An ex-boss of mine once told me I should spend 60% of my time working, and 40% promoting that work, if I wanted to get recognition. Of course, he didn’t mention this until after I had left his company, and I would no longer be doing it on his dime. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong.
Throughout my career I’ve always been someone who focuses on the work rather than on promoting it, with the vague idea that the results should speak for themselves. Surely generating ideas, delivering successful projects, meeting targets, adding value, making clients happy and generally being a good egg, should be enough? Of course, in the modern networked world, it simply isn’t. Nothing much seems to speak for itself – we are expected to speak for it. Indeed, over my career I’ve come to realise that even the success of the work itself is intrinsically linked to communications. If you don’t explain what’s been done and why and do so in the right way and at the right time, then sometimes a lot of the value it’s adding is lost on those benefitting, and it undermines the work itself. I found this out the hard way, and it’s stuck with me ever since…
Learning the proactive approach
Many years ago, I was part of a huge project aiming to map the competencies, skills and training required by microgeneration installers. The aim was to help grow the opportunities for related trades, whilst raising consumer standards. We had experts from the trades, from the awarding bodies and certification bodies, putting in hundreds of hours to get this right. Everyone involved was genuinely doing their best, and it was truly impressive stuff. A decision was taken early on to wait until there was something coherent to communicate to industry and then consult as a package, rather than feed information piecemeal to a wide stakeholder base who were already busy enough.
We planned the consultation from a positive perspective – “we are doing a good thing here, so we will explain what it is and show our workings for transparency”. The consultation included reams of detail on the mapping, to show that every avenue had been thoroughly explored and that the end result would be truly excellent.
A Prussian Field Marshall supposedly once said “No plan survives first contact with the enemy*”, and so it proved.
A single vested-interest individual organised an admirably simple and effective campaign, using our own openness against us to wrongly paint the proposals as massively complex and hugely burdensome for the average installer.
Now we had to respond, spending months touring industry conferences and forums, explaining how none of the detail or complexity needed directly affected anyone, that nothing about how trades were trained was changing, and that we were just making it easier for qualified persons to participate in the sector. My slide deck, far from boasting about all the great work which had gone in, was now simply titled “Nothing is changing”.
All the installers to whom I gave that presentation said the reality was completely different from what they thought, and they were fine with it now.
After much anguish and effort, we turned the situation around, but the lesson for me was that, sometimes, the work does not speak for itself. Nobody out there knows or cares what your targets were, or that you were doing your best: they just see the outputs. Most people are not hostile, but if you don’t think about things from their perspective from the start, they very easily could become that. You can wring your hands and ask why they don’t understand you, and what a good person you are, but that won’t change it. I carry that lesson alongside my battle scars into all my projects now.
This thought came back to me during the recent introduction to Wales of a 20mph urban speed limit. It was very difficult to get information on all the great planning that had presumably gone on behind the scenes, and into the vacuum rushed everyone with an agenda. Based on my own experience, it feels like better communications may have allowed the government to proactively deal with some of the more moderate frustration and opposition, even if not the ideologically opposed.
You might say that the problem with my project was we shared too much information, and that perhaps the roads project shared too little. But the unifying theme is that all the good work in the world can be undermined by how it’s communicated.
So next time you’re looking at any major project or programme from the outside, wondering why those so-and-sos have done it this way, perhaps pause and ask yourself if maybe there’s a really good reason, but they just haven’t shared it? And if you’re inside a project – think from the perspective of those it will affect and try to find sufficient delivery time to communicate.
* Quote Investigator