Have I seen this before

A few years back I got a call from a software firm I had done work with. A large NGO has asked them about a consulting project need. This was outside the software firm’s expertise and they wanted to know if I was interesting in talking with the NGO about their problem.

Later that afternoon I was on the phone with Bobby, who was the internal project manager at the NGO. They were looking for help on updating their strategy for knowledge management and were still looking for more bidders. The only problem was that it was now Wednesday and final bids were due by close of business on Friday.

Bobby sent me a copy of the RFP and we arranged for a phone conference for Thursday morning. I started reading and outlining some questions and ideas. We spoke the next morning at length and I spent the remainder of the day and Thursday evening cranking out a basic letter proposal. It was a pretty vanilla proposal given the tight timeframe; Understanding of the Situation, Core Lessons/Current Best Practices, Approach to the Work, Credentials, Estimated Fees.

The tricky part was settling on a bid. I hadn’t worked with this organization before, I had no idea who else was bidding, and no sense for the budget. The only thing I could fall back on was something I had learned from the late Gerry Weinberg; something he called the “principle of least regret”. Set the price so that you feel okay win or lose. Given all the uncertainties, I doubled my estimate and sent in my bid before the Friday deadline.

The following Tuesday morning, I get a call from Bobby. Mine is the winning proposal. How soon can I start.

Maybe I could have bid higher. Not a problem. I was happy with the result even if I had underbid.

Here’s the curious thing. Midway through the project, I had a chance to debrief one of the decision makers who had awarded the work to me. I was the high bidder. Enough so, in fact, that the decision had to be bounced up a couple of levels in the bureaucracy to get approval to exceed the planned budget.

Mine was the only proposal that had devoted any time and energy to demonstrating an understanding of the client’s situation.

Fundamentally, I was saved by my own habits, my patterns of practice. It would never occur to me write a proposal that started anywhere other than “understanding of the problem.”

There is constant pressure to get on with it. To trot out an answer before you’ve finished listening to the question. Speed is so often rewarded that learning when to move slow takes a conscious act of will. It is as simple and as difficult as transforming

“I have seen this before” to “Have I seen this before?”.

I’ve seen this story before

There’s a plane that takes off every 90 seconds from San Diego airport and every 90 seconds I wish I was on it

That’s the line that I can still recall from my younger son’s first letter home to us when he was in basic training at MCRD San Diego. There wasn’t anything I could do about it and subsequent letters were much more positive. Over a decade later D is a Staff Sergeant in the Marines about to return to civilian life.

There are plenty of cliches and stories about military life and training. As an educator and a student of high performance organizations I am arguably more knowledgeable than average about what my boy was experiencing. Doesn’t make it any less painful. But it has led to many an interesting conversation. There was the time I asked what he could do for me based on his training. What do you say to “Well, if you have a sucking chest wound, I can keep you alive”?

Maybe all these odd conversations feed into my curiosity about making sense of patterns. I always bristle when I hear people talk about connecting the dots. The emphasis on the flash of insight or inspiration illuminating what was already there to be seen.

How do you make sense out of all of the training, rehearsal, and practice for a moment that will never play out in real life the way that you practiced? They say that you “fight the way you train”, that when the moment comes you fall back on your training. In the moment, you can only improvise.

Here is where the language of “solving for pattern” comes into play. If you’ve practiced enough variations and processed the experience in enough depth, then you’ve laid down patterns of situation and response that let you recognize what is familiar, what is new, and craft a response appropriate to the moment.

This is something very different from standard operating procedure. The task is not to select from a menu of pre-defined responses. It is to invent a unique answer in the moment that is a solution to the underlying pattern.


Learning to see the magic

Your ticket says the performance will begin at 8PM. At 7:57 the house lights dim. At 7:59 the house lights go out and the orchestra begins to play the overture. At 8:02 the curtain rises, the lights come up, and the performance begins. You’re lucky and a magical performance unfolds over the next two hours.

