I hate to dissappoint you, but…

December 22, 2008

“…I don’t have a solution for you. My suggestion would be that you come up with it yourself.”

That was this gist of my conversation with an acquaintance this weekend at a holiday party. I realize this answer is not terribly polite, but before you decide it’s because I had too much spiked eggnog, allow me to explain. The preceding conversation – like most party small talk – went something like this:

Guest:“So, how are things at work?”

Me: “Just great, thanks. And you?”

Guest: “Busy as usual. The recent economic downturn hasn’t affected us at all!”

Me: “Well that’s a relief!”

Guest: “It is. Speaking of work, you’ve never really explained to me what you do.”

Me: “Well…we’re kind of like corporate doctors. We teach companies how to run their business better by teaching them how to think differently. This allows them to solve their own problems once and for all, without resorting to consultants. When they apply this new skill, they eliminate their recurring problems, make employees and customers happier and generally become much more competitive, innovative and exciting companies.”

Guest: “Interesting,” she replied. “So you help companies solve problems…I wonder if you might have a suggestion for me. You see, we have this problem at work. On the outside we appear to be really progressive – we have these great workplace policies that allow women to balance their time at work and at home, but in reality the culture is that women are expected to work just as hard as the men do – regardless of whether or not they want to take time out to start a family. In fact, the big bosses look down upon them when they want to take advantage of these policies. We’ve come to realize that this is a major issue, but nobody wants to take the first step in resolving or challenging it. So what would you suggest? A 1-800 hotline? A sensitivity training seminar?”

Me: “Well, if you were my client, I’d coach you through the 11 steps of the Tatham Approach. But first, you would have to convince all of the executive leaders of your company to go to Boot Camp, where they would learn a new way of thinking. Then, it would mean that your whole company would get started on a journey of shifting the culture and mindset by launching various teams to tackle high-stake important processes – such as the one you’re describing.”

Guest: “Hmmm. Interesting. We should keep in touch,” as she reaches for another shrimp. [While she may have been genuinely interested, the expression on her face seemed to say, “Really? You mean we actually have to do the work? Can’t you just come up with something for us?”]

At this point our conversation was interrupted and we switched to talking about where the best beaches are in the Caribbean. But if we had continued, I would have said, “Very likely what would happen is that you and six other people from various departments in your company – that would each have a stake in this process – would get together and spend six weeks coming up with your own solution to this problem. You would then experiment, find the root cause of the problem, prototype a solution and then implement the one that works.”

I can see how this hardly sounds exciting, much less when it’s discussed over a wheel of brie and a shrimp ring – but the truth is, process work IS tedious. It can be boring. It can also be painfully difficult – full of confrontation, ambiguity, resistance and sabotage. And what’s worse, is that we make our clients do all the hard work. The problem is that often when people want to fix a problem, they look for a quick fix or a silver bullet. They want someone to walk in, wave a magic wand and *poof* all the problems are gone.

That’s a great short-term solution, but sooner or later the problem will come back. The only way to really eliminate a problem is to look at the root cause and have the people who work in that environment every single day come up with their own solution. Not only will they come up with the best one, but since it’s their idea, it’s much more likely to stick.

My conversation partner may have been sorely disappointed, but that’s exactly why clients hire us: using their own people, to come up with their own solutions, customized for their own company, so that they have long-term change. And what could be disappointing in that?

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