Expect Wind in your Face and Rain Every day – Paddling and Projects: Lessons Learned (1)

For about 25 years I’ve been a frequent camper and canoer (canoeist?) in the big provincial parks in Ontario. I’ve gone pretty much every year, and many years when my children were little I went twice – once on a family trip and once on a more difficult ‘just guys’ trip. As the kids got older the family and guys trips merged into one. So I’ve done maybe 40-ish trips in all. And most weekends in the summer I am out for at least a short paddle in my canoe at our family cottage in Georgian Bay.

What has struck me over those years is that the lessons from paddling and the lessons of projects are often the same. I recently did a presentation on this topic and over the next few weeks I will share it as a series of blog posts, with each covering one or two ‘Paddling and Projects: Lessons Learned.

When I first started canoeing, I asked the friends that I was joining for some advice. They gave me some suggestions about the specific clothing I should have and the gear that I needed, and then they said

Expect wind in your face and rain every day.”

Not the best way to sell someone on a spending a week on a canoe trip where you need to be outside all the time, is it?

There were really 2 points being made here:

  • First, you need to have the right gear necessary to deal with any situation. You need to be able to layer up and down, to have a great raincoat etc. A similar comment was the need to have ‘wet clothes and dry clothes. No matter what, keep your dry clothes dry.’ The stuff you wear in the canoe might get damp – or soaked – but put it back on the next day rather than risk having nothing dry to wear in the evenings.
  • The second point is about your plan and expectations. If you expect perfection, you are certain to be disappointed. When you plan for problems, you are prepared ahead of time and not scrambling to figure out what to do.

In my experience overseeing big projects, when I review a project either during the initial planning, or if I am taking responsibility for something in mid-stream, one of the first questions I ask is ‘how much effort contingency have you accounted for?’ Almost invariably, the answer is ‘none’. So what we are saying is, we expect to do something we’ve probably never done before and we are going to do it perfectly the first time out. How realistic is that?  How perfectly do we understand this situation?

You might think that this isn’t relevant in Agile projects, But in each iteration, you need to be able to gauge your confidence in how well you understand the backlog items you’re committing to complete. And there are usually business expectations beyond the initial minimum viable product.

So you do need to consider if you have planned enough resource and time to deal with some delays and unexpected challenges in every project.



“I am part of a team that’s building a cathedral.” Why context is king.

In my career, one of the challenges that I’ve been given multiple times is to fix those occasional IT projects that are off the rails. So my job has been to come in, figure out what’s wrong, and guide the project back to success. There are lots of reasons why projects struggle but a lack of common ground or common understanding is one of the most frequent. On one of those projects, as I was getting up to speed, I had a developer say to me “You know, none of us really understand this solution from end-to-end.” As I dug into it, I realized many of the developers who worked on various components had never been exposed to any other component or really understood how the system would be used in the field. Most had never met an ‘actual user’. And unless they were on the UI team, they hadn’t even seen what the interface looked like.

There is old story I probably have told to every team in this situation that goes like this: In the olden days, a woman is riding along on a horse and she sees two men in a quarry, cutting stone. She stops and asks the two men “What are you doing?” The first one looks at her and says “Well, look at us. I am cutting this stone.” (When I tell the story, the dismissive “are you an idiot?” tone is quite clear in the first speaker!) The second one proudly says “I am part of a team that is building a cathedral.”

Then I ask my teams… which one of those people do you trust to do a great job? No one has yet been enough of a wise guy to answer ‘stone mason #1’. And the lesson is – context is critical. The more we understand the bigger picture and the more we see how our role is important in that big picture, the more likely we are to make sure that we meet and exceed our commitments.

And yet most business and certainly most projects don’t spend nearly enough time on context and the big picture. I try to remind my teams of the context in some way in every meeting. Sometimes is why it is “us” that is working on this tough assignment. Or why this project is important to our client. Or our company. In the middle of some problem if someone is complaining about why we have to fix this – isn’t it good enough as is – I talk about the impact of not fixing it – to the end user, to our client’s customer, whoever. When I don’t know the impact – I ask my client to share it so we truly understand.

