Posts tagged ‘Work’

June 19th, 2012


As a consultant, giving what amounts to negative feedback is part of the job; likewise for being a manager. After all, if clients were doing everything right in the first place, the value of consultants would drop significantly. For employees, the need to keep growing does not stop, even once someone feels as if they have reached the limits of a particular job.

But how this feedback is framed and presented is critically important–as is a good psychological understanding of your client or, as a manager, of the person working for you.

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of people: those who respond best to criticism framed as encouragement, and those who respond best to criticism framed as critique. Sometimes there is the need for cross-over, a reason to frame the harshest critique in the nicest light, or a reason (if all the polite encouragement hasn’t had an impact) to tackle that criticism head-on.

Often, the biggest failure in providing criticism is a failure of specificity. Most people do not like being told they’re not doing well–even if they might ultimately agree with the assessment–if there are not enough specifics to back up the critique.

How, then, do you handle these situations?

Treat each situation as if it is both a court of law and a psychiatrist’s office. Come prepared to talk to someone with the proper understanding of their nature; be ready to layer on details and ask questions that point towards your answers; be prepared to present your case with facts if subtler messages are not working.

And be prepared for pushback and the existence of an alternate reality. There is almost always another way of looking at things, and sometimes it is even the right way.

June 5th, 2012

Mission, Vision, Values, and…

For years–decades, even–the triumvirate of “mission, vision, values” has reigned as the core of strategic planning for non-profits. Putting a plan together often meant starting with those three elements and then endlessly word-smithing them into the appropriate degree of institution-speak.

But it is time for a change, especially for organizations focused on the arts and culture.

What is missing is an articulation of “service”: how an organization will activate those three other elements–mission, vision, and values–and make good on its ability to serve its audiences.

As a society, we are long past the point where audiences see themselves as mere consumers of cultural offerings provided by others. Today’s audiences are participants, with a stronger role in creating and validating the programs they choose, beyond simply purchasing tickets for them. Moreover, audiences increasingly gravitate towards those institutions, programs, and activities that welcome their new modes of engagement and that offer greatest flexibility around how they choose to engage. Those points of engagement may be driven by technology, but are not necessarily; technology is only a tool to support an organization’s customer service, not a replacement for good service itself.

In an age in which there are a million and one distractions beeping in a person’s pocket, and another million distractions prepared to offer you free or low-cost entertainment right from the comfort of your couch, it is no longer enough to think that organizations can reserve “service” areas as something to be addressed tactically, programatically. Any (arts) organization that wants to maintain or grow its audience needs to start thinking at the highest levels about its customer service experience. The organization must be prepared to speak to its goals, strategies, and tactics from the perspective of those customers–no longer just from the perspective of the organization’s presumptive mission, vision, and values.

February 14th, 2012

Getting Shit Done

It’s taken a few years, but I can now pinpoint the single biggest obstacle to getting shit done—and I am ready to reveal my secret.

In writing this, I think it is important to say that I consider myself generally to be an organized person. My bills get paid on time, client goals and projects are accomplished, and my consumption of a diverse range of media sources continues to enliven and enrich my life. I am a devoted user of Evernote, the single best note-taking and information-tracking tool I have found, and at the same time I also love my old-fashioned jotter, which fits in a pocket and doesn’t require any batteries (and can be “recharged” with Post-It notes, which are both thinner and cheaper than the index card inserts it comes with). While I am not formally a follower of David Allen and his “Getting Things Done” movement, I admire the concept and track some of the information sources in related spheres, such as Lifehacker.

However, my understanding of the impact of all these things on my life—together with two small children and a working spouse with her own set of needs and demands—has started to crystallize a little differently of late. In a pre-digital age, daily life could produce enough junk to overwhelm, just on its own. With email, the web, social media tools, and more options for tracking content and ideas and tasks than one can shake a stick at, “overwhelmed” can seen like an underwhelming description.

Fundamentally, though, I am not convinced that the volume of relevant information is that much greater than it ever was; the problem is determining relevance quickly—and then moving on. Thus, the single biggest challenge to efficiency? Procrastination.

