Is the consulting model broken?

The Digital Champions Club recently celebrated its third birthday. At our most recent bootcamp, I shared with members the story of how the program came to be. Prior to starting the Digital Champions Club, I had spent a few years working as a consultant. I would go into organisations and work with them to map their internal processes and information flows. From this we would identify improvement opportunities where technology could create a competitive advantage. On the back of the process mapping, I would then often get asked to come back and help implement solutions.

But somewhere around three and a half years ago I became increasingly disenchanted with the approach I was taking. Although I would always enter into a consulting relationship with the best of intentions, I realised there were systemic issues with the approach that would always stop me from creating the best outcomes.

My goals weren’t necessarily aligned with the client’s goals
The client was looking for long-term sustainable change, but as a consultant I was generally paid a fixed price to deliver short term outcomes (either the mapping process, a report, or ‘implementation’). As it is difficult (and often unappealing) to structure consulting arrangements with long term incentives (consultants don’t like being tied to outcomes they have little control over and businesses generally don’t like paying consultants to do more work than absolutely necessary) the structure of most consulting agreements encourages consultants to do ‘just enough to be invited back’ rather than ‘everything they can’.

I left and my expertise left with me
One of the biggest challenges with consulting relationships is that at the end of the agreement the consultant leaves, and when they leave most of their expertise leaves with them. But perhaps even more perversely the consulting model incentives consultants to keep their intellectual property secret. The more they share the less the consultant is required next time.

As a result, it makes little sense to hire consultants for work that is critical to long-term success and enduring in nature (consultants are most suited to providing specific expertise in small amounts over short periods). For critical, enduring work we are better off employing someone directly or developing the skills internally. Given the increasingly significant role that technology plays in organisations, I felt the identification and implementation work really needed to be managed internally (even if I might be needed for some technology-specific expertise).

I didn’t know the organisations intimately
As an outsider there was always much information and many people I didn’t know. This meant I was generally guessing when I gave someone a proposal. It was an educated guess based on what had mostly worked for similar organisations in the past but it was a guess none the less. You could quite accurately describe this as a ‘cookie cutter’ solution.

The nature of the relationship also meant I had a vested interest in diagnosing a ‘problem’ and recommending a ’solution’ that aligns with my expertise, even if it wasn’t the primary problem the client was facing. This was not something that was done unethically but the limits of my expertise would have undoubtedly blinded me to alternative ideas.

Finally, a lack of intimacy would always negatively impact implementation. Without a deep understanding of an organisation’s systems, how they were used, and the people who used them, it was always difficult to know where to focus change efforts and to do them in a way that stuck.

From consulting to coaching
This was the catalyst of moving from consulting to coaching. I realised that all these three issues could be addressed by working with my clients to develop internal champions to do the work that I had previously been doing. Much like the software as a service model where you pay for software on a monthly basis (and stop paying if you stop getting value) coaching resulted in a longer term engagement that better aligned my goals with the goals of the client.

This approach also ensured that expertise was developed and retained internally. Not only did this provide clients with a certain peace of mind, it also meant that change happened continuously and, as a result, became easier. The coaching model also solved the problem of intimacy. By training up internal experts who already had knowledge of the organisation’s systems and the trust of their colleagues it meant that the right opportunities were identified and individual needs could be better understood and addressed.

I think the idea of coaching to develop internal experts over hiring consultants makes sense intuitively. It’s perhaps why all three of the clients I was consulting to when I launched the Digital Champions Club were all willing to make the move to a coaching approach.

This is not to say we should have a world without consultants. There are undoubtedly situations where access to short-term specialist expertise is required (in fact members of the Digital Champions Club are often encouraged to engage them on specific projects). But rather it is reminder to understand the limitations of the consulting model and appreciate there are other approaches that have the potential to offer better value and greater long term success.

How to predict the future (and almost always get it right)

Understanding the future is the ultimate competitive advantage. Defining strategies and making decisions become a whole lot easier if you already know where the future is taking us. Unfortunately, knowing the future is incredibly difficult…but that doesn’t seem to stop us trying.

