The Structural Engineering field advances not by historical success, but rather by historical failures. This was the key take-away for a college course I took in Historical Civic Engineering. At one point this idea prompted me to think about certain failures in my career as a training professional. Let me share an experience that I consider a failure.
An Example of Failure
I was charged with defining one voice to put forward in the training and documentation materials coming from two learning teams brought together by a merger. I read up on the emotional effects of mergers; I asked questions; I asked for suggestions; I made recommendations—no matter what I did, I just couldn’t get any kind of consensus. I couldn’t even get anyone to meet at a halfway point.
One major problem was that, despite the charge to make something happen, I had no authority over anyone on either of the teams, and existing authorities seemed to work more against me than with me. And, truth be told, I may have been a little stubborn myself about what I thought should happen. The project eventually became unnecessary as the team morphed with a series of re-orgs that soon followed, but I remained internally frustrated. Why couldn’t I break down the wall between the two teams at the time.
To be sure, my lack of official authority and my stubbornness were major hurdles, but as stated by my short-lived manager at the time, “There are ways to make things happen despite your hurdles.” He was right, and I’ve grown quite a bit since then.
What I Learned
Looking back at the times where I had difficulty making progress, they often corresponded with my assumption that I was the expert. During the merger, I was the person in the group with the most formal instructional design and technical writing training. My background was the reason I was asked to design materials with “one-voice.” Consequently, it was also the reason that fueled my dogged instance about the way things should have been done.
In the merger story, I assumed I was the expert, but everyone else on the team had experiences that I failed to draw on. I failed to acknowledge them as experts. Had I set my expertise aside and instead drawn on the expertise of the team, I would have learned something. I would have discovered the voice of the team, and it would have become the voice we needed to pull our team–and our materials–together. (…short-lived as they may have been with all the ensuing re-orgs on the horizon.)
The next time you embark on “making something happen,” just remember that your stakeholders (customers, team members, managers, etc.) are experts and that you need to draw on that expertise in order to move forward. When you make an honest effort to learn about people, the questions you need to ask flow naturally; your stakeholders respect you because you respect them; and the answer to “what needs to happen” begins to take shape on its own. Sometimes, it’s not anything like what you envisioned; usually it’s better.