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...