How Chris Saved the Training In Less Than Two Days (a story for the weekend)

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Golden Jackals at Revivim. By Michael Baranovsky. GNU Free Documentation License 1.2
by Michael Baranovsky (GDL 1.2)

Have you ever sat in one of those meetings where it seemed like the jackals were circling one of their own injured? I was sitting in a meeting with the department heads of an IT outsource account in Chicago. We had just finished listening to a dry run of some help desk training. It hadn’t gone well.

No, let’s be honest: it was abysmal. If it had been just for them, outsource staff, it would have been bad. But this was to train the client on the new help desk ticket system, too. The client was always looking for some way to get on top of the outsourcer. That’s how the game was played. If they sat through this, the account would lose face. And maybe a lot of money.

The other department heads smelled weakness, it seemed, and started going at him. It was bad enough that the manager stopped it and, giving me a brief look before saying, asked what they were going to do. The class was in two days.

Chris and I had been working on the custom documentation for the new system. We knew it. And we were both top-notch presenters and the manager knew it.

It was after five. I wanted to get home. And the training sessions started the day after next, four hour sessions rolling for two days.

It wasn’t even my account on the line: I was a consultant.

What would you do?

I had been working with Computer Outsource Corporation (COC) for some time at this account. That account was run by two extremely skillful leaders. Brian, the account manager, had been a systems architect on the Insurance Company account, and I had worked with him there many a late night on various statements of work. Ken, the operations manager, had retired from an executive position IBM and now was having fun running this (for him) very small account with Brian, an old friend. Although I had sworn to not work with COC after some shenanigans by one of their managers at Insurance, when Brian asked me to help out at Heller I knew that it would be run differently.

“You can either stay technical or run the show,” he told me. “I decided to give running the show a shot.”

I had already done several things for Brian and Ken, including leading a team of writers to complete their required process documentation in 90 days, after COC’s own team of “crack experts” hadn’t gotten any of them finalized in six months. You do a little something by being too ignorant to know that you weren’t supposed to complete all the work, and suddenly they want to keep you around.

As it was, Process Write had been on the account for over a year. At the time, I was there with Chris Simmons, a PhD candidate in Film Studies at the University of Chicago putting together the documentation for the (He’s now the chair of the Communications Department at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.) He was the lead on the new help desk documentation, and although he had never done this before, took to it quickly. He had a bit a reputation problem, though, mostly because he just didn’t know IT.

So, here we two were, sitting in a meeting that had gone nasty. To their credit, the other department heads were likely responding to their perception of the embarrassment they would suffer from such a bad training session. The account had gone nasty pretty early, which is why they brought me in to begin with months before, and they had won hard-fought battles against a client who was always looking to bring them down. They had turned around the account and didn’t want anything that didn’t show them in the best light possible.

What to do?

If you’ve worked with me before, you already know the answer to this.

“Ken, this isn’t as bad as it looks,” I said. “It just needs some fixing. We have a day and two nights. Let Chris and I work with Frank [not his real name] to fix this up. I’ll even do the training. We’re almost done with the documentation and Chris knows the system inside and out.”

Which led to another sight you don’t usually see: the collective sigh. The manager sighed, the department heads sighed, and the help desk manager sighed. Even he didn’t mind having someone else to blame.

Chris and I called off all our appointments. We worked until 10 PM, deciding how much of the original presentation could be salvaged. We decided on a new arrangement and identified what gaps were left that we couldn’t get away with ignoring. Chris would work on it all the next day, and I would join him at 4 PM after starting early with my client across Chicago’s Loop.

And then get up and give the training. I would lead the first sessions since it was my name on the line. Chris would lead the hands-on tutorials since he knew the system. Then Chris would take over when he felt comfortable.

What happened?

You don’t know me, if you’re asking that question.

I got up and worked the first audience, our crucial reviewers for everyone else. Chris and the department head, who really did know the system, worked the tutorials.

By the end of the day, Chris had taken full control of the presentation and given the tutorial work to the department head, who took to the role of the wise expert helping people learn the system. (He was a really, really good Help Desk person and you could see why his staff loved working for him.) I pretty much disappeared.

Those two got the best reviews of any training that COC had done for that client.

And Chris became the new golden boy.

There’s a lot in this story. The Help Desk manager didn’t know how to do a presentation, lacking “knowledge and skills”. Because it needed to address why the system was an improvement over the one the client had been using, the presentation may have needed someone in a higher work level to accomplish these goals. Chris was burning capability in the role, and so could step up. He was also an accomplished presenter (a seminarian, he still preached on occasion to strong parish response) who knew how to work a potentially hostile audience.

What do you see in this story? How do you explain how Chris was able to work with the Help Desk manager to create a stunning training session, even though that manager’s first pass at it had been so awful?

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