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 ( 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.


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!

Take a break

I sit down with a most wonderful cup of coffee…and the e mails pile up. The phone starts to ring – really, this early? I have a conference call, then a follow up call right after that. There’s a brutal amount of reading for one project, along with research for a separate strategic action plan.  Somewhere in there, I’ve got to to head upstairs and eat. Perhaps one more Clif bar for lunch will be fine, if I promise myself I will eat dinner…as long as the afternoon conference call doesn’t go too late and I’m too tired to cook.

Sound familiar? I sat at my desk last night, and my son came downstairs to see if I was going to yoga. “I’m too stressed and too busy to go, I’ll go next week”. He just laughed at me and said “Mom, you take yoga to relax. If you don’t go, you won’t relax. So just do it!”

I just wanted to stay and work. I’m working on 4 major contracts that demand both time and travel. The inside of my house is being painted, and I’m moving furniture from one room to another on a daily basis. I am packing up and cleaning up, and wondering where to steal extra time. I’m running on empty most days. You all know exactly what I mean, because we’ve all been there.

But that night, thankfully, I listened to my son. I usually do, to be honest, because he knows me often better than I know myself. I left my desk, changed and headed off to my yoga class. We did our Sun Salutations, our balancing poses, and all sorts of positions that require so much concentration that there is no room for strategic planning thoughts or agenda items. I became focused…on wondering why my knee was sore, and why is Warrior 3 pose so hard for me!

And I realized that I was experiencing another “passion” that I wrote about the other day. In doing my yoga, my mind no longer registered all the hard stuff. The internal dialogue of work was quieted, and I was able to focus on the immediate – my knee and my balance. My restless mind, racing from one thing to another, left the ruckus behind and slowed down.

Most times, the reality of being a consultant consists of blurred lines between work and the rest of your life. Working from home means your clients and colleagues may expect to find you at your desk at all hours. If you find yourself doing that, listen to my son when he suggests that perhaps a break would be a good thing. Do that which relaxes, both your mind and body. Be tender to your spirit. You will be rewarded with a sense of peace that you can return to whenever you want.

Take a break.

The girls and I taking a break. That's coffee in my mug, by the way!

Taking a break with the girls. That’s coffee in my mug, by the way!

Through Sarah’s Eyes

Every Sunday, I get all my chores and errands done in the morning, then head down to Burlington to join my Dad for lunch. I swoop by Lakeshore Place, his Senior’s Residence, grab him and we’re out of there for the afternoon. Anyone who has spent time with my father knows he is quite special. My friend Bonnie tells me she has to study up on the news before she joins us for lunch, because my father’s grasp of politics, social issues and pretty much everything is beyond most of our current civilization’s capabilities. I am so very lucky to spend time with him.

Our tradition is to go to Quizno’s where our friend Sarah works. Sarah used to be a server at Lakeshore Place, but now works as a dental hygienist…except on Sundays when she works at Quizno’s. We walk in to the sandwich shop and Sarah greets us with a grin and a “Hi Mr. Gesner, Hi Sue!” regardless of how busy it might be. Other customers just stare at us, but we simply grin back.

If the shop isn’t too busy, Sarah will come from behind the counter and join us while we eat. She’s always interested in my father’s life, what he is reading, who he has talked to from the Senior’s Residence, and how he is doing. She makes our little lunch circle complete, and we love visiting with her.

Usually, I just accept that Sarah is part of our lives and Sunday tradition. But this Sunday, I looked at the situation through a different set of eyes. Sarah is 23, young enough to be my daughter. On Sundays, when she looks up from behind the counter, she sees me, an older woman the age of her mother, juggle with the heavy doors while assisting a tall, elderly, frail gentleman. She doesn’t know much about our history, she doesn’t know the rest of our family; she just sees the two of us when we are in her restaurant. She sees our joy at being together, and shares our comfortable conversation.

What is interesting is what she doesn’t see. She doesn’t see my father as an old, frail man. She sees him as someone who struck up conversation with her when she worked at Lakeshore Place and became her friend. She doesn’t see me as an older woman, but rather she sees me as a new friend. Through her eyes, we are not what we appear to others. We are just as special to her as she is to us.

