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Month: May 2009

Dancing with fellow professionals

Week 4 at Xoozya

Yup, that bid took it out of me.  I was so tired this weekend,  I couldn’t even be bothered to go for a walk in the sun.

Back at work and another tender – but this was sorted out fairly quickly.

They have it or they don’t!

There is definitely a pecking order of clients.

People who did stats or personality theory at uni will remember an unidimensional factor means everything correlates.  If you are high on one thing, you are high on everything.

You notice this pattern when you work on projects.  When the documentation is good, the verbal briefing tends to be precise and you can also find information about the firm on the internet.

And when everything is clear, we can get on with the work.

Because we are usually bidding to fellow professionals, we also find we can get directly to the point .  .  . and use big words.

I am all for expressing our services in lay language.  I think every professional service needs to pass the plain language test.  For the lay user, I must be able to say simply:

“This is what you are doing and this is where I can help you.”

But between professionals, we want to communicate nuance and detail very very quickly.  We don’t want to stop to explain technical terms that they really should know.

Is it true that HR staff are this bad?

Thinking about this took me back to a project I did “in-house” many, many years ago.  I was preparing the salary information for industrial level negotiations.  All our competitors would be present, we would negotiate annual awards with the unions, and we would recommend a set of minimum conditions to the Ministry of Labor for reconciliation with awards offered in other industries and promulgation in due course by the Minister as a Statutory Instrument.

My immediate boss was going away on holiday.  He was a visual guy and didn’t want numbers.  This was before the days of desktop computers, so I grabbed a pad of graph paper, pulled an all nighter, and because there was so little time, drew him a bunch of line graphs.

He duly departed to the beach and the MD paid me a surprise visit.  A rare occasion indeed.  He usually just dialed the switchboard and told them to summon me on the factory wide tanoy: Jo Jordan to the MD’s office.  A bit like being summoned to the Headmaster but after a while Jo Jordan was associated to MD and that was definitely in my favor, so I wasn’t complaining.  Things began to happen so much faster for me!

On this hot afternoon, the MD plonked himself down in front of my desk and proceeded to explain how to draw bar charts, without actually mentioning the word bar chart.  I mischievously let him go on and after an hour, I smiled gently and asked: So you would like me to draw bar charts?  He was a good guy and got the joke, though I was almost half his age.

We subsequently discussed the substance of what he must achieve in the negotiations and some time into this, he once again he went into a tortuous explanation, this time of the minimum wage.  I wasn’t quite so patient and interjected tersely, “you mean the y intercept.”

That evening,  I rang up the HR Manager who had recruited me, but who had left the company herself, and I asked her, why did Mike, for that was his name, why did Mike talk to me like that.  Her answer was because so few people know.  Hmmm.

Professional training

Now compare this with professional internship viva’s.  Graduates often come in and try to claim the procedures they use – rather than the data about the client – are confidential.  We always set our students straight.  Any procedure that we use as a professional must be tested and published, or a known convention and therefore also published, or a law which we can cite with paragraph, section and sub-section.

Basically, within a profession, we have a common knowledge base.  We know what is common to the curriculum across the country.  We usually have a pretty clear idea of what we know and what we don’t know.  There’s lots we don’t know, of course.  We’ve only learned the stuff in our profession and there is heaps more to know about the world.

But students talking about work in their professional internship don’t need to explain.  They just say what they did.  The examiners are just providing an audience so they will be motivated to write down what they do.  With 4 vivas a year for 3 years, they get better at describing what they do and move from a superficial account, through using plain language, to telling us how they improved the system.  Now, they are communicating with us quickly.  The questions we’ve asked them over the years help them separate background and foreground, what is expected to move suddenly from what is likely to be static or slow to move, what looks better from a different angle or in a different light, what is ‘boilerplate’ and what is an interesting, nuanced account.

Learning at the edges

It was interesting when an intern learned a new procedure, or was able to use a procedure in new circumstances.  Usually sometime in their third year, students would ring up the Convenor and alert us to an interesting log book coming in.  And they would ask to address a plenary session rather than just a viva panel.  They wanted to address everyone!  Every student and every examiner.  And so they did.  And everyone came too.  They wanted to extend their knowledge and they weren’t going to miss out.

Sometimes we would have someone in between.  They knew their stuff but couldn’t explain it yet.  This was awkward when the person is senior but didn’t have a strong connection with the professional body.  Maybe they’d been working abroad and had just come back.   I have actually attached students to such people and told them to follow them around and come back and tell us his thought process.

Once I was working with a very experienced psychologist in the UK on an assessment center.  I made a few remarks about a candidate.  She simply asked pleasantly for me to walk through what I was doing and when she thought I was referencing a model that she wasn’t familiar with, she said, very pleasantly and inquiringly, “What are you doing?”

