Mutterings of a consultant

October 1, 2008


Filed under: General rambling — grantfrear @ 5:29 am
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I have always found it interesting how corporate vision statements become like wallpaper.  They are always present and visible but fade into the background.  This is certainly the case with the vision statement for my team, it is there, it is meaningful and largely it is ignored. 

I, more than some others in my team, have to pay a little more attention to the vision.  Not only am I a leader in my team but from time to time I am required to present our vision.  At these times I go back to the vision and marvel at the clever collection of words, full of meaning and promise.  On a recent trip back I spent some time thinking about meaning, in particular focusing on one key word in the vision statement, complex.

In the case of our vision statement complexity is postitioned in terms of the problems we are trying to solve.  I had never really thought deeply about what distinguishes a complex problem from other problems.  When I did put aside some time to do so I was a little embarassed that I had difficulty getting to the nub of what a complex problem might be.  It could simply be the opposite of a simple problem however I thought there must be more to it than this.  After a bit of reading I found a description of complexity that helped me make sense of the vision statement.

Complex problems are distinguished by the inter-relationships and dependencies between aspects of the problem, the amount of unknowns and that the problem cannot simply be broken into smaller parts to solve.  Taking the decomposition approach will not work for complex problem due to the inter-relationships, the parts are all moving and are all connected to each other in some way. 

By contrast complicated problems also have many inter-dependent parts but the relationship between these parts is more static.  One can solve a complicated problem by breaking it down into smaller parts as each one acts independently and interacts with other parts in a predictable manner.

So there is was, a description of complexity that seemed to make sense in a consulting environment.  As with most things in life my new found clarity simply allowed me to see another problem/issue.  If we are solving complex problems why is it we apply the ‘divide and conquer’ model so often?  Clearly I will have to spend some more time thinking about that one.

August 29, 2008

3 Ps

Filed under: General rambling — grantfrear @ 9:11 am
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I have been doing a lot of reading about design recently.  On my trails I came across an excellent transcription of a presentation from one of the partners at IDEO in the UK (Mat Hunter).  While there are a number of good insights in this transcript I will share a one that I will refer to as ‘the 3 Ps’.  In Mat’s, or possibly IDEO’s, view a sustainable consulting company comes from a progression through three Ps

Portfolio – what have we done before

Process – can we repeat it

Point of View – having an opinion and the courage to share it

Mat suggests that you need to build your business left to right (top to bottom in this case).  Starting with portfolio and progressing to point of view.  The last is clearly the hardest to achieve.  While having a point of view is not particularly hard having the confidence to share it is something else again.  Often you may not be right, opinions are not facts after all.  Having the confidence to put forward your opinion typically means that you are ready for the criticism and in fact are willing to change your opinion.  It is a complex world we operate in after all, having an opinion is the starting point to understanding and decoding the world as it provides an essential perspective on the world, your perspective.

August 28, 2008

We vs. You

Filed under: General rambling — grantfrear @ 4:16 am

If one considers that consultants typically exist outside an organisation and provide services to an organisation then how consultants use the words ‘we’ and ‘you’ can pose somewhat of a dilemma.  Here are some of the issues as I see it.

‘You’ can give the impression that the consultant is lacking empathy or perhaps ownership of the client’s problem/issue, ‘we’ on the other hand can be presumptious, compare the following:

‘This is the situation you are in’ vs ‘this is the situation we are in’. 

The first clearly positions the situation as the clients own, it can however distance the consultant from the situation as the consultant is not putting themselves in the group that the owns the problem.  On the other hand the second statement, based on we, also presents some problems.  Has the consultant earned the right to put themselves in the group or are they simply assuming membership.  This is troubling indeed as the consultant-client relationship can be upset by either too much familiarity (percieved inappropriate use of the word we) or through detachment (consistent use of the word you).

While clearly this is a trivial post I often see consultants struggling with this and at times making mistakes.  Here is how I navigate my way through this:

1.  What is the situation, am I really part of the group or am I really an outsider?

2.  Have I earned the right to say we?  Have I demonstrated my commitment to the client and have I been invited into the group (how one knows whether or not one is ‘inside’ is even more confusing)?

