When a client gives feedback about being too critical & not positive (updated, 2022)

There are organizations which commission OD interventions, and as the process unfolds, the consultant gets the message “don’t be so negative!” or, “try and be more positive”.

At face value this appears to be legitimate criticism. However, I suggest to be extra careful on understanding what lies behind this message.

If the message comes from HR, it may be because the boat is starting to rock.No one fears their job and positioning more than HR, and thus their  anxiety is often projected on the vendor. “These OD consultants/“vendors” were commissioned to make things better! If things are not getting better fast, perhaps MY “vendor choice” was wrong”. In such a case, it is important to be fully aligned with the direct client so that he or she can manage HR’s fear.

If the message comes from the client system with whom you work, I suggest the following:

1) Ask yourself if you have  managed expectations properly? If you were forced to be optimistic when commissioned, it is time to reset expectations. If you have not stated that things get worse before they get better, I suggest repeating this statement several times to yourself-and then to the client.

2) I suggest reframing what  being negative and positive are all about. The client needs to start to understand that negativity may be realism and positive may be hallucinatory. This may be the critical path of success or failure of the project.

3) There may be an unseen political issue. For example, in the case that a particularly hard intervention is carried out when board members from abroad are visiting, this may be the motive behind asking for things to be cooled down. In this case, it is best to be prudent.

4) The clients of today may not have a clue that you need to break eggs to make an omelette. They expect ready made solutions without pain. If this is what they really want, it is best to back off, allow a magician to fail and then re-approach the client in a few years.

5) Post corona, problems have arisen which are beyond the scope of OD to cope with. Mass resignations for example are a societal trend and there is  little that OD can do. I do know that some magicians think that people leave organizations mainly because of bad managers, but post corona this is nonsense.

6) Many problems cannot be solved by an OD consultant. If there are no software engineers, OD won’t pull them of a hat. And if Sales is pushing a non existing product that crashes on arrival, it is best to focus efforts on getting the product to work, and less on improving communication between sales and development.

Follow me on twitter @AllonShevat

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“Meeting somewhere in the middle”: just another cultural bias-revised

For almost my entire professional life, I have been bridging acute cultural differences with my clients and coaching other consultants how to do similar work.

Some of the cultural gaps (UK-USA; Germany-USA; France-UK) are challenging but bridgeable via mutual adaptation on the part of both sides and some basic emotional intelligence.

However some of the cultural gaps are phenomenally large and immensely challenging. US-Japan, Thailand-US, Philippines-Israel, Japan-Mexico as well as all post merger integration work come to mind.

Probably the most frequent question I am asked by people I coach is “how do we bridge these gaps and meet somewhere in the middle”.

My answer is that meeting somewhere in the middle is just another western cultural bias.

Some cultures are more flexible (Dutch, Scandinavian e.g.) whilst others are more  rigid and self centered. Some cultures value meeting in the middle/compromise whilst others see meeting in the middle as weakness. Some cultures look at their way of doing things as the right way (US), others look at things more pragmatically, whilst others have their way of doing things embedded in religious or ideological context.

Meeting somewhere in the middle is rarely the way differences get bridged.

Working in  acute diversity means living with lots of pain, constant attempts at mutual adjustment, power struggles and constant misunderstandings.

Building solid personal relationships, making the right staffing choices, not over-relying on process, possessing a good sense of humour and acquiring cultural humility do the trick, NOT meeting half way.

My latest article emphasises other western biases of OD.


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5 things to be aware of when making a presentation to an Israeli audience


1) Start with the conclusion. The Israelis are not a patient bunch. Start with the end, and explain how you got there.

2) Be as brief as possible; Israelis constantly are on their cell phones, and long winded explanations lead to loss of attention to a second screen.

3) Set specific times for questions. Do not allow questions all the time because many questions will be asked and time will run out.

4) Do not be overly patient with questioners who try to “teach you”, because this will be seen as weakness and control of the audience will be lost.

5)  Don’t expect compliments. “Not bad” maybe  as good as it gets with a crowd over 45.

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“Roles and responsibilities are unclear”: a misdiagnosis (revised)

The clients with whom I work, the students that I have taught and the consultants who I  supervise often believe that unclear roles and responsibilities often constitute a major component of what needs to be fixed in an organization.

The goal of this post is to illustrate why I believe that this role ambiguity is often a non issue or a misdiagnosis.

(Before I proceed, this post does not relate to government bureaucracies, financial organizations or other heavily regulated services where regulation dictates the need for role clarity and ultimate responsibility.)

Here are the top 4 reasons why “unclear roles and responsibilities” is a misdiagnosis:

1) You cannot define away complexity. For example, it is impossible to fully define roles and responsibilities between development, engineering and operations in the process of  new product introduction; try as you may, there will always be many things that defy all definitions.

