On Problem Solving and Black Mould

“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” Henry Ford

It’s funny how the mind sometimes takes circuitous routes to bring us insights. While sitting up in bed this morning, eating bread and butter and honey(1), mucking about on Twitter, and feeling aggrieved over the state of my washing machine(2), I had an epiphany. I realised what it was that had gone wrong for me in a couple of my jobs, before this latest stint of freelancing and back when I was ‘working for the man’. In these particular jobs, I had whaled into my work thinking I was doing the right thing and, as I saw it, doing what exactly had been outlined for me in my position description and job interview. You can imagine my dismay (perhaps distress is a better word) when my efforts were met with hostility, overt and covert, and when I was upbraided by my employers for not being “nice”(3) to them.

This was not just nasty to experience, but surreal. I had tried to be a positive, hard-working and useful member of the team. I knew that I had made no false promises and had tried always to be diplomatic in my dealings with others, always keeping the focus on business, never ever being personal. In the strategies I was working to there were problems, big scary problems, problems that had not been alluded to during the job interview, induction or in the position description. But I was aware that I had described myself as a problem solver in my application (I always do as a matter of course because I am). So I assumed that the people who had hired me had done so, so that I could fix up these problems. Which I was happy to do because I’m good at it.

So the yells of dismay that erupted from my hirers when I pitched in and got to work were surprising. I was not the only one who was evidently in shock. The anger of my hirers was laced with a feeling of outrage and expressed in these bizarre complaints that I wasn’t being nice enough to them. It’s as if they wanted a surrogate Aunty or life coach, and not a professional (and unfailingly civil) manager or project manager cleaning up derailed and risky strategies.

But this morning I realised what the clash of expectations actually had been. I thought I had been hired to solve or fix problems. My employers had hired me to make the problems go away. I am used to thinking that these are the same things. But in the minds of some people who harbour unreasonable expectations(4) they are not.


To my mind there is a difference between A problem and THE problem. Most often people will be fixated on a problem – “Oh!” they say “If only we could have / buy / ditch / nobble ‘ABC’, then life would be perfect”. But actually, while ‘ABC’ is a problem, maybe even a major problem, these people fail to see that ‘ABC’ is actually caused by underlying problem ‘XYZ’. Even if they successfully manage to get rid of problem ‘ABC’ (and it will be difficult to do this if they don’t tackle problem ‘XYZ’) then good old problem ‘XYZ’ will manifest in the form of a new problem down the track, like a disease that manifests itself in one symptom or another. But you can have a devil of a time explaining this to people who have rusted on attitudes, or even selfish agendas, around blaming problem ‘ABC’.

Black mould. Get it in my bathroom once in a blue moon. Nasty stuff, and if left unchecked will spread, look like yuck, wreck the paintwork and even cause health problems. I keep it at bay by washing down my walls and ceiling with white vinegar every few months when it appears. Black mould is a problem, but it is not THE problem. The problem is that my bathroom is inadequately ventilated – has no fan and during winter it’s too damned cold to shower with the window open. And, layered below this, there is a further problem. I rent from a landlord who doesn’t want to spend money, so there is nothing I can do to improve ventilation. So, because I cannot address THE problem (i.e. lack of ventilation), I can expect to have to continue having to stamp out a problem (i.e. black mould) on a regular basis.

(1) REAL Yellow Box honey, bought from the man who extracted it himself from his very own bees.

(2) Broken and so, so ancient that it is beyond fixable.

(3) Yes. They used this word.

(4) And who perhaps have reason to feel a little guilty over their own work performances.

Announcement: Fashion Industry and Training

I am happy to announce that I have been retained to provide training services for a great new project that aims to help up and coming fashion designers develop their new design businesses.

Highly regarded designer, stylist and entrepreneur Chitra Mangma has put together a great program of workshops, panel and mentoring services to help a select intake of newly graduated fashion designers:

  • Identify their target market,
  • Create a brand,
  • Plan their business,
  • Understand how to organise and plan their collections in order to work in with fashion industry trends and cycles.

Participants will be exposed to training and advice that is supportive, comprehensive, practical, and especially tailored towards their industry and creative personalities.

The first run of this program of training will happen over a number of weeks in November 2014; we are grateful to Moreland City Council for providing funding for this November program which will take place in Brunswick and will be focussed on local designers. My part will be to provide three workshops that will focus on marketing, branding and planning.

The program we run in November will be our first, but we certainly do not want it to be our last. Both Chitra and I are really passionate about working with young creatives; we believe that it is essential to help and encourage them to set up professional practices that can allow these new designers to sustain their vocations and contribute their unique creativity. We gain inspiration from working with emerging talent and enjoy the challenge of helping creative practices negotiate the business world.

