Fungi, Red Cedars and Business Strategy

A visit to Glacier National Park is on my short list for travel to interesting places. As I am wont to do, I am studying maps, reading guidebooks, and looking up reviews of accommodations to get a feel for the place before we arrive. One source, a used copy of Exploring Glacier National Park by David Rockwell arrived recently. While initially disappointed that it is a naturalist’s guide (versus a tourist’s guide) I began reading, expecting to become bored quickly and move on to less challenging material…with more color photographs.

Calling it a page-turner is a stretch, but last night’s chapter on the McDonald Creek Valley on the west side of the park fascinated me, especially the section entitled The Fungi Make the Forest. I know. You think there is a punch line coming. You can’t believe I’ve become an ecology nerd. There must be a catch.

There is.

As I read about the life cycle of this red cedar-hemlock forest, I was drawn into the intricate interconnectedness of the flora and fauna; how species support and interact with each another. And through adaptations, how the weather and catastrophic events like wild fires are essential to the stability of the entire system. It is nonsense to think of the fungus growing on fallen red cedar trees apart from the Vaux Swifts that take refuge in them, or the flying insects they feed on. Rockwell explained why the practice of controlling wildfires and exterminating wolves in the early days of the Park led to a host of unforeseen consequences, including the endangerment of numerous plant and animal communities whose survival depends on the natural work of predator and flame. I remember the circular diagram of the life cycle of a forest we all studied in seventh-grade earth science, but in those days I wasn’t ready to make a connection between abstract ecology in a classroom and the “ecology” of business.

Closing the book and my eyes, I remained on the porch and listened to the critters. Soon I was making a connection between business strategy and ecology. Consultants, like doctors, are often expected to come up with a diagnosis and prescribe a curative therapy quickly. Our clients want their problems identified and solved, and they understandably don’t like spending money on overhead. No doubt an experienced and highly skilled consultant familiar with the kind of business you are running can begin to understand your business more effectively. And you would be foolish to visit an orthopedic surgeon for advice on a skin rash. It would be a waste of your time and money.

But no one knows your business as well as you. No outside expert can come in and “fix” anything. There are too many interconnected “species” in your organization, and understanding them all and their relationships is the work of a lifetime. What I better understood last night while listening to the crickets and frogs, was that we consultants at our best provide the guidebook, and can take you on a walking tour of a “forest” that is similar to your particular business.

Ultimately you are the one that has to decide if you are going to put out the fires or let them burn, and deal with it when one of your wolves eats your neighbor’s cow. These are not easy choices. A consultant can help you understand the options and the implications. The choices are yours. If you don’t act, the natural processes of competition will continue. But like the thousands of now extinct species, it may be continuing without you.

Ask for help when you need it. And then make a decision…please!

Are you still waiting to be picked?

I shudder to think about all the emotional energy I expended during those dreadful episodes of choosing sides for a baseball or football game after school. Never athletic and almost completely lacking in “the killer instinct” I was kryptonite for the unlucky team captain who got stuck with me. It didn’t take many years of that Lord of the Flies humiliation to train me to believe that choosing sides for baseball was reality…that this is what life would be like forever.

I was wrong.

True, there is much of life that involves these kinds of brutal selections and the resulting loss and exclusion. That will never change. What can change is our compulsion to put ourselves into those meat grinders knowing that sausage is the ultimate byproduct. Yet every day, designers stand in line to be excluded, humiliated and ignored. My experience may be like yours. You just thought this was how it was supposed to be.

It’s not!

Even in the 5th grade there were other options. To a 12 year old boy, those options may not have seemed remotely desirable, but we are no longer 12 years old. Anyone can stand in line, and most everyone does. But we are grown ups now, and standing in line is not only not required, it’s not smart. The next time an RFP comes to your attention, remember those days on the playground and give some serious thought to finding another game to play. Even better, make up your own and invite a few friends to join you. If the odds of being selected over the competition are not heavily stacked in your favor, there is an excellent chance they ARE stacked in the favor of someone else. Don’t waste your time, your money, or more important, your emotional energy.

I am fully convinced that our best clients are trying to find us and our unique skills and abilities, but they can’t because we are standing in line on the wrong playground. There is nothing simple about discovering what is unique and special and marketable about us. The resistance to “standing out” or “being different” is powerful. When I invite, cajole and beg my clients to recognize and accept why they ARE different, their resistance is powerful. We just aren’t wired that way. There was a time when standing out from the crowd was a good way to get an arrow through the throat or be banished from the tribe. Believe me, from one wise coward to another, I’ve spent most of my life keeping my head down. And I have the scars (and terminations) to prove that rejecting the status-quo can be costly when you dare to raise it.