2) Many situations have built in “overlapping” ownership between several roles. For example, ultimate “client ownership” is next to impossible to define in the stages before a product is sold. Sales, technical presales and digital marketing folks may all point a finger at one another before the client has signed off and purchased the product.

3) When teamwork and cooperation are poor, a frequent symptom is the perception that roles and responsibilities are unclear. Better teamwork can make a lot of these role ambiguities disappear, but no amount of definition can fix teamwork issues between people who have poor acknowledged mutual dependency.

4) If one person is highly skilled and/or very dominant, or unskilled and passive, there can be a perceived problem of role ambiguity. For example, when the manager of a “Continuous Engineering”  department is a unskilled engineer, Development Engineering and Continuous Engineering may argue about roles/responsibilities. In such a case, the Continuous Engineering manager will claim that most issues are “design related” and,not in his domain. The Development Engineering manager will demand that the Continuous Engineering manager “learn the damn product” and not force Development  to do the role of Continuous Engineering.  However, were the Continuous Engineering Manager more skilled, this apparent role ambiguity problem probably goes away.

There are examples of role ambiguity that need to be addressed. But this is the exception, not the rule.

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Vision, core values and corporate culture backfire

This post will be controversial.

The goal of this post is to document a phenomenon I have observed: vision, core values and corporate culture constantly backfire to the point of being negatively disruptive.

Examples and Symptoms of the backfiring.

1) Company A has all sorts of value statements, missions,  training courses and service awards etc. around “delighting the customer”. Yet the present “waiting line” for a customer to get to a service attendant in 45 minutes, and the infuriating voice menu that they have to listen to when they dial in is 5 minutes long. All the staff view corporate values related to delighting customers as (in Hebrew) “harta-barta”, which roughly translated means “unrefined crap”.

2) Company B’s culture emphasizes the advantages about being global in all its corporate artifacts.  Yet all the corporate officers come from the same ( North European) country, English is used sparingly in all in corporate emails from very senior staff, and the  HQ plants a representative from home base to spy on each regional manager outside the home geography. Employees say “every time I hear the word global, I want to throw up”.

3) Company C has made “innovation” its middle name, as reflected in mission, values, and culture. Yet this just provokes only  cynicism because the company makes money by operational excellence by cost cutting. There is no other innovation.

Why does this backfiring occur?

1) Business reality changes (competition, context, client baseall the time ,and these cultural artifacts tend become firm outdated relgious tenets.

2) Corporate cultural artifacts are administered as a religion by HR priests, and this leads to cynicism.

3) The vision, culture and values are often just part of a management system seen as manipulated and oppressive , and people learn to beat systems.

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Organizations blinded by their own dysfunction

Dysfunction drive organizations to seek out OD consultants.

When the organization is aware of the dysfunction it wants to address,  it can chose the right consultant, all things being equal.

Many times however, an organization is blinded by its own dysfunction, and thus chooses a consultant who strengthens the very dysfunction that needs to be addressed.

Three examples will suffice:

1-An engineering manager who is extraordinarily over-systematic and orderly believes that certain events are slipping through the cracks of his system i.e., his systems of control is not perfect. As a result, many product  releases slip. He interviews 4 consultants and chooses a consultant who sells yet another system of control.

2-A company’s culture emphasizes risk taking, passion to win, and “doing everything needed” to get the job done. The company recently developed a global presence where these aforementioned cultural values are not useful. The company hires a passionate, aggressive consultant, who promised to “fight to the finish” to achieve the wall to wall internalization of the culture, in 6 months.

3-A company which places a huge value on internal PR and being highly fashionable, has realized that its staff is talking, but not walking the talk. A leading, well branded international consulting firm is hired,  a firm which does not have a clue about the local market. Yet local press extols the extent that company management is willing to make an effort to engage it staff.

How can this bias be overcome?

1) Formulate a written and vividly descriptive problem statement about what issue is it that needs to be solved.

2) Have two or three unrelated groups take this problem statement and describe the skill set of the sought-after consultant.

3) Ensure that decision makers are the not only the “ priests” of the corporate culture, such as HR and Training, but also include more rank and file types.

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Consulting on “priority management”

I cannot count the times that I have been asked to support better priority management.

Since I believe that my approach to priority management is a bit different, I want to share with you “all” the 6 principles which guide me when I encounter priority-management related issues.

1) Priority Management is a “ceremony”, a residual of days gone by, when priorities were managed. Priorities are no longer managed, they are juggled. When you juggle, objects may fall; when you juggle priorities, things get severely neglected.

2) Almost everything is urgent all the time. Even things that are not urgent are treated as such because of mobile technology’s ability to enhance urgency. So you need to decide what is urgent and what is neglected. This sounds like very bad advice, but imho it is a very realistic way to work with managers.

3) The bandwidth you have available is a function of your own skills, so-called work life balance and the people you have working for you. Enhancing your bandwidth may enable you to deal with more issues, but the issues will still all be urgent.