If you would like to know anything more about this project then check out the event page here. Please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me at dangerousmeredith@outlook.com or on twitter @DangerousMere .

Finding common ground with those we don’t understand

I saw this morning a tweet from consultant Jeremy Scrivens* which struck me as being very true:

“For every natural #strength or #talent, there is a corresponding struggle which comes out most often in relationships with opposite talents”

It is easy to feel a natural flow or harmony with people who are similar to us, who employ similar processes to manifest similar talents. And it is just as easy to misunderstand, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes wilfully, folks with different personality types, different talents, and different approaches to things. These people may jar on us as we probably do on them and the “corresponding struggle” that I assume that Jeremy was alluding to in his tweet can emerge, sometimes productively but often disruptively, occasionally even nastily.

God forgive me, I have been as guilty as anyone of making a hasty judgement and thinking dismissively of others because the differences between us have seemed to be so impenetrable, although I have tried very hard not to let this show as outright rudeness.

But I have also, at other times, enjoyed very harmonious and productive working relationships with people who were radically different to me in background, talent, skill, and methodology. When this happens then I and that other person have been aware of our differences as complements, not obstacles. It is a relief, then, to have that other very different person who is able to step up when your own limitations come into play, and nice to know that you are sharing this burden in the same way so as to benefit them and whatever project it is that you are both working on. Any “corresponding struggle” that then takes place between two different natural talents or strengths might manifest more enjoyably and creatively as an intellectual tussle that refines or hones ideas. Having the privilege to observe at close quarters a trusted colleague with quite different abilities to yours can yield fascinating perceptions and stimulate new trains of thought or ways of doing things.

In my past I have, at times, found myself in a role where I had to be the go-between (to put it crudely) between people who were quite different, either because their attitudes towards a certain issue were polar opposites, because they were different personality types or because they were from a different work culture (say, an artist trying to talk to a bureaucrat). Sometimes I was able to help the two parties negotiate their way towards common ground and thereafter a way forward together, and sometimes not.

Over the years the pattern I have noticed for when people (myself included) have been able to work with radically different others has boiled down to this simple thing: where the two people share personal values then they can find a way to work together, and then to even build a rapport. Where folks place their own bloody egos or ambitions first then any opportunity to find shared values around the quality of outcome for a project and / or the way you treat other people will be obscured and lost; jostling for position and defensiveness colour the working relationship.

The trick is to develop a workplace culture and work processes that allow people the time and space and focus to dig down and find out what values they have, and what common ground they can share. The challenge here, perhaps, for people who manage businesses, people or projects is to examine the way their workplaces function, be honest about any obstacles that are in place, and then be willing to change, perhaps innovate, to clear them.

*Jeremy Scrivens is a very nice man and a “Work Futurist & Social Business Culture Catalyst – Helping Enterprises to build positive, kind cultures to engage, collaborate, innovate & grow social business”. I got that description off his twitter account. Or you can check out his website here.

Introverts, extroverts, and the art of hubbing together

I have set myself the challenge, this calendar year, to create some training to help organisations boost their ability to be innovative (I will leave the specifics till a future date). I am drawn to do this because I have, in one way or another, had a long history with people who were creative and innovative. The process of winkling an idea out of someone’s head and into tangible form has long fascinated me; of a darker, unhappier fascination have been those elements that kill or enfeeble a promising innovation and how, perhaps, these can be dealt with.

Innovators come in all shapes and sizes and accordingly require a diversity of conditions in which to operate. And yet, somehow, as a society we have a set of assumptions about the ways that creative thinking and / or innovative activity evolve and manifest that are a bit ‘sameish’. I just read a terrific article on The New Republic website (www.newrepublic.com ) by Elizabeth Winkler called The Innovation Myth: Why You Can’t Engineer Creativity with ‘Innovation Districts’. I think that innovation districts and hubs have their place, but I think this piece has some ideas worth considering.

It highlights the popular idea that group activity can produce great ideas and then great innovations, that the collaborative process rules. The article then goes on to offer opinions and evidence that this is not the case, that sometimes collaborative processes can stifle creativity. As an introvert with a long history of being creative and innovative (and being around others of the same ilk) I let out a hearty cheer when I saw supporting quotes from Susan Cain’s splendid book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’! I also loved this quote from Steve Wozniak:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist … Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Now, I have worked with some people who have very extroverted personalities who absolutely love to work as part of a group, and find the cut and thrust of the group dynamic to be a springboard for ideation and effective innovative process. But not everyone is cut from the same cloth; some of us, like Wozniak, require solitude with the same urgency that extroverts require the dynamism of a group. In my own work and creative history there have been plenty of times when I have been compelled by well-meaning colleagues or managers to participate in group activities – workshops, training sessions, rehearsals, brainstorming sessions – and I have done so through gritted teeth and with a sinking heart. These things have left me often exhausted and uninspired, sometimes anxious and disorientated.

