I Don't Mind the Weather

Take it from me: Projects have weather patterns.

The Inqune Portland HQ are on the 31st floor of the US Bancorp Building, better known as Big Pink. From this vantage, I can watch the weather come and go: storms roll in over the west hills, sweep across downtown, cross the Willamette River, and blow out again, drenching the East Side as they go.

IMG_6597Our projects also have weather, and just as I can see the storms come and go over Portland, so can I predict and anticipate the stormy sections of our projects.

We start with sunshine: Closing a deal is exciting for us, because we love knowing that a prospect agrees that we can help them. Often dark clouds roll in soon after, as we work our contracts through legal negotiations, but skies brighten again with the project launch: the client gets to open up and tell us their problems, hopes, and expectations, and we get to work with them to brainstorm solutions to them. We interview lots of people– and given our clients, those people are usually really cool– and learn the ins and outs of how the business works. And then we get to present our findings to the project team, which is often really cathartic: like a summer rain breaking a heat wave, having the triumphs and pain points of your company mirrored back to you can be a tremendous relief.

As we start building content, storm clouds inevitably roll in. Maybe some information from discovery that seemed clear when we gathered it shows its thin spots as we try to turn it into curriculum. Maybe internal process changes at the company invalidate our work-in-progress and we need to make changes. Maybe we just hit a creative block for a bit. Regardless, the process of getting all scoped content to the first review stage can be filled with squalls.

IMG_6600But storms pass, and as we begin validating content with the client, the weather usually improves. It can get foggy– waiting for materials to come back with critiques and improvements, smoothing the review-revise-approve process flow, keeping a large team of people on schedule– but the work gets done and, as we come up to project launch, we get to enjoy the rainbow that comes after the storm.

IMG_6602Managing our projects is a bit like watching Portland weather from the 31st floor. The vantage point makes a storm seem predictable, observable, and beautiful, in its own way. And keeping in mind that the storms will inevitably come– and go again– is a good way to keep our heads as we slog through the rougher parts of project work.

Communicating at Dreamforce

IMG_6495We are back! After a thrilling few of days at Moscone Center taking in the sights and sounds of Dreamforce, today the Inqune team is returning to our desks, reaching out to the people we met, kicking off some “as soon as Dreamforce is over we will…” projects, and getting ready to end 2014 with a bang.

In one of the first conversations we had at Dreamforce, an old friend said to us:

Every person you talk to here is trying to figure out how to make a million dollars off of you in the first five minutes of conversation. Let it go. Connect.

He was right, both in his observation and his advice.

To be clear: Dreamforce is a business event; more than that, it is a business event dominated by people in sales. It is entirely appropriate to be focused on our careers, companies, and products in this context.


Business relationships are still relationships. The person you bump into at a conference MAY be the person who makes you a million dollars– but if they are, it will be because of shared concerns and mutual trust.

So, the next time you are at a conference, give the person you bump into on the show floor a break. Choose to be the person who listens to what is going on in their lives. Choose to see them as a person. Choose to have a real conversation. And, if the conversation turns up a problem that you might be able to help with (or vise versa): Set up a call or a meeting OFF the show floor when you can engage the problem together.

We hope you had a great Dreamforce!

Role Play Prompt Patisserie, or, The Art of Learning with Your Food

90056835I hate working lunches. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy typing one handed while scarfing down a salad at my desk, but when I’m planning a training program with a client and they suggest that we “work through lunch,” I cringe. I like to let my mind wander during lunch. I like to surf the internet, walk around the block or, if I’m facilitating a program, get to know some of the training participants.

And it’s not just me – everyone needs a break. Our minds need a chance to press pause, to shift their focus and to do something different. Culturally, outside of the U.S., a working lunch is not acceptable. Eating is considered a crucial time to pause and take a break. Worse yet, working while eating may cause us to overeat because we aren’t paying attention to our food.

