Listen Up

We recently had an amazing client meeting. It ran for more than 2 hours, and in that time, we the BarnRaisers, collectively, spoke for maybe 20 minutes. That’s right. The rest was filled with the client. And it was amazing.

Over the course of the meeting, the client shared their successes and opportunities. They told us about current and forthcoming organizational shifts. They shared their visions and concerns. And we listened.

That’s the number one thing we do at BarnRaising Associates. Listen. We know it’s a great client meeting when we spend no more than 10% of the time talking. In fact, at a minimum, our goal is to be listening no less than 80% of the time. Why? Because it’s only by listening that we’re able to understand our client’s pressure points and opportunities for growth. By really listening we hear not only what is said, but take note of all that is left unsaid too.

Listening gives us insights into organizational culture and team beliefs – all key components of building a strong brand and leveraging brand equity. How? We pay attention to who around the table is doing the talking. How other members of our client’s team are responding to comments. When are they leaning in? When are they disengaging? So yes, we’re listening to their words, but also to their body language.

Beyond all of this, we’re also listening to the silences. We’re taking note of what questions our clients aren’t asking. And, perhaps most importantly, what questions they don’t have the answers too.

Because we build trust and establish space for clients to share openly, we are able to identify concerns and opportunities they may not have recognized or identified themselves. By paying attention to the unasked questions, we’re able to develop effective strategies (marketing, communications, leadership, sales or other) that don’t just address what our clients want, but also what they need.

It’s amazing how overlooked the simple skill of listening is. Harvard Business Review shared findings from some listening studies. There are many great insights in the article, but some key takeaways include:

  • People feel judged when given feedback, but are motivated when given the opportunity to share
  • People share more readily when they are paired with good listeners
  • Good listeners enable speakers to see all sides of a situation

As consultants, our number one job is to listen. But, it’s an often overlooked skill that anyone can, and should, practice. So, how can you become a great listener?

  1. Be present. Leave your cell phone in a desk drawer. Look the speaker in their eyes. Let them know that you are there. Take time and really connect with your speaker.
  2. Be engaged in the conversation. Actively listening isn’t sitting in stone silence. Lean in, nod your head or provide other subtle cues (“mm-hmm”, “yes”, or “go on”) to let the speaker know you’re still with them. This builds trust and affirms your speaker’s self-esteem. Back in 2016, the Harvard Business Review shared another article about good listeners – and what they do. In it, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman share that “good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting.”
  3. Ask open-ended questions to encourage your speaker to share more. Communication is always two-sided, so entering into the conversation by asking probing, insightful questions will show the speaker that you care and allow them to expand on ideas.
  4. Repeat back what you’ve heard, to confirm your understanding. Providing the speaker an opportunity to know if they’ve conveyed what they wanted will help to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  5. Refrain from judgment and knee-jerk problem-solving. Don’t jump to conclusions. These can all lead to interruptions or leave the speaker feel unheard. Instead, keep your mind open and make the space to let what was shared really sink in.

Listening. Really listening. And then working to address and answer not only what’s been shared, but also all that’s been left unsaid is the key to building effective strategies.

So, what is it you’d like to say? Drop us a line – we’d love to listen.

Balancing Act

In our last blog, we chatted about the cult of busyness. We asked readers to raise their hands if they’ve ever heard or uttered the phrase “I can’t, I’m very busy.” We dug into the idea that, as a society, we’ve embraced the myth that busy equals important. To be Descartian, we could take the famous “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) and say something along the lines of “Et occupatus sum, ergo sum momenti” (I am so busy, therefore I am important) – be gentle with me, my Latin is fairly rusty. But, as that last blog highlighted: this isn’t a good thing. Busyness isn’t something we should strive for. Blindly following to-do lists won’t necessarily make you more productive.

If I asked you to, once again, raise your hands if you feel that the demands in your life have you spinning your wheels and feeling exhausted, I’d guess that you’d all be nodding at your screens with a hand or two up (if you’re holding your phones, be careful!). And I’d be right there with you. Although I know how important it is to stay focused on work that is both pressing and important, I can get distracted by the technology gnats: email alerts, social media, calendar requests… you get the idea. In fact, how many of you have had an alert (or two) pull you away from reading this? I’m not judging – it’s a reality. Technology has done a lot to increase our connectivity and encourage productivity, but when used without mindfulness it can lead to a time-sucking rabbit hole.

