Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Knowledge is power

It is often said that we live in the information age: anything you need to know is just a click away. At the same time, we have a knowledge economy: so called knowledge workers are amongst the highest paid people. Surely there is a contradiction here? If everything you need to know is easy to find, then why do you need people whose work, and whose worth, is based on knowing things?

The difference is best illustrated by the old story of the engineer, called out of retirement to examine a troublesome machine. After considering it for a while, he marks a chalk 'X' on the faulty part, and submits a bill for $10,000. When asked for a breakdown of this amount, he provides the following: "$1 for the chalk mark; $9,999 for knowing where to put it". The bill is paid without further question.

The hardest thing that I ever do is to think properly. Make that second hardest - the hardest is to get someone else to think. That's why I like the Schopenhauer quote that I use from time to time: "The task is not to see what nobody else has seen. It is rather to see what everybody else has seen, and think what nobody else has thought." So what? Well, my core point is that you cannot get experience from google, nor can you get innovation from a book. By using individuals who know their stuff, you tap into their knowledge, yes, but also their perspective and imagination. Someone who has been around the block a few times will see things that others don't, and will recognise when to apply a process and when to look for something new. Methodologies are useless when the situation is unique.

This is the kind of work I want to do: a difficult problem that needs a great solution. If you've got this, then call me!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Two things

A theory I read somewhere holds that on any topic, there are only two things that matter. Everything else is a side effect or a result of those two things. Hence, for management consulting, my two things are:

1. Without good implementation, the best ideas are useless.
2. At some point the client takes over.

This is another way of saying that whatever you do must work in the real world - the greatest idea is nothing if the business can't make it happen. This is one reason why the best ideas are sometimes the simplest.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


New business ideas no. 27: a finishing school for South African managers. The changing face of business in South Africa sees the old guard and the new mixing in boardrooms and restaurants across the country. While a young black man who was the first in his family to go to college may struggle with which glass to use the first time he is in an expensive restaurant, the old white man will struggle with the new norms of business – those tricky handshakes and a different social interaction. I think what we need is a buddy system – pair up the old and the new, thus helping each to manage better. Of course there’s a limited timeframe – the dinosaurs will soon be extinct, and the old norms will be as odd as running round to open the car door for a lady.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Getting better all the time

I'm a perpetual student. Although I haven't studied full time for a while, I try and learn from people I am around - in a work and social context. It means that I sometimes find myself deconstructing situations - "how did my wife manage to get us a discount there?" - in an effort to figure out better how things work.

A rich source of learning is my colleagues. I am lucky enough to have worked with a wide variety of very smart and interesting people. One guy in particular springs to mind. He was a fellow consultant in London, had put himself through business school by working as a motorbike courier, and always kept an eye open for the next opportunity. Every time he was in a visible situation, such as presenting to a client, he corner someone whose opinion he valued and ask one question: "three good things; three bad things" - about what he had just done. It's a great question because it forces you to think about his work, and it pushes you into a balanced reply.

Come to think of it, he was probably using it to teach me as much as to learn about himself. Devious bugger.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Red red wine

Here's an idea. Being an enthusiastic iPhone owner, and also an enthusiastic wine drinker, although more of a gourmand than a gourmet, I was musing yesterday on how to combine the two. When touring the winelands around Cape Town, wouldn't it be useful to have an app on the phone that would guide you to them? It would make use of the GPS functionality, knowing where you are and where the wineries are, and it would be able to mark ones that you had previously identified. You could perhaps filter your results by those with highly rated wines, or child friendly facilities, and make notes on the wineries as you went.

All of the data already exists in the exhaustingly comprehensive Platter guide - even the latitude & longitude of the wineries. Combine this with user generated ratings and comments, and winery generated additional information, such as pricing, and you've surely got a winner. If they don't do it, somebody else will, surely. Just remember to cut me in on the action - in wine if you like.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The way things used to be

In the dim & distant past, you joined a company from school or university, and worked your way through to the gold watch or the sack. About 15 years ago, I was at an induction course to a large consulting firm, and the managing partner told us that unlike his generation, we would probably change jobs every 5 years and careers every 10. Even that now feels a bit conservative.

The prevailing mindset in the capitalist parts of the globe is "every man for himself". It is up to the individual to ensure that he is employable and then employed, and to keep his skills up to date. Anyone who does not believe this is about to have that belief tested by the effects of the recession.

Paradoxically, at the same time as companies have moved away from taking an embracing responsibility for their employees, they have moved - or been pushed - towards taking greater care of their social and physical environment. Whether or not corporations are best placed, or appropriately incentivised, to do this is a moot point. It's often touted as a great way to attract good staff - by inspiring them with your social conscience.