Wind the clock back to 7:30. Behind the curtain, just offstage, is the stage manager, dressed in black jeans and a black turtleneck. He speaks into a headset, “call is half hour”. The message is relayed and acknowledged by actors, stage hands, electricians, sound techs, props manager and others. The House Manager calls from the lobby; it’s a full house.

Energy is building.

At 7:53, the stage manager steps over to a small podium holding a 3-ring binder with the stage manager’s cue book illuminated by a small lamp. The magic making is about to begin.

7:55 – “call is 5 minutes”
7:57 – “Places. House to half”
7:59 – “house out”
“stand by 1”
The overture begins
“Go 1”
8:02 The stage manager gives a hand signal to a stage hand to raise the curtain
“Stand by 2”
“Go 2”
The lead makes her first entrance up stage center

Two hours later, two hundred lighting and sound cues successfully executed, lines performed, the curtain comes down.


Curtain calls.

Most of us are content to enjoy the magic. Some wonder how the magic gets made. Some want to be part of making the magic.

You can’t guarantee that the magic will happen. What you can do is bring the pieces together, practice, observe what happens, adjust, and repeat. What separates the magical from the banal is the quality of observing and adjusting.

What can you learn to see? How finely can you learn to adjust?

You are always part of the system

A lifelong reading habit and skill with numbers meant that standardized tests were relatively easy for me. That plus marginal social skills helped me handle the first several hurdles in formal schooling with relative ease. I ticked off a succession of steps in a name brand educational resume and equally name brand early career stops. Come my early thirties, my new bride and I decide to shift from the corporate ladder climb to the academic path. I reach out to a favorite professor and apply to a doctoral program in business.

This is a qualitatively different process and experience. Instead of being one of hundreds or thousands competing to fill one of a thousand spots, I’m one of dozens seeking a handful of openings. To this point, the question has been “do we think you will turn out to be a representative example of the product we turn out?” Now the question becomes “do we want to let you into our club?”

Perfect scores on standardized tests are common. Transcripts with failing grades are not. Now, a relationship with a favorite professor takes on greater significance. To an admissions committee I am a potential risk. With an advocate, there is a compromise path. Leave your consulting position and take a position as a case writer working for your advocate. Prove to the admissions committee that you can produce quality work and they will reconsider in a year.

I did and they did.

What this became was an early step and an exemplar experience in a journey from connecting the dots to solving for pattern. An experience I lived through before I had the vocabulary to describe it.

Rather than rattling off answers to a standard question or teasing out a picture already concealed in a set of existing dots, I was learning a new process. One of formulating and posing questions to see what they might reveal.

A crucial aspect to this change in perspective is that you need to account for yourself when you are solving for pattern. You are part of the system you are trying to understand.

Exploring how to better solve for pattern

Over the next several weeks I’m taking a deeper dive into a phrase that’s held my attention for some time—”solving for pattern“. It’s from an essay by Wendell Berry. Berry was writing about farming as an exemplar of complex systems. What I know about farming is largely courtesy of Berry; complex systems, however, have been at the core of my work for decades. The systems I pay attention to are embedded in organizations; comprised of people, processes, and technology. 

Solving for pattern is a more powerfully evocative phrase than the one I more often encounter “connecting the dots.” Connecting the dots is trotted out as a way of simultaneously claiming cleverness and suggesting that everyone else is slightly stupid. Solving for pattern suggests a more appropriate degree of complexity and depth to the process of understanding. 

I’m planning on cheating a bit to get this exploration underway. Over the next several weeks I plan to piggyback off of a set of prompts provided by Megan Macedo. Megan organizes and coordinates a writing challenge about this time each year. She collects an eclectic group of writers and doles out a set of prompts over the course of the next several weeks. I’ve folded this into my calendar each of the last five years. This year’s overarching topic is about “letters and correspondence.” 

I think I can see a way to hijack that to my purposes. 

Organizational systems are built on top of conversations that have history and unfold over time. Sometimes those conversations lead to deep insight; sometimes they devolve into chaos. Let’s see whether we can keep mostly to the insight side of the ledger.