Disasters of my own making

Mistakes I made during some of my interventions. And what you can learn from them.

I can hear the branding/marketing folk say, “Why would you blog about days when you bombed? Why not just highlight the good stuff?”

Well, simply because they did happen, in full view of everyone. Can’t deny them… they’re part of my portfolio now!

And also because some of the preparation I do for interventions owes itself to what I learnt from these disasters.

So here goes…

The training workshop disaster

It was a workshop on critical thinking. That morning, there were early signs that trouble was afoot. At the designated start time, the training hall had me, an HR staffer on the client side and just 3 of the 20 people who were supposed to attend. The HR staffer worked her phone and part-begged, part-threatened a few people; in 15 minutes, we had a full room (with a couple of extra people thrown in).

The day felt never-ending. When I asked them questions, I got averted eyes. If I spoke about opportunities for critical thinking at work, I got blank looks. Throughout the day, enthusiasm or any sense of purposeful learning eluded us. When this was over, everyone was relieved, me included.

On a post-program feedback call, the story tumbled out. This workshop wasn’t specifically requested by any team. Rather, it was deemed ‘generally useful’, marked ‘open to all’ and scheduled on the training calendar. As it turns out, very few learners applied till 1 day prior to the workshop. After frantic calls by L&D, department heads caught hold of some people (presumably the less-busy ones?) and told them to attend the next day. The result was 22 people who looked like they’d been woken up and thrust in front of arc lights!

What I learnt: I learnt that an intervention which doesn’t have a pressing need tends to be nobody’s baby. Participation tends to be mildly coercive. Interest level borders on tolerance. On this occasion, I failed to anticipate all this. As a practice now, I quiz clients on the reason for a workshop and who the stakeholders are. Through communication or pre-work, I ensure learners are prepped in advance, so they know what’s coming and why they’re part of it.

The coaching disaster

This one is from an intervention for salespeople. They were accustomed to serving impulsive buyers. But recently, a new wave of well-read, articulate and slow-to-act customers had flummoxed them. The intervention started with a workshop where I spoke about making conversation, finding out customer needs etc. And then, we switched to coaching, where I supported their efforts to implement concepts learnt in the earlier workshop. We would agree on specific actions during a meeting (“In the next week, pick 5 customers, and answer their questions patiently, rather than push them to close the deal”). They were supposed to report back in a week’s time.
I remember being surprised at how many of them did very little, or even ignored their commitment totally. With lack of practice, any hope of change waned quickly. I recall discussing with the Head of sales later, that out of 11 salespeople, just 2 showed any progress. His diagnosis was straight-forward: Most salespeople were too deeply invested in an older way of selling; and this intervention was too feeble to pull them out of it.

What I learnt: I now see that I didn’t ensure adequate buy-in, before I moved to skill-building. The workshop was supposed to have done that, but I did not verify if it indeed had. I had fallen prey to a rigid intervention structure (frozen during talks with the client). I had forgotten that design is based on assumptions about how quickly learners will move ahead; and assumptions often do go wrong. Nowadays, I keep a finger on the learner’s pulse and do a status check before moving on. In an earlier blog post, I’ve detailed out this approach.

The facilitation disaster

It was the annual progress review of a large R&D outfit. The HOD and his 7 deputies were in attendance. I was supposed to facilitate a full day of discussions, so that things went smoothly.
It so happened that the discussion proceeded very systematically. There was fair and civil debate when the occasion demanded it. And we ended right on time. But here’s the rub: it would have made no difference if I were absent! On the contrary, I may have been an impediment. Sample this: this very capable group would occasionally pause mid-stride, and look at me, expecting directions / course correction, and I would state the obvious,”Go on, you’re doing well”.
I call this a disaster because as the facilitator, I added no value. This was an easy-to-structure event, where 7 people had to take turns to present their work, answer some questions and go back to being the audience. The facilitator was an expensive indulgence: totally unnecessary.
What I do now: When faced with a facilitation request, I now ask,”Why don’t you do this yourselves?” When the reasons for seeking external help are valid, only then do i take up the job. Examples of valid reasons are:
– ensuring that mild voices are also heard
– preventing the discussion from veering off-course
– forging consensus from disparate opinions
– providing structure to an open-ended agenda

So those were stories of disasters from the 3 lines of my work. While in these instances, I regret not doing right by my client, I’m thankful these occurred because of what they taught me.