Failure and its teachings

Failure has its place in the career of a consultant. I learn a lot from failure, even if it doesn’t feel good at the time. Responding to “Request for Proposals” often means putting my heart and soul into something, waiting for a response, and then crashing down because I come second. Again.

The past 3 weeks have seen me on the receiving end of three failed projects. I can handle one or two with aplomb, but three is a bit much. It is time to do some serious thinking about the why and how of what happened, and find the good in these rather difficult experiences.

Janey "failing" to actually grab one of her beverages. So sad.

Janey “failing” to actually grab one of her beverages. So sad.

The kind of happy money can't buy - my amazing friend Marj and her Bobbie.

The kind of happy money can’t buy – my amazing friend Marj and her Bobbie.

Each “failure”, if you allow me to call them that, was unique:

  • I was invited to let my name stand to be a member of a Board of Directors.
  • Bart and I partnered on a proposal for facilitation activities related to First Nations and the provincial Growth Plan.
  • Nicole, Lisa and I bid on a HUGE contract with a national not for profit organization. (We wanted this one. Big Time.)

You know the end of the story for each of these already. I didn’t get the position on the Board, we didn’t get the provincial contract and we didn’t win the huge contract. That’s the life of a consultant, and the risk we take. So what’s to learn?

It’s all in the details, I often remind myself. I need to reflect on my personal and professional priorities, look closely and learn from the experiences. And determine why I don’t feel quite so bad about losing these contracts.

Member of the Board? I wanted the position because I would be paid to sit on the Board! How cool is that! That’s a big upside. Downside? I wasn’t passionate about the organization. I was in it for the money. In fact, during my member interview, I asked them what they really needed in a Board Member. They told me someone with financial expertise. I said don’t select me.

They took my advice.

Small provincial contract? We worked hard on the proposal. BUT (is there always a but?) neither of us was enamored with working with the particular client team assigned to the project. We had worked with them previously, and the personalities were more challenging than satisfying. When I found out we didn’t win the contract, my reaction was “Oh well”.

The huge contract? The three of us really wanted this one. We made it to the short list and landed an interview. I drove to Toronto with my formal consulting clothes on (read: real shoes, not my usual Blundstones, hair brushed, and the casual suit that even makes me look professional). Despite knowing ahead of time, the interview team had not prepared for a conference call, so I had to connect Nicole and Lisa with the 4 of us in the boardroom myself. I had that niggling feeling that the clients were not impressed that I was the only one there “in person” and it became evident that no matter what we said, we were not going to wow and amaze them.

I choose to work with people I like...like Bart!

I choose to work with people I like…like Bart!

I left the interview feeling like I didn’t really want to work with those folks.

And I won’t be.

Learning opportunities? I can always find them, no matter how distant or impossible they may be. Let’s explore each scenario.

The first one is clear – I need to be passionate about what I do. Whether it is fishing, running, or working – without being passionate about something, I get little joy from it. Being a Board member would have brought money, but without being passionate about their purpose, that was not enough for me. So I am not upset about not getting the Board position

The small provincial contract? Bart and I were both passionate about the project. But we had a previous experience with the clients and it wasn’t great one. Had we landed this contract, we would have done a great job and gotten well paid, but been unhappy. Money isn’t worth that amount of stress.

And finally, the huge contract that we wanted so much? Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. The clients weren’t interested in preparing for a conference call, and my instincts told me that they had made their minds up about us before we had even started.

You know all those websites on the Internet that tell you how to empower yourself to be the best; to recognize and manifest the laws of attraction; to be the fountainhead of information? This isn’t any of that stuff! This is simply me, an independent consultant, telling you what works for me:

  • Find your passion, and do things that relate to your passion. You may not make as much money as others, but you will be richer by far.
  • Work with people you like, and you will help to guarantee that you will be happy!
  • Trust your instincts. Challenge them, yes, but be informed by them.

I had a really great meeting today, with two people who work for an organization that does great environmental work that I am passionate about. I liked meeting with them, talking to them, and my instincts tell me that there might be some future opportunities working with them. Wish me luck!

Some of my passions...my children, nieces and nephews!

Some of my passions…my children, niece and nephews!

Monkeys and Motivation

I am still working for Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), helping introduce a new software system for managing, sharing, saving and storing information. I work with a team of Business Analysts, Information Management specialists and a host of others to help build the best information management solutions for each of NRCan’s business units. Our goal is to ensure effective uptake of the GCDOCS system.

(In other words, I’m working with a group of folks who’s job it is to get people motivated and interested in using this new system. It’s not easy, and motivation is a challenge.)

