Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Keeping One’s Distance

I’ve lived in seven different cities in my life. After a few months living in a new city, there’s a moment when its geography gels in my head. From that moment on, I’m not a stranger there anymore and there’s no going back.

With clients, the same moment arrives sooner or later and it is a problem. We learn our way around the corridors of their culture and we greet friendly faces at the coffee machine. We lose our objectivity, we stop asking the stupid question, we mistake our knowledge for understanding. We can be of use so long as we don’t understand anything. It is precisely our struggle to understand that helps our clients to turn their insight back onto themselves.

Yesterday, I found myself, together with a new colleague, a novice, working with a client to design a second event. We held a first event two months ago and I learned a great deal about the subject matter (development of 12-year scenarios on how the global financial architecture might evolve). Our second event is in less than two months and we jumped head-first into the design process, discussing objectives and outcomes and trying to figure out how to best make use of material that they had prepared.

There had been some tension between me and this client during the previous event and I wanted to be particularly accommodating. I knew where he wanted the project to go and I saw my job as helping him get there as effectively as possible. I’m a facilitator, after all.

Yet there was something deeply wrong with the objectives he laid out for us. They simply didn’t add up. My colleague, who is new to this area, saw the incongruity at once, a mis-match between mission and strategy that is so much more evident from a slight distance than from the inside. And in no time I had moved sufficiently inside my client’s organization and structure that I missed it.

At another event a year ago (same client, related topic) I attempted to scribe a discussion hidden behind a wall while my colleague scribed the same discussion in view of the client. The highly technical topic (investment barriers) was entirely new to her: plenty of jargon and references to obscure names and events. Yes, she has artistic talent and technical drafting skill that I utterly lack. Yet in this case she chose not to use these tools. She worked with one hand figuratively tied behind her back.

Her result was so thoroughly superior to mine that I have not stopped asking myself whether I even know how to listen. Of course, we can attribute most of her superior performance to years of practice, but I’m convinced that part of her success was due to her ignorance of the topic, not in spite of it.

As facilitators, we are not our client’s colleagues. There is so much we will never see or understand about our clients and their business, but the few things we can help them see more clearly are only visible to us because we are strangers. That distance is one of the most valuable tools we possess.

No comments: