February 13, 2015

When to get out of the office?


The loop

My office is a pretty cosy place. Every office I ever had was more comfortable and safer than that scary world out there. I’m not talking about soft furnishings or door locks. I’m talking about challenges and contrary voices, where simple questions rock the status quo and where assumptions can dissolve into a sloppy mess.

I’m thoroughly protected from all that. Actually, it’s entirely possible to get through an entire day without having to explain myself to anyone.

I bet you’re the same. I bet you probably spend most of your time with people who are just like you and who take the same mental short-cuts and have the same received knowledge.

It’s an internal loop that catches us when we’re not looking. A place where everyone we talk to we’ve already talked to, or worse, we’re paying them to be on our team and we’re doing everything we can to keep them on the same page.

This is not helpful.

Smart strangers

Find places where nobody knows anything about you, where you have to start from scratch, explain things in basic terms and either lose them or take them on a ride. It’s powerful medicine that forces you to get clear, and may uncover mantraps you’ve been avoiding without knowing they’re there.

After the beginning and before the end of new ventures, new voices only serve to knock you around like a pinball. Better to get on with the work. But standing outside the loop is important times ten when you’re starting or finishing things.

At the beginning – when you’re still trying to work out exactly what you’re up to and you’re not yet brilliant at explaining what you’re up to, what its for, or why you’re doing it – outsiders help you clarify. They uncover weakness, waffle and bluff. They hold your assumptions to the light.

When you’re finished – when you’ve fought the good fight, killed all the dragons and are post roll-out – it’s time to finish the turn. Strangers help you practice the message in a safe place where key relationships aren’t on the line. And you might just hear something that sparks the next release.

The difficult part isn’t knowing the loop is dangerous. It’s in making the time and building the courage to break out, and then finding people who you don’t already know but who will give good feedback about what you’re up to.

Of course you can hire a consultant or agency to do it, and there’s the research industry and its focus groups whose job is to test and prove your thinking. But the easiest and quickest way I know is to get out of the office and talk to smart strangers.

Find a networking group who have decent coffee and no axe to grind. Go talk to them. Every conversation starts with, “what do you do?” Then, “what are you working on? What are you struggling with? What are you looking for?” And the challenge is to give clear and direct answers that keep them engaged.

If you overhear, “you’ve made me think about my business in a different way,” seek out the inquisitor and have that conversation yourself. Don’t leave the room until you’ve felt uncomfortable or found someone who has asked you a question that made you sit back, take stock, and really think about what you’re up to.

The only downside risk is wasted time talking to people who want to sell you something. The upside is a free demonstration of how others do it. Who’s clear? How do they talk? Too much jargon? Too self centred? Customer centric or technology focus?

Any networking event will force you to tell your story at least five times. And that’s five times the practice you’d get in your office. So use your feet. Put yourself in places where the challenge of explaining from scratch and answering questions that people you already know would never ask, is a simple, no risk brain trust.

Skippy Strategy – Google events in your area now – there’ll be twenty. Decide on the most appropriate one – probably the next one – put it in your diary and commit the time. Get out there and practice.