Not too long ago, I was being interviewed for an article, happily sharing information about how I got started podcasting for kids, about my sources of inspiration, when I was asked, “What do you expect kids to get out of participating in your after-school program?” Wait, what? You want to know what I expect to happen from my efforts? You want to know how things will turn out? You want to know if I’m seeing achievement or progress on some indicator? You want my expected outcomes?!
Are you talking about those pesky little things I’ve been learning about, focused on, thinking about, designing reports for, training other to focus on for over 20 years, you mean those outcomes? I hemmed and hawed a bit, and finally said, “I hope they are learning to value their own voices.” Yup, it was my plan all along. After the interview I really had to explore why the question made me so uncomfortable. It was the type of question that would have been incredibly easy to answer in the past, before some significant transitions.
I was an accountant, now I am a librarian. I was a finance director, now I’m a library consultant. I was a financial performance monitor, now I’m a podcaster. I was a triangle, now I’m a square. I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps I was always a square, but my journey from one profession to another, from one job to another, from one activity to another, has led me into lands unknown, lands without shape or form, lands with no angles, but as I’ve journeyed from one place to another, I’ve been finding my way, learning about different paths, about different ways of being, about different ways of thinking.
As an accountant, I learned to appreciate a plan. My professional life began by auditing for KPMG. Every engagement I was assigned had an auditing plan. We evaluated the client and determined the plan. We followed the plan. Of course there were changes along the way, variables, resources, discoveries, but ultimately, they would all be reconfigured into the plan. Then, once the engagement was over, we would review the plan, to see if it could be improved, how it might need to change based on client changes, economic changes, etc. And when we didn’t have a plan, we made a plan.
Then, as my career continued and I become a manager, then a finance director, I learned more about the process that went into planning. How strategic plans are an embodiment of a vision and mission. How the goals of an organization would stem from those plans, determining how resources were garnered, how activities were monitored, how outputs and outcomes would be measured. As I continued to grow, as a professional and leader, the only thing I really did was come up with plans! Plans to grow, plans to achieve, plans to improve this, plans to do that.
But as I changed professions, I began to discover that sometimes plans made people feel uncomfortable. Plans made people feel boxed in, plans caused a lot of questions to be asked, activities to be measured, and judgments to be made about professional, expert, experienced choices. So I began to tread more lightly with my plans. I began to go a little slow and low with my holy planning grail. I would observe more, capture data differently, try new ways to discuss efficiency and effectiveness. What I observed in my new profession was a lot of output capturing (i.e. how many books circulated, how many patrons walked through the doors) and a bit of eye rolling about the process because ‘why did we have to prove our value to anyone?’ ‘why couldn’t they just accept our valuable role in society?’ But if you can’t capture your story and tell it to others, the risk of not being relevant or valued was being felt in real terms, sometimes with a community’s complete loss of services.
Because of my previous experience, I realized capturing outputs was only the start of changing the culture about planning. What we really needed to get at was outcomes (i.e. how were lives improved through access to resources or participation in programs). Outcomes were what really mattered. No taxpayer or city mayor could get excited by the number of books that were downloaded or checked-out, but transforming lives, that was why we did what we did, that is why politicians do what they do (we hope!). This was a time of transformation for the library profession and for me as a leader. I had to recognize how planning and measuring made experts and professionals feel. That the process of trying to create a plan and measure outcomes made professionals and experts felt their expertise was being questioned. It made them feel like they weren’t believed.
I just read the latest children’s book by the dynamic duo, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, titled “Triangle”. I was immediately drawn to it because it has all the marking of Jon Klassen’s illustrations: bold shapes, charcoal colors, characters with large eyes and large pupils. One of the main characters of this book is Triangle.
The story opens with an introduction to Triangle. We are told he lives in a triangle house, with a triangle door, and he lives in a land of small, medium and large size triangles. Then, one day he decided to play a trick on Square, his friend. He knew Square was afraid of snakes, so he walked through the land of triangles, into the land that didn’t have triangles anymore, through a land with shapes but no names, until he arrived in a place where there were squares. There were big, medium and small squares. When he got to Square’s house, he played his trick.
Triangle made a hissing sound outside Square’s door. Square worried aloud, wondering how many snakes were outside his door, saying, “Go away, snakes!” Triangle stopped hissing and started laughing. Triangle said, “I know you are afraid of snakes, I have played a sneaky trick on you!” They looked at each other with their shifty looks, then Triangle ran home, past all of the squares, through the valley of shapes without names, entering his triangle shaped door to his triangle shaped home. But, Square was in hot pursuit, chasing Triangle the whole way. Triangle entered his home easily through his triangle door, but when Square tried to follow him inside, he got stuck, because he’s square.
Square was now blocking most of the light from getting into Triangle’s house, and Triangle was afraid of the dark. Triangle yelled, “You’re blocking my light! Go away, you block! Leave my door!” Now, it was Square’s turn to laugh. “I know you are afraid of the dark. Now I have played a sneaky trick on you! You see, Triangle, this was my plan all along.” Then, you turn the page, and the last line of the book reads,
“But do you really believe him?”
When I first read the book I wasn’t sure about it. I had to hold on to it for a bit before it hit me. And, when it hit me, I thought, there it is. THAT is why I didn’t want to answer the interviewer’s question. THAT is why the librarians didn’t want to talk about a plan. THAT is why! I wasn’t sure I would really be believed. If I told you our collections transformed lives, would you really believe me? If I told you my podcast would inspire children to value their own voices, would you really believe me?
As I’ve been on my own journey of transformation, as a leader, as a professional, as a person, I have wanted to find a space where it was ok to only talk about parts of the strategic process, about the inputs and activities, but to be free to experiment with other parts, like outcomes. I’ve wanted to find a space where I could play with ideas.
In a Harvard Business Review article titled, “The Authenticity Paradox” this type of transformative journey is explored in terms of its impact on leadership. The article touches on many of the paradoxes I’ve felt and experienced as I’ve journeyed through the lands of unnamed shapes. I’ve gone from a profession that values explicit planning processes, accuracy, and confidence as commodities, in terms of promotions and rewards, to a profession which values learning, knowledge, and expertise, valued in terms of archiving, protecting, collecting, and sharing. The article states, “The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are—doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become. Such growth doesn’t require a radical personality makeover. Small changes—in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact—often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead.”
One of the recommendations made in this article is to guard against a too rigid sense of self by adopting “a playful frame of mind.” The article recommends, “To begin thinking like leaders, we must first act: plunge ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done. Especially in times of transition and uncertainty, thinking and introspection should follow experience—not vice versa. Action changes who we are and what we believe is worth doing.”
“What we believe is worth doing.”
I want to believe Square had a plan all along. I want to believe I have a plan too. But, I also want to embrace play, to plunge into experiments for getting things done. I want to better understand myself as a podcaster, as a writer. So, for now, I’m going to keep on writing and keep on podcasting, pushing the limits of what’s comfortable, acting like the outcomes were in my plans all along.
I believe you Square. And don’t worry, I’m getting stuck a lot too.