Survey Says? Fact, Value or Policy.

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Sitting down on a plane, within the first few minutes you can probably predict whether the person beside you will be an interesting conversation or not. Some never even get to the point of acknowledging your presence, and most never get past hello. Some… they really get someplace!

Fact. Value. Policy.

When supervising, a goal is to give people the framework within which they can get things done. A fantastic in-flight conversation left me with the memorable fragment that one of the keys to success in enabling people to get things done is to train them to understand whether an answer is based in fact, values or policy.

Fact.

There are such things as facts. These answers are knowledge-based, and team members should be fully comfortable in making decisions based on facts.

Value.

Some answers will lie within value calls. These answers need some more consultation, as answers that lie within values need someone that is responsible for them (and experience/wisdom is also helpful). Typically, this needs to move up the chain of command until someone not only has the power to take responsibility, but also says they will stand behind it.

Policy.

A form of value, this one becomes more political in that it relates to the organization surrounding you. It may differ from your values, but it follows a similar pathway where something moves up the chain until someone recognizes the grounding in policy, and approves the answer as reflecting policy.

That’s it…

I’ve made the decision that some blog posts should be short. Hopefully the above gives you something interesting to contemplate… and to make into your own thing.

The Beauty of Being a Hack

Pinning

(Working Title: Fake it until you make it… and beyond)

Let’s assume that change is good. We’ll call it positive change. Change typically means being placed in situations that are unfamiliar. The unfamiliar has the ability to produce discomfort. Let’s introduce the concept of positive discomfort.

In order to grow, discomfort needs to be recognized as a good thing.

In conversation #8 of 100 Conversations, a goal was phrased as wanting to speak with authority about a subject. It was also phrased in wanting to get to the point of not feeling like a hack. The phrase “fake it until you make it” came to mind. I think that we have all been there, or are still there. It can take a long time until we achieve expertise (or close to it), and it sometimes takes even longer to actually realize that we’ve made it there. The trip to expertise is long and gradual, so we probably carry the feeling of being a hack with us beyond when we could have left it behind.

So, we get to a point where we have the tools and skills to deal with the majority of what we encounter. Things become more static, and there is a resultant decrease in discomfort. Well… in theory. The truth is that we find ourselves opening doors to new opportunity for new experiences, and the accompanying ability to be a hack again. This time you get to be an experienced hack rather than a freshman hack. Reassuring, right?

[I’m going to try a new thing in my blog posts. You’ve just reached the first point that I’d like to make: we do fake it until we make it, and then keep on faking it BUT in a more controlled/experienced manner. It’s normal. You can head on over to People magazine now, or continue on for an expansion of this reassurance.]

There is truth in this ever renewed hackdom. Most of us seek to develop a core expertise, and then we build upon it or expand it in new ways. When my work is directly related to my company’s mission statement, I am a landscape architect and apply that skillset for our clients. The episodes of truly being a hack relate to major chapters in our lives. I can be a landscape architect with my eyes closed, but when it comes to the current chapter where I’m the guy running the company? That’s where my discomfort lies. That’s my current chapter. These chapters take the form of receiving a big promotion, moving to a new company, changing careers, having a kid, etc…

The conversation that spurred this blog post was with an artist. And, my brain is finding some challenge with processing where it wants to go within this discussion. Let’s assume that success is predicated on having a specific set of skills to apply to a specific set of problems. Most careers are based on someone approaching us for a specific expected outcome. What happens when the specific expected outcome IS being new and different?

We look to artists to provide us with things of aesthetic beauty (which is in the eye of the beholder), but we also sometimes seek a deeper need to have them connect us to new ways of looking at our world. The easiest “specific expected outcome” for an artist is to provide us with something of beauty. An artist can achieve an expertise and spend their life creating the things of beauty that we surround ourselves with. This can be their career.

If their artistic identity is grounded within a higher level of engaging an audience with ways of looking at the world, then comfort is a stale sign. Positive discomfort is the indicator that they are in the place that they should be. The level of discomfort probably being directly proportional to whether growth is incremental, or a massive shift. My empathy for artists is huge. “Success” is grounded within finding popularity. The majority of people like the familiar. How many times does our culture reject the “new” that our artists create? At a concert do you shout loudest for the new songs, or the old one that you know by heart? How did you feel when Picasso entered his blue period? [you probably don’t have first-hand experience unless you’re immortal]. So not only does discomfort arise from the challenge of investigating a new approach to your art, it comes from how people will react when you change how pleasing you are to them.

As a landscape architect, I am in a design profession. We exist within a spectrum between the functional and the artistic. Technical expertise. Craft. Art. The discomfort that I experience relates to the vagaries of running a business, and trying to do new things.  We do artistic things, but are we artists? At least in my world, I don’t think we have enough discomfort to be artists. Our artistic efforts are grounded in function.

The tangent I find myself considering now in this post is how much discomfort can we accommodate? At the moment, I spend much energy on the discomfort that arises from running a business, managing clients and the challenges of communicating with all involved. I think my discomfort quota is mostly full. That (unfortunately) leaves less room to seek the discomfort of the artistic side of what we do. I think that’s typical to our world and what happens as we age and gain expertise.

This leads to the beauty of patrons. Perhaps the most important role of a patron is that they free artists from the discomfort and constraints of ‘fitting into’ society and ‘making a living’. They can focus their discomfort quota toward pursuing the change and vitality of examining (and shifting) views of the world within and around us. They gain the freedom to seek discomfort.

So, back to the concept of being a hack. Over time most of us pursue vocations or careers where we incrementally develop our knowns and the certainty that tomorrow will look mostly like today. We get better at being a hack, as the hack we were yesterday looks like the hack we’ll be tomorrow. For artists (or creatives in general), the beauty and pain of it is that they might wake up as a completely new and different hack. Perhaps yesterday provides some tools for them, but maybe not. What they carry with them as their core certainty is a desire to look at the world and show others what they see. Comfortable or not.

