Category Archives: Organization

Strangers in our midst

“There are strangers among us.”  The lady was referring to the consultants that her company’s executives had hired.

The phrase hit me like a brick.

I’ve been a consultant for over 15 years – half of my career.  It’s funny, you don’t get into this game unless you have some desire for feedback. Given how competitive consulting is, you also have to be a bit of an over-achiever.

I confess.  Yes.  I was that kid in school who had all the answers — the one the teacher eventually stopped asking, or looked vainly to each side of hoping for someone else to raise their hand, eventually returning defeated to reluctantly accept the offering of the impatient know-it-all in the front row.  For anyone who worries about my social status, you can rest easy — I got over that part. In university I became the guy sitting at the backs.  Still an over-achiever, but now a rebellious one — I learned to be cool and disdainful.   But I still knew the answer.  At least that’s my perception. Continue reading

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Uncommon Sense

“It don’t make no sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.”   John Prine, one of my favourite song-writers used this as a line in one of his songs.  It’s a classic for Prine.

I love Prine’s work.  Why?  Because, especially as I get older,  at least part of me becomes more an more like his characters.  I look back nostalgically at a past where things were simpler,  more understandable.  I think to some extent, most of us do.

That idea of a time when things made “common sense” is one those archetypal memories.  You find it throughout history – a yearning for that simpler time.

So it has a seductive appeal.

So why isn’t it more prevalent?  Why isn’t common sense more …. well, common?  Continue reading

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Filed under Change, Commentary, Organization

I’ve been value propositioned!

Value proposition. How I hate that term. The reaction unfortunately is visceral. It brings back memories of a time when I was heading a global practice area and made frequent trips to our New Jersey office.

I don’t know what they put in the kool-aid in that office, but everyone was the same. I always got the feeling that they were on the edge of their chair, pushing forward, always pressing their idea as if the intensity of their effort would mow down any objections that dared rear their head.

I’d come out of a different culture, one which valued dissent. We taught, even encouraged diversity of opinion believing, as my friend Craig Hubley articulated so well, “every unanimous opinion is wrong”.

But that world ended and I found myself part of a new company with a different culture. Objections were not highly prized in this culture. You weren’t “on the team”. I learned that the hard way. Continue reading

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Filed under Organization, Social Networking, Strategy

Innoculate Your Organization Against Change!

This just in. A group of scientists today announced that they has successfully created a vaccine which is almost 100% effective in preventing any change within an organization.

A spokesperson for the group claimed that they had decoded the basic DNA of organizational change and come up with a fool-proof method of ensuring that change was prevented totally or if any change variant did manage to get instilled in the organization, that it would be short-lived.

Since change itself can get started in a number of ways, the scientists stressed that it had to be systematically attacked at a number of levels. These multiple strategies, have an added bonus. They not only destroy the current infusion of change — but these anti-change factors actually work on the organizations own immune system. Initially, they work to destroy the initial change itself. But incredibly, they teach the immune system of the organization to find and tackle new and different changes.

“Soon, the organization becomes protected from change whatever the source,” said one of the researchers.

Okay…. I was just kidding. But it struck me today that this isn’t too far fetched. A lot of organizations actually DO things that build up their resistance to change. There are a lot of ways that this happens. I’ve covered some that I’ve been thinking of. Let me known in the comments below if you agree or add your own observation.

Here’s what I was noodling on when the idea of corporate immunity to change came to me. Continue reading

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I wish I’d thought of that…

Today when I was asked a question about organizational change I found myself repeating a story from a few years ago. There’s a lesson in it for all of us who make our living with ideas. The lesson is this. As a change agent, you are constantly making a choice. Take credit. Or make a difference.

The trick is that many people don’t know that this is a choice they have to make. Witness the following real story:

A consultant in my practice was reporting back to me on a big meeting he’d had with senior execs. He was very proud to have the CEO there.

“They loved us. I can’t count how many times I heard the consultant’s plan is great. ”

My response. “We are dead. We are soooooo dead.”

