Ignoring The Grind: The Stories We Tell About Each Other's Work

I walked into the meeting room and sat down at the conference table. I was invited as an attendee. There were 15 other people in the room. At the beginning of the session, the person who called the meeting handed me a couple of Sharpies and pointed to some oversized Post-It pads. She said, "I want you to do what you did last week." Meaning, run a 3-hour workshop. Except, spontaneously, with no preparation and no forewarning. I turned to my manager, stunned, not believing what I was hearing. He was quick to shut it down.

I recently read the article "How The Low-Hanging Fruit Myth Is Hurting Your Business" and it really hit home. The <tl;dr> is that the tendency to refer to other people's work as "low hanging fruit" usually demonstrates a lack of understanding about what that work usually entails.

My manager — the one who rescued me from the workshop table-drop — warned me afterwards that it would probably happen again because:
  1. I enjoy my work and that makes it seem easier.
  2. I don't tend to talk about my process so people only see what they see.
  3. People are encouraged to be relaxed, play with toys, eat treats and have fun at my workshops which makes them very un-work-like.
  4. Workshops are an opportunity for people to get away from their desks and use strange work methods (like brain writing) which they don't necessarily perceive as "real work".
All of that is true. And it's actually by design.

I've been designing and running workshops with stakeholders for years, whether to understand their processes, understand their needs (and differentiate them from their wants) and validate the requirements we have documented. 

I have a whole host of different designs that I use as a basis but I custom design each session based on the desired outcomes, the players and the information we have going in. It's easy to underestimate the amount of work because all anyone ever sees is either the workshop itself, or the outputs. No one sees The Grind: the planning, designing, testing (i.e. where I dry run my workshop multiple times in my head or on paper to see where it could fall down, which often leads to scrapping the whole thing and redesigning, re-testing to get the right results), building materials (what I refer to as "arts and crafts day"), and then, following the workshop, capturing and analysing all of the outputs, generating the right format for the client. 

As I always tell my clients, if you send out a document for review to 30 people, you might get 2-3 hours of effort in return from the few people who will spend the time to read it and comment. But if you run a well-designed interactive workshop with the right type of activities, you can make those 30 people work for 3 hours, producing 90 hours of effort, collectively. You can bring them together just a few times over your project to get more productive effort than you might get from them in... well, years.

But that takes a lot of preparation. It's not something I can just throw together and generate useful outcomes. In fact, for every 3-hour workshop I run, I've spent at least five times that doing the work that no one sees.

And why should they? It's My Grind. Not Theirs.

If my participants perceive workshops to be fun and unusual, it usually works in my favour because they're more likely to let their guard down and participate. But make no mistake: The fun is the result of careful planning and hours of effort. The fun doesn't just happen. People see licorice and koosh balls. They see post-its and Sharpies. And they see a block of time in their calendar where they don't have to do any "real work".

Which is fine: I don't need them to know how I take the outputs of their "fun" and turn it into system requirements for procurement and development. I don't need them to know how much effort went into designing just the right activities to have them map out their entire business process so I could then analyse it to document the use cases for the technology, define the countless business rules that govern it, spec out the data elements that need to be captured and sketch out the interactions required on the various user interfaces.

The fun isn't easy. 

The use of terms like "fun," "easy," and "low hanging fruit" tend to ignore the amount of effort that goes into other people's work. It belittles the effort other people make when we're not looking. We spend a lot of time building empathy with our stakeholders; maybe it's time to show more empathy towards out teammates and rethink how we talk about each other's work. We should take more time to understand or at the very least, acknowledge, the amount of effort that goes into everyone's work.

Everyone grinds. The Grind may be invisible but The Grind is real.