The Art of Professional Practice

I have an addiction confession:  I watch all episodes of So You Think You Can Dance that I can find on TV.  What pulls me in time after time are the magical moments when the dancers pour themselves completely into their craft. In these instances, I don’t have to rely on the discerning eye of the judges to notice that something special has happened.  Even I, who trained as a dancer only for a few months when I was 4, can tell the difference.

In these moments, the dancers, who are already noticeably amazing, find a sweet spot.  Jean Marc Genereaux, one of the Canadian judges, refers to it as “the pocket”.  Mary Murphy will put you on the coveted “hot tomale train”.  L’il C will say that the performance was “buck”.  Invariably, in these spectacular moments the judges are in awe of the commitment the dancers make.  And from time to time, another descriptive word is used: “professional”.   And in the context of all the other descriptions, we can see that professional performance has a little “extra”, it is a notch above the rest.

I have been exploring with two professions, city planners and educators, how we go about our work and what we notice when we our work is getting unexpected, wonderful results.  They notice that their own behaviour is unusual in these cases – they seek and embrace challenges, they are aware of strenghths and weaknesses (own and others), they look for opportunities, and place trust in others.  This sounds remarkably like the comments the judges make of the dancers.  If they shy from what a choreographer is asking them to do, the performance will be flat.  They, as well as their choreographer, builds on their strengths to make a wonderful performance.  The dancers that stand out look for opportunities to add their own flavour to the choreography – they “make it their own.”  Finally, the dancers that stand out fundamentally trust others for their own success: their choreographer, their partner(s), wardrobe and set design people, producers, judges, audience, etc.

So what does this offer those of us working in the “professions”, whether city planners, lawyers, health professionals, engineers, teachers, landscape architects, social workers or geologists?  I offer some questions that I am exploring about professional practice:

  1. Do we seek the risks of new challenges?
  2. Do we willingly exposing ourselves to feedback, trusting its truth and value to our personal growth?
  3. Do we look for opportunities to inject our personal desires into our work?
  4. Do we know what it feels like to be in the pocket?  Do we notice if we get different results when in the pocket?
  5. What is the commitment we are making to the work we are doing?

Embedded in all this is a chicken and egg scenario – do I/we become “professional” from learning, or do I/we learn from being “professional”?  I look forward to exploring how the art of conversation will serve the art of professional practice.

When I have the ball, I can’t see anything else!


This was my big summer learning.  During a soccer practice, we were hearing from our coach that we needed to pass the ball more, and this is what Veronica dared to declare:“When I have the ball, I can’t see anything else!”

All but one of us learned how to play soccer this summer.  We had a year of drills and practice and then it was time to really do it – we had to learn what to do while the game is underway.  A different beast entirely.   And our discussion as a team reveals a lot about how communities work too.  Here is what we noticed:

  1. I often panic when I have the ball.
  2. By making an effort to move the ball, I risk losing it.  But risk of losing the ball is higher if I just kick it in panic.
  3. I play best when I risk losing the ball.
  4. I need others to tell me what they see, in the moment.  They will see things I can not see.
  5. For the team to see what is happening on the field, I have to trust my team.
  6. I don’t have to be comfortable with the ball, or the situation, to see what else is going on.
  7. I have to notice what my strengths and weaknesses are, as well as my teammates, to move the ball effectively.
  8. The game works best when every player is a part of the game – whether they have the ball or not.

As I reflect on my leadership, planning and coaching practice, these questions are unavoidable:

  1. What is my community ‘ball’?
  2. Am I brave enough to make Veronica declarations?
  3. Do I even know if I have the ball?
  4. Am I the right person to have the ball?  Should someone else have it?
  5. Does the team see the field?
  6. Are we still having fun?

I am thrilled to have such a great, bold and honest group of people to learn with.  Game OneGame One

Fearless Planning Practice in Service of Community


Over the last few weeks I have been working with colleagues who have chosen to put themselves and their work out into the community in an unusual way.They have openly asked the public, stakeholders, and their peers to scrutinize their work.Moreover, they have the intention to let their work be changed (and take longer to get to their political masters) by what they hear in conversation with these folks.