Well, I find myself at the concluding paragraph (and once again, it just feels like I spent hours contemplating something that is just obvious once I get to it). Most of us are like kids in a scouting program. We work within a system where each badge you get prepares you a bit more for the next one, and the sash that you wear them on illustrates your incremental momentum toward being less and less of a hack. There are those around us who just wander off into the woods alone to create their own badges. The freedom of discomfort. The perpetual hack.

State Your Assumptions

Feynman

Positive change. How do organizations achieve it?

Part 1 – A mechanism for coordination

“Top-down” and “bottom-up” are familiar concepts for discussing where change originates within an organization. They’re based within some level of organizational hierarchy, with a simplified view being that there are two levels of power: workers and managers. The power they each possess stems from the fact that they need each other.

As an aside, this has been a very hard post to write and edit. It’s been difficult to distill into not only something of interest, but hopefully something useful. The underlying assumption I’d like you to embrace is that our goal is positive change. Let’s take this apart and agree that change is a fact of life, and that there is always room for improvement. Hence: positive change.

With the goal of positive change, success is found when both entities find agreement and are aligned in a common direction. Without alignment, change is difficult. The sheer potential for change is stymied when the groups don’t even have a mechanism in place to listen… let alone an ability to work to agreement.

Another main point I’d like to introduce is that your organization needs to be intentional with how it approaches change, and have processes in place to evaluate whether change is positive or negative. If you wish to be an advocate of positive change, you need to understand how your organization handles change.

Part 2 – Institutional limits on innovation

A concept of which I was recently made aware is that of a conversational ‘anchor’. These anchors are the biases or preconceived views that we bring with us. They anchor us to one way of thinking and as a result shape how others interact with us.

If organizationally rooted, these anchors define the ideology of an organization. If they are leadership rooted, they will have the same general effect. It’s simplistic, and it is a spectrum, but I’d like to introduce the idea that organizations are either solution-focused or ideology-focused. Either entity may have an inspirational vision of the future, an action-oriented mission to support their vision, the goals to support their mission, and the strategies to achieve their goals. But, I suggest that they differ greatly in the anchors that they carry and how they carry them. How do anchors limit positive change? I would hypothesize that the more anchors there are, the more limited an organization is in finding and implementing positive change. At its most open, an organization engages with its staff to tackle issues and develop solutions. This becomes less and less effective the more anchors that there are.

Part 3 – Assumptions vs. Premises

I don’t think there is any judgment of either organization type. Another way to view anchors is to call them assumptions. In our everyday lives (and episodes of Three’s Company), assumptions can be quite damaging because we’re not operating with all of the information. The scientific/logical approach to assumptions can be very powerful (and necessary), when we state them, recognize them and ideally confirm them. They serve the purpose of narrowing down the scope of a discussion, ideally beginning with people having agreement on the assumptions that will be made.

So… for the sake of this post, let’s say that an anchor is something subconscious (or undeclared) that we bring with us… whereas a premise is a declared assumption. A solution-focused organization is likely to be built on declared and agreed upon premises that are open to change. In other words, the organizational type predisposes itself to always questioning. Whereas, an ideology-focused organization will need to protect itself from the potential negative impacts of anchors. It is an organization that is already predisposed to a particular way of thinking. Extra effort will be required to ensure that any ideology has a solid premise, and is only applied the way that is intended to be applied.

Part 4 – Engaging the Highest Level of Expertise

Back to positive change. Each of us has our highest level of expertise. We are at our best when we focus on that, and others consult with us for our abilities. That’s where we provide our highest value, and often it provides us with happiness when we are engaged at that level. In a perfect world, that means that everyone is vested with vision and mission where they understand and support the goals and strategies. When this is the case, challenges are approached with a more comprehensive understanding… and we open an organization to an opportunity: people will offer solutions that may solve multiple problems… or… they might stop and challenge the question, helping the right question be asked.

This requires an organizational approach that is open to critical thought. This is a very simplistic discussion as it’s not as easy as saying, “you need to be solutions-based”. That could lead to amazing chaos with everyone being enabled to suddenly be philosophical. There is a hierarchical overlay of a number of levels of leadership, but the idea is to enable people to grow and initiate growth.

[As an aside, are you familiar with kaizen? A system of continuous improvement. If you’re not familiar with it, take a moment to check it out on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen). The foundation of this system is a solutions-based system where everyone is integrated meaningfully within every corner of the organization. If someone sees an opportunity to improve the organization, the systems are in place to hear them, evaluate ideas, and implement positive change.]

Part 5 – Right Person, Right Place, Right Time

Let’s also realize that an organizational challenge is to find the right place for the right employee at the right time of their career. The Peter Principle (not named after me) is summarized as being people rise to the level of their incompetence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle.  People usually receive promotions based on how well they do their current role, rather than assessing their effectiveness and skills as suited for the role they will rise into. So, you are amazing at your job and you get promotions… until you are in a role that you aren’t as good at. Then you stay there. Ideally, everyone would be at the level just below their incompetence. Easy to say. Our culture is grounded in the idea of upward mobility, and organizations and individuals aren’t good at saying when they’re in the right place.

So, a solutions-based system needs to enable all employees and ensure that the right person is in the right role at the right time in their career.

Part 6 – Bringing it home

So… I’ll pick on ideology-based systems. I’m maybe really getting into the realm of opinion and bias here, but the reason for this is to address a system that has preconceived notions. An example of this is polarized government. Investing any organization with vision and mission is a challenge, and has an inherent weakness in the face of people who aren’t integrated. If they are just ambivalent, the system rolls on with them in it (but not the better for it). If they work counter to the system, a few can severely damage the whole. Unfortunately, being an elected system, government doesn’t typically reflect an integrated system of vision, mission, goals and strategies (sadly)… people are often elected based on specific strategies or goals (election friendly soundbites). Organizational effectiveness requires a continuum, so in a system where vision/mission/goals/strategies can change drastically… long-term benefit can be crippled.

What I’m getting at in this is that a solutions-based system maintains a high level of flexibility in how to achieve a vision. An ideological based system has more constraints on how to get there. It’s the difference between trying to solve a problem with a single tool versus having a tool box. “Our mission statement guides us to use a pipe wrench,” versus “Let’s assess the problem and figure out the ideal way to solve it.”

