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Whose Problem is it Anyway?

Hmmm. Work. Hmmm. Life would be very smooth if we did not have to do it. It would still be pretty smooth if work did not involve working with other people. This week, I found myself doing what I get paid to do at work, which is rewriting the same things over and over despite the best efforts of MS Word to corrupt my output as quickly as I can type. My fingers were screaming RSI, but their sacrifice had placed a nose ahead of Bill Gates word processor from Hell. Then, my race with the Microsoft gremlins was rudely interrupted by the bickering of two middle-aged managers standing right behind me. They were engaged in a prolonged and very loud debate about how much work they had to do, who was at fault for this, that and the other, who was responsible for this, that and the other, and when they were both intending to do whatever. I was tempted to turn around and suggest that if they had used their time to just do this, that, the other, and maybe also whatever, they would have finished them all long before they were likely to reach the end of their interminable debate. What really struck me, though, is what, in the heat of the battle, one of the protagonists said. Like knights of old, the modern office combatant must know the tools and tricks of his warfare. The bolder, but slightly less bald assailant verbally rushed his opponent, only to bamboozle him with a classic business side-step: the NMP. Not only did he execute the technique flawlessly, he called it by its proper name. “Not My Problem”, he bellowed about this, or that, or possibly about whatever.

NMP, as phrases go, is a metaphorical sign at a fork in the road. Equivalent signs would read “I see where you’re going with this, but I’m not going with you!” or possibly even “it’s my way or the highway, sonny Jim!” When somebody signals an NMP, you either agree to let him go down his preferred path (the path of escape), or you end up in a row. NMP is the management version of a 12 year old refusing to eat her brussels sprouts. “Eat your sprouts!” “The sprouts are NOT MY PROBLEM!” Then imagine the 12 year old pointing out that sprout eating was not an implied term in the contract with their mother, had been left out of the job spec, was not part of the SLA, had not been acceded to even informally, was not discussed in the previous steering group meeting, and, in conclusion, could not be enforced because the 12 year old had never asked to be born in the first place. What delicious irony that these two bickering managers were not long returned from day two of an all-company, all-hands, team-building, morale-building, mission-confirming, vision-stating, and generally singing-from-the-same-song-sheet jamboree.

The NMP, unlike so many other work dodges, at least has the merit of being clear, if a little confrontational. Most people, if you ask them to do something, say they will do it and then do not do it. You ask again, and they say they will do it but then do not do it. You ask again, and they say they will do it and then do not do it. Eventually, when you get to the twentieth time of asking, you will realize you have just been wasting your time and just do not bother asking again. That is how most things do not get done. HWP, or the hollow work promise, is the preferred technique for slopey-shouldered easy-lifers. HWP allows everyone to feel good about themselves whilst doing sod all of any worth. HWP is also a brilliant source of job creation. Half of the jobs in most companies go to people whose job is to elicit HWPs from other people. We all need to do this-and-that, bellows the CEO, or the board, or the executive team, or any other group of people that suddenly realizes they may be out of a job, lose their generous pension scheme, or better still end up in prison unless the company really does this-and-that (examples: train companies not killing customers by keeping their trains on the tracks, banks not defrauding their investors by actually investing the money they are given and not just using it pay off on the last round of promises). But how do you get everybody to do this-and-that, especially when they are (pretending to be) busy doing the specific things you recruited them to do, which made no mention of this-and-that? The universal answer is to employ somebody else, and to put number one on their specific list of things to do the job of chasing you to do things you should be doing. Sometimes this is known as compliance. Compliance is, after all, another word for doing what you are told to do, so it makes sense to employ someone to tell you to do it. The idea is to employ somebody to chase would-be complier and make them comply. Or rather, you get somebody to chase them and make them promise they will comply, and hence obtain a long series of HWPs from everybody in the business. At least then, when the CEO is dragged in front the SEC, or the Environmental Police or the Health & Safety Fascist Board of Repression, they can show their HWP slips and explain it was not really their fault that the staff, who were trained and warned, avoided the company’s diligent compliance procedures by not doing this-and-that during those spare minutes in the working day between 4.27am and 4.29am.

