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October 15, 2010

Analyze This

You might recall seeing a television advertisement a number of years back that involved a few folks talking about a business problem and how they were going to solve it because they had hired a consulting firm who was going to conduct an assessment. The scene was very satirical and when they spoke the word assessment there was an exaggeration in the inflection that made it appear that the word itself was evil incarnate. We were intended to deduce from this 30 second spot that any company that would pay for a consulting firm to conduct an assessment were fools and that any consulting firms that would perform this pathetic service were incompetent.

Perhaps the more subtle, if not lost message in this nicely produced piece of marketing was that problems can only be solved with action and that endless investigation would just delay a resolution. The branding was intending to show that this firm was one of action.

Action is good. It is a fully necessary component of business problem resolution. Working with service providers who enact results is also a smart decision and one that I fully encourage. But, I would like to go on record as stating that assessments are not a bad thing as this commercial would imply. Another necessary component of business problem resolution is problem definition. Before you implement a solution, you really want to make sure you’re directing it toward the right problem. We can call this activity by an abundance of different titles but they are all assessment-like in nature.

We have found that our current market encourages services that move quickly into solutions. The rapid implementation of fixes is a growing portion of the services industry and very tied to the software-as-a-service explosion. Low cost solutions require short cuts. Guess what the popular thing to cut is today? Bingo – we see the lowly assessment process commonly omitted. Customers want to move straight to the answer, assuming they have a completely sufficient handle on the question. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is bad because businesses are implementing things that don’t solve their problems, albeit they are doing it quickly and cheaply. The problems remain and they still have to take action and expend resources to solve them.

That is where the good thing comes in, because it gives the more comprehensive (and maybe more upright) service providers a great pipeline of new business. But this does not have to be the case. Adequately defining the problem prior to action is essential and even a modest exercise to correctly position the solution development can avoid wasted efforts from challenged projects. Assessments are actually a really good idea it turns out.

I know for a fact that the company who utilized the advertising campaign described above does actually conduct assessments. You can bet a large sum that they refer to these with a euphemistic title, but believe me; they assess needs and issues prior to delivering recommendations. Yet, the assessment process does have an evil side. There can be firms who only perform this kind of service. They will tell you what your problems are, but they don’t actually solve them. This can be problematic when the expertise of the firm is restricted to problem identification. The risk is that their recommendations are forged without any experience with solution execution. This gives the whole assessment thing a very bad name and was the genesis of the advertisement’s message.

Dam Bridge 2

Going back to the business problem solving process and examining the three major stages of the process can shed some light on an answer to this whole assessment thing. The three basic components are: problem definition, solution development, and solution execution. An assessment will include the first, and it often will include the second. As a business, you might choose to break up the steps. It is not uncommon to conduct an exercise just to define the problem. This can help the organization determine whether it is to be a priority for the set of initiatives to be tackled in the next period such as fiscal year. This enables you to scope the situation prior to committing to any action.

Performing the first two steps, problem definition and solution development, enables the organization to also budget for the execution stage, which might require significant steps just to secure funding. So, there can be delays between conducting the assessment and the execution of the recommendations. The challenge is to keep the three stages connected. Otherwise, you will tend to repeat steps and delay the achievement of the intended outcomes. Performing actions that are not sufficiently connected to a well aligned solution just leads to disaster. To keep these stages sufficiently connected you need to have one or both of the following conditions met. First, you need to have an internal owner of the process drive the three stages with continuity, even if there are gaps in time. Second, you might choose to utilize a service provider to manage the three stages to ensure this continuity. Ideally both are best, but you must have one or the other in place to have a chance at success.

I cannot count the number of times I have entered into a client organization during the middle of this sequence. Work has been performed previously to reach conclusions for action and we are expected to execute on that. However, the findings from the problem definition and the recommendations from the solution development have been handed from group to group, owner to owner. An external firm has long been dismissed and internal responsibilities have been switched around. I ask questions about the previous findings and recommendations and nobody has answers. Ultimately we have to back track and perform steps over losing time and requiring the expenditure of redundant resources. Coming into this process mid-stage with no solid connection between the stages sub-optimizes everything.

