The 100 Questions Rule – Part 1

June 1, 2011

How ignorance made me smarter

A number of years ago, very early in my consulting career, I found myself sitting in a London office with a client, a respected Senior Manager of a global industry leader [an icon company in this market referred to herein as “our client”]. Accompanying me in this session was a learned colleague, a senior consultant on this project who had asked me to participate in this assignment.

My colleague and I had been asked to address a particularly difficult marketing challenge for a new product with a relatively new theme for our client.

I was a brand new consultant to our client… in fact I was a fledgling rookie to the client’s industry. As of that sitting, I had logged about 3 weeks of billable hours previously with our client – a $2B, 50 year old industry icon.

We began at 08:00 hrs with the classic consultant tools… note pads, an easel pad, and masking tape [to hang the easel paper on the walls].

I was a bit nervous in this session. I knew almost nothing about our client’s product, nor the new marketing theme. And I certainly did not know enough about the industry market environment to even broadly speculate on what the challenges might be that our client was so concerned about. To sum, I honestly did not feel worthy of wasting the client’s time by being there and I had already determined (to myself), I would not bill our client for my time on this particular day. I at least had some integrity here.

Fast forward to 20:00 hrs, that same day.

The “Ah Ha” moment was a complete surprise

My colleague had just left the room for a bathroom break. At this point the Client turned to me and asked, “Where did you receive your education in our industry?”

“Pardon me?” I was taken back. I just knew the hammer was about to drop. We had been going at this discussion over 12 grueling hours of consultancy, and I was guessing the client had had enough of my questions. I could not remember what (if any) consultancy-type advice had come from me throughout the entire day. My colleague had been offering recommendations all day long, and I was real impressed with his professionalism and command of the situation. I was about to tell the client, “Didn’t I mention that I was not billing you for my time today?”

The client continued, “I had to wait until your friend left the room, but he has been giving me advice all day long. And frankly, I still do not think he understands the problem! I have found most of his recommendations to be nearly useless.” I was shocked and a bit embarrassed. The client went on, “You on the other hand, appear to have this strong insight into the heart of the matter….”

“Through your guidance I have gained an entirely new perspective on the situation, its complications, and a plausible solution. In fact, you are the first guy to come along that has convinced me that with a good plan, we will solve this issue. This single day alone has been one of the best investments in consultancy that we [our client] have engaged in quite some time. ”

The value of ignorance

It was at that moment that I realized what had happened. Throughout the day, due to my grossly inadequate background on the client, the market, and the industry, I had asked a truckload of questions. And because I was so intent on fully understanding the problem space and its associated issues, I had literally not offered a single shred of advice, over the entire 12 hour period.

The scope and depth of my exploratory questions had forced the client to address the overall problem in ways that he had never thought about previously. It later came to light that somehow in that process, the client had experienced more than a few moments of self-discovery… in this case, ALL of which he attributed to my “brilliant” understanding of the market, and how his company will best capitalize on this opportunity.

By direct contrast , my approach to the think tank session was continuously interrupted (from the client’s perspective) by my learned associate, who our client saw as an increasing distracter to his own discovery process. As my associate would offer sage advise and recommendations, it continued to aggravate our client who saw this advice (he later admitted) as “consultancy positioning”, not relevant to what he was gaining in the Q&A process.

Driven by my own ignorance and quest for a complete understanding of the entire situation, I had inadvertently stumbled upon a core lesson learned bounded by at least two fundamental truths about serving in an advisory capacity:

  • Asking a lot of good questions does not demonstrate ignorance.
  • A person will most of the time learn much more through self discovery, than he will from someone else’s advice.

This not only becomes a fundamental rule for consultancy practice, but also reveals a fundamental truth about the knowledge supply chain. Context is the key without it, content is meaningless.

Coming in the near future, a post “The 100 Questions Rule – Part 2” for how this Best Practice actually applies just as much to the Knowledge Supply Chain, as it does good consultancy.


A Knowledge Game Lexicon

May 17, 2011

What was that phrase you used?

Most of us intellectually appreciate the need for having a common language to communicate with our team mates and associates. On the positive side, we fully appreciate when we use certain language (sometimes called jargon) amongst our peers, that it affords a kind of short-cut. We can communicate large amounts of content – and context as well – with a an economy of verbiage.

To the contrary, we have all been on both the giving and receiving end of the kinds of conversations that begin… “What I meant to say was…” or “I thought you understood it when I said…” or “What did he mean by that?” or my personal favorite, “But you said right here in this email…” Without belaboring the point in our discussion here, you certainly know that when a conversation starts with acknowledgement of confusion, somewhere/somehow the language broke down… and what followed was likely problematic to you.

Of course every type of business or industry generates its own language… a biz speak that helps communicate via shorthand the commonly and frequently used concepts and activities of that particular type of enterprise endeavor. The jargon, buzzwords, clichés, colloquialisms, and vernacular serve to create a useful vocabulary that supports the operation and performance of the workers and managers involved in the business.

It is no different with the knowledge game. In fact, the entire purpose of the enterