The BTP: Confessions, lessons, cont’d. (2)

Training needs to be founded on clear objectives.  Without them, the experience is something else: a meeting, brainstorming, diagnosing a problem, identifying issues, and sometimes, just venting.  In the Big Training Program I’ve mentioned before (the BTP), experience is proving that we’re offering a seminar guided by some broad and noble goals.  It’s a better program for it.

For background, the BTP was planned as a comprehensive review of the role and responsibilities of folks who head day-to-day operations in most departments.  That means they oversee financial management and many aspects of compliance in spending about half the revenue here.

Efforts to create activities that reflect a common experience of the work have been thwarted by the very different local organizations, projects, and funding sources.  These differences make it impratical to create more than a few scenarios that realistically reflect their work.

The facts are the facts

On the night of the 13th you were, where exactly, mam?The fact that can’t be wished away is that the people in the target audience have too little in common to practice a set of procedures or prescriptive decision-making.  The BTP is accommodating all these differences by featuring them as a learning opportunity.  Folks will reflect on their own experience to extract lessons, rather than as a problem to solve.  And problem solving is what these folks excel at.  The facilitator’s challenge is to manage the learning in such a way that cohort members don’t feel dissatisfied because they don’t solve the problem once and for all.

While we secretly aim to achieve clear learning objectives throughout the BTP, in fact, we’re not solving a performance problem or creating the conditions for performance.  We’re supporting decision-making and focusing on the critical features of good results. That makes the BTP less rules-driven than envisioned.  It  makes the learning less predictable.  It’s a great, if sometimes wild, ride.

More on how we do this and learners’ discomfort next time.

A leader is not an advisor

Leadership?“I believed … that a leader could operate as successfully as a kind of advisor to the organization.  I thought I could avoid being a “boss.”  Unconsciously, I suspect, I hoped to duck the unpleasant necessity of making difficult decisions, taking responsibility for one course of action among many uncertain alternatives, of making mistakes and taking the consequences.  I thought that maybe I could operate so that everyone would like me…I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It took a couple years, but I finally began to realized that a leaders cannot avoid the exercise of authority any more than he can avoid responsibility for what happens to his organization.” [Emphasis mine]

From “On Leadership” by Douglas McGregor, quoted in Productive Workplaces Revisited by Marvin R. Weisbord.

Where are we going?

Are we making progress?  It seems like we’re stalled.  You’ve had this experience, too, I suspect.  We push on and deliver as promised.  The project ends with vague success. Maybe we made a few too many compromises.  Maybe we lost support for the effort along the way.  Maybe it was, after all, the necessary work.  Period.

Why does this never happen to the writers of leadership books?  Some work doesn’t wow. Now one likes to admit it because that’s not what we aim for.  But much good work has to be done every day.  By all means, look closely at whether you’ve made missteps.  But since great leaders and managers just don’t stall, and it seems that you’re stalled, obviously, you’re not doing your job; you’re no leader. Or maybe today’s project is a drop in the bucket, which in time is certain to tip the scale of transformation, is just another drop.

Unlike the storied leaders, you have not had your breakthrough revelation.  I mean the big insight that turned a stagnant situation around and prevented ever repeating that situation again.  We want to be that leader. Today, though, there’s a lot of unexciting work to do.  This is what it takes to change things, without a swelling string section. This is the source of big revelations: just doing the work.

The sense of being stalled, accurate or otherwise, challenges all the thinking and planning that led to this moment.  The big ideas and deliberate influencing started the momentum.  People climbed on board.  Now they’re not seeing the benefits you promised.  They’re recognizing how hard the work is.  They’re not seeing the visionary end state.  You’re questioning it it, too.

This is the big challenge in choosing ideas as tools.  There is no way to be sure they’re the right ones until conditions are in place and the results start coming in.  Right now, they are hypotheses.   Everything in the system – too little time, obstacles to communication, the people who are involved, your own planning, other priority objectives – is testing whether this idea is the  the right idea right now.  It would be easier to strike a compromise and choose another idea that looks easier to implement.  And I concede, there is a time for compromise.  But this isn’t it.  This is a time to go deeper into relationships with the people who are testing your hypothesis.  This is a time for listening.  This is also time to review and refocus on the destination.

Stay loose, be clear…Stay loose, be clear

This is the leader-manager’s dilemma.

John Kotter makes a distinction between leaders’ and managers’ focus. Leaders’ domain is complexity, identifying opportunity, scanning the environment and spurring change to address it. They’re focusing on answering, “What’s right for this organization?”

Managers (paraphrasing Kotter) are focused on answering, “How do we do this right?” They stand out as the ones who can make the most of the system or develop new systems to get the most out of people and processes in ways that are repeatable and motivating. I’ve met a few of these geniuses of consistency and operational clarity. They always open my eyes to the profound value of managing.

