The appointed consultant

Unpleasant as it can be, OD consultants can be appointed by someone to help someone else who either does not see the need for help and/or has no say in the identity of the consultant.

I have been appointed by owners, and more often boards, to work with managers who resent the very act of suggesting that they need help. And I have formulated a few guidelines for such situations which I am sharing in this post.

1 Acknowledge that awkwardness of the situation. I often use a metaphor that “I’m the guy that needs to do root canal and you don’t even see the need to visit a dentist”. Discuss the awkwardness as an issue.

2 Allow the person with whom you have been asked to work to cease the consultation at the drop of a hat.

3 Agree that all updates that you will give the folks who commissioned your services will be transparent-that is, your assessment will be shared a priori with the person with whom you are working.

4 Spend time cementing the relationship, Trade favours, create a feeling of “safety” and stick to your word.

5 If you think that your client and the person who appointed you are a system problem, then work with both of them as a system, or resign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A skilled eye is very important in veterinary medicine because animals don’t speak. A skilled eye is important in OD because humans do speak…at times a lot of nonsense

A week ago, my dog George had a problem standing up; he did not want to walk. His appetite was voracious as always, and when we went to buy a roasted chicken, he jumped out of the car and walked right to the chicken-stand, but he was in pain and feeling “down-in-the-mouth”, his bones creaking like….my bones!

Since George is 14 years old, I was convinced that time was coming for him to “cash in his chips”; I took him to the vet expecting the worst.

Dr Yuval was in the lobby when I walked in. George was dragging himself behind me. Yuval says- “George has a backache; wait a week and it will improve”. No tests; no nothing. He observed. He did not ask me – and of course, George didn’t say a word. Lo and behold-he was right. George is getting better.

A skilled eye is very important in veterinary medicine because animals don’t speak. A skilled eye is important in OD because human’s do speak…at times they sprout  a lot of nonsense because of fear of reprisal, a tough job market, suspicion or in the case of senior managers, towing the party line.

A consultant would be wise to constantly observe, and not only listen to the spoken word. Not only at the beginning of a project. Rather, all the time.

Here are a few things that I have observed-and in brackets, what the spoken words were, when relevant.

  • Excessive gating procedures to speak to senior managers. (Rick provides useful input)
  • Lovely lobbies, and cramped quarters for customer support people (Customer service needs to be digitalized)
  • Executive parking places (our senior staff come early and work like dogs)
  • People playing solitaire on their pc’s (we have a very tough workload)
  • People smiling at each other at meetings
  • Dirty toilets (we are interesting in improving wellbeing)
  • Everyone texting, all the time (we have a problem of communication)
  • Inappropriate clothing (clients treated rudely)
  • Differential size of office space (favouring the Finance Dept)
  • Similar ethnic background of FSU+ family names in one department (the electricians are not transparent)

Always pay attention to the contrast between what you see and what you hear.

I thought George was dying. George kept his mouth shut. Yuval saw it all.

“Not a word was spoken. The Churchbells were all broken.” (Don McLean, American Pie.) 

+FSU Former Soviet Union

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Five Reasons to Abolish Periodic Feedback/Evaluation sessions with Employees

  • In some professions, the job market is so bad that replacing someone can take more than a year. So why risk giving a mediocre employee feedback and risk his/her leaving the organization?
  • Generally, managers write something in their evaluation, verbally express something else, and think something entirely different. E.g.- Naomi, I appreciate the effort you made to improve your writing skills. (said). Naomi gets a 5/5 on communication skills because this will get her a bonus (written). “Naomi is 65 years old, and cannot communicate in English. This won’t change (thoughts).”
  • Feedback sessions promote so much anxiety that learning is very rare and playing defense is very common.
  • Feedback/Evaluation sessions are basically seen as “feeding the HR beast”. And as such, they are often fudged.
  • There is no rational to evaluate performance all at once. It is simply too much information to receive. Learning requires a far different context to be effective.

What should replace feedback sessions?

  • Mediocre employees are a great asset in many areas. Not everyone needs to improve. That awareness could mitigate the need to shove feedback down every employee’s throat. Leave well enough alone.
  • Managers and their staff should have ongoing dialogue about the desired versus actual level of performance on any given task, or set of tasks.
  • When employees ask for some feedback, it is legitimate to give them what they are asking for.
  • Assessing training needs is a good placement for some feedback, because it is a positive and concrete step to better performance in some areas.
  • They need not be replaced, just abolished.
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Case studies for the OD consultant practicing in global complexity

The launch of GB 1.00 was bumpy. The client system crashed, GB 1.00 had to be reinstalled 3 times and $300,000 revenue was lost due to downtime. Even after the fix, GB 1 crashes twice a week causing financial damage. Nevertheless, the GB 1 increases the “speed of service” by 49% a week.

