All The Consulting World’s A Stage

stage2

“Great consultants are as much actors as they are fonts of knowledge.” The founder of the consulting firm I had just joined delivered these words to me after my first week on the job. I was initially taken aback. A number of questions rushed to my head. Wasn’t I just hired because of my skills and abilities? Didn’t my years of on-the-ground experience mean anything? And perhaps most importantly, since my mission is to transform organizations, what in the heck does theater have to do with my consulting practice?

The answers to these questions revealed themselves to me as I reflected on my initial experiences with my first client. I had gone through all the motions of being a good external consultant. I jumped on a plane as the sun was coming up Monday morning and flew to the client site. As soon as I arrived, I began to learn about the project and culture as quickly as possible. I worked night and day all week to figure out how I could best help this client.

And now over a glass of wine back at the airport Thursday night, my new boss was telling me that our work had as much in common with a theater production of Guys and Dolls than it did with providing deep insights to help the organization transform. Could this really be true?

In some ways, the answer is: Yes! The only justification for flying in highly paid consultants each week is to shake up business as usual. And we all know that the best way to impact fellow human beings is to reach them on an emotional, as well as logical level.

I came to understand that I had great content. However, I needed a more compelling persona. Borrowing an acting analogy, I was coming across a bit like the actor Harrison Ford with too much flat line delivery. My boss was asking me to be more Ryan Gosling with a bit more style and flair.

Now, I faced the challenge of figuring out how to make a bigger splash. I carried out the following steps:

  1. Telling Compelling Stories

“Stories for business have a practical purpose. They should gain or strengthen the trust of the intended audience(s) and, with this achieved, to inform, persuade, and even inspire them.” [Janis Forman, Storytelling in Business (2013), Stanford Business Book, p. 23.]

The first thing I did was turn some of my dry content into stories to grab the attention of my clients.

For example, I was helping a client develop a new mission statement. My goal was to get the leaders to understand the impact of crafting a powerful purpose. I told the real-life story of how the mission of a nonprofit in the health field had helped a family member identify a mystery medical condition that they had suffered with for years. Finding a diagnosis was a life changing event.

After telling the story I noticed that the leadership team was more engaged than usual. They were clearly impacted by the story. In fact, one tough, former military VP who had said little during my previous sessions had tears in his eyes.

I glanced over at my boss and he was smiling. Clearly, I had hit the mark!

  1. Finding Ways to Connect Personally

Theater touches us on an emotional level. Similarly, I sought out opportunities to interact with my clients on a more personal level. As consultants we are dropped into an organization for a limited period of time. It is easy for us to stick to the work at hand versus forming deep interpersonal relationships.

Peter Block (Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, 2011, Jossey-Bass) points out that we have the potential to more fully bring of ourselves to our consulting gigs:

“A unique and beguiling aspect of doing consulting is that your own self is involved in the process to a much greater extent than if you were applying your expertise in some other way. Your reactions to a client, your feelings during discussions, your ability to solicit feedback from the client – all are important dimensions to consultation” [p. 13].

Block correctly points out the importance of a strong relationship between you and your client. And nothing cements a relationship like having a personal connection.

I applied this with a client by introducing opportunities on our agendas to talk about what our work means to us personally. These conversations allowed me to learn more about my clients’ backgrounds, values and aspirations. At the same time, they learned more about me.

This was win-win. The personal discussions which were part of our agenda led us all to be more engaged and invested. As a result, we had more impact and enjoyed the process more.

  1. Leading with Content – Don’t Over Do This!

The above theatrical tactics for connecting with clients on emotional and personal levels are powerful. However, we still need to infuse our skills, knowledge and abilities to transform the organization. As consultants we are primarily hired for our expertise and not our wit, nor fashion sense. The message here is clear. Your main focus is on accomplishing business goals. At the same time, do not be afraid to throw in some theater for maximum impact.

Over fifty years ago the academic Marshall McLuhan coined the expression “The medium is the message”. Perhaps McLuhan was correct and we should pay more attention to the vehicles we use to communicate our big ideas.

