Sensei Blog

Client Matters

<div class=\"postavatar\">Client Matters</div>

Here are two opposite ends of the spectrum of what consultants often experience with clients.


We’ll often get contacted with the following, “We want a two day session for our senior team.” Many neophyte consultants lick their lips and pounce on the ‘opportunity’ with alacrity. They start shooting off proposals, buffing up their hallowed methodology, and more.

A more sane, measured and customer-serving response to the request for a two day session is, “Why?”

That always stops people in their tracks. “Why do you want a two day session for your senior team and how do you know that’s the right thing to do?”

In the act of asking that question, you start actually consulting. And if you engage in a real dialogue on the basis of those questions you will gain bracing insight into the real issues, challenges and aspirations of the clients. You may also get a bracing introduction to the assumptions they’re making — many of which are potentially untested.

It may well be that a two day session is like a relatively empty vessel, into which after suitable diagnostics and appropriate design, you can pour content that will actually serve their needs and best interests. But it may also be that a half day alignment session would suffice, and the real action needs to take place at other organizational levels, or with a different group of people, or may require preliminary contact with customers or other stakeholders. It could be that a six month process is needed, but woven in holistically to meetings already planned rather than a separate offsite.

My recommendation to clients is if you put out a request like the one above, and get a proposal back in response, disqualify the person or group from further consideration as the request has no meaning without further exploration.

And if you receive a request like the above, differentiate yourself meaningfully by helping to get to the core of what’s driving the request, rather than getting infatuated by the format proposed.


Here’s another common challenge. An organization decides they need to create a strategy and manage its roll-out. They get an organizational consultant with a strategy implementation process, anchored in the balanced scorecard or some other framework. As they proceed, courtesy of this framework, they are deluged with meetings, with process charts, with communiques, and eventually they arrive at what they perceive to be The Holy Grail. Namely, they have a clear map. All inconsistencies are removed (on the charts anyway), and the path forward glitters like a mythical Yellow Brick Road.

The problem is the map is not the territory, and never has been. The problem is that underlying the process clarity is dysfunctional relationships, misguided leadership behaviors, poorly aligned teams, social networks that don’t operate well, governance practices that may be out of kilter with strategic aspirations, information hoarded rather than shared, a culture that is ossified with past practices rather than vitalized by future aspirations. And eventually the ‘knowing/doing gap’ will become that much more profound.

I always advise people that once they have process clarity, they have to convert that into a more human map: of behaviors-in-action, team composition and alignment, presence of vibrant or nullifying relationships, communication and network effectiveness, leadership role-modeling and relevant efforts at culture-shifting in order to make the processes actually manifest. Until these adaptive elements are infused into the process steps, to humanize and actualize the processes, we run the risk of trying to run the world from an operating manual.

It doesn’t work. In fact, most of us don’t even run our computers from a manual. We get some hands-on experience while drawing on some guidance, then tinkering and adapting based on results. Alas in an organization there are many more moving parts, and my ‘tinkering’ can have expensive consequences if not synergized with the learnings and efforts of others.

Process clarity and human engagement must march together. You can see an organization as a collection of processes and plans. Fair enough. But you can even more meaningfully see it pulsating with what we call, human performance. In other words, the subtotal of all the actions, interactions, behaviors, collaboration and communication between all the people who make a difference to the success or failure of the organization. You can see the organization as a patchwork quilt of teams, conversations and acted upon commitments. These are human dimensions, and if not addressed, all the gewgaws and trinkets of process clarity will be fallow and leave your strategic vision unfulfilled.

Posted in Leadership | 1 Comment

Time To Ask the Real Question

<div class=\"postavatar\">Time To Ask the Real Question</div>

I was trolling through various websites, of various gurus and pundits. And you hear incontestable gems like, “Teamwork really pays off,” or “Managers have to care about who the person is beyond the 9 to 5 job,” or “Don’t let negativity get you down,” or “If you don’t care about your health, who will?” Now, underneath the fortune cookie gloss there are veins of wisdom in each of these observations, that if mined can be genuinely illuminating.

But why are these base-line statements still needed? Why haven’t we moved on to saying, as perhaps a next-stage observation for each of these: “For teamwork to pay off you have to know who you’re on a team with and why,” or “Managers have to show they know their people by customizing recognition and coaching accordingly,” or “Look to reframe the negative concerns shared with you in a way that releases rather than inhibits possibility,” or “Care about your health by creating goals that would be fun to realize even if seemingly tough to reach.” These are far more interesting insights and assume we’ve at least passed “go” already.

Arguably the reason we keep reiterating basics as if they were first-time bolts from the heavens is because cerebral repetition, even of almost axiomatic observations, just doesn’t work. And while I can as a fan of the indefatigable nature of the human spirit applaud the seeming immunity to lack of results (or can I?) that engenders such enthusiastic repetition, the consultant in me would suggest we’re using enthusiasm as a surrogate for strategy which is rarely wise. Sure, absent a viable strategy, I’d rather have enthusiasm, as we’ll at least muddle forward until we find a way through — a way that can spawn a strategy. But when there’s a repeatedly failing and dysfunctional strategy, enthusiasm can be just a convenient name given to dogmatism and obtuseness.

The real question is not, “Do teams deliver value?” Surely we’re past that. The real question is, “Given how valuable teams can be, why are we not one, or seeking to become one?”

The real question is not, “Should managers value people as people?” Again, paradigmatically at least it’s the 21st century not the 19th. Rather it is, “Why would you practically expect to get the best from someone if they feel you don’t know them or care about them?” And, “How can we most effectively and appropriately care about those who work with us and for us?”

The question is not, “Should you let negativity get you down?” Surely everyone from Zig Ziglar to the Dalai Lama have helped us tackle that one. The question is instead: “Why do we so often encourage and proliferate negative downward spiral conversations and thought patterns?”

The real question can’t be, “Should you care about your health?” Our mania in this regard is well documented. Health-obsession, at least insofar as the cosmetic aspects of health having become a virtual religion, the real question is, “Since we all have a vested interest in our health, how can we make sure that translates into how we live?”

Questions need to be applied at the fulcrum of knowledge and behavior, at the potential disconnect between understanding and emotional commitment. Repeating nostrums won’t help. Delving into barriers, obstacles, limiting logic, ineffective default positions, outmoded reflexes, can be transformational. The Archimedean lever with which to move the world is asking the right question. A question jarring enough to our complacency that it almost impels action. A question that mobilizes action, not just piles on more insight.

So beware of any adviser, guru, consultant, or otherwise, who spends the bulk of their time with you repeating homilies or seeking to browbeat you into acting on the patently obvious — by stint of its conceptual incorrigibility. There is a huge knowing-doing gap in human affairs. Otherwise the Golden Rule would have outlawed almost all conflict a couple of millennia ago.

Understanding what keeps that gap gaping in specific situations for specific people and organizations, and thereby understanding, learning and practicing how to bridge that gap based on such understanding — that’s where the mother lode is.

Decide to make 80% of all problem solving or educational or coaching conversations about why what needs to happen isn’t happening, and demanding accountable progress at those epicenters of the issue, and watch your business, your life and your results, and those of others you are seeking to help, positively transform!

Posted in Leadership | 2 Comments