This week was dominated by the client off-site I’ve been mentioning for a while. It went very well! I thought I’d use this weeknote, since I’ve had a monomaniacal week, to reflect on it and how it went.
As I’ve said, this was a quarterly away day, aimed at sitting between the week-to-week cadence of the business’s management meetings and the annual planning of the senior leadership team.
I think the quarterly cadence is a really interesting one, for a bunch of reasons. I think when you set goals, cadence matters: the goals take about as long to achieve as the time you allow them. But they have to be achievable within that time period in the first place, of course. And I think 3 months is a real sweet spot of what you can achieve.
It’s a long enough period of time to do things that are properly significant and that require contributions from around the business, but it’s not so long that the scope of projects balloons into the impractical.
One of the things that’s fascinating and slightly scary about these things is that the group dynamic is completely unknowable until you get everyone in the room. Will someone be sat there with their arms folded, refusing to engage? Will someone boorishly attempt to dominate proceedings? Will it be like pulling teeth to get anything out of the group, or will it be hard to stop them talking? Will there be factions or divisions?
You can prepare all you like and have a good structure and an agenda, but this aspect remains unknown until you’re there. It’s not quite like reading the room and commanding an audience as a standup comedian would, but I suspect it’s as close as I’ll ever get.
I always think of the distinction in consulting between “problem solving” and “capacity building”, a distinction I was first made aware of by Tom Critchlow but I think comes originally from this article. In it, Philip Ramsey and Paresha Sinha define the difference between two ways of operating as a consultant:
Problem solving Capacity building Purpose Helping organisations to solve problems. Enabling organisations to pursue visions. Process A linear process involving single-loop learning. Problems are defined, analysed, and resolved. A cyclical process involving double-loop learning. Each piece of work provides further insight into the nature of the organisation and how best to pursue the vision. Commitment Short-term fulfillment of contractual obligations. Long-term fulfillment of social obligations, as part of a community of practice. Role Providing expertise to solve organisational problems. Building the organisation’s capacity to achieve its vision.
I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, but clearly capacity building is better for the client organisation in the long term and for that reason I find it to be a little more nourishing. From my perspective, working in regular quarterly sessions enables me to push myself further towards capacity building, rather than problem solving. There are so many feedback loops here: I learn from each session how I can do the next one better; everybody learns from each other how to do their own jobs better; we collectively solve problems together and grow. It’s not just about ticking things off a to-do list.
Finally, I’m always thinking about ways to improve goal-setting. I’ve dug into OKRs and find them a little too cold and corporate. I’m inspired by Vaughn Tan’s Boris, and its idea of “negotiating to convergence”: identifying where people’s goals are in tension with each other, and finding a way to resolve that.
That’s what I tried to incorporate in this session, with some degree of success – although there were actually fewer tensions between different people’s goals than I expected. That might be because I was working with a nicely aligned organisation, it might be by chance, or might be because I need to dig deeper in order to find hidden tensions; we’ll see which it turns out to be in the next quarter.