The Key Account Manager of the client went to his CEO and complained that the account could be lost “unless we show a road map of corrective action and that means that all resources need to be funneled into fixing this problem now“. This is of course is impossible because there are 125 similar projects going on simultaneously.

Au urgent meeting was convened, led by Dr Fred Renaud, the US based Senior  Vice President of R&D, and attended by the CEO, the account manager, and the entire development team.

Humi, a developer from Israel paid no heed to the “moaning” of the Key Account Manager. “These product releases take time to stabilize let’s roll up our sleeves and start working. I’ll fly to the client site tonight.”

Dr Fred said that “an overall high level comprehensive plan” is needed- “and only then, you can fly wherever you want, Humi”.

Jai from Thailand smiled during the entire meeting-her team had developed a major component and she was very embarrassed. “What are you laughing at, Jai? What is so God damn funny? (Fred hates “the Orient”, it is too hot and I don’t get their obtuse communication style”, he complained.)

Hans, the German PMO (project management)  wanted “detail before we “mof” on”. And he stared delving into detail which drove the other team members to distraction.

After an hour, the meeting broke up.

The CEO want to hire a consultant to “get all our ducks in one line”.

Questions: 

  1. What are your basic assumptions that could hinder your consultative apporach to being effective in such a situation?
  2. What is the role of the client in your planned intervention?
  3. How will get people’s trust?
  4. Define the end state you want to reach and how to get there.
  5. What is your role?

 

 

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Weird things that go on in organizations are not that weird if you put aside your naïve assumptions

I love middle eastern history. Like OD, sometimes it can be counterintuitive. And full of surprises.

For years, I have taken courses on Middle Eastern History and Politics at Tel Aviv University’s Continuing Education Department with various professors.

Recently I sat in on a series of lectures explaining why after having had his entire air force decimated in 1967, Egypt’s President Nasser was even more adored by his people. The masses refused to let him resign despite the fact that the  air force was ruined, his army humiliated and the economy (which was never much to begin with), devastated. 

There are of course may other events that occur which are very difficult to explain, but middle east history makes scholars of logic into imbiciles.

In class, we  were provided nevertheless  with a very clear explanation as to why this happened after the 1967 defeat. All the explanations of course  defy western logic, but wearing a different set of lenses, it makes a lot of sense, if you look in the right places.

Now in organizations, lots of things happen that seem illogical. However if you look under the tables, under the sheets, and between the lines, it all makes sense. Here are 3 simple examples.

  • Tuti is a family run fashion store with 12 branches. One of the branches is very poorly run; it loses money and is overstaffed. Management does nothing.

Why? All incompetent family members are sent to this branch. It is the family garbage can. Many expenses and costs written off more readily at the failed branch.

  • A company makes a bid against 3 competitors. Their product is cheaper, better and more resilient. They don’t even get a chance to bid in the final four.

Why? Someone in the client base is “on the take” from a competitor.

  • The food and beverage manager has caused 2 chefs to quit. Reviews of the menu are critical and revenue is way down. There have been several fist fights between servers and bellboys. The food and beverage manager is immune to any criticism.

Why? An affair with the regional manager of the hotel chain.

These examples may seem ridiculous.

Is it ridiculous that Nasser was supported by his people after his military defeat because he had “brought pride and honour (sharf) upon his nation” by daring to fight (albeit lose)?

Common sense is not that common, and logic is logic only if the observer is logical. In organizations, there is a deep layer hidden from the naive human eye that escapes unless we look closely and with a huge dose of cynicism.

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Making Organizations Smarter-Elaboration as promised

Recently I published a post in which I listed simple ways of making organizations smarter. I also promised to follow through and elaborate, albeit briefly, about each bullet point.

In this follow up post, I will relate to weeding out slogans and focus on creating focus.

Weeding Out Slogans

Slogans are repeated statements that are hammered into employee’s heads, and when the rubber hits the road, they do not match reality. They confuse, create cynicism, mistrust and alienation. They also make management into laughing stocks.

If a company puts “customer service” on its flag, but each agent needs to open 5 screens per call to give an appropriate answer (on slow servers, to boot) then there is no customer service.

If a company supports “human rights” but sells to Russia, they don’t support human rights. If they support work life balance and expect answers to emails in the evening, they do not support work life balance.

If the Dutch company which constantly promotes diversity doesn’t have a senior manager without a  “van” in his name,  then diversity is a slogan.

