That rabbit in the headlights is… perfectly balanced

19 05 2014

Just reflecting on something that happened in Birkman Training recently. It was a group of experienced Birkman Consultants who happened to be experienced managers and leaders as well. I was illustrating a simple point, namely that too much of anything can be a problem in an organisational setting, using the example of a Senior team I worked with who were all extremely central on the Birkman Life Style Grid. It would be easy to make the point using one of the extremes – a group of reds who do better and better that which never should have been done in the first place, or a group of blues who have produced a dozen of the best new products that never happened and so on; but it is useful to make the point that the middle of the Grid is just what it is, not better or more normal than anywhere else.

Anyway, this central (on both Usual and Needs) group had a business that was heading ever further into danger. Too many ideas and little projects, too little action. Intellectually every single one of them could acknowledge this, and the concomitant likely need for drastic action. But emotionally – no can do. These Central / Central leaders unfortunately reinforced in each other the Central tenet of “nothing to any extreme, everything in balance”. I even stood before them at one offsite and told them exactly what they were doing. They themselves had agreed on their problem and what the solution involved, but would then dissipate the will to act. And they simply said, “No, you are going too far with that Jon. We can’t do that to our people…”

Except of course they did in the end. Or their successors had to, after most of the leaders had also lost their jobs. Far more of the rank and file suffered job losses than would have been the case if they had acted immediately. So: moral of the story is, beware of any group of leaders who are too homogenous, even if what they have in common is their balanced view of things.

At which point one of the participants in the training had an epiphany; a Central / Central person himself, he suddenly saw his whole managerial career with a major FMCG brand flash before his eyes. “That’s why I could never quite grasp the nettle…”

So the wider moral is that, if we all need people around who complement us, the perfectly balanced may need a person or two who tilts them off-balance and into action, if they aren’t to end up as rabbits in the headlights


Problem-solving versus … what?

15 09 2013

A minor epiphany, but a light has certainly gone on for me. It relates to the Birkman Life Style Grid (see model below) which we use in order to rapidly aggregate a lot of data in a single synoptic view.

Model of Birkman Life Style Grid

Over the years I have dealt with a number of teams who lie predominantly along the Red-Blue axis, but who are considerably weaker in the Green and Yellow Quadrants. I have tended to categorise these teams as Problem-Solvers, because that tends to be where they shine. Blue-oriented people frame Problems in creative and innovative new ways, and suggest new solutions to old problems; Red-oriented people get on with execution, now. By themselves, Blues have great ideas that never happen, and Reds do brilliantly well that which never should have been done at all. Together, we get great ideas, brilliantly executed. Hence, problem solvers.

So what about the other Axis? Greens and Yellows are potentially just as alien to each other as Blues and Reds. Greens seize opportunities and sell; Yellows set up systems and measure and analyse. They can drive each other mad, but what do you get if you combine them successfully?

Business. Green-Yellow is the Business Axis. Blue-Red is where your products and services come from. Green-Yellow gives you a business and keeps you in business. Haven’t looked at it for several years, but for example, Michael Gerber’s “The E-Myth Revisited” presents a true  business as a predictable repeatable process for producing money (Green-Yellow) and not a context for creatively doing (Blue Red).

Worth thinking about.

Simply No Comparison

5 10 2012

One question I have been asked a lot this week is about the core tool we use in our Talent Management services, the Birkman Method®. “Why is this any different from any of the other 1,500 tools out there?”

There are plenty of long answers to that question, but let’s answer the question with some more questions. These are my top three questions you should ask of whatever tool you are using at the moment:

  1. What is its shelf-life?

    In other words, once a person has completed this instrument, how long can you keep using the data with confidence? Typical answer will be 12-18 months. Birkman shows exceptional stability in adults at 5, 10 and even 20 years. For an organization, this makes Birkman a “deploy once per employee, use forever” tool. And yes, the inference is correct: a Birkman profile is generally not influenced by current situation or context; rather it gives a reading of individuals which will be true over time, regardless of the context in which they find themselves.