People want to know their work has real value. Remind them of it even when they don’t ask.

Personalization elevates even the most commodity experience

I had an interesting experience on this week’s trip to Edmonton with my cab ride from the airport. As many people do when I am travelling in a city I don’t know well, I just got into the next taxi from the stand as I came out of the airport without giving it a lot of thought. The driver was unusually chatty (for me, anyways). Particularly late at night, I don’t typically encourage the conversation in the taxi beyond a few pleasantries, but this man was interesting and engaging. He was also “personal enough” – talking about coming to Canada for his son, but not getting into more detail than might be seemly. And he encouraged me to talk about my family. As part of the conversation, I mentioned where my meeting was the next day and he made sure that he pointed it out to me as we went to the hotel.

By the end of the drive he knew that I was returning to the airport the next day and gave me his card so I could call him. So far, a very pleasant ride, but perhaps not terribly unusual.

Then came the clincher – he asked for my number so he could check with me in the morning about my flight time and when I might be heading out. I gave it to him, thinking that he would be busy the next day and that was the end of the story. But around 1130am- which was after I told him my presentation would be over – I got a text asking if I still needed a ride, and my time of departure. Ten minutes before the agreed upon time, a second text came basically saying ‘fyi, I am here, outside the door, in case you want to go early.’

In a world where taxis are competing with Uber and Lyft, this gentlemen is competing on a level of personalization that is pretty unusual in transportation in my experience. Starting from the very first trip! On day two he remembered my name and details of our prior conversation. On the drive back to the airport I asked about how much of his business comes from regulars. This is cab, remember, not a limo service – and after four years about half his business comes from repeats like this. We talked about his management system to keep track of regulars and how he deals with conflicts between casual rides and his regulars. Basically he is willing to risk an hour empty to make sure he meets a commitment to a regular. Even though its a cab he talked about his commitment to keep it feeling clean and tidy. He talked about the importance of reliability – the passengers need to know their ride will be available, and on time. Some clients have got to the point where he gives them a unique texting experience – ie they want to know when he is 20 minutes away for example, or only a text right at the planned departure time.

Every business has a balance between regulars and new or 1-time clients. In a commodity business you would think that the balance would be tilted sharply to the unique or ‘1-time’ customers. But with some pretty simple and effective techniques he is building reputation, brand and value. It would have been just as easy – probably the same number of clicks – for me to get an Uber back to the airport, and probably would have saved a few dollars. But I was getting a known quantity, a reasonable price, and certainty – and an interesting conversation.

I am going back to Edmonton in two weeks. Guess who’s picking me up at the airport?

“Canada? My dream is Canada!”

If I asked you to name the country that comes to mind with the following characteristics:

  • Population about 35 million
  • Big exports include automotive, natural resources, and agricultural products
  • A constitutional monarchy, with a prime minister and 2 level legislature
  • Stretches across the northern end of a continent
  • Geo-politically, if you look at its borders to the North and South, on one side is a harsh, sparsely settled wasteland with a wild beauty, while on the other side is an economic and cultural powerhouse with whom it has a free trade agreement.

Given the title of this blog, you will be forgiven for answering Canada, but in fact, this also describes Morocco, where I’ve spent  four weeks working pro bono with IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) for AMDIE, the Moroccan government agency responsible for promoting Morocco as a place to invest, and helping Moroccan Exports.

After our team finished updating and validating their IT Vision and strategy I spent a week on vacation in Morocco and Spain with my wife and her sister.  As we were headed north to Chefchouen, a beautiful blue city in the Rif mountains, our driver Youssef discovered our nationality and said “Canada? My dream is Canada!” He then proudly showed us his Canada Goose jacket to demonstrate his sincerity.

