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Bureaucracy as a Crutch March 14, 2014

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Success brings with it the fear of blowing it. With more to lose, there’s more pressure not to lose it. – Seth Godin

Seth’s post about bureaucracy strikes a chord with anyone who works in or around large organizations.  Especially as consultants, roles in which we are often presented with the worst parts of an organization, several months can be spent simply cutting through the red tape to make things happen.

Large organizations quite often have individuals who have a vision for where the group could be.  But as Seth points out, these people are often tempered by risk-averse policies and procedures put in place to avoid bad press, potential unhappy customers, or internal HR issues.  Nevertheless, large organizations manage to fall over themselves (I’m talking to you, airlines) when policies restrict customer-facing employees from helping the very people for whom they are there in the first place.

It takes a great deal of time, money, and human energy to change the course of large bureaucracies.  Indeed, while corporations seem to at least make feeble attempts now and gain, governments appear to be beyond help in many ways.  Those with the power to tax and spend a nation’s wealth seem more and more inclined to do so, with few within the government seeming to have any will at all to strive for greatness.  And if our collective vision for greatness must come from those who lead – at every level – we seem to be sorely lacking the will to do any better.

Corporations, especially those large enough to regularly find themselves in national or world news, at least seem to be cautiously interested in trying new things, projects for which outside consultants often provide a valuable objective viewpoint.  If you work for one of these organizations, it often is as “simple” as demonstrating some economic value of the innovation in question.  Of course, it then is necessary to present such a case to the right people – which presents its own challenges.  Unfortunately, the more policies and people your organization has, the more likely it will be to have some of those people gaming the system and bending the bureaucracy back on itself.  Loopholes and technicalities can be blessings or curses depending on which side of the issue one finds oneself.

Scaffolding of Change September 10, 2013

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Quite often during a consulting engagement, a client will question the need for a particular tool or meeting that has been implemented as part of the project.  It might be a new method of data collection, additional paperwork for change management, or a rigorous weekly review of project deliverables.

In some cases, these things are intended to become part of the client’s new way of doing business.  It is what they have paid the consultant to bring to the organization: some change in the way managers make decisions, the way their product is developed and produced, or increased efficiency of the operation.  Quite often however, the ultimate outcome – behavior change – doesn’t depend on any particular form or spreadsheet or meeting.  The specific tool is less relevant than its use in facilitating and catalyzing the desired change.  Indeed, it is merely scaffolding – something that is necessary for construction but nevertheless temporary.

Many clients fail to recognize the time and effort required to construct this scaffolding (and tear it down at the end).  It can be a project in and of itself, but is not the “real work” that they expect to see.  The deliverables of scaffolding – the most visible and tangible of the consultant’s early work on a project – are often frustrating distractions from the true operation.  It is often difficult to perceive the behavior change going on behind the scenes and this can in turn can put the project at risk.

From the consultant’s point of view, it is important to clarify as early as possible what the project will and won’t deliver.  It’s also important to outline the need for some of the tools that will be used during the engagement and specify which will be permanent and which will be temporary.  The client then is obligated to take on some of this “extra work” as their part of the bargain.  They hired the consultant to facilitate organizational change – this won’t occur without the processes more regimented than they were used to before.


Small Victories July 22, 2013

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So often, especially with social media posts flying like mosquitoes around a barbecue, we read the same platitudes over and over, having long since taken any real meaning from them.  Sometimes, however, someone will recast even tired sayings with a different perspective – and in the process provide a way to create real actions out of them.

In today’s Monday Morning Memo, Alan Weiss sums up in just a few words what many consultants’ clients often have the most difficulty with.

“If you never fail, you become comfortable with increasingly minor victories.”

I can’t count how many times I have advised clients that they need to just take that first step.  Develop a log of actions for the week, start breaking long-term, unmanageable tasks into smaller bite-size chunks.  And it works…for a while.  Alan’s advice warns that the small satisfactions obtained from crossing off to-do lists is only good as we progress forward a few steps – it is not a path to long-term growth.