  2. Does it prevent recruitment shock?

    I meet no end of HR Directors and others who really rather like their current tool or tools. But when I ask this question, they invariably say, “not really – we still get people who profile well, interview beautifully – and then behave quite differently when they get on board.” That isn’t the experience we have using Birkman. Most often we hear “your predictions were spookily accurate”. Birkman is highly predictive of actual behaviours in role. Worth something to you?

  3. If you stack up 10 or 100 (or 10,000) of these profiles, what do you get?

    Although some tools have some element of team reporting (normally maxing out at 10-12 individuals), most don’t. 100 DISC or MBTI or Belbin or StrengthsFinder reports is just a big stack of paper – and pretty incomprehensible at that. 100 Birkman Profiles put together is instant organizational insight, because unlike every other tool we have reviewed, Birkman was built from the ground up as an organizational performance tool. By considering the individual as someone who will have to operate in a social and organizational context, Dr Birkman produced a tool which is uniquely able to map organizational strength, culture and capacity.

Like any powerful specialist tool, you need skill and understanding to use Birkman effectively. At Elaura we have focussed relentlessly on developing those skills and understanding over the past dozen years. As a result we can provide you with the Birkman expertise you need; or we can train your people in the use of Birkman. Want to know more? Email us

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 for details), for other options go to

The higher, the simpler

4 04 2011

Granted myself a day off today, after what has been a rather hectic 5 or 6 weeks.  Made a large pot of green tea, read John Adair’s Inspirational Leadership in a single sitting (Socratic dialogue lives; profundity without density) and then walked about 12 km through the jungle to Bukit Timah in the noon-day sun. As Dilbert’s friend Wally once said, “It turns out I am insane, but apparently I am one of the happy kind…”

Lots of very interesting encounters to process in the last few weeks, but here is the one of the emerging themes: the closer to the top of any organisation you get, the less technical the real issues are. Or, put another way: the higher you go, the simpler it gets.

Simpler, not simplistic. Fred in Customer Relations may be deciding between 3 IT vendors and their competing platforms, and doing so on the basis of immensely detailed technical specs; Carol the CEO meanwhile is deciding between black and white. The difference is that Fred’s decision – by no means insignificant – has at best a 3-5 year horizon. Carol’s decision will affect the destiny of the company for the next 25 years. And behind Carol’s seemingly simple choice lie multiverses – diverse possible futures, at least half of which will collapse and disappear when she makes her call. Think Lou Gerstner calling IBM back to its core: Servers and Services. Goodbye Printers and Laptops (and, of course, hello Lexmark and Lenovo).

This is hardly a new thought, but the aspect of this simplicity that has been striking me most forcibly is that it means that problems at the top of an organisation often reduce to one thing: unrecognised, unacknowledged differences of perspective and perception.

Down where Fred dwells, there will be “wars of religion” – open source versus proprietary, off the shelf versus customised or bespoke – and so on. Many of these disagreements will also be ultimately driven by differences of perception, but there is room for people to be right or wrong about technical issues. Up where Carol operates, where vision of credible and possible futures is pretty much all there is to work with, perception is pretty much everything; and unrecognised, uncategorised differences of perception will impact not just a single issue or question, but the whole landscape. When Carol calls “black” and two of her three C-level reports agree with her, is that because she has understood and found wanting the reasons the third person had for keeping “white” in play? Or are they – unknowingly – seeing the future from such different perspectives, that what each means by “black” or “white” is quite different.

A couple of concrete examples, slightly disguised. Global player in its field, formed by a series of well-spaced mergers and acquisitions over the last 25 years. Scratch this organisation anywhere and find that the sum of the whole is much less than the sum of its parts (in other words, the merged organisation underperforms pretty much any of the original constituent organisations); and yet in every one of those areas it has long-time industry experts enough and to spare. They don’t need smarter people or more technical know-how; how could they, they wrote all the reference books. So what? Well, they might need some objective help to understand just how differently they (and their original organisations) were and are seeing the world.