The consultant was dismayed. There was always a little bit of tension between us. He’d wanted my job. I got it instead. That much is fact.

But personal relationships are not about facts. They are about perception. I know his perception was that I was more critical of his work than I should be. Like so many times when we attribute motives to people, he was simply wrong. I wasn’t trying to undermine his “victory”. We really were in trouble.

Sometimes a question is the best way to explain. “When they say the consultant’s plan who is accountable for delivering that plan?

His answer was quick, “Their team has to deliver. We’ve done our job.”

My reply was also quick. “So how can they be accountable if it’s our plan?”

Silence.

By the way. I took no joy in it, but I was right. Despite all the great words, that project did not move forward. Somewhere in a backroom, a casual conversation, or just in the general stuff that happens it got buried, lost, derailed or just forgotten. We lost a big potential sale and a lot of revenue.

It was our plan. It had no champion. No-one at that company would be willing to put it forward, to believe in it and to make sure it was not forgotten.

If only someone on the client’s team had taken ownership. But why should they? It already had an owner. It was the consultant’s idea. In fact, if they had tried to take ownership they would have looked like they were taking credit for someone else’s idea. Admittedly, for some — that’s not a problem. But there’s another corporate issue. Why take the risk? No new idea is without risk. So let the consultant float the trial balloon and see if it goes anywhere. If it does, there’s lots of time to get on board.

In fact, I have often proposed that this is a great use for consultants. We can raise subjects that nobody else will touch. We are — or should be — regarded as intelligent and objective. Some of these ideas are true game changers for the companies we serve. At those times we provide a very useful service. We help make lasting and measurable change.

As I pondered this consultant’s problem, wondering why he didn’t get it, a light went on for me. It was something I knew internally, but had never really articulated fully. In the art of being a consultant, you have to have wisdom to know when – and when not to take on initial ownership of an idea. That is, if your real goal is to make change.

That’s where I had to take my own medicine. Instead of worrying about this other consultant’s problem, what I should be asking myself is, what can I learn from this. You cannot change others if you can’t change yourself.

Here’s my reflection. I don’t know why everyone gets into consulting. I can only tell my story and see if it resonates. I like to help people, I like to solve problems and — but deep in my heart, I’m still a bit of an entertainer. My friend Ian Tamblyn (one of Canada’s great songwriters and a great entertainer) captures this so well in his song, Campfire Light. “I like to sing, I love to dance, I will play the fool if I have the chance…”

The danger for me is that I do like to the be the one who comes up with a great line, a joke — or an idea. I like to win debates. And I like recognition for my work. It’s a part of what drives me to be a consultant and facilitator. I have to say it is also a factor in any successes I’ve had. I’ve been able to get my ideas across because I present well and I can grab an audience.

But I’m also driven by the need to make real change. Life is precious. You spend a lot of that time working. I can’t simply sell that much of my life for money. What I do has to have purpose.

What I didn’t really realize is that sometimes I might have to choose between the two.

In these little moments when life sends you a message, you have to decide what you are going to do. I decided that it was time to wrestle with my ego. I wanted results more than I wanted the applause.

So I started to try to let others come up with the great ideas. They need to discover the answer for themselves. And like any major change of unconscious behaviour, I embarked on a long journey of becoming aware of a multitude of tiny things and changing them — one by one.

I’m still on the journey. But believe it or not, I’m a lot further than I was when I had this conversation with the other consultant. I’ve changed a lot about how I tackled problems. I worry less and less about presentation to the audience and more and more about engagement. I get groups on their feet. I get them doing things. I get them thinking. I listen more. I take more chances.

It’s not easy. Especially when I know the answer. And often I do — before the group does. Don’t get me wrong, this is not ego. As my partner Darrel Berry says, “we’re not smarter (than our clients) we just do this every day.” To quote another famous musician, Brownee McGee, “If you do something for 30 years and you don’t get good at it, shame on you!”

