Zen & The Art of Proposal Management

It’s 1991 and I’m in stereotypical mid-life crisis mode: What next? Forty looms just over the horizon; the empty nest lurks in the not-too-distant hills. Taking stock of my options, I am revisiting idle speculation about the ministry: Can I handle the position requirements? Sermon writing: absolutely. Public speaking: sure. Committee work: well, OK. Counselling and pastoral care: umm, maybe not. My explorations have led me to a woman qualifying as a minister at 40-something. As we sip tepid tea in a fast-food fair, she offers her insight into what we can hope to accomplish, in life and in the ministry.

We can’t fix people’s problems, she says. The best we can do is to be with them on the journey.

Not fix problems? Is she kidding me?

Be with them on the journey? Bah!

This touchy-feely, low-expectations talk doesn’t sit well with me. Task oriented (some might even say ‘task driven’), I like to fix problems; I want visible results from my work. Leaving the mall, I mentally scratch ‘ministry’ off my list. The next month I launch what will become a career in proposals and corporate communications: deadline-driven, output-oriented project work. Now that’s more like it.

Fast forward 10 years and I am watching in disbelief — almost in horror — as my department crumbles around me. A corporate headquarters’ relocation sees me in a new role in a new city. A new president wants his own person in the communications job, speaking with his voice, jumping to his priorities and his alone. A new sales manager first disses and then dismisses brochures and a website my staff and I painstakingly developed with the previous sales force. A new manager responsible for half of my old job sees no value in the information-sharing linkages I created to serve both halves: corporate communications, now her domain, and the proposal function, still my responsibility. Unwilling or unable to relocate, my entire team has left the company. Just two months after the move I look around and see nothing — not marketing products, not internal processes, not staff — that remains from my 10 years of work. Zero. Zippo. Zilch.

It’s been another 10 years since that move from Edmonton to Calgary shook my work world and I can still almost taste the despair that filled my days. Outside work, I struggled to find a new home in a significantly more expensive housing market. At work, I paddled madly to keep my head above a wave of new responsibilities inherited from yet another group that hadn’t made the move — work that more than took the place of the amputated communications function, at least by volume. Needing a new team to help with the paddling, I was stymied by the new office’s lack of hiring support. In my spare time, I grieved for this little death: the loss of my imprint on the company’s public face.

What do we say to people who think they’re indispensable?

Put your hand in a bucket of water and pull it out: the hole that’s left is how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.

I hadn’t thought I was indispensable, certainly not: I’d just never imagined I was quite so, well, dispensable. Although I hadn’t left the organization, my hand had certainly been pulled out of the bucket. What was the point of my work through all those years? And what point could I find in my new work, knowing as I now did just how quickly it could all go south?

It was several months before I got the answers to those questions: several nasty months. Clearing storeroom shelves of outdated brochures (unwanted, anyway) to make room for Something More Important for Someone Too Important to do it himself (no, I wasn’t in a snit), I was reminded of similar sessions with my previous staff. In a decade of corporate communicating, we had gone through several iterations of our marketing materials. Out with the old, in with the new: it had never caused us any grief. Things had changed, and so did we.

Nothing is forever: it wasn’t a revelation for the ages, but it was the revelation I needed in my own personal dark ages. The brochures I was grieving would have gone the way of all flesh sooner or later, even under my watch. The processes I had developed to facilitate our work would have been superseded by better processes. The staff I had formed into a team would one by one have gone on to new endeavours. That’s life. What made it feel like a death was the compression of all these changes into such a short period.

What I saw clearly, though, for the first time, was that my work output — as important as it was to my bosses, my compensation, and my sense of self — was not what would last. No matter how my career went, after I retired no one would care about the documents I had contributed to, or the processes I had established. Then as now, what would last was the people and what we meant to each other: the challenges we overcame, the fun we had, the things we taught each other, professionally and personally…

Clarity takes effort, but it’s worth it; elegance, on the other hand, is pure fun.

Someone else’s job always looks simple.

Analysis may be power, but creativity is energy.

The big picture is nothing without execution. And vice versa.

Sometimes you wait, sometimes you drive it: the trick is knowing which time this is.

Other people see different things, as well as things, differently! No one sees everything.

If we can learn to be patient with others, we might even learn to be patient with ourselves.

Excellence requires thinking your task is the most important thing ever; sustainability demands feeling the truth of Balfour’s adage: Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all. Or as the moderns have it: Not all hills are hills to die for.

Blurring the line between work and play may not be the supreme accomplishment, as Arnold Toynbee reportedly said, but it’s pretty damn fine.

