Reflections on a Difficult Year

The past few years have been more than a rollercoaster. This is an observation that feels slightly like an understatement. As we come to the close of an extraordinary year, I know some are struggling with balance, focus and emotional equilibrium. There have been many times that everything has felt raw and intense, like an angry nerve running too close to the surface.

The last time I wrote a year-end reflection was in December 2018, on the night of the winter solstice. Tomorrow we mark the solstice once more, two years on. There is much that is different now, although there is a surprising amount that is still the same.

My update in 2018 spoke of a strategic planning project that I had just undertaken. It was a significant scope of work, and at the time I was working through the public engagement process. That project wrapped up this year; on Friday, 13 March to be precise. Final deliverables were concluded at the end of one week, and two days later we were in our first pandemic-induced lockdown. I’m not sure if that timing was fortunate or just fortuitous, but it certainly marked a turning point in my year.

It was a huge project to wrangle, with some very interesting outcomes. It will be fascinating to see how the strategic plans that resulted hold up in the coming months and years, as we move through a different period and set of circumstances than many anticipated. The plans are still relevant, and honestly reflect the aspirations of the communities and the work that will be necessary to realize them. Staying the course through changing circumstances can be difficult to accomplish, though. It requires intention and leadership. I will be curious to watch how they continue to play out.

Since the pandemic has begun, new client work has fallen off a cliff edge. There has been some work with existing clients, for which I’m very grateful. While the shift in work is not awesome, it’s understandable. I came to a realization early on in the pandemic that much of the world—people and organizations alike—are in crisis. They are reacting and responding in real time.

My work has always been about proactively focussing on the tools and decisions that guide a client in where they need to go, not responding reactively. There are consultants that specialize in crisis response and shooting from the hip. I am not that consultant. As the world starts to look forward again, and realize the importance of setting a course rather than simply riding through whatever life and circumstances throws in your path, I’m confident that new opportunities will emerge.

What has been rewarding through all of this is the continued confidence that I’m doing some of the best work of my career right now. I’ve been saying that for the last two or three years, and not only does that continue to be true but the bar has continued to be raised. There is a greater level of confidence in what I’m doing. More importantly, the emphasis on relevance and how work is experienced by clients has continued to find new ways to express itself. Context, fit and relevance of the work has become that much more important (and I’ve always been about “it depends”).

While managing the chaos of the early part of the year, work that I have been contemplating—and alluding to here—for years has start to come to fruition. When we stopped delivering the advanced project management program in partnership with the University of Alberta, I had just made a major update to the curriculum. While it’s not my intention to deliver that content in the same form going forward, restructuring and reshaping the content and its delivery has been something I’ve been considering for some time.

I wasn’t entirely certain what a new curriculum was going to look like. There were questions about structure, content and delivery approach. Even more critically, questions of audience, and determining where potential participants are in their careers and the learning focus that lets them continue to build robust skills that move them towards mastery. I also needed to wrestle with how an offering I developed would stand apart from everything else in the marketplace, and how to the tribe that would value such a program.

Answers to those questions converged rather quickly in the fall, resulting in the pilot launch of Strategy Making. I’ve just wrapped up delivery of the pilots (with, of all good fortunes, two cohorts of amazingly engaged participants). So far, I’m altogether delighted with how the program was delivered. It’s not yet in its final form, and I have a great many ideas that I’m now working through to continue to refine and enhance the workshop.

Building and delivering Strategy Making has been some of the most engaging work I’ve done in recent years. It was a project that tapped into just about every dimension of my abilities. Technology integration, web development, graphic design, process creation, curriculum development, facilitation and more all came together in a package that I’m incredibly proud of. There were challenges I encountered along the way. Some of those challenges were intentional ones that I put in my own way, and others were unexpected. Working through them was rewarding in its own right, and I’m thrilled that I have a solid core to continue to build on.

I am grateful to be ending 2020 on a positive note, and one of hope for the future. Every single one of us has had to dig deep in different ways to get through the year. We have adapted to new ways of working, new ways of living and new ways of communicating. There has been a great deal of stress, uncertainty and discomfort, and no small amount of loss. We aren’t through yet, although I am hopeful that we are starting to move in something that looks like a positive direction.

