What Value Will You Leave Behind?

construction

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.

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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/

Free Energy For All

tesla

I’m fascinated by the concept of think tanks. I have this vision of one of those sci-fi war rooms with glass partitions that people draw and write on to illustrate their ideas for how to stop that asteroid from destroying the earth. It’s a room of highly (dys)functional people (the ‘dys’ part for Hollywood effect… and some reality likely). All of the stereotypical movie characters are there: thinker, firebrand, action guy, lone wolf, leader, genius, wisdom. There are sparks, conflict and… alignment (usually based in an achieved grudging respect). It’s a boiling pot of intersection chaos that slowly takes form and aligns with more and more clarity. Brainstorm.

My wife asked me what my dream job would be. My response was to be with a group of people operating at their highest level of expertise. The intent of this is to work at that tension point where you have a room brimming with skill and experience, and you can achieve the cold fusion of ideas from the future.

Talking about cold fusion… where do you get your energy?

Batteries on Samsung phones have been combusting. Things might look normal, but then a bunch of protons and neutrons get excited and can’t control themselves. Boom. Burnout. The goal for a battery is to have controlled chemical reactions that release energy as needed, not less than nor more than what you need. When the battery gets low, it gets plugged in and replenished. Eventually it wears down for that graceful slide into being replaced.

We all need to have an idea about how our batteries work. How much energy can they produce? How sustainably? What peak demand can we exert on them? How do we recharge them?

I asked a friend the other night where he gets his energy from. He spoke for a while, and I needed to laugh since I realized that his response was effectively “cold fusion”. His energy comes from ideas and the opportunities that have not yet materialized. His energy comes from future possibility. He’s drawing from the future to power the present.

How do you draw from the future? The future exists purely as an idea. In order to draw from that energy, you need to be a broker or participant in the realm of ideas. There are some among us that are visionaries who have a direct connection to this, but for the majority of us… the energy that the future provides requires a chemical reaction in the present.

A chemical reaction requires something precipitating change. My friend has placed himself in a position where he has access to people and the ideas that they bring. Another way to look at this is that change occurs when two things intersect. When we optimize our ability to harness intersections, then we can begin to direct and manage change, and the intellectual result is the ability to harness ideas.

So, he harvests the energy of ideas. Conscious or subconscious, he’s not fully drawing power from the land of the future. He’s tending a farm of potential intersections where each collision creates sparks. His excitement and drive come from a knowledge that some of these sparks can then be grown into something more. His energy comes from interacting with people who also align themselves with ideas and the potential for change. It’s a bit vampiric feeding on this energy created by those around you, but… we all find our ways to contribute. Or, just get to be lucky to be along for the ride?

Where do I get my energy? Some intrinsic instinct to try to make sparks.

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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 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

Managed Expectations = Success

IMG_0537

It’s All About Setting Expectations!

(*this is post#1 from my 100 Conversations mission*)

Our fundamental role as designers and project managers is to be effective translators. We need to recognize that our skills and specialties are alien to most of the people that we work with. Extra effort IS required to inform them about what we do, and how they fit into a good project process.

I will be adamant about this. Almost ALL of the pain that you and your staff (and your consultants, and your prime, and your children, and your dog) feel is due to expectations not being managed effectively. I’m not blaming you… I’m blaming the typical process that we consultants seem to keep on using over and over. Namely… no process.

This starts to get metaphysical, but probably the best discussion you could have with your client is establishing expectations for setting (and maintaining) expectations.

RULE #1: Set a Process for Expectations

Think about any friction that you have had in your life. I bet that most of them likely came down to (mis)communication, and probably could be described as being due to mismatched expectations. Mismatched expectations become conflict when we don’t have a process in place to deal with them.

Imagine a different approach to project management where we made the time at the beginning of  job to better define HOW we would manage our management process. Yes… that sounds kind of dumb when I re-read that sentence, but the intent is that we simply explain to our client that our goal is to:

  1. Establish their criteria for success and the extent of expectations that should be understood. (contracting)
  2. Take the time to confirm our mutual understanding. (confirmation)
  3. Recognize that changes will be needed, and potential conflict may arise. (anticipating)
  4. Establish a process for how we will address any need for resolving changes to expectations. (recontracting)
  5. Determine how success will be measured based on their criteria and expectations. (achievement)
  6. Validate an opportunity for lessons learned. (growth)

I think we do an okay job of numbers 1 & 2, but the rest have varying levels of success depending on our communication skills, and whether our client has someone with previous related experience or not.

If you already ‘get’ where I’m going with this, check out some of my other blog posts now. If you’d like to hear more, read on.

Flowchart: Managing Expectations

Flowchart: Managing Expectations (a work in progress)

Contracting

Our days are full of implicit contracts: I’ll pick up some milk. Sometimes they include explicit contracts like the Prime and Subconsultant Agreements I signed yesterday. We are very intentional when we are signing and dating a document, and less intentional with our implicit agreements. The latter has defined and legal ramifications if we don’t follow what we’ve agreed to do. The former doesn’t really have the same level of potential ramifications, except perhaps annoyance.