What I have finally realized is the subtle but important difference between rejecting the group, and claiming your own identity. I have finally come to understand that there are so many other ways I want to invest my time and energy. That doesn’t make the pick-up baseball, or responding to RFPs wrong. It just means they are wrong for me.

Are they wrong for you, too?

Icarus or the Orgnaization Man?

The blogoshpere is chock full of gurus urging us to throw off the chains of industrialization, and put on our God given wings and fly. I’ll be honest. I am a fan, and Seth Godin’s latest book, The Icarus Deception is a worthy criticism of our cultural fear of flying too high. Godin points out, rightly, that the fable also cautions against flying too low. But of course Icarus didn’t do that, and we take our lesson from his hubris.

The rub comes when we realize that not all of us, for whatever reason, even has the chance to fly. Chalk it up to cultural limitations, racism, economic disparity or even, fear. The reality is that like it or not, all of us are not going to get to the top of the mountain, much less stay there.

Dan Pink has brought my attention to a new book by Ray Fishman and Tim Sullivan: The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office which may be offering the much needed balance to this new gospel of business success. I will be reading it as soon as I can get my hands on it, but until then, I encourage you to look into the work of Elliott Jaques. While most of the business literature is opinion, and much of it ill-informed, Jaques spent a lifetime studying bureaucracies scientifically and trying to figure out what is good, and not so good about them. Bottom line, if you need to build a Dreamliner or fight a war, much less two wars at the same time, a well organized and properly led, stratified system is required. And since we must have them, we damn well better understand how they work and why they fail when they do.

While, like Godin, I believe in my heart of hearts that we must all unleash the artist buried so deeply within ourselves for the good and future of the planet, we must also attend to the complex and frequently mind numbing work of getting things done (more on this later). For a sole proprietor it’s as simple as setting aside one day a week for taking care of the finances, another for focusing on new business and the remainder on actually doing the work. For large organizations, according to Jaques, age and experience doesn’t translate directly to the ability to lead and manage, and we misalign otherwise  gifted people to our own peril, and their own.

It is especially common in creative enterprises to devalue the work of those whose work does not lead directly to new business or new accolades. And the siren call of the possibility bloggers adds additional energy to this already malignant cancer. If you are a company of one, take time to appreciate the part of you that bothers to keep the books and pay the bills. And if you are a CEO, remember that if someone else wasn’t doing all those things you did when you were just getting started with your career…and didn’t always enjoy, you would be doing them yourself.

Fly we must. And at an altitude neither too close to the sun, nor too close to the water. While we are airborne, let us always remember there is someone on the ground picking up the trash on the runway so we can return when the time comes to refuel and rest. Be thankful that the organization exists to find, train, and support those people, and that one of your most important jobs is to make sure that organization exists and functions well.

The secret is there is no secret










Perhaps I’m the only person in the world that dreams there really is such a thing as an overnight success, that a rich uncle will leave me a fortune (I don’t have an uncle), that I will win the lottery (without entering it). That my checkbook will reconcile itself and my debts will be magically erased. That I can actually succeed without any real effort.

I’ve always hoped there is some secret knowledge; some shortcut that once found would allow me to leap over other mere mortals and grab the brass ring. I believed knowing the secret was the ticket on the flight away from boredom, frustration, and even misery and sadness. But then I heard a voice say:

Sorry pal. The secret is there is no secret.

Twenty years ago that voice sounded like Sheldon Kopp whose 1972 book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him introduced me to the notion that my assumptions about reality might be distorted. Ten years ago Steven Pressfield’s, The War of Art expanded my understanding that no one else, including God, is going to make it happen and that the only way to be a professional is to Do The Work.

Not what I had in mind.

I’m not alone because some of you (47%?) share my fantasy, and at least 4-5% of the population are drawn to it because of the same disorder that I have, a condition commonly known in adults as ADD. Among creative types, and members of military the percentage can be as high as 15% because we are drawn to work that supports and often accommodates our unique “gift”.

Reading about the necessity of grinding it out; doing the daily work necessary to experience the joys of creativity and even financial success made little difference. I didn’t do it. I felt like couldn’t do it. I felt defective…like a loser. It seemed like there was something wrong with me. Operating in the thin air of a national architectural practice with ADD is like Icarus flying toward the sun. It’s only a matter of time until the wax melts, the feathers begin to fall off and down you go. More than once, in my case.

