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.

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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




One man’s fish is another man’s poisson

26 11 2010

Working with a team this morning on perspective and how your perspective affects not just how you attempt to solve a problem, but especially how you will frame the problem in the first place.

The practical application for this team was around “completion”. As a client-focussed team with very “ideas and systems” orientation (Blue / Yellow Org Focus in Birkman terms), “completion” for them was a concept that, for them, revolved around “having the ideas and then handing them over in the form of a system set out in reports and manuals”.

From the client’s perspective – especially a client with a more Operational (Red) or Sales (Green) perspective this is of course somewhat deficient. For the Green perspective, completion is “you’ve had the idea and managed to get buy in from all my team, so that we are all running with your idea now”. For the Red perspective, completion is “whether or not any ideas are involved, has my business changed for the better? If not then the job isn’t finished…”

That may seem so obvious, stated in those terms, that you wonder how this could ever have become an issue. Of course it is all about what you can and can’t see without help. So, before you think the less of my client team, I wonder what perspectives you have that fail to synchronise with your clients’ expectations? It happens a lot more than you can… see!





The Cybernetic Organisation

15 11 2010

Still with Kevin Kelly and Out of Control, I have been reflecting on Norbert Weiner, author of the 1948 book Cybernetics. Weiner provided a simple but profound insight that changed the face of engineering for ever.

One specific problem Weiner addressed was that of producing uniform sheet steel when doing so was notoriously difficult. Rolling mill operators had to contend with at least half a dozen factors, any one of which could affect the thickness of the finished coil of steel: temperature, quality of the raw steel, contamination of the rollers, pressure and so on. What made it harder was that these factors tended to be interconnected: for example, a change to the setting that regulated the pressure of the rollers would tend to raise or lower the temperature of the steel as well.

Weiner’s brilliant insight was that if you placed a sensor (to measure thickness of the steel very accurately) immediately after the final roller, and allowed the data from that sensor to control just the final factor in the chain of causality (in this case the pressure of the rollers), then whatever the other factors were doing, the steel would come out at the right thickness. The adjustements to the pressure setting were automatically taking account of the sum of all the other factors (since they all played a part in the final thickness). Brilliant and counter -intuitive. It changed how tightly connected systems are controlled ever since.

As Kelly points out, this insight had actually already surfaced in the field of economics a quarter century earlier (suggesting that centrally controlled command economies such as Lenin’s Russia would never be as efficient as an economy in which price was allowed to control all other economic decisons).

Has the Cybernetic insight reached your Organisation yet? I don’t mean in the way you roll steel necessarily; fewer and fewer of us are engaged in steel rolling. (And I speak as one who did a project once in a Chinese Steel Mill with 440,000 employees! Those were the days…)

What I mean is that in running your organisation (whether business or government department or not-for-profit), you are probably juggling all kinds of factors and – let’s be honest – experiencing the law of unintended consequences more often than you care to admit. You make a brilliant change to factor x, suddenly factors y and z are killing you. What to do? Smile and wave and carry on?

Here is a thought experiment to follow on from last week’s one: what is the output sensor for the product or service you deliver to your customers or clients? Probably the experience of those customers or clients. (How you capture, accurately, that experience is a whole other discussion).

What if you coupled that sensor to the last factor in the “production line” – what would that be? Probably the people who deliver your product or service to your customers – whether they are consultants or coffee baristas. What would happen if you allowed customer feedback to determine how your customer service was set? That might mean moderating the type of person delivering that service, and how they behave, scripts they use, the manner in which they deploy or deliver the product or service and so on.

We aren’t rolling steel here, so it may be a bit more involved than customer service mitigating the effects of bits of slag on the steel coil. Customer service people might actually need to inform how your product or service is designed and built. What the customer wants might need to flow right back up through the organisation. It would also be important that you didn’t chunk that information off into projects which would proceed outside the real-time feedback web, because those would then tend to act as increased input errors rather than real-time error correction. In such a Cybernetic Organisation, what Customers are telling us about our Customer Service today would need to be the most important thing anyone in the organisation could hear – because it would determine what we do today. Too crazy for you?





#FLAsia2010 Special 2: Ideas require Imagination; Execution requires Capacity

21 10 2010

Something I learnt very quickly when I first start working in the Franchise and Licensing Field was that ideas – even brilliant ideas – are essentially worth nothing. This was hard to communicate sometimes to inventors and innovators who thought they had the next world changing idea in their heads and who assumed that step two was to start collecting the royalties. But an idea with no execution is essentially dead air.

This doesn’t just affect inventors: any business can come up with a world-beating strategy; not every business can turn their world-beating strategy into a well-beaten world. For Franchisors (and many others), the fundamental issue which determines their ability to execute is not – and this may surprise you – management style or ability to focus, but rather organisational capacity. If you don’t have the right people in place to support the training and support of your growing network, your network will grow so far and then stall. If you don’t recruit the right kind of Franchisees – those who have the capacity to execute your Franchise System relentlessly – then however successful you are in growing your network numerically, your brand will eventually collapse under the weight of failure to deliver.

The answer I often hear to this is something like “Oh, we have a fantastic Franchise Manager, she/he is our secret weapon…” That is great as far as it goes; but if your Franchise Manager left you tomorrow (perhaps someone else has noticed how fantastic they are), would you know how to replace them? In other words, can you write on a sheet of A4 the specification that makes them so successful, so that you could replace them – or multiply them – at need? If not, then you are far from secure.

Ditto your Franchisees, although here you are more likely to have some sort of profile against which you recruit. (If your profile is purely financial, once again I think you are in danger). But if you got lucky the first three times you sold a franchise, that doesn’t mean your luck will hold.

Building organisational capacity should be a highly intentional activity. We know what we are looking for and why, and we know when we have found it. Intentional capacity building allows for intentional execution of strategies and ideas. If you don’t already have access to a toolset that allows you to do this, time to get one.

(And yes: equipping organisations with just such a toolset is precisely what we do. Contact John Ong at john@consultft.com or tweet me @jonmkiwi )





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.




The end of teamwork as we know it?

8 10 2010

It is with great relief that I note the demise of teamwork as an unquestionable good.

I had better say that again: the secret is out, teamwork is not, in and of itself, a fundamental principle of the universe. Don’t get me wrong – I am personally wired in such a way that I really enjoy working as part of a team. And there are some tasks where teamworking is the best way of getting the best work done. But not always!

Books like Why Work Sucks and Speed Lead are challenging the enormous waste of time which is imposed by organisations assuming that every job requires a team to do it. The latter makes a useful distinction between a team and a workgroup, where members of the latter often complete a stage in a task and then pass it on to the next member of the workgroup. So yes, Person A and Person B need to have a conversation at the handover point; that isn’t the same as making them sit through a three hour meeting every week to listen to other people describing handovers in which they have no immediate interest.

If we could lose unnecessary teamwork, we might get some excitement back about the power of the team when it is genuinely the best way to get things done!