Jacques told me in our initial intake the he had invested a “shit load amount of money” into a startup which was going belly up because of “communication problems”.
Yves called me in because his CFO and Marketing Manager had “communication from hell”.
And Hans asked me to do some work because with introduction of the new ERP, communication between various functions had broken down.
In all three cases, the client self diagnosed incorrectly.
Indeed all three companies had communication issues, but communication was either a symptom or a clue that something else was wrong.
In Jacques’ case, the head of development and the head of product marketing did not agree as to product requirements and the CEO could’t decide because he was a bean counter and idiot.
Yves turned out to be playing his marketing manager and CFO against one another and he himself was the problem.
In Hans organization, the ERP was too rigid for the flexible nature of the organization. As a result, the ERP did not work very well; lo and behold people needed to use their common sense. (should unit 1 or 2 pay for staff expert Tom’s flight).
The moral of the story is the early bird gets the worm. No, just joking.
The moral of the story is that self diagnosis of communication problems is highly unreliable in many cases, often masking other issues which are more deep rooted.
I confronted CEO James that unless he replaced his buddy Serge as focal point for the Thai/Singapore/Indonesian office, there would be massive churn of key sales people. James turn livid and told me that “I didn’t hire you to replace Serge, but rather to align the South Asian offices to our culture. So, if you cannot do that job, maybe I need to replace you. You cost me a lot of money, and you don’t deliver.”
Speaking truth to power means, “when necessary confront the powers that be about what they are doing wrong without fear.” Speaking truth to power was a cornerstone of organizational development.
I am aware that the “speak truth to power” generation of OD professionals has either retired or died…or perhaps (like me), they are still in the game albeit towards the final “laps”.
I am aware that the newer generation of OD consultants strives to “please” clients, creating a “wow” outcome, or what Reddin called “apparent effectiveness”.
I have never been reticent of confronting my clients, It is a central tenant of my practice. As a matter of fact, this is one of the reasons that I am still hired.
In the course of my career, I have incurred a huge amount of initial wrath from clients upon confronting them with unpleasant truths. While it helps that I am personable and have a good sense of humour, there is something unpleasant when the client lashes back.
Here are a few things that keep me afloat when under attack.
- It is natural for clients to respond this way.
- The client is apparently very involved, which is very positive.
- I must check the content of what the client is saying, because I may be wrong.
- I did what I did because I am doing my job. I am also being paid a high fee to take the heat.
- This type of interaction will make me into a better consultant and the build the clients’ trust.
And when it gets really hard-one minute at a time.
Peace keepers have been coming to the Middle East for decades, trying to bridge differences between nations which are assumed not to know one another well enough to cut a deal. The truth is that a deal hasn’t been cut is because people know one another far too well!
Consultants often make a similar error; the goal of this post is to spell out how best to consult with people who know one another too well.
Let’s take an example. Rob and Tyler have been working together for 16 years, and will work together until they retire.
- Rob believes that Tyler under-promises in order to minimize risk taking. Rob “does not believe a word” that Tyler says.
- Tyler believes that Rob will do anything to “look good” at Tyler’s expense. Tyler feels that Rob would “sell his own mother” to get promoted.
Rob and Tyler have lunch together every day. They discuss sports and their shared hobby, running. Rob and Tyler joke with another quite a bit and appear to be jovial in one another’s presence. The formal meetings between them produce fuzzy decisions which are undone the moment they leave the room.
Recently Tyler and Rob have just had shared a major failure. Due to miscommunication and excessive ambiguity, a very faulty product was delivered to a key customer resulting in the loss of the client. The CEO has asked an OD consultant to work together with Rob and Tyler “to improve things without rocking the boat”.
Clearly, Rob and Tyler have learnt a pattern to cope with one another that it is almost impossible to change without rocking the boat and exposing the shit that lies beneath the surface.
I would suggest 3 DOs and 3 DON’Ts in such situations.
- Focus on very, very specific issues, not on “trust” or “communication”
- Use a written problem statement issued by a senior manager
- Act as a “go-between” focusing on building agreement and zeroing in on disagreement.
- Don’t try to break most of their entire coping patterns; focus on changing very small things.
- Don’t focus on what happened, rather focus on what should happen in the future.
- Don’t drag things out; rather work quickly before they learn to adapt themselves to you.
When the “Ogen” software release hit the market, the shit hit the fan. 550 clients had to close down their electrical grid as software bugs caused many “early warning” systems to alert that a disaster was impending.
The CEO, inundated with angry calls, convened a management meeting and ripped his entire team over the coals. The Head of Sales complained that “Engineering will ruin my reputation”. The Head of Software Engineering blamed the “Deployment Unit” for not understanding how to install the software. The Deployment Unit claimed the software was a piece of horse shit. Finance blamed Sales for the fact that “we will face a huge revenue shortage next year.”
Definition-a blaming culture is characterized by shirking of responsibility by shifting it down to the next level, up to the next level, over to a peer, or on to a different unit..
