Posts Tagged ‘consulting’

When I’m 90

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

I will always remember an old professor colleague of mine. I had not seen him in twenty years. He was the last person coming off the plane in Boston at midnight and looked quite old. He was disheveled, slowly dragging his oversized suitcase up the jet way, holding a half-open shoulder bag full of flip charts. He was still wearing the same patched-at-the-elbows rumpled suit, and his shirt was stained by markers ink. He saw me waiting for him, and a large smile illuminated his face.

“I’m just back from the West Coast”, he shouted at me from twenty feet away. “Three-day-workshop with a bunch of kids managing a high-tech start-up. Not so bad for a ninety-year old guy who does not even use Facebook”.

This image of my old friend’s triumphant smile has stayed with me all these years. The ancestral anxiety of any educator is irrelevance. This is particularly true those of us who teach innovation. I want to look like my old friend when I’m 90. I want to come off the plane, physically exhausted, but exhilarated at the thought of having just learned about a new industry. When my consciousness starts waning on my hospital bed, I want someone to whisper in my ear how neural networks and 3D reservoir modeling algorithms are built.

I’m not quite 90 yet, so I’ve got a bit of a head start. The front-end discovery part of any new business is by far where I have the most fun (I feel like I’m being paid to go to school). Writing-up success stories based on consulting work I have done and teaching them on the lecture circuit is the second best part. Everything in-between is just hard work.

I’m learning about six industries right now and feel like a butterfly in the orchard of knowledge. Three of them are fairly easy to grasp at the beginner’s level: we can all visualize how a grocery store, a hotel or a movie theater chain work. Three others have a higher educational bar: few of us have an a priori knowledge of flow cytometry, software-designed networks, or smart grid optimization tools. And even the “simpler” industries become complex beyond the basic level: there’s nothing trivial about figuring out how to manage the supply chain of a grocery store, optimize the occupancy rate of a hotel chain, or improve the average spending per spectator in a movie theater chain. As my synapses fire at decreasing speed, I pray that the wisdom of my years and the presence of younger brains around me cover for my reduced mental agility.

This is where the power of a cross-industry framework helps. In the co-creation business, one sees opportunities for new connections everywhere. Some people’s experiences can be connected together to form “chains of empathy” (for example, suppliers, employees and customers can all help a grocery store figure out what its strategy ought to be). One can fairly easily visualize data flowing across previously disconnected individuals and companies, and new insights being generated between them (in the medical, telecommunication or energy worlds, for example). I am like the Haley Joel Osment character in the movie the Sixth Sense: I see dead people.  Unlike him, though, I arrogantly think I can make them come alive.

If you one day see an old disheveled guy dragging heavy luggage and coming last off an airplane at midnight, do not feel sorry for me. My dream is being fulfilled.



Would I have worked for Gadhafi if he’d asked me? (Fortunately, he didn’t.)

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Since I work at the intersection of academia and consulting, I found myself pondering the recently released information that both the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Monitor Group consulting firm had received large payments from the Libyan government of Moammar El-Gadhafi. More specifically, I found myself wondering what I would have done, had Moammar called me for some friendly co-creation advice a few years ago.

First, let’s go back to some of the facts. LSE accepted £3.7 million for a research center and for educating some of the Libyan government’s civil servants. Separately (or maybe not), it also granted a PhD degree to Saif El-Gadhafi, Moammar’s son. Moammar himself appeared on video at a major LSE event. The Monitor Group received $3 million a year “to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi.” As part of this package, some Monitor consultants also contributed field work to Saif’s dissertation.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to point to the “error of judgment” by LSE and Monitor in working with the Libyan government (that is the phrase LSE Director Howard Davies used in his resignation speech). We now know from recent events that Moammar El-Gadhafi has not changed and is still a deranged dictator with no respect for human life. With Saif El-Gadhafi’s “river of blood” speech on February 21, we also learned that his claim to be the change agent who would usher Libya into a new relationship with the global community of nations was a lie. But let us remember that until those recent events, Libya had been universally commended for voluntarily dismantling its nuclear arsenal and had been invited to sit on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Let us remember that Saif was portrayed by many, inside and outside the LSE, as the person who would bring modern values to Libya.

Many governments have unappetizing sides, particularly in emerging countries (although not exclusively). Should we expect our academics and consultants to respect some boundaries of acceptable and not-acceptable governments? And who is to draw those boundaries? There are documentable human rights violations in Russia or China, for example. Should academics and consultants be expected to disqualify themselves from work in those countries? Or should we on the contrary encourage our teachers and consultants to become pioneering change agents of those countries’ transformation to Western democratic and management values? I personally spend a lot of time teaching and consulting in emerging countries. While corruption and nepotism are present, these countries are also fantastically exciting because of the opportunities they offer to help entire populations lift themselves out of poverty. Why would Libya have been different? LSE was not asked to train Libyan civil servants to repress street demonstrations, but to prepare them for modern practices of government.