4)  If you have something to do which is important but not urgent, you need to completely detach yourself from all technology and your working environment to do so. If your phone is on and/or you are in your office, important things just don’t get done.

5) Your priorities need not be consistent, because the business world moves too fast to be consistent. Consistent means consistent “until the next update”, like anti-virus software.

6) Learn to work faster this year, and the year after, even more so. Speed is strategy.

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Consulting to organizations with severe over commitment to clients-what works?

This is the 4th of 5 post which deals with  how to consult over committed organizations.

Over committed organizations have a pathology which I documented in this post.

In my last post, I pointed out what not to do.

In this post, I will point out  major interventions which are most effective.

1) Find out where the real commitments are made. No doubt there are project reviews and plans of record which are all useless. Find out what the informal mechanism is for decision making. Once you have done so, work with that team of people and add some developers from the trenches.

2) Get management and troop buy-in for “no surprises”. It is amazing how interested both sides are to end the lying which props up the over committed way of life. “No surprises” serves the interests of both sides.

3) Get people engaged to committing to one another and not only to management. Troops have a much more difficult time bullshitting  a peer than bullshitting a manager. And because the commitment to peers will surface a lot of pathologic lying, this is a very good tool to pry out the real state of affairs.

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Things to avoid when consulting an over committed organization (revised)

This is the 3rd of 5 posts on over committed organizations. To understand this article in context, one needs to read the previous post.

Here are 5 things to avoid when consulting organizations which have severely over committed to clients, and as a result, have the pathology described in this link.

1) Do not whine to management that employees are stressed. You will be branded as a unionist, but far more important, this is a symptom which is un-treatable in the context of over commitment.

2) Do not overstate the case for the need for de/re commitment of deliverables; management has no tolerance for panic . . It is best to mildly understate the case.

3) Make sure that as a consultant, YOU do not over commit to the client. Over committed clients often drag you into their madness and you become infected with what you attempting to cure.

4) Do not lobby for more development resources. Often in a  severe over commitment, a company needs less resources which  are better coordinated in order  to deliver.

5) Do not ignore the legal input of over commitment. To best manage the  de-commitment consulting process, a consultant must have a firm grasp of the legal playing field, especially client fines and regulatory issues.

Now, to read which interventions work, read this. 

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Consulting with a severely overcommitted organization

In my last post, I documented organizational pathology stemming from commitments to clients which are hallucinatory . Reading this post will make no sense unless you read the previous post.

Like a shyster, a severely overcommitted organization has “several sets of books”, the “books” being various contradictory commitments which are “entertained” simultaneously. E.g.,

  1. The CEO has promised the client delivery of a quality product within one year.
  2. The Head of R&D believes the same product will be ready in 18 months.
  3. The Head of R&D demands from his team that work be complete in 10 months.
  4. The programmers estimate 2 years time is needed, after proof of design, which has not ever started.

Often companies in the situation will commission OD work. Lucky me, because this type of organization has been giving me work for many, many years. (I am 64 yo).

However, the initial reason that an OD consultant is approached to do such grisly  work is  to “improve the attitude” of the programmers, because “people in the trenches are not assuming ownership”. It never ceases to amaze me how in the initial stages, managers misinterpret the symptoms!

As we all know, the OD market is flooded with lots of semi skilled and hungry trainer-consultants, and generally these  trainer-consultants, commissioned by HR, take a first stab at the work and fail. As the situation gets worse, generally the trainer-consultant gets replaced by an OD consultant who understands this specific organizational pathology.

The key to understand how to do successful consulting in such a situation is to understand how your client will eventually de commit. (Goffman calls this process  “cooling the mark”.) De-commitment of the initial commitment may look like this:-

  1. Wow wow wow-we can do it.
  2. We are doing our best.
  3. There are some difficulties but we are confident
  4. There are some features we want to improve and this will take time,
  5. We will do “phased delivery”,
  6. We have a crisis!
  7. Renegotiation.

My experience is that the OD consultant needs to initially try two or three tricks that the consultant knows a priori will not be fully effective, yet will allow the gradual breaking of very bad news to the CEO. This interventions may include “coaching” for the head of R&D or one of his teams, various team building sessions or whatever. Within a month of two of being commissioned, “things are in process and while there is some improvement”, this change is not fast enough; then the CEO can stop perfuming the pig internally and with his the client.

My experience also has taught me never to lose the trust of the programmers. I once consulted on a project which management thought was “almost all done” while proof of design was severely flawed. I resisted all attempts to consult  people to “manage their priorities better-aka work even harder”. The moment a programmer feels that a consultant is there to apply pressure, the programmer starts lying to you as well.

My experience has also taught me in situations of severe over commitment, people who “step up to the plate” and try to “make the impossible happen” may be very opportunistic and looking for a short term PR win. There are no fast fixes when the gap between the commitment and reality are too large. The OD consultant must be wary of factoring in commitment from these heroes-in-waiting.

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