Youssef’s  spontaneous praise of Canada got me thinking about the differences and similarities between our countries.  While superficially, trading out the Sahara (in the south) for the Arctic (in the north) and European Union for the USA, they seem quite similar, they are worlds apart. Morocco is working hard to pull itself into the modern world –the main roads are excellent, this past week the King cut the ribbon on a brand new TGV high-speed train that runs from Casablanca to Tangiers. Modern windmills generating electricity are seen on mountain tops. AMDIE is actively promoting the key benefits of Morocco – stability, proximity to markets, tolerance, increasingly educated workforce.

But in a reasonably large Moroccan city like Chefchouen, at least some people are still using the public fountains for basic water. And we saw women washing the family clothes in rivers many times as we drove through the country. About ½ of people under 35 are unemployed.  While those kind of things still happen in pockets in Canada, it is pretty rare.  In Canada, we hear about these types of issues in some small northern communities (mostly First Nations or Inuit), and it is seen as a tragedy that needs to be fixed, not as the ‘normal’ way of life.

I was surprised to hear the Morocco share’s Canada’s interest in diversity.  Despite Morocco being 98% Muslim and about the same percentage being ethnically similar, many Moroccans talked to us about the importance of encouraging diversity in all dimensions.  One of my favourite things about Canada is our openness to others and tolerance of other people’s ways.  Like most things that people claim represent their countries ideals, you can find many ways we fail at this.  But of the 4 “Canadians” on our 15 person CSC team – one was an American who married a Canadian, 1 was from France, who also married a Canadian, the third was an immigrant from China.  Only 1 (me) was born Canadian. What’s remarkable about this is that it is pretty unremarkable in Canada.  Generation after generation came to our country, and by and large, brought the best parts of their country and heritage, while leaving whatever divisions and animosity they had behind.

I have many fond memories of friends I made in Morocco and the experiences I had there. It is such a privilege to be able to experience living in other cultures and having a chance to contribute in a small way to their country’s growth. I look forward to visiting again and seeing some of the places I missed this time. But like our driver Youssef, my dream is Canada.

Ode to Morocco 13


4 weeks ago team Morocco 13 set down in Rabat

Surprised to see palm trees and way more than 1 cat

We didn’t expect a big welcome, so here is the thing

A parade past our hotel, featuring no less than the king


The weekend getting briefed then touring the city

The Chellah so ancient and the Kasbah so pretty

The wind was so strong that no one could stay

Thomas summed it up best “The view just blew me away”


Yoga at dawn led by Julie and Anna

To order mint tea – just say ‘all day banana’

Splitwise and Trello and Whatsup and Slack

Wear your backpack in front in case of attack


We’d all be quite lost without French-speaking Cecile

Explaining to shopkeepers and our driver at the wheel

And if you want to find Giulia, I am sure she’s around

Playing with the cats that are everywhere found


Together with our clients, trying to get all the work done

So we can leave our weekends for site-seeing and fun

The trick is to remember there is always a way

Because “there is a last minute to every day”


Travelling as a group to Chefchouen and Fes

Climbing in Ackhour, a quick stop in Meknes

Muruli’s selfie stick means a group picture for all

Beside a big gate or an ancient crumbling wall


Climbing to the top of the hill with Muruli and Eavan

Hearing the call to prayer at mid-day and dawn

Julie brought games to play in the bus and the hall

John stretching his muscles using an old tennis ball


Dervishes spinning was really quite hypnotic

Getting a hotel in Fez turned out quite chaotic

Which leads to a question we will debate at the bar

Will TripAdvisor accept a rating that’s less than 1 star?


Mehdi and his mom showed the Moroccan way

With their cheer and hospitality all through the day

Taking us touring, into their home and more

Negotiating with the sellers in every store.


Raluca and Weronika and Jinzi and Doreen

In their locally bought dresses made quite a lovely scene

But wash those clothes separately because of the dies

Which are still coming out despite hundreds of tries.