3.  If in doubt (as I often am) use you, do it with empathy and we should have our bases covered.

(please note joke in the last bullet point for those of you who are slow :-))

August 7, 2008

Consulting – a whole of brain profession

Filed under: Uncategorized — grantfrear @ 1:14 am
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Having recently completed Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, I have come to realise that consulting is indeed a whole of brain experience.  Pink presents a perspective on the changes in our workforce and society as we transition from an environment dominated by left brain activities (logical, sequential, rational) to right brain activities (experiential, non-linear, creative, empathetic).  While I have for some time seen consulting as a creative endeavour, or at least the way that I practice the profession, I had not really thought through deeply what this meant in terms of engaging my brain, and the two hemispheres within it.

So here I am, thinking more deeply about it.  Lets start with the consulting process (in very simplified form)


Now if I think about this in terms of Left and Right dominated activities here is how I see things shaping up (left to right, top to bottom in good old fashioned left brain structured presentation :-).

Left                                 Right

Analysis                                   Design


Implement                               Change

So here in lies the challenge for consulting, consultants and the partnership that I work for in particular.  Most of our academic lives are spent on the left, we train and reward people to be structured, analytical, logical etc.  This clearly means that the we are well positioned to analyse, plan and implement (i.e. follow the plan).  We do not however get trained as much in the right brain activities (creativity, empathy, story-telling, play) and as such many consultants having done a great job with structured analysis launch into structured design (surely simply addressing the issues identified in analysis is in fact design?). 

How can this be overcome?  Here are a few ideas that may or may not take hold:

  • Teach design as part of the core training of consultants – empathy, creativity, observation, innovation
  • Increase diversity in the workplace (Andersen Consulting used this approach with mixed results, I can remember early training days with a history graduate, they were never going to make a C programmer)
  • Reduce dependence on methods – good for analysis, can be suffocating for design
  • Drop the neckties and reduce the hierarchy (perhaps that is simply me getting sick of wearing a suit)

July 31, 2008

Demise of the knowledge worker

Filed under: Uncategorized — grantfrear @ 11:22 pm
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Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift.  I have recently picked up Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind.  This book presents an argument for the growing importance of right brain dominated activity in the workplace.  Not all workplaces it must be said but those of advanced economies (which seems to be a polite way of saying 1st world or the western countries).

As others have done (see Dream Society) Pink reflects on the past ‘ages’ in our society and the dominant way that we as workers added value and participated in society.  While there is nothing new here he does communicate this analysis very well.  In summary (bullet points of course):

  • Starts with agricultural dominating our lives – physical labour is king
  • Along comes the industrial revolution – people move off the land thanks to machines and technology
  • However the machines need to be produced – off we go into the factories
  • Factories become increasingly automated (thanks again technology) and seek lower wage economies to remain competitive
  • Hello asia – off we go into the offices
  • Logical reasoning dominates, management, organisation, structure, information processing rules – hello accountants, consultants, analysts, lawyers, managers etc etc
  • Along comes technology again in the form of computers – jobs are automated, communications improves and things start to shift again
  • Hello asia (again) – the white collar jobs start moving to India in the form of offshoring

Back to current day.  This is in effect where we are up to in this ongoing and evolving story.  So where to next, we simply can’t fight machines, while our brains are the most complex thing we are aware of they can’t seem to compete with the speed and accuracy of a computer on pure logical tasks.  Furthermore for those logical repeatable tasks that cannot be automated asia beckons with a substantially cheaper workforce.

Enter Daniel Pink and many others.  Pink argues that we are coming near the end of left brain dominated activites (those that are structured, linear, repeatable etc) and we are on the cusp of right brain dominated activities (those that are creative, non-linear, conceptual etc). 

He and others make a compelling argument however one is left wondering how one can take an active role in this transition.  For myself and many others the left brain dominated approach is deeply ingrained, trained and rewarded.  The modern workplace, or at least the one I work in, provides strong signals that this approach is valued and rewarded.  Achievement, structure, progress, delivery, output.  Swimming against the left brain dominated status-quo will indeed be difficult.  If Pink and others are correct we will have little choice.  Perhaps NZ is somewhat more isolated to the affects of offshoring (at least at the moment) however in the globalised world we live in we will have little chance but to follow the crowds to asia for those areas that are left brain dominated and affect our ability to compete.