This rabbit hole of being busy but unproductive is the story author and speaker Brian Solis digs into in his latest book Lifescale: How to live a more creative, productive, and happy life.

I got to hang out with Brian back in March. Well, that’s an overstatement. I was lucky enough to get a seat in his packed Social Media Marketing World breakout session. At the end of his talk, I was able to say hi and connect with him briefly. But, let’s go back to a keyword. His session was packed – I’m not exaggerating. The room was filled with people whose jobs rely on technology. Who make a living on how a client’s digital campaign is running. In determining success by the number of likes. In being responsive at all times to all things. And here they were, looking for the secret to finding balance in lives and livelihoods that demand immersion in technology.

The tension of technology is easy to see. For years we’ve heard about how it is supposed to help us feel more connected and increase productivity. But do you feel connected and productive? Studies back up the reality that many of us experience every day. In 2018, The World Economic Forum released an article that examined new technology and productivity. In it, the writers postulated that “it’s possible that [information and communications technology] and other new technologies are not just doing less to boost productivity than past innovations; they may actually have some negative side effects that undermine productivity and GDP growth.” Why’s this? Let’s look at what we call many new technologies: disruptors. These technologies disrupt things. Including people’s attention spans.

In his book, Brian shares personal stories about how his creativity and productivity was stuck. He went to work each day to write a book only to end a full day with, sometimes quite literally, nothing on the page. How was this possible?

“Then one day I was struggling to complete an article titled ‘How to Focus While Being Distracted,’” Brian writes. “And the irony hit me, hard. I was totally distracted, being drawn to notification after notification from Snapchat, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter. I’d tell myself not to reach for my phone, but there I’d be checkout out a picture of that funny sandwich board outside one of my friends [sic] favorite cafés.”

Sound familiar?

Not only does technology suck our time away, but it can also negatively impact our state of mind. A quick Google search will show you study after study about how technology can (and is) negatively impacting mental health. In fact, Brian, a self-identified geek apologist who champions new technology, put it out there in black and white for all to read. “There are two ways to readily influence behavior: (1) manipulate it or (2) inspire it. The technology companies have chosen, for the most part, to manipulate it.” The result? Digital Distraction.

Don’t get me wrong. Brian’s book isn’t a doomsday prediction. He remains firm in his belief that new technology can be great. But, only when it’s in balance.

Here I’m going to hit pause for a second and share an Alan Quarry-ism. There is no such thing as balance. Only balancing. We’re always working towards balancing. And this Quarry-ism helped me take Brian’s advice and suggestions and put them to work.

Throughout the remainder of Lifescale, Brian shares hacks to deal with digital (and other) distractions and lead a more creative, productive and happy life (as the title of his book attests). It’s a series of looking back in order to plan for the future. It’s an act of balancing. Of checking in, of identifying what pulls your attention away from what’s important, causing you to stumble, in order to refocus and continuing balancing – until the next pull away.

Brian offers a number of solutions to how he dealt with distractions and found his FLOW. What’s that? According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi’s book, it’s an immersion in what we’re doing that is so complete that we remain focused. The result? We feel fulfilled by the work we create.

Brian’s tips and tricks aren’t another checklist for his readers. He knows that they’re neither exhaustive nor one hundred percent applicable to everyone (in fact, in the conclusion he reminds us that lifescaling is our own personal exploration into discovering what works best for us). But, these are tested and true ideas that worked for him. And, they’re a good start. So, what are they?