I came face to face with my own diagnosis about 10 years ago and began the process of finding the right medication, and developing a support structure and lifestyle that help me function. By function don’t mean just being productive. I mean not driving my spouse crazy from living with a “grown man” who at times can’t seem to take care of the simplest of tasks. Learning to live with and manage a disorder that inhibits some of the most basic mental processes required to function is a journey. Now that I know what’s going on, have made the decision to deal with it (for the rest of my life) and make use of the medications and daily management systems available I can finally “do the work” that is essential to realizing who I am and why I am here.

If you are reading this there is a good chance you are one of those creative types, or know one of those creative types who may be suffering unnecessarily with an undiagnosed disorder that is real, thoroughly documented in hundreds of scientific studies and highly treatable. It’s also a disorder that saps the potential of thousands and causes unnecessary suffering when untreated. As a starting point, I recommend two books: Taking Charge of Adult ADD by Russell Barkley, PhD and Driven to Distraction by Edward Hallowell, MD. And please get in touch with me if you think there might be something you think I can do to help.

There are dozens of myths about ADD. Do the work and find out the truth and enjoy a better life.

The Wisdom of the Blue Crab

Why is promoting a professional service so challenging? For the same reasons that life is challenging.

For any professional the process of developing new business involves a nearly infinite set of variables. What we do not and most likely cannot know about our prospects is mystifying, and possibly even stupefying. Even the most successful marketing pros wonder (if only secretly to themselves) how the process really works…how in the depths of the black box of human interaction that last sale was made or lost.

Dozens of books by as many authors explain the process logically and thoroughly. Their advice is generally good, even excellent. We ignore it at our peril:

  • Develop a relationship
  • Do your homework
  • Understand their business needs
  • Know your material and stay focused
  • Keep your message clear, simple and memorable
  • Mirror your prospect in dress, manner and speech (see addendum)

Mastery of these skills is fundamental; absolutely necessary. But these skills alone don’t get to the essence of why one person trusts a professional to guide them through a process filled with risk, anxiety, frustration, delight, amazement and, at times, gut wrenching terror.

Mastery comes when the fundamentals are so thoroughly imbedded in our brains that we use them unconsciously, and continue to practice them rigorously. Fortunately, according to K. Anders Erickson, mastery only requires 10,000 hours of focused rehearsal; rehearsal so rigorous that it takes us outside of our comfort zone. That amounts to five work years of doing nothing else. For most of us it will take longer. So by all means, practice. These skills represent the fundamentals, the science of business development. What about the art?

An artist does what she does because she believes she has no choice. He has for whatever reason, and through whatever circumstance, visited and experienced the deep and resonant music, or poetry, or drawings, or photographs, or stories, or landscapes, or structures within himself. And having visited that place, true artists know they must go back again and again, and then return to share their discoveries with the rest of the world.

This is the connection between the professional’s work and a life well lived. Mastery, then art. We begin the process by mastering the requisite skills. Then as artists we go into that essential and authentic place within us to capture a small sample of the unique gifts and abilities that make us who we are, and we share them with our fellow humans. We call them clients, or prospects, or selection committees, or project managers. But just like us, in their hearts, they long for the kind of authentic interaction and exchange of wisdom that can only happen when we do the hard work and take the risk to learn who we truly are, and then offer that wisdom to others.

Why is selling a professional service so challenging? Because it forces us to accept and then confront the assumptions, half truths, even lies we have come to believe about ourselves and about the people we must interact with. These self delusions trap us in a kind of shell that initially protects us from the challenges (and pain) of simply growing up. But as adults that outer crust becomes a prison of our own making.  A crab leaves the protection of its shell so that it can grow. And in doing so, runs the risk of ending up as the delectable center of a spider roll. There is nothing safe about leaving our shells, our egos, and sharing our essential and authentic selves with another person. At some point in the past you and I have been taken advantage of or embarrassed. We have all experienced that crushing feeling of rejection or even worse, indifference. Sometimes the crab becomes dinner.  But the crab also knows it has no choice, so it leaves its shell anyway.

The blessing and curse of humanity is that we have a choice. We can venture from our shells and offer up our abilities to those who are desperately need “our art”. Or we can play it safe and gradually suffocate in the familiar prison cell of our fear and ego.  From my perspective the ultimate choice is to invest those 10,000 hours and take the risk. Do the hard work of finding out the deep truth about yourself and then share it. What you have to offer is truly needed.

After that, selling professional services is like child’s play.

