While in the middle of a 12-hour bus ride back to Saigon from Cambodia, a place I had never imagined wanting to go, I found myself with a lot of time. Time enough, in fact, to read an entire collection of essays by Malcolm Gladwell called “What the Dog Saw,” about all sorts of things: finance, the difference between choking and panicking, and hair dye, to name a few.
But what really got me thinking was a series of essays at the end of his collection. The topics ranged from late bloomers, to the myth of talent, to the danger of relying too heavily upon our snap impressions of people. All the topics got me thinking about the experience so far of working with Sharp Ideas and their CEO, Tuan.
On April 2nd, we met with Tuan in the morning to review our progress so far and to go over the draft of an employee survey we’d created. Instead of meeting with him (he got pulled into a client meeting of his own), we met with Jane, the company’s HR Manager.
Our working relationship with Jane so far had been great. WIth her help, we had previously made some progress in defining the scope of the project and with steering it in a certain direction. But in this meeting she expressed Tuan’s concern that we weren’t getting enough contact time with the company to be able to figure out exactly what the employees go through every day.
This topic was a surprise, as we thought we had previously made it clear that given our short time-frame, and the language gap between us and many of the employees, we wouldn’t be spending time observing their daily tasks. That Tuan would raise this concern through Jane was doubly troubling, as we had attempted to always communicate directly with him personally. So we left the Friday meeting with plenty to chew on, and with none of it tasting particularly good.
At that point, four of us embarked on a two-pronged bus trip into Cambodia that totaled 12 hours. The roads were paved, but rough, and the bus from Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capitol) to Siem Reap (near which lay the temples of Angkor Wat, our ultimate destination) was filthy, hot, and cramped. But we made it to the temples, and after an afternoon recuperating, turned back around to return to Ho Chi Minh City.
This is when the trip turned sour. This time, not only was the bus filthy, hot, and cramped, but there was all kinds of noise and disruption. Babies cried. The bus played Cambodian theater recordings at high volume. People talked loudly on their mobile phones, and literally dropped used food wrappers and water bottles into the aisles. And the bus stopped what seemed to be every 20-30 minutes on the side of the road to either pick up or drop off a local passenger without a ticket!
It was at this stage of the journey, while attempting to remain calm during the storm around me, that I read Gladwell’s account of how the author Ben Fountain found inspiration for a book he was writing on a long bus ride to the remote Central Plateau of Haiti. Gladwell quotes Fountain as saying, of the Central Plateau, “which takes about twelve hours to get to on a bus, and I had no reason to go there. But I went up there. Suffered on that bus, and ate dust. It was a hard trip, but it was a glorious trip. It had nothing to do with the book, but it wasn’t wasted knowledge.”
Believe me, I felt like I could relate exactly to Fountain’s experiences. The trip to Angkor Wat had nothing to do with our project for Sharp Ideas, and it was frankly often more painful than seemed worth it. But if there’s one thing a long bus ride is good for, it’s reading. And while I read, I was constantly reminded of our project.
Gladwell wrote another thing that struck me as powerfully applicable. In a piece that begins with noting how accurate humans’ first impressions are, he also notes the mistake in applying that snap judgment to other scenarios. Schools hire teachers based on scholastic achievement, and on good interviews, but make a mistake in assuming that those successes automatically translate to the job of teaching. Teachers need to try teaching before their performance can be evaluated.
How do we know, for example, if a teacher knows how to let a student express their own engagement with the material? Will she squelch it by telling her student to “sit up straight” when they start to lean forward, or will she allow some wiggle room?
As Professor Michael Finney often exhorts in his courses, authentic consultants not only express their concerns and provide feedback immediately, but also leave a client stronger than upon arrival. That is, a consultant shouldn’t create consultant-dependent clients. Well that’s another way of saying that a consultant teaches the client something. It could be a process, or a product, or a methodology. But the point is that consultants teach, and teachers can only really learn how to teach by trying it. Which brings me back to our project.
As consultants we have to let the client choose the best way for his company to learn what we are attempting to teach. And were we effectively teaching our client about what we’re doing? In a word, no. We had a client who clearly did not understand the benefit of our project despite several clarification meetings. We simply hadn’t let him learn about what we were doing in his own way. We had been, momentarily, average teachers.
Thankfully, our client was giving us clues as to how they wanted to learn from us (we’d just missed them for a weekend). Our client’s preferred learning method is in contact with us, and this is because they as individuals and a group need to deepen our relationship to the point of trusting us enough to learn from us.
Today we met with Tuan all morning to work on his understanding of the project. We asked questions, then waited for his response. We let silence linger. We tried to encourage him to take the lead, by telling us what he knew of our project direction. After a few hours, a light clicked, and he began speaking with more enthusiasm about the results we’d attain.
Then we had lunch with the entire company, and didn’t talk about the work at all! We hope that by learning who we are a bit more, we’ll learn how to teach each other a little better.
So while our trip to Siem Reap really didn’t have anything to do with the project, the downtime gave me a chance to read, and to think about other ways of seeing things, and that makes for a better journey.