Teaching a Person to Fish in a "Reactive" World

If you are like me, you spend most of your time "reacting" to the demands of the day. People walk into my office, call me on the phone, or email me requests all day long, and I (like the good little automated message that I am) try to answer them in the order they were received. When I go home at night, I generally quote one of my favorite Thurgood Marshall sayings to myself -- "I did the best I could with what I had." This usually satisfies that little voice in my head that wonders if I could have approached a project in a different way, or made a better decision if I had more time. Unfortunately, my little voice hit me with a different question -- "Hey, shouldn't you be teaching these requesters how they can answer some of these questions themselves?" (darn little voice....) [Photo Credit to wstryder (creative commons)]
The little voice was right, of course. Especially since it was referring to the fact that there are some specific questions that I handle over and over again. In this instance it is a generic question of taking a huge list of company names and finding a way to quickly identify which of these companies has every hired the firm to represent them. For anyone that has had to deal with the mixture of business development, marketing, competitive intelligence or records departments within law firms, this is a question you'll get a lot.
I created a pretty good solution to this almost two years ago. I created a MySQL database that stored some basic client information, indexed it, and then placed a simple (yet superb!) PHP web front end on the database that allowed me to copy and paste the names of the companies and do a quick search on our index to see if they matched. I even created some fancy "fuzzy" logic buttons that really stretched the idea of "best guess" results (but was still effective in finding matches.) I demonstrated the database, passed out the link to the different departments so that they could run these searches themselves, and I've used it quite a few times. But... (and here's the morale of this story) I never really followed up with anyone, or did any additional training on the product after that initial introduction. I just assumed people were still using it and it was such a great product that obviously they would understand how to use it, remember it was there when they needed it, and gush over how smart I was for having come up with this great product.
My first clue that I was assuming incorrectly should have been the lack of my not winning the "Internal Product of the Year Award". The second clue should have been the fact that people were still coming to me with this same request. But, I, like many people, don't actually see the big picture until I got someone (usually an "angry someone") telling me that they spent hours doing this project and it would have been nice if I'd have shown them this product before they wasted all their time on it. Somehow my pointing out to them that I showed them this two years ago doesn't seem to fly as a good excuse on why I haven't followed up with anyone since.
The good news is that I get to reintroduce my great product and train people on how to use it. I'll probably do a cool little video screencasting of my desktop to show them exactly how to use the product for some "on demand" training. And in a few months, I'll follow up with everyone to see if they are still using the product. I'll also expect to be in the running for the "Internal Product of the Year Award."
My little voice is still telling me that I should have been more proactive over the past two years and made sure that the product was being used and that people understood it. It is pretty darn hard to be proactive in the reactive world where we work. But, the little voice is right, and I'll learn from this lesson to work harder at being a little better at recognizing when it is time to stop feeding my folks fish, and instead teach them how to fish for themselves.

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Shaunna said...

Great post Greg.
Don't you find though that when you build cool things it just makes your users know that YOU are the go to person? Every innovation seems to bring more requests for the same thing you have just innovated...

I am coming to the realization that sometimes people don't want to learn to fish, they want the fish caught, cleaned, and pan-fried with a little lemon pepper.

That doesn't mean that we should stop teaching them. We should just be prepared for the extra fishing that we will be asked to do by showing our expertise as fishing teachers.

Greg Lambert said...


You're 100% correct in seeing that most folks would much rather you be the go-to person for these types of project. The situation that I found myself in last week was one where I made little to no attempt in the "training" area of the resource and left myself open to the reaction of "well, you never showed me how to do this, so how do you even expect me to do it myself". I hate it when I set myself up for this type of response from the end-user. I'd much rather be in a stronger position and be the one saying "Hey, I created this great tool and showed you how to use it... So USE IT!!" (in a much nicer politically correct way, of course)


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