This blog does not reflect the views of my employer.

#Reinvent Yourself At Work Like the #TryGuys

the try guys

The @TryGuys are four #millenials who have created a media frenzy out of simply trying new things. These millennials are creators of a comedy documentary series that shows them getting outside of their comfort zone. They try just about anything, from watching baby twins for a day to dog sledding in Alaska.  In the process, they have gained over 17 million subscribers on YouTube [https://bit.ly/2EQCUXA]. Also, throw in a blog [#tryguys], a podcast [https://bit.ly/2F6vC29] and even a self-help book [https://amzn.to/39fpiDh].

Why are the Try Guys so popular? The Try Guys highlight the fact that they are not the “Success Guys” for a reason. They do not master any of the tasks they take on, but that is not the point. Try Guy Keith Habersberger says:

“By going in and simply trying and failing or doing OK, being open to a new experience and broadening your horizons just makes you a better person. We have seen it. We have become smarter, more emotional sensitive people as we have grown and tried the 200 things we’ve tried.” [https://bit.ly/2Qm4a5C]

So how can we model the Try Guys and jump into new things in our organizations? Here are three ideas:

  1. Try New Approaches To Solve Problems

We tend to come at challenges with the same methods that we have relied of for years. Presented with the same problem, I have observed the following

  • Leadership development professionals suggest coaching.
  • Process gurus dive into Lean Six Sigma.
  • Culture consultants look to the behavioral soft stuff.
  • The list goes on…

While this may not be surprising, embracing new approaches can be a challenge. Look to a methodology that you have never applied and try it!

  1. Try Working In New Areas

We tend to become experts within specific businesses and departments. Some of us are connoisseurs in health care or retail. Others of us are wizards in Information Technology or Sales Departments.

Try working with a business or department that is completely new to you. Over the past few years I have applied my expertise to new segments like agribusiness. I have supported new departments such as Health and Safety.

The new areas I have jumped into have provided me with innovative insights and creative outcomes that I could have never imagined. Not to mention how much working with new people, products and technology has been a much needed “shot in the arm” for my practice.

  1. Try Getting Out of the Office

We tend to burn through a great deal of office time coming up with big thoughts. There is an academic bent to our work as we think through organizational challenges and solutions. However, if we spend too much time holed up in our offices we lose touch with what is really happening in our organizations.

Going to our workplace job sites can open our eyes to the most needed and practical organizational solutions. For example, the Health and Safety department I began working with led me to the shop floor at a number of plants.  As a result, I saw some fundamental aspects of our business. Why? Because I experienced these things first hand!

Perhaps the biggest lesson from the Try Guys that we can apply to our organizations is basic and yet powerful. The Try Guys would tell you to simply jump in and try these new approaches!

Note: This blog does not reflect the views of my employer.

What Every Organization Design Needs

Drawing-of-480-sqft-log-cabin

At the start of a recent organizational design the leader asked me to provide a list of outcomes for the effort. Being a good consultant, I turned the question back on him. I explained that he and his team needed to craft the specific design principles that they hoped to accomplish via our work. The leader pointed out that over the decades that I have helped organizations I must have observed some high level outcomes that should be true for all design efforts.

This leader had a good point. His question led me to develop the below list of general criteria that I have sought in every design I have ever facilitated. I often use building a house as a metaphor for carrying out organization design. Just as every house needs a foundation, walls and a roof, every organization design needs to have the below conditions:

  • Strategy and Goals
    • Supports business strategy, sales, productivity
  • Culture and Readiness
    • Fits our organizational culture and people are ready/able/willing?
  • Role Definition and Alignment
    • Leads to clear roles/alignment across the organization?   Enough resources?
  • Operational Model
    • Can be implemented? Appropriate span of control? Supports work flow?
  • Risk and Cost
    • Level of risk acceptable /mitigated? Power balanced? Cost acceptable?

This list turned out to be a good high level scorecard for what our successful organizational configuration should look like. I think we can all agree that all organizational designs need to be able to be operationalized at an acceptable level of risk and cost, while accomplishing the strategy and fitting with the culture. If any one of these key criteria was missing we would consider our work a failure.