I’ve been doing a lot of research about change and motivation, and how to help people manoeuvre through the challenges that are thrown their way on the road to something new. Luckily, I found Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, and I’ve been eating it up. Pink writes not about change, but about motivation, and what motivates us to do anything.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

Harry Harlow was a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1940s, doing research in primate behaviour. Pink provides the reader with a detailed description of Harlow’s experiments on learning with rhesus monkeys. Harlow grounded his research in the fact that the monkeys had two main drivers that powered their behaviour: a biological drive – food, water and reproduction; and an external reward/punishment drive.

What happened in Harlow’s experiments was most interesting. The monkeys were given a puzzle that they had to learn, and they very quickly learned to do it. In fact, they completed the puzzle simply because they found it gratifying. There was no reward, no satisfaction with food; Harlow realized that the monkeys found it gratifying to solve puzzles. The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.

How does this relate to GCDOCS and NRCan? The GCDOCS team is putting a huge amount of effort into motivating staff by focusing on the second driver – reward and punishment. Change management activities are based on the premise that the staff will not be inclined to use GCDOCS, and we need to first reward them when they do, and then perhaps threaten them with taking away their access to other shared drives in the future.

What if we looked at the third driver of behaviour? What if we focused our change management activities on this intrinsic motivation – that staff will be interested in GCDOCS and will be motivated by curiosity, interest and sheer gratification of using a new program? If we could recognize that there is joy in the activity, and that as humans, we have a desire to get better and better at something that matters, perhaps we could encourage staff to use GCDOCS because they want to, rather than because they have to.

Pink continues to explain that this kind of behaviour requires three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If we can give the staff some autonomy for how they choose to use GCDOCS – using their rules rather than external rules set up by us – we may see more interest in using the program. If we can encourage and support mastery, without worrying about success or failure, we may see more expansive use of GCDOCS. Finally, if we can prove purpose that relates to each person, and really and truly reflects their own own human condition, staff may choose to use GCDOCS because it makes sense to them and their lives.

In reading this blog, I see that I can replace “GCDOCS” with anything. If I want to help foster a change; if I want to awaken the motivation of colleagues, friends, anyone, then I must recognize (and celebrate) that motivation is intrinsic and doesn’t have to be external. I must realize that autonomy, mastery and purpose may speak louder than more time off, an increase in pay, or any other external motivator.

I play the fiddle. I’m not particularly good at it. But I am motivated to play and get better, not by any money or fame I receive (which, of course, I don’t), but because I love it. Like Harlow’s monkeys, I am gratified by the task at hand, and perhaps more by fluke than by practice, I get better.

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My advice to you, dear reader? Get Daniel Pink’s book. Think about what you do – in work, in sport, in pleasure –  why you do it, and how you are motivated. You may become happy with the inherent satisfaction of an activity rather than an external reward. And won’t that be fun???!!!

Twitter Time

My pal Rochelle was up visiting me. Well, actually, she was attending the A.D. Latornell Conservation Symposium (aka, the Latornell), and staying over at my place to keep from driving back to the city. This meant I got all the benefits of attending the conference by debriefing her before she went upstairs for bed. Gotta love it!

We covered a lot of ground in two nights of intense discussions. The conference was very science based, and Rochelle is more interested in program design and development, as well as presentation delivery and creative design than pure science. That being said, there were some highlights that made her sit up and notice, tweet about and learn from.

Rochelle hob nobbing with conference attendees. Lucky Commander Hadfield!

Rochelle hob nobbing with conference attendees. Lucky Commander Hadfield!

Much of what she shared intrigued me as we bounced from topic to topic. I’ll leave many of them for her, such as “How to deliver a brilliant science based presentation”, or “Story Mapping and its future”. But what I can’t leave alone is our discussion about Twitter!

There were 900 delegates at the three day conference, and if you look at the Twitter feed, you’ll see very few people were talking about it. https://twitter.com/ADLatornell. But the number of tweets is not my concern. It is the notion of tweeting to get messages across to the public, to interested parties, to clients, to whomever. Twitter is a powerful tool in the arsenal of social media that can really, truly make a difference.

What I find most intriguing about Twitter is not its agility or its impact, but rather its enforced brevity. 140 characters. That’s it. If you have something you want to say, share or promote, you have 140 characters with which to do that. And that’s all.

Pause for a moment. Consider something you have recently written. How long was it? If it was a memo, did you ramble around before you got to the point? Did you provide an introduction, a body and a conclusion? Most importantly, was it more than 140 characters?