But, clients want to fit it all in. So how do I make everyone happy? My solution is to play with food. It’s an easy way to make people laugh and prompt a serious discussion.

Here are a few ways you can keep the learning going through lunchtime:

  1. Progressive table talk. Select key topics you want to cover during lunch. This is great for breakouts, where participants can select which topics they are interested in. Assign table hosts for each topic who will facilitate a discussion and make key points. Each course is 20 minutes and participants choose a new table for salad, entrees and dessert. Similarly, you can use the World Cafe exercise.
  2. It’s a Wrap. Prepare/order boxed lunches, create pairs of cards that connect to your topic. When participants open their boxes, they need to find the person (or people) with the card that matches theirs.  For example, if the cards are printed with the names of your competitors, ask participants to talk about how they position against that competitor, case studies they utilize, and what traps to watch out for.
  3. Custom Fortune Cookies. Want to start a discussion without any instructions? Drop off a few fortune cookies on each table, custom-filled with different statements or questions. Participants will open them up and start talking about their “fortunes.”
  4. Takeaway Cake. Help your participants really digest a few key points. Have a cake iced with the points you want to make. Invite the participants over for a discussion, then enjoy!
  5. Monopoly, without McDonalds. McDonalds is famous for having cups with monopoly pieces that peel off the cups with the potential to win big prizes! You can order similar promotional materials and print them with questions, contests or steps in a process. For one client, whose methodology was involved, participants had steps printed on their cups and had to put the steps in order before time was up!
  6. Cocktail napkins. It’s happy hour and you still want more? Print an executive caricature and tips from that exec on napkins for reps to pick up while they are drinking. If you number them, reps will surely try and collect them all.

My Bike Commute Makes Me a Better Consultant

1462590_10202513680382617_1678198969_oIt is the annual Bike Commute Challenge here in Portland, Oregon, which reliably gets wobbly fresh commuters on the roads and gets me thinking about why a person might choose to start commuting by bike for the first time.

I’ve been a bike commuter for as long as I’ve been in town: my family sold our car two weeks after arriving. So for me, the bike ride– complete with a cargo bike preschool drop-off for my kids– is pretty routine.

Riding bikes has obvious large-scale advantages: Reducing our fossil fuel usage is good for the environment, and reducing traffic in our cities makes them more pleasant and more functional places to live. Gridlock is bad for everyone. Riding a bike every day also makes me a better consultant. Here are three reasons why.

1) It connects me to people

Being on a bike is vulnerable. In my experience, when I am driving, I tend to relate to other drivers as though they were their cars. “Gah, why did that blue Civic cut me off?” On a bike, it is easier to connect with other road users as people– lots of visibility means lots of smiles, waves, hand signals, gestures, and so on. I feel like riding a bike in traffic every day makes me a better communicator, and more aware of our shared humanity, every day.

2) It makes me flexible

Due to an office mix-up, my bike wound up locked in a closet to which I do not have a key last Friday evening. I was the last one out the door, and so was stuck with no bike to get home. Fortunately, getting around primarily by bike means I’m used to having a back-up plan– because bikes break, I get sick and injured, or whatever else might complicate my travel. Last Friday I took a bus, but could have also grabbed a Car2Go or, with a bit of extra time, walked. Not owning a car makes me more aware of my transportation options, and better able to switch from plan A to plan B.

3) It helps me wake up… and cool down

Working life with small children can result in a lot of groggy mornings: working or socializing late and then slapping at the too-early alarm. In those moments, especially when there is rain or heat or snow to contend with outside, getting on the bike is the last thing I want to do. But research and experience show that physical exertion before work makes you smarter faster, and I know my bike commute does that for me. Similarly, at the end of a long work day, having 20 minutes in the saddle helps get me ready to be “mom” again when I get home, without lugging all my work baggage with me into playtime.

Does your commute change the way you think about your job? Tell us about it!

