The C Word

I am not talking about Complicit which has raced ahead of other worthies to become the Word of the Year (as declared by and, yes, there is a Trump connection).
I am talking about Complicated. So much these days is termed complicated. Relationship status. Actual income and expenditure levels. Giving back to society. Climate change. Maybe we have grown used to parking aspects that overwhelm us under that label. Maybe, some of these and many other things around us are complex and not necessarily complicated. Now, that sounds complicated too, right?
A recent conversation with colleagues brought up this conundrum. And it reminded me of similar conversations in the past. Instead of focusing on a specific number of desired changes that can be achieved through feasible actions, we often end up with these unwieldly, all encompassing, ‘we are going to die working and still not achieve’ type of project proposals and log frames. We weigh ourselves down with too many indicators and an even longer list of activities that don’t even add up. I too have been guilty of contributing to such spirit sapping traps in the past!
Of course, we are often grappling with issues that are complex and require multiple pathways of inputs and actions. So, our responses need to be complex. But they do not need to be unnecessarily complicated. Maybe, we need to make a rule for ourselves – Thou shalt not complicate. In fact, that’s a pretty good rule for life too. I bet following that rule will be complex! :)

When the Truth Lies in Between

Many of us pick up a valuable skill at workplace– of being able to hide what we truly mean behind innocent sounding and non threatening words. Anyways, here are some statements that many of us have heard (and understood what they really mean). And yes, I have used some of them too!

  1. We have seen what you shared. It is good. But we do have some inputs.
    (What they really mean) I am ok with it. But my boss thinks that your piece doesn’t reflect his ideas. I am now going to tell you that you need to rewrite it.
  2. So, we have put together a team of advisors who bring in significant expertise and can make sure that we are proceeding in the right direction.
    (What they really mean) All of them are important people. All of them have to be in the team. You will have to listen to all of them. But you have to make sure that this bus doesn’t go off the cliff!
  3. We want a brief report.
    (What they really mean) It should have everything. It should be a summary. It should have the background. It should showcase our achievements and how we did that and our challenges and why we couldn’t overcome them. And make the challenges seem like grounds for more work (and securing funding). It should also have recommendations. It should also be targeted at policy makers. And we are paying you to make this brief.
  4. We are very close to the end of the road on this.
    (What they really mean) No. We are not.  There will be another couple of rounds of feedback and, maybe, then we will be somewhere close to the middle of the road.
  5. We think that you are best suited to make this presentation.
    (What they really mean) Actually, nobody else wants to do this.

Just Finish It

March 31st marks the end of the financial year for many. It also got me thinking about how a lot of assignments end. Very often, this is what happens.

Stage I: We are all really excited about this!
Someone wants to document the journey, achievements, challenges and learnings that emerged from a programme.  Failures (or, areas of improvement in NGO speak) are added. This last bit involves a certain amount of negotiation. The winning argument – we can say that we need to work on these aspects in the next phase! Anyways, so the team and the consultant hold one or more meetings. Everybody is brimming with ideas, excited and cooperative.

Stage II: Getting into it
The sense of enthusiasm is still palpable as more meetings are held to spell out the specifics, make field plans and other necessary arrangements. There is a deluge of documents. People are eager to share. Sometimes, this initial stage also brings in a sense of the people who inhabit this universe – who all need to be consulted, who will give feedback and, most importantly, who has the final say.

Stage III: The Actual Work
The blood, sweat and tears part starts. Interactions with participants, organisational staff and others occur. New leads emerge. Often, this adds new dimensions and enriches the documentation. Sometimes, this snowballing thing also threatens to snowball out of control! Timelines, costs and other factors have to be considered. After the fieldwork is completed, the consolidation and writing begins. First, draft outlines and then draft documents are shared.

Stage IV:  Close to the Finish Line
When we are really lucky, this stage (finalising with feedback) comes and goes quietly without causing any heartburn. The designated people provide feedback within the designated time frame. Further steps, especially where designing and printing are involved, occur seamlessly. There is more feedback. It is incorporated and we are done.

Stage V: It’s Not Over Yet!
Very often, stage IV begins to expand over space and time. In fact, it takes over our lives. We wait for feedback. Or, after we have incorporated all the feedback, there is more feedback. Or we spot mistakes that need to be corrected. When that is done, more mistakes surface. This is when we just want the assignment to end and to get our lives back. The only consolation are those words that capture a world of wisdom…This too shall pass!