  • People buy lotto tickets hoping they’ve predicted the winning numbers.
  • Property investors buy property expecting to make a capital gain.
  • Executives create annual budgets that determine spending priorities for the next 12 months.

Now perhaps this feels like an unfair comparison, and in some ways you’d be right (but perhaps not for the reasons that you’d expect). But if I was being unfair to anyone in this comparison it would be property investors. Well, perhaps not all property investors, but at least long-term property investors. Long-term property investors aren’t too concerned about whether they are right in the short-term. They believe, and the evidence is there to support them, that over the long-term property values go up. So although there is a bonus in buying property at the bottom of a property cycle, over the long-term it won’t make that much of a difference.

Buying lotto tickets and creating budgets (along with any other form of strategic decision making) is, like property investment, a bet on the future. But unlike property investing, the odds of getting it right over the short-term, or even the long-term are not stacked in your favour. The odds of winning lotto are something like 8,000,000:1 which means that if you were to play the same set of numbers for both the Wednesday and Saturday draw for approximately 78,000 years you should expect to win the jackpot once.

And yet I would tell you these are better odds than you creating an accurate 12 month budget.

“Heresy!” you say? Yet, this is the truth. Even though the odds of winning lotto aren’t great at least they are calculable and finite. At the end of the day, there are only 8 million or so different combinations of numbers and we know that one of them has to win. When it comes to budgeting we are making a prediction about not just the organisation’s priorities, but also its operating conditions and countless other factors outside an executive’s direct control. Unlike lotto where the options are finite, for organisations the number of possible permutations of the future they could face are infinite.

And yet, although the odds of getting our budget right are infinitely lower, most people put more faith in their budget than their lotto numbers. People are generally aware that their chance of winning lotto is low and don’t go and spend their winnings until they’ve won. But in business, people will happily start spending their budget well before they know if their predicted future will come to pass.*

*Those of you who are regular readers of my blog would know that I have a general dislike of budgeting. Although this isn’t the focus of this particular article, I can’t help myself but to reiterate that an overt focus on working to budget encourages people to justify decisions based on the cost rather than their value generation. This leads to some perverse outcomes where people spend their budget on just about anything at the end of the financial year. This is rarely strategic, and has little consideration for value generation. Instead it’s done to ‘protect’ their budget so as to justify similar levels of spending in the next budget period. But perhaps the most perverse part of this is that by spending the organisation’s money on things it may not actually need they are likely to get praise from their manager for their ability to ‘work to budget’.

The problem with budgeting, along with many other planning activities undertaken in organisations are reflected in this quote by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

I would argue that in the way in which many organisations approach their planning activities is that they a) put too little thinking into the planning, and b) put too much faith in the plan.

The starting point for any meaningful planning or budgeting activity needs to be ‘we don’t actually know what’s going to happen’. We cannot predict the future accurately and circumstances WILL change. It naturally follows then that any plan that emerges from the planning process has to have the flexibility to change and adapt as new information comes to light.*

*And this is where I’d argue that budgets are particularly insidious. The data and numbers are often presented (and interpreted) as facts rather than as representations and guesses. This is a growing problem with data-driven decision making more broadly. We forget that the data is often just a representation of something else (ie the amount of time someone spends on your website is meant to represent their level of engagement or interest in your products…as opposed to their level of boredom).


An approach to strategic decision making where only one future is considered (normally the one we prefer the most) and one plan developed is more than just naive, it is Reckless, especially in a world where technology is driving rapid and unpredictable change.

A better proposition, and an approach I see a number of organisations attempt, is to acknowledge that their future is unpredictable and to maintain multiple options that can be enacted if the right conditions emerge. The only issue with this approach is that it’s Reactive and relies on the organisations to be able to identify environmental changes in real time.

An even better approach is to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty that organisations face and take the time to consider multiple futures (or scenarios) during the planning process. Not only will this result in a better plan, it will provide decision makers with the foresight (or memories of things to come) to know if/when the plan is no longer suitable.

But the most Robust approach of all would be to consider multiple futures during the planning process and then have a suite of options you could draw on as conditions evolve and opportunities emerge. This approach not only gives decision makers foresight, it provides them with ready-made plans that can be put into action as required.