Bonding at Hamman which is a group cleaning and scrub

Sampling Tajine and Couscous at each restaurant and club

Hearing many rumours about the king and the queen

While we keep together by counting out 1 to 15


Trying so many new restaurants is always a thrill

Jinzi and Doreen offering medicine when I was quite ill

When you are presenting from behind the client’s podium

I hope you remembered like me, to take some Imodium


Surveys and coding and research all day

Getting all the work done before the bus drives away

We really are working most of the time

But our weekend activities sound better in rhyme


Interviewing “en francais” with the help of Manal

Giulia crouching in photos because she’s so tall

Philosophical discussions with our client Khalid

The idea of interviewing Madam is scary indeed


Blogging on Instagram, LinkedIn and WordPress

Facebook and Twitter to share this success

Photographing all of the food on each plate

Guessing the cost in Dirhams of what each of us ate


Patricia and Julie dipping their toes in the Med

Thomas taking 3-60 degree photos from over his head

Carla quietly photographing everything in sight

Disco lighting in the bus when we’re travelling at night


John went to the laundry and received extra pants
Malika took us to CIAT where she picked up some plants
Having fun planting on Community service day

Then one final sprint – that’s the IBM Way


Now 4 weeks are gone and final presentations

This experience has exceeded all our expectations

I will miss you all, but there’s no time for weeping

So don’t say goodbye, just “Leave that camel sleeping”

This blog Inspired by Sufi mysticism, and a day spent learning from the mentally handicapped

While touring Fez last weekend, our Corporate Service Corps  team got tickets to the closing ceremony for a Sufi festival. We saw traditional Moroccan music being performed and three whirling dervishes.  Whirling dervishes are a practice of the Sufi sect within Islam. They perform a dance twirling in place in a long, weighted robe or sema.  It is quite hypnotic to watch this religious dance. The dance is performed to express emotion and achieve the wisdom and love of God. Even not understanding the words being sung or the meaning of the specific movements, you could feel a powerful sense of mystery.


Instead of paying for the festival tickets we made a small donation to local Moroccan charities. Coincidentally, one of the organizations being supported by the event was CIAT, the Moroccan Center for Integration and Assistance through Work, which one of our CSC teams is working with, and which we all visited this week for our Community Service Day. So we started the week making a unplanned donation to the charity we visited Friday.

The CIAT visit was truly inspiring.  CIAT’s mandate is to help mentally disabled train to be able to do common roles in society.  The charity runs a bakery, a restaurant, cafeteria, organic farm and plant nursery. If you are ever in Rabat I strongly recommend eating at Gusto, the CIAT restaurant, which had one of the best Gnocchi’s I’ve ever eaten. It even inspired my first TripAdvisor recommendation!

At CIAT, the disabled are working all the main tasks – baking bread and pastries, serving in the restaurant and kitchen, and planting and tending the fields.  They also clean and package the harvested food in both traditional Moroccan baskets for sale in the medinas and in more modern packaging for the supermarkets.  In the plant nursery and in packaging they work pretty much completely independently.

Some of the disabled in the nursery showed us how to start a seedling, take a cutting and plant it, and transplant something that had outgrown its pot. Our teachers – the disabled people or ‘DPs’ as they are called here -– were perfectly expert at each of these tasks.  Despite a language barrier, they were able to teach us the basic steps and encouraged us to figure it all out. Although I am pretty sure they politely did some re-potting after we left to get things up to their standard!

This work is so important because, just like in most countries, the disabled are significantly under-represented in the Moroccan work force.  Our host told us that 20 years ago in Morocco, the mentally handicapped would have been hidden in the home. It’s great to see that opening up.

Ronald Reagan once said something to the effect that the ‘best social program is a job’. There is dignity in work and joy in being valued for your contribution. You could see that in the faces of our teachers and in the other ‘DPs’ working in the various functions we toured. CIATs goal is to be self-sufficient and some of the component businesses are already there. As a training program, the next step is sending their trained staff out to work independently in commercial bakeries, restaurants or farms.   A good reminder that it is our abilities that should define us.  Not our disabilities.

The measure of a man, or woman, is not so much what they have accomplished, though that has weight. It often is much more though what that man or woman has overcome to accomplish what they have.” ― Leif Gregersen, Through The Withering Storm


I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. (Winston Churchill)

We just finished the second week – half-way through our four week deployment on the Corporate Service Corps (CSC). We got a big deliverable out the door this week and are working hard on two others.