Yes, the specific design criteria that an organization seeks such as agility, more collaboration, better products, etc. are still in play. However, the above bigger picture criteria must be true!

Note: This blog does not reflect the views of my employer.

Process Mapping – The Key is to Establish Principles

process blog pic 0519

Anyone who has participated in process mapping sessions will tell you how painful these events can be.  It is not uncommon to sequester folks for hundreds of hours and ask them to conduct intense discussions in order to capture the processes for carrying out work.  The author John Green said “The marks humans leave are too often scars.”  And scarring is exactly what many of us who have lived through process mapping sessions have plenty of!

However, does this activity need to be this painful?  Absolutely not!  And the key to making this a more effective and efficient process is to put a few core principles in place.  These rules help guide your mappers, stay on track and complete their work in an efficient manner:

·         Map the designated process only: It is easy to fall into scope creep and begin to discuss other processes which are of concern.  Once the team starts deliberating about procedures that are out of scope it is important for the facilitator to bring the group back to the task at hand.

·         Map current state only: It is also easy to start talking about what the future state process could look like.  Designing future state processes is the next step.  This is a non-value add activity at this point.  In fact, current state should provide a stake in the ground and by letting future state process ideas creep in only creates confusion.  If we don’t agree how the work gets done today, it is impossible for us to figure out how it needs to change in the future. 

·         Keep the process moving: It is common for teams to get bogged down.  This can happen as these teams talk through in detail how the process is carried out.  Establish time frames for how long it will take to map each process and help the team stick to that time frame.

The key to making sure these principles are followed is of course strong facilitation.  The facilitator is tasked with designing and running an effective session.  The facilitator is guiding the group where it needs to go via ensuring that processes are followed, asking probing questions and helping sum up the work being accomplished and capture it visually. 

Perhaps most important, the facilitator is cuts off conversation once the point has been made.  Asking someone to stop talking is key.  What could be considered rude behavior at a dinner party, is the most important role the facilitator plays during process mapping!

This blog does not reflect the view of my employer.

A New Year’s Resolution for #Leaders and #Teams: Who Are We?

Connection lights

A #NewYear’s resolution: Connecting in a deeper manner with your work team. We spend a great deal of time together being #productive. Let’s answer the question: “Who are we?”

At my father’s retirement ceremony as a college president, the local reigning politician concluded his remarks with a heartfelt statement. He indicated that if he were selecting someone to spend a week with in a fishing boat catching walleye, it would be my dad. In this rural northern Minnesota town this was the ultimate compliment!

This story gets at how important it is for us to spend time with colleagues that we know and like.  When teams are formed, they first naturally want to know what they are supposed to accomplish together. This is why the question that a team naturally asks itself is: “Who are we?”

Once their reason for being together has been answered, the next question is who is sitting next to me? Who are the people that I am about to take this journey with?  Just like the northern Minnesota folks who want to know who they will be spending a significant amount of time with in a boat, team members want to know more about their peers who they will rely on to work together as a team.

There are many packaged surveys and assessment tools that one can purchase in order to learn more about your team members. For example, I have led teams in completing and processing assessment instruments such as the Myers Briggs [https://www.themyersbriggs.com/, 2018], which indicates various psychological preferences of how people perceive the world and make decisions.

Instruments such as the Myers Briggs can be an effective way for teams to learn in-depth how they can better leverage each other. However, there is a financial cost for each team member who completes the tool. In addition, it typically takes a minimum of a half day to help the team process the instrument results.

For these reasons I have at times opted for a lower cost, quicker solution to help team members get to know one another. I simply ask them questions that will allow them to get to know one another better personally and professionally. I find that the time that team members spend getting to know about each others’ backgrounds, motivations, working styles and passions in life translates into better teams.

