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Jul
21 2011

A Wee Hot Weather Rant

Syndicated from: Getting in the Groove - Random Riffs and Random Notes

I attribute my grumpiness to the weather. It’s 36 degrees Celsius with a humidex of 46. For readers in Liberia, Myanmar (nee Burma) and the USA, that’s 97 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actors Studio,” ends each interview by asking his guests a number of questions, one of which is “What’s your least favourite word?” Mine’s “deliverables.” And my aversion to the word makes me a crap proposal writer. I listen well enough, have been around long enough and am literate enough to be able to scope out a project well enough. In other words, I generally get it. And to the extent that it’s possible at the outset of a project, I usually have a reasonable grasp of what would represent a decent outcome for the undertaking. But I stumble when I get to the “deliverables” part of the proposal. I’ll tell you why. I have no trouble with the word, per se. Obstetricians and midwives deliver babies; postal workers, mail; ATMs, cash; accountants, tax returns. All of these – babies, mail, cash, tax returns − nicely satisfy the definition of “deliverables.” There’s a nice straight line between what’s done and what results from it. I’ve referred elsewhere to these as “if-this-then-that” kinds of activities. But I’m engaged in the highly problematic business of transforming social environments: an “if-this-then-maybe-that” kind of activity. This is the domain in which enterprises of various stripes are looking, for example, to create a culture of innovation, make diversity a source of creativity, improve the quality of leadership, manage conflict, relate more effectively with their external stakeholders. The moment you get involved in this kind of work, you have to begin to differentiate between outputs and outcomes because the distinction is crucial when it comes to figuring out what you’re entitled to say about the vexed notion of deliverables. An example from the world of jazz will help make the distinction. We play a gig. The music we produce is the output; the audience’s reaction to that output is the outcome. The output is entirely in our hands; the outcomes, not so much. Our choice of repertoire and the level of our performance can influence the outcome, but not guarantee it. Audiences are heterogeneous collections of individuals with varying levels of listening sophistication and often well developed musical likes and dislikes. We may delight some, please others and turn some right off. So what am I entitled to say about the matter of deliverables? In a nutshell, I can make deliverable statements about outputs but not about outcomes. If I venture across that line, I’ll likely be tempted to say more than I know. What’s the new word for telling porkies? Misspeaking? So, can I enhance the leadership skills of an organization’s cadre of managers? Not if what I’ve got to work with are sows ears and the client is expecting silk purses. Can I create a culture of innovation? Not if the organization is deeply and irrevocably committed to avoiding risk. Can I help an organization manage conflict creatively? Not if it’s developed an insatiable appetite for eating its young. OK. I’ll grant that these are worst case scenarios. But all I’m attempting to do here is make the point that there are limits to what promises we can make with certainty. We have to remain nicely grounded in a realistic assessment of what outputs we can deliver. Allowing ourselves to talk about deliverables when we move into the domain of outcomes is a seriously slippery slope. I know it’s tempting – especially when going there results in a nice paying gig.

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