Silver Bullets, Workshops and Workbenches

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My dad has a workshop at the back of his garage.   He builds, he hacks, he plays.   It’s magical.

Dad’s great with craft projects!  Sometimes, he does all the work, like cutting scrap wood into paintable shapes for our little people.  Other times, I’ve seen how to use a new tool — like a drill press (for a bookbinding project.)

At work, we often want to “workshop” a people management skill.  Or build our team.

We want the workshop — or retreat — to be a solution.   Sometimes we want too much.

At best, workshops give people:

  • Exposure to new skills.   Maybe a bit of practice, in vitro.
  • Novel ways to meet colleagues, outside of the daily flow of work.
  • Ways to search, together, for a common understanding.
  • (Fulfillment of compliance requirements.)

Before jumping into a workshop — especially if we want to solve a problem — ask a few key questions:

  • How will workshop content/design move us towards our desired end state?
  • Do our people see workshops as great development opportunities?   Or a barrier to getting their “real work” done?
  • In the weeks and months that follow, how will our leaders support and reinforce people’s learning?

Also ask, “What might go wrong?”

Layering a team building exercise on top of existing relationship issues?  It might not end well.   (I still remember the relationship fallout of a 1990s exercise in game theory.)

I suspect that the term “workshop” comes from the entertainment industry.  “Workshopping” is a low-cost, high impact way to test and get feedback on a play.

Workshops and retreats are expensive in time.   And potentially in relationship, too.  (Ask the boomers in your life about Trust Falls.)

After working with my dad at his workbench, maybe I’m qualified to drill holes through paper, fabric, and cardboard.   I wouldn’t use the drill press unsupervised, or on wood or metal.

“Begin with the end in mind,” is a Stephen Covey principle.   It’s a good one to consider when investing your resources in a learning program.

Leaving a workshop, I expect to have a change in state.  A transformation.

And yet, no workshop or retreat is a silver bullet.

It’s also not a workbench.  When I walk away from Dad’s workbench, we have created a tangible artifact.  Something that will exist in the world.   I’m thinking about this lately, out talking with people about useful workplace learning experiences.

Photo:  Workbench, by Lenore Erdman, via Flickr under CC 2.0 license.

The (Baseless) Shame of Not Knowing

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2820521078_1d5f4d7caa_oWhen I was a kid, I learned how to ride a bike, ice skate, read and play music.

Today, I can still do all of these things.   Though sometimes my mind makes a promise that my body can’t fill!

With sufficient practice, maybe I could play as well as I did when a good part of my free time was spent playing music.

Who knows?

What I do know:  there’s a body of knowledge.   There’s qualified instruction.  And then, there’s practice.

In my travels through the NY tech/startup community, one thing I’m seeing is a bunch of people being really hard on themselves.   And sometimes we’re hard on one another, too.

Managing people is hard.   It’s harder than playing the piano.   After all, the piano is a machine.  If you strike middle C, you’re going to get middle C.

Not so with people.   There’s a lot more to cause and effect at work.  I’ve started to think about management “use cases.”

Basics:

  • Setting expectations/goals
  • Giving/receiving feedback
  • Asking the right questions in an interview
  • Having a difficult conversation

These workplace interactions encompass probably 80% of the situations you’ll encounter when managing people.   The first time you encounter a situation, it’s hard.   The 5th time, it’s at least known.

Having to let go of someone is a variation of the “difficult conversation”.  That should probably never feel too easy.

It’s a bit easier to up your game at the conversation you’d have with someone who’s perpetually late.

Yesterday I had a few conversations with colleagues at Orbital about my upcoming #Management Intensive.   We talked about referrals they made (thank you!) to people I didn’t hear back from — as well as my conversations with people in the community.

Of course, I’m not for everyone!   But rolling out my program, I’m seeing some emerging managers who are reluctant to admit that they’re not skilled people managers.

I perceive a lot of what I read as “shame” around not having management skills down.

That’s a real shame.

I feel no shame about not speaking Russian, knowing only a little about how to program, and about being a base amateur in the kitchen.

Very simply, these are things I’ve never learned.   I never sought out the information.  Nobody taught me.  And I didn’t practice.

Leading people at work is a 10,000 hour skill.   You need access to the right information.   You need qualified mentoring and coaching.   And you need practice — and feedback.

(BTW, this is as true for a first time founder as it is for a new Team Leader.)

So, I’m excited about the people who will be joining me starting this Friday.   And grateful to everyone at Orbital for making space for us!

More than that, I’m interested in continuing and expanding the conversation around what makes us good leaders at work.  And how we can engage more people in helping one another to develop this aptitude.

This element of workplace interaction is creating the level of human decency we have in our workplaces.

Of course it’s not easy.

Photo:  Seth Sawyers, Piano teamwork via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.

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