• Engagement: My Word for 2020

    No, I don’t mean I’m getting married (did that long ago and am still delighted with my choice!). More along the lines of employee engagement — except I’m my own boss.

    As an independent consultant or solopreneur, it can be difficult to say no to a project. It feels like you’re turning up your nose at a gift — and you never know how long it will be until another one comes along.

    2019 was an interesting year, offering a series of lessons when it came to professional discernment. Big projects were winding down and there was space for new work, but projects as compelling as the ones I’ve been blessed with over the last few years were slow to land.

    In the meantime, a few projects happened that reminded me how much I value being fully engaged and fully invested in a project, from strategic planning to execution. In the last half of the year, I worked on three projects in a row that were 100% tactical (and in a couple of cases stop-gap measures where a broader strategy was wanting). I chafed at being given an assignment that appeared to have little strategic value. 

    For someone who thrives on holding the higher vision while executing a plan, this tactical approach was painful. I wanted to do more for my c, but that wasn’t what I was being asked to do. I felt like a racehorse hitched to a pony cart. I had a lot more energy and ability to apply to the client’s broader needs, but my strategic questions got in the way of what my client was trying to do inside the project we were working on. Any time I tried to look at the bigger picture, I threatened to kick the cart to pieces. 

    Which leads me to my word of the year: engagement. When a business coach asked me to reflect on the past year and what I desire for 2020, I finally admitted that my favourite projects are ones that test my intellectual limits, push me out of my comfort zone, and involve teams that strive for greatness. I want my work to excite me and confound me, and orient towards expansion rather than containment. I’ll trade the tactical assignments for the projects where I am a creative and strategic partner, where we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. 

    I found myself grieving the passing of projects from the past decade that pushed me right to the brink of my abilities: content migration for the City of Saskatoon website to a more customer focused interface, managing a content team that touched every single page on the site in under six months; content strategy for the Government of Saskatchewan content migration, doing audits and new information architecture for ministry after ministry on tight deadlines, working with new communications departments for every ministry and coaching them on the new strategy; being on the team that developed Wanuskewin’s ambitious renewal plan, and then sitting in ceremony with Indigenous knowledge keepers while channelling a way to tell the story of the People of the Northern Plains that will forever change the visitors who come to this sacred site. 

    Someone said to me this year, “You talk a lot about working hard. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to work so hard?” Well, the truth is, I had a taste of working less hard this year, and I’d rather not try that again. The projects kept coming, and there was always work to do, but in my world, if I’m not fully engaged in my work (and that usually means having to work hard), I’m not happy. When you love what you do, and what you love is testing your limits over and over (and your limits keep expanding because you keep testing them), working hard is not something to avoid.

    I want to run the whole track using all my horsepower. And I’m the best match for clients who see what I can do and need exactly what I excel at.

    Looking back, I can see that much of 2019 a building year. The clients behind those tactical projects are now talking about updating their websites. Another client got me thinking about how to scale content strategy to support smaller organizations, and I loved the process of applying content strategy approaches to a new market that often can’t afford a full content strategy. We’re starting that project this month. Three interpretive planning clients are in the fundraising stage, preparing to implement the concept plans my teams and I helped to develop. 

    I also learned the value of saying no (and the discomfort of not saying it when I should have).

    Projects don’t have to be big to be engaging, but they do need to be engaging (and even seemingly impossible and messy) in order to get me all in. My all-in ‘yes’ will serve both my client and me. My well-considered ‘no’ will do the same. If I don’t feel like I’m serving my clients as fully as possible, it’s probably best for both of us if we part ways.

    Here’s to a year of self-employed engagement in meaningful projects that make a difference to not only my clients, but their audiences as well.

    [Image: I scrambled this hill near Willow Bunch, SK with my kids during my summer holidays. I test my limits even when I'm off the clock.]

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