Thursday, October 26, 2006

What sort of expert do you need?

I read an interesting article recently about being an expert. There was a neat graph in the article which showed where experts add value. What immediately struck me was the immediate correlation possible with Snowden's ontologies, so I've fiddled about with the original graph and the result is what you see (hopefully).

I think that Mauboussin is writing about 'technical' experts. I make a distinction between 'technical' experts and 'process' experts. The technical experts know what you think you want to know, the process experts know how to get you to deliver the results you want with what you already know. That's a simplistic definition but it gives the general idea. I'm a process consultant. I hesitate to say a process expert, because I'm always learning.

When you're choosing an expert/consultant, it pays to be pretty clear about what sort of expert you need for the problem you're dealing with. Following both Snowden's ontology and Mauboussin's graph to classify your problem, just about the only time you need a technical expert is when you're dealing with a 'simple' problem or a 'complicated' one. This is the realm of best practice and all you really want to know is how the other guys are doing it, so you aren't falling behind the competition.

I have two caveats here - first,if you aren't already best practice, then you don't have the right people who know their stuff and second, what's best practice for one outfit might not necessarily be best practice for another, even in the same field. Why? Because no two companies are exactly the same.

In any case, whatever a technical expert tries to teach you (and basically that's what they're trying to do) may not be what you need to learn. And the best learning is on-going, self-directed and experiential anyway, so I'm hard pressed to see why you'd hire a technical expert in the 21st century unless you were avoiding responsibility. There's quite a lot of that, though.

I'll always remember a meeting I went to, one of those peer-group mentoring type of things where the group was deciding what the topics of future meetings might include. The attendees seemed to be getting really excited about stuff like 'paperless office' and CRM and as a facilitator I was at least happy that there was some energy in the room. After the meeting one of the group told me that he'd never been so depressed in his life! He said that if he wanted to know about the paperless office, he'd get off his butt and learn all about it himself and there were more valuable ways to be spending the meeting. He was right, of course, and I doubt that he ever spent much on being taught in business - he was too busy learning what he needed to know, not what some consultant thought he needed. Back to the graph - and it's clear that the value of a content expert drops off pretty quickly once we're out of the quadrant of known simple problems and chunkable complicated ones.

With complicated but knowable problems, the real skill comes in getting to see the whole and not just the parts. In a real sense too much specific expertise is the very thing that prevents you from seeing that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. With too much expertise you just can't get out of yourself enough to see what's really going on in the big picture. Some technical knowledge about what your company does is probably useful for a consultant, if only to put you at ease, but it's really the same situation as for a simple problem ... if you don't know your business from a specific content point of view then maybe you're in the wrong business?

Complex problems become more about process. It's wicked (intractable) stuff and the only way through it is by collective sense making devolving into collective responsibility. The consultant might be EXPERT IN THE PROCESSES used to make sense collectively but probably not an expert in getting people to be responsible. If you're looking for an expert to tell you how to run your business then maybe you're in the wrong business, because as I said earlier you should have all the expertise you need right there in the business.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bella Italia

I'm in Italy at the moment. This is beautiful and also frustrating. It is beautiful because there is no drought here, unlike Australia. It is also beautiful because the Italians have a particular approach to life ... which is also why it is frustrating. It takes about 3 weeks here to get a fixed phone line, but only about half an hour to get a mobile number. So I am sitting in the one and only internet cafe for the district, catching up on e-mails for the last two weeks. Next week we are off to Tuscany and when we get back, maybe the phone will be on.

Until that time, my apologies. Look forward to posting when the net comes on.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

We Are Not All the Same

In another life, I spent 4 years in Kenya. Every morning at daybreak, I'd pilot a hot-air balloon full of tourists over the Masai Mara game reserve. It was a fantastic time for me - I was doing something exciting in one of the most beautiful, diverse places on the planet.

Each morning a crew of 15 Kenyans would prepare the balloon and help at the launch. The passengers would pile into the wicker basket and off we'd float over the magnificent landscape, game-spotting from our lofty vantage point and usually landing near some hippo pools, where the crew would have already raced ahead and prepared a full breakfast.

For many passengers it was the highlight of their trip - perhaps even their lives! - sitting in the middle of the African savannah after an exhilarating flight, eating an English breakfast and drinking champagne. Most of the time they simply summed it up by saying, "Thank you for the best morning of my life!" Now
that's job satisfaction.

But my job was easy, really: I was the 'bwana'. That's what the Kenyans often called me. It means a lot more than 'mister' and hopefully a lot less than 'master'.

Most of the time, I let the crew get on with their work as a team, interfering as little as possible. After all, they had seen plenty of pilots before me. They worked hard physically, to unpack and pack the balloon - all 350,000 cu.ft of it fully inflated - and prepare the tables and chairs for breakfast. Everything had to be loaded and unloaded onto the back of an ancient Bedford truck manually. And their pay wasn't great; certainly not compared to yours or mine.

