An Ugly American Story (sorry)

September 19, 2010

Why did I have to travel with this colleague, for whom everything about Europe was wrong?

It was a beautiful Saturday morning when we arrived at the Holmenkollen Ski Hotel, atop a small mountain on the east side of Oslo.  I took a quick shower, then a short nap to recover from the long airline flight, and a delightful buffet breakfast before starting my trek down the small road to Oslo city center.  But my colleague stayed behind, “to watch television”.  And when I completed my downhill adventures, enjoyed a quiet day of art galleries, city walking, and gourmet foot, and took a train back up the mountain to the hotel, his only comments was, “The coke was warm!”.

Our next stop was the town of Hilversum, the radio and TV center of Holland.  I always like to work hard and live well, and so when our consulting was finished  I took him to one of the finest but least formal restaurants I knew — a small auberge in the seaside village of Oude Loosdrecht.

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These are all workshops that I’ve taught at different places, and want to offer again — probably in new ways.  I’m talking with several  conference centers, but also invite you to consider these for your school, your church, or your community group.

About Listening

Listening is the core activity in almost all of our social and work lives — and yet how little time and effort we spend perfecting this skill!  And too often when we should be listening, we’re really preparing to talk, plotting our course, processing our emotions, or even tuning out completely.  In this workshop we’ll practice active listening, offering feedback to test our understanding, and formulating questions that clarify what was already said.  We’ll identify common behaviors that get in the way of listening, and best practices that can help us all.

Photography as Journal Keeping

Photography can be just snapshots, or deeper expressions of feelings, perceptions, ideas, memories. We’ll experiment with deeper ways to see, experience, and feel — using a camera.  This is NOT a technical class on photography, and in fact you don’t even need to bring a camera with you.  Just bring an open mind, open eyes, and (if you have one) an image that means a lot to you.

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“The best time to win customer loyalty is when you make a mistake.”  I heard this surprising comment from an IBM executive speaking at a professional conference, and not long after that had an experience that demonstrated everything he said.

My IBM Thinkpad laptop had developed a persistent but intermittent problem.  I’d sent it in for warranty repair, but it was returned with the problem still present.  When I called IBM they offered to expedite another repair, again paying FedEx overnight both ways.  But I was flying off to Europe in four days, explained that I needed a working laptop, and that this was cutting it too close for my comfort.  The IBM representative promised to see what she could do.  A few hours later, she called back, to say that she was working on it.  And a bit later she informed me that an IBM repair person would be coming out (by boat) the next day to our island home to repair the computer.  This wasn’t normal practice, and she had to “borrow” somebody from another department.  But no matter — I was visited by a knowledgeable repair person who quickly found the real problem, fixed it, and got back on the boat.

The transaction cost here was the cost of sending a repair person to our home — perhaps a half day of his time.  IBM certainly didn’t have to incur this cost, but they chose to.

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On crafting a vision statement

September 10, 2010

So often I find myself writing to a client, or to group that I’m working with, and find that I’ve really written a short essay that deserves broader readership. That happened this morning, when a coaching client, director of a non-profit social service organization, wrote to me:

I really want to work on “the vision thing”.  But if I can’t articulate a vision for [our organization], I don’t know how I can get the staff or the Board to buy in.

I told him that this conclusion certainly didn’t follow for me, and then offered the following explanation:

Even if you don’t have a comprehensive and clear vision, you might understand the need for one, and might have in mind the outlines of a process that can move towards a vision.  In fact, if you had a very precise vision, that could become a problem itself, as you might be coming into the process without enough openness to what arises in the organization.

How is a “vision” formed?  I believe that it typically reflects several things (which I’m not listing in any particular order):

  • The character of your organization.  If you’re spiritually based, that faith might be central.  Whatever values and beliefs characterize the organization will figure strongly into the vision.
  • The needs of your community.  Your focus is on service, and a sense of the needs around you will help guide your vision of what needs to be done.
  • The capabilities of your organization, and of your staff.  Your organization is not a job training school, not a hospital or clinic, but a cluster of very specific constructive programs.  Those are clearly the starting point, and the ultimate vision will probably have something in common with them.
  • An understanding of social and economic change.  Energy and health care are dominant issues today, but were not so visible even a decade ago.  Connectivity via the internet, electronic privacy, and other new concerns are coming to the forefront.  An assessment of how they might impact your target populations will guide your visioning process.
  • Your current organizational governance community.  A vision that will guide you needs to be something that most, if not all, of your Board members and staff can in some way embrace.  That may require some education and work, but a vision that is too far from what these people can embrace will not be a vision that can actively guide your organization.

What’s the process?  I’d suggest that it begin by reviewing and updating this list, then taking account of which factors in each item are most significant.  There may, for example, be many changes in society that don’t and perhaps won’t impact your role in the community, and your program.  Then, you’ll need a process to review these, and put together a draft list of key points … which might get refined into a more polished statement.

Your role is not to articulate the conclusion, but to motivate people to join in the process, to identify resources that can help you and you organization, to keep the process moving, and to connect the various groups that may be working independently (or at cross purposes).

On Turning the Computer Off

September 10, 2010

Turn the computer off?  “Impossible”, you say.  And my emotional response is to agree.  I’ve a dear friend in the hospital, and I may get e-mails that need to be relayed. There may be an inquiry about the apartment we’re renting, a prospect who wants my coaching or consulting, a client who needs help in a hurry.  I need to stay tuned to that information stream!

Or, do I?  Will that information wait 30 minutes, or 60, or 90?  Can I work on my time frame?

With the computer on, I tend to respond, and pay attention to what might come, even as I’m addressing the opportunities or challenges that are already here.  My attention, and my creativity, are diverted from the most immediate task at hand.

I’m not alone.  I see this with business colleagues around the globe. Sitting in front of our computers, we may be connected, but too often we’re not focused on the real questions, the deeper issues. We’re probably not  our best creative selves.

Neuroscientists tell us that our brains need quiet time to rearrange and reorganize information we’ve taken in. When we’re permanently connected to an on-line data stream, that time just doesn’t happen.

What’s the prescription?  Spend some time sitting under a tree, or on a rock by a stream, or even in a quiet room with no electronics.  Think, plan, envision, create, imagine.  Write with a pencil, and don’t worry about the font or margins.  In fact, don’t worry at all.  Just be present in the quiet space.  With practice, you can even do it in a room with computers, iPhones, and other electronic devices present.