Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bird by Bird

I attended a meeting this week that had as its objective to discuss a thorny set of issues around a joint US-UK fast-track project, and narrow the options to the 2-3 most promising. It was a good time to tell a story to gain some perspective and slow down the dialog to at least deliver the key questions.

I opened the session with a story from one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott[1]. Anne grew up with a father who got up at 5:30 am every morning and wrote books and articles all his life. IT people are notorious for not being morning people. So I was struggling to empathize. Anne idealized her father and said something that stuck with me. She said, “Writing taught my father to pay attention; my father in turn taught other people to pay attention and then write down their thoughts and observations.”[2]

She went on to describe a story about her ten-year old brother that gave her book its name. He had a science report on birds due that he put off for three months. As often the case, the young student was faced with the task of writing the report on the last evening. He had a stack of books, colored pencils and papers, and was frozen in panic before what seemed like an insurmountable mountain of work to do. He father sat down with him, put an assuring arm about his shoulder, said “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”[3]

What I like about this story is that it tells us five things to keep in mind when we face a large assignment through which it’s not clear we see our way:

  1. Assignments with very tight timeframes often seem like insurmountable mountains
  2. We can move a mountain rock by rock (or if we're clearing the jungle, bird by bird)
  3. When we have to move very fast we fear making mistakes. A pelican is not a songbird.
  4. When we have a big new problem, it helps to have people who have done it before to help sort out the birds.
  5. It takes a number of birds to make a good report, so in a healthy dialog, we need everyone to tweet

The story may not have provided answers or the process through which we successfully navigated. But it did set the context and the measured urgency for the discussion. There was the collective deep breath that we can do this together. And so we got started.

[1] Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, NY: Anchor, 1994.
[2] Bird By Bird, p. xii
[3] Bird By Bird, p. 18-19