Another aspect of my consulting work is continuous improvement.  Once an organization has mastered a particular method, it’s time to look ahead to how it can be improved.  This may mean, by the way, that it be eliminated in favor of a new method.  Need to have a meeting established to implement a new program?  Fine.  But don’t forget to terminate it when the project is done.  Don’t even let it “evolve” into a meeting that covers some other topic.  Make conscious decisions to maintain those tools that continue to add value.  Be especially critical of meetings, but really, anything goes.  Forms, procedures, job descriptions – everything will eventually change to accommodate new technologies, skills, competitors, and regulations.

Those small victories are indeed critical to building positive habits and motivating an organization going through a difficult change process.  But small victories eventually will only provide the illusion of progress through activity rather than bona fide results.  Crossing off to-do lists is an important step, but always challenge yourself and your organization to take on ever bigger goals.  Continuous improvement comes at a price: not being 100% perfect.  Accept that some ‘failures’ will occur and that your learning of a new process is as important as getting it right the first time.

The United States of Energy May 7, 2013

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Where’s Uranium?

The United States of Energy – Blog About Infographics and Data Visualization

This is a very compelling visual presentation of the U.S. energy resources, as well as some interesting statistics about production and consumption.  Well researched and well put together.

However, from a mining perspective, there is an interesting discontinuity in the selection of resources.  The map clearly outlines oil, gas, and coal reserves, with the implicit knowledge that these are raw materials that must be processed in order to be useful.

Similarly, wind, geothermal, and solar are shown in areas where they are most likely to be efficiently produced.  In a sense, they are like the reserves of more familiar resources.

Hydro is unique, but only in the sense that a dam is required, so the discrete facility seems an appropriate metric.  One could theoretically map individual rivers based on their flows and gradients, but that would become unwieldy.  I find the map characterizes this resource well.

But what about nuclear?  Interestingly, the chart’s authors have chosen to map nuclear power plants rather than the mineral deposits that fuel them.  Just like oil, coal, and gas are shipped to a variety of refineries for downstream processing, nuclear fuels move across state lines as well.  But refineries and coal- and gas-fired power plants aren’t shown on the map – nor should they be.  They don’t represent resources, just links in the chain between the raw fuel and the end user.  Interesting statistics perhaps, but a different topic.

If the authors intend to show the energy resources available in the U.S., uranium reserves are an important part of the discussion.  We often think of oil drilling as being distinct from mining, not only in form, but in product.  Generally, mining consumes energy from other sources to produce non-energy products.  In the case of nuclear fuels – as with coal – mining plays an equally important role and the accompanying resources represent important aspects of our energy policy.

One-way Trip to the Twitterverse April 2, 2013

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More and more of my own interests are taking flight on Twitter.  Primarily to follow important news in project management (business) and aviation (mostly pleasure, sometimes business), I am now up and running in the Twittersphere as well.

A happy consequence is that I can now also tweet some of the things that don’t quite make it into this blog.  You definitely won’t find any celebrity updates or sports analysis, but please do follow if you’re interested in management, psychology, economics, organizational behavior, or business in general (and the occasional aviation comment).

You can find me @JBurkePE

See you out there.

Repeating the Past March 27, 2013

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have all heard or read this important quote.  It is a critical reminder that we have exceedingly short memories, and we have also done unthinkable horrible acts throughout human history.

But what of the positive, progressive acts?  What of the connections we have lost and strive to regain?

Seth Godin again reminds us that our window to the past is often narrow, but always selective.  Some have a big picture view, but more likely we are limited to what we are able to immediately recall.  The wisdom of old age is often simply the ability to synthesize years of memory and experience into a cognitive prediction of the near future.  Nonetheless, certain aspects of our lives have been constant for so long, we forget there was ever another way.

Seth’s description of the industrial age and our concept of unemployment illustrates that our world view is wide open for debate.  Our modern, western perception of work – from the hierarchical organization to workdays versus weekends – is but one manifestation of our semi-capitalist system.  Not only are there many different perspectives, but they are alive and well around the world today.