More positively and happily, I have willingly accessed groups for company, to test material or iterations on an audience, to provide a bit of fun, or, importantly, to develop networks to support my projects. But my richest creative thinking and most effective innovative grunt work has always happened when I have been alone. I am not the only introvert I know who is like this.

Innovative districts or even single hubs can certainly provide the positive benefits I outlined above to people like me (and Winkler alludes to this in her last sentence). They can certainly be a source of creative and innovative insight and activity for my extroverted brethren. I view the evolution of the co-working movement with great satisfaction, and think that it brings some exciting possibilities and lovely values into the business world. You can’t “engineer creativity” in these, or any, physical set up. But you can use innovative hubs to generate opportunities for creative insight for extroverts.

And there’s the nub: we need, as a society, to understand that creative thinking and the potential to realise that with innovative outcomes can be available to everyone; it’s a defining feature of the human species. But we need, also, to understand that the path to doing this is different for everyone. It is not the sole purview of those who function well in jolly group settings.

All my life I have surprised people without meaning too. It’s why I call myself Dangerous Meredith. I think people see me as a quiet and assume maybe that I’m a bit dull, somewhat passive, a reliable workhorse and perhaps a potential yes-man. But then I rouse myself out of a reverie and pop certain ideas into the conversation, or go ahead to do stuff that I think is useful but which other people find startling (perhaps even threatening to their perception of the status-quo). As an introvert I have often felt locked out of society’s approved mechanisms or forums for generating or articulating ideas; in group settings my ideas are shot down in flames for being strange or are not heard at all.

What people like me need is a pathway into accessing group support when we have finished our solitary work in our hidey-holes, and when we are ready and able to articulate what the hell it is we have been doing. I don’t have a problem with innovation districts existing, even though I do fully understand the dubiousness that Winkler seems to be expressing in her article. But I just hope that whoever is designing them remembers to leave a pathway open (physically, culturally, socially) so that us outliers can visit and share.

Recommended read: Are you a serial under earner?

I came across this article on the splendid 99u.com website. In it Glei summarises and discusses some ideas she found when reading Secrets of Six Figure Women by Barbara Stanny (which I have not read yet).

This article struck a chord with me because I used to be a serial under earner, used to be surrounded by serial under earners as my friends and colleagues. I used to work exclusively in the arts and community sectors where the pay is low and inconsistent and volunteerism is expected rather than requested. The reasons why people end up as under earners, in the case of my peers struggling to survive financially even though they may be hard working, skilled and talented, are many and Glei does a good job listing them in this article. They stem from a mixture of social, cultural, psychological and emotional reasons that affect the individual and their perceptions of their entitlement to earn; in the arts and community sectors there are broader social and economic reasons at play as well, which does not make it easy for folks in these sectors to attain a life free from financial stress.

And this burns me up because the talent that is beavering away in these underpaid sectors is mighty. People who are skilled, conscientious, brave, innovative are thick on the ground and being paid crap wages. Burn out stalks them, and the rest of society is oblivious to the diversity and richness of experience and ability they could offer.

I enjoy working with people across a variety of sectors; I am thrilled to be developing networks and clients in the business sectors now (especially when it comes to working in the areas of community engagement and innovation). But I still intend to offer some services to those who are working in my old sectors – even if I have to discount heavily to do it. I believe in their value, their ability to fuse social good with reliable project management or service delivery, their natural tendency to innovate and gently subvert stale business practices. I am haunted by the idea that their tremendous creativity and willingness to innovate might be wasted, and determined to do my little bit to help.

Creative minds and accounting metrics

I have been doing plenty of reading lately about innovation, an area which has long fascinated me. Over the years I have worked with lots of artists and creatives to help them realise their splendidly innovative concepts in tangible form. Along the way I saw innovative projects go swimmingly and some, er, not go so well. The various factors and issues that support or impede innovation are many and diverse, and getting the right mixture of conditions to support innovators is something that continues to, well, obsess me.

I happened across a nice article today called The Seven Deadly Sins of Large Company Innovation by Rick Smith published on the Forbes website.

