Jason Specland: Consultant, Comedian

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Category: Consulting

Project Estimation for SharePoint: A Parable

EXT. OUTSIDE THE JUNGLE, DAY

An intrepid treasure hunter and his local guide stand trepidatiously outside of a dark, mysterious, wild jungle.

Treasure Hunter: How long will it take for us to get through the jungle?
Guide: It’s hard to say. The jungle is filled with dangerous traps and difficult terrain.
Treasure Hunter: Okay, how long will it take to get two miles through the jungle?
Guide: Seriously, it’s hard to say. I don’t know what we’re going to encounter…
Treasure Hunter: Just ballpark it for me.
Guide: Okay, well I’m really not certain, so I’m going to have to assume the worst… Three days?
Treasure Hunter: Three days!? To go two miles!? What are you, incompetent or something?
Guide: Okay, if everything goes absolutely perfectly… A day, maybe? But don’t hold me to that…

CUT TO: Two days later…

EXT. INSIDE A PIT TRAP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE, DAY

Treasure Hunter: We’re a day over budget. I’m not paying you for this, you know.

Geniuses and Poets

“If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.” — Del Close

Del Close, the Father of All Longform Improvisers

Del Close, the Father of All Longform Improvisers

The past week at work has been kind of frustrating. Miscommunication all over the place. Balls being dropped. And all of it seems to end up in my lap for some reason, even though I’m not the guy in charge. I feel let down by people I trust. I get angry at people.

But then I take a moment to realize that we’re all inherently good people trying to do our best. We’re all on the same team. Even demanding clients aren’t demanding because they enjoy being jerks, but because they’re under their own set of pressures and deadlines. My coworkers didn’t drop the ball because they have a vendetta against me, but because just like me they have a ton of stuff on their plates and clear communication among a large number of people is a super-hard problem. And if I should lash out at them, they have no idea that I’ve had a crappy week and my son’s been sick and I just generally feel overwhelmed.

I know that I work among the very best. I see the results of their work every day. It’s just a matter of building that same level of deep, abiding trust with my coworkers that I have with my teammates.

Although I think they might look at me funny if I patted them on the shoulder and said, “I’ve got your back” before every work day…

Listen With Your Whole Body

In improv, we learn to “listen with our whole body.” When performing in a scene, it is important not just to hear the words that our scene partner says, but we must also “hear” their facial expression and their body language as well. Newer improvisers tend to lean so heavily on words that they miss these cues, or don’t send them. Experienced improvisers know that you can speak volumes without uttering a single syllable.

When coaching improv, I work very hard to get the people I’m coaching to realize this. To understand it. To feel it in their very bones. One of my favorite exercises for this is one in which two actors stand back-to-back, and think of an emotion… No, they don’t just think of an emotion… they use every bit of their sense memory to bring that emotion to life. They live in that moment as fully and completely as they can. And then they turn around, and begin the scene silently, taking in the full range of their partner’s face and body.

This exercise works because human beings have evolved over the millennia to be deeply and profoundly in tune with the most subtle emotions encoded in the human face. Take this classic example:

An Illustration of the "Thatcher Effect", by psychology professor Peter Thompson, 1980

An Illustration of the “Thatcher Effect”, by psychology professor Peter Thompson, 1980

When the image is upside down, nothing looks amiss. It is only when the face is right-side up that our supercharged facial recognition circuits kick in and the image suddenly appears grotesque.

As consultants, being able to listen to our clients, truly listen to them, requires listening with our whole bodies. We need to listen to both what they say and don’t say. We’ll find more often that what they don’t utter aloud can say so much more than what they do. What causes them pain? What do they fear?

This, however, is where our goals in improv and in consulting part ways. In improv, we always want to confirm fears. We want to make the pain worse. If there’s a fire, we want to pour gasoline on it rather than water. In consulting, it is our job to help our client, relieve their pain, and grow their business. Technology is a tool with which we do this, yes, but as far as tools in the belt go, technology isn’t nearly so important as empathy.

We’ll never truly understand what our client needs unless we listen with our whole body.

It’s Not About the Bicycle

I’ve only been a consultant for about a year now, but I’ve been performing improv comedy for about twenty. And as I work more in consulting, I’m starting to see that consulting and improv comedy aren’t so different.

One trap that beginning improvisers tend to get caught up in is the idea that the arbitrary, imaginary thing that they’re doing is actually the important part of the scene. It’s not. The imaginary thing is just a vehicle that helps us explore human relationships and emotions. It’s the set dressing around which we build the characters that the audience really wants to see.

There’s an old improv coaching idiom that I use often: An audience never leaves an improv show saying, “Yeah, it was funny and all, but they never *did* finish putting together that bicycle!” Sure, come on stage and start building a bicycle, if that’s what the moment has inspired you to do. But we want to see how these particular characters react to building a bicycle.

Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/radlmax/21830232766 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/radlmax/21830232766 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Similarly, when you’re on a consulting gig, if you’re talking to the real decision makers, they don’t care about technology. They only care about what the technology does for their business. No CEO ever leaves a post-engagement meeting saying, “Yeah, we made a million dollars, but we never *did* use SharePoint!”

As technical consultants, it’s easy for us to get enmeshed in the minutia of technology. After all, that expertise is what they’re hiring us for, right? Wrong. They’re hiring us because we know how to use technology as a lever. Technology is a tool. If it doesn’t serve a useful business purpose, it’s a toy.

I’m a SharePoint developer, and my hammer is Visual Studio and when I have my tech-blinders on, everything can look like a nail. When you bring me in, chances are that someone’s already decided that their project is going to live on SharePoint. My instinct isn’t to argue with you. Who doesn’t love those juicy billable hours? But as a good consultant, I hope to be a trusted adviser to my clients. It’s my responsibility to say when SharePoint ain’t the tool for the job, even at the cost of billable hours. Hell, even at the cost of the whole gig. If someone respects the integrity of your advice, there will be work for you some other day.

Just like in improv, it’s the relationship that’s the important thing. It’s not about the bicycle. It’s about getting where you want to go.