Feeling Relevant is Important

Sokol exercises in year 1924

A part of the human condition is a desire to feel needed. The reality is that in most of our interactions, we won’t be needed… but we can be relevant. And our relevancy doesn’t need to me immediate, there is a similar benefit to thinking we can be relevant in the future.

When I interact with people, I ask enough questions to start to get a feeling for how I might be relevant to someone, and how they might be relevant to me. At a party, this could be as simple as trying to find the subject area that they love to talk about. They feel relevant through an area of their knowledge. If I’m flexible or clever enough (or they are), we find the way that our interests intersect and then we can both be relevant. I may not be a model train enthusiast, but I am interested in the modeling of landscapes. We become relevant to each other and provide mutual value.

Professionally, the people that actively try to understand my relevancy (value) create a bridge to me. I can see when people expend the effort to understand how I might help them in the present or the future, and it’s a natural inclination for us to then try to do the same for them. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. This person is filed in my brain as someone I’d like to work with.

In comparison, it is very obvious when people take no interest in you. I might find them to be interesting, and the conversation might be great, but it’s typically one-sided. I take knowledge value away from it, but I rarely take away anything more. This person doesn’t get filed in my brain as someone I’d like to work with.

It doesn’t take much effort to invest someone with a feeling of being relevant, now or in the future. At the worst you might just walk away with an excellent conversation. I like good conversations.

“Thank You” as a Part of Your Brand

image  Thomas Leuthard https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ cropped from original

image Thomas Leuthard https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ cropped from original

Feeling Good About Ourselves

When was the last time that you received a hand-written note or card, where the sentiment was crafted by someone other than Hallmark? When was the last time that someone stopped to offer genuine thanks for something you did?

We often don’t remember the power of taking a few minutes of time to reach out to someone to thank them, compliment them, or otherwise add value to their lives.

When we take the time to reach out, we have the opportunity to reinforce the good that we see. When you are thanked for something you’ve done, you are more likely to do it again.

Building Your Brand

You want to be the person who is known as thoughtful. Your company/department should be remembered as having thoughtful staff. Instituting a ‘culture of thanks’ takes a little effort and support. By doing this, you reinforce your brand and create a positive atmosphere surrounding how people perceive you.

Case Study

We decided that we wanted to celebrate thanking people, make it was easy as we could, and to integrate it closely into our brand.

  • Step 1: What form would it take?
    • We like getting thank you cards, so we decided that having thank you cards on hand would be great.
  • Step 2: How does it reinforce our brand?
    • We are designers, so we wanted our card to emphasize our personality and ability:
      • Brand: With a raven as our logo, we already had a strong visual identity that we could draw upon.
      • Story: One of the reasons we chose our logo was that many cultures have stories revolving around Raven.
      • Approach: We wanted the card to be interactive so that not only would they get a thank you, they would spend a little time experiencing our card.
  • Step 3: A card.
    • Our card comes to you in a square envelope (with lots of stamps… more on that later).
    • You open it, and there is a round card  with a grommet in the center. It spins!
    • You notice that when you spin it, it shows you a word in a language that isn’t English and tells you what the language is.
    • You spin it some more, and you see that they’re mostly Native Alaskan languages, with some other languages commonly spoken in Alaska as well.
    • When you get to ‘English’, you see that the word is ‘Raven’
    • When you turn the card over, there’s a message from one of us to you.
  • Step 4: The psychology.
    • We hope that you are happy we’ve reached out to you to say something.
      • We’re trying to build and reinforce a relationship with you. We value you.
    • We hope that you see the card as something cool, and because it has a purpose/value, something you might keep.
      • You may show it to others, and expose them to our brand.
  • Step 5: Implementation
    • We have cards, envelopes and postage handy at all times.
    • We encourage staff to send these cards whenever they have an interaction that would benefit from a thank you.
    • We remind people that this includes all people, from the CAD tech who sent us a file to the Principal we had lunch with.
    • We keep a record of to whom they’ve been sent.
    • We also have Corvus Design Stickers, so we usually put one in the envelope. Everyone likes stickers, or knows someone young who does.
  • Step 6: Lessons Learned
    • We’re super excited when we go into an office and see our card on a cubicle wall. Success!
    • There are people we’d like to thank more than once, and this card would have minimal impact a second time. So, worked with a photographer to do a set of cards with winter, spring, summer and fall photos of ravens. Now we have the option of five fresh cards to send to any given person.
    • As an interesting “unintentional consequence”, we chose square envelopes because they are cool, and are perfect for a round card. Little did we know that the postal service charges $0.21 extra for square envelopes for special handling.
    • There are so many good times to earnestly thank someone. It’s a meaningful exercise for us to stop, and think about who we’d like to thank.

