LavaCon Perspectives: Focus on the People (Including You)

perspectives-focus-peopleOne of the most fascinating parts of the conference experience involves how themes emerge. One that many people shared on Twitter and in conversations at LavaCon 2014 centered on the need to focus on the people within organizations, not just the content, processes, or technologies. It makes sense when you think about it. Too often, we work tirelessly to complete projects, while stuck focusing on the money spent rather than the value provided to internal and external customers. And without the people side of the equation, value means little other than figures in a spreadsheet. With conference organizer Jack Molisani’s experience focusing on people and career development, I thought it was fitting that several presentations at this conference addressed the people-side of things.

I saw evidence of this theme throughout LavaCon, with attention to both individual development and team building. Two of the keynotes started off with great information for focusing on our own development, with Andrea Ames suggesting that we don’t all fit a “type” or a set path, and that as long as we’re moving forward, we’re doing something productive. Kristina Halvorson cautioned against getting stuck in a role knowing you might be providing valuable advice to clients, yet feeling stale in the role by not doing anything.

forget-predict-the-future-create-the-future-keynote-7-1024The conference kicked off with Andrea Ames challenging us not to predict the future, but instead, to create it! What better way to start than by helping us each to refine our own career goals, plans, and needs? Andrea’s perspective on the different personality types and ways we approach our own risks, development, and opportunities. She challenged us to avoid worrying about the exact label to throw on ourselves (e.g., opportunistic, targeted, entrepreneurial), but to instead identify the gap and invent the solution. Andrea’s presentation tied into Victoria Koster-Lenhardt’s LavaCon 2013 keynote on seizing opportunities along with the work Andrea and her former co-worker, Alyson Riley, to demonstrate that each type is good and can be harnessed for valuable work, change, life, along with reminding us how transferrable our skills as communicators are.

Andrea also advised us to take what others might see as failures and rebrand them as learning moments, basically a process to create, test, and refine to move toward your future vision.

contentcommunication-lavacon-2014-72-1024In the second keynote, Kristina Halvorson shared some strong feelings that we often don’t discuss: What do you do when you truly feel like a consultant, someone who walks in developing (hopefully) useful strategies, yet you yearn to get back into the implementation (doing) instead of the advice business? Splitting out content needs from people needs, Halvorson humorously, and pointedly, explained how what you say is a “content improvement opportunity” can be seen as a criticism against all lifeforms in an organization. To resolve this issue, Kristina explained that you cannot be married to a process, but rather, focus on making the people within it successful.

In addition to these two keynotes, two breakout sessions stood out, because they actually helped to answer, “How do we focus on our people to motivate and help them accept change?”

What do you do when you move across the country and need to implement a content strategy and plan for achieving it very quickly? Liz Herman delivered some firsthand experience to explain that it’s the change management and people aspects that allow entire processes and organizations to succeed. Managing interpersonal relationships and organizational culture, along with recognizing when change can feel threatening to employees is often just as important as the actual content, tools, and services. In fact, team communication was on her list of first tasks to figure out once she started the new role.

Two additional key takeaways from Liz’s session: 1) People build relationships and trust. Content professionals need to determine who makes decisions, who evaluates them, who implements them, and how all of these moving parts fit together. It helps to understand each individual’s areas of expertise and interest, then find ways to communicate and lead that fulfill those expectations. 2) Take away some complexity (business doesn’t have to be so hard) when beginning a content initiative. Realize it’s not going to work perfectly, then learn and improve.

In her presentation, “Politics is Not a Dirty Word,” Alyssa Fox explained that the phrase “office politics” often elicits a negative response from folks who assume the only people who engage are the ones willing to gossip and stomp on everyone else to get to the top. She even shared a slide that showed the common search terms related to office politics; as predicted, the most common search terms focused on surviving the game without selling your soul.

I enjoyed how Alyssa asked the unsuspecting room of communicators how many thought they actually engaged in office politics. Of course, the bold, ready-to-own-it folks had no problem raising their hands. A few others were a little leery but understood the point (even not getting involved is making a choice related to office politics), so they raised their hands. Her goal was to show how it’s all about building relationships and using “politics” as a positive, essential force to accomplish goals or attain a position of influence. I appreciated the reminder that it doesn’t require a title of authority to be that influencer.

Alyssa also discussed change, and how any time you speak about it, people freak out. To pursue buy in and make the change easier to adapt to, she recommended getting to know the people around you as much as they’ll let you in. While this effort should not include accosting shy people and demanding every detail of their life stories; it also shouldn’t be limited to just the people you report to or sit next to. Get to know tech support people, the custodial staff, and the security team. A common way to move past differences in opinion or assumptions that someone is just difficult is to understand hot buttons and life situations. Of course, this doesn’t mean there is an excuse for just plain being a pain. But you can put in your best effort to help smooth and diffuse situations to reduce silos, improve products, and be reliable.

In addition to the firsthand experience shared by both Liz and Alyssa, value was added by group discussions where attendees shared tips about what’s worked (or not) for them along with book recommendations. Both Liz and Alyssa encouraged others to share their best practices, ideas, even book recommendations. I thought turning over the floor to the audience members was a great showing of that leadership, collaboration, and value toward others.

Conclusion

With the landscape of all communication fields changing so rapidly, many conference sessions focus on skill gaps and emerging technologies (and rightfully so). However, an understanding the complexity of personal motivations, team goals, interpersonal relationships, and change management is as essential and transferrable as the technology skills.

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Jill Parman

Jill is the owner of ForWord Consulting, LLC, which provides instructional design, technical communication, and business analysis services. She is a master of useless trivia, has a slight obsession with Pilot fine tip pens, and spends her free time chasing around a toddler and two dogs.

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