There will still be challenges in the coming year, for all of us. It would be lovely for the new year to be a blank page on which to write our forward progress. There are too many unfinished threads from 2020 that need to be resolved for that to be the case. In the meantime, I’m doing what I can to keep myself and my family safe, to stay connected with those who are important to me and to maintain a positive focus. Doing so takes effort—somedays more than others—but this is the perspective that I aspired to sustain in 2021.

In the coming months, I will continue to build and evolve the Strategy Making workshop, and the framework that it supports. You will be seeing more of that going forward, and I’m excited about where it might go and what may yet emerge. I’m going to hold off on saying any more until I have the luxury of actually dedicating an entire post to that.

My consulting work will continue as well, and hopefully we will see a positive shift in the marketplace. I will also be working on updates to web sites and proposal strategies to help reinforce the difference that I bring to consulting engagements. Partly that is in response to a continuing refinement of what I do, and how I explain the value proposition I provide. It is also in part a response to some interesting biases that persist in how requests for proposals get written, and how other firms respond to them.

I continue to marvel, for example, at the bias to bigger teams from bigger firms (made up of junior, more inexperienced consultants and led by a partner that you will see infrequently-if-at-all after the contract is signed), as opposed to getting the focussed, dedicated attention of a senior brain that hears, processes, analyzes and synthesizes all the work. Doing so is an interesting form of risk avoidance, built around the idea there is a depth of resources to draw on and bail them out when things go wrong, rather than investing in the expertise to ensure things go right in the first place.

In 2021 I will continue to write here, as well as elsewhere. It seems astonishing to say, but I’ve been a contributing author for projectmanagement.com for more than twenty years now (my first article for them was published on 16 October 2000). Thus far, I haven’t run out of things to say; I expect that trend to continue into the coming year. I’ve more recently also been writing for Municipal World, particularly around strategy, and they seem happy to have me continuing to do so.

I will also be carry on delivering webinars as we venture into the new year. Peter and I are already making plans for the Technobility webinar series (be sure to check our our annual Taking A Read webinar, coming up early in the new year). As many of you have noticed, we also launched a new site that is home to the series archives, and that has proved distinctly popular (and my sincere thanks to all of you who are supporters). I also continue to deliver the Project Headway webinar series on a monthly basis, also for projectmanagement.com. The coming year will be the tenth year of hosting webinars for them, which seems more than a little astonishing.

There are a few more projects I’m considering around the edges, but they are still ill-formed and embryonic in nature, so I won’t elaborate just yet. Suffice it to say that I’m not planning on being bored, and should have some interesting opportunities and tidbits to continue to share as we march side-by-each into the third decade of the century.

I want to thank you all—each one of you—for your support, engagement and enthusiasm. It is incredibly rewarding to me when you comment here, or send me emails, or share items that come across your radar that you think I will find interesting. I hope this holiday season you are able to spend time with your immediate loved ones, and that you will be able to engage with your broader communities and families, even if it is in a physically distanced manner.

I wish you peace and comfort, a break from Zoom meetings, and the confidence that we are embarking on a new year together. I’ll look forward to sharing my year with you as it unfolds, and hope that you will continue on the journey with me as well. More importantly, I wish you success in your own journey, at whatever stage that might involve. Thanks and best wishes to you. If there are ways that I can be of assistance, please let me know.

4 Comments to “Reflections on a Difficult Year”

  1. Santosh Mishra says:

    Hello Mark,
    Thank you for keeping your commitments on weekly articles. They are engaging as well as informative. I enjoy your articles and share a comment once a while.
    Thank you for your good wishes for the season. Wish you and Peter a Merry Christmas and a Happy new year!
    Cheers!
    Santosh

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Santosh! It is much appreciated. Have a wonderful holiday, and my best wishes for the new year also.
      Mark

  2. Michael Hilbert says:

    Mark,

    Thank you for all you (and Peter) do for the PM industry and community the entire year through. I consider you to be a mentor in my PM journey and your articles, webinars and posts always challenge my thoughts and work practices. I look forward to more insight and education in 2021!

    I wish you, Peter and your families a Merry Christmas and Happy and Healthy New Year!

    With Warmest Regards,
    Mike

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thank you, Mike! I sincerely appreciate the feedback and best wishes, and the continuing interaction over the year! Working on one more post for the year, and then I’ll be stepping away from the keyboard for the holidays.

      I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and best wishes for 2021. I look forward to staying in touch, and to another year of contributions here.

      Best wishes,
      Mark

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