The sins that Smith lists include

  1. One and Done (“… a sign of failure, and the project is dismantled”).
  2. Product Development Over Customer Development
  3. Death by Committee
  4. Reliance on Lagging, Not Leading Indicators
  5. A Culture that Stifles Entrepreneurship
  6. Poorly Aligned Reward Systems
  7. Custophobia (or a fear of interacting with customers).

This article is well written and interesting, and very well-worth a read. I felt that it pulled together a lot of good ideas and issues that I have either seen other people talk about or felt I recognised because I have seen them unfold before my very eyes. But the one sin that really made me sit up and sigh ‘Hallelujah!’ was actually number 4:

“4. Reliance on Lagging, Not Leading Indicators.  Companies typically rely on traditional accounting metrics to track the progress of their new growth initiatives.  But metrics like sales, profit and market share are lagging indicators in a new growth business.  These appear after the business has already been validated and is scaling (or not), providing little guidance from which to manage the project during the critical discovery phase. Looking backward at sales and profit are uninformative at best, and misleading at worst.

Alternative Approach: The key is to manage a project based on leading indicators – quantitative and qualitative data that can better predict the future. Metrics such as customer trials, usage of the product after purchase, and referral rates foreshadow whether a business is not likely to grow as expected, or has the real potential to scale. Unfortunately, the most appropriate leading indicators vary greatly from project to project, and are unique to each situation. But it’s well worth the effort – uncovering true predictive indicators of the future can dramatically impact the ROI of any growth investment.”

I don’t actually recall ever hearing or reading anyone say this (and maybe this is just an indication that I read the wrong stuff) but it is so true. I work with people who are either just starting up a new venture or with people who have been making creative work for a while and are very new to putting a business framework around what they do. The traditional accounting metrics mentioned above mean very little to these folks and they always assume that it’s because they, themselves, are nuff-nuffs and not because those particular metrics are not appropriate to their business practice at this stage of its development. It is so refreshing to see Smith unpack this and suggest alternative measures. Thanks Rick!

The Small Business Festival is on…

I deliver the Small Business Basics course at Springvale Learning and Activities Centre. The following blog was written to be disseminated to staff and participants there, but I thought I would pop it on here for good measure.

The annual Small Business Festival Victoria is on 1-31 August 2014. This festival is jam packed with events and workshops that offer useful information on setting up and running every part of a small business. Many of these workshops of either very cheap or free, and they are presented all over Melbourne as well as major regional centres including the City of Greater Dandenong and other Southern municipalities and suburbs. If you are running a small business, planning to start one or just interested in what it takes then I urge you to get a program and get along and see. Programs can be found on www.business.vic.gov.au.

Thinking of the folks I have worked with during Springvale Learning and Activity Centre’s (SLAC) Small Business Basics course, I thought that maybe the workshops below may be of interest. Please note – if you want to get to any of these then bookings are essential. Either ring the information numbers listed below or go to the festival website and do it online. A little more information about each one can be found in the festival guide.

Many of our course participants come from multicultural background, as do, indeed, many small business owners in Melbourne. It’s good to see this festival including activities that may be of interest to multicultural business owners this year:

  • Traps for Multicultural Entrepreneurs & How to Fix Them – 7 August 6pm-8pm; Free event; Melbourne city venue at 121 Exhibition St; presented by Multicultural Business Ministerial Council; phone 9651 9852 for bookings or information.
  • Refugee & Migrant Small Business Success Stories – 12 August 6pm-8pm; Free event; Coburg Concert Hall 90 Bell St. Coburg; presented by Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Stepping Stones program, Multicultural Business Ministerial Council, City of Moreland; phone 8412 8713 for bookings or information.
  • Social Media for Multicultural Communities – 26 August 6.30-9pm; cost $20; Maribyrnong Council Offices Cnr Hyde and Napier Sts Footscray; presented by Maribyrnong City Council; phone 9688 0195 for bookings or information.

The following seminars are free and located in the City of Greater Dandenong. There are other seminars in this area listed in the program that cost a small fee.

  • Selecting for Success – 21 August 5.30pm-7.30pm; free event; City of Greater Dandenong venue at 225 Lonsdale St. Dandenong; presented by Pharos HR; phone 0419 597 614 for bookings or information.
  • Procrastinate No More – 23 August 3pm-5pm; free event; Noble Park Football Social Club 46-56 Moodemere St. Noble Park; presented by Red Hot Pepper; phone 0407 565 768 for bookings or information.

These are just the tiniest selection out of a huge program. I urge you to get a program and check it out for yourself.