There is really no magic here, but following is a sample slate of questions:

  • Information about your background – career path, etc..
  • What do you like most about your city?
  • What do you like best about their work?
  • What are your favorite hobbies?
  • What did you do before you started working here? Not just jobs you held, but career path and aspirations?
  • What motivates you personally? What motivates you professionally? What gets you jumping out of bed in the morning “before” the alarm clock goes off?
  • Tell me about your family?
  • What thing in your life (outside of work) do you have a passion for? Do you have a career goal they would share with others?
  • Where’d you go to school how did you end up working here?
  • Why do you do what you do for a living? And why does your department do what it does?
  • Please let us know a bit about your education and work experience?.
  • What’s your favorite way to keep up on professional trends and best practices? [Conferences? Publications? Training? Podcasts? Etc.]

I have made this exercise a little more interesting for the participants by turning it into a “Crumple and Toss” activity. Each team member carries out the following steps, which results in the exercise being more dynamic and introduces an element of fun:

  • Step A: Participants select a question that has been crumpled and tossed in a hat.
  • Step B: They can answer that question or select a new question until they pick one they like, limiting answers to two minutes or less.
  • Step C: Crumple the question back up and toss it into the middle of the table. Providing a forum for team members to ask each other questions to get to know one another is simple to carry out and the positive results for team members is significant. I have had many teams indicate that the personal relationships among them is one of the reasons they can point at to explain their success. This simple exercise is a great New Year’s resolution which started them on that path.

When I began in this field I assumed that team members would naturally get too know one another. I thought they would be asking each other these types of questions from day one. However, I have learned that most employees on teams go right to accomplishing the tasks at hand.

Providing a forum for team members to ask each other questions to get to know one another is a great New Year’s resolution.  It is simple to carry out and the positive results for team members is significant. I have had many teams indicate that the personal relationships among them is one of the reasons they can point at to explain their success. This simple exercise started them on that path.

This blog does not represent the views of my employer.

 

Being in a Thanksgiving Reality Show: The Uber Leadership Development Experience

turkey

My family was filmed last weekend for a reality show depicting how American families celebrate Thanksgiving. Since the show was produced by a German pop up museum, I am referring to our experience as the “Uber” leadership development experience. For you non-Germanic folks, Uber means “being a superlative example of its kind or class”.

The reality show was similar to being a leadership development consultant in many ways: The show required a great deal of planning. And, even though we followed a rough storyline, in the end, there were some surprises! For example, the turkey was still frozen with a chance of blowing up in the deep fryer oil. We also revealed during the family sit down interview that our only consistent Thanksgiving tradition was wearing turkey and pilgrim costumes. The director’s eyes lit up! She had flown all the way from Berlin seeking this kind of unexpected drama.

Sound familiar? Pulling together a group of leaders and helping them be more effective and efficient does not just magically happen. Just as the reality show director created an environment where our family was show cased, as leadership consultants we design an experience for leaders which leads them down a path of self-insight. Here are three areas of programming we grapple with during all of our leadership interventions:

1/ Requires Staging [Lots of Effort to Setup]

The reality show director met with our family a week before the filming to outline the goal of the reality show and learn more about us. She also spent most of the morning of the shooting figuring out the best places to film and having her crew set up the equipment.

Similarly, as consultants we first learn what our leaders are trying to accomplish and acquire knowledge about them as people. In addition to a leadership assessment, I typically have a one-on-one conversation with each member of the leadership team to learn about their unique leadership styles, temperament and goals. I am then in a position to determine the best formats for helping the leadership team reach their objectives.

2/ Follows a Story Line [Even Though is Supposedly 100% Spontaneous]

The reality show director outlined how the day would play out before she ever started filming. She crafted a rough story line based on her interview with us. Our segment began with us reminiscing as a family about past Thanksgivings, leading us to prepare for our celebration and culminating in our Thanksgiving dinner. No one knew what would happen during these steps, however, we all knew the schedule of events.

As consultants, we follow a similar discipline as we craft an experience for the leaders. We cannot simply tell these leaders to be better. No, we introduce methods which allow the leaders to realize for themselves how they can work together better. Our interventions feel like a spontaneous experience for the leaders. They feel like they are pulling brilliant leadership insights out of thin air. Little do they know that we are the reality show directors. We planned out a story line which helped create an environment of self-insight.