Digital Content Delivery 101

At Inqune, we build great training content. We work with our clients to build curriculums for their new & existing employees. Instructional decks that inspire instructors and students alike. Sales tools to give their teams that needle-moving boost. Enablement resources that turn sales teams into product evangelists.

178593372When we got started in 2012, this was the end of the line for our involvement. Except in the rare cases where we were doing content delivery, we would simply hand over a folder of decks and documents to the client and invite them to get their training programs underway.

What we’ve learned since is that it is crucial for our clients and their teams to have access to the materials that we create in an organized, useful, referenceable way. Now, we almost never plan an engagement that does not explicitly include some manner of digital content delivery.

I’ll outline the options from simplest (and cheapest) to most-fully-functioned.

Shared Folders

Whether it is on the company intranet or using Dropbox, Google Drive, or Box.com, the simplest way to make sure that your teams can access their training materials before, during, and after training is by hosting them in a shared folder system. If you want a simple, easy-to-implement, no-fuss solution, hosting materials in shared folders may be for you. Here are some tips to making the most of this kind of content delivery:

  1. Get the permissions right, every time. Take steps to ensure that when someone is added to a team or training group, they also get permissions to needed materials.
  2. Organization is key: think about how your team will use the materials, and make sure that folders and files have clear, obvious, searchable names.
  3. If your system supports it, adding tags or labels to documents can make materials even more searchable.
  4. Spread the word. Make sure that everyone on your team knows that these materials exist and where to find them.


Company Wiki

As with shared folders, a company wiki can be hosted internally– Mac OS X Server ships natively with Wiki tools, for example– or externally, through a service like Google Sites or a tool like . To make the most of your wiki, remember these tips:

  1. While you can host all sorts of materials on a wiki, we have found that they work best when most content lives natively on wiki pages, rather than existing in presentation decks, word processor documents, or in images. This vastly improves the speed and searchability of your content.
  2. Only use the features you need. Wiki templates often come with blog, news, and calendar features. If those don’t integrate with the way that your company spreads news & keeps schedules, take the time to remove them, or your site will look unfinished & sloppy.
  3. Keep it current! It is easy to build content into a wiki and then let it go stale, or worse, out of date. Make sure that someone on your team is assigned to keep the wiki up-to-date.
  4. Manage permissions! Who should be able to change your content pages? Who should be able to comment on them? Wiki systems give you fine-grained control and visibility into who is making what changes.
  5. Publicize it. This is crucial and easy to overlook. If your team’s most-asked questions are answered there, make sure that you include the link when you give answers. Better yet: Have all-team meetings when you launch the site, and make all-team announcements when you make value-add updates.


Learning Management System

If your training materials are multimedia, should be worked through in a particular sequence, and would be improved with quizzes and tests that report out to a supervisor, then you need a Learning Management System. Both local and cloud services exist, with a spectrum of features. Many of our clients have purchased Litmos to fill their learning management needs: this clever product is less fully-featured than more established players in the space, such as Blackboard, instead providing a simple, functionality-centric, and incredibly-user-friendly tool to keep your team’s training interactive and up-to-date.

  • Most LMS systems are primarily useful for leading learners through courses, and then allowing them to revisit those courses. If you also have sales tools or other reference materials, you should consider supplementing your LMS with a resource library built out in shared folders of a wiki.
  • Attend to your reporting. Who should receive quiz results? Direct supervisors? Mentors? Division heads? Have a meeting with all interested parties to decide, and check in later to make sure that these choices are still working for everyone. Note: If a quiz is simply to self-check, it is not necessary to send anyone the results!
  • Brand it! Make sure that your LMS site feels like part of your company. Add logos, colors, graphics, and so on to show your learners that even when they are building new skills, they are still part of the team.

There are lots of factors that go into figuring out how you want to get your content to your team. We’d love to talk to you about what will work best for you!

Keeping the Peace

Peace has been on my mind lately. Typically, at this point in the summer, I would write about keeping your team motivated in the summer to build pipeline, execute on projects and get ready for the approaching year-end push, but given all that is happening in the world, I can’t muster it.