Another failed attempt at predicting the future

These are the foundational ideas of scenario planning, a strategic planning approach pioneered by Royal Dutch Shell back in the 1960s. It was famously used to predict and prepare for the formation of OPEC and assisted South Africa through its post Apartheid transition.

Interestingly enough scenario planning was my last ‘real job’ before moving to Melbourne back in 2010. For close to two years before leaving Perth I worked in Rio Tinto’s scenario planning and strategy team, helping the various business units develop robust plans and strategies for the future. And although a lot of my work since has had a futurist slant to it, it was only in the last couple of months that I’ve had the opportunity to work in the scenario planning space again.

Over the last two months I have been working with a state government agency to develop four 10-year scenarios of their future. These were finally delivered at their leadership team’s strategic offsite last week. Using the same video and sound driven approach I use for my keynotes, each of the scenarios was presented as mini movie with customised soundscape that transported participants into four very unique stories of how the future might unfold. We then provided participants the opportunity to ask questions about the future and work on tables to understand what each of the futures might mean for them.

Now this whole article has made my headline look a lot like clickbait. On one hand I’m suggesting that you can predict the future and on the other I’m telling you the future’s unpredictable. It turns out that the secret to predicting the future is to not fall into the trap of picking just one future. Instead of picking one future, scenario planning seeks to define the boundaries around the future, and then help you prepare for a future that will inevitably fall somewhere in-between.

What this means is I can’t tell you specifically what the lotto numbers will be on Saturday but I can tell you that each of the six winning numbers will be between 1 and 45, and no two of them will be the same.

Let’s check back next week and see if I was right.

Find out what makes you common, not what makes you unique

We live in a society that values individuality both in our personal and professional lives. Personal Branding and Unique Selling Propositions are all the rage, but there is at least one area where we are better off seeking out what we have in common with others – rather than what makes us special.

 
Technology.
 
If we look at most of the good apps and software available to us, they generally do one thing really well: Dropbox excels at making it easy to share files with others, Gmail allows us easily receive, manage and send messages, and although I’m not a huge fan, Microsoft Word does a good job of dividing up information into A4 size chunks and sharing them in a way that most other people will be able to access and open.
 
This is in no way an accident. The value proposition for software developers relies on identifying a task their software can do better than others, charge a very small amount of money for it (and probably throw in a free option), and do it a million times over with low marginal costs. The value proposition for almost every software or app developer on the planet is reliant on scale, and therefore commonality. In fact, the general rule for startups is that unless you can have 10,000 active users (which means 10,000 people who all want to do exactly the same thing) then you don’t have something worth investing in.
 
The benefits of commonality and using off the shelf solutions are numerous. 
 
  1. If you find a problem for which there’s already an established solution, then it’s likely you have an actual problem rather than an assumed problem.
  2. The time and cost of developing a solution is greatly reduced if someone has already gone ahead and done it for you. This in turn means that you can solve the problem and generate a return faster.
  3. The competition amongst developers within a particular specialisation means that they have thought far more about required functionality and usability than you have.
  4. The cost of maintaining the solution is greatly reduced because you’re sharing development costs across all users instead of just one.
  5. You can learn from the experience of other users before you. If you’re unique, then you will be making all the mistakes yourself. When you seek out commonality, you can learn from all the mistakes that everyone else has already made. This greatly reduces the risk of implementation and dramatically improves the value proposition.
 
So how is it that we reconcile our uniqueness with the need for commonality?
At a strategic level we need to be able to understand what differentiates our organisation from others. Delivering against our strategy is generally achieved through a series of objectives. Those objectives will consist of multiple activities and we can break down activities into a collection of tasks. It is not at the strategic level, but rather at the task level we should be seeking commonality with others.
 
The ability to find commonality with other organisations and identifying mutual technology opportunities is key to the value proposition of the Digital Champions Club. It allows members to identify new opportunities, reduces risk and leads to faster and more successful implementation. Members of the program explicitly commit to sharing the projects they’re working on and as a result, we now have a shared library of over 100 projects that have been investigated and/or implemented by members of the program. And perhaps 70% or more of those are ones where they could (or have) be copied by another organisation in a different industry with completely different objectives.
 