The City of St. Albert is seeking a new way to develop its physical environment.Instead of conventional methods and densities that are not fiscally, socially or environmentally sustainable, they are aiming to create a place that puts people, and design for people, first.They are seeking a new win-win-win.But to do this, they recognize that they have to get there without using the traditional methods.They have to be willing to ask for help.They have to accept (and tell others) that they do not have all the answers.This is not a usual practice for municipal staff.But it is a good practice. dsc05870

The other good practice is to take the risk to propose something different – to get a new result you have to try new ways of doing things.For St. Albert, it is a hybrid of conventional and form-based zoning, to be found in their draft Form-Based Zoning Regulations, a document quite different from what people (planners, developers, citizens, builders and politicians) are used to using to guide development.

St. Albert invited the wisdom of the people that will be using the document, external to the City of St. Albert, to test how it will work.Does it make sense?Does it contribute to improving quality of life for residents? Planners, engineers, technicians, a land owner and developer, a landscape architect, and a builder, rolled up their sleeves. St. Albert’s next endeavour – pull in the stakeholders with whom they need more conversation. Though counterintuitive, their intention to be willing to change will get them far.

"Smart" Hands at Work
"Smart" Hands at Work

Change, of course, is difficult, and the jury is still out on whether the initiative will fly. Whether it will be practical and marketable.Whether the political will is in place to allow change to occur.What is meaningful here, is that staff have taken the risk to create something new.They have also taken the risk to seek conversation about what they are doing.Their intention is to prepare for Council and the community the best tools to ensure quality of life for their residents.To do this, they balance their ‘expert’ role with acceptance that they do not have all the answers.They expect their work to be changed, and being open to criticism, without fighting it, is fearless.This is essential to a meaningful professional practice, and they embrace this.

More information about St. Albert’s initiative can be found at –

The Runaway Train, The Dinosaur, and the House of Cards


Ronald Wright, in A Short History of Progress, highlights Joseph Tainter’s three factors that lead to a civilization’s collapse:  the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, and the House of Cards.  An illustration of these phenomena are in PBS’ just concluded production of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  Illustrations with a direct connection to today’s world.

Dickens illustrates the Runaway Train in Merdle’s Bank, where debt pays debt, and that debt pays more debt.   Merdle alone, as the conductor of the train, sees the inevitible crash.  He despises the Dinosaurs that seek his favour to “invest” with him, yet takes them on as passengers.  The Dinosaurs continue to believe in his wisdom and prowess.  ‘Society’ has complete faith in Society, hence Merdle.  For Society, the financial returns will continue.  This is what is owed to position, prestige and privelege.  Status is taken for granted.  There is nothing that can go wrong.  But it does.

The House of Cards. From the degradation and literal collapse of the Clenham household, to the rise and fall (and rise and fall again) of the Dorrit family.  The Merdles themselves who have enjoyed privilege find it gone.  The newfound wealth of the Dorrit family is gone.   “I might go back to dancing,” says Fanny Dorrit.  Her brother, Tip: “But what about me?”  All in which they found meaning is gone.  

Enter Arthur Clennam, in debtors’ prison as a result of inability to pay his creditors after having lost his fortune on Merdle’s Runaway Train. His despair is not from having lost his fortune, but from having let others down.  His happiness in the end is as it always was -enjoying, and in relationship with, people regardless of their status and position in Society.  Through Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit and the cast of characters that support them on their journey, we see that relationships are what endure in the world.   If you count only on riches and material goods, then you can’t have much to count on.  The House will eventually crumble. 

In today’s world, Merdle’s Runaway Train is the fall of Wall Street and even Bernie Madoff.  Dinosaurs refused to see that the economic train was heading fast down a path of disaster.  The harm for many is substantial.  The House of Cards is revealed.  What we have can disappear in an instant.