Brian did a great job visually breaking down the entire book into a journey map wherein we all need to:

  1. Realize where we’re at
  2. Awaken to what’s distracting us
  3. Refocus our resources (time, brain power, creativity)
  4. Believe in the premise that creativity stops time (creating productivity and flow) and distractions waste time
  5. Reconsider what truly makes each of us happy and productive – what is it we really want/need to accomplish?
  6. To achieve what’s most important:
    • Find what energizes us – and focus time there
    • Find purpose in our various roles
    • Rekindle past passions
    • Stay in alignment with our personal values
  7. Liberate ourselves from the distractions
  8. Embrace silence and find a sense of calm in turning off our notifications and staying focused in our deep dive
  9. Visualize of what it is we really want to achieve (there’s a great piece in the book around the Pixar storyboarding process)
  10. Go with the flow – not the push and pull, but the authentic, creative flow you’ve created

Lifescale is a great, short read that many people can relate to. It gives personal examples that are at times funny and disheartening, and which underscore our need to use technology – not be used by it. His tips and hacks won’t all work for you – but they’re a great place to start your personal journey and begin to rekindle your personal passion – whatever that may be –  and unlock your creative power.

I can’t, I’m very busy

Raise your hand if you’ve heard it – or maybe even said it – before: I’m very busy. Often implied with this statement is “Because I am very busy, I am therefore very important.”

We’re not arguing the truth of this statement. In fact, we’d be prone to agree with it. At work, at home, in life. Each of us is chasing the elusive holy grail of work-life balance (overlooking the fact that it is an ongoing process of balancing). Many of us live and almost idolize the current culture of busy.

In a Psychology Today article, Anna Akbari writes: “Professional life in general (and urban life in particular) is centred on a culture of busyness. But is it out of necessity, or are we addicted to busyness? Does the “I’m so busy!” mantra and chronic unavailability validate us? Does it make us feel more important? Like things are moving forward and we’re winning at life.”

Maybe. But, that’s not actually a good thing.

The Journal of Consumer Research shared a study out of Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown that found “positive status inferences in response to long hours of work and lack of leisure time are mediated by the perceptions that busy individuals possess desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition), leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.” Wait, what’s that saying? Basically,  we’ve come to equate our worth – the value of our time – with how little of it we have left. That we’re successful not because of the things we have (think mansions, yachts, and vacation homes) but rather only if and when we’re busy.

Forbes published 10 Ways to Buck ‘The Cult of Busy’ Habit for a Better Work Life Balance. In it, author NF Goldston writes that “somehow being busy has become a status symbol.”  Whether around the lunchroom, the water cooler or the kids’ sports field, it is almost as if we are trying to one-up each other for busyness. And for what? What does busyness actually get you?

The cult of busy isn’t new. In 2016, Johns Hopkins Health Review reported that “more than one-third of Americans say they don’t have enough time in their day to get things done. Work hours bleeding into home life and a prevailing belief that we need to do it all and do it well have created a feeling of constant activity.”

Cue BarnRaising Associates founder, Alan Quarry, perking up his ears. If there’s one thing he doesn’t like, it’s the cult of busy. As BarnRaising associates, we’re not rewarded for being busy. That’s not to say we’re doing nothing. Good work is being done. But, that’s because Quarry is pushing us to shift our perceptions.

When he sees associates and clients dipping their toes into the busyness pool, he’s quick to point out that “activity does not equal achievement.” In other words, when we think we’re busy we’re often distracted doing busy work. We’re not actually working on our priorities. There’s an important distinction that’s being made here. Being busy does not equate to being productive. And, at the end of the day, productivity is what matters.

At BarnRaising Associates we don’t have to do lists (can you imagine!), but we do have priority lists. Associates look at our projects and time and then prioritize. We’re not consumed with busyness or focused on busy work. To do lists have a tendency to result in a false sense of accomplishment. We check off all the tiny little non-important things, chat about how busy we are, and leave the day or the week feeling like we have done a lot of stuff. However, by shifting our focus to priorities we are able to achieve our main goal: accelerating impact for our clients. Moving away from being occupied with busy to-dos to staying focused on priorities enables us to deliver what our clients need from us in a (wait for it) timely manner.

