Four Lessons I Learned From the US Census

I just finished a three-month tour as a Crew Leader for the US Census, and I’m glad to be back here. Many of the things I experienced frustrated and offended my entrepreneurial sensibilities, and made me appreciate all the more the freedoms we have as business owners to make informed decisions and act on them. Rather than dwell on the bad decisions and poor management approaches I’ve endured, let’s take this as an object lesson for your own entrepreneurship and project management activities.

Lesson #1: A great team with great people can do great things

If you want to achieve your goals, you first need to get the right people for the job. In the Census, this meant supplementing the (relative) handful of full-time Census employees with thousands of temporary workers. Now, I wasn’t privy to the hiring process but like all the other Crew Leaders and Enumerators I had to pass a ridiculously easy “test” to pre-qualify. After my own training I had to train a crew of enumerators, many of which did poorly on the “final exam” before being placed on different crews.

This poor hiring process resulted in a large number of Enumerators and Crew Leaders washing out as unsuitable for the job, making things difficult for the rest of us and forcing the entire operation to run longer than originally intended. Some crews, however, were blessed with a good Crew Leader and great Enumerators and were able to do great work. (Not 100% sure if I was a good Crew Leader, but I sure did have great people working for me.)

Lesson #2: Goals are easier to achieve when shared

An important part of any project plan is setting milestones by which everyone’s efforts will be measured, and making sure everyone knows about them. One of my great frustrations with Census management was that they didn’t share their expectations until after we’d failed to meet them. I recall one meeting in which a number of Crew Leaders were publicly chastised for not meeting a productivity goal nobody knew about. Towards the end of the operation, management informed us of when they wanted a specific level of results and, armed with that knowledge, most of my colleagues were able to achieve those goals. Clearly, having the milestones set in front of us made it easier to focus our efforts on achieving them.

The other half of this coin is making certain that everyone in the organization knows about the milestones. I’m sure somewhere in the upper-management levels in Washington DC these milestones were hammered out and handed down, but somewhere in the middle-management realm that message was intercepted and not passed along to us in the field. This disconnect was a key reason why our region ended up at the bottom of DC’s productivity list, because once the field was made aware of the situation we were collectively able to rise substantially on the list in a very short time.

Lesson #3: Teams succeed more with positive motivation

Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing. – Warren Bennis, Ph.D. “On Becoming a Leader”

Almost all the Census management folks I worked with were focused entirely on making sure things were done right, and that was reflected in their approach to motivation. Not counting my immediate supervisor, in all three months I heard “thank you” or similar positive feedback exactly once, but endured threats and negative feedback almost daily. In fact, most of the directives handed down over the last few weeks of the operation were variations on the theme of “do things this way or you’re fired” and it was difficult for me as a middle manager to have to pass those along.

Apparently, those in charge at Census decided that fear and threats were the best way to motivate people, but I prefer to use rewards and respect to motivate people. In the end, threats or rewards will only get you so far – ultimately, people will follow their own inner-motivation. As I expected, all the threats managed to do was to piss off people, and turn people who wanted to do a good job into people who just wanted to run out the clock. Not a good way to motivate people at all.

Lesson #4: Valued team members bring value to the team

This lesson is similar to the motivation lesson above. As I mentioned, in the entire operation I heard positive feedback exactly once – an abbreviated “thank you” at the very end, from one of the big cheeses. The rest of my Census experience was littered with reasons why we sucked – me, my team, or my district. Anytime there was a possibility that we made an error it was all “you guys screwed up” but if the office made a blatant error it was “oh well, these things happen.” It didn’t make for a very fun environment for me or my fellow Crew Leaders. (In fact, our unofficial team slogan was “You suck – go team!“)

For my part, I tried to make my Enumerators feel appreciated because I certainly did value their efforts, even if the office didn’t. I like to think that this appreciation helped me get good performance and results from them. Face it, nobody wants to work like a dog for somebody who treats them like one.

There are lots more lessons I learned from my Census experience, although most are under the general heading of “don’t ever do this again.” Thirty years ago I first participated in the US Census, and it wasn’t nearly as bad back then. I’m in no hurry to rush out there again for the next census, but perhaps in 2040 if I’m not too busy…

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