Part 7 – Epilogue

Phew. The above was hard to write, and I’m uncertain I did a great job of leading you with where my brain was going. At the end of it, I likely just restated the obvious. I think the most important part of this is to state that to work toward positive change, we need to understand the system within which we are working. Each system can offer advantages, and it likely depends on how much of a paradigm shift is needed for the positive change that is initiated.

The point is that we recognize that we are surrounded by systems that are grounded with assumptions/premises of which we may or may not be aware. Many entities predispose themselves toward certain solutions for one reason or another. This could be politics, religion or just doing it the same way it’s always been done. My worry is that these organizations are complacent to existing within these anchors, and they become an accepted organizational mentality with unintentional (?) limitations. If an organization has been taught that direction comes from the top, it doesn’t encourage personal engagement. People begin to show up, do their job like they’ve been told, and go home.

So. Does your organization clearly state its assumptions/premises? Do they recognize that these do frame how they operate? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises are used correctly and don’t influence other areas? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises encourage and spur positive change around them? Can these premises be changed? And to take it back to something I asked at the beginning of this post, does your organization have a mechanism in place to genuinely listen, assess and implement?

Tools… Not Tales.

Tools not tales

My posts relate to me trying to find “order” in my experiences and those of the people I speak with. I come from a design background, and have learned business and project management without the benefit of an MBA. I’d say that my goals are to learn a new shared language, find commonalities, and maybe discover a bit more clarity in what we are all doing no matter our background. To some I imagine these posts reflect the thoughts of a freshman in the land of business and management, but if viewed kindly, I think they still offer the value of a different perspective.

BUT…

30 Motivational Quotes to Help Realize Your Entrepreneurial Dreams!!!!!

I fear that some of these musings bear a likeness to all of the motivational sayings that we find online that are supposed to make us better: they might give us a vision, but they certainly don’t fill in the blanks on how to achieve it.

Seriously… I am now a target for clickbait with titles like: “30 Motivational Quotes to Help Realize Your Entrepreneurial Dreams.” The concept Jump the Shark came to mind in a large way. The thing is, it wasn’t clickbait. It was coming from a source that I assumes produced things of substance. For this one, maybe not.

I love a great quote just as much as the next person, but inspiration without strategy just winds up leaving us feeling bad about ourselves when at the end of the day… we’re still at our desk with that beautiful inspirational poster above us,  facing the same problems. It’s just that this time we have a handy saying to summarize where we’d rather be: soaring with the eagles or something. [ED: As a tangent.. I hope that you’ve had a laugh with www.demotivators.com]

I’m intentionally being hard on myself, because we all need to be reminded that the point of our introspection is to get us to someplace new and better! My posts are a way for me to work through the things I’m facing in my career. It’s therapy for me. The reason I try to share it is that my existence is not unique… nor is yours. We’re all facing similar things, and we need to talk about it. I keep on repeating “you’re not crazy, other people are facing the same things, it’s just that we’re not talking to one another”. The fact is that it IS reassuring when we realize other people have the same kind of crazy, but it doesn’t really go anywhere until we find ways to get to the point where it feels less crazy. This requires tools.

Tools… Not Tales.

Publishing posts is typically a one-sided thing. I publish, you read. You publish, I read. Rinse and repeat.

You might like my post… and I’m super happy that my posts have been shared once or twice. Literally. I am SUPER excited that one person chose to share one of my posts. That validated my existence. AND… that’s the level of interaction that we get within social media. It’s a one-sided conversation.

That’s one of the reasons I started 100 Conversations. Talking to real people in person results in a dialogue! I say this tongue in cheek, but if we want to spur interaction… social media isn’t really the place. [ED: except the comment sections online. But… I wouldn’t call those a meaningful dialogue.]

Anyways… I’m currently distilling conversation #7, and wanted to post about an unexpected benefit of that conversation. That conversation linked me to a professional in Anchorage who deals with management, communication and all of the things that resonate with me right now. Looking at a single post of his provided me with some tools that I really need right now. I never would have found what I needed if the connection hadn’t been made. The connection. The reality is that for me there is nothing altruistic about seeking these 100 Conversations. I’m trying to learn. For me to learn, I need other people to share their worlds with me. Connection.

So… I challenge you. Connect with people online and offline knowing that they actually might need and want YOUR thoughts and resources. Chances are that in your bag of tools, you will have some of the missing pieces that someone else has been seeking. [ED: I hold out hope that people who have an MBA have the keys to a secret mythical part of the internet where these conversations fall from the sky like rain. They’re just not telling those of us who didn’t earn the degree and secret handshake.]

At this point in our careers… I guarantee that we gain more by sharing and interacting than by just absorbing what other people put out. Yes… even you. Put down your half-fat mocha latte and realize that you have something to offer. Even if you just ask the questions you haven’t given yourself the time to ponder.

The Challenge for You

I think a lot, but I don’t prioritize reading (shame!). I’m trying to catch up with a backlog of mental processing. If you’re in a similar place in your career (or ahead), you are likely familiar with more resources than I am. If you read any of my posts and realize I’m just repeating something from an existing business book or resource, I need you to give me a reference for it by posting a quick comment. Even if just the author’s name or similar. If you do that, you’ll be helping me… and others. That way we all shift the discussion to include the tools to get to where we need to go. I need you for that. You are needed. Even if it’s not a reference, I’d like to hear your voice.

And, just like the kid in the sandbox who threatens to take his toys away… if I wind up needing to get an MBA to gain access to their mythical world, you might lose out on someone who’s interested in your growth and success.

The Challenge for Me

I realize that not every post will offer a new tool for a reader. Sometimes it will just be me finding some meaningful realization. Just know that I am very aware of the fact that we all need a variety of tools that we can experiment with… and bear with me as I try to share things that might be useful.

With the above, I’d like to share this blog post from William Dann: Servant Leadership Revisited that lead me to The Root of Management Lapses that led me to the start of what I needed Putting the Questions to Work. They aren’t exhaustive posts… but I think they might give me enough to adapt the tools to my needs. Many times, we just need that small push to get us to our next step.

