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More reflections on code and consulting

I catch myself talking and writing about consulting as if that’s the way for me to help organizations be more collaborative, as opposed to coding, which is productive and fun but which might have limited effect in terms of changing most people’s experiences of a company. In a way, I’m right. Other people are more likely to seek out and listen to consultants for ideas that they wouldn’t ask an IT specialist or web developer about, and the experiences and skills of consulting would help me understand the complexities better.

Sometimes, when I’m frustrated by internal hurdles to organizational flexibility, I envy other people’s roles. For example, Anna Dreyzin, Luis Suarez, and Rawn Shah get to work on improving IBM and sharing insights full-time. Isn’t that awesome? People tell me I help make a difference too, but it feels small compared to the difference I’d like to make.

But then there’s the joy of coding, the rightness of it, the value of it. Who’s to say that I’m not helping improve the organization’s capabilities, even from here? If I connect, collaborate, and share what I’m learning along the way, then I show what a possible future could be for organizations and the people in them. My work might not directly advance the goal of helping people work together better, but my work might be towards another goal I haven’t recognized and articulated, and there’s value in indirect contributions towards collaboration.

Maybe the model I’ve been using to think about the fit of work has been hiding something from me. Seeing fit as the vector projection of the organization’s objectives and of mine, to see what value we can capture and what value we waste, I can see the directness of contribution, but neither the value of indirect contributions nor the multiplicity of goals.

This realization matters to me because it hints at another goal, which might be to help people make a difference from wherever they are in the organization. That’s one of the things social media changes. I have a soapbox that isn’t circumscribed by my role. In the process of reconciling my love of development with my urge to more directly work on organizational culture, I’m learning things that can help me talk to and about the everyday evangelists of collaboration: those whose roles might not directly relate to helping their organizations be more collaborative, but who transform the way they and other people work by experimentation and example.

And as Torsten Wagner pointed out in e-mail (thanks!), bringing the tools and insights of one field to another (say, programming to consulting) can lead to something awesome and even revolutionary.

So I can guiltlessly enjoy building systems and mentoring developers, confident that this also fits into my big picture. =)

Learning more about interviewing

David Ing let me tag along on a client interview for a Smarter Cities engagement. He and Donald Seymour interviewed the CIO and other staff of a region in Ontario. In the afternoon, David gave us a crash course on Media and Entertainment to help Donald and another consultant take over that area of responsibility. It was fascinating to watch their easy rapport and interviewing style. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • Working in pairs makes interviews much easier. When David interviews, he usually asks someone else to lead the conversation. He asks the occasional question and focuses on recording notes, staying as close to the actual words as possible. This frees him from having to think about processing the words. He does this instead of recording the interview because listening to the recording would require lots of additional time.
  • Keep the conversation-setting presentation as short as possible, so you can focus on the conversation.
  • Don’t plan too much up front. Let the conversation take you to where it needs to go.
  • One-slide summaries with the question structures nudge the conversations in the right direction and help you ensure you cover everything of interest.
  • Capture notes on your computer to make it easier to share those notes with others.
  • Working with one client can be seen as self-serving. Working with several client organizations and bringing them together to learn from each other—that has a lot of value.
  • Hollywood is a strange and interesting place.

David, thanks for sharing!

Book: Beyond Booked Solid

Beyond Booked Solid: Your Business, Your Life, Your Way Its All Inside
Michael Port, 2008

(This link is an Amazon affiliate link, but if you’re near a public library, take advantage of it. I borrowed this book from the Toronto Public Library. =) )

Michael Port’s follow-up to Booked Solid focuses on how to grow your business beyond yourself, and is an excellent read for people interested in taking the next step.

I’m curious about the A3 Reports he describes on pp. 61-62. The A3 Report summarizes a business situation on a single sheet of 11.7”x16.5” paper. It would be interesting to use this structure to think through personal situations as well. =) (I guess I’m weird that way.)

  • Title of report, name, and related information
  • Theme/objective
  • Current situation analysis
  • Root cause analysis
  • Alternatives
  • Recommendations
  • Future state picture
  • Implementation plan

On page 94, he also provides some tips on making things happen, and then he fleshes them out over the next pages.

  • Collaborate.
  • Adopt practices for exploring a variety of perspectives.
  • Coordinate meticulously.
  • Listen generously.
  • Build relationships intentionally.
  • Have clear intentions.
  • Develop habits of commitment making and fulfilling.
  • Tightly couple learning with action.
  • Call on your talents.
  • Bring your passion to the project.
  • Embrace uncertainty.
  • Have a compelling story for your project.

On page 146, he offers tips and outsourcing work to other firms. He firmly believes that you shouldn’t outsource in a way that creates a single point of failure for your business. If you work with firms and document your systems well, you can get back up and running after unexpected difficulties.

