference between substance and pretence. Between bluntness and malice. Between substantive work and looking useful. Between tough love and a waste of my time.
Maybe your organisation should care to know it too.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
Leda is also a published author – her first book, Bankers Like Us: Dispatches from an Industry in Transition, is available to order here.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!