Perhaps if we went back to looking after staff in the first place ...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I do things my way

When I was working at a large consulting firm in London in the mid 90s, I remember going through a few phases in my impressions of the place. To start with I was chuffed to be there - the smart people, the great support, the learning - and I was probably a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. Once the initial effects had worn off, and I had got bored with smart hotels and weekly champagne evenings, I moved on. As well as ordering beer in wine bars, I was looking around me at the people and the structure and wondering about where I was going. The one thing that I knew for sure was that I didn't want to be a partner. It seemed to me that they had made a Faustian pact in exchange for their position, and had leapt into one pan of the work-life balance.

To their credit, the firm in question was doing a lot of thinking at the time about this kind of topic, and figured out that there were people they wanted to keep (as well as me) who also didn't want to be a partner. For these, they created a position called director, which just meant you worked as hard but didn't have to buy in at some point.

For working women though, and increasingly for Generation Y, similar situations exist. I may enjoy the work I do, and I may be very good at it, but I don't have any great interest in climbing the corporate ladder. Enlightened companies (and there are some out there) are having to find ways to accommodate the people who are trying to balance their own lives without the benefit of role play workshops in country hotels. For some this means working 3 or 4 days a week instead of five; for others it means doing something similar to Google's "20% time", to make working life more meaningful. It's part of a general trend towards social responsibility for profit making entities. More on this later.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Learning to fly

I've just been reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, and I've realised that we have something in common. It's not, unfortunately, a highly successful writing career, fame & fortune, but the use of a device when explaining a concept. What Gladwell does very well is intrigue his reader by explaining in simple terms a field he is dealing with, then pulling you into his story by making you feel that you are now an initiate of a secret club - one of the few who understands this area. He then drives the point he wants to make by building on this new understanding with a good stroy. For example, the bit I was reading last night was about pilots and air crashes, allowing him to use the excitement and intrigue along with the limitless jargon to engage the reader. As I was reading, and deconstructing, it occurred to me that I do the same thing, although not as lucratively, nor probably as elegantly.

When I communicate ideas to clients, I'm often trying to get them to think differently about an issue, or to understand a new concept. When doing this, it helps to start by teaching them something, perhaps a theoretical framework, or the results of some research. I then build on that to get my point across. The human desire to learn is deply ingrained, and so by giving them something new you capture their interest, and get the right part of their brain working. They take their new tool and look for somewhere to use it, so when you then hit them with the good stuff, it sticks. I've already told two people today about the effects of cultural norms on air safety, so I know it works!

Monday, July 13, 2009

A little knowledge

I drive an old car, and enjoy working on it myself, although I am no great shakes as a mechanic, knowing just enough (and owning enough manuals) to be dangerous. I find that the most important part of my efforts as an amateur mechanic are - similarly to my professional life - the thinking about things. The time I take to ponder over something that is not working properly is almost invariably better spent than the actual 'doing' part, and also makes that part more effective, and shorter. It is due partly to the fact that I'm a better thinker than I am a mechanic, but the more I think about it in advance, the less I spend time fixing my own mistakes.

For the difficult problems, I tend to take my car to a professional. The problem with this though, is that amateurs like me make the worst clients, since we think we know what we are doing, and we are a little sceptical of the professional's ability to really understand what is needed. The temptation is to test him to see if he really knows what he is about. Some people do this with consultants too. It's a bit like going to the doctor but only telling him half your symptoms, just to see how good he is. I sometimes experience the other side of the coin as a consultant. The thing to watch out for is clients with MBAs whose bookshelves are groaning with Tom Peters and Jack Welch. There is a natural scepticism when somebody walks into your office to advise you how to run your business. It can lead to friction, but I find that if they really get involved in the process, then it's great fun. The expert and the amateur can do great things if they just co-operate with each other. To go back to the car analogy - if you tell the mechanic whether you are planning on doing the school run or the Cannonball Run, then he's got something to work towards, and you'll both be happier with the result.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Hit the road, Jack

My recurring problem with consulting is being what an ex client I saw on the plane last month referred to as a road warrior. It's a cool sounding name created by the makers of laptops and backpacks for those of us who are professional gypsies. I sometimes crave a desk, a PA, and my own coffee mug, rather than camping in someone else's office, sharing their printer, and learning the hard way what from the canteen is edible.