By learning to work together — solving lots of little problems and even a few big ones — we became better employees. By exchanging bits of ourselves — being with each other on the journey, if you will — we became better people.

It’s sort of the Zen of Project Management: Task-Driven meets Touchy-Feely, isn’t it? In the moment, nothing matters more than the task at hand: in our case, the document and the schedule. But at the end of the day or the week or all the months and years spent charging hard — all the moments taken together — nothing matters more than the human connections.


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22 Responses to Zen & The Art of Proposal Management

  1. MC says:

    And that’s why I’m reading your blog regularly after not working together for 15 years! I still feel a connection with you. Thank you.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      MC – Thank you! For me, that’s the greatest gift of the internet (even better than pre-empting what in other times would have been bar bets!) – the connection it facilitates.

  2. SD says:

    Read this with great interest and empathy. Brought back many like thoughts and experiences. Well said; well done.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      SD – It may be that those who worked in large bureaucracies – designed to limit the difference one person can make – may have a leg up in this regard on those who worked in smaller, more entrepreneurial organizations, where the value of the individual is more celebrated. Certainly I’ve been impressed – since first encountering it in my forties – with the small-town feel of the community of retired military members I meet.

  3. Marion says:

    At forty-ish I resigned from a job and wasn’t replaced. That self-important “Wait until they see how much they miss me.” sure fell flat. A few other people picked up the slack and took on various aspects of my function but they didn’t need another ‘me’. Looking for the hole I had left in the bucket of water triggered an emotional growth spurt that I didn’t enjoy at the time but was good for me.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – Why is it that pain always accompanies growth? Maybe something about needing to break out of the shells that both support and constrain us – our virtual exoskeletons, if you will – before we can grow. Mind you, growth can seem over-rated sometimes. When a friend of mine was laid off, his wife said, “Just another god-damned opportunity to grow!”

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    Both a good read, and a sharp stab between the ribs that hit very close to home. Been there, done that… My experience differed from yours in one crucial respect — I left the organization and then spent several years wanting to get back at them somehow for finding me dispensible. It took some time to realize that they might have done me a favour.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Odd how easily we invest our employment contracts (implicit or explicit) with emotions and expectations better suited to our intimate personal relationships. Maybe this is a sign that we are integrated beings – I like to think so!

      • steven says:

        Put another way (?): People bring their needs to work. (And, well, how could it be otherwise?)

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Steven – Indeed, I expect we take our needs with us wherever we go – to work, school, church, the grocery store…. But I do think we can consciously decide to ‘dial down’ some unstated expectations in some environments. And if we know what those needs are – if we don’t see ourselves as undifferentiated wholes, somehow – easier yet.

  5. Morris B says:

    ‘hole in the water’ – Truer words were never spoken. Over the years I have left many positions for various reasons. The only people who ‘missed’ me were those with whom I had forged personal/professional relationships. The organizations? They just carried on perhaps hobbled for a short (should I say infinitesimal?) time but always moving on. There was no lasting legacy (although I do see my name on some documents I had authored 10 years ago still being circulated by one company – it’s an “in your face”, make-me-smile moment when I do).
    What’s it all about? Unless you are memorialized by a portrait hanging in the corporate halls (like political leaders or megacorp CEOs) or you have made a distinct mark upon your company and its customers (Steve Jobs), or have turned your massive good fortune into massive good works (Bill Gates), your presence in any company will be forgotten quickly and completely. “Who was our president 10 years ago?” Ask that in any company and unless you are talking to a lifetime career employee I’m sure you’ll get blank stares.
    So if employees don’t remember their president’s name, why would anybody remember the manager or director of something-or-other’s name?
    I got out of the corporate stream many years ago. I work for myself, hire associates when required and generally enjoy things one day at a time when possible. While I had an inflated value of my worth to my clients initially, now I don’t fool myself into thinking that I will be remembered a year after my work is done. Unless, of course, I have formed a personal bond with people I consulted with/to.
    So, as you say, it’s the people and your relationship with them that counts. I have one clear example of that. After leaving a firm after a four-year stint, I kept in touch with a number of employees. Over the years we have all kept in touch and regularly have lunch. It’s not a deep relationship (save one) but it’s fun and reassuring, even after 12 years.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Morris – Yes, the consulting/contract-worker role is different again. I’ve been doing the latter for 10 years and, without much chance to improve processes except by example, it can range from incredibly satisfying to immensely frustrating on the work side. On the other hand, I find that it highlights the value of the connections, since there are more of them, albeit often shallower than in an employee role. At my age-&-stage, I especially value the connection with younger colleagues – it gives me hope when we get past the obvious differences in perspective and experience.