Other end of the scale. Entrepreneurial team of 5 (still the top of the organisation; the mountain is just a lot lower). All have huge track record in their field (in fact the leader comes from a dynasty in that field, and definitely brings more than just his genes to the part; he has done it all). All except for one member of the team, that is. This person is the lightning rod for all disagreements, and guess what – comes from an entirely different business background. The team mostly see the issue as how to get this fifth person onboard with the vision and plan; impartial external advisers see the real issue as how to get these industry experts to listen to the one person who sees what they don’t, and could therefore save them all from the impending train wreck when their lopsided perception takes them off the rails.

All of which means that finding an objective means by which  to synchronise or calibrate perception, and differences of perspective, is potentially priceless at the upper echelons of any enterprise.

Thank you, Dr Birkman…

Soft stuff needs hard data too

8 02 2011

One of the challenges in the HR stack is that of getting to play at the top table and on the same terms as the guardians of the “hard data” – manufacturing / operations, sales and marketing and especially finance. Obviously it is possible, but there do seem to be a lot more COOs and CFOs (and even CIO / CTOs) than CPOs (Chief People Officer: you see, there isn’t even a term for it… “our most valuable resource” fails to register again.)

A large part of the problem is that Finance, Sales and Operations have numbers and projections; HR has programmes. There are figures – nett hiring etc – but in the absence of qualitative data that sounds more like adjustments in the organisation’s overheads than anything else.

And that is why HR needs to be able to measure, track and manage talent flow (and talent gaps) throughout the organisation. The talent pipeline is just as real (and just as impactful in the long-term) as the sales pipeline, but unlike sales or cash-flow, traditionally lacking in any consistent standard of measurement.

If you are doing this already, please share your experience and especially what tools and measures you are using. A great deal of my personal enthusiasm for Birkman as an Operating System for Talent is that it equips any HR Director, straight out of the box, with valid, accurate, objective and stable data on precisely these things – have we got the talent we need and in the places we need it, and what does the pipeline look like: have we secured our future, or are we facing a talent crisis 6-9 months out? And that is the kind of hard-edged, practical data that earns you a place to play at the top table.

Language, concealment and #Birkman

29 11 2010

Been taking a slow but very thought-provoking wander through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (London, 2009), a book largely about the profound differences between the left and right sides of our brains – and what those differences mean for everything from the structure of ourselves to the structure of society. Here is just one snippet:

…language … is the perfect medium for concealing, rather than revealing, meaning.         (2009:106)

This comes in a section arguing that language is not a pre-requisite either of communication (think of all the non-verbal ways both we and animals communicate) nor (perhaps more surprising) of complex thought. (We may choose to think in words about the process of thought, but actual thought is often pictorial, visceral, etc.)

So language lends itself to concealing meaning as much as to revealing it. Why would we want to conceal meaning?

“To deceive, in order to gain unfair advantage”, is one obvious answer. There are others, which help explain why language does get used in precisely this way so much of the time, without any necessarily nefarious intent.

“I am very conscious of your self-esteem and your feelings, so even though there is a pretty black and white issue in which you are at fault, I need to find a way of breaking this to you in a way that preserves your dignity.”

“My expectation of myself is that I should be a team-player, so that even though the demand you have just made of me is totally unreasonable and is definitely not meeting my need for being valued, I will say ‘sure, no problem’ even though, in my heart of hearts, I mean quite the opposite.”

“Although I believe it is very important to take account of how people are feeling, I have a strong need to come up with objective solutions to emotional problems; so although I am saying ‘there, there’ and ‘you poor thing’ I am actually going to really flip out in a moment if we can’t move on from how you feel to what practical steps we can take.”

And those are just three of my own quirks, all described in terms a Birkman user may well recognise (high Esteem Need, low /high Advantage and high/high reversed Empathy). None of those are attempts to deceive for unreasonable advantage; but they are precisely the uses of language to conceal that all of us are surrounded by – and contribute to – every day.