If your company states that every employee must “take ownership” but places a ton of bureaucracy on the way to solving problems such as lengthy purchasing processes, then taking of ownership is a slogan.

When a company eliminates slogans until they practice what they preach, they cannot blow smoke up their own bum about their real beliefs. Sales, HR and senior management teams are very prone to double talk. You would be very surprised at how hard it is to eliminate slogans.

Creating Focus

There is air pollution; there is water pollution and there is priority pollution, the later being where everything (nothing) is really truly important when the rubber hits the road.

Only via creating focus, one creates the chance to succeed, and not blame conflicting priorities for pleasing none of the people none of the time.

And I cannot make this clear enough. If there is not enough focus, there is failure. True there may be interim achievements, but poor focus ends up in a shitty culture and failure.

Btw, poor focus is often enabled by phenomena such as “I sent you an email that’s it’s top priority”. Creating focus is not rocket science. It’s easy-but companies don’t like to do it.

I shall follow thru with more elaboration of the original post in the next few weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Elevator Ladies at Eaton’s

En haut-going up. En descendent, going down. Yes. A short story of the “elevator ladies” of days gone by. To be more exact, a few nostalgic  words about the elevator ladies at Eaton’s department store in Montreal, Quebec.

First, let me explain who they were. Elevators were not always automatic, but rather operated by actual people. Elevators had two doors-the external and an interior door, which was sort of a meshed metal  door, to prevent people’s clothes from getting caught in closing doors. Elevator ladies operated these doors, pressed floor buttons as well as announced the floor upon arrival. Sometimes, they added what the “floor” was all about.

  • Second floor; deuxieme etage; womens’ fashion; mode des femmes
  • Basement; sous sol
  • Ground floor; rez de chaussee 

The ladies who operated these doors wore a lovely uniform, white gloves, hats and gorgeous stockings. They were of all ages. And sometimes I used to ride the elevators just to hear them make announcements, en anglais et en francais.

As well, I loved to see how these ladies remembered people who took the lift with them. People who had been riding with them for years. “Bonjour M. LaPorte, ca va? Bonjour Madame Schwartz, how ‘r u”? Small conversations would often develop about the weather, or other small talk.

I marveled at the elevator ladies’ encyclopedic knowledge of where to find what. “I am looking for a red thimble” “Sous sol, madame, basement at the rear” Or,” ou on peut trouver une laisse du chien?” Quatrieme etage”. (Where can I find a dog leash? 4th floor).

They knew it all, in English and French.

I read once a paper about job satisfaction, that is, what elevator ladies liked about their job.

They loved the regulars; they loved practicing their English; and most of all, they enjoyed answering questions properly. At no time did they feel that their work was meaningless or that the routine was impacting their “wellness”.

Yes, we can do without this job, long rendered superfluous by technology. But I sure miss the elevator ladies, greeters, newspaper men at crossroads, people who answer the phone, and people, yes people, who make life less alienating.

I must admit that one of these elevator ladies was extremely attractive. Her name was Louise M. I was her regular.

For great pictures of elevator ladies, click here.

 

 

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Strange untranslatable words that organizations use

I love words. Strange words. Rare words. Swear words. Words in three languages I speak and words in languages I do not understand. Even when does not understand a word, you can learn about its’ meaning from the context.

I especially love words in one language that have no equivalent in another language.

In French there is “connective” word “d’ailleurs”. Speak to a Frenchman or even a French woman, or read a newspaper article, or watch France 24, and that word appears again and again. It has about ten meanings, none of which I can understand. When I try to use the word, I use it improperly, much to my chagrin. D’ailleurs, I will give another example! ?

In Hebrew there an often used untranslatable word: davka. The word is used extremely frequently, in various contexts. Very few non-Hebrew speakers can understand it. Nevertheless, I will davka give it a try.

  • In a contrarian fashion. As in, he davka called her at 10 PM, although he knows she goes to bed at this time.
  • An unexpected contrast. As in, he davka went to the anti-government demonstration, although he voted for Bibi in the last election.
  • Indication of a negative surprise. As in, I travelled half way around the city to get to the License Authority and davka they were closed.
  • Indication of a positive surprise. As in “I got the Shingrix vaccine and davka felt fine; my brother was weak some time after he was vaccinated.”

I also have a thing for words that organizations use to show and hide real meaning. Most often strange words and terms both hide and show meaning. The words and terms may be code words. Or they may be words “sui generis”, one of a kind  to describe something that goes on in the organization.

Here are a few examples I have encountered over the past decades.

One t(w)o Five O. This indicates the first five members of the organization who are still around. But they are worth zero, yet hold important positions. It is indicative of management by seniority.