Still, there was one guy, Gabriel, who never seemed to be doing much at all. Often seems to be the way with teams, doesn't it? I watched Gabriel for a few weeks and, by my judgement, he was certainly doing a lot less than the other guys on the crew. Not only that, he was always the first to have his breakfast which the crew did when the passengers had gone.

"This guy isn't pulling his weight," I fumed to myself, "because, after all, it's only fair that they all do the same amount of work, isn't it?" So, I resolved to talk to the crew chief, a man named Makalla, to tell
him to get his act into gear, talk to Gabriel and get him to pull his weight.

Makalla came to see me and I launched into a lengthy explanation, which seems to be the way to make your point in Africa. Makalla nodded and nodded while I was talking, and the more I talked the more I agreed with my own point of view. "This is great - I'm getting somewhere," I noted to myself as I continued lecturing about team dynamics, leadership, equality and fairness. "Maybe I can make a difference here, be a leader.",

When I finished, Makalla simply looked at me and said, "But bwana Alex,
we are not all the same."

I deflated, depressed. I wondered if they would ever get the point.A couple of weeks later,
I got the point.

It was a windy dawn. The burners were roaring hot air into the balloon when the tether rope slipped and I was dragged under the basket for about 50 metres as the balloon was being pushed along by the wind. I had managed to turn off the burners and pilot light but was struggling to pull the rip-line which would open the top of the balloon and deflate it.Then I heard Gabriel shout - "bwana Alex! bwana Alex!", saw him running, and next, risk reaching in to grab the rip-line, very likely saving me from serious injury.

How many of our organizational teams are as adept at dealing with diversity as my African team?

How many of our organizational leaders really can accept that we are not all the same?

How many of our organizational leaders can create environments where even the different can shine?

Buiding a Relationship, Building a Brand

What I’m trying to do here is just to let you in on what sort of person I am, and how I might have some useful perspectives for you.

First, from StrengthsFinder – here are my top 5 strengths:

People strong in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connection between seemingly disparate phenomena.

People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

People strong in the Self-Assurance theme feel confident in their ability to manage their own lives. They possess an inner compass that gives them confidence that their decisions are right.

People strong in the Strategic theme create alternate ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant pattern and issues.

People strong in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

The lights really started to switch on for me when I did the StrengthsFinder test – building on strengths seems a much better way to go than being ‘typed’ or ‘disced’ or whatever. I felt that I really had something to work with, to shape, for the future. Sort of open-ended, like many good questions are!

Secondly, RightPath – produces a really useful ‘unique profile’ – useful because it’s practical.

Here’s mine:

Eight Strengths -

  • Initiating, wants to set the agenda
  • Sees the strategic/future potential
  • Good at meeting and communicating with people
  • Has a dry sense of humour
  • Enjoys being in the spotlight
  • Engaging and a good listener
  • Likes and promotes change
  • Works with broad concepts
Four Struggles
  • Can be judgemental and critical
  • Can be na├»ve and too trusting
  • May tend toward restlessness
  • May be too relaxed when diligence is needed
See the parallels between the two profiles – StrengthsFinder was like the floodlight, while RightPath is the spotlight.

That's the sort of thing I like to do when I work with organizations, too. Start with a floodlight and then use a spotlight.

What do the initials B R F S mean?

B R F S stands for Big Red, the Flying Squirrel - really!

It could also stand for 'Be Really Freaking Strategic', but mostly I chose it so you'd remember it ... and who wouldn't remember a Big Red Flying Squirrel?

I have to let you in on some secrets, though.

BRFSStrategic isn't big - there's only me. I deal with just a few clients at any one time, personally. If you're my client, I'm committed to you in a big way.

Red is a great colour. It's the colour of emotion, the heart, and it means that I'm concerned with the whole person. Organizations are all about people.

Flying takes courage, especially when you don't have wings. Have you ever watched a squirrel leap from branch to branch? It is almost as if they are flying. Plus, in one form or another they seem to be right across the world. In Australia we have squirrel-like sugar gliders. When we are in Italy we watch with awe while the resident 'scoiattolo' performs its acrobatic jumps from tree to tree in the forest next to our place.

The last letter, S, is for 'squirrel'. More importantly, S is also for success.

One of the good things that happened after I decided about the name was coming across Steve Denning's Squirrel Inc, A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling. If someone like Steve has faith in the squirrels, the rest of us probably can too.

So, that's the story about how I decided to start branding this business.

In fact,
I am the brand because there's only me, but until you and I develop a relationship of some sort through this blog, or even working together, I figured Big Red would get us off to a flying start!