On page 173, he makes a particularly good point relevant for public speakers. He says, “Before I give a speech, I need to be careful not to try to create a particular energy. Instead I tap into the audience’s energy. We all need to tap into the energy of the people we’re working with. There’s only so long you can be an energetic cheerleader for a project if the people around you need to be manipulated into corresponding energetic responses. I’m sure you’ve all thought how your energy level rises around people who are excited about the work they’re doing or, for that matter, how your energy lifts with someone who has a zest for life.”

Another good take away can be found on page 177, where he advises, “Schedule fun once a day — after your normal working schedule.” This not only helps you include your productivity by encouraging you to be more efficient, it also helps you manage your energy.

Worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in scaling up.

Figuring things out on the fly

Dark blazers are a newbie facilitator’s friend. No one could see me perspire as I wondered what to do. My session wasn’t working. The exercise structure I picked didn’t fit the energy and interest of the room. I needed to improvise.

Fortunately, my team helped me out. One of my colleagues asked a question that was really a hint about one thing we could try, so I latched onto it. That was better, but not quite all the way there. He suggested something else, I wove that suggestion in, and that worked. People got up and discussed the personas. At the end of the session, one of the clients asked if all of that would be summarized and sent to them: value!

It’s scary getting up there in front of a group, but it’s a darn good way to learn. My team helps me stretch and learn by giving me opportunities to facilitate workshop sessions and coordinate online brainstorming conversations. Over the past two years, I’ve surprised myself by having opinions, ideas, and even answers when people ask me about topics. And it’s awesome doing this with experienced people who can step in and smooth things over.

Maybe this is why large companies can be great learning environments. You’re surrounded by people with years of experience and a vested interest in helping the team succeed, so you end up learning tons along the way. =)

Reflections on the Innovation Discovery workshop in Boston

Last week, I facilitated my fourth Innovation Discovery workshop. I learned a lot! Here are a few quick reflections:

  • The account team was amazing. They briefed us on participants’ backgrounds and passions, and that helped us shape the agenda.
  • Planning was helpful, and I’m glad I joined the meeting. We set aside Wednesday afternoon for team preparation. Everyone reviewed their sessions and gave feedback. I felt nervous as the most junior person in the room commenting on other people’s presentations (particularly, ahh, asking questions about a VP’s upcoming presentation), but we came out with better work because of all that, and I learned tons in the process.
  • Tag-team facilitation rocks. I stumbled a little during my persona exercise because the structure I’d chosen wasn’t a great fit in terms of energy and flow, but we got back on track with a little prompting from my co-facilitator and another Innovation Discovery team member. That really helped, and I ‘learned a lot more about facilitation by watching how we improvised.
  • Visual note-taking was fun and effective. I took graphical notes (icons + keywords), and participants liked it a lot.
  • Presentation style improvements are percolating through the organization. Although some of the presentations still relied on bullet points, a number of the presentations were aesthetically well put-together. =) There’s hope!
  • Downtime was good. I decided not to try to schedule anything in the evening. The extra space and quiet helped me stay energized throughout the workshop.

What can I do to prepare the ground for an even better next time?

  • Explore facilitation techniques. The more I know, the better I can plan and the better I can improvise. The deeper I understand, the smoother things will go.
  • Limit personas. We presented a large number, hoping that they’d prioritize a few. The clients responded to all of the personas quickly, and wanted to keep them all. Eep! Lesson: Limit the personas we present up front, then add more as necessary. Printing photos on letter-size paper instead of posters might make this easier.
  • Continue building a visual vocabulary, and experiment with visual metaphors. Practice, practice, practice!

This was lots of fun, and I look forward to making the next one even more awesome. =)

Trying out visual notetaking at a workshop

The more I draw, the easier and more fun it gets.

I helped facilitate a client workshop last week. During one of the exercises, the lead facilitator took notes on an easel. I needed to make a copy of the notes so that we could build on the results in a breakout session. I thought I’d experiment with visual note-taking on another easel, as I’d been having fun taking personal visual notes throughout the workshop.

The lead facilitator filled seven pages with phrases and keywords. I used icons and keywords to take notes, filling two and a half sheets. This was great because we were running out of wall space! <laugh> It was also easier for me to move the sheets to the next room—bonus!

I seem to be developing a quick visual vocabulary: trophies and gold stars for rewards, fire for enthusiasm or passion, and so on. That made it easier to keep up with the discussion.

Working with drawings made it easier to connect related ideas, too, because I could draw circles and connect them with lines in different colours.

Four people came up to me individually to compliment me on the drawings. Yay! =)

Next step: Instead of just using a grid of images+words (which is like using bullet points on slides! ;) ), I’d love to explore other ways to organize the information. Visual metaphors will be fun to try.

No public pictures of the session, but I’ll see if I can take visual notes for something public!