The Card

It’s hard to convey the card in a photo since it’s interactive, but here it is along with the sticker we include, and our branded USB drive. The USB drive is also a bottle opener, which aligns with our desire that people interact with our freebies. It’s also fun to hand to someone and say, “It holds memory… but helps you forget.”

Corvus Design Circular Raven Card, Bottle Opener USB Drive, and Logo Sticker

Corvus Design Circular Raven Card, Bottle Opener USB Drive, and Logo Sticker

What Value Will You Leave Behind?


This might be the best interview question to ask someone: if you leave us, what value will you have left behind? People move on to bigger and better things, and at some point will leave your company. The true test of how good an employee was is what value they created in your company, and successfully left behind for the company to use.

Interview advice always includes researching an employer and showing interest in them. Taking this a step further is showing a company that you have the initiative to not only do your job, but to make your employer better. It’s an active realization that companies don’t just need workers, they need people who understand the company’s mission and want to take it someplace. Employee initiative builds on the foundation of a business plan, and begins to create a place that is not just the owner’s vision… but a collective vision.

If the right employees are hired, and they are actively engaged in building such value, a real benefit is that they will be less likely to leave a company (except for bigger and better things). It creates a collective agreement that all parties are invested in one another. ‘Collective’ is an important part of that statement. It leads to the fact that the question that started this post has an equally important question the potential hire must ask: How does your company enable employees to build long-term value within it?

It’s a partnership.


About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has a current preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

The Line Cook Crux


Who’s your line cook?

A new friend owns some restaurants in Portland. When it comes to hiring, a challenge in that market is finding and retaining a good line cook (def’n:”Line cooks are usually responsible for prepping ingredients and assembling dishes according to restaurant recipes and specifications. Kitchens can be hot, noisy and stressful places, so you’ll need to be able to work efficiently and quickly to be successful as a line cook.”). The challenge in finding and retaining line cooks is that in most markets, the pay isn’t great and the work is hard. Those two conditions mean that it’s not necessarily an attractive position. It’s a pathway to something else inside the food industry, or a temporary stop on the way to something outside of the industry.

A dishwasher, a busser, a waiter, a manager. All positions that are somewhat formulaic and transferrable. They basically are about the successful delivery of a product. Without a product, they have no job. Who creates that product? The line cook. Hence, I find it interesting that this position is typically undervalued.

In your industry, who’s your line cook? What happens when you lose them?

The answer lies within specialization, and how an organization develops its staffing through evolution or importation. A line cook not only needs preparation and cooking skills, they need to be familiar with your recipes, imbued within your culture/brand, and have that certain zest/zeal/initiative where food gets  a bit of its magic. Whether an eye for detail, or artistry, patrons love to love their food.

Specialization. What kind of a person can step in and immediately get the job done? What proportion of the potential employee market have the ability to do this? How much training will it take?

Evolution. Do you have the ability to smoothly transition people within your organization from one position to the next? Do they have the skills and interest to do this? Do you have this person when you need them? Has someone already passed through this position and are they able to step back to it in a time of need? If they step back into this role, can they do both jobs?

Importing. Is the position one where someone can step in from outside and carry your business vision? How much training is required to provide them with the skills and knowledge they need? How much is required to invest them in your vision?