I found evidence of this firsthand as I interviewed several local businesspeople in the antique and pawn trade for an upcoming article.  One in particular stood out, and related the increase of younger people visiting her shop.  At least here in Montana, there is a visible need to reconnect with simpler, more human-centric products and tools.  I wonder if it is as prevalent elsewhere in the country, but I suspect it may not be as significant elsewhere in the world where the generational gap is not so wide.

If nothing else, Seth’s article points to the fact that our industrial age may well turn out to be less than a blip on the human timeline.  If the Iron Age lasted 1,500 years and warrants little more than a chapter in a high school history book, imagine the possibility that the industrial age – so far barely 300 years old – will only be worthy of mention to serious history scholars in the year 3013.  For now, however, we often work because it’s as much a part of our culture as education or religion.  Perhaps the industrial and information ages will simply be lumped together into the next 1,000 year cycle, called the “Working Age”.

Is your experience getting in the way of your knowledge? February 18, 2013

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All too often in the consulting world, we find individuals in client organizations who have been beating their heads against a wall for years.  They are smart people with good ideas who, for various bureaucratic or political reasons, have been unable to effect real, lasting change in their organizations.  We probably all know people like this – happy with their work in theory, but frustrated that valuable improvements remain ignored or impeded.

However, there is another category, not lacking good intentions, who inadvertently contribute to the first group’s angst.  I had the chance to observe this firsthand – in my own home workshop.

Perhaps something of a dying art, I build plastic models (especially during cold Montana winters).  Here is my latest project, a Ford Trimotor that I picked up two years ago, but which sat in storage during my time in Australia:

Trimotor Model

As a project manager, such a “project” seems a good fit with my day job, but it occurred to me that I approach my models differently than a real project.  Definitely, there is a budget and I maintain my own personal standards of quality.  I establish the deliverable, determining whether I build the kit “out of the box” or include any modifications or new techniques.

But when it comes to the other fundamental leg of any true project – time – I let the art-like nature of the model go with the flow.  Like other hobbies, a kit like this might wallow half-done in a box somewhere for months or years.  There is no pressure to complete it “on time” – if ever.

A true challenge lay in developing a project schedule around a new kit, predicting the time involved for each stage of production.

Model Project

And this is where such a simple plan revealed just how little my 30 years of model building experience actually “knew”.  Like many of my clients, I thought I knew the job.  But if anyone asked how long it took to build a typical model, I would have only the most rudimentary estimate.  Too often, my recollection is clouded by time and the various delays that go along with any hobby – a kit that takes just hours of working time may actually have taken weeks to complete.  It is, of course, a supposedly relaxing diversion, so I wasn’t exactly keeping meticulous records.

In many organizations, these same conditions can – inadvertently or otherwise – stymie a change initiative.  People that have done the job for 10, 20, or 30 years may indeed know their jobs better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean they know as much as they could – especially if they require improvement.  Without a solid baseline and a clear understanding of the work involved, there is no way to effectively manage the job itself, let alone any changes.

Hence the challenge, and one of the benefits of having an outsider’s point of view.  The consultant is in a position to objectively measure and quantify critical aspects of the job (the easy part) and communicate them with sensitivity and understanding to the client team members (quite difficult – this is where consultants make their money).  The overall goals are the same – the team wants to do the job better and the consultant wants to help them achieve the target.  The team provides the experience and the knowledge, while the consultant provides the tools to separate what they know from what they think they know.  And if there’s anything that recent psychological research has shown, it’s that we think we know significantly more than we really do.

It can be quite uncomfortable to face the cognitive dissonance that comes from raw data highlighting your mistakes (my next model is already off target, and I’ve barely scratched the surface).  But if you are truly dedicated to constant learning and becoming an expert in your field, the hard lesson comes with a big payoff – more efficient operations, better control over variances, and improved morale as problems are anticipated and handled at the source rather than after the fact.

