Undiscovered Element

30 06 2011

When Dimitri Mendeleev first arranged the known chemical elements in a “periodic table”, I am not sure if he understood the extent to which he was also making space for “as-yet-unknown” (shades of  Donald Rumsfeld) elements. I often wonder the same when I read strategy documents.

Just read yet another big corporate strategic review which is heavy on numbers and strategy and shareholder value and improved customer experience, but rather light on the element that might make all of this happen; “our people”. That is not entirely true; the organisation “has great people”, is going to get rid of around 15% of them, and flatten the organisation. IT systems are going to disappear in droves as well, to increase efficiency. That at least is believable; the people will have to spend less time answering the question “where did my data go?”

Can’t help feeling that once again I am watching a senior team fall into the trap of thinking that because we say all of these things, and some of them are within our control, the other ones will fall into line as well. But rebuilding a business without investing heavily in developing its human capital is rather like planning a colony on Mars without considering the lack of available oxygen.

The sharpest tool in the shed

16 06 2011

Sitting in on a strategy workshop later today, always fascinating. In my experience, the most commonly overlooked element of strategy is … capacity: both the capacity that you can train in or build and the capacity you have to buy in.

D-Day and its sequel presents an illustration. The strategy was about landing so many divisions in so many days and then to roll up the German Army in France and force an unconditional surrender. Since the biggest hurdle was perceived to be getting the divisions ashore through Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” of prepared defences, all the capacity-building was focussed on that. Despite all the challenges faced, that part of the plan went well. D+1 was a little different.

What hadn’t been thought about was the nature of the Norman countryside, with its massive hedgerows. And of course this was a failure of “scanning the competitive environment”. But the upshot was that no capacity had been developed in the area of hedgerow fighting. Instead of securing towns like Caen on D-Day itself, progress became completely bogged down as each field had to be taken one at a time, at immense cost in time and casualties. Soldiers and platoons had no preparation for what the plan was asking of them.

Fortunately, the capacity – of the “walks in the door” variety – had come along anyway. Tankers who were taxi-drivers and mechanics in civilian life and used to tinkering and improvising started doing just that. They devised field upgrades for tanks that could penetrate hedgerows in short order and allow the armour to tackle the prepared German positions which until then had been decimating the infantry assaults. Absent that accidental capacity and the Allies might never have broken out of the hedgerow country.

So yes, you can get lucky. But plans and strategies which skate over the capacity issues tend to join the majority: on the “fail” heap. So how do you address capacity issues when you are doing strategy? Anyone who has attempted this will likely tell you that the biggest problem is actually working out what capacity you already have (let alone coming up with an appropriate plan to build more).

You need a sharper tool than simply brainstorming “(impressions of) our capacity” on a whiteboard.

I am sure people who know me wonder why I am so wedded to the Birkman Method as an organisational tool, when I generally have such wide and inclusive tastes. Aren’t there lots of other tools out there?

Yes there are, but Birkman is the sharpest tool in the shed by several (hedgerow) country miles. Here’s why I think that and why this is the answer to a strategist’s prayers:

  1. Accurate and insightful. I had someone shout out loud on a phone call the other day. I thought he had been stung by a bee; it was actually a shout of recognition
  2. Objective and non-judgemental. We aren’t putting value-judgements in here, we are looking at things which could be “most-needed” in one setting and “least-needed” in another. It is about understanding difference, not grading people.
  3. Empirically-based. Virtually every other tool you have seen or tried is derived from a theoretical construct, which is then tested to see if it has something useful to say in the real world. Roger Birkman started with observation of actual behaviours and looked for a way of predicting which people would produce which behaviours.
  4. Calibrated. Apples are always apples. You would be surprised by the extent to which this is not so for most tools. You and I might both be an “x” according to a particular tool, but that doesn’t mean “x” is the same for both of us.
  5. Social. Dr Birkman did his work in a deliberately social and organisational setting. The original name of the Birkman Method was “A Test of Social Comprehension”. The Birkman tells you how a person will behave in your organisation.
So what? Learn to use the Birkman and you have the following capabilities, in ascending order of importance to the organisational strategist:
  • Powerful individual coaching and mentoring that not only addresses what the inidvidual could be best at but also how they will need to negotiate the different perspectives and expectations around them in the organisation.
  • Team performance coaching; says it all really – why is this manager having problems with this person, why does Team A deliver less despite its talented people than Team B with its apparently less able players, and so on.
  • Accurate recruitment, both stand-alone and against benchmarks. You need some specific capacity in a specific role. Birkman doesn’t do “skills” – that is what validated track record is for – but in standalone recruiting it allows you to know ahead of time whether the underlying wiring is there and what the challenges would be if you appointed this person. In roles where you have large numbers of people doing the same job you can enhance this with benchmarking to identify the characteristics that discriminate between the averagely good and the star performer and hire against those factors.
  • Organisational Capacity Mapping. This is the holy grail for strategists and OD specialists alike, and yet so many people never get beyond the first or second bullet points above. You can look at data for a division or the whole organisation at start identifying potential capacity issues that relate directly to execution of your strategy in under 3 seconds, straight out of the box, no expensive BI tools required. I love this tool for many reasons, but this is the heart of the matter.
Tired of cutting with a blunt knife? We have Birkman Certification running in Singapore in July and October (see http://www.elaura.com for details), for other options go to http://www.birkman.com

Cycling in Chiang Mai

10 06 2011

At the end of a hard week’s Birkman training in northern Thailand, I found myself with a free morning before my 2pm check-in at the airport. The friend I was staying with offered his mountain bike, a water bottle and a hand-drawn map of a route through the foothills north of Chiang Mai.

You can see where this is going, right?

Actually, I had a perfectly wonderful time in the foothills. Great scenery, lovely long green snake crossing the road in front of me, and the dogs that chased me never tried to bite. No, it was once I got back into Chiang Mai I had problems.

All I did wrong (it latter transpired) was to cross one intersection too many before following the instructions to cut in past a housing estate and cross the large block of land to get back to my friends’ house. I wasn’t too bothered when I found myself in paddy fields and amongst little villages – outer Chiang Mai is like that. More worrying was that requests for the estate I was looking for were answered with a range of answers covering most points of the compass. Still believing I was in essentially the right place, I began a rational approach to getting back on track, designed to undo whatever wrong turning I had taken since leaving the main road. It should have worked, but instead I found myself at a huge river I knew I hadn’t crossed at any other point of the day. The reason it didn’t work was that I had taken into account every possibility except the one that mattered – that I was already south of a major road I needed to be north of.

The nett effect was a 2 hour, increasingly desperate spiral through the outskirts in the full blaze of the midday sun. At long last (i.e. about the time I finished the water) I found someone with enough English and a sense of direction who was able to put me right. I had even passed the end of the road I was looking for 15 minutes earlier, but hadn’t recognised it because it wasn’t on the side I was expecting. I arrived back just in time to get to the airport and save my friends from making a slightly embarassing phone call to my wife, “…um, we seem to have lost Jon…”

The sunburn certainly left an interesting pattern – the backs of my hands were brick red up to the first knuckle, and white above that. I spent most of my time in the following fortnight in the UK explaining why I was moulting. But more to the point, it was an object reminder that the best plan to get yourself out of a hole is only as good as your ability to reorientate yourself. Without getting an objective reading on where you are, you are likely to be solving the wrong problem. Something to think about as organisations shed staff and resource by the shed-load.