The entire CSC Morocco team spent a rainy weekend touring Fez.  It has the largest medina (old town) in the world – dating back to the 8th century. It is a center of industry for beautiful pottery and leather goods.  On the way back some of us were talking about learning – my theme for this week –  and my colleague Anna Astakhishvili used the analogy of pottery. We think that we are ‘fully formed and fired’ but in fact if you put us back in the kiln ‘we can soften and be reformed.’


Everyone I spoke to about the CSC before I came talked about the learning curve you are on when you are deployed on a CSC assignment. I kind of assumed as one of the most experienced consultants on the team that if anything, I would be teaching more than learning. But part of the fun of this whirlwind is the constant new experience!

In some ways it feels like back in university or my summers spent learning to fly where we are learning many different subjects, seemingly unrelated, at the same time. Some examples

  • New client, new client processes (in a foreign language)
  • Using lots of new tools – when was the last time you actually started using 5 new phone apps in the same week? Not just download them, but using them daily? Probably when you got your first smart phone.
  • Having to start over in dealing with the living basics like where to go to buy food, which restaurants are good, where can I do laundry. And again, having to ask in a foreign language!
  • Figuring out how to get things done in a very different cultural environment than Canada
  • Haggling and bargaining with the shopkeepers in the souk (or market) in Fez – okay, that one is just for fun, on the weekend J , but still a learning experience!

On top of that, it feels like on every one of our projects, we are trying to pack what might normally take 6 or 8 weeks of effort into 4 weeks. This week we issued a survey to our client’s customers in less than 4 days – on other projects I’ve seen the approval cycle to validate a survey take more than a week! So together with the client, we are driving hard to make sure there is maximum value in this short assignment. And yet, spirits are high, people are having fun, while working hard and learning too.

Even on the weekend, the learning continued.  Our tour guide through Fez – who provided tons of information about the city – took us past both a kindergarten and one of the oldest universities in the world. He made the point that secular education is critical to democracy and critical thinking, and it is one of the first things that dictators cut or control.

The Corporate Service Corps talks about the ‘triple benefit’ of the program, where the individual, IBM and the client all gain. But maybe we should add a fourth – our home country.  We benefit the most when we are giving the most. We learn the most when we push the hardest. IBM takes people who are great in their existing roles and pushes them way out of their comfort zone. And it takes us all up a level. Maybe that makes us better citizens too.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.  Alexander Pope (1688-1744


A little learning is a dangerous thing.  Alexander Pope (1688-1744)


“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


We had a quick 1 day working visit to the city of Casablanca this week which inspired this title, but it does seem to be the theme of the week as new teams are forming and we are making friends with each other and with our clients.  But it also could be ‘great expectations’ since everywhere I look my expectations are being surpassed. For example, in a country 98% Muslim religiously, and Arab ethnically, I did not expect to find:

  • That multiple people would talk to me about the importance of supporting and encouraging diversity;
  • That in my first in-person conversation with our key client (and definitely one of the 98%) I would hear him say “it’s not the words you say, or which religion you follow – its what’s in your heart that God sees”;
  • We were told this is a very deferential culture, and while we were trying to figure out how to get insight and additional opinion, and yet the client says “I want you to disagree with me if you think I am wrong.”

Everywhere with our specific client, AMDIE, we see signs of tremendous Moroccan hospitality.  Our client lead has personally driven our three-person IBM team around to multiple locations. When we visited the Casablanca offices of “Maroc Export”, not only did they insist we leave time in our visit to tour the magnificent Hassan II Mosque, they also bought the tickets and escorted us to connect us with the tour guide! And I am loving the Moroccan mint tea they serve frequently. All of which add up to a delightful client experience.

But it gets better. Our main challenge this week was to understand the business problem we are trying to help with and update the statement of work as necessary, to reflect what we can accomplish in our 4 weeks.  Fortunately, our client is both a fan of agile, and understands one of the key concepts:  that you fit the scope to the time and resources available.  So while we reduced the technical side of the ‘hoped for’ scope; we were also able to add an important validation of the requirement and expectations of the investor and export communities’ stakeholders. It is always refreshing and energizing to work with a client who is looking for mutual success!


