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.

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

25 yards of Team Building, please: changing how organisations buy assessments

18 10 2010

Talking to a friend and colleague from the US last week, he commented on the way large organisations buy assessments. Actually, the give away was the term “assessment buyers”… like “media buyer” or “office-supplies buyer”. Essentially the mindset seems to be almost along the lines of, “senior management expects us to use assessments, we buy x assessments per y personnel, check the box on the quarterly return, job done.”

Someone somewhere in the organisation is trying to accomplish something worthwhile with those assessments – better recruitment, better management of talent, building a team sorting out a workplace problem, whatever. They get to use whatever the assessment buyer buys (or specifies) for them. Fair enough, as far as it goes; that is how things work in a large organisation.

But here is the huge lost opportunity: a) why on earth is the assessment buyer treating the assessment of the company’s most valuable asset as it they were buying pencils and ignoring b) the opportunity to build over time a valuable map of the organisation’s talent and strengths? What do I mean?

Piecemeal assessment means that even if a great tool has been deployed to solve an important problem, that is the end of the story. A one-off purchase for a one-time return. Next time some or all of those people are involved in a situation where assessment needs to be used, either the same tool will be deployed again, or a new one; but either way, there will have been little if any value carried forward from the previous episode (except, usually, some increase in the employee cynicism triggered whenever there is a lack of joined up thinking: “here we go again”).

The positive alternative is to seek out and deploy a tool or suite of complementary tools which can be used across all situations (recruitment, appraisal, promotion, career development, coaching etc), and to keep coming back to the data collected already, both in the sense of “deploying once and using often per employee”; and in terms of watching trends over time, planning change programmes, post M&A integration, strategy, whatever. You won’t have a picture of your whole organisation the first time you deploy your selected tool or suite of tools for a 15-person team-building event; but you might be surprised how quickly you start seeing a map of your whole organisation come together, with key cultural or behavioural themes emerging. To senior management (remember them? we mentioned them in the first paragraph) that kind of data is solid gold. The mid-level manager achieves their immediate goal – but the whole organisation benefits as well.

Can you do this with every tool that is out there? Sadly not. Here is a short checklist of assessment properties you need to be looking for:

  • Stability of data over time for the individual (if the same person completing the assessment next week will come out significantly differently to how they did last week, forget it). 3-5 years plus should be a minimum if you intend to use this to build a picture of the organisation .
  • The tool needs to allow for accurate comparison between individuals. This may seem obvious, but very many of the well-known tools don’t do this.
  • Ideally, use a tool primarily designed for, and proven through, use in organisations. A tool developed for a PhD thesis, using a group of undergrad students as the survey sample, may not tell you something useful in an organisation setting.
  • Choose empirically-based assessments (i.e. based on research that establishes a relationship between actual behaviours and how people show up in the assessment) over theory-driven assessments (i.e. tools that categorise people according to a theoretical model) – unless you are prepared to stake your success on the particular theoretical construct involved.
  • Look for a report establishing reliability and validity for the instrument and check that it compares well to alternatives. And always ask yourself if you are seeing a great tool – or just great marketing.

Cherished Core Value? Or Flimsy Excuse?

9 09 2010

I was going to write something about putting sacred cows on the barbeque, but realised this was inappropriate not just because of its potential to offend those for whom “sacred cow” isn’t just a handy metaphor, but also speaking as someone who has lost 23kg in the past 15 months by following a plant-based (and entirely cow-free) diet. (Read The China Study by Colin Campbell and visit John McDougall’s site to find out more).

So I am stuck for a punchy metaphor but here is the thing: I keep running into cherished core values in organisations which have in fact become their excuse for poor performance, failure to change, bizarre structures, failure to confront, etc etc etc.

So – how do you work out when (sorry – can’t help myself) that hitherto cherished core value should actually be tossed on the barbeque?

It is not that hard if you go back to basics. “What is our mission and who do we serve?” When that is clear, simply look at the “core value” in question in the cold light of day and ask yourselves, “how does [core value] help us AS AN ORGANISATION to deliver on our mission to the people we serve?” Arrive at anything less than “this positively and practically helps us to deliver on the mission to the people we serve, far outweighing any downside” (with concrete examples of both the pluses and minuses) and you should be pouring lighter fluid on the charcoal briquettes.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about “our people matter” or similar here. If you have that as a core value – and you act consistently upon it – that will help to deliver any mission you care to name. How you act on that core value does of course matter; ¬†“our people matter so we never confront them or never make any changes to the location of their cheese” is doubletalk that will ultimately doom your people and your organisation!

Changing culture

26 08 2010

Every now and again I hear a new CEO say something like “my first task is to change the culture of this organisation”. My unspoken responses range from “good luck to you” to “probably your last task too!”

Don’t misunderstand me – a new CEO can do tremendous work changing some of the cultural assumptions in the organisation, as Lou Gerstner did when he switched of the OHP in his first staff meeting at IBM. His message: “from now on, you tell me what you have to say; don’t try hiding your lack of clarity with viewgraphs.”

The truth though is that changing culture takes a little longer than changing your clothes. That is because ultimately culture is a function of the suppositions, perceptions and learnt behaviours of the people concerned. If you really want to totally transform culture overnight you had better be ready to fire everyone in the organisation and install carefully selected replacements. Otherwise you need to budget significant time.

…And analysis. Because the question that often goes begging in these situations is “do I actually know what the culture is I am talking of changing?” And “is it the culture per se; or the way the culture handles its current circumstances – and its current leadership – that is really the issue?”

A little mapping and analysis can go a long way.