More than one client has mentioned that the current violent conflicts have had an impact on their ability to focus. Indeed, research shows that conflict makes it difficult to focus on the task at hand, increases negative attitudes, suspicion, reduces confidence, and as the conflict grows, it can become less about the underlying issue and more about power and being “right” (Deutsch, 2006).

Although global violent conflict is much more serious than the conflict between two or more organizational groups, in my mind some of their causes are shared. This conflict is commonly associated with sales and marketing, but we’ve seen it between sales and services, services and finance and more. Internal organizational conflict can have a significant impact on your team’s productivity and the ability to be productive. Often times, clients engage us to help them navigate internal relationships and maximize the resources from each team.

Since I can’t do much about global violence, I’m thinking about keeping the peace at work instead. Below are three tips to creating peace among groups at your organization.

1. Identify common goals with underlying objectives.

Each team has different goals and objectives, but need each other to get work done. In sales and marketing, sales needs marketing to create a stellar brand, materials for presentations and distribution and generate leads. Marketing needs sales to follow-up on and close the leads, using the marketing materials, in order for the business to thrive.
Different teams must come together to come together to identify their common goals as an overall organization and the individual team objectives that serve those goals. Returning to this common goal can help create clarity when individuals or teams blame others for situations that arise. Some organizations create goals and objectives each year, others leave it to the individual teams.

If your organization doesn’t already create goals, ask yourselves:
What are we trying to achieve? (Next 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 24 months)
What needs to be done to achieve these goals?

2. Define roles and responsibilities.

After you have defined your goal and objectives, create a path to achieve those objectives with individuals strategies and tasks. Then, assign the appropriate person from each team to be responsible for each component. Start by simply answering the question: Who is going to do what?

Ask yourselves:
What is my teams’ role in achieving our organizational goals?
What can we contribute in service to these goals?

With mutual agreement, conflict will still come up, but when it does, you will have a foundation to return to and reset the relationship by reviewing what was agreed upon and assessing what updates need to be made as the organization changes.

2a. Regular check-ins.

Priorities change, your goals, objectives, roles and responsibilities will too. It is
important to treat them as such and set aside time to reaffirm expectations. Regularly checking-in and assessing your progress towards the agreed upon plans keeps everyone on the same team. If you have proactively set-up these meetings, it will hold the team accountable and you will be working from the same list. Without this, each team tends to create expectations individually that aren’t agreed to and aren’t met, causing additional conflict.

3. Determine the appropriate venues to discuss conflict.

It’s going to come up, and instead of hoping that it won’t, plan together for how you will deal with it. Too often, we see conflicts played out in front of the entire organization at a large gathering or in a board meeting. By setting aside time specifically to discuss dissatisfaction, realign goals, roles and expectations, you can prevent the conflict from spilling over into other venues and stalling work that needs to be completed.
This can be incorporated into your regular check-ins, or you can create a joint plan for when and how you will work as a team to bring up conflict and issues, before they boil over.

Deutsch, M. (2006). The Handbook of Conflict Resolution. M. Deutsch, P. Coleman, E. Marcus (Eds.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

But What Should I DO?

469845713Consultants sometimes gets a bad rap. We spend a lot of time talking, formulating plans, and presenting projects that, lets be honest, often don’t get implemented. We find ourselves pulled between telling the client what they want to hear and getting stuck with the broken status quo or telling them what we actually think– and getting fired.

Worse, still, is the parts of the process where it is important that we don’t say anything at all. We know that clients hire us for our expertise, and they can get frustrated when we don’t pony up the secrets to success early in the process. But these are the times when we find it is most effective to keep our ideas to ourselves, and listen instead.

This is most apparent when we conduct discovery — the interviews where we learn about the problems and processes that we have been called in to solve. Usually, we begin a conversation with a working hypothesis about what we might recommend… but we never, ever share it.