That’s the power of finding out what makes you common.

Are you ready to fail in 2019?

The beginning of January is a magical time of year. It’s the one time where we get to look forward to all the possibility and not have to deal with any of the failures. If you’re anything like me your social media feeds and email inbox will have been flooded with tips on how to achieve your goals to “Make [insert year] the best year ever”. More than any other month of the year, January is a time of immense optimism.

So it’s going to be a bit of a downer when I tell you that most of the plans you are making for this year will fail. In fact research suggests that organisations fail to execute 90% of the plans they make. And if you think this is just about organisations failing you’d be wrong. All over the place people are betting big on yours and other people’s failures.

One notable example is the gym and fitness industry that preys on people’s failed New Year’s resolutions to get in shape. Gyms lock people into long term contracts of 12 or 18 months that clients are expected to pay for even if they never end up going. Research by Finder.com.au suggests that unused or under-utilised gym memberships costs Australian’s $1.8 billion each year.

So to help you plan better for 2019 I’m not going to provide some rah rah advice on how to achieve your goals, but rather some practical advice on how to ensure that when you fail to achieve your goals or complete your projects that at least you do it well.

1. Make your failures small
Small failures are much more palatable than big ones. Using the analogy of a gym membership, it makes more sense to not use a one month gym membership than a 12 month one. Smaller projects (and shorter memberships) might be relatively more expensive but until you know you can achieve your goals it makes sense to make small bets first.

2. Make your failures unique
There is no point failing for exactly the same reasons as everyone else. Spend a little time finding out why other people have failed on similar projects and then build in contingencies for this from the beginning. This will not completely eliminate the risk of failure, but at least you won’t fail for reasons that could have been easily avoided.

3. Fail early
If you’re going to fail then ideally you want to fail before you’ve made a substantial investment of time, money and resources. To achieve this you need to try and identify the unknowns of your project and likely failure points so you can test them as quickly as possible. Once again, this won’t stop you failing but it will greatly reduce the financial, emotional or chronological cost of doing so.

4. Fail often
I’m not suggesting that you actively seek out failure but rather you should regularly put yourself in a position where failure is an option. In some ways failure is a game of odds: the more projects you start, the more improvements you attempt to make, the more likely it is that you will encounter failure. So rather than try and avoid failure all together, see that it’s an unavoidable outcome of creating valuable change.

All the best for your failures in 2019. May they be your best failures yet!

…and if some of the projects you’re looking to deliver this year are technology related, and you’re interested in doing them more successfully (and perhaps even failing a few of them really well) we are currently recruiting new members for the Digital Champions Club. The Digital Champions Club is a digital transformation program for small and medium sized organisations that develops the internal experts you need to deliver value adding technology projects. If you’d like to find out more about the program or to get some free advice on how to avoid projects failing, get in touch to book a free 25-minute consultation with me.

…oh and if you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in downloading my latest white paper ‘When Technology Fails to Deliver’.

A Festive Cheer (an Ode to the Digital Champions Club scholarship winners)

For what is likely to be my last blog post of the year,
I thought I’d round it out with a little festive cheer.
And given that it is the most festive of times
I thought I’d have a crack of doing it in rhyme.

But this is not just any old festive cheer, oh no
It a special cheer for those who  are willing to ‘give it a go’.
This little hurrah, hurray, whoop, bravo and shout
Is for all of the applicants who recently tried out.
For one of the digital champions scholarships we recently awarded
But as you’re about to find out that as history has recorded
Not all could be successful in this endeavour
Even though their applications were all thoughtful and clever.

So [insert a drum roll] and let a hush descend over the crowd
As we stand on the roof tops and shout the winners’ names aloud.

The first of our new scholars is perhaps the only with a household name
They are the life saving, CPR training team at St Johns (of ambulance fame).

The second of the scholarships went to the incredible Summit Health band
Who support country GPs across this wide open land.

And finally our one and only full scholarship goes
To a little organisation of which few people know.
Suffice to say their application was more than just thoughtful and clever,
it was also engaging, creative and succinct
It was a unanimous decision with no questions whatsoever
To award it to Sarah, Julia and Marcus at the Contemporary Arts Precinct.