I worked for a long time with a positive organizational scholar in New Zealand who would never stop to explain what he was doing.  It was hard work keeping up.  In fact, I’ve only just found one of the poems he would cite.  It was used to advertise BBC poetry week.  I heard it and thought, yes at last, dived for my laptop and courtesy of the Beeb, found the long lost reference.  But I am glad I put in the work.  All those years of saying what is P talking about, looking things up and piecing it together has paid off.

Lack of shared knowledge or lacked of shared manners?

Yes, there are gray areas, but I am finding too many awkward moments when someone is teaching me to suck eggs and they sadly don’t have Mike’s sense of humor.  I feel like Jeeves with Bertie Wooster, except that Bertie knew he didn’t know.

  • Thinking, thinking . . .  is it a matter of lack of shared knowledge.  Or is it a lack of shared manner system?
  • Is it that inquiry and particularly joint inquiry is not seen as the essential scaffold of the working relationship?
  • Is it that we have become Flat Earthers at heart?
  • Or is it the old masculinity/class thing – the conversation is to do with recreating the pecking order – our job is simply to yes sir, no sir, 3 bags full sir?

My questions to buyers of professional services

Here is my challenge to everyone who sends out a Request for Tender or advertises a job.

When people ring you for a briefing, what do you expect them to ask?  What information have you compiled and put in a handy place on your desk so you can ask questions precisely and concisely?

What do you expect to learn when people ask you questions?  What did you learn last time you managed a tender?

My question to you

What do you think?  Do you get caught in these dilemma?  How do you make sense of my predicament?

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Get it done, completely

Day 3-15 at Xoozya

Wow! Day 3 became Day 15 in no time as I was buried in a demanding pitch.  The work I did on strategic planning 12 days ago is in the form of scribbled notes in a box.  I wonder if I can read my writing.  It’s such a waste of time to have to pick up tasks that have been suddenly abandoned.

The secrets of successful protovation

Hence the flip-side of protovation and an amplified, connected life.

Only start what you finish and dispatch in one move.

And the corollary of that – break tasks into small pieces.

Finish what you are doing as you go and put it away, file it properly, as you end it.

Who would have predicted that the internet world will make us tidy.

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9 questions for strategy at the edge

Day Three at Xoozya

Before I went in to work today, I pondered the mammoth task of getting to grips with the business of Xoozya.  It’s amazing how often organizations don’t bother to explain the business they are in, leaving induction to people who may know where the loo is but have never seen the profit!  Xoozya being a self-consciously bottom-up organization will, of course, deliberately not tell me.  It is going to wait for me to ask questions!

Organize around strategy

The universe came to my rescue and McKinsey’s Buy, Sell, Keep appeared in my inbox to remind me of the principle of structuring an organization around our strategic priorities rather than our operations.

Hmm, I need to go further than this.  Being Xoozya, the priorities are not set at the ‘top’.  The people at the ‘top’, who are not necessarily the highest paid either, are there because they are good at holding the conversation, listening, and bringing together our views.  They have a knack for understanding what someone with a different professional background is saying, of detecting bottom line and top line, of seeing how people could come together for mutual benefit, and for creating organizations and communities where that can happen.

So how to begin my understanding of Xoozya?

I took the list of factors in McKinsey’s Structure-Conduct-Performance model of  industry attractiveness, turned it into a table with two columns – one for me and one for Xoozya, made some coffee, and set to work jotting down a word or two in each cell.

I quickly lost interest in my own column.  I must go back to that.

SCP model in plain language

These are the nine questions I found I badly wanted to ask my colleagues about their work.

  1. Who else does similar work to you?
  2. How do people tell your work apart from theirs?
  3. Who comes banging on your door wanting to know what you are doing?  Have more people been banging recently or less?  Have inquiries been more useful to you, or less useful to you?
  4. What does it take for someone to get into this line of work?  Once they have acquired those skills and resources, how long does it take them to get to your level?
  5. Who has the greater power? People like yourselves working in the field or the people who come banging on your door?
  6. Is there anything about the relationship with the people who come banging at the door that could change the relationship?  That is, what would lead more people to come or have more useful people come?
  7. Could you be doing more work or would you prefer to be doing less?
  8. Is there anyone or anything that holds you up?
  9. Is there anyone you could work with who could help you achieve more, more quickly?

For those interested in understanding the SCP Model more formally

Economics of demand (Qu 1-3)

Economics of supply (Qu 4)

Industry chain economics (Qu 5-6)

Cooperation vs Rivalry

Capacity utilization (Qu 7)

Forward, backward integration (Qu 8)

Alliances and Joint Ventures (Qu 9)

A good management model asks questions

Yes, there are a few questions there that will make me think about my own work.  That’s what good heuristics do.  They open up the thought processes.  Questions not answers.  That’s what management scholars deliver!

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