Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blue skies stinking

Strategic away days are called for two reasons; either the leadership has lost its way, or a new broom is in place needing a bit of head space. Thankfully the purpose of ours was the latter rather than the former.

Having been through a few of these things, it’s obvious that most fail. If your only purpose is to look at the stars without considering what you’re standing in, chances are that you’ll be up to your ankles in shit. Shit before and shit after. In fact, if you stare at the stars long enough, you’ll find the shit gets deeper and really starts to smell.

When mentioned to the facilitator of the day he assured me that because he was in charge, it wouldn’t fail. I said that the person to say that to me was the facilitator of the last strategic away day I’d been on. Facilitators and consultants are programmed to assume that the reason things fail is because everyone else is more stupid than they are and not because these things are, in there very nature, more likely to fail than succeed.

Confusion began at the start; on arrival; sartorially speaking, nobody really knew what the approach should be. Some arrived in suits, presuming it to be a working day, others appeared in IT consultant chic of beige Dockers, boots and a pressed shirt – IT software house logo optional. Those, like me, saw it as a Sunday and turn up in jeans – albeit poshed up slightly with boots and a shirt - not trainers and a hoodie. One turned up in what can only be described as the semi-professional darts player look; shiny polo shirt coloured piping and a logo on the breast pocket – no nickname on the back because he’s semi-pro. The sleeves end halfway up the biceps. Matching black slacks that are too a bit too tight, slip on shoes and a big gold watch.

Thankfully the management centre wasn’t that far from home so I didn’t have to stay over; those who did had been drinking all night like it was a boys’ weekend away. The predominantly male group had set themselves a particularly macho 13-hour agenda, You can imagine the group planning the day; upping the ante an hour at a time poker style waiting for someone to break.

In truth, despite the bravado, by lunch practically everyone was flagging and the whole purpose of the day was beginning to lose its way. Everyone’s brains had been appropriately stormed and the outputs were so wide and varied they couldn’t be shoehorned into the remaining agenda, especially not with the musk of the night before hanging around in the air. Even the most clear headed were struggling. It’s always the same, the assumption being that people are afforded the luxury to dream broad conceptual thoughts in the morning, then compartmentalise them into a series of actions after lunch. It’s like having a orgy with a hoard of dwarves in a vat of jelly in your living room then being told that you have an hour to clean up because the Queen is coming for tea.

Eventually the facilitator gave up the agenda and threw it open to the floor ‘How shall we tackle this?’ he said – which is the facilitatory way of saying 'Sorry I haven’t a clue'. At this point it was obvious we were approaching the end game. People started checking their phones which were all turned on despite being asked not to, laptops were opened and fiddled with (blogging, probably) others disappeared off to the toilet and were found like a hypnotized toddler checking the football on the lounge TV downstairs. Someone was found flipping through one of the complementary papers uttering something about needing some time to think, or waiting for an important call.

This is where everyone starts stating the bloody obvious. It’s important that this is stated with vigour to ensure that it retains a level of gravitas – ‘What we need is a plan, a budget and appropriate resourcing’, ‘We need the appropriate people with the appropriate skills in the appropriate positions’. It’s appropriate to nod sagely at these ground breaking insight.

At the end everyone congratulated themselves on a job well done. The post-it notes and flip charts were folded up and taken back to be written up and everyone leaves with a renewed sense of vigour. In the wash-up in the bar the real world begins to leak back in; the wine flows and discussions which start celebratory, in a ‘we’ve cracked it’ style, gets louder and more lairy. Eventually war breaks out ‘The thing is he’s a cocking nob-jockey’. After a series of painful circular discussions, people seep away home or to their room, looking at their feet and realising they have still have shit on their shoes.


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