So rather than try and push this rhyme thing much more
I think it’s time I signed off and headed out the door.
But before I go let’s have just one more round of clapping and applause
This time for all of you out there who tagged, shared and posted for the cause.
The campaign was ultimately a success and many applications were received
(And given the short timeframes we were plenty relieved)
But at the DCC we know this wasn’t magic, chance or blind luck, our network was the key
So to all of those who spread the word
thank you, thank you, thank you…you’re all legends to me!

I hope to see you in 2019!

Simon

Scholarship applications close in 48 hours

A few weeks back we launched the inaugural scholarships for the Digital Champions Club and now there is just a little over 48 hours before applications close. The scholarships are for not-for-profit and for-purpose organisations who want to access the support, accountability and a community of like minded organisations to help them implement their technology projects.

To spread the word and help make sure that this opportunity finds the right organisations we have been playing a game called #passiton. All that we ask is that you pass on this message to three people that you think might benefit from being a part of the Digital Champions Club. With so little time left this is perhaps our last opportunity to get the word out there. So if you haven’t already done so, please take moment to think about the charities, causes and other initiatives you would like to succeed and pass this along.

All the information about the scholarships can be found at digitalchampionsclub.com.au/scholarships

Thanks for sharing

Simon

The challenge of explaining what you do

I had an awkward moment with a close friend recently. I’ve known Harsha for more than a decade and she’s someone I’ve leaned on every now and then for marketing advice around the various programs I offer. The awkward moment arose because, after five years of telling Harsha about the Digital Champions Club, she still had to ask me what it was exactly that I do.

At the time I found it quite disheartening, that someone who is clearly switched on, someone who genuinely cares about me and what I do, someone who I’ve spent hours talking to about my work still didn’t have any real clarity about what the Digital Champions Club is or why it exists.

My initial response was a sense of frustration — initially directed outwards at Harsha’s failure to listen, and then directed inwards at my own inability to clearly articulate my proposition. So why is it that we struggle to convey things clearly?

I think firstly it’s because it’s hard to get out of our own heads. What I mean by this is it’s hard to explain things without the context of a whole bunch of other stuff that may also need explaining but that you aren’t aware enough to realise. As a result, the explanations which sound whole and well rounded to us are hollow and incomplete to others.

Second, I think the packaging can get in the way of the product. Our desire to create things that are unique, memorable and exciting brings us to use language that is unnecessarily complex and difficult to follow. Unless it’s meant to be a genuine surprise, perhaps it’s best that we dispense with some of the gift wrapping.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like a bit of a dick talking about myself. Which means I generally don’t do it, and therefore when I do it’s all a little off the cuff and just kind of sounds a bit awkward, which in turn makes me feel like a bit of a dick…and the cycle continues.

So Harsha set me a challenge: articulate the Digital Champions Club in a way that people could actually understand and then share it with all the other people who, like her, are currently unsure of what it is I do.

I’ve been procrastinating on this for a couple of weeks because, apart from the dislike of talking about myself, it feels a little awkward to be openly broadcasting my inherent uncertainty and lack of clarity in a world where ‘experts’ are meant to have endless reserves of both.

Yet perhaps in a small way this is a form of therapy, so Harsha, after hours of struggle and refinement here it goes….

I support small and medium-sized organisations who are struggling to build momentum in the delivery of their technology projects (sometimes referred to as digital transformation). I do this through a combination of monthly coaching (to provide support and accountability), one day workshops (for deep learning) and peer-to-peer sharing (to reduce risk). Collectively, these are delivered as a technology-focused, continuous improvement program called the Digital Champions Club.

So how did I do? No, honestly, I’d genuinely like to know…and it really does still sound hollow and incomplete (or even if it doesn’t) feel free to download it my latest white paper “When Technology Fails to Deliver” which explains a whole bunch of the other stuff that goes around in my head.

P.S. I’ve already been back into LinkedIn to edit this…twice.