Why not? Couldn’t it cut down the time in the process? No. It can’t. For three reasons:

1) We don’t have enough data.

We might be wrong. (Full disclosure: We are wrong a lot.) We need to test our hypothesis by talking to a lot of people and getting a clear picture of what is currently going on. We might need to adjust our hypothesis. We find clients can identify with proposals when presented in the context of actual examples from their environment– if we introduce our thoughts too early, we won’t get a clean set of examples to structure our ideas around.

2) It doesn’t really matter what we think.

If we took one look at a client and decided what the issue was and recommended a solution, we might be right, but it wouldn’t matter. Individuals, couples, groups and organizations can only make changes if they buy in, and the best way for them to buy in is to come to a conclusion on their own. We can guide the conversation and point out trends and patterns that we see, but our recommendation will not take root if the client doesn’t agree with what we are solving for. It is important to let people talk through problems so that they develop their own awareness of them.

3) Symptoms are sexy, but solutions are sexier.

Our job is to help identify the root of the issue, where real change can start. Early on, we can only see the symptoms and can’t identify what ties them together. You might think the issue is how you are training team members on a process, but we need to learn about the process and find out how that is interacting with the training or description. We don’t know where the root of the issue is. We can put band-aid solutions on symptoms, but we need to understand how to create real and lasting change.

Our clients often remark that we are able to understand them & their business quickly.

Obsessing over getting a complete picture of who they are at the beginning, asking a lot of questions of many people, reviewing material, and picking up on what is unsaid in meetings (starting late, not contradicting each other, focusing on specific attributes) creates a strong foundation that allows us to get into our clients’ mindset and build solutions that they can have ownership over, sustain and grow.

SKO Season 2014: Lessons Learned

Alana Kadden Ballon, of Inqune, works with a team at one of our 2014 SKO events.
Alana Kadden Ballon, of Inqune, works with a team at one of our 2014 SKO events.

Whew! We’ve been cranking since company kickoff season ended last month. Our team is working non-stop as we make the development campaign promises of those kickoffs into reality. Here, we take a moment to reflect on what we learned from the four unique events we were lucky enough to participate in globally.

8. There is never enough time.

Everyone likes to revise their content until the very last minute, no matter how early you start, how clear your objectives, or when your printing deadline for materials. We set this expectation upfront and try to be as flexible as possible, but limit last minute changes to minor content adjustments.

7. Preparation is key.

Even if you think you know your content, you need to practice. It always sounds different in your head compared to coming out of your mouth. Test it out. Out loud. A few times.

6. It is going to run late.

When you run late and cut sessions, it tells people certain topics aren’t important, so be respectful of your objectives and give each session equal time. You need a sergeant in arms to work with the presenters to keep them on track, dry-run to make sure people understand how fast the time goes, pad time in the schedule and be flexible. Pro tip: Put the speakers who tend to run the longest at the end of the day.

5. Create dialogue.

Make time for questions, on all topics. Create group discussion forums and have them report back. End the day with an executive panel Q&A and allow people to ask questions, speak their mind and learn what is important to the entire team. Create a culture of discussion.

4. What you do afterwards matters.

If you say you are going to do follow-up DO IT! Without reinforcement, additional programming and resources, the impact of a kickoff is very limited.

3. Having fun can be more important than anything else you do.

So much learning, team formation and understanding can come out of the activities that challenge the reps during and after the sessions. Let them show off their talents and get them thinking and working together.

2. Everyone is nervous.

Sometimes participants are worried about change, new leaders are worried about taking on the mantle, managers are worried about results. Do everything you can to make everyone feel comfortable.

1. People are there to hear the leaders.

The question I get asked most frequently about kickoffs is: why do people have them? Usually these events are meant to celebrate accomplishments, align to future goals, learn new information including messaging or market approaches, and bond as a team. But really, truly, people are there to listen to the leaders. People are programmed to tune into what their leaders say as a way of identifying what is  important. So really, they are there to hear from you. Make it good.