We all get steadily trained to behave the ‘right’ way at work. For example, being caught lying is bad, but always telling the truth will get you the sack even more quickly. If somebody comes at you and asks you to take health and safety seriously, then you should never, under any circumstances, NMP them. H&S is your problem by definition. HWP them instead. After all, they want to be HWP’d. If people did not HWP, and just did what they were told, then there would be no health or safety risks. That in turn would mean no need for a person to chase HWP’s about health and safety, and then they would be out of a job. I pick on H&S because it is so easy to pick on them, and because the people who work in that field so thoroughly deserve to be bullied in return for the relentless bullying they give people at work:

Do not drive tired!
Leave home five minutes earlier so you do not have to rush!
Leave work thirty minutes later so you make time for the mandatory health and safety online training module!
Keep a good work-life balance for the sake of your well being!
Kill the health and safety person for the greater good of your colleagues!
Wear a plastic sock in the showers at the gym so you do not get a verruca!

I only made up two of those Stalin-esque H&S exhortations, and the verruca-sock combo was not one of them.

For a long time, I was like some wild crazy bucking bronco at work, refusing to wear the saddle, reigns and noose that management had picked out for me. I completely misunderstood the purpose of my job spec, and of the NMP, with the consequence that I NMP’d all and sundry, not just the goon squad from H&S. Worse still, I did what it said in the job spec, including the bits that nobody expected you to do. Yes, I really was that foolish. The inverted pyramid of management, where there must be no fewer than twenty people managing every act performed by every single actual worker, was a constant source of confusion and bafflement. In my naivety, I was fond of saying how I did not like to work for more than one boss at a time! I must have been mad. Everybody has more than one boss, except perhaps God and people like Heather Mills-McCartney-as-was who ‘work’ for charity by sometimes giving small bits of their hard-earned divorce settlements. As I grew older, I realized everybody was my boss. The girlfriend, the customer, the government, the stakeholders, the landlord, the collective will of the Chinese nation, polite society, long-term benefits scroungers and adolescents who drink too much cider on a Friday night and seek to resolve their emotional issues with a spot of casual violence – all have a reasonable claim to be my boss. If I had a dog, it too would be my boss, expressed in demands for walks, tins of rancid meat and squeaky toys. The only person who is not my boss is me. But until I realized that, I was making life very difficult for myself, especially at work, where my bosses included my line manager, his line manager, her line manager, the CFO, the CEO, the Health & Safety guy, the project manager, the deputy project manager, the contractor filling-in for the deputy project manager whilst she is on maternity leave, the consultant telling the temp how to do her job and anybody else who fancied they had something to do which might possibly be better done if it somehow involved me. Mistakenly, I would NMP large swathes of these people. It was my way of telling people I would not do what they wanted me to do. Cue long arguments of the type that between the two middle-aged managers who stood behind me.

Being a little slow-witted, it took me a long time to realize that, if I am a shirker, or just too busy, then NMP tends to backfire. Persistent people, with nothing better to do, will just bug you an awful lot in the hope they can nag you into conceding their authority to make you do whatever it is they want doing. HWP is far superior for ridding you of these people, as chances are they will be horribly disorganized and simply forget to chase you, plus an HWP will get rid of them in an instant. Boring people into submission with HWP is far more successful than goading their authority with NMP. However, HWP is not at all appropriate when dealing with someone who you consider to be your boss. Your boss is very likely to remember what you said you were going to do, and if you consistently fail to do what you promise, you will probably do your career more harm than if you simply resorted to flicking V’s at them every time they make eye contact. In contrast, NMPs are ideal when handling people who just think they are your boss. They tell you to do something, you say no, they insist, you NMP. Then they have to go get authority from somebody who really is your boss. If your boss is a wimp, and gives in, you may need to give in too, but at least you will have caused them a lot of trouble in the meantime, and proven the point they needed to go to your boss before they could get their way, which means they could not have been your boss after all.

