The Value of the Little Things…
By Ngaire Blankenberg
“Why are we always the only ones worried about the pens and paper”? This morning, my colleague and I were discussing our often obsessive focus on the detail of a meeting. We griped a little bit about how, in a team, we (the Lord consultants) tend to be the only ones ever worried about these kinds of things. Does our preoccupation with making sure there are markers that work, flip chart paper, a proper, timed agenda, a clock, drinks, and sticky notes position us subconsciously as the ‘drones’ in a process – leaving the more glamorous ‘thinking’ work to other consultants or partners such as the architects, exhibition designers, engineers, and programmers?
No! We decided. It does not! Or at least it should not. And what’s more–it’s time for us to assert the Value of the Little Things- for these are at the heart of effective consulting.
Gail Lord, co-president of Lord Cultural Resources is the best consultant I’ve ever seen (and I’m not pandering here- I mean it!). She has an uncanny ability to grasp a challenge faced by a client, unpack it, hone in on the critical stress factors, find parallels internationally to others who have encountered and met a similar challenge, identify innovative, tailored and do-able solutions and communicate it all back in ways that the client will relate to. She is a Big Thinker often called on to address mayors and city planners, scholars, conferences and other forums about the State of Culture in the World– but she is also a Small Thinker, a detail Thinker. Despite being the president of an international company, she still worries about the temperature in the room, and the pens- not because she’s a woman (although I’m sure our socialization as women probably has something to do with it), but because through over 30 years of experience, she knows how something as seemingly small as a bad seating plan can mess up an entire process.
I know in the earlier years of my consulting career, I didn’t spend much time thinking about these things. With the arrogance of youth and education, I thought that the responsibility for the stationary and the room set up should be given to those further down the worker chain. I believed I had more important things to worry about. I soon learned – when a couple of key meetings fell apart because no one had paper- that ignoring these things was a big mistake. Without understanding the people in the room and what they need to feel comfortable, trusting, and communicative- no big ideas or super solutions would be born, or would stick. The little things are what make the big things possible.
There are parallels here with the feminist movement and its attempts to have the world recognize the value of domestic work, and ‘relationship’ work and all the other female dominated work- as equal to the ‘male’ work which tends to dominate the value chain. We now recognize how a 21st century creative economy is powered by soft skills- emotional and cultural intelligence, communication, interpersonal skills, team building, strategic thinking and so on. Like ‘women’s work’, soft skills are about a person’s ability to interact effectively with others. Facilitating effective interaction is about providing the right tools (pens and papers, flipcharts), the right environment (a comfortable, spacious room), and the right ‘rules’ and parameters for what is expected (meetings that start and finish according to schedule, an agenda that tells people why they are there and what is expected of them).
For consultants like us, soft skills are our core skills, and the little things- the details that show we pay attention to how real people work and think and collaborate- are not an irrelevant detail, they are what makes us good.