You can disagree with Kotter if you like, but practically speaking, every manager needs to be an operational genius all day long and still provide leadership. The ambiguity that comes with steady change means that there is no steady state or equilibrium that we can call rest. The chances that we’re going to end up back in that comfortable position again are nil.

Every one of us have to be leaning forward and sniffing the air for change. Stay loose, be clear is my advice to myself as we begin to hire folks and create a training SWAT team, so to speak.

What do you tell yourself to keep your eyes on being a both a leader and manager every day?

A little commercial for acting locally

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, such stuff as job performance, training programs, and competency models are pretty near the top.  Food and shelter near the bottom.  Because I get to spend most of my time thinking about the former, I’ve been supporting Somerville Homeless Coalition for ten years.

This year I’m challenging myself to raise money and run the fundraising road race.  Okay, 5K isn’t a big challenge.  But you have to raise a kitty, show up regardless the weather, and run.  It’s my way of having some skin in the game and to share the road with others who care about home, their hometown, and our neighbors without homes.

If home is important to you and you don’t worry having it or keeping it, consider making even a small contribution to help me get to my $100 goal.  Sure, I could be more ambitious, but this goal is achievable and time-bound (think “SMART”).  The race is Saturday October 2.


Thank you in advance.  If after considering whether you can give, you decide not to contribute to this run, please take a look around your home town, reflect on what you value, and take some emblematic action there.

Know where you’re going

I had dinner with an old friend a couple days ago and he told me this story.

My son – he’s four – has been going to a great daycare this summer.  They organize some kind of learning around theme days.  Last week they chose pirate days.  I’m not sure what they learned, but he brought home a little plastic compass.  Apparently you need compass on the bounding main.  I was leaving for work the next day.  I said goodbye and he offered me the compass.

“Here, Daddy,” he said.  “Take this with you so you always know which way is North.”  You know how that turns your heart to loving mush.  But he didn’t want me to get lost and knew that pirates use a compass to find their way on the open sea.  I was delivering training to new managers that day.  I started class by assuring them, “Thanks to my son, we can”t get lost, no matter what happens, because I have a compass and I know where I’m going.”


Not a verbatim account, but that’s what I heard.

We are all our own leaders

Every day the demands on the job threaten to distract us from the few simple good things we’re aiming at.  Thanks to a four year old, I’m reminded of the two most important principles to live and work by, no matter what you do or what level you’ve achieved in the organization.

Principles for being your own leader (Thanks to Cap’n Jack)
  • Stick to the heading the leads to your destination.
  • Be a pirate!

Vive la resistance!

I went to a great meeting yesterday.  Okay, yes, that’ s really my life: a meeting can be a great thing. A group of leaders questioned the validity of training I’m developing.  Polite shots across the bow, honestly.  Now we’re in interesting waters!

The large assembly – sixteen people – is a working group set up to address issues in an area of concern in our organization.  They come from varied roles and departments.  Among them through, imagine marketing and sales, or sales and operations.

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If you recognize how different those perspectives are, then imagine something similar here.  The differences in work… Continue reading “Vive la resistance!”


You know you’re onto something when you start encountering resistance.  But like stubbing your toe in the dark, after the swearing, the first question is, “What is that?”

If what you’re doing is going against the grain of  “how we do things here,” you’re challenging the corporate culture.  That stony thing in the dark is, in fact, the way the organization makes decisions, or the way it takes up and digests new initiatives, or some other norm that had not come to light yet.  If it’s culture, you need to recognize that it’s a firm object.  No matter how wacky it appears to your newcomer’s eyes, you won’t change it quickly.  You may not change it at all.

Even after a year with the organization, I’m new.  Most of my colleagues have been around for a number of years.  That means Continue reading “Resistance”

Do over

Thanks to some insoluable WordPress upgrade kink, this blog starts again today.  I’ll be ranging more widely across the work I do, the tools I’m using, and the challenges of change that appear to be on the horizon.  All while trying to avoid telling stories on others that impugn them or their work.  Because the thing is, we’ll all trying to do something good in the work we do.

I’m an experiment

About a month ago, I eased into a new job at my “company.”  I had been designing and developing a comprehensive curriculum for broad training audience under the direction of a cross functional group.  (That work goes live in January.)  Or, many masters, one clear audience.  The new job makes me a training and communications manager in one of the departments that sponsored that curriculum.  Or, few masters, many audiences.

To my knowledge, though there are hundreds of departments here and 10,000 employees, ours is the only department with someone in my role.  I have one eye on training needs internally and the other on needs among our internal partners and clients.  It’s a complex business, and half of the overall revenue comes through our door.  A lot of the work calls for sophisticated decision-making in gray areas of policy.

What am I looking forward to?  Everything.  What strikes me as challenging?  Everything.  Because we’re not building a training function, we’re changing the way people think about training.  So what I, and my boss, supporters, and forward thinking colleagues have to prove is, “Is it worth it?”