Despite the previous paragraph, if your boss is a real big wimp, and agrees to everything to keep everyone happy, you must always HWP them, and never NMP them. If you NMP them, they will just hover over your desk until you promise to do whatever nonsense it is that they promised their boss they would do, but which they cannot begin to do because they have no idea how to do it. It makes no difference if you do not know how to do it either, because the main thing is that the boss wants to blame you for not doing it, hence getting them off the hook. So never ever NMP a boss like this. Much better that you HWP them. If you HWP them, they instantly will leave you alone, and will search out some other poor victim to do some other pointless work that does not need doing. Of course, the whole point with HWP is that you do not do it, which will eventually cause a little embarrassment for the boss, who could blame you but would still be stuck needing to do something they cannot do themselves. It is much more likely that they will be afraid of being found out as the useless nincompoop they are. When such a boss realizes you HWP’d them, they will typically attempt to cover up the whole forrago of their own incompetence and their team’s lack of respect by pestering someone more docile than you to do the dreaded task instead. If, on the other hand, you ever sort any problems for such a boss, he or she is bound to back to you with each and every other problem they are too stupid to solve for themselves. This is the fast track for guaranteeing you do all the work of your boss, barring one vital task they will inevitably keep for themselves: communication. Communication is, of course, a synonym for taking the credit. Much better that you HWP them and give them a few sleepless nights about how they will communicate their way out of that. One good solid HWP, if seen through to the bitter end, with consistent promised you will do whatever it is that you have not the slightest intention of doing, will secure your freedom for life, or at least until the next round of redundancies (and with any luck your boss will be made redundant before you do). But you have to stay solid with an HWP. Do not backslide and make a token effort. A token effort might make it seem like you genuinely intended to do it, and if it looks like you did a job badly, that might enable your boss to make it seem like you are the incompetent one. Never be caught doing a job badly. Not doing a job at all is far superior than doing a job badly, as you can always rely upon plausible deniability, like when US Presidents sell arms to terrorists then decide that is a bad idea then decide they forgot what they decided to do then decide they forgot what the question was, would you please not repeat it I am a busy man and have so many things to do like posing for this photo shoot, saluting this flag and kissing this baby here. One good solid HWP guarantees that a weak boss will just pick on somebody else from then on. With a bit of luck, the team will discover some solidarity, and everybody will successfully embargo the silly problems the boss should not have taken on, by applying a block HWP every time the boss attempts to sucker them. Over time, the boss will be trained to do one of two things. Either the boss will learn to solve the problems they agreed to solve, or the boss will learning not to agree to take insoluble problems on in the first place. Or they may just learn to NMP their own boss and be done with it. Whatever route your boss takes, once trained, they will be an inspiration for the team and help it get back to what it really should be doing, absolutely nothing else, and possibly not even that. And the best part is you will have more time to fill out those H&S forms.

NMP should, under no circumstances, be confused with the similar-sounding SEP. Like so many great ideas in my head, SEP was not first discovered in my head, but originated in the head of Douglas Adams, of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. In the universe of HHGTTG it was impossible to make something invisible. But stick a Somebody Else’s Problem field around it, and everybody would just pretend they could not see it. SEP is what you get when something really needs to be done, and nobody wants to do it and nobody in particular is expected to do it. Of course, you should never actually say a problem is SEP. SEP’s are implied. Better still, they are implied by everybody else – you did not hear or were out of the room and have no idea what everybody else is not talking about. If confronted about an SEP, you must not answer any questions about whether it is SEP, as this just makes you look shifty. Instead, you must explain it is NMP, without commenting on whether it is SEP. This approach works because, in the formal logic of work, that NMP is true does not imply that SEP is also true. It is perfectly possible for a problem to be nobody’s problem, in which case NMP is true, but SEP is false. The relationship is not symmetrical, as SEP does imply NMP. This is because when a problem is somebody else’s problem, you can be pretty sure there will be nobody who agrees that it is their problem. However, you should never admit a problem is SEP, as people will just assume you are saying that because it is really your problem and that you are just trying to pass the buck.

If somebody accidentally asks you about a problem which is SEP, just look around the room, talk about something else, and avoid the topic. Whoever is asking will soon take the hint and realize they were talking about SEP, or else they risk making it their own problem. If they do not take the hint, just start acting like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver:

You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to… You talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fu*k do you think you’re talking to?