When No Mentor Exists

may i have some more

It’s easy to speak to mentoring and peer learning when there is a clear pathway to reaching out to someone. There will be times when it’s not as easy as that. You will have a situation that is so complex that describing it requires providing someone with a short-course. You will have times where you are dealing with sensitive information. While briefing someone can be a difficult task to relay all of the information fairly and effectively, it can be done. The challenge of seeking guidance on sensitive information is that you might not have access to someone within which you can confide. Sensitive information can benefit from speaking with someone in confidence, but you need to have a few degrees of separation between your confidant and the issue at hand. This becomes a huge challenge when you are working within a small community, whether a population area or the community of people within your discipline. Since you are seeking wisdom for something sensitive, it’s likely that you will look for someone who shares your background. If not many people share your background, or you are in a place where everyone knows everyone, it just might not be an option.

The realization is: there will be times within our lives where we can’t access the wisdom of other people. How to make up for this? Perhaps the two components are to ensure that we have a balanced life in order to have the ability to absorb the unknowns and difficulties of having to sort through things on our own, and/or becoming skilled at working with our networks to find the parallel wisdom that might assist us.

Let’s identify two kinds of problems. The first one is a shared problem where you can speak to someone else who can understand the whole problem, and provide you with a complete package of advice. For example, your problem is that you can’t find a really good sushi place. The odds are good that someone in your network will have discovered the best sushi, or can at least upgrade your sushi experience with something better on your way to finding perfection.

The other kind of problem is a composite problem. You can’t go to just one person, so you will need to break that problem into pieces and seek input on those pieces. You will then need to assemble them on your own as you work to solve it. Composite problems are either complex in that they have multiple variables that need specific expertise, or you are in a situation where you need to break your problem down into pieces where you can seek input without compromising the sensitivity. You are not able to draw on one source for wisdom.

Break it Down

So, going back to our original issue of having a problem where you can’t talk to someone directly about it. You will need to establish whether your problem can be broken down into component pieces that you ARE able to work on with others.

A side benefit of this approach is that to be fully intentional, you stop and take the time to assess your concern (we don’t stop and think often enough). There will be aspects of it that you will need to solve on your own, but there may be components where input from others might be sought. It is likely that you won’t find any solutions, but you will find tools.

Solutions versus Tools

At a certain age, we stop finding and applying pre-packaged solutions. We’ve solved all of the easy problems, and our value exists in the fact that we HAVE conquered the easy stuff. Our value lies in the fact that we possess a suite of tools that allows us to adapt to new situations, and that we have the skills to seek and add new tools. When we encounter new problems, the reasons we consult with other people are likely:

  1. Confirm application of the tools we have: we seek validation that our assessment of the situation is reasonable, and that we have applied our tools in an appropriate manner, and
  2. A search for new tools: consciously or subconsciously, we engage with someone else to find the tools needed to work on a problem.

So, in a complex situation the first option above is likely not available. But, the second solution provides us with the ability to find tools that we can apply to our problem. The challenge is taking the time to understand the components of our complex situation, and finding the conversations/resources where we can seek parallel guidance and the tools that they hold. We can then take these tools and adapt and apply them to our problem.

I think the summary of this #6 of 100 Conversations was a realization that there will be some problems where direct application of mentoring is just not possible. I’m lucky that my world doesn’t usually have an overlay of sensitive information where I can’t identify someone that is removed enough from the issue that I won’t compromise confidentiality. When those do crop up, I know that it involves me adapting the tools I have to a new situation. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t (learn, adapt and try again). At a certain point in your career, mentoring will no longer assist you in teasing apart the world’s problems to find clarity. At some point your problems may each be new and unique, and only for you to solve. You will be alone for brief periods of time. But… you talk to your friends to blow off steam (and read this blog?) …  and be reminded that you’re not crazy. As Run DMC said, life’s like that.

Freedom of Time

Beat_the_Clock_1958-ed

I have a question for you: Why do you work? Think about it for a few seconds.

I’ll hypothesize that your answer includes these two components: desire and a paycheck. In an ideal world, we would be absolutely passionate about what we do and we would get paid a huge amount of money to do it. While there are those people out there, most of us seek to find the right balance between those two components. Sometimes we get paid a lot for something we’re not keen on. Sometimes we get paid little for something we love. The ideal is that we evaluate our career transactions, and we have an intentional reason to do what we do.

For this ratio of passion and cash, it represents the value that we place on our time. This balancing effort is probably subconscious for most people until they reach a certain level of experience where a desire to make intentional decisions arises [in other words, you get old enough to realize that we’re mortal, and we only get to visit each minute we experience once].  Each of us will have our own balance of this ratio, depending on our goals and needs and whether our current stage of life has convinced us to put more emphasis on one or the other.

So… this post is about the “freedom of time”… and assessing whether we own our time, or another entity does. This comes out of conversation #5 of 100 Conversations, and has grounding within numerous other interactions I’ve had with peers. [and I do have to say… choosing one topic out of these conversations is a challenge]

Since this blog is supposed to focus on the business of design, I will look at how this concept of “freedom of time” relates to what we do. The simplest parallels area: a) when we put passion first and we volunteer our skills on pro bono projects that we are passionate about, or b) when we work on a “bread and butter” project where it’s about paying the bills. One is love with no cash, and the other is cash with no love. (I’m being dramatic with this. We are lucky that we do find goodness in our bread and butter work).

The Balance

Ideally in any project, it provides us with a balance of love and cash. For project management, this is the ideal because it means that we have happiness at the project level that brings in typical income. This contributes to good morale, for us and staff.

When we examine multiple projects, it is more likely that they provide a range of levels of emphasis in the ratio. Some will provide more satisfaction, and some will provide more cash. This can start to skew morale because we open ourselves to feeling imbalanced. While morale averages out between projects, the more difficult challenges do tend to impose more mental weight than the good ones can offset.