Ro sat in my armchair and we brainstormed ideas about communications and how her writing has changed since the advent of Twitter. Or rather, since she started using Twitter. Suddenly, she has to consider her own brevity. Twitter demands that you capture the essence of your ideas in a few sentences, but also direct the impact of your message so that readers or followers will sit up and take notice. She’s been able to focus and refine her writing to ensure a punch, a story, and an impact.

I’m working with Natural Resources Canada right now. The language of science and policy in that organization can be long winded and complex. Yet to be successful and make a difference with the readers and listeners, I need to be able to engage new communities within the broader public with those science based projects and campaigns. My own stories and how I share them need to be revisited. There are lessons hidden in those 140 characters that I haven’t found yet! But I’m trying!

(p.s. – this is 520 characters)

My Twitter ID (or, my Blowfish impersonation).

My Twitter ID (or, my Blowfish impersonation).

Decision factory worker or freelancer?

Yesterday’s Globe and Mail’s Report on Business had an interesting article about decision factories, by Harvey Schacter. “We associate factories with blue-collar work. White-collar workers – today’s knowledge workers – operate out of offices and laboratories. But Roger Martin, a professor and former Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says they also are factory workers, toiling in “decision factories.”

Martin says that when a company announces layoffs of 5,000 or 10,000 people after years of building up that knowledge corps, what is astounding is how few consequences these big layoffs appear to have on the organization.

He’s right, of course, simply in the sense that the impact of those lay offs doesn’t reverberate throughout the halls of those companies for long. In short order, the gaps are filled and the same quantity of work resumes.

Two inhabitants of a decision factory...and a bear.

Two inhabitants of a decision factory…and a bear.

What is the message here for those of us who work in the consultation and facilitation industry, and don’t work in these large “decision factories”? It might actually be a good message, to be honest. I run my own business. I work closely with clients to run workshops, facilitate meetings, and provide educational and soft skill training opportunities. I deliver services for these decision factories, and those services don’t stop being required just because staff numbers are reduced. Perhaps that’s one of the joys of being independent. One company may not need me full time, but a lot of companies need me part time.

Martin continues with these thoughts about the decision factory workers: “Their raw materials are data, either from their own information systems or from outside providers. They engage in production processes – called meetings – that convert this work to finished goods in the form of decisions. And they participate in post-production services: following up on decisions.”

Decision factories require the services of someone to help them better engage in their production processes, and to ensure they have the right skills to participate in post-production services. Meaning there will be a demand for both the facilitation end of my business, and the training end of my business. This is definately a win/win for me!

I admit, there are times when I look at friends who have “real” jobs, those that come equipped with a dental plan, a pension, paid vacations and regular pay cheques. And there is a certain wistfulness that I feel when I think about their work week…imagine, working the majority of your time Monday through Friday? Being a freelance consultant means a high degree of uncertainty and down time mixed with mad, frantic work weeks. It means waiting to hear from clients, and then racing hard to produce for them. It means not paying your bills until the end of a project, when you get paid.

Then I think about my usual Monday mornings, where I walk the dogs to get the newspaper, and I sit in my kitchen, listening to the CBC and reading the Globe and Mail, finding articles like the one by Mr. Schacter this morning.

The view from my home office...note the guard dog on the chair!

The view from my home office…note the guard dog on the chair!

It means a high degree of job satisfaction and personal control. I take my time to wander to the office, pour a second cup and plan my week. I’ve got a change management presentation that I need to edit, an environmental health workshop on data accessibility to plan for, and a proposal for a new leadership course to prepare. In between, I will make time to get my snow tires on, I’ll get my hair trimmed, and even have lunch with two business “colleagues”, who are really friends first, then business associates.

The view from my "office" at the Toyota dealer, getting on my snow tires!

The view from my “office” at the Toyota dealer, getting on my snow tires!

I don’t worry about downsizing or lay offs, and any decisions that I don’t like will be my own, and not some imposed on me by senior management…because I am the senior management in my company. As Roger Martin, suggests, I am not an order taker, but rather a choice maker. And that works for me.

Facilitation possibilities (or finding the magic)

“The great leaders are like the best conductors – they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.” (Blaine Lee)

I was asked to facilitate a meeting for Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa at the end of September. It wasn’t my regular project work, but a request to provide facilitation for the corporate services section, under the direction of the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM). I have done some work previously for her, and was delighted to continue.

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes.

