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.