As an employee or business owner, you’ll identify with the challenges of having the right person in the right place at the right time… and the effort needed to manage doing it. The point of this post is for you to go out and find another business person to speak with. Ask them who their line cook is? What position is undervalued? What position is harder to fill than you think it should be? Then figure out why.

The restaurant owner I spoke with emphasized how important his company culture is to him. Vision/passion/brand/promise… whatever term you use, how his staff operate and interact with each other and the public is critical to him. When it comes to the ‘line cook crux’, his approach was to stop and look at the market around him. He sees it as an undervalued position, so his response is to value it through higher than industry pay… and also to value it through the culture he fosters for all of this employees. If the rarity of good line cooks is related to being undervalued… solve some of the problem by creating value.

A certain position within your company may always be a critical skill or resource. When you imbue that position with the right value, then people might seek you out, and certainly lessen the impulse to see  whether the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Once again, a brilliant flash of the obvious… but it’s a good exercise to go through to recognize that staff are your most important resource. Some are more ‘replaceable’ than others, but why put yourself in a place where you need to replace someone except when they are moving on to the next phase of their life? When your line cook goes to another company to be the same line cook there… what happened?


State Your Assumptions


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.


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.

Freedom of Time


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.


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.

Urban Planning Through Frugality

An NFB animated favourite - What on Earth!

An NFB animated favourite – What on Earth!

 Otherwise Titled: “The Frugal Consultant”

The variety of places I intentionally visit on the internet is small. One of them is www.mrmoneymustache.com. “Mr. Money Mustache is a thirtysomething retiree who now writes about how we can all lead a frugal yet Badass life of leisure.”

To distill what I like about the website is that it’s grounded in clear goals, clear criteria for success, and generally quantifiable approaches to assessing what will (or will not) lead to those goals. To some extent or another, most of us (unintentionally) subscribe to some external motivator(s) that move us in ways that we might not otherwise choose. This will be your farm someday, son. I’m proud of you being a lawyer like your dad. I need the health insurance and pension!!! I think this is why most people have some kind of mid-life crisis of one flavour or another. It’s only natural to get to a point and look back and wonder, “How exactly did I get here?” followed shortly by, “Do I want to be here?” It’s a reaction to realizing that we’re not as intentional as we might like to be.

The discussion about being intentional in our own pathways is likely a general theme of this blog. The intent of this post is to directly tie the concepts of frugality to planning and design, and to how we approach our work.

I sometimes feel like my goal with any client is to figure out whether I can talk them out of my services. It’s not some strange desire to inflict harm to my business. It’s a realization that clients sometimes don’t exactly know what they actually need (see: Trying to Avoid Work To Benefit Our Clients)… and that I can build value in my client if I can match them with the consultant that they REALLY need. At this point in my career, I want to build value in my network and build value in others. I know they will do the same in me. Then we get to focus on our skills and how we deliver highest value to our community.

I also feel that my goal with a client is to figure out what I can talk them out of constructing. That’s where this blog originates with Mr. Money Mustache. Take a second and read his post Understand the Drive-Through and We Can Understand All Problems. He’s not a landscape architect, or a planner (but has experience in building and construction). He has developed a lens of frugality through which he views the world. In case you didn’t go to his post, I’ll just quickly summarize that he looked at a bank’s drive-through system and saw the lost value in potential urban density. Value lost to allow us to stay in our vehicles with the engines idling. What I would see as poor planning and design, he saw as waste. (As an aside… why is it that we treat cars as the dominant life form on Earth rather than people?? I LOVE this 1969 Canadian Film Board animated short What on Earth!).

Planning is way more complex than a typical person would realize or expect. I fully understand HOW our cities develop (grounded in my mild cynicism), but the WHY is truly founded within strange code and ingrained ways of doing things. Sadly, working against (and even with) the system can be a long and hard road. Our systems have achieved lives of their own, just like the ‘lives’ of the cars in What on Earth!