The missing advice on digital transformation

The other day I ran a transformative technology session as part of the Victorian Innovation Festival. During the session I asked the sixty or so participants who was currently involved of some type of digital transformation and about 50% raised their hands. From my experience this is about average these days, one in two organisations have some type of digital transformation agenda they are trying to pursue…and most of them will fail.

Victorian Innovation Festival

The exact rates of failure are hard to gauge, in fact the whole concept of digital transformation is rather murky (not least because there is no clear definition of what digital transformation is). But various research from ‘reputable’ organisations such as Bain & Co, McKinsey and HBR suggest that the chance of failure is somewhere north of 60%. This means you have a chance of beating your local casino playing blackjack than you do of running a successful digital transformation project.

This is probably why there are so many articles and research reports on how to make your digital transformation succeed (or more often than not, how to stop them failing). Yet having trawled through a large number of these I’m consistently surprised that one key piece of advice is always missing. It’s the piece of advice that when I speak, train or coach clients always seems to create the biggest a-ha moment.

And what is that piece of advice you ask?

Do the right projects in the right order…and this generally means starting with the smallest things first.

I think that this seems somewhat counterintuitive for many organisations (and consultants) when we have limited resources and we want to make impact fast then surely we should do the big projects first. The name making, game changing, future proofing type projects that will create the biggest bang.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the complexity of big projects means that they often overrun on time and cost and underperform on outcomes. The second is that people struggle with big, irregular type changes. Most digital transformation efforts have only a little to do with technology and a lot to do with people. And changing people ultimately takes more effort, more care and more time than changing the technology.

From a people perspective, small changes are what prepare people for medium sized changes, which are what prepare people for big changes. As my friend Owen McCall put it “you can’t just get a fat man to run a marathon,” but you might be able to get him to go for a walk around the block.*

*Now I appreciate that some people might think this is politically incorrect but these are Owen’s words not mine…and Owen would put himself squarely in the fat camp.

So the method I teach people when it comes to project prioritisation is called Rabbits and Rhinos.

Rabbits & Rhinos Matrix

Just for a moment, imagine you were a hunter out wandering the African savannah. You spy a rhino off in the distance and think that if you could just capture and kill the rhino your tribe will eat well for the next month. But as you and your hunting party creep closer, you realise the rhino is armour plated, has a massive horn on the front and over a short distance can run faster than Usain Bolt. Now you could continue to pursue the rhino and perhaps things turn out well or perhaps they don’t…and the whole project turns out to be a dog.

Alternatively you could start by pursuing the rabbits. Clearly rabbits are a lot smaller and there is a whole lot less to eat, but unlike rhinos there are hundreds if not thousands of them (by definition, they breed like rabbits) and they are far fewer risks in catching them.

*Note: The high return, low effort projects are called the Dodos because they are so easy and so valuable we should have already done them all and they should already be extinct. 

There is often a tension people face when choosing the rabbits over the rhinos. The tension is based in the feeling that we are so far behind and we need to catch up quickly (this is often a result of delaying the start of a digital transformation journey for too long). But desire alone doesn’t make change happen. Change ultimately happens because people want the change (there is a personal desire rather than just an organisational one) AND they also believe that they can (because the change is small enough to get their head around).

So if your approach to digital transformation doesn’t make change easy for people, well, you’re best off packing your bags and heading to the casino.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can drive incremental, bottom up improvements in your organisation through technology, head over to the Digital Champions Club.

Slamming into the pot holes on the road less travelled

I’m pretty sure I don’t necessarily believe in karma. If I did, I would have put down last week to a karmic episode, instead I’m now forced to find some other life lesson in what happened.

I had been really looking forward to last week, as much as it meant me leaving Dennis (the camper van) and Daisy (the camper trailer formally referred to as Goldie) for a few days it was going to be the most radical example of our Life Work Adventure. It involved me flying out from our trip to present at three events across three states within three days and then flying across the country to be back with the girls in time for a hot dinner on day four. But I was soon to find that sometimes things don’t quite go as planned.*

*Oh yes, I fully appreciate the irony that my last post was about how great preparation makes planning less necessary…but more on that later.