Lessons from Back-to-School Night

burlap sewing
Last night was Back-to-School Night in my four-year-old son’s Montessori classroom. The children had each made a list with their teachers of the activities that they wanted to share with their parents, and after a brief welcome from their teacher, they started buzzing around the room, gathering their favorite puzzles, paints, and other supplies.

The first item on my son’s long list was Burlap Bead Sewing. He brought a tray with small squares of burlap, a jar of beads, a needle stuck in a cork, a spool of embroidery floss, and a small pair of scissors. And he talked me through each step:

“First you measure the thread as long as the table top. Then you snip it with these scissors. Then you thread the needle, and tie the ends together. You might need to ask for help with the knot. (I helped with the knot.) Then you put the thread through the burlap. Thread a bead onto the needle, then make a stitch. Then, do it again.”

He worked, slowly and carefully, until there was a long line of beads stitched into the fabric. He asked for help tying the final knot, and then sat back, proud. “Isn’t it beautiful?” And it was. After appreciating it, I moved to help him clean up so that we could see the next activity on his list, but he stopped me.

“No, mama. When you’ve had a lesson, you have to do it right after. Or you won’t remember.”

And so I sat down in my son’s tiny seat. And I sewed a line of beads into his burlap square. Teal and orange: mine was an Inqune-themed embroidery project.

Four year olds are not so different from thirty-four year olds– but when teaching, we often treat them as though they were. Doing is a crucial part of learning. When we design trainings, it is crucial to keep in mind that “activities,” “games,” and “practice sessions” are not auxiliary elements that we throw in to “make it fun” or “keep everyone’s attention.” Using new knowledge as soon as we have been exposed to it builds crucial pathways in our brains.

And that’s what I learned at Back-to-School night. That, and a refresher on easel painting.

The Salesforce Question

178737057 In our first year, we have gotten to work with over a dozen companies. All of our clients have connected with us through personal relationships or referrals and we’re honored to have built such a great client base. When we sit down with a client to discuss their needs, they often ask me The Salesforce Question. I say, “How would you like to do x project?” And they reply, “Well, I don’t know. What did you do for x at Salesforce?”

Having worked at Salesforce for over 7 years, I could certainly answer: “Well, Salesforce did it this way.” But don’t be fooled, there is not just one answer to this question. The truth is, over the years, Salesforce has done many different things to contribute to their success. And the key elements of Salesforce’s approach is less about what they did, but how they did it.

There is one thing they have done consistently: they establish and maintain a disciplined workforce. Most firms don’t want to hear that: they call me hoping that I can give a quick 3-day training and inject whatever magic potion Salesforce is using. The truth– that the teams are incredibly agile and able to adjust to new messaging and process, which managers consistently reinforce all the way to the top– is hard.

Outside of discipline, what you choose to do to train your team is built on three things:

1) Stage of development

What you coach your team to do will depend on where you are as a firm. The messaging and strategy for a firm whose reps are building awareness is different from a firm whose product is mature and well known in the market.

2) Resources

Companies have varying levels of resources to invest. Either they can invest more time and money or scale back their goals. Sometimes, we have to get creative and leverage their internal team to lead things we might outsource if there was no limit to money. Other times, we create tools to help that are cheaper than what we might build or buy without limits.

3) Culture

Every company has a different culture, with different values and ways that work gets done. Individual company culture must be core to training, or the lessons you are trying to convey won’t work. Some clients want to be “just like Salesforce,” while many others say “we don’t want to be like Salesforce at all.” Whatever your company culture, it is important to make that part of your learning style.

I read a lot of blog posts where people write that certain approaches don’t work. That always makes me shake my head: if something categorically didn’t work, ever, under any circumstances, you wouldn’t have to write about it in a post. Individuals have different styles in how they sell, market, consult and learn. So, when designing a learning program, we try to create resources that meet individual needs and are as personalized as possible.

The answer “it depends,” isn’t popular or easy, but it is right.