The blaming culture is a mega epidemic, especially since 2008 when jobs become very scarce. Root causes for the blaming culture include-
- Parking the blame for unrealistic goals
- Maximization of the goals of each sub-unit
- Fear of being dismissed
- Email mail/chatting technology
- Lack of personal contact between staff
- Overdose of matrices
- Compromising seen as not worthwhile
- Overdose of “yes-we-can ism” coupled with lack of resources
- Leadership Machiavellian-ism
- “Dumbing” of the workforce due to IT systems replacing common sense
The ONLY way to go about eliminating the culture of blaming is to deal with manifestation of blaming at the top of the organization. Nothing else works. Once the blaming issue is solved at the top, it trickles down to the rank and file within a few years.
In the case above, the CEO knew that the software release was faulty, but gave a “go ahead” because”we can always fix things on fly. None of clients will throw us out because their CTO’s career is dependant on our success”.
For those who are interested on how blame is managed, click here.
Allon asks-“tell me about the type of input you would like to get from HQ”. Answer- “Me no hap no sahlale inkalez lohne tahm, lah.”
Yes, interviewing people whose native language is not English is hard for for the interviewer! In the above case, it took me about 5 more minutes to understand that this Thai engineer had not had a salary increase for a long time, which did not even address my question as I had asked it!
Interviewing people whose level of English is poor presents a cultural as well as linguistic challenge. In many of my posts, I have provided tips on how to deal with cultural differences in an interview. In this post I will deal with the linguistics of interviewing someone whose English is substandard,.
- Prepare simply worded questions and pluck out all the tough words. Utilize becomes use; sinister becomes bad, harass becomes bother.
- Ask each question several times and in several ways. Please explain how Som deals with customers? Do customers annoy Som? How does Som solve customer problems? If you get very different answers, then try again, since many interviewees feign understanding.
- When there is a really hard concept to convey in a question, it makes sense to put the question in writing in the interviewees native language. One case I remember is asking “is there is an emphasis on the individual doing everything possible to get the job done”. This was really tough to convey to various populations.
- Some words don’t translate and you need to prepare a “work around”. For example there is no such word as “expedient” in Hebrew or teamwork in Chinese. So instead of asking if Dov solves problems expediently, you can ask if Dov is capable of functional compromise.
- Never assume you are understood. It is much better to assume that you are going to be misunderstood unless proven differently.
- Triple the time you allot for an interview.
- Take breaks frequently because in some cases, the interview process can be brutal. I remember one very painful migraine after interviewing one particular person in Seoul.
- Enjoy the ride. There are funny moments that can be enjoyed. Like when I asked how to pronounce someone’s name and it took me 15 minutes to get it right. Or when some asked me “you chew”, meaning “are you Jewish”?
Over the years, I have consulted more than a hundred teams of Israelis and Indians working together in all configurations. Israelis with Indian bosses, Indians with Israeli bosses and Indians and Israelis with a German boss.
Whilst India is a huge country and Israelis are a very diverse and individualist lot, there tend to be several common characteristics that I want to share.
- Israelis challenge authority as a way of life; India based managers have a difficult time managing their “overly opinionated ” Israel based employees.
- Indians often request permission from their bosses if they need to overstep their role; their Israeli counterparts view this behaviour as “hiding” behind their bosses.
- Both Indians and Israeli bypass the system and leverage personal connections to get things done; this serves as an excellent platform for solving what seem to be insurmountable problems.
- Indian employees exhibit deference and their Israeli bosses often think that there is agreement on a course of action, when there is no agreement whatsoever.
- Both Israelis and Indians negotiate all the time as a way of life. The better the negotiation skills are, the more mutual respect is garnered. (These negotiation skills can drive US and German managers out of their mind.)
- Both Israelis and Indians work very hard and put in long hours, with constant availability via their mobiles. These similarities build trust.
Consultants who work with Israel Indian teams should focus on clarifying relationship to authority, defining expectations from follower-ship, communication styles under duress, ways to augment transparency and face saving. mechanisms.
On a personal level, I love working with Israeli and Indian teams. Both populations show consultants a lot of appreciation and warmth if the consultant does the work properly.
In her book about severely ill mental health patients “Falling into the Fire”, Dr Christine Montross illustrates how the psychiatrists come to resent these patients who make them feel so inadequate. As Montross points out, this deadly dynamic works to the severe detriment of the very people who need help the most.
In organization development, a parallel exists. Managers and organizations can present huge challenges to the feeling of competence of the OD practitioner, especially since 2008 when the shit hit the fan and people became more of a commodity than an important resource, challenging OD’s basic assumptions.
Whilst psychiatrists tend to blame their patients, OD professionals tend to try and please their clients by pimping and whoring pre-packaged nonsense, useless tips and empty models and promises. The rational behind the whoring is not merely commercial. It is driven by a feeling of “if I do the right thing, I will be branded as incompetent by the idiot client, and fired for the wrong reasons.”