Addendum: March 26, 2013

This last instruction was recently challenged by a successful professional whose dress, hairstyle and manner are so different from the rest of his cohort, he stands out from the competition and pulls it off brilliantly. I believe he is the exception that proves the rule only because he has so carefully mastered tasks 1-5. For the rest of us , I maintain that when your manner and dress are so familiar to your future client they think of you as a member of their tribe, you can spend your time making your point with fewer distractions. During a recent conversation with another architect, the subject of cigars came up. Fully expecting him to tell me he didn’t smoke them for reasons of heath (and fresh breath), he instead admitted that an uncle he despised smoked cigars and every time he smelled one the memories of that horrid relative came flooding back. You can take the chance that your future client has a subscription to Cigar Aficionado, but odds are either your foul breath of his memories of Wicked Uncle Ernie are what will fill his head while you are trying to make a business connection.


Tools…just tools


When you are feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of new media and technology, try to remember that these things are all tools. The essence of who you are, why you are in business, what you do, who you do it for, and how you do it remain the foundation of your practice. And until you have the answers to why, what, how and who, the tools will never make any sense.










When a plan doesn’t come together

“Following a plan is good for progress, but opportunity usually exists off the plan.”

Simon Sinak

The London Olympics provide daily reminders that our plans don’t always “come together” as hoped. Recent examples include empty seats in sold out venues, the collapse of the US men’s gymnastic team, and Michael Phelps failure to capture any medal in the 400 IM. In every case, those “failures” created opportunities, if only for someone else, like the British soldiers who get to occupy preemo seats when they are off duty. Those opportunities come along for us as well. The trick is to be attentive and flexible enough to seize them.

When we create rigid, highly detailed plans we leave no “wiggle room” when things don’t go as anticipated. We experience this with every project during construction administration. This may be one reason we are so reluctant to produce detailed plans for our business development activities. Knowing intuitively that the universe of possibilities is unknowable, we just wing it. To use another analogy from the Olympics, we aim at no discernible target and hit it every time.

A workable alternative is a statement of intent. A clear, written description of why, how, when and what we intend to accomplish, even when we cannot predict each and every step.

In the armed forces the commander’s intent succinctly describes what constitutes success for the operation. It includes the operation’s purpose (the why) and the conditions that define the end state (the what). It links the mission, concept of operations, and tasks to be completed by subordinate units (the how). And it must be understandable “two echelons down” so that the people who will actually carry out the plan understand it when the “how” has to change to deal with unknown or unanticipated events.

Next time you embark on an effort to produce a business development plan, spend your best time developing your intent statement. When the stuff hits the fan, refer to the intent statement, and adjust accordingly.

If you had been Mitt, how would you have answered the question?

Yesterday Mitt Romney was so happy t0 have a question he felt qualified to answer (Is London ready for the Olympics?) that he forgot that we live and work in a community; in context. Not an easy thing to remember when we are uncomfortable in our own skin and grasping for something, anything to help us feel secure and confident.

There is ultimately only one solution: find that place of confidence within us that allows us to be truly aware of what is really happening around us. Until that happens, we are constantly and consciously (or unconsciously) filtering every input in terms of how it makes us feel about ourselves.

If you had been Mitt, how would you have answered the question?

Being sharp requires acting dull or, what they don’t teach you in design school

Have you ever noticed that the smarter and more experienced and productive we become, the greater our need to build and maintain the mundane structures and disciplines that support the creative and exciting work we do? After years of an ad-hock, “I’ll get around to it when I need to” approach to the “little things” I’m finally and fully convinced that those same little things can bring my whole operation to a grinding, teeth rattling halt.

Add this to the list of what they don’t teach you in design school.

After this, everything is easy

It makes sense that the hardest thing for me to do is also the hardest thing for my clients to do…


We can read book after book, hire an army of brilliant consultants, and implement the world’s best strategies and processes, but if we don’t know WHY we are doing what we do, and WHERE we are going to take our firm the best we can do is run around in circles. I know this is true because it’s true for me, and you and I have a lot in common. I constantly struggle with WHY. Constantly.

Our professional education, and for that matter our grade school education was based on process, technique, procedure, and methodology. In essence, HOW to get there. But rare is the child who grows up in an environment steeped in the WHY questions of life. The problem is that now the HOW problems are being solved by computers, or someone in China, or someone that get’s paid a fraction of what we expect to be paid.

Discovering your WHY is usually not a simple task. The best way I have found to work through my WHY questions is with the help of another person…a guide, friend, adviser. Call them anything that suits you. It takes another person to help us find our way through the fog of a lifetime of conditioning. You probably know someone who can help you. Now call them and ask for help.