Then you should laugh and ask them if they liked Taxi Driver. Either they have seen the movie, will laugh and forget all about the SEP, or else they will not have seen the movie, will think you are a bit odd, and will forget all about the SEP. It does not matter if they think you are odd, because they never saw Taxi Driver and hence you do not care what they think. If you are under real pressure, and your Robert De Niro impersonation stinks, you might want to resort to the last-ditch tactic of saying the SEP is NAP (Not Anyone’s Problem). This implies a gap in the org chart and a need to recruit somebody new to own the SEP. However, never say this to someone who actually has the authority to recruit somebody new. Somebody with that level of authority will immediately pin the job on you and pat themselves on the back for keeping headcount down. When dealing with somebody who could recruit to solve a NAP, insinuate the problem is NMP for both you and them. If they do not get the hint, the listener’s only option is to conclude that finding out whose problem it is has effectively become their problem. Anybody who takes on the problem of finding out whose problem the problem is, is effectively setting themselves up for a fall, as they make themselves the default choice for taking ownership of the problem when it is discovered that the problem is currently NAP. When they realize this, they will quickly conclude that the problem must be SEP and that there is hence no need to establish precisely whose problem it is. Or they will recruit somebody else to do it and at least guarantee it was not their problem. It was probably that kind of thought process that inspired someone to create the job you currently do.

SEP is a powerful technique, especially when applied to problems that seem intractable and thankless. Never ever get stuck with a problem that everybody else thinks is SEP. Even if you do solve it, they will not thank you for it. Because they will all be ashamed that they pretended it was SEP, they will also pretend it was never a problem in the first place, so you still will find you get no thanks for solving it. Problems which are easy to solve and where the solution will earn a lot of credit, simply cannot be SEP’d. Everybody wants to own these problems. Make sure you do too. Speak often, and at length about the problem. Be upbeat about finding a solution. That way, when the problem is solved, some people may wrongly think you were part of the solution. If you want to enhance your credentials as owner of the problem, be sure to deride everyone else who claims to be owner, making a point of saying how they all NMP’d the problem, even if that is a blatant lie. In such cases, although people will know you are lying through your teeth, a lot of them will assume you are bitter because you did not get the credit you deserve, and will not stop and think long enough to realize you do not actually deserve any credit to begin with. Being thought of as bitter is not great, but it is a lot better than being thought of as irrelevant because somebody else is solving all the problems.

In the last resort, remember that all problems can be solved by a full-scale FTS. FTS is not a phrase invented by Douglas Adams, being rather too fruity for inclusion in a BBC Radio 4 pre-watershed comedy. FTS is an acronym invented by my friend James, who speaks several languages and has a very nice life and a gorgeous wife in San Francisco, so he must know what he is talking about. FTS is an acronym of three four-letter words, two of which are four-letter words. The other four-letter word is “that”. If somebody comes at you with a really bad problem, which simply cannot be solved, and will overwhelm you and knock all your problem management into the middle of next week, just tell them to Fu*k That Sh*t. It is your last line of defence. Really bad problems cannot be SEP’d or even NMP’d and certainly won’t be HWP’d away, as everyone will assume you have no clue to solve them (because you really do have no clue how to solve them) and will constantly be asking you about progress and insinuating you are a dunderhead for not making any progress with such an obviously important and pressing problem.

To be pedantic, it is not necessary to swear in order to tell people them you are FTS’ing the problem they brought to you. If you are worried about offending them (perhaps the problem is about rude language in the work place) then just look them straight in the eye, and say, in a commanding voice, “that’s a full-scale FTS”. Either they will know what FTS means, or they will not know. If they know, they will instantly leave you alone. If they do not know, chances are they will be slightly uncomfortable at the fact they do not know, and will hence avoid wanting to seem stupid by asking what it means. So they too will instantly leave you alone, afraid that you will continue to talk in acronyms they do not understand and hence confirm their ignorance and incompetence for their job. In the unlikely event they do ask what FTS stands for, just say “it’s not my problem to tell you what FTS stands for, but as you don’t know I don’t mind telling you that it means Fu*k That Sh*t. And you can take it from me, that’s a fact.” They will probably be so perplexed and awed at the same time that they will leave without saying another word. Many colleagues, upon hearing this instruction, will never risk talking to you again, which can only be a bonus in most jobs. And if the the full-scale FTS speech does not work, you must be at the wrong company. That nonsense works everywhere else in the world, so wherever you are now, they must be working you too hard and you can earn more and do less somewhere else, even when times are hard. Take it from me – you can start your new career by applying for a job at the place where I am working now. Just write a covering letter which begins “you should recruit me because I believe that the company’s problems are my problem.” Anyone reading that letter is going to love you and want to give you the job of the boldly baldy NMP man who stood behind me. After all, it means they will have somebody new to give all their problems to.

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