You saw it, you own it. This indicates a culture where in lieu of organizational clarity, issues are owned by champions, who push issues to conclusion. It is indicative of the refusal of an organization to scale.

Test for Basic Functionality.  This means, we know we promised something that can do 500 things, but really can’t. Can it do anything at all? If it can, let’s install it. This is indicative of a highly over committed organization.

Product Expert Troubleshooter. This indicates that there are product issues that very few people can solve, except for a few so called experts. The expertise, however,  often exists only because the product is undocumented, or written in spaghetti code, or those who developed it have left, except for the last Mohican, ie, the product expert troubleshooter.

Client Expectation Management This means that we are screwing our clients in the meantime, so someone needs to “cool the mark” down until we give them something beyond basic functionality.

What does all this mean for the OD consultant. If you use pre-packed OD tools, it means nothing. But if you are old-school OD, I suggest the following.

D’ailleurs, if you have any questions on the methodology of creating the dictionary, click the link.

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Deciphering a company’s language-code

Jacques Lacan approached the unconscious via language. And you do not need to be influenced by Lacan to understand that there is a fascinating connection between our language, our actions and our thoughts.

Put aside the stories and narratives you are told when trying to understand an organization for a moment and listen to the words. You may hear words and phrases exposing the raw nerves of the company’s beliefs and DNA, as it were.

In my work, I often put together a short dictionary of a key phrases that are a part of the company’s vernacular-then work with the company to translate these words into what these words expose, and hide.

Here is an example of how this work is done. Company Y has six terms that repeat themselves in almost all meetings and chats: Challenging; Complex; Urgent; Damage Control; Sandbag; Phased Delivery.

Let’s look at the meaning. Challenging means that something is beyond our capability and/or resources. Complex means that we do not (yet) have a solution. Urgent means what we need to do today, at the expense of everything else. Damage control means catching up with our committments all at once and/or cooling off the customer with sweet talk, discounts or future functionality. Sandbag means to exaggerate the amount of time needed to do something to prevent management tasking you with more work. Phased Delivery means promising one thing, and delivering far less, and catching up in stages. Often the first phase of phased delivery is giving nothing but more promises.

Now imagine a series of discussions in a company where this dictionary is discussed, and certain terms are phased out and replaced by others.

Like the signs I remember on the Montreal Metro: Dite pas “le weekend; dite la fin de semaine. (This encouraged the proper use of the French language)

And thus, over time, language and actions become more accurate and less obtuse, internally and with the client.

Yes with the client as well. Whether this is good or bad is the subject of another post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning from master spy Philby about problem solving

Kim Philby, the master-spy for the USSR who was a very senior officer in MI6 in charge of Russian counterintelligence  🙂  said that if you have a very important item that needs to be investigated, it is best given to a junior officer.  Senior officers are not always ready to work hard, they have system perspectives more than event perspectives and they don’t want to shake up the boat.

Philby’s logic is very relevant for organizational problems as well. Via 3 short stories, I shall illustrate this.

Howard is an electrical engineer who wants to leave his job because he’s been offered 600 USD more at a competing firm. Pierre, Howard’s boss, know that it could take up to a year to replace Howard. And if he cannot be replaced, his function will need to be outsourced at a huge cost to an overseas firm. Norma, VP HR, is please that Howard may be leaving because if the organization kowtows to Howard’s demands, the whole salary structure will be shattered.

Sam is a senior software engineer who has been asked to estimate the time need to develop a certain feature. Sam’s time estimate is 4 months for 4 engineers. Sam’s estimates have never been off target by more than 2 weeks. The CEO did not like Sam’s estimate, so he gave it to Ze’ev, Sam’s boss and VP R&D for a second opinion. Ze’ev said the work “can probably get done in 6 weeks, with just a few odds and ends to be cleaned up at the customer site”. When the rubber hit the road, the project took 5 months.

Hadassah, a customer service engineer, is frustrated because spare mechanical parts (needed to fix a broken piece of equipment) are not available due to supply chain issues. Martin, VP Supply Chain has presented an optimistic report that supply chain delays are down 12% in Q2. Hadassah reports that the client will uninstall equipment, and indeed this is what happened.

Yes, the view from below can be a parochial one, with limited scope. But analysis and decisions made at the top can be flawed, distorted and painfully wrong.

The key to getting this right is to solicit input  both from below and above, make decisions NOT necessarily based on hierarchy, but rather on risk mitigation. 

 

PS and PPS

Thanks to Eike Spengler for the input to the initial draft.

Kim Philby was probably the best spy in modern history. His motive was purely ideological and driven by his abhorence of fascism. I recommend this book for those interested.

 

 

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