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.


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 human face of risk

4 10 2010

Attending a CXO briefing on risk this Weds, can see everything on the agenda except the rather fundamental one of the human factor. After all, better locks simply force the evolution of better picklocks, so technological and systems solutions will never, of themselves, solve the problem.

So what is the human factor in risk? There is criminality. There is incompetence. And there is one more…

Someone who is already dishonest, simply needs to be identified and removed from the business. Of course, you had better be sure that you are not asking anyone to be dishonest for the business. The person who is dishonest for the business has no reason not to turn their dishonesty against the business some day. If you require someone to be dishonest as part of their job, then frankly I wouldn’t trust you either!

But to matters that an Operating System for Talent can deal with, it is possible, at least to an extent, to manage risk by understanding people better. I emphatically don’t mean that we can help you identify the potential criminals in your midst. Rather, most of us have some needs and potential stress responses which if not understood and managed can lead us to cross a line. The line might be defined in terms of “meeting social and moral expectations”. Once that line is crossed, all bets are off as to whether a person’s integrity will remain intact. A short blog isn’t the place to write a dissertation on this, but look at most corporate criminals and you will find, not a career criminal, but a reasonably decent person who at some point either felt unappreciated or undervalued or taken advantage of and whose behaviour thereafter was justified in their own mind – and criminal in everyone else’s. Good leaders and managers understand what matters to their people enough that their people shouldn’t ever get near that line; or if they do, it should be clear to everyone that this is happening.

Second, incompetence. Most incompetence is not absolute but situational. Understand where a person will shine and make sure they work in that context. Don’t promote (or hire) them into a context where they will only display incompetence. Incompotence and risk are in a direct relationship.

Lastly, risk comes with… your strengths. What are you best at? It may well be the thing that takes you down. For example, I am hardly the first person to notice that Toyota’s greatest strength – continuous improvement powered by line workers empowered to identify and fix problems – has become its “achilles’ heel”. Too many solutions arrived at at the coal face without some overarching intelligent view means the global picture starts to blur; how do these changes – these undoubted improvements – impact the system as a whole? I would be the last to suggest Toyota should be dropping kaizen (as if they ever would!); but they will doubtless have been learning some lessons to mitigate the risk inherent in their great strength.

And that is  the issue: not strength per se, but unmoderated, unbalanced strength. You can only safely play to your strengths when there are one or two people around with very different, complementary strengths. In risk terms, assembling a team comprising the brightest minds on the planet in a particular field, and who all see exactly the same world out there is about as risky as it gets. Go figure.