July 13, 2008

A rant on the use of inner, the word

Filed under: General rambling — grantfrear @ 8:55 pm

This is from a book titled ‘Is it just me or is everything shit?’

There was once presumably a time when the word ‘inner’ just referred to things that were not ‘outer’.  A bicycle’s ‘inner tube’ was the ring of rubber that nestled snugly inside the outer rubber tyre.  The bicycle never had to discover its inner tube, or nurture its inner tube, or even explore the cosmic dimensions of its inner tube.  It was just an inner tube.

But something happened and the word ‘inner’ started implying a righteous quest towards the glowing centre of ones glorious self.

July 12, 2008

New Zealand’s Future

Filed under: General rambling — grantfrear @ 7:55 am
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I was recently sent an article by Rod Oram that discussed scenarios for New Zealand’s futures.  The format of the presentation which is based on research from Landcare was a little off putting at first however the more I read it seemed to get it’s message across efficiently.  In essence four scenarios were developed against two primary variables (resources and our national identity).  These scenarios are presented in the form of a conversation between two people (a little trite but in the end effective).

I reacted quite strongly toward one of the scenarios, ‘the shire’.  I am unsure if this is due to the way that it has been written and the future that is predicted (i.e. does a bias come through from the researchers).  It seems that in further research with the community at large there is a strong tendency for this scenario.  It either speaks to the mindset of New Zealand or it was presented in such a way to lead most people to the same conclusion (or perhaps the other 3 scenarios lead the reader to back to ‘the shire’).

Possibly of more interest however is the research finding illustrating that: 

1.  Where we think we are now and;

2.  Where we think we should be in the future and;

3.  Where we think we are actually heading.

Are all in different segments of the scenario model.  Now I have heard us as a nation described as being somewhat neurotic, perhaps this is all the evidence needed to prove this observation.

If you are interested check out the scenario and follow on research.  Thanks to cheap storage on the web and Google’s desire to still be around in 100 years we should be able to check back in 50 years time and see how things developed.

June 17, 2008

Is the web making us stupid?

Filed under: General rambling — grantfrear @ 2:23 am
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I came across a very interesting article titled Is Google Making Us Stupid? and thought I would reflect on its contents (note the title of my post is slightly different so as to avoid plagarism).  The article takes a sweeping review over our reading patterns and the way that we consume information in the internet age.  It covers many topics from the reflections of Nietzche upon losing his eyesight and moving to a typewriter all the way to comparing the plans of Google to the sophisticated conclusion to Fredrick Taylors work on scientific management, quite a read let me tell you.

While I think we are all aware that our patterns of consumption, research and recreational reading have changed dramatically due to the web I had never considered how these changes may be affecting my brain.  The author puts forward a perspective of an adaptive brain, one that adjusts to the environment and the context in which it operates.  Nothing startling here however the conclusion drawn with respect to how the internet (a world of snippets, links, soundbites, bouncing, glancing, surfing, instant information etc etc) could be affecting our ability to think, hence it could in fact be making us stupid.

The observation that Nietzche’s writing style and in fact thoughts started to change as he moved from hand writing to typewriter was quite interesting.  In Nietzche’s own words ‘our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts’.  The affect was confirmed by scolars who noted his writing moving from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style’.

One can easily reflect on the influence that txt spk has had on our language and how the medium has altered ones expectations regarding personal communications.  Language evolved to be rich and complex because it was needed.  It was needed to express complex subject matter and it was required for efficiency (one complex word rich in meaning can substitute for a sentence of simple words describing a topic – example in context of this article pedagogy).

Perhaps the most interesting observations in the article is the linkage between the philosophies of Taylorism and the plans that Google have.  The Google strategy, when placed in this context, is indeed somewhat frightening.  Particularly the suggestion that Google will have reached its logical conclusion when it can act as an auxilliary brain connected to the one that will be wasting away in our heads.