So, I guess it all boils down to continuity. The assessment is not the problem, it is the disconnected nature of this sequence of business problem solving stages that leads to the loss of effectiveness and that ultimately tarnishes the image of this maligned consulting service. This puts the burden of effective business problem solving squarely on the individual or team chartered to oversee it – even if using external services. Assuring this continuity is the key to success, either through internal continuity of oversight or the utilization of a single vendor for the entire process. If you don’t have the ability to manage this continuity, you have to set your expectations that some of the steps will have to be repeated to ensure effectiveness.

Good luck with your next assessment and keep your head held high; it is a worthy and noble exercise.

Dam Bridge 1

October 08, 2010


A long, long time ago I found a cartoon in a magazine that I have never forgotten that goes something like the following. Two scientists in white lab coats are standing beside a room-sized chalk board that is completely filled with a mind bogglingly complex scientific equation. It appears from the posture of the two scientists that they are focused on a small part of the equation located in one of the lower corners of the board that is surrounded by a box, but has arrows moving in and out. It appears that the arrows coming out of the box lead to the culmination of the equation. Within that box, the apparent focus of the scientists’ attention, are the words:

Magic Happens

Perhaps to you this does not seem to be that memorable of a cartoon. I, however, reference it all the time when I am working with groups. Here is why.

I think the performance of a group of folks, when organized by a set of objectives to produce an important outcome, can be represented by that equation in the cartoon. It is typically big and complex and takes up the whole room. Plus, it typically requires a bit of magic in the middle of things in order to be successful.

Yes, I know, it does not appear to be a prudent proposition to rely on magic when facilitating a group that needs to produce important outcomes. Yet, I fully expect for it to happen in most of the group sessions that I manage. First, permit me to make sure we are talking about the same magic. I am not referring to sleight of hand or hucksterism – not intending to imply that deception is needed for groups to be successful. I mean, more specifically, that when you really need to get a group to produce, you need to create an environment where something magical occurs.

Allow me to go a bit further and say that I also believe there is a bit of science behind the magic. Going back to the cartoon, I always interpret the meaning of the box of magic to represent something that the scientists can’t explain. They do all the right things with the rest of the equation – mix all the ingredients for success. Yet something takes place in the middle of it all that they know happens but don’t have complete control over. And I really believe that getting groups to perform does include this little box of magic in the middle of it all, but surrounded by some key elements for success.

The magic happens when you put the right ingredients together – it is not an accident. I think the right factors include some key elements that you can control. First, you have to have a good process for taking the group through a set of steps that you know will produce the intended outcomes. Second, you need to bring together the right folks, people with experience and knowledge. You need to mix that with building an environment where the experience and knowledge get infused with some structured creativity. It does not hurt that you have a competent facilitator who is familiar with stirring up this pot of ingredients.

Magic Brew

I have found that this all works and it is a little bit of magic. You might not always feel you are in complete control of it, but it does produce the results if you believe in the process. It is a bit like baking a cake. If you mix the flour and sugar with some eggs and baking powder you create some goopy and unappealing batter (although my son finds it appealing). But, with the right conditions and allowing the process to complete its course, you can pull a delectable cake out of the oven. I don’t know why the introduction of heat in the process transforms the goop into cake, but it works.

Sometimes I vary the recipe, mixing together new things that I have not completely experienced in the past. I still trust that the magic in the oven will create a positive outcome. Working with groups is the same. There are many times when I have to mix in ingredients that are uncertain – new people, new objectives, and new circumstances. I trust the process and count on the magic.

Magic does take some practice. Just because you are performing magic does not mean you can walk into the room, snap your fingers or wiggle your nose, and expect that the group produces. You do need to learn to harness it and determine what differing combinations of the ingredients work best. The ingredients that I utilize vary from situation to situation, but I can say I rely heavily on making sure the right people are in the room and utilizing a structure that harnesses their knowledge and creativity.

Good luck to all you magicians out there.