The ‘business’ issue in this discussion is when difficult projects lose money. There is no benefit within the ratio; the good does not balance the bad. These are the projects where we say things like:

  • If I wanted to work for free, I’d do pro bono and have it be my choice.
  • Well, at least our other projects are profitable and make us happy.
  • This client will have better projects in the future. We’re getting in the door.
  • Doh! I did it again.
  • Etc…

The Bad Projects

Within your business life, you’ve probably run into the concept where people make generalizations that a small portion of your business causes you most of your pain. This is normally followed with the advice that we should fire some of our clients. I’ll bet your reaction is “while it makes sense, it wouldn’t work for me.” The theory is easy to understand, but our perception of reality complicates it. Let’s quantify a bad project as one that loses money and is more difficult than it should be. Conversely, a good project has a nice client and nice profit.

Have I ever “fired” a client? No. Have I ever had a small wish that someone might not have another future project they want me on? Yes. I’m in a small market, and my coping mechanism is that I can always try to manage the project better… but saying “No” potentially severs a relationship. In my market, the theory is that relationships lead to other relationships.

This Makes No Sense

So in effect, there are times where I know I am sacrificing my freedom of time in that I will need to expend a disproportionate amount of energy compared with the commensurate benefit of profit. This is personally a really bad decision, but I’ve somehow justified it as a long-term business strategy within my market. So… just call me the (cynical) optimist, “Maybe they’ll be better next time!! Yeay!”

How Bad Is It?

I think we develop processes to minimize the effect of these projects on our companies, and our potential to break even or maybe turn a profit. See one of my blog posts about “Managing from Behind”. While I’ve developed personal and business coping mechanisms, I’m unsure as to whether this is worth it or not. It takes a lot of energy to not only control these situations, but to also work with (and buffer) staff to guide and protect them, and their morale. BUT… the reality is that life throws us curve balls. From a mentoring perspective, difficult situations provide a fantastic way to illustrate how best to work when we’re under pressure. It puts much of what we do into a great context. The context of: the skills we’re learning now will serve us well every day, and will prepare us for when we encounter the next difficult time. In other words… if we can deal with this difficulty, the normal stuff becomes easier.

And, absorbing and redirecting these kind of things is part of my job. I own the company. I’m the guy responsible to fix things. I need these skills.

Back to Freedom of Time

The concept I introduced at the beginning of this post still holds true. We should be intentional about how we choose to spend our time. If you’re intentional about it, then the negative consequences don’t sneak up on you and surprise you. You can actively manage them. You can try to prepare.

So… I find myself within what is probably our cultural norm: freedom of time is a long-term game. I’m sacrificing some of my freedom of time now in order to increase it in the future. Is that a good idea? Do I think it’s a good idea now that I’ve thought about it? Let’s talk about that over a drink.

The alternative? Make your decision… only choose the good clients… fire clients that don’t match your freedom of time criteria. If your discipline and market supports that, you could have a good thing going.

Endnote:

This is one of those posts that focuses on trying to reassure myself that I’m not completely crazy. Maybe it will do the same for you. So many management lessons point to these absolutes that sound great, but are hard to apply. They drive us a little crazy because we can’t reach them. Let’s just learn from them and try to be a bit more intentional. The intent of the posts I’ve written (and the ones I will write) relate to managing the craziness. If all of our clients were easy, then this blog wouldn’t be needed. I want to feel like my existence is a normal one. Hug me.

Getting the Project: The Interview

United_Artists_contract_signature_1919

As a landscape architecture firm in a remote market (Alaska), we tend to be on multiple teams pursuing the same projects when we are a subconsultant on architectural project pursuits. We share this tendency the most with structural, and somewhat with electrical and mechanical. For most proposals this is a fairly clear and straight-forward process in that we provide generic proposal information to each team and then ask them to be specific with what we will generate tailored for their needs and approach. Things get a bit more complex when project or design development is needed for the proposal, but we’ve become good at compartmentalizing and ensuring that we are always acting in the best interest of our prime consultants.

Where things get weird is when we are on multiple interviews. Maybe its a strange skill to have, but we’ve shown how effective we can be when this happens. For the sake of this post I’ll just say that it’s exhausting being on four out of five interviews for a project where landscape architecture is brought forward as a significant role. I’ll just say that you need to become a character actor where you funnel each specific team and fit into who they need and want you to be. But… that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to provide an opinion on what a good interview looks like. An opinion developed from being on multiple teams having the same interview.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’d say it covers some of the basics and the obvious things that experience shows.

This is THEIR Project

For me, the most challenging part to an interview is anticipating what kind of interview is best for the client and their panel of interviewers. That influences everything that I list below, because something that works for one interview may be wrong for another. A good example of this is whether an interview is a presentation, or a conversation. Based on your proposal and being invited to an interview, the client should believe that you have the skills and experience to complete their project. They have a good feeling for what you can do. An interview allows them to get a better idea of who you are, and how well you perform. Part of performing is how well you listen and respond, and interact not only with your client… but the team that you bring.

Much of how you operate within an interview depends on your knowledge of the psychology of your client, and how quickly you can read the room when you are in the interview. Post interview debriefs sometimes relate to how a team just talked about themselves and what they can do, OR that they took the time to converse with the client and to speak about themselves and what they will bring to the client’s project. The same information can be conveyed two ways, but one illustrates that this is about the client and THEIR project.

Own the Space

You may be interviewing in the nicest room in town, or a basement storage closet. It’s always good to know ahead of time what you will have for a space in order to anticipate how you will use it. The number one thing that sticks in my head from successful interviews is how the team creates their own stage within an interview. This is as simple as bringing a number of graphic boards to put on easels behind them. This allows you to shape your space and to differentiate the visual memory of your interview from other ones. Keep them simple. Ideally they also provide the content for any presentation that you might have. Digital presentations can be good, but it just seems like they have the power to change the dynamic from interaction to watching. Some clients need their presentations though. Everyone is different.

Team Roles

You have four important roles on your team, that can be combined within person.