So I sit there, looking externally calm (I hope) while inside me, the “keener” kid from grade 6 shakes his arm frantically, trying to get the teacher to see him. Oh! Oh! I have the answer! When that seizes me, I try to take a deep breath and restore my patience. I wait for calm. I bite my tongue. I wait for someone else to discover the answer.

If they don’t, I realize its my challenge as a facilitator to try to create the conditions that will help them discover it. I do everything short of discovering it for them. They have to do that.

the bottom line is this. Aristotle said “the understanding changes nothing.” As someone who values logic, that phrase has troubled me for years. I think I finally understand. Even if you logically understand the issues, it does not give you the inspiration and the drive to make real change. Real change involves risk and sometimes sacrifice. And before people are going to go on that journey, they need to engage on a visceral level. They don’t need a fact handed to them, they need a realization from within them. They need to come to an insight – that flash, that aha! moment. And from that insight, they need another step. They need to take ownership of the problem.

If they discover the solution, they’ll own it. If they own it, they’ll be driven to solve it. If they solve it successfully, they’ll learn to be successful. It’s a virtuous circle.

If the consultant takes ownership, or solves it — it breaks the circle. They learn. But it’s a different lesson.

Not as easy as it sounds. But every time I start to doubt this, or if I get lazy, or if my ego gets in the way, I replay that story of me and the consultant. I think of how different it would have been if instead of it being the consultant’s plan or report, if we had one champion among the client’s own employees — coached by us — but having their own solution. If they had made the case. If they had offered to be accountable for the results — what would have been different at that meeting?

If.

I’ve tried to build this into everything I do. Everything is about the client and their team — learning, experiencing and engaging with that solution.

Was it Harry Truman who said that great things are possible if you don’t worry about who gets the credit? I wish I’d thought of that!

On second thought…

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Going virtual for competitive advantage

For me, necessity was the mother of invention. But it wasn’t an easy birth.

I took over a global consulting practice at the same time as somebody in our company discovered cost controls. Where my predecessors had smaller areas, they also had larger budgets. That was a real challenge that was imposed on me. Another wound was self-inflicted. Even though I had taken this job to head up a global practice, I’m insane enough to have thought that I didn’t want to totally give up on being a working consultant. I knew I would have to scale back radically, but I couldn’t totally give it up.

When I became a consultant I knew what it was like to sit on the other side of the desk. I could put myself in the client’s shoes. I swore when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’d give it up. I felt the same way as I went into the “executive ranks”. When I could no longer keep in touch with the real day to day realities of serving our clients, I’d give that up too (but that’s another story).

So I had big area. A small budget. Did I mention that we were in a real crisis? It was a time when we were losing our focus — sometimes even our value proposition.

I knew I couldn’t turn this thing around. I needed a team. And that team had to come from all around the world. It had to bring in the best we had. We had to be able to share what we knew and leverage that effectively. We had to bring in new ideas from everywhere. We had to work more cohesively than we had done for years.

So we needed to work together more effectively than ever before. And to be fair to our CFO, even when we had money, flying in people in was always tough. Days in the air. Jet lag. Leaving the office for a week at a time. Getting calendars in synch? To plan a meeting of 12 representatives from around the world could take 3 months of negotiations and planning. And I’m not sure we always got the results that matched the investment of time or money.

At that time we had was email, Lotus Notes and conference calls. We also had some emerging web enabled tools – primarily the early web conferencing tools. Placeware was the tool (later Live Meeting) and it was primitive, but better than nothing.

I picked up the phone — and I began to learn. Boy did I learn. I got bruised and battered. I made a lot of mistakes. That’s what I did. WE — the team. That’s another story. WE did amazing things. WE proved that large virtual teams could deliver incredible results effectively, quickly and at an enormous cost/time savings.

Years later, when we founded this new company, I took all of that learning with me. I was determined to take it to the next level. Even though I’d gone from big firm to boutique — we were truly a global firm very rapidly. I negotiated deals, set up alliances, conferred with my network, all in a virtual space.