What does that have to do with the business world? Everything. In business, in consulting, we too often look at things through eyes that have seen the same things over and over…been there, done that. New projects are not new, but rather retrofitted versions of the old. We look at things through the same set of eyes, and we forget to look beyond the obvious, or what we see at first glance. In doing so, we can miss so many little things…and so many big things as well.

Sarah has taught me to look past the obvious. I am sure she sees my Dad’s grey hair and cane, and the lines on my face. But she focuses on my father’s smile and feels the hug I give her. Those are more important to her than what we may appear to be. My challenge for myself will be to continually see the world through Sarah’s eyes. My 23-year-old mentor has taught me well.

Lovely Sarah, my Dad and my Olivia.

Lovely Sarah, my Dad and my Olivia.

Fiddle lessons from the Masters (Part 1)

My hand-built beauty, complete with Clif Bar for a post-practise snack!

My hand-built beauty, complete with Clif Bar for a post-practise snack!

About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to play the fiddle. I was out on the French shore of Nova Scotia  and I bought a hand-built fiddle and an old beat up case. Through a mixture of genius, magic and good luck, I found Sandy MacIntyre, a Toronto based Cape Breton fiddler and my love affair with Cape Breton music started.

After a few months of lessons with Sandy, we both realized that my instrument needed a little work. Sandy, being the gentle man that he is, called the only violin repair shop he trusted, and told the owner, Ric Heinl, that I would be venturing down to see him. So off I trundled to Toronto, fiddle in hand.

George Heinl’s ( is in an elegant old building on Church Street, with no sign that announces that this is actually a store. Ric Heinl and his team of luthiers are responsible for restoring and maintaining the instruments for The Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank…meaning this is no run of the mill instrument store. As I walked into the quiet front room, a woman was testing out new bows for her violin, and I heard Ric tell her quietly that “this one is about $1,000, but worth every penny”.

Panic set in. My instrument and case, if you included the Clif bar I had stashed inside, was worth about $85!!! For some reason, that didn’t matter to Ric. He had talked to Sandy, and I was as important to him as the woman in the front room (who I later learned played for TSO). Ric examined my instrument and told me what he would do. I just needed to find a loaner instrument so I could keep playing while he was repairing mine.

Loaner? Are you kidding? The only thing I could take from the shop that was close to the value of my fiddle was the door stop! But no, that was a Heinl’s tradition. If you leave an instrument, you borrow one, for free, until yours is done.

(Hello, cynics out there? Yes, one could choose to believe that this is a classic marketing ploy to buy an expensive fiddle. I however, choose to believe otherwise.)

Ric insisted that I play the loaner violins that he had in a cabinet and select the one that felt the best. Being a beginner, I really had no idea how a fiddle was supposed to feel! But I pretended I did, and I bravely drew a bow over three instruments. They all felt the same.

Then came the fourth. Oh my. It was different, richer, fit under my chin, just felt like it was made for me. Ric didn’t even have to ask. He just said “well, I believe this is going home with you”.

I looked at the tag on the instrument. $1,500!!!! He was going to let me leave my instrument (and the Clif bar, as it turns out) and walk out of the store with $1,500 worth of violin in my old beat up case. The very notion was absurd! And yet I did leave with this incredible instrument and a bit of paper saying I would bring it back when mine was repaired.IMG_2145

And how, pray tell, does this relate to work, business, to my environmental consulting? Simple. Ric treated each of his clients with grace and dignity, like they were all equally important and valuable to him and to his business. His clients didn’t find him by looking on the street for a sign, but by being referred by someone Ric trusted. He had confidence, not only in his products and service, but in his client base. He was prepared to risk a lot to provide a superior quality of service. (I might not be able to buy the loaner instrument, but you can rest assured that I will never, ever go anywhere else for instrument repair.)

The lessons I learned from this experience were memorable:

  • Provide excellence in products and service, all the time, to everyone. Make that the very foundation of your business.
  • If you provide excellence, you can trust yourself, and others will trust you.
  • The more you trust yourself and your clients, the more you can risk.
  • Risk whatever it takes. If you fail, you will still have excellent products and service. And if you succeed, it only gets better.

(The end of Part 1. Part 2 of the story follows, however, it is less business based and more personal. Choose to read it, or let it go. But I’m willing to risk it anyway).