*Tap tap* Is this thing on?
Month notes from the edge of Parental Leave
Bright lights, disorienting noise from the crowd, and some technology that might not be plugged in quite right… but that is placed before me, awaiting my performance. That’s a pretty close proxy for the experience of arriving back at the office after 17 months of focus on a new little human.
I don’t get stage fright. I get a little nervous sometimes. Mostly when I can’t see the audience (or if I can and I know most of them). Ultimately, I show up to be part of a positive experience, as best I can. I pay deep attention and adapt on the fly as needed with others on stage.
And, I’m out of practice, both as an entertainer and in the metaphorical sense at my day job.
Within my first three weeks of return to the Exchange Lab though, people found me (even though the ‘mic’ clearly was misbehaving), and I found myself in front of groups, offering a song of sorts. It seemed appropriate to hesitate at first, until the opportunity to help create positive experiences for colleagues became clear. (I’m not entirely sure the performances hit the mark just yet. I’m still waiting for the critics to publish.)
What I already know was missing from these performances though, was an ensemble. In part due to the urgency of delivery, and in one case, the phone-a-friend nature of the problem, I felt a little exposed. There wasn’t time to find others to harmonize with. Beyond that, it turns out that the genres I belong to are growing in popularity, and there are not enough artists being distributed by established labels (and they all seem to be in the studio these days.)
Breaking from that metaphor a bit here, the human-centered work planning and Intro to UX workshops I designed since my return were done in nearly complete isolation. I checked in with a few expert contacts and with the session organizers to make sure there wasn’t anything totally misaligned. It isn’t the process that typically gets a standing ovation, though, in my experience.
I usually have all my channels and networks dialed in. It’s taking me a while to feel connected, oriented, and to trust my instincts. I’d typically know who to call or where to engage the community to get some peer review or support. (I wish I magically had Martha Edwards around, and her insightful highlights she shared from her time at SDinGov.)
Part of this is just me being out of practice. Additionally, the signals in the ecosystem have changed since I left. This is probably okay, since the work is about fostering change. Though I do have a few warning bells going off, when I reflect on the broader change journey that set us up for success to this point. I’m not sure they’re all that concerning, because I see my teammates working to address them, but I feel it’s worth openly musing about at least.
Toddling through Change
There were probably 20 blogs I could have written from the mental snippets I’ve been taking daily, while observing, analyzing, reflecting, and synthesizing my take on where my workplace has landed since I left it, mid-pandemic. Frankly, in my first few weeks I was exhausted with the mental shift, and the viral/bacterial gifts from daycare upended any peace I might have had to write.
It’s critical to start here though: I recall feeling elated that we found good people to take care of the momentum my team and our dedicated community had built at the Exchange Lab. I still feel this way. The gritty “prove this shit works” phase had reached the “you’re saving government/the public millions” milestone, and I was ready to tap out and have a human baby. The work baby seemed like it could toddle along now, but it needed a different set of caregiver skills.
I’ll skip the details I frankly don’t even have, and get to the part where I returned to a 5X sized team. I’ve counted the number of people that are now dedicated to the jobs I was doing. It’s at least nine. NINE. And then there are the brilliant folks that have been added to take on new developmental milestones for this baby… like walking up dark, jagged corporate staircases, where no parent has dared test their toddler against before (seems irresponsible in this metaphor, but trust me, this toddler is a beast.)
Yet, with all this growth and seeming independence, lies the rub, I think. We think we can do so much on our own now. But have you met a toddler?
Please don’t take this metaphor as demeaning. It’s really about the scale of the challenge and reality of meeting that challenge as an organization with the blessing and curse of incredible growth.
A baby obviously requires community nurturing. Parents, doctors, nurses, grandparents, etc. They don’t reject any of this care. They can’t if they are to survive. That was how the early Exchange Lab felt. Humble in it’s reliance on everyone, yet tenacious with survival instinct and growth mindset.
A toddler, from my experience, expresses the notion that it has the strength and smarts to do all kinds of things on their own. Often, these are unreasonable, but understandable, given the daily realization that there is more to the world, and a new capabilities to match. Ironically, parents also often have unrealistic expectations of a toddler’s abilities (like impulse control).
Those of us that have seen the incredible growth and/or been part of it over the last several years may be tempted to assume survival. We’ve won so far. This is dangerous, if not just unfair to an organization that might be stretched to oblivion in the face of government wide demand.
This sentiment shows up in small ways, like not taking enough time to inspect our own practices, to nurture team cohesion, or to really understand how our value chains should align to meet user needs. It’s also really obvious when the first step isn’t “check in with the community” when doing something new.
Ultimately, what I’ve experienced since being back is natural, predictable, and manageable, if I’m seeing it clearly. It is taking time to adjust to the growth.
One way my organization is not like a toddler: we’re self aware. The dynamics I’m noticing are sensed by my teammates too. It’s in our DNA to retrospect, surface conflict, and drive to the next best state through iteration.
What’s Up for Me Now
I’ve been asked to lead the portfolio of work that is attached to a high performing team of agile coaches and human centered designers. The team was established while I was gone, and are doing massively more than I was doing as the only on staff Agile coach/facilitator prior to my departure. A whole team! Of real experts! It’s a dream come true — so big thanks to my new colleagues that kept the lights shining bright while I was gone.
The team is experimenting with organization change differently than I was and there are some exciting lessons coming from that work. (Of course, those in the know, know what “exciting” means. I’ll leave it at that.) Awkwardly, the current experimentation is under terms that don’t fit the model I’m used to.
Readiness to adopt horizontal practices — and to work with the Lab — used to include a commitment to learn in the open. But this is not currently in play. No one I’ve talked to really likes this diversion. It stifles learning. On the flip side, the hypothesis is, it nurtures trust to keep growing pains private. Hopefully that will sustain commitment to get to a place where people feel safe to share their Cinderella story… and to eventually realize the incredible healing power of a supportive community.
Either way, the work is valued, and progress is being made. I’m along for the ride and cheering the team on as they learn.
Meanwhile, the kitchen drawer ninja missions are back on my plate as well. I’m only half joking. If any of this sounds appealing to you, I may be hiring or seeking delivery partners in the new year to boost the diversity and capacity on the team. I hope to find more people to wade into the complexity (and at times, chaos) that comes with discovering how to enhance the business agility and resiliency of the public sector. Stay tuned, as they say.