This year for our annual Thanksgiving festivities, we did something very unusual for us. We didn’t eat at home. A friend of ours invited us to her apartment for dinner, so we cooked up a couple of side dishes and a pie, put the dogs in their kennels, and drove across town.
After 26 years of doing pretty much the same thing every year to celebrate the holiday, it surprised me how awkward it felt to not set the table, not peek at the turkey every 30 minutes, not comb through the cabinets looking for that serving dish in the back corner of the bottom shelf, not trim the ends of the flowers for the bouquet. Instead we had a very nice dinner on paper plates, played a game of Carcassonne, and then lit the menorah while my friend sang HaNerot Halalu. Then we gathered up our dishes and jackets and headed for home, full of food and friendship, but somehow feeling different than the normal end-of-Thanksgiving feeling. Possibly that had to do with not having to cram all the leftovers into the refrigerator.
Monday, it was back to work, back to project meetings and status reports. We have a new person on our project, and in answering her questions and trying to give her the background information that she needs to ramp up successfully on the project, I was struck by how much the customer’s culture and idiosyncrasies have become quite ordinary to me. I’ve been working on projects with the same customer off and on for over two years. I remember sitting in meetings those first few weeks feeling like I was a visitor to a foreign country, but now their culture has become as familiar and comfortable as my own family holiday traditions and recipes.
But while that familiarity makes it easier to navigate a meeting and provides greater context for my work, it also presents challenges. Part of my job as a consultant and a product manager is to maintain something of an outsider’s perspective. How do you walk that line between being comfortable and effective in an organization and ‘going native’ with the concomitant lack of clear-sighted perspective?
For me, working with and coaching new consultants helps. When I’m explaining some aspect of the project, the customer’s existing business architecture, or an issue that we’re trying to resolve, and I get those raised eyebrows, it reminds me that just because something is normal doesn’t mean it makes sense. I know folks who don’t like working with new employees. They get frustrated by the time and effort it requires. But I find that I get as much as I give in these relationships. Part of the fun is just getting to know new people, finding opportunities to learn about them and what makes them tick. But I also find that it keeps me a little fresh and a little cynical in my work, helps me look at my documentation and the project as a whole with that outsider’s viewpoint again. And that makes coaching worth the time spent reviewing process flows and answering questions.