The expectation was that we would park up the van Tuesday, somewhere around Nelson Bay in NSW, then on Wednesday morning the girls would deliver me to Newcastle Airport (30 minutes away) where I would then catch a flight to Melbourne. Once in Melbourne, I would be picked up by a driver at the airport and driven to a client’s office to run a three hour workshop (on enabling technology adoption) before heading back into the Melbourne CBD for the night. Then on Thursday morning I would rise early and head to the Arts Centre to do a keynote on using technology to deliver more engaging tourism experiences before returning to the airport and continuing to Perth. I would run my final event, an all-day bootcamp for my Digital Champions Club, on Friday before an early Saturday morning flight back to Newcastle (via Melbourne) to catch up with the girls…and catch up on some sleep.

On paper it looked like everything would dovetail in nicely but almost immediately things started to unravel.

Plane cancelled

Firstly, my flight from Newcastle to Melbourne was cancelled with only a couple of hours’ notice (due to a lack of crew) and as there was no other flights leaving Newcastle I then bought a second ticket (on a different airline) to Sydney and a third ticket (on a different airline again) to take me through to Melbourne. Unfortunately, my second flight out of Newcastle departed late (also as a result of crew issues) which meant that I only made it to Sydney in time to watch my connecting flight back out of the gate and take off down the runway. And even though the client was incredibly accommodating (with all the participants volunteering to stay back until 6pm) the multiple delays meant we eventually had to pull the pin and postpone the workshop until a later date.

My plane leaving without me

Thankfully the other events went far more smoothly, though Qantas put on a domestic leg of an international flight to Perth which has different security requirements that resulted in having a $100 bottle of my favourite wine…that I’d bought from the cellar door…in the Hunter Valley…as a gift for the guest speaker who was presenting at the Digital Champions Club the following day, confiscated at the airport.

Bottle of wine confiscated at the airport

If I was a believer in karma or fate I’d probably put it down as some form of retribution for my previous posts on how well prepared I felt for just about any eventuality, or as a good friend of mine in Perth pointed out, perhaps it was the necessary punishment for being so bold as to think I could just go and live and work on the road for three months with my family.

But as I am not a believer in karma I’ve now being forced to come up with a different explanation as to why all these things went wrong. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

  1. If you plan on doing anything, something will generally go wrong
  2. If you plan on doing something irregular or uncommon, then the chances of things going wrong escalates rapidly.
  3. When something does go wrong, you will always wish you built in some additional capacity
  4. If things are important ALWAYS build in some additional capacity
  5. Every time something goes wrong it’s an opportunity to learn
  6. The biggest risk is we don’t learn when we should, and we end up with the same problem at a later date

Oh, and the best thing is this. You don’t necessarily need to wait for the ‘something’ to happen to you. The power of the internet and open sharing means that you can just as quickly and easily learn from other’s mistakes…with far less downside.

So, if you’re ever travelling with your family, working from a van and need to fly out from a regional airport for an important gig, half a day of spare capacity is not enough. Always fly the night before.*

*You might think that this is incredibly niche advice but I guarantee that someday in the future I’m going to get an email to a long defunct email address saying ‘Oh my god Simon, your advice saved my life’.

Update

We left Lake Macquarie on Friday and headed to the Hunter Valley for an impromptu birthday lunch and a spot of wine tasting. We camped for a couple of nights before heading back towards the coast. We stayed a couple of nights at Anna Bay before heading to Nelson Bay…which was the start of the adventures described above.

Birthday lunch in the Hunter Valley

I stayed on in Perth a couple of extra days to catch up with friends and spent a magical day at Rotto on the Sunday before heading back towards the van and the girls on the Monday. After dealing with a couple of days of awkward rain in Nelson Bay (awkward because we haven’t really had to deal with much of that since leaving Melbourne) we packed up and headed north again. We are currently at a farm stay just near South West Rocks and Byron Bay is now clearly in our sights.

The view at Rotto

What to do when a bird poos on your head during a business meeting

On Friday last week I had an early morning coaching session scheduled with a new member of the Digital Champions Club. Most of my meetings and coaching sessions are conducted over teleconference…which is rather convenient given that I’m currently working from a camper van travelling up the east coast of Australia.