OD was not always about pleasing sycophant HR managers and narcissist CEO’s. My generation grew up trained to confront the client and challenge basic assumptions.
And if you are skilled and fear not, it is still possible to do a good job. I have encountered clients who make me believe that I would feel better had I participated in the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, known as the Thrilla in Manilla rather than consulting them. But I try and stick to a core OD value -speak truth to power.
Let’s not forget the famous words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav-all the world is but a narrow bridge, and most important of all is to fear not. (kol ha olam kulo, gesher tsar mod, vhaiqar, lo lefached klal)
Over the years, I have worked with clients who have verbally disagreed with ideas with which I presented them, yet implemented these very ideas as if there had been no verbal disagreement.I can give hundreds of examples but one will suffice.
Example: CEO Herb told me that CFO Garry undermines him in management meetings. I suggested to Herb that he co-opt Garry into planning these meetings together. Herb disagreed yet a month later, I walked into Herb’s office and there sat Herb and Garry planning a management meeting.
I believe that there are several explanations for this phenomenon
- Change happens somewhat chaotically. So this phenomenon may not have a clear reason.
- Face saving. This behaviour allows the client to face save and not rely on “tips” from a consultant. This may be true, but it is too easy an explanation.
- Herb thinks he is tricking Garry, not co-opting him. So the consultants’ idea is being implemented but within a different context.
- People who get to the top learn to take credit for themselves without even realizing it. So Herb may not know how to manage Garry, but he sure knows how to manage the consultant!
- In the process of learning, there is a pro versus con, “back and forth” dynamic in the thinking process of the client. Herb’s choice may have developed after the “no” and Herb had not bothered updating the consultant.
- Clients often say things and do the opposite.
I am sure that all readers know that there are clients who feign implementation….but that is the next post.
There is an expression in Arabic, “live a lot and you’ll see a lot.” (Ish ktir-betshuf ktir)
I am approaching my 67th birthday and that is a long time on the road; perhaps now is the time to share a few of the very strange things that have taken place during my career.
I was invited to meet with an investor who was very disappointed by the results of the startup in which he had invested. He was about to cut funding in half, but before he did so, “I wanted to ask you if you know how to double the productivity of the staff who will remain after they downsize by 60%”.
A CEO told me that I was to report only to him. “However, make sure that HR is in the loop so that she does not walk out on me”. Therefore, I set up a monthly meeting to update HR. The HR manager called me 2 seconds after I set up the monthly meeting to bellow at me that “I want a daily report on your progress. Not monthly, not weekly, but daily.” People who read my satiric blog are well aware of the “daily” term.
I was sent to Seoul to interview 12 people because of the low level of communication between the Seoul group, the Toronto HQ and R&D in Tel Aviv. The local manager (Canadian) warned me that “their English ain’t to good Allon, so instead of 60 minutes per person, I gave you an hour of a half. And I’ll arrange them in order of their English language skills”. After the first interview, I told the manager that I did not understand one word. And he told me, “she’s the best English language speaker we have”. He was right. And you know what, it’s hard to get an Advil for a migraine in a Seoul pharmacy.
The commercialization and productization of OD (as performed by magicians or wonder-consultants) has masked some of the real issues that an OD practitioner faces. The OD “vendors” are reticent to discuss the hardest issues they face, like a surgeon who does not want to discuss how many died under his or her knife.
This is not a blog written to promote my profession, so I allow myself to deal with the “dirt under the finger nails”. So……
Strategies for dealing with very difficult organizational problems which are almost insoluble are the subject of this post.
First I shall illustrate two such problems.
- A senior team has been in place for 12 years with more or less the same leaders. They are located in 3 continents. There is a low level of transparency, very poor teamwork, and having worked together for so long, there is a lot of mutual contempt. The company that they run is very profitable.
- There is constant bad blood between Customer Service and Development teams. Due to market conditions, a company has released a very immature product to the market, against the recommendation of the Development Team. The clients are furious. Customer Service does not know how to handle customer complaints, so they demand that the Development Team deal with the customers. The developers refuse to see customer demanding that management must “give us time to write the bloody code, not deal with customers who are justifiably angry.”
Now let’s look at a few strategies.
First there is a matter of mindset.
- The superman “I can fix it all” mindset which many snake oil consultants use leads to nowhere, except great revenue for the consultant.
- The mindset of impotence and despair, whilst rationally justified perhaps, obviously makes no sense. The appropriate mindset is being pragmatic, avoid wow-wowing to maintain credibility and risk mitigation.
Now let’s address the question of how much intervention is needed. My suggestion is that for very difficult organizational problems, the best intervention is of low intensity spread over a long time, as opposed to intense happenings, like a quarterly offsite.
The role of the consultant in such a mess is primum non nocere (“foremost do no harm”. ) Great damage can be inflicted by applying snake oil to severe problems. For example, a teamwork session for the senior team mentioned above is counter-indicated.
I also suggest a focus on containment of pain with compassion and humour, if possible addressing issues whilst managing appropriate expectations and keeping things from getting much worse.