If one accepts that the true tyrannical nature of the Libyan regime may have been concealed at the time, the only ethical violation on the part of LSE was to commingle a source of financing with the granting of the degree to Saif and the public video appearance by Moammar. There is indeed something unsavory about what appears to be a quid pro quo, which compromised the academic integrity of the school by suggesting its degrees can be bought. In the larger scheme of things, though, this is not as major a violation as helping a known dictator terrorize a country’s population. It is comparable to asking whether, say, George W. Bush’s academic record is truly what earned him his admission to Yale College or Harvard Business School, or whether these two Ivy League schools granted him admission because they saw some value in having the son of a prominent family (and it turns out, a future President) among its students.

The ethics of Monitor are a bit more questionable. First, a strategy consulting firm has no particular public relations skills, thereby raising the question of why it accepted a scope of effort entirely built on enhancing the image of Libya and its leader. The answer to that question probably lies in the magnitude of the money involved, and this is a disturbing conclusion. If Monitor was in effect using its elite academic reputation to whitewash the dirty laundry of the Libyan government, there is indeed something rotten in the kingdom of Cambridge.  Having Monitor consultants do interview work for the PhD dissertation of the Libyan leader’s son is also reprehensible, because an academically based consulting firm like Monitor – with Michael Porter of Harvard Business School as one of its co-founders – should have known better (they did acknowledge that it was “ill-considered”).

As to what I would have done had I been approached by the Libyan government to provide teaching or consulting services, we will of course never know because nobody asked me. In my moments of honesty, though, I imagine I would have done it. I have had pangs of doubt before accepting work elsewhere in the Middle East, before taking on some of Singapore’s government-sponsored growth initiatives, and before a project in Russia. In all cases, I convinced myself in the end to do it. So, yes, I probably would have said yes to working with the Libyan government. And of course, I would have been eternally sorry after that.


Co-Creation = Ideas x Energy

Monday, December 13th, 2010

I had a Groundhog Day experience last week. I found myself interviewing the same person twice within a couple of weeks, with two different consulting colleagues, producing two completely different outcomes. The first time, the focus was on building an analytical model for a large hospital I happen to be consulting to. The solution was largely framed by the consultants: all that was needed was some data. The interviewee, who is in charge of one of the practices of this hospital, was composed and professional. He provided a lot of the requested information, but there was no warmth on either side. When the allotted time was up, it was clearly time to go.

The second time, the agenda was open. The focus was on understanding what the executive thought the company should do. Although starting in guarded fashion in light of his previous experience with the consultants, the executive progressively grew more excited, spent twice as much time as was allotted, and even got up in the middle of the discussion to print a slide that represented his vision. In the end, he asked us what we thought of his ideas and whether we could help him socialize some of these ideas with his management colleagues, volunteering that he is not very good at arguing for his vision at management meetings.

Having gone through my Groundhog Day moment, I found myself discussing with my analytically inclined colleagues what the value of our interviewee’s enthusiasm (and willingness to expose vulnerability) really is. If you are a left-brained top manager (or consultant), your answer is likely to be “not much.” The emphasis will be placed on proving (rarely) or disproving (most of the time) the validity of the vision that was expressed, and trying to remain as emotionally uninvolved as possible to avoid bias. The value of the top manager or consultant is in providing a greater level of expertise than the interviewee, which largely requires puncturing holes in his argument. If you believe in co-creation, however, you will value the emotional excitement in itself, will view your role as channeling the laudable energy, and will less likely feel the urge for intellectual one-upmanship. Of course, you will still want to validate that the interviewee is not talking through his hat, but the energy will have value in itself. This redefines the role of the top manager or the consultant as a partner in a “win more–win more” relationship, rather than as a Cassandra showing that the other person’s idea is flawed.

Of course, the two sides will happily caricature each other. Analytical minds will be tempted to describe the co-creation folks as spineless apologists for mediocre executives advancing their agenda, while co-creation people will be tempted to describe analytical types as irrelevant model-builders who will always remain on the expert sideline by failing to understand management dynamics.

What is needed is a giant ecumenical embrace that recognizes the value of both points of view. Being surrounded by engineers in my professional life, I have taken to writing a simple equation that attempts to capture both dimensions of the co-creation process:

Transformation = Ideas x Energy

The quality of ideas matters a lot. But the passion of individuals for these ideas also has value. In the end, there is a multiplicative effect between the two, i.e., the best ideas charged with the energy of the right people are the ones most likely to be transformative.

In the business world, I believe that energy is massively underplayed and analytical evaluation overplayed. The training at major business schools remains predominantly analytical (because teaching about models is easier than teaching about people and teams, although some schools are working hard on changing that). There may also be a male bias: since guys tend to be less intuitive than women about other people and continue to dominate the management ranks in most parts of the world (with some exceptions), the overall bias remains analytical. Also since business is largely about metrics (with money the ultimate one), it is easiest to think of everything else being numbers-based, which avoids the confusion of having to factor the human thing in the equation.

I gotta go now. My healthcare executive has had another thought he’d like to share. He and I, we’re now co-creating the future of healthcare.