Whenever I have a meeting there are certain things I do to ensure the quality of the experience*. The first thing I do is find a suitable distraction free environment to work from. The second thing is to run a speed test to ensure whatever network I’m using has suitable bandwidth for teleconferencing. The third thing is I setup an external webcam mounted on a tripod rather than the built-in webcam on my laptop (this provides the ability to better position the camera and avoids unnecessary camera movement that occurs when you invariably move your laptop around).

*Part of my commitment before leaving on my trip was that my clients shouldn’t be paying for it. What this means is that my clients need to receive at least as good an experience as they would get if I was working from my office at home. 

Finding a suitable location means putting some distance between the ‘camp’ and my ‘office’ when I’m working to avoid the inevitable distractions and interruptions that come with a young family. Normally this means driving our camper van Dennis a short distance away, preferably with a nice outlook over the beach, popping the roof, setting up my laptop on the desk and working from there.

But on this particular day I decided to take a different approach. It was still too early for most of the caravan park kids to be out on their bike, and the park we were staying in was fairly empty, so I thought I’d just find a quiet place within the park and work from there.

I found this lovely spot, on a picnic table, underneath a beautiful big tree, and I set up my office there. I got out my webcam and positioned this beautiful shot of trees and lawn in the background, connected to my hotspot and connected into the teleconference.

As soon as my video feed came up the other participants immediately commented on the incredible location. I told them a little about where I was working from and casually dropped one of the lines I like to use ‘It’s my job to live the dream and then show others how to do it’. Now perhaps it was karma or perhaps it was just bad planning but about 10 minutes into the call a couple of rosellas took up residence in the tree above me. The first issue was their incessant squawking meant the other participants could hardly hear a word I said, the second issue was that before flying off to find their next victim they shat all over my laptop…and myself.

Now I like to consider myself a professional and I wasn’t going to let a bit of bird poo impact the ‘client experience’. Apart from a quick glance to assess the extent of the damage I barely blinked an eye, I focused back in on the discussion and continued through another 40 minutes of the coaching session with bird poo in my hair, on my shirt and running down my left leg.

In fact, it turns out the only person who was more professional than me was the client. Obviously having seen the bird poo spontaneously appear on the left sleeve of my shirt he managed to wait right until the end of the coaching session to ask whether a bird had pooed on me (In hindsight I also imagine that if I didn’t insist on such a high-quality webcam the bird poo may not have been quite so obvious).

So, what does all this mean? Was it just karma for me being a smug bastard or is there something else for us to learn? I’m a huge fan of finding something to take away from any situation and for me the lesson was this:

Always think about the audio.

At the end of the day it wasn’t the bird poo that has the most impact on the client experience, it was the incessant squawking of the rosellas and after that it was the wind gusts that the microphone kept picking up. As my AV guru and all-around legend Dave Dixon has said to me many times before, people will put up with bad quality video, but they won’t put up with bad quality audio. Bad quality audio makes people’s brains work much harder, eventually they fatigue, and then they give up.

So next time you’re on a teleconference with a client from a caravan park somewhere on the south coast of NSW, or anywhere else for that matter, even your desk or your office boardroom, make sure your think about the aural experience you are providing other participants…and if a bird shits on you, put it down as a stroke of good luck.

 

Update

On Wednesday we left Mallacoota and crossed the border into New South Wales. Our first stop was the beautiful seaside hamlet of Pambula, nestled between the towns of Marimbula to the north and Eden to the south. Thursday was a work day and most of it was spent in my mobile office, parked up at the Pambula Surf Club.

On Friday, after the ‘poo incident’ we went and explored the Killer Whale Museum in Eden (if you ever want to hear an incredible and true story of cooperation between humans and animals I highly recommend you reading up on the story of Old Tom and the Whalers of Two Folds Bay).

On Saturday we left Pambula and headed north for our first free camping experience of the trip at Brou Lake Campground. This incredible campsite was recommended to us one of the Eden locals we met. It is located in Eurobodella National Park and sits right between a beautiful lake and pristine, unpopulated beach.

We reluctantly left Brou Lake on Tuesday (after our water and food started running out) and headed north once again to Broulee, another small seaside hamlet located just south of Batemans Bay.

 

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Where’s Waller