In the news this morning, 160 people are dead of swine flu in Mexico after only a handful yesterday. Travel advisories are now issued from the Government of Canada.  The World Health Organization views travel restrictions as pointless – it can not be contained.  Looks like a Runaway Train.  

It appears, if we stop and think about it, that our very existence is a House of Cards.  Our privilege in the West is a House of Cards, and perhaps a Runaway Train. Whether it is the economic conditions of our time, or the environmental and health stresses at this time, let us be wary of the Dinosaur.  It is what keeps us from noticing the Runaway Train and the House of Cards.

Then what is the opposite of Dinosaur?  Awake, conscious, in tune with the world.  In relationship with the world.  In relationship with others in the world to seek understanding and solutions.  A sense of happiness.  In Little Dorrit, the happy folk have relationships that cross (yet keep) many boundaries – jailed and jailor, poor and rich, female and male, servant and master, harassed and harrassor, young and old, unloved and loved. Perhaps this is the antidote to the Dinosaur. A way of being that  gets the best out of people for the challenges ahead.  

It can’t really be named, this anti-Dinosaur, but it seems this is what will cultivate our needed collective ingenuity.  


Doubting Susan Boyle


As I was enjoying the thrill of waiting for the play Doubt to start at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, I read the following by the playwright, John Patrick Stanley, and I knew I was in for a treat:

“There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered.  It is the most dangerous, important, and ongoing experience of life.  The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt.  It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or I become a lie.”

After the experience of the play, I looked at the world differently.  Stanley suggests that doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and I wondered how that plays out in the world.  Enter Susan Boyle. 

As I write this, the You Tube video of Susan Boyle’s performance at Britain’s Got Talent has been viewed over 62 million times. We watch Simon Cowell ask her a few questions before she sings.  Even though I know what is going to happen, it is perfectly clear she doesn’t fit the mold.  She doesn’t look or act “the part.”  When I watched this I knew what was coming, but I also knew in my soul that I would have reacted the same way as the audience.  I felt, with conviction, that there was no way this gal was going to be for real. Then she sings.

The judges’ chins drop, the crowd rises, smiles are everywhere.  Tears surface.  Susan Boyle, with the doubt she inevitably carried in people’s reaction to her, dreamed her dream.

Stanley’s words offer so much about how we see others.  Thank you to Susan Boyle for reminding us to renew our humanity, to dream our dream.  For reminding us that there are Susan Boyles everywhere in our world, should we choose to doubt our fixed assumptions and recognize them.  


Is it Time to Sub Off?


After a soccer scrimmage my coach made the observation that I was not subbing myself off the field frequently enough.  I had been playing but not as hard as my mates.  I had been keeping track of them and giving them a chance to sub out and take a break before me.  Then when I took my turn, I waited to make sure my mate heading back to the field had the rest she needed.

I explored this with my coach, checking my assumption that if I am not getting tired, I should let others go ahead of me.  There was silence, and I fully expected him to say, “yes, of course”, but he answered, “no.”  The reason – if you don’t take time for yourself, your teammates will see you as a workhorse and count on you to stay on so they can take their breaks.  It won’t add up to anything good for you or the team. 

I further digested this with a colleague of mine who revealed he is taking a 2-year break from volunteering.  We started thinking about how we know people we can rely on to pick up what needs to get done – regardless of how much energy they have to do it.  But we rarely find people who balance the need to step in with the need for look after themselves.

In a real game situation my coach will tell me when to sub off.  But in real life, if I wait for someone to tell me, it won’t happen.  And like in soccer, I will lose stamina over time, I will lose my mental agility to see what needs to get done, let alone be able to do it well.  I will cause harm to my team AND make it impossible for fresh legs to apply themselves to the cause.

Subbing off is an expected and necessary part of the game, but there is a conundrum to learn to live with: when you are off the field, you are still in the game.