Tools were developing. The idea of virtual teams was no longer such a radical idea. HBR had published a study which claimed that virtual teams were MORE productive than collocated teams. It claimed gains of 25% in productivity, 90% reductions in absenteeism — delivery times that we 1/10th of the time that a traditional team would take. It claimed budgets that were 1/8th of those of a traditional collocated team. Incredibly, it also laid claim to improved results.

I didn’t have any trouble with believing this. I knew that it was possible. Today, we live and breath it. Our clients and consultants come literally from around the world.

But that’s not the most interesting thing. The thing is in how its changed for us. I have people working for me that I have hired, worked with, gotten to know, struggle through challenges with — and whom I have never seen or physically met. I interact with them every day. I’ve facilitated meetings of people across the country through difficulties, through crisis, through incredible achievements — and never seen some of them.

Last year, I closed the downtown office. There was just no need for it. I guess there is somebody who might need to see bricks and mortar to work with us — I had a sales rep who felt this was essential. But you know, I’ve met a lot of people in our offices that have given us zero in the way of business. Besides, I did the math. When we stopped paying rent on a downtown office, if we really wanted to impress people, we could take them out for lunch or dinner at the best restaurant in the city — and we’d still be saving money.

It has it’s challenges. We’ve had to learn – we are continually learning. But I’m absolutely amazed as I look at it about how far we’ve come from the days when I heard that to have a team, you had to be able to “shake their hands and look them in the eyes.”

It’s not that I don’t meet with people. But I don’t need to do it. I know that this is still disconcerting to some. Even when people live near me, I have found that their need to have physical meetings is — curious. I can hear it in their voice when I propose that the day is too packed to meet them for coffee, but we can have coffee in our offices while we talk. I still remember one of our consultants saying to me as he was about to start an assignment — “don’t you think we should meet?”

I thought we had. I had checked references. I had tested, prodded and probed. I had reviewed prior work. If anything, someone I hire virtually may get a better vetting than some hires I’ve made in my career. But I’ve learned. I met him in person. It was pleasant. It didn’t change anything for me.

Woody Allen may have been right when he said that “90% of life is just showing up.” If he was, I can tell you that the last 10% may be the most valuable. The HBR study proved what my experience had taught me.

And the world is catching up. I read an article in July that said that 10 percent of Canada’s labour force — 2.5 million people — work outside the office at least one day a week. (Robert Fox, Canadian Telework Association) Teletrips, a Vancouver based company, claims a company can save $6,000 to $9,000 per flexible worker. They go on to say that a worker can save 160 hours in commute time each year — four working weeks! Plus you save 3,000 kilos of carbon dioxide.

The same article by Michelle MacLeod goes on to list other benefits. Reduced attrition. Ability to attract great people who wouldn’t face the commute to get to your office. It goes on. And that HBR article keeps coming back to me. Faster delivery. Better results.

Virtual aren’t second best anymore. And I have a feeling that we are just scratching the surface. We have build the tools and the processes. We know how to live, work, network and even facilitate in this space. More and more of our consulting finds its way into tools. processes, strategy and ongoing coaching and development of virtual teams.

When the internet was just starting up, Ayelet Baron (now at Cisco) and I collaborated on building one of the first websites. Years later it would seem so primitive that it would be embarrassing to show now. Then, it was leading edge and won some international acclaim for our firm. That was good, because although we’d begged some investment from partners in our firm, if we hadn’t printed the pages they would have never seen what we had done.

The other day I heard a radio host say that “no matter how comfortable we had become with the new virtual world, people of my generation would always be immigrants on the internet.” Our children were citizens. So no matter how far I’ve come, I realize that this has a long way to go yet.

I hate hype. I don’t want to say — if your company isn’t doing this then you are losing money. But I’m not sure its hype anymore. What was leading edge is now every day. And if you’re not maximizing the benefits from virtual teams, I’d love to know why not.

Gotta go. I have that 30 second commute.

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