And it usually does. Till it happens again.

The Top Five … Reactions to being a Consultant

Here’s a list of another kind – the top five statements that I get to hear the most.

Number 5:  You don’t have to report to anybody!
This is partly correct. Yes, I am my own boss. But then things like nodal/contact persons, seniors (“we have to consult them you know”) and feedback exist. Let’s just say…it is complicated!

Number 4: You don’t have to do that 9-5 thing.
I am happy about this. But then, on the flipside, distinctions between day and night and weekdays and weekends and holidays and other days can get blurred very easily while chasing deadlines. Moreover, there are expectations that, as a consultant, you will manage to deliver on time no matter what! “The world is on a seven day break. But then we had agreed on that date for finalising this. Remember?” And then you kick yourself for being a conscientious professional and not slipping in 1-2 days of leeway (and recovery from holiday) time!

Number 3: You can choose what you want to do.
Our lives are a curious mix of choices and chances and compulsions. Being a consultant doesn’t change that completely. So, there are some assignments you do because you want to and some because you have to.

Number 2: Don’t you miss working in an office, having colleagues and all that?
As a consultant, you work closely with various teams across organisations and locations. So, the scope for meaningful interactions is always present. You can also hear all the office gossip without really being affected by it (unless it directly concerns you)! Of course, there are no official support structures and systems to always fall back on. So, there are pluses and minuses (including numbers 3-5). Anyways, it has worked for me for the last 8-9 years.

And the Number 1: So, what do you do exactly?
To be fair, just saying ‘consultant’ probably does not make much sense. But then in my case adding the words ‘process documentation and knowledge management’ doesn’t usually help either! And then – ‘for the development sector’ does the rest! Some smile knowingly and desist. The more hardy and curious kinds ask more questions. I guess that is social work too…clarifying about social work!

A Time to Enjoy…and Work?!!!

We look forward to certain festivals in the year. The holiday mood sets in. It is the time for re-living rituals that reverberate within our souls in inexplicable ways and evoke a reassuring sense of continuity in an otherwise fast changing world. Families and friends come together over good food and gossip. And it marks a break from work…That is the common template. For some of us, that ‘break from work’ bit…well, that never happens completely! It is strange how despite our best efforts, there are still tasks and deadlines that sneak up upon us. This is one of those mysterious, unexplained phenomena that scientists or even conspiracy theorists need to consider.

Accusations of ‘you don’t know how to manage your time’ and ‘you can’t even leave work at a time like this’ are levelled. A ‘Why don’t you go ahead and have a good time’, expressed with honest intent, is invariably misinterpreted. Surviving work and festivals and families calls for some special skill sets. Being able to practice patience and restraint (particularly in speech) helps!  Judgement, based on experience, also helps. So, one needs to definitely take out time for the family and then figure out when you can work and earn less rebuke and guilt.  Forget finding balance. Find a level you can live with!

Nonetheless, there will be times when that festive spirit will touch even the most work obsessed person in some way. Those moments of joy, planned or unplanned, experienced in quietude or companionship, are pretty special. So, mixed up, family cum work driven days with some stolen special moments … That is not a bad template for (some) holidays either!

The N Word

Nirvana? Well…actually I was thinking of another important N word (and I don’t mean nationalism) – Network! Many years ago, I had watched the film Identity with friends. There were many remarkable things about the film including the fact that a character got killed while walking into the wilderness looking for network on the mobile! So, in a way, we have been warned. Searching for network can be injurious to health.

But then, as they say, no man is an island and that urge to connect is addictive. While I can proudly proclaim that my life is not dependent on facebook updates and likes, messages and emails do need to be checked.  Since I am a consultant, my phone becomes the de facto office and that office needs to function! So I sometimes do end up walking through buildings/hotel rooms and premises searching for that elusive network. This is also when a certain degree of exercising happens – stretching arms through windows, craning the neck and even some feats of balancing.

But then, no network can also be a good thing. It offers a respite from well-meaning but over anxious family members, colleagues who decide to revert on matters that could have been handled earlier, clients who suddenly feel the urge to give feedback and those telemarketers (No…This is not the time to talk about my insurance policy…or maybe it is!)  You can focus, without interruptions, on the task at hand. It is a more immersive experience and respectful of those we are engaging with.