That’s right. By focusing on priorities we actually earn time back. How? Urgency and importance. A simple matrix of what’s both urgent and important (versus what’s neither urgent nor important) quickly allows associates (and our clients) to sift through the clutter. In this manner, priorities rise to the top. This process is a key part of working with clients because it encourages them to sift through the stuff, to cut the BS, and to make the sacrifices to get to what’s most important to them, their work, and, ultimately, their clients.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a one-time thing. Projects are, by their nature, dynamic. So looking back at the matrix allows us to continuously stay focused on the most pressing demands. And, there’s another cool thing that results: associates and clients stay focused on areas where they’re skilled.

More often than not, something that isn’t urgent or important to one person may be both urgent and important to another associate or member of the client team. This results in a natural delegation of tasks, where individuals are equipped to take responsibility and accountability for aspects of the bigger project. Can anyone else see the win-win in this?

To be fair, to break the culture of busyness there is one more thing that needs to be done. An honest moment of self-reflection, and the readiness to say no.

At BarnRaising Associates, this works because we only ever take on six clients over the course of a year. Shocking? You bet. In fact, many others in our industry wouldn’t hold back at snickering at us suckers, turning away projects – and profits – for what? Time? (Oh cult of busy – you’re everywhere!) But, we know that being busy won’t serve our clients or our associates. Six clients enables us to remain focused on our number one priority: changing the world. Six clients frees us to be nimble and agile – both of which are important in our line of work. Six clients means we can isolate and meet priorities. That, in the end, impact is accelerated. Which is why we’re here.

We know what we’re good at. We excel at cutting through the clutter and really listening not only to what our clients are saying but also to what they aren’t saying. We don’t allow ourselves to get distracted by the little things and instead dive deep into work that matters. We know that the cult of busy isn’t for us. It doesn’t serve our clients. Which means that while we may not be any less busy than anyone else, we are a whole lot more productive.

Rumbling with the Vulnerability

If you know anything about us BarnRaisers, you know that we give a shit. This tagline isn’t just for shock and awe – did you hear that consultant cuss! – but is an authentic guiding principal. We care deeply about not only our clients but also about building a better world. Which is why we will only take on clients who are committed to making the world a better place.

As a team, we’re committed to gaining insights and tools to help us serve our clients better. From classes to conferences to reading, we’re always finding ways to remain an effective resource for those we’re working with. And, because we give a shit about our clients – current, past and future – we thought what better way to help than to pass on some of this knowledge on to you? With that in mind – welcome to our inaugural BarnRaising Bookclub, where each month we’ll share insights we gained from a book we’ve delved into.

Continue reading “Rumbling with the Vulnerability”

Stop Floundering

Ah, founders. We love you. Without you, we wouldn’t have amazing innovations and breakthroughs. Your ideas, blood, sweat and tears are making our lives – dare we say world! – better. By asking tough questions and looking at the world through your own unique lens you’ve given us exactly what we needed – oftentimes even when we didn’t know we were missing it. Continue reading “Stop Floundering”

To Lead Not to Manage

We’ve all met them. Those elusive unicorns of the business world: good leaders. Charismatic, energetic, There’s a difference between managers and leaders. Leaders are individuals who inspire and encourage those around them. They seek out collective wins, they celebrate the successes of their hires. Leaders focus on the big picture and don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. That is, however, where managers thrive. Managers are the hawk circling their prey – keeping an eye on every detail and deadline. Second guessing their staff, unashamedly taking praise for successes and quickly attributing blame for failures. Continue reading “To Lead Not to Manage”

Your Best Year Ever

For some, the New Year starts at the stroke of midnight, January 1. It’s full of Old Lang Syne, champagne, kisses and resolutions. For others, like us, the New Year starts the Tuesday after Labour Day. It aligns with the start of school, and fall, and pumpkin spice lattes. For others, it could be the start of a new fiscal year. Regardless of when your New Year (official or otherwise) starts, we can all agree that it tends to be filled with reflection, visioning and plans. Continue reading “Your Best Year Ever”

Do you feel what I feel?

Design – be it a product, service or business strategy – works when it’s human-centred. When the designers – graphic, product, marketers or managers – take the time to really understand not only the problem or issue from the customers’ perspectives, but also the solutions. Continue reading “Do you feel what I feel?”