  • The conductor. This person is the leader of the team and sets the feeling and theme for the interview. Their role is to keep things flowing and on task. This is the person the client will remember something along the lines of: ‘that dynamic and trustworthy person with great skills’
  • The improviser. This person is focusing on the client in order to understand how to adapt the interview to their needs. You’ve already discussed some flexibility as to how the interview might shift, and they assist with this.
  • The time fascist. Just like you want to deliver a project on schedule, you want to show the client that you have an agenda for your presentation and that you are keeping it on time. Ideally you reserve more than enough time for questions.
  • The experts. You will have the people at the table that can apply their experience to this project, listen carefully and answer questions succinctly, and engage into the right level of dialogue.

Introductions

Introductions are a fantastic opportunity to gain intelligence that you can apply within your interview. Ideally have the client introduce themselves first, and assess if it’s appropriate to have them each answer why this project is special to them in their role, and also to them personally. When introducing the team, a similar tailored answer may also be appropriate. Depending on the client and project type, identifying personal ties/interests can help to illustrate commitment and also humanize the conversation. If possible, start with some easy humor within this to assess the feeling of the room. If people are open to laughing, you’re in a good spot. (*but… at this point it’s important to understand that I have my personal approach to how I’ve learned to interact with clients. When humor fails, it’s not a pretty sight.*)

Agenda & Framework

Set an explicit pathway along which you will be leading your presentation, and be clear about when you move into the next part as you are presenting. Your interview should be like a good story with a start, middle and end.

Set the Message

When you are preparing for your interview, ask yourselves the question: When the interview is over, what will the interviewers actually remember? They will remember how your interview felt. They will remember if they felt any obvious emotions (hopefully they laughed). They will remember that you gave satisfying responses to their questions. They will remember you prioritizing discussion with them. They will hopefully remember one or two take-home messages that you felt were critical. And hopefully they will have some kind of ‘theme’ that they associate with you.

The above are the qualitative aspects that you have significant control over. Within your interview planning, consider what theme(s) you want to be remembered by. And don’t be afraid to be completely literal with starting your interview with, “Our goal is that you leave this interview remembering us as the team that listens carefully and provides our clients with innovative solutions that reflect who our clients are.” I love it when presenters tell me what I’m going to learn! It makes it easy for me, and then at the end I know how I will evaluate them. Did they achieve their interview goal?

When interviews include quantitative assessment tools such as scoresheets, then you need to make sure you provide them with what they need to ‘check the boxes off’. Such scoring does usually have a qualitative overlay that benefits from how socially competent you were.

Personality & Process

Bring the right people to tell your story. An important part of this is whether they interview well or not. Don’t bring people that don’t interview well unless you can put them in a place where they can be their best. Sometimes subject area experts are essential… even if their social skills aren’t ideal. They might just need more practice.

Focus on illustrating that you have an integrated team. This gets easy when you have pre-existing relationships. When you don’t, make sure you take the time to have your team members get to know each other. This allows you to find the places during an interview where your team can speak about one another to illustrate such integration and a comfort in interaction.

Flow & Segues

With a rehearsed presentation there should be an easily followed and logical flow that is reinforced by good segue ways. As mentioned earlier, your interview should tell a story with a connected start, middle and end.

Message, message, message

Each part of your presentation should reinforce your themes. It doesn’t hurt to be explicit and explain how each part of your story relates to the whole message that you are providing.

Summary

Well. That’s about it. The key to all of this is to do your best to understand your client and what they need and want to get out of an interview. Then, it’s about good communication skills, psychology… and illustrating that you are the team that will deliver a product on scope, schedule and budget with a clear process. And if all goes well, that you are the team that will make it smooth, painless and as fun as is appropriate.

The Power of “Tell Me More”

Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Tell me more

Dialogue. We hear the word often, but how much consideration do we give achieving it? Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more people, and it also relates to discussion with the aim to resolve a conflict. When I looked up definitions, I was surprised that it didn’t quite address how I view the word. I think that a definition I would add would be “conversation with a goal of fully understanding som eone’s views and finding a common resolution.” For the sake of this blog post, please humor me and consider that as the definition.

So, conversation #4 of 100 Conversations seemed to have dialogue at its core… specifically with placing an emphasis on understanding someone else in order to find appropriate solutions.

I Don’t Have Time to Help Myself!

The beginning of the conversation started with looking inwardly, and how we get caught up in our lives. Specifically we often do not place intentional focus on where we put our energy. We wind up focusing our energy on those things which ‘seem’ pressing. These often deal with our interactions with others. Simply put, it’s easy to fall into putting a lot of energy into thinking about and addressing the negative things in our lives. A parallel I’ll draw is the statement that within the professional world, 5% of our clients take 95% of our effort (or something like that). The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

It’s difficult to stop and intentionally reprioritize our efforts to focus on the positive.  There will certainly be times where we need to focus on the negative, but it should be within a recognition that it leads someplace. If it doesn’t lie within some continuity toward an end, then it might not be worth it. [Note: have you seen the movie Inside Out? It’s worth it in how well it makes the case that we sometimes need to embrace the things we see as negative. I don’t know how well it relates to my professional life, but it does illustrate a meaningful concept.]

We Can Control Negativity

The reason I bring the above up is that in my experience, negativity in my professional life can be traced back to poor communication. This blog has presented setting expectations and other aspects of trying to achieve positive communication, but it hasn’t dealt with some of mechanics of dialogue. Setting expectations sets the groundwork for this post in that it reinforced the need to truly understand someone by verifying what they say. This is the first step in dialogue. I think that we all crave validation. The first step in validation is feeling that someone has heard you.

Tell me more

How often do we stop and ask someone to “tell me more”? These simple words illustrate that someone is listening, and that no conditions are being imposed on how the information might be delivered. The listener has shifted importance to the speaker with an open question/request. They illustrate that we have found something of such interest, that we just want to hear you speak about it. (see post: The Power of Being Heard)

I joke about facilitation being a martial art like jujitsu. Facilitators seek to engage with and direct communication energies to where they have their highest benefit. Asking someone to “tell me more” places focus on them and puts them in a space of inherent validation. They can be in a place where they tell their story. Our culture of online comments, trolls and reduced accountability (we wouldn’t say the things we write if we were face-to-face) has exacerbated our already “all too human” tendency to expect the worst and act accordingly. My reference point is a heated public meeting. My reference point is a skilled facilitator who creates a space of dialogue where before there was unidirectional anger. Most of the time, it’s about using the right tools to listen.