I grew up with a fairly frugal outlook on life. But, as always, have only recently appreciated how that outlook applies to what I do as a career. I find it easy to try to match the correct level of our services to our clients. It’s much more difficult to match the correct design to the correct client to the correct site to the correct problems etc… There are so many variables and factors, that we get lost within them all. We sometimes turn around and see we’ve put in a banking drive-in on a piece of land that should have had a higher use. We have no good excuses other than we didn’t have the time, or the support, or the societal awareness, or whatever, to stop for a second and think about different outcomes. Let alone convince the other decision makers.

For those of you with means. For the thoughtful developers. For the city staff who use the system for change. For those of you committed to the long fight. I applaud you when you take a longer view and put your money and effort where your community is. Paradigms are finicky. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right words to get people to say, “Oh. I get it now.” I’m not sure if  frugality and its criteria will achieve this paradigm shift, but for me it makes sense today and adds some light for me.

How to Build Mutual Accountability

Infographic Overall

I love the term “brilliant flash of the obvious”. For me, it’s usually the product of long analysis, interesting conversations and deliberation. We get to the point where we’ve overthought something, and realize… the answer is simple and was just waiting for us to get to it! But, the fact is that we had to go through the process. When a thesis advisor of mine (Larry Harder) told me about the phrase, I believe he credited a Canadian landscape architect named Michael Hough. I’ve had this phrase/concept long enough that it’s a goal for me to find this elusive “brilliant flash of the obvious”.

Another thesis advisor (Dr. Robert Brown), left me with one of my most important “flashes of the obvious”. From his research methods course, I realized that if you outline your criteria for success prior to beginning your work, you have the power to define what success is. The power of this is that it encourages strategic thinking, the development of a concrete process to follow, and provides you with rigor that can be applied to the assessment of your final product. The easiest example is a playful one where you intentionally set the bar low for success. For example, if you state that your goal for a park design is to have it be an open space with seating… then success could be a parking lot with a bucket to sit on. Success!!!

The point of this blog post is to emphasize the value of entering into tasks with a goal (or goals), and understanding how these goals will be met successfully.

As a landscape architect, the most obvious application of this is the development of an agreed upon scope with your client. You need to establish not only what they want, but what they actually need. They often don’t know the ‘need’ part… and that is exactly why they have hired you with your expertise. Our success in this effort is directly proportional to our experience (knowing what to ask) and our communication skills. Good habits are often reinforced by avoiding bad outcomes. Losing money sticks in our minds.

The “brilliant flash of the obvious” part of this relates to the fact that we apply special tools and techniques with our clients in order to achieve solid communication (to avoid losing money)… and then we turn around and wonder why our staff do strange things? Why they didn’t approach a task the way we’d want them to approach it? Have we stopped to see if we’ve invested the time and effort into this the same way we do for things like losing money?

When we do think about it, I think the answer is that we didn’t establish an appropriate scope with staff… and perhaps more importantly, we didn’t establish how they would be accountable for their work.

Flogging Is NOT an Option

Our coping/communication skills are dependent upon the level of familiarity within our relationships. I can remain perfectly calm with a grumpy client. When I’m at home, an empty toilet paper tube in the bathroom can trigger an evening of passive aggression.

We spend most of our waking hours with our staff. This creates complacency with our relationship, and complacency leads to losing sight of the importance of good communication skills. We spend so much effort with effective client communication, but we just can’t seem to ‘find the time’ for staff. It’s not to say that things are dysfunctional, but there are certainly some things that we should be doing to set us all up for success. We can do better!

We Are a Product of our Baggage

Many of the strategies and processes that I employ are based on not wanting to revisit something bad that happened. I remember that fee where I forgot to include a certain typical scope item. My response was to create a fee template where irrelevant tasks are deleted, in order to benefit myself when I need to create a fast fee. Past Peter did Future Peter a favour by trying to protect him. So I say, “Thanks Past Peter! This one’s for you!”

So… back to criteria for success. If I’m working on a project on my own, I already have my own ingrained criteria for success. It’s easy to agree with myself and have a joint vision of where I need to go. In this case, there is an I in my Team. My Team is I.

Add another person to the mix (or more), and the need for a common vision and criteria for success becomes obvious! Right? Well… think about your project initiation process and see how it actively engages your team into shared accountability. If you DO have processes in place for this that you are successful… please share a comment on this post. Regardless… please read on.