For me, what I have noticed (in particular since my July 2009 about-face and decision to embrace Facebook and Twitter) is that there are two consistent—and generally well-meaning—procrastination zones that create problems, one as information is coming in, and the other as I’m pushing it out.

To address the problem in the first zone requires focus a heavier focus on relevance, and an effort to control (or curtail) digressions. This is the area where Facebook and Twitter can cause mayhem, along with all the things one needs to do for work (if not properly organized) or at home (like the non-tax-related papers one encounters on the way to doing one’s taxes).

The second zone demands a high-intensity focus on information management, managing both the flow of materials and the (rapidly proliferating) new toys tools to help get things done. For instance, I have been contemplating switching my meetings to a psychiatrist-style 50-minute hour, (or a 25 minute half-hour) in order to guarantee time between activities, during which I can write down or assign tasks, file papers, respond to email, etc. It’s the delaying of these small tasks that often create larger and more complicated tasks hours or days later.

There is no doubt that sometimes procrastination and digression can be beneficial; it is during this time that the stimulation of creativity and free associations can help solve problems or come up with new ideas. But digressions in the digital age seem are much worse, it seems: it’s too easy never to turn things off, to keep going, link by link, from dawn to dusk and back again.

And that’s fine, as long as it isn’t stopping you from doing what you need to do.

January 12th, 2012

Prophets, Guardians, Barbarians

A few days ago, in a piece about politics in Israel, Daniel Gordis mentioned a reframing of “left” and right” that he’d heard at a conference: rather than those traditional designations, the speaker preferred to think of people as either “prophets” or “guardians.” Since reading that, I keep thinking about the applicability of these same terms to the working world, too. The distinction seems clear enough: prophets reflect a vision for the future, a response to changing dynamics that draw on core values but adapt them to new and more challenging circumstances, where guardians are people who recognize that the value in the status quo and fight to protect it against whimsical change or uncertain times.

As a consultant, this situation comes up more than occasionally, and assessing the relative weight of the prophets versus the guardians can be a rough guide to the future. When organizations are confronted with challenges or the need for change, the reactions that are provoked are often very similar. Some people respond like (or turn into) prophets; others become guardians. I think this genuinely reflects people’s responses to (potential) disruptions in either their internal or external working environments, no less in the world of arts and culture than in any other area–and sometimes more so, because the motivations for change in a non-profit are very different from those in a for-profit.

Understanding that people may respond this way can help leaders navigate through the necessary interpersonal and practical decision-making processes. Guardians can be helped to understand that not all change is bad–and that most organizations change over time, even if they don’t recognize it as such. Prophets can be encouraged to frame their views in ways that connect past and future; they can be helped to turn their vision of an inevitable future into a process that feels controlled and controllable.

At the same time, the world is rarely so black-and-white; few of us are ever 100% of anything, let alone 100% “prophet” or 100% “guardian.” We may embrace change or fear it, and sometimes we do both in equal measure. That is the most difficult place to be, because it can so easily lead to stagnation. But for most businesses and organizations it may also be the best hope–if both those leading and those being led can understand that they are in this dynamic together. This is the point when the good ideas and opportunities can be separated from the bad, using the critical judgments of those leaning in one direction or the other. It does not necessarily mean absolute consensus, but it can mean general agreement that helps an organization’s leaders to lead.

The worst situation? Whether an organization is mostly guardians or mostly prophets, the real threats come from the barbarians: those who function that way internally, or those who are outside the organization and viewed as such. The internal barbarians are the ones who may run roughshod over both the good and the bad ideas, forcing “change” but not evolution. They form alliances that fight for the status quo, but only for the status quo that applies to them. If you perceive barbarians externally, well, your problem is likely also internal. Those people are your audiences–your customers–so if you view them as barbarians, then you need to ask yourself whether you are doing enough to help these folks understand your mission and your goals.

Are there legitimate barbarians outside your gate? Probably a few. But they may be clamoring for a past they vaguely recall, or for a future they cannot articulate. Your goal is to embrace and convert them. An organization that cannot adapt to embrace its customers–and instead views them as a threat–is doomed to fail. No embrace of the future or protection of the sacred past will change that.