  6. Susan Wright says:

    Like Jim, I too left a company, but in my case the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and I was only too glad to jump before everything came crashing down. As luck would have it the company was saved by a middle-eastern mega company. Things are different now. No one is really sure what to make of the new management and there’s a lot of unease and dissension among the rank and file.

    All of which confirms that the best strategy is to take control of your life and do what you think is best for you instead of hoping and praying that somehow everything will work itself out.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Yes, or that somehow a company can or will take care of you! The days of strong employee relations won’t be seen again (if at all) until labour market shortages drive it as a condition for success, just as they did in the 1940s and 1950s.

  7. Mike says:

    An interesting discussion. I am once again reminded of the value of being a member of the military family. Our jobs and careers are managed (or mismanaged) for us by deemed career paths and our senior leadership. By and large it works well. No-one gets to feel indispensible because we are yanked from our jobs and moved on every three years on average. A key result of this practice is that we very much feel part of a larger team as our contacts, experiences and responsibilities expand. To get a glimpse of this family one only needs to attend the funeral of a long-retired military member (if you can find an empty pew). Life and work is all about relationships.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mike – Can you imagine stopping a civilian at random and asking them for the defining characteristic of life in the military? I wonder how many you’d have to stop before someone said, “Relationships”! But I see this same sort of thing–albeit to a lesser degree–in people who have worked in other large bureaucracies, like universities, governments, from federal to municipal, and even in very large companies (for those who had lifelong careers therein). Partly, I think, it’s that to get things done in large organizations you have to be in relationship with so many people – part of it may just be the broader opportunities to find folks who are like you in some regard. And the military’s deliberate stirring of the pot often has another effect (or so it seems to me). The frequent moves disconnect the spouse from establishing long-standing work and community relationships of their own, thrusting both parties more strongly into military life for their social outlets as well.

  8. Alison Uhrbach says:

    Whew! you really hit a nerve by the number of responses this generated! As I ponder retirement after 25+ years with one employer (AHS) I am VERY aware of the “hand in the bucket” phenomenon. I will not be missed for my work, indeed, they’ll be happy to replace me with someone on a lower salary scale… but I have forged some lasting relationships with some fine people over the years… and been given a glimpse into levels of society I would never have had the opportunity to see.. and for that I am truly thankful.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – I expect you will be missed by clients and colleagues – just the same people you will miss! It’s true that organizations-as-structures don’t miss us – any more than they appreciate or detest us – since they lack consciousness. It’s organizations-as-people that bring all these other factors into play. And, as you note, those other factors can be very fine, indeed.

  9. Marianne says:

    Excellent posting…. you made me recall a saying that I know originally is longer, but here’s my version: “It’s not what you said or did but ‘how you made them feel’ is how you will be remembered by others” and this is so true. The value of one’s accomplishments lies not in the physical brochure, but how it came together – the process of valuing those contributing to it and how it may impact those it was created to serve. It takes time and distance to fully appreciate the teams we get to serve with and the impact some special individuals have on our character and memories. As for some of the other ‘change-makers’ that come into our life through work or other social venues (like our church), they may be there simply as signposts to move on. (I’ve had a few of those too!)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marianne — My mother has a post about the wisdom of the ages as summarized in adages, and your saying fits right in. Mine is ‘too soon old, too late smart’ – I wish I’d known at 15 what I know now in this regard. And I wish I could always remember to apply what I do ‘know’!

  10. Janice says:

    Isabel, your posting was very timely. I’d just finished a course on Influencing, Motivating and Persuading and one of the exercises was to name 2 people who had influenced me in a positive way. Yours was one of those names. I still consider you one of the most important mentors in my career and personal life and have always admired your outlook on life and the opportunities and challenges that get thrown at us. I also never thought about how the upheaval at work had affected you – selfish me. I was so caught up in leaving/making a move to Toronto that I never stopped to wonder how you felt. Thank you for sharing. I still miss our team but you are so right – I don’t remember the projects but affectionately remember the people.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Janice – thank you for your exceedingly kind words about me and our team – it was grand fun while it lasted – maybe not a bad epitaph for life as a whole! Don’t feel badly about not checking in – for me, the move was a nominal promotion – what could be bad about that? That it went awry is just one of those things. We are all the centres of our own stories – as a recent commenter said on another aspect, how could it be otherwise? I know that in other contexts I sometimes wonder why others didn’t turn around and ask me how I was doing, but also know that I am in the bottom quartile (or worse, OK, or worse!) on this characteristic myself. I suspect (and hope) that we get better at this as we get older, moving yet further away from those teenage years when we really were the only ones in our story….

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