Shared Accountability

We’re adults. We do our job. We can support those around us when they ask us to help out. BUT… until they bring us into a shared vision that we understand, we won’t be operating at our highest expertise. AND… we won’t be operating with initiative and passion until they craft a vision that somehow includes us. It’s human nature… we’re most involved when our tasks reflect us.

So… I’ll go back to the importance of establishing criteria for success. Below is a quick example of how this could happen. It relates to the importance of having a shared company vision that relates to all of your projects, and then project-specific vision.

Task 1: How Do We Measure Success?

Let’s assume that you haven’t had an office discussion like this. If you have a business or strategic plan, you’ll likely have all or part of these. The question is whether ALL of your staff have been involved in a discussion like this. The point of this is to develop a common language of common expectations that everyone is invested in. This should relate to everything that your organization does. Here’s a brief example of what it might look like organized within a hierarchy:

  • Happy Client (and most of these are for Happy Firm)
    • Meets Budget
      • Stay within design fee
      • Project within construction budget
    • Meets Schedule
      • Project bids on schedule
      • Meetings happen without rescheduling
      • Meetings are efficient
    • Meets Quality
      • Helps them achieve their organizational mission
      • Meets their operations and maintenance needs
  • Happy Community
  • Happy Environment

A good way to do the above is to give employees post-it notes and ask them to write one answer to the question “how do we measure success”, one per note. Use markers to make them bold and easy to read. Use different colors of post-its and markers to make it distinct and cool. Do not underestimate that the process itself it super important, and that includes how it looks and communicates.

Have each employee read their note, and put it up on a wall (whiteboard is great). As people add them, they should star to group them into similar groupings. As more are added, these groupings may also be divided into sub-groups. An important part of this is to discuss and examine hierarchies. Some of them might start to be specific, and they will lead into well the next phase of this process.

Use this as an opportunity to  stop and have those amazing “business of design” discussions that could result from this. You will likely find the perfect place to discuss your company’s mission and vision… if not even realizing that they can be improved to better reflect your company, staff and all. I’m assuming you have a business plan or similar that outlines your mission and vision. You do have that, right?

Task 2: How Do We Measure Task Success?

This discussion is specific to a particular project your office may be doing. It will expand upon and add specificity to items in Task 1. With this exercise, we’re walking a line between an internal agreement on what your firm is expecting of itself and its staff, and the development of project programming. That’s okay… final programming will lie with a client on any project, but your brainstorming may help you identify the questions you should be asking your client.

The conversation that spurred my thoughts on this blog post relate to a shared discussion of quality in my office. Our goal is to have our staff state what they feel represents the level of quality that we wish to achieve.

We’ve been talking about infographics in our office. We want to use the development of infographics to investigate our passions, refine our graphic design skills, and develop our approach to simplifying the presentation of potentially complex information. I could have issued this task by stating my top ten criteria for a successful infographic… but… that’s really kind of useless. Seriously. We’re designers, and as soon as I do that… I WILL limit what comes out of others. It might look like the easy way, but it does no one any good.

So… even on what might seem like the simplest of tasks, why don’t we take a few minutes and engage into this discussion of “what are the characteristics of the best infographic ever!!??!”

At the Task 2 level, here’s some of what we discussed:

  • What are the elements of a high quality infographic?
    • Tells a Story
    • Graphically Engaging
    • Simplifies complex information
    • ADDS to the discussion rather than duplicates
    • Comes from passion

Infographic Zoom

So now we have more details as to what we as a group consider to be the qualities of a successful product.

Task 3: How Do We Quantify Success?

This task gets down to the point of this entire blog post. We’re tying to remove opinion from assessment in order to increase the potential not only for success… but awesome success. If I were to have asked for a “great infographic” without any other information, I run the risk of setting my staff up for failure. Odds are that we would NOT have a shared vision of success.