The purpose of contracting is to orchestrate the various components that need to be completed in order to achieve successful completion of a task. We can only achieve this is if we agree upon what success looks like. “We would like dessert tonight for my birthday. We need milk. I have a meeting, so you get the milk. I’m looking forward to my favourite tasty dessert.”

If you forget the milk, then we don’t even get to the point of assessing whether the dessert is tasty.

Confirmation

Communication is challenging. It’s a little easier when we have shared experience and shared vocabulary. I spoke to this a little in: Asking the Right Question . “I know you like it when we make it with whole milk, so I’ll pick up a half-gallon of whole milk. Are there any other ingredients we need?”

With that we take the first step in confirming the specific request (milk) and we do someone the favour of bringing it back to the big picture of success (the dessert and how they like it). This shows shared management and responsibility for success. We step up from being a mere errand runner, to someone with illustrated buy-in. “No. I checked the cupboard and we have everything else we need.”

Your errand is confirmed. You have helped confirm a pathway to success.

Anticipating

Stuff happens, so why not anticipate a process that builds-in an expectation that change or flexibility might be needed? “I’ll call you from the store to see if you think anything else we should get.

Recontracting

So we have a system in place to plan for the fact that life is messy. “I’m at the store. Apparently the cows are on strike and there’s no dairy available. Can you believe that? I know you wanted that dessert, but I was thinking maybe I could bake your favourite cake instead?”

You could have simply not picked up the milk and gone home, and explained that they had no dairy. This would have illustrated that you missed the point of the whole exercise: a special dessert. Instead, you check in and develop mutual control over the situation. Not only did you check in to recontract, you also showed initiative in offering a potential solution to the situation.

Achievement

Weird about the cows, but since you mention it, cake does sound pretty good.” You have a discussion and you revise your plans to accommodate the unknown. The pathway to success is significantly different, but you achieve the end goal of a tasty dessert.

Growth

When you have finished eating the whole thing(!), you both agree that next time contracting with a contingency plan would be helpful. “The cake was delicious. If cows ever go on strike again, cake can be a pre-approved alternative.

Rule#2: Establishing and Managing (the right) Expectations

Let’s bring it back to consulting.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of time, quality and cost. It’s also visualized well with the saying, “Fast, cheap and good… you can only choose two.”

Since quality is normally a final assessment, we can look at scope, schedule and budget as being the main factors to achieve desired quality. Risk and resources are important as modifiers to the ‘formula’ as they can add additional stability (like more skilled workers), or instability (eliminating schedule contingencies). The more pressure that is put on any or all of scope, schedule or budget… the more likely it is that things will deviate from expectations.

So… make no promises is the best solution! (joking)

As consultants, we have great systems for establishing scope and budget expectations. Where we (and our clients) get into trouble is with management of scope. I’d like to think that we’re too nice or too naive, but regardless… the fact is that we don’t set up realistic expectations that balance scope/schedule/budget, and we certainly don’t act in anyone’s best interests when we don’t tightly manage these.

It’s really hard to say no to a client (until you have shared systems in place). That’s why pre-development delivers bloated space planning and project programming to schematic design. We waste so much time, effort and money because we don’t establish realistic expectations grounded in scope/schedule/budget. The ultimate blame for this lies with the prime consultant, but it also sits with the client. Well… us subconsultants are also guilty when we don’t speak up, but we often aren’t invited into the big picture. Most of the time the problem lies in the fact that the client doesn’t have the money for the project they WANT… and we certainly wish that we could always give people what they want!

Finding the project they NEED is essential before project expectations are set. See Trying to Avoid Work to Benefit our Clients.

The take-home message from this is to set a process for managing expectations, and this is grounded in some intensive work at the beginning of your project. During this period of expectation contracting, make sure you ask the HARD questions at the beginning of the project. If experience is worth anything, I’d say we need to talk about:

  • We will have some tough conversations. We’ll have a process in place for these conversation, and we’ll try to anticipate them to the best of our abilities.
  • We need to both have a shared understanding of what ‘perfect’ means for this project. Let’s try to visualize what success means. What are the ten things that you need to see when you are looking around at the ribbon-cutting?
  • You probably won’t have the budget for what you want. We’re going to focus first on making sure you get what you need. We don’t want to ‘value engineer’, we want to ‘value design’. (**for those that don’t know ‘value engineer’… it’s a hilarious industry term for deleting things to reduce costs***)
  • We’re going to work hard with you to make sure this project is right-sized for you. You save a tonne of money when you don’t build things!
  • Let’s have a discussion about how you will learn to use your new building/landscape… and that there will be challenges. Imagine reorganizing your kitchen for efficiency. You know you’ll spend a month or two trying to remember where something is, but in the long term it will be better for you. New buildings and sites are the same, and come with frustrations until you’ve learned them.
  • What other painful conversations did you have during a project which you could have had at the beginning? There’s nothing wrong with discussing previous challenges with your clients in order to show them that you learn, and you don’t want to revisit them again.

It’s impossible to write one blog post to cover setting and managing expectations. Remember that the take home message is not just set expectations. You also need to recognize that they will need to change, and that a process for expectation management is critical..