Ultimately, of course, one does have to return to the world of mobiles and deadlines. But then a temporary, free from technology break may also help us to look more closely at ourselves and others around us. Who knows…it may show the path to that other N….Nirvana as well!

The D Word

I mean deadlines. There is no doubt about it. They rule our lives. Like tyrannical rulers.

Sometimes, we get time to prepare for them. Sometimes, they are just thrust upon us. In either set of situations, days pass by in a blur and even 24 hours seem insufficient. For me, as a consultant, the distinction between day and night or between Sunday and Monday gets blurred. In fact, I don’t think many in our chronically understaffed development sector experience a 9 am to 5 pm job! And it is really very difficult to explain why we have to work so much and keep such hours to the non-development types (pretty much the rest of the world actually…see So you are a…WHAT?).

Of course, having a supportive boss and team mates is a big help in such times. The absence of these…well…that should be another blog post or maybe even a series!

When we manage to finish the work, there are another set of hurdles. I have often seen that the number of people expected to give feedback swells up mysteriously at the last minute. This number is also often inversely proportional to the amount of time one has for incorporating feedback! This is also the time that we realise that some of these people are possibly reading the document for the first time even though we might be working on version 5. And if you have to give a hard copy of the document to a very senior and very important person who has very little time (and probably doesn’t like you), the printer will refuse to cooperate. Or the computer will. Or, if one has that kind of luck, both will!

But, somehow, we survive. And then there is the next deadline!

(I don’t really intend to cover A-Z. But for those interested, there is also The F Word.)

Joys and Pains of Collaborating

Many people far more experienced and distinguished than me have spoken on the pros and cons, the joys and pains of teamwork. Sometimes, it is exhilarating and we may even end up striking great friendships. But all of us who have been through the trajectory of group assignments in school and college to teams for projects in the professional domain have our own personal horror stories as well. Of that one person who didn’t ….. Of the one team which wouldn’t….

Lately, I have been working very closely with a team on some research studies. It has, undoubtedly, been enriching and amazing. It has also provided me insight into the transient and interchangeable nature of ‘joy’ and ‘pain’. Well…decide for yourself!

Constant travelling         Enjoyable road trips         Hours together in cramped spaces

New experiences           Wow! This music is good   Seriously dude! You listen to this?

Working together         Learning from others          This is so unplanned!
sometimes in a             and on the move
chaotic environment

Dividing work            Capitalising knowledge         You think this is all I can do?
responsibilities          and skills

Blurring of                Knowing each other          I need to know about your family-why?
personal and            well, Stepping in to           And your digestive system – WHY?
professional             support when needed

So you are a… WHAT?

I have had this reaction – uttered in tones ranging from absolute lack of comprehension to sinister suspicion – countless number of times. When does this happen? When I am asked my profession. By relatives. By acquaintances. By strangers trying to make polite conversation. The answer invariably stumps most.

Sometimes, I say ‘social worker’. There is a moment of silence. Maybe, it marks the end of their hopes of a dizzying career for me. Then the questions come out, hesitatingly for a few and but like torrential rain for most. ‘So, you do exactly what?’ ‘And you get paid for it?’ ‘How much?’ ‘By whom?’ ‘Are foreign agencies involved?’ Here, invariably, the voice drops – ‘The church…from abroad, na?’

Sometimes, I say – ‘consultant’. Often, nodding of heads follow. Some then state approvingly– ‘Aah…for the corporate sector. Very good.’ Then, I have to jolt them from that surety! Now, I get to pick from ‘NGO sector/not for profits/development sector’. And that quizzical look returneth. When I add, helpfully ‘child protection’ and ‘adolescent health and nutrition’, it does not help. Does not help at all.

After years and years of this torture, I have (I think) developed nuances in my tone. So now, my tone does more of the talking. Sometimes, it suggests – Yes I do this. End of discussion. Very rarely – Ok…I am willing to tell you my entire professional story. I have found that being open, particularly while traveling – is often downright dangerous. Before you know it, someone has asked you how to ‘open an NGO’ and also shared that it has been their sole burning ambition for varying periods of time. One may even be assailed with episodes of their goodness and voluntary-ness in graphic details. These are possibly the only times I wish I did something else for a living!