So… down to the details. The discussion went into what exactly does something need to have to achieve it’s goals? The best part about this discussion is that we are working on a shared dialogue within the office that will benefit every project. When we understand what we mean by quality, by going through a specific case study, then we will start to open ourselves to small and large “brilliant flashes of the obvious”. OHHH!!! Peter has no idea what an infographic is!? He just wanted a bar chart??! Now we can open his eyes to how an infographic is soooo much better.

Or… we can at least talk about being intentional with story, graphic layout, etc…

  • The product is high quality
    • Tells a Story
      • Has a start, middle and end… and hopefully tension, conflict and the other things a good story has.
    • Graphically Engaging
      • Has a visual flow
      • Good color scheme

Task 4: Accountability

Where all of the above leads is that you have achieved a shared group vision. As a supervisor, you now have specific components to measure product success. As a peer working on the project, you have the tools to push each other when you say, “Is our story strong enough?”. Without this shared language, pushing another person can lead to conflict. With it, we can guide the conversation to how we get to our agreed upon goal.

Since we have agreed on what quality means, then we can review the product and congratulate the team on achieving success. If the product falls short, we can speak to what might be lacking and measure it against our group benchmark. I bet that most of the time people respect this accountability tool. BUT… recognize that communication is elusive. There might be the chance that what is lacking was not fully understood. Use it as an opportunity to continue the discussion. It’s about finding a shared understanding, and embracing the growth that will be a by-product of the right approach.

This shared vision is incremental, and experience dependent. You will hopefully have a common shared language with a person you have worked with for ten years. Don’t get complacent. These approaches have value, and allow evolution with each repetition. Also… they are critical to bringing new staff into the vision… AND… allowing the vision to shift with the good change that they bring.


Thanks for reading all of the way. The summary of this is that we spend our lives facilitating our clients and stakeholders, but we don’t seem to use those same tools to benefit ourselves and our staff. When we stop to do that, we reap many benefits… with the most important being strengthening shared communication and establishing accountability.

The only real accountability is that which we enforce on ourselves. In order to internalize accountability, we have to be a meaningful part of the process.

Postcript: For my staff that eventually find this blog, I truly wish that I were the perfect boss/mentor for you. I’m human and miss the obvious a lot. Please reference the ‘benevolent manipulation‘ post. Remember, you can also initiate things like the above. That would make me happy since it illustrates a shared understanding. Understanding is good. =)

Understanding the Secret Value of Value

When we are subconsultants, we are aware of our place within the world. Site design and landscape often aren’t the highest focus of attention within a project. We’ve developed approaches and skills where we try our best to deliver high value, even in the face of a lack of engagement or sub-optimal processes.

We operate at our best when our teams recognize our role no matter how small, and provide us with what we need. Sometimes we just need some sympathy, but more importantly… it comes down to understanding what we do and supporting our role.

Landscape architecture is a profession for a reason. We bring a high level of value for understanding and acting on how people use and enjoy their lives outside of buildings. This certainly relates to health, safety and welfare. This might be off the radar for some clients, but there are many small decisions on a site that could bring immense value. Without anyone ever knowing.

I think that we gain some pleasure realizing that much of what we do will never be actively recognized. We realize that what we do actively and positively shapes people’s experiences and quality of life. Conversely, I think we also gain guilty pleasure when our advice wasn’t heeded, and you hear grumbling about how a site design doesn’t function so well. We’d love to say, “We told you so!”… but we don’t. One of the best descriptions of landscape architects is that “we are a shade loving species.” There’s more in that for another post at some time.

When we work with architects and engineers who have realized our secret value, they see it as something that they want to harness in order to deliver value to our client. They have developed teams where no matter how small, they work with the people that they value. It’s human nature that we all work at our best when we are valued.

If you are a client, architect, engineer or another person who might work with us… if you don’t fully understand what we bring to your project, please ask us. Our goal is to create a site and atmosphere that benefits your business or mission! We will only be successful when our clients are successful.

This applies to everyone. When you seek to understand the value that someone brings to you, you will create value that wasn’t there before.

(In short… if you actively engage with us to encourage our expertise, we’ll do even more to try to help you. It’s human nature. See Benevolent Manipulation.)