The purpose of the meeting is immaterial here…other than to say it involved budget cuts. Honestly, there are few discussions nowadays with senior managers in the federal government that don’t involve budget cuts. This one was going to be a bit “ouchy”, however, because none of the Director Generals (DG’s) or Directors were aware that they needed to make these cuts before the end of the fiscal year.[1]

I prepared an outline for the day’s discussions. That outline was approved, but I was prepared for some last minute tweaking. The night before the session, I received an e-mail from the ADM’s contact. She had indeed changed it, but it was not too substantive, and I could easily adapt my plans. However, the next morning, there were more changes…in fact, the ADM arrived with a completely revamped outline. Call me flexible (or stupid) but I nodded and said “No problem” when asked if I could manage the changes.

The session started with a presentation by the ADM, and the silence was deafening. You could actually feel the energy snapping through the room, as people realized what lay ahead. Despite how the media portrays public servants, these directors and DGs care very much for their work and the staff who report to them, and the personal lives of these individuals were their priorities.

My years of facilitation experience has helped me to think about my participants as individuals with lives and loves, connections and experiences. Each person in the room has his or her own story, and that story transcends the office or the boardroom. I knew that in this group of senior managers, there is an individual who aspires to be a personal trainer. Another one would like to run a sailing business. Still another would like to spend her time as an elementary school teacher. My challenge for this session was to find out more about them as individuals, and to use that information to help them explore creative ways to address their budget issues.

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

How this activity came to me, I will never know. But there I stood, in front of a room full of senior managers, and I asked them to think about what they, as individuals, were good at. Not fishing or skiing or balancing a budget, but rather, if they did a personality test, what would the results indicate? I explained that as a facilitator, I was a conscientious observer. I paid attention; to every detail of discussion, activity, appearance, because all that minutiae had value. I needed to actively listen, watch, analyze and synthesize constantly, so I could help move the discussions forward. I asked them to look inside themselves and share what they knew to be true. Here were some of their answers: 

  • I am an innovative thinker who can come up with creative “out of the box” ideas that can stand critical scrutiny.
  • I am a fixer. Show me a problem, and I’ll come up with ways to fix it.
  • I am a cheerleader. I can bring people together, rally a team to move forward.
  • I am a bargainer, I can find and make deals.
  • I’m a visionary. I can see past the problem and see the opportunities.

They came up with almost 20 different roles, and I wrote them up on the flip chart. I then asked them to look at the list, and (without considering who was associated with which role), to shape together three small groups that would have a complementary set of skills to address the budget discussion that the ADM had introduced. When they were organized in those groups, they knew they had the right mix of thinkers, visionaries, fixers and others to make decisions.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista, using all her energy to make me coffee!

All of a sudden, the session that was initially daunting was doable, and outcomes were achievable. The tables vibrated with intellectual and emotional energy. They looked at one another differently – not as directors, but as fixers or visionaries or creators of options. It was empowering for all of them, and made for a new way of tackling challenges.

Thanks to the powers that be that allowed me to stand helplessly in front of a group of strategic and powerful thinkers, and gift me with this idea. Learning to look past job titles and roles is often not a simple task, but it is worth remembering that we can all contribute something other than what we have listed on our business cards. That is where you will reach beyond the notes to the magic in your players.

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!


[1] For any federal public servants reading this, allow me to put you at ease right now. Throughout the hours of this discussion, no individuals or positions were eliminated.

Give “it” enough energy!

The internet was out again. No worries, I just have to head upstairs, unplug and replug the router. I get upstairs, but realize I’m a bit peckish so I turn into the kitchen. A handful of nuts and a cup of tea later, I’m halfway back down the stairs before I realize I can’t remember why I came upstairs in the first place.

Sound familiar? I used to think it was old age, and my brain was slowing down. Perhaps it is because my brain is too full and there isn’t enough room for trivial things. But the truth is simply this: when I realized I needed to go upstairs, I just pushed my chair back and went upstairs, and my energy of thought switched from the internet to simply going up the stairs.

Which makes me laugh because just 2 weeks ago, I did a workshop with about 10 people and I had their names memorized within the first 10 minutes. Why can I remember all those names but not why I went upstairs?

Simple. When I listened to each person introduce themselves, I focused on each of them. I made a conscious choice to listen and I expended energy doing it. I focused energy by listening, wrote each name down in my book and eventually said their name out loud. So all in all, I listened, transcribed and spoke. I had to commit all that energy to learn their names.

When I went upstairs, I stopped thinking about why and my mind wandered to other things. There are a dozen e mails to answer, gotta vacuum the stairs, I should brush those dogs, I wonder how Eleanor’s Mom is doing….my brain was juggling all sorts of ideas and images, and the priority item of fixing the internet didn’t receive enough energy or focus, so I forgot about it.