Tools That Say, “We want to hear you.”

Dialogue is about understanding the tools that allow us to identify with one another and ideally find common ground. In the absence of common ground, at least feeling heard and understood. These tools allow us to understand and put order to complexity. Communication can be very messy, but if we can tease apart information and its relationships, we can help to bring order to things.

Good facilitation is beyond a single post, or even a university degree. To be an effective listener, you need a suite of tools to give someone the atmosphere within which they can communicate. It’s also important to realize that facilitation can be exhausting and take it’s mental toll. Our tendency is to absorb things, even as we redirect them. It takes a special kind of person to internalize that they are merely a conduit to help people be heard. THIS is why having someone on a project who is purely a facilitator has great benefit when things are complex. If you are on the design team, it will be very difficult to separate yourselves from the fact that you may be the target for people’s concerns.

Compartmentalizing our Roles

I’d like to wrap up this post with the ‘sanity’ side of how much we invest ourselves in what we do. As designers, it’s hard to not love your work… and imbue it with pieces of yourself. There is a fine line to walk within this to ensure that your client is getting a product that is theirs (and not yours), and to ensure that you don’t suffer when your ‘vision’ is subject to whatever winds that blow. Your project is NOT you. If your project IS you, then hopefully you tend more toward the art side of things and have patrons that support you.

In our lives, all people can’t be all things to us. There will be some people that give, some that take, and some with which we find balance. We accept trade-offs. We intentionally shift a relationship to meeting the needs of others without meeting our needs. Just as others might do the same for us. Within our professional roles, we can recognize that in the end, our projects are not about us. We place our focus on our clients and stakeholders, with us merely there to help facilitate their visions. We may need to work with their anger, confusion and other feelings… without letting them reflect on our view of ourselves. I’ll reiterate that there will be times where you will NEED someone else to be facilitator… for your well-being.

This brings this post full circle. Professionally we are at our best when we subvert or eliminate our personal needs, our ego. We are there to listen to our clients and to help them achieve THEIR needs. This may not be easy, but these interactions are not about us in any way, shape or form.

If you are involved with complex communication situations, do NOT look to your work as where you get your personal validation. We need to ensure that the other parts of our lives provide us with the validation that we need. That these parts provide us with the balance we need in order to subvert ourselves in order to get done what we need to get done at work.

You can’t be all things to all people. People can’t be all things to you. We need to juggle all of our relationships so that as a whole, they allow us to stay sane and ideally happy.

So… let’s end with a simple flowchart (eye candy). This expands on the validation component of the flowchart in Managed Expectations = Success to put an emphasis on listening, validating and really hearing someone: Tell Me More.

Tell Me More

Tell Me More: Confirming We Heard You Right

Coaching, Mentoring and Metaphor

1909 - Men Curling in Toronto

1909 – Men Curling in Toronto

Conversation #3 of my 100 Conversations effort. An underlying theme to the discussion was coaching and mentoring. Communication is certainly becoming a theme of this blog, and what I am gaining are additional tools to expand and adapt my ways of listening and communicating effectively. From this conversation, I saw a useful viewpoint that coaching has specific goals in mind, and may have a defined life span relating to achieving those goals. Mentoring is more about an individual’s growth and development over time. Another way to say it might be that coaching gives a person skills and strategies, while mentoring gives them a framework within which to use those skills and strategies. I might not have the perfect explanation (and I could be wrong), but this view serves the purpose of this blog post.

You Can’t Connect without Communication

Key to either coaching or mentoring is successful communication. This conversation #3 quickly delved into how coaching and mentoring are impossible without a very high level of communication. Our professional focus is not on ‘communication in passing’, it’s on communication that establishes successful long-term relationships. So, from here I focus on the importance of understanding how we best hear those we are in a communication relationship with… staff, client, whoever.

The Importance of Metaphor

In a previous post (Managed Expectations = Success), I mentioned the use of a kitchen renovation metaphor to communicate the challenges of a client being in a new building. They won’t have all of the benefits of the new space until they get used to it (i.e. where is the can opener?!). The purpose of the metaphor was to find a common language, with the hope that it is vivid enough to come to mind when they experience the challenges. They still may feel frustrated (and curse your name!), but they remember the overall context that it will be better in the end. Let’s take the time to discuss the power and weakness of metaphor.

According to wikipedia, “a metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies something as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two.” The power in using a metaphor is to add emphasis to communication, and hopefully find clarity. I’ve stated before that clients hire us for our expertise. Expertise brings with it a different world view, a different vocabulary, and experiences specific to our specialties. Our clients will NOT have these shared experiences. We will NOT be able to us the communication shortcuts that we do with our peers or repeat clients.

Let’s say that each of us has our own unique system through which we best communicate and learn new information. This system reflects our experiences and our developed world view. If sports are integral to your experience, then the framework and subtleties of sports will likely be  a good way to communicate with you. If I am trying to communicate something to you, my challenge is to understand your system(s) in order to best communicate with you.

Without shared experience, we try to find ways to adapt our communication to our clients. At its easiest, we can find the right layman’s terms to directly communicate. It gets harder when we need to access more specific communication styles. Sports can be an immensely rich system to use for communication for how it deals with a broad spectrum of strategies to achieve individual and team accomplishment. Superficial sports references will work for almost everyone since in our culture we are generally exposed to sports. The challenge becomes knowing how far we can use sports before it gets in the way of communication, or might even be negative to successful communication. I understand the importance of being a team player in basketball, and I understand that every position has its own importance… but you’ll lose me if you discuss particular techniques or players. Sports metaphors only go so far for me (unless it’s curling… then let’s take out that rock to clear the house!)

A better approach is trying to understand our clients and the systems that they use for communication. It’s always a good idea to learn about our clients and their way of doing business. Our role is to help them in achieving their mission by applying our expertise to their goals. The more we know about them and their staff, the better equipped we will be to assist. This includes understanding their communication models. When we are at our best, we learn enough about their interests to communicate in THEIR system.