Just how accurate are your eyes? February 6, 2013

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Our local news station’s weather department came up with an interesting little slogan for their mid-day ads.  As probably every local weather reporter does, ours wants you to know that when the storm of the century hits, he’ll be there to keep you informed.


So, it’s all the more interesting that they selected the slogan, “Nothing more accurate than seeing it yourself.”  As in, if you look out the window, you’ll know more than we can tell you from the TV station.  Strange as it is for our weatherman to promote, does this phrase even hold true?

On one level, it does.  We trust our eyes to absorb the visual spectrum and our brains to interpret those signals, presenting “factual” information and predictions.  We believe that which we “see”.  Speaking of weather, we could all be professional meteorologists if the extent of the job were to look outside and report rain, snow, or sleet.

Of course, it is much more than that.  First, what you see is not always what it seems.  Science has shown that in addition to cognitive biases, we also suffer visual limitations when concentrating on particular tasks.  We can literally be blind to something right in front of us, as this great video summary of Daniel Kahneman’s work shows.

On another level, we can ask what “accuracy” even means.  It’s probably fair to say that most people don’t need a meteorologist to decide whether to carry an umbrella RIGHT NOW.  On the other hand, most of us would be at a loss to guess whether it will be raining in three hours, or three days.  Our “accurate” visual understanding of the environment becomes almost useless very quickly.

We need meteorologists (and doctors, and engineers) to help interpret observations and then literally PREDICT THE FUTURE – at least with a reasonable degree of certainty.  I would trust the professional estimate any day over what my eyes may be telling me at that moment.

Noisy Inspiration June 23, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM, Writing.
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I don’t know about mere decibel level being the key to creativity, but I can personally relate to this study.  [Edit: another version here] When I write magazine or other non-technical content, I’ll often head straight for the coffee shop.  I don’t have any science to back it up, but simply being in the presence of a group helps me visualize my audience.

How would I describe this topic to that person?  What questions would I ask to determine their frame of reference and familiarity?

The background noise isn’t just noise.  It’s voices and conversations, even the TV in the corner, each with its own stream of consciousness.  Whether consciously or not, I pick up words here and there that prompt my own thoughts.

On the other hand, sometimes even being in that environment with earbuds in provides a new line of thinking that wouldn’t have appeared were I listening to the same sounds in isolation.  It’s a mix of visual and audible content that provides a fertile bed for new thoughts to connect and evolve – and it all depends on the topic I’m working on.  Technical work demands different focus, language, and tone because of the audience than does writing for the general public.

Whatever your creative outlet, a new mosaic of sensory input can definitely help to put you in the right frame of mind or get over the agony of the blank page.  I’m going to guess it’s not just about loudness, but the coffee doesn’t hurt either.

Pushing Time June 3, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM, Management.
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I’m a big fan of Alan Weiss.  Whether you are an actual consultant or simply someone who runs a business with customers, his advice can yield excellent results – though to be really successful, it needs to be applied somewhat ruthlessly.

Meetings are times when you will need to decide whether to make friends with the client and not make waves OR do the right thing.  Being a consultant is hard work.  You are already being injected into an organization, from the top, without much buy-in from the people with whom you must work on a daily basis.  On top of that, you must deconstruct the client’s workday into manageable parts and work on them in order of priority.  The problem?  Until the change is accepted and habitual, you are working in transition between the old and the new.

Unfortunately, even the most open-minded clients may perceive their existing workdays as unchangeable until proven otherwise.  This means that pointless meetings and sub-par time management will cause them to postpone meetings with the consultant – if for no other reason than the consultant is an “intrusion” on the existing schedule.

Don’t let it happen.

As Weiss might say, if you let the client postpone your meeting, you are training them that your time is less valuable than theirs.  And this is unacceptable if you are to be the client’s peer and partner in solving their problems – not just a subcontractor.  You must be up to the challenge of holding everyone to their commitments.  If you can’t keep your own promise to yourself to improve the client’s condition, how can you coach someone else to keep theirs?

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