Continual Partial Attention (CPA), a phrase coined by Linda Stone (http://lindastone.net/qa/continuous-partial-attention) describes how many of us think today. We want to connect with everything and not miss anything. We are constantly shifting thoughts and ideas around in our heads like shells in a shell game. On top of that, we are using our computers and cell phones, constantly checking e mails and text messages, and we are on hyper-alert to possibilities. We are living in an age of interruption. As a result, nothing gets our complete attention – we pay partial attention to a million things.

Sheila and CPA - listening, writing and reading. (But I bet she remembered everything!)

Sheila and CPA – listening, writing and reading. (But I bet she remembered everything!)

Yet I know, when I pay complete attention and give something the energy it requires, I learn more, experience more, and ultimately appreciate it more. When I turn my attention to those individuals in my workshop, I learned not just their names, but their values and priorities, something that will help me to work better with them. When I focus my energy on the task at hand, be it a briefing note, learning names in a workshop, planning a training session, or even learning a new fiddle tune, I am startlingly more successful when I commit sufficient energy and give my complete attention.

It’s not just our work that will benefit from giving something complete attention by committing enough energy to it. Next time you’re talking or listening to a colleague or a loved one, focus your energy on them, and not on the thousand other details zinging around in your head. Really concentrate and commit your energy to the conversation. You will both appreciate the effort and be happier for it.

My lesson from this? I can memorize anything, if put my energy into doing it. I can write a great briefing note/strategy/workshop outline, etc. if I put my energy into doing just that. I can develop and keep wonderful relationships, too, if I use energy to focus on them.

Logan and Susan, our complete attention on the Pooh stick we threw in the Cowichan river.

Susan and Logan, our complete attention on the Pooh stick we threw in the Cowichan river.

Now, if I could just remember why I came upstairs again!!!

Keep it PLAIN!

There are two official languages you can use while working for the public service in Canada. And there’s one unofficial language. I’m doing some really interesting work with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) right now and I was describing it to my Dad the other day. But I was using that third language and he had no idea what I was saying!

My Dad is amazing. He has a host of letters behind his name – two Bachelor degrees, a Master’s (actually, two, if you count the thesis that my grandmother threw out!), and a doctorate. He has been the Head Master/Principal of day schools and boarding schools in both Canada and the US, while serving as a minister in the Anglican Church. He’s no slouch.  We discuss the research I’m doing, the role of the media, about the way the Canadian government functions (or doesn’t), and I am certain many people would be hard pressed to keep up to his intellect.

I like it when he knows what I am doing, because he can always provide me with unbiased and critical advice without being immersed in the middle of a project. So the other night, I launched into a description of this NRCan program. And despite my father’s knowledge, wisdom and experience, it was really hard for him to understand what I was trying to explain. He’s really smart, but he doesn’t have a background that provides him a context for understanding this kind of stuff.

DSC00311

My incredible Dad and my brother. Looks like Dad’s giving autographs!

I found I was speaking another language, a language that was based in jargon, acronyms and techie-speak that was difficult to translate. ARGH! I was becoming a jargon-head!!!

My father laughed and laughed as I struggled to communicate. It was his laughter that made me realize that if I was going to continue to work as a communicator in my consulting business, I’d better find a way to explain everything in such a way that my Dad, or my daughter or anyone not in the “industry in question” can understand.

A few weeks ago, Gail and I helped deliver the Ontario Parks Leadership Foundations Course. During that time, I met Bradley Fauteax, the relatively new Managing Director of Ontario Parks. I liked him for a few reasons. First, he loves single malt, so we’re bonded for life. He’s also got a music degree and loves to sing. Those two are enough to build a friendship on, but it is the third reason that got my respect. Bradley uses plain language. He speaks clearly, doesn’t mask anything in techno-babble, and as a result, his listeners pay attention…because he is easy to understand.

My friend Julie Towers is the same way. She is a biologist, field trials judge, single malt lover, fly fisher, and currently Executive Director of the Renewable Resources Branch of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. She has a multitude of talents, but her business colleagues tell me one of her finest talents is that she speaks and writes so that everyone can understand her.

Julie, using plain (sign) language!

Julie, using plain (sign) language!

I challenge you to look at a document, or at something you are reading or working on, and test it for clarity. Surely you and those in your line of business can understand it. But would my father? How could you explain it to him so that he does? How can you provide the context as well as the information?

Tonight, I’m going to tell my Dad about the plain language project that my friend and colleague Christina and I are going to work on for NRCan, and get his advice. I’m also going to pour myself a single malt, call Julie and see what she has to say.

I do love my work!