June 2, 2008

Does power really go to the people?

Filed under: worklife — grantfrear @ 2:00 am
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We all have an ability to voice our views through blogs, facebook and various other web2.0 mechanisms.  This ability is however restricted (if that is the right word) to the public domain.  Very few of us have the ability and permission to engage in a similar way within the organisations within which we work.  While arguably the social domain is more interesting than the enterprise domain it seems that enterprises are missing out on a great deal.  

This was the recent topic of a post by Andrew McAfee from Harvard Business School.  He was invited to discuss management challenges and positioned this issue at the centre of the issues that he sees.  For those who have not heard of Andrew McAfee he coined the term Enterprise 2.0 and is the leading thinker in adapting Web2.0 and applying it within an enterprise.  

He makes a very good point about the use of Web2.0 within enterprises.  It does not transfer decision rights, the management team are still responsible for the decisions and management of the organisation.  In this way management power does not go to the people.  What these tools can do is connect the management to the people and to harness the enthusiasm and commitment of the people for the benefit of both the organisation and the individual.

Most organisations persist in one-way communications (top down) with a slight interruption in the form of management 360 degree feedback surveys.  Enterprise-discourse (the enterprise equivalent to social discourse) is left to the lunch room and coffee breaks.  As such it very rarely makes it to the attention of management.  The net result: lost ideas, disaffected staff, disconnected management.

Enterprise2.0 is not about handing the keys over to the team, rather a more positive and inclusive way of engaging the team.  Lets hope that today’s leaders can recognise this and have the strength to embrace it.

May 22, 2008

Consulting 2.0 – adding to my thoughts

Filed under: General rambling,worklife — grantfrear @ 9:05 pm
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In a previous post I presented some open questions about Consulting 2.0.  The main reason for presenting open questions was that I really had no formed ideas on what Consulting 2.0 actually is.  All I could find on the web was bitter posts by disgruntled ex-Consultants.  So where did this leave me?  In that somewhat uncomfortable place where one has to think for oneself, put ideas on paper and see what people think.  So here it is (comments and critique appreciated).

Purpose of consulting – best start at the beginning

The way I see it the purpose of Consulting is to apply experience, knowledge and expertise to help a client change.  Clearly change comes in many guises and therefore this broad definition allows for advisory engagements, implementation engagements, strategy engagements etc.

Consulting 1.0 – how have we traditionally delivered on the purpose

Consulting has typically been practiced through people.  The model of Consulting 1.0 is to bring experience, expertise and knowledge to the client through a people channel.  Teams, large and small, descend on the client and practice their craft.  Approaches differ, some are more collaborative, some present themselves as the sage.  What is common however is that the client must buy people to get access to the experience, expertise and knowledge.  Other aspects of Consulting 1.0 that are easy to observe include – proprietary methodologies, closed engagements delivered by one firm, protecting property etc.  In Consulting 1.0 value comes from what you have managed to harvest internally and how you can channel this through your people.

Consulting 2.0 – emergent methods to delivering on the purpose

One of the issues with Consulting 1.0 is that it does not scale.  People are a constraint to growth and ultimately constrain clients and their ability to change (i.e. get access to people and experience).  There are however emerging models whereby services can and are being delivered in ways that ease the reliance on people.  One of the challenges with these models is to ensure that the value proposition is redefined, no point selling the IP and experience without the people as this will chip away at the bedrock of your business.  Emerging models are packaging the IP into services that support the core business, to bring revenue to the Consultant when the client is helping themself change.  A recent example of this in my world is the leadership academy.  This sets about helping clients improve the leadership capabilities in their businesses.  It brings together great IP from consultants (in this case human capital expertise), packages this with contemporary thinking from business schools and wraps this together to support the core services (people oriented) of the consultant.

So in summary my current thoughts on Consulting 2.0 is summarised as follows

– Less reliant on people to support change in clients

– More open and less protective of IP

– More collaborative

– Complimentary to 1.0 models not a complete substitute

– Technology enabled

– Scalable

– Supports change in clients when the consultant is not there

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