Be genuine, and have mutual agreement when we use tools like metaphor. The pitfalls of genuine can be seen in the plots of many television sitcoms: man likes girl, girl likes opera, man pretends to like opera, girl finds out he’s pretending and so on. Mutual agreement relates to an understanding that we are trying to place ourselves within someone else’s world view, and that we are doing so with some risk. The agreement is that we are trying to improve communication for the good of each other. For the sake of having a sports analogy that is obvious (admitting I’m weak on the sports front, unless you want to talk curling), someone might reference OJ Simpson (or Oscar Pistorius) as an example of something beneficial in a sports career… but I might be appalled for other reasons. Within our mutual agreement, I need to realize that your intent is good… and I should ask for clarification.

This goes back to establishing expectations. An expectation should always be to expect good intent, and that if I’m bothered by something… I should seek to confirm the information I’ve received. I’ve probably misunderstood. We can have those same conversations with clients and staff. “If I ever say something that bothers you, please check in with me. It was likely miscommunication.” [note: it is unfortunate that as humans, we often forget to assess intent within a moment of perceived offense. We go straight to being offended, versus seeking clarification.]

So to summarize this post, it is essential that we find the ways to achieve mutual understanding with those around us. There are short-cuts to a more full understanding, but every shortcut comes with accompanying risks. We minimize risks with doing our research, and with establishing a framework for dialogue and iterative refinement. It can be as simple as saying to a client, “I see value in sports metaphors with you. I’ll do my best… and I won’t be hurt when you laugh at my mistakes. Now tell me again, how many innings in a hockey game?”

How to Educate the Perfect Design Student

ArchDaily had posted another question: What do you wish you had learned in Design School?

[And since I had first drafted this, they posted their article based on the comments they received: What Should Architecture Schools Teach Us? ArchDaily Readers Respond]

Accredited design programs really are in a tough spot when it comes to preparing professionals. They need to not only develop us as competent/skilled/artistic designers, but they also need to grow our ethical underpinnings and the knowledge and skills to meet the minimum competency requirements for the protection of public health, safety and welfare. Undergraduate programs have the benefit of a few more years to do this, but graduate level programs need to jam a whole bunch of stuff into three years or less.

It’s easy to list the most common things we wish we had learned: technology, project management, business development and a bunch of other skills. I think in some ways that these miss the point. The most successful landscape architects that I have known are successful due to their initiative and a drive to learn and apply. Their design programs provided them with a framework for one big independent study project – a design degree.

If I were to choose one thing that I wished had been stressed in school, it would be that for every class, the instructor put their information into context with how and when it would relate to me professionally. I think it was around Grade 9 during geometry when my teacher explained that our lessons actually had (or would have) real-life application. And guess what? As someone who builds things, the 3-4-5- triangle is an essential tool to me for checking how square something is. Understanding complex geometry is also essential to being able to communicate complex shapes within construction documents. Something as simple as being able to mechanically find the center of a circle is invaluable.

In a previous post (What Does Mentoring Mean?), I outlined the phases of our career and how our mentoring needs change as we grow. The same goes the knowledge and skills we possess.

So, the above addresses the one thing that I wish was presented to me in school (putting knowledge into a career context). I’d also like to offer my thoughts on another question, “What do you wish that students learned in design school?” My answers:

Initiative & Desire

How do you teach this? I think that to a large part someone will have it (or not have it) long before they make it to school. The question as an employer is how much we can foster or encourage it? I’m really unsure. I think there’s an important realization that every person is driven by something different. For some people, their career is just a career… not their life.

The point of this item is that initiative and desire are essential to a highly performing team. Each person delivers 110% (or more) of what the other people expect.

Critical Thought

My background is initially scientific. My training had me grounded within the importance of scientific method. Experimental methodology certainly made sense to me at the time (and was a favourite of mine), but it’s not until now that I appreciatehow it prepared and shaped me for my design career. During my Master of Landscape Architecture degree, my previous experience with methodology and statistics was tempered with design process (design classes) and for my thesis (graduate research seminar). Whether we recognize it or not, good design usually comes from a rigorous approach. I believe it becomes stronger when we apply critical thought explicitly, rather than the implicit (or subconscious) overlays that it normal goes through.

The point of this item is that people need to come prepared with their own framework for how they apply critical thought to a problem.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking in part comes out of critical thought… or is at least a partner. We explicitly create strategic plans for organizations and businesses, but there is an implicit underlying plan for almost everything we do in our lives. We don’t need this for successfully getting a bottle of milk, but most tasks will benefit from some explicit level of: stop, analyze, synthesize and act.

The point of this item is that we need to contribute to a strategic pathway that adds value and increases the chance for success.

Communication

Well… I think you get the point…

I just realized that I’m summarizing the blog posts I’ve made to date and those I have yet to write. I’m trying to describe the qualities that make for someone who is successful at the business of design.

Summary

A challenge in programs is teaching what the majority of the students need. Business development, business planning, etc… are subjects that only a small portion of students will need within their first ten years of practice. They’re also the subjects where mentoring and being exposed to them on the job is critical. It’s not that our academic programs don’t give us what we need, it’s that our profession doesn’t seem to have been indoctrinated into life-long learning. Initiative and desire drives learning for those who understand that they need to learn at any given point. The challenge is to know what we need to know before it’s critical we know it? Senior professionals could likely be more aware of how to assist their ‘higher functioning’ staff in learning, and also those who might just need a little guidance. My experience has been that professional learning is something that we talk about, but firms are few and far between that actively assist their staff with this life-long growth.

So, I’ll be bold and say that the question at the beginning of this post doesn’t get to the core of where it needs to go. It’s the easy question. It was a good first question, because it leads to understanding the real concerns. I want to pose another question: What knowledge do you wish someone had actively offered you on the job? Education doesn’t stop with school.

In closing, the most important thing that school could teach us is how to actively engage with mentoring in order to provide what we didn’t learn in school. And, engage senior professionals into their essential role in this.

(ONLY SENIOR PROFESSIONALS READ THIS: If you don’t engage as a mentor, you decrease your odds significantly for having the right person to lead your firm when you are gone. And if cash drives you, someone who will want to buy it from you.)