My preference at the moment is where I am sitting now - my study at home, with everything I need in reach. The downside: the kids know I'm hiding in here. The kids, and of course my wife, are the main problem I have with travelling. Being in a hotel at someone else's expense is cool. Until the second month or so. When any of the following are true, then it's been too long:
  • You remember the names of the hotel staff, and vice versa.
  • The place you most often bump into friends is the airport.
  • Your dog wont let you through the gate.
  • You know the room service menu and which rooms to avoid, but can't remember which button opens your garage.
  • You know what's under that foil over your dinner before you peel it back. And it's not good.
  • The wifi profiles on your laptop are into three figures
  • You know, to the minute, how long it takes from alarm to check in
  • You know the foibles of every hire car on offer, but can't remember which side the wipers are in the one you left at the airport. Or where you parked it.
Travelling to clients is part of the job, unfortunately. It means you get to go to some great places, but some really dodgy ones too. The lifestyle tends to breed a self reliance bordering on the anti-social. So if you try to engage me in conversation on a plane, please don't be offended if I'm a bit monosyllabic to start with...

Monday, May 11, 2009

Same old story

There are two things on a consulting project that will always happen.

First, a client will start a conversation aimed at finding out how much consultants earn. Answer: probably less than you suspect, but enough to compensate for the hard work and time away from families.

Second, someone will tell you the watch joke, which is the consulting equivalent of the kind of jokes that pop into my head when I'm talking to a gynecologist. Definition: a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, then keeps the watch. There's some truth in this, but it's more like finding your watch for you, fixing it with your toolkit, then charging you. The answers are usually there if you know where and how to look.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

We don't talk anymore

It all adds up: communication is cumulative, and each different type counts for extra credit. This counts in a business context as much as it does in personal relationships, and I promise not to use the expression "over communicate".

An example: email has not replaced conversation any more than IM has. Formal, hard copy, letters are rarer now, but we communicate much more than we did even a few years ago. Emails tend to fall into two categories: there are long letter substitutes, and the short snappy exchanges. The letter substitutes can either be rambling business ones that would have benefited from editing, punctuation, and paragraphs, or personal ones a bit like the family annual repors that some people put into Christmas cards. With the long ones, you can often hear the writer's voice in the style.

The shorter ones are closer to an IM chat, where the exchanges, usually limited to two or three people, tend to be short and sharp. The nature of email is that you get as much time as you need to come up with something original to type, so the correspondence has a witty, unreal quality, rather like dialogue from 'Friends'. The problem with these things is that they can go on for ever. I just had to set up a meeting to avoid being locked into an eternal email loop - at least with a deadline we can reach a final conclusion.

Two things to remember with email:
  • If you're steaming, sleep on it - before sending it, re-read it and edit for vitriol.
  • Electronic lives for ever - unless you have known the recipient for 20 years, then assume it's going to be seen by the wrong person eventually - ask yourself "could this come back to haunt me?".

Friday, May 1, 2009

Call me any time

Why do companies hire management consultants? There are four main reasons that I have come across, although often it's a combination of factors that brings consultants in the door. Here they are:
  • Speeding things up: getting focused resources who can get on with what needs to be done without getting involved in unnecessary workshops, away days and committees. The business probably has the skills to do the work, but just doesn't have enough of them, and thanks to the heavy baggage of daily working life, they can't move fast enough.
  • Borrowing brains: employing experts and experience is expensive. When you want to get rid of them it's even more expensive, so the thing to do is hire those skills when you have a need. The trick here is making sure that you get the right skills, which means understanding your problem and your organisation properly. Like self awareness in people, self knowledge in organisations is rare and often highly concentrated.
  • Trying something new: accessing fresh ideas & approaches. This is related to borrowing brains, but it's more about the external perspective that consultants can bring. Some companies recognise that they get stale and introspective, and hiring consultants is one way of seeing the wood for the trees.
  • Because they can. Curiously true - consultants are sometimes status symbols for executives, although it's getting rarer these days.
Once they are in, though, how do you make sure you get the most out of your consultants? That's a question for another time.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Try to see it my way

In South Africa, the rules are looser than in the UK, where I started my career. This applies in almost every facet of life, but means that I notice the restrictive norms that I had imposed on myself. I was brought up on getting a job in a proper company, then working your way up through promotions and well-timed moves. There is a much more entrepreneurial mindset in business life here, without the structures that are more prevalent in the UK. Part of the reason for this is the shallower talent pool that is SA's much smaller skilled workforce. Smart and ambitious (or lucky) people can therefore get much further, much faster than they might elsewhere. The 'make a plan' mindset is pervasive, and means that South Africans are often good at getting things done by whatever means will work.

A feature of this mindset is that it exports quite well. South Africans in London often tend to do well, at least in part because they have never been told "that's not how we do things round here". They just get on with things Even worse is "that's how we've always done it" - tradition and convention: the enemies of innovation.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Come as you are

Welcome to the Cirrus blog. My plan here is to share some ideas, experience and advice in an informal way. Names & details will be changed to protect the guilty, and I reserve the right to make things up. Things will also tend to get quiet when I get busy.