3/ Did NOT Go as Planned [The Unexpected Happened]

As referenced above, the reality show director could not have predicted that the turkey would be frozen. This required her to come up with an alternative plan. On the spot, she declared that we would head to the grocery story to purchase a thawed turkey. Luckily, our nearby grocer was accommodating as our family paraded through the isles with a film crew in tow.

Similarly, not one of our leadership gigs has ever gone as planned. The reality show involves filming situations where what transpires cannot be predicted. Similarly, we are working with humans and cannot predict what they will bring to our interventions or how they will react in the moment. I have had the power completely shut down requiring us to relocate. Leaders have attempted their own awkward interventions with peers who do not welcome their “helping hand”. And, perhaps the most challenging, I have led full day sessions where we only had decaf coffee!

Where the Magic Happens!

Through all these challenges we persevere. In fact, it can be the unexpected that results in leadership teams experiencing their biggest break throughs. When they forget that the cameras are turned on and they have real conversations with each other, things start to happen. Some of those conversations can be loud and uncomfortable, sounding more like a reality show family in a heated argument. However, that is when leadership teams get real and the magic happens.

At the end of a long day filming our reality show had a similar sort of magic happen. After all the setup, being interviewed per our story line and a few glasses of wine thrown in, we donned our turkey and pilgrim outfits. We forget that the cameras were rolling. And we danced around the Thanksgiving table with pure unfettered joy!

The Backstory of the Goethe Pop Up Museum in Minneapolis

A German pop up museum in downtown Minneapolis created the reality show about how American families celebrate Thanksgiving.  The series will be posted at their website.

https://www.goethe.de/ins/us/en/sta/gpm.html

Note: This blog does not reflect the views of my employer.

A Creative Method For Developing Innovative Solutions: Magic Tool Box

toolbox

It can be helpful to use analogies to inspire new ideas.  I have leveraged a brainstorming tool for years called the Magic Tool Box.  In this exercise one uses a box full of tools as a metaphor for solving the problem at hand.  The objective is to spur new thinking.

I leveraged this brainstorming exercise with a group of journalists who were stationed at locations around the world.  They explored using a Swiss Army knife that was magical and could capture interview content, as well as still images and video.  It spurred the journalists to come up with approaches whereby they would capture more than just print copy as a result of their interviews.  This was before the iPhone was used to capture photos and video.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not saying that I am Al Gore and claiming that I invented the Internet!  I am simply pointing out that this exercise allowed the journalists to imagine doing innovative work via tools that were not even invented at the time.  Generating this kind of out of the box thinking is the greatest value of this exercise.

Below are the steps to facilitate this exercise:

  • The facilitator provides a focus statement or problem related to the area being brainstormed.
    • The problem statement is related to the area being brainstormed. For example, our challenge may be that due to a new technology system our team members are drifting apart and not collaborating.
    • The magic tools in the tool box can be items such as: Magic drill, saw, hammer, duct tape, screw driver, tape measure, glue, etc.
  • Think of uses for a wide variety of “magic tools”
    • This is where you ask the group to use their imagination. For example, ask yourself: If we had a magic hammer, what would we use it to do?
    • Come up with ways we can use the magic tool to resolve the problem that has been articulated.
    • For example, one could leverage the magic tool box to address the problem of a team being stuck in silos and not working well together. One could use duct tape to wrap it around all the team members in order to bring everyone together again.
  • Explore the results for inspiration
    • We have fantasy solutions from step two that would not work in the real world. However, these make believe ideas may lead to insights that are practical.
    • Look at the responses and explore what kind of feelings and images are arising. Look for actions and goals that make sense and could be applied in the real world.
    • For example, while it is not practical to use duct tape to wrangle everyone into a more cohesive group, an initiative or event to bring people together may be a practical solution.

This exercise can clearly help our organizations think in new ways.  Spurring this kind of creative thinking is a true contribution that we can bring to the table.

Adapted from Alexander Hiam, Manager’s Pocket Guide to Creativity, 1998

light bulb