Similarly, our IBM AMDIE Team is coming together well. We each bring different skills and levels of experience:  Doreen is a finance analyst; Giulia is a journalist and communications expert; and I am an IT-oriented consulting project manager.  And I should add our Project Assistant and translator, Munal.  We are already working together increasingly efficiently towards our goals and supporting when one is ‘stuck’.  And having some fun in the process.

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Scope is set, the plan is in place, team is in place. All in all, a pretty exciting and successful first week. With four weeks total and one complete, it is all about execution now.

Avengers Assemble!

Okay, we are not superheroes.  But a group of people hoping to do some good together with our clients in Morocco are gathering and I am struck by the excitement, energy and optimism as we start to link up. We are the IBM Corporate Service Corps for Morocco (CSCMOR13)

It is easy as a long-time consultant to be blasé about business travel. Airports all look the same, hotels are the same and ‘road warriors’ really want to just get home at the end of the week.  I’m lucky that, living in Toronto, there is enough client work to keep me busy locally – and I’ve still spent long stretches of my career traveling every week. A year in Europe, 4 additional years in Montreal each week. And shorter stretches in Vancouver BC and North Carolina.

This time is different.  It started on Wednesday when our WhatsApp chat showed a picture of two of our crew linking up to start their journey from Australia.  Soon the chat was buzzing with selfies as groups gathered in 2s and 3s and started to connect.  ‘Can’t wait’ and ‘Looking forward to it’ was common.  Or ‘See you in Dubai’ or some other place where they would change planes.

Jinzi and I connected briefly at the Air France desk in Toronto-Pearson airport before we took separate flights to Paris. Colleagues were texting each other gate information, tips for how to be prepared as we arrive in Morocco, and just ‘safe flight’.  It’s great to see a group of people who’ve only met over webex finally connecting in person.  This team is definitely moving from ‘forming’ to ‘norming’ quickly.

Almost half of us are on the same flight from Paris to Rabat and as we were waiting at the gate for the final flight to our destination some things became obvious very quickly.

  • This group of near strangers who are spread across 5 continents share a lot of common concerns, beliefs and interests. It felt like old friends chatting from the moment we met.
  • There is a lot of passion for our role – working together with our clients – government agencies or NGOs in Morocco – co-creating on a strategy that can improve an economic or social challenge
  • Unlike many project teams from IT consulting firms – the team is mostly women. Of 15 total, 11 are women and 4 men. Very happy to get some experience being in the minority!

By end of day Friday, we should all be together. This weekend we get acclimatized to the city and each other, and Monday we start working with our clients!


The Journey Begins

In less than 2 weeks I am heading off on a month-long adventure in consulting! I will be working with a team of IBMers from around the world in Rabat, Morocco.  This journey is part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC). If you haven’t heard of the CSC, here is how IBM describes it:

Since 2008, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps program has sent teams of the company’s most talented employees to provide pro bono counsel to countries in the developing world that are grappling with issues that intersect business, technology, and society.

The initiative deploys teams of IBM employees from around the world with skills in technology, scientific research, marketing, finance, human resources, law, and economic development. As part of their assignments, they work with local government, non-profit civic groups, and small business to develop blueprints that touch issues ranging from economic development, energy and transportation, to education and health care.

Corporate Service Corps, which began operation in 2008, is considered the largest program of its kind. By the end of 2014, 3,000 IBM participants from 58 countries had participated in more than 1,000 CSC projects in 37 countries, generating more than $100 million in value for host organizations over a six-year period and has worked on services consumed by over 33 million worldwide.

In my case, I will be working with the Moroccan governments Investment and Exports Development Agency on a omni-channel strategy for the agency. For me it is a great opportunity to step away from the day-to-day of my existing consulting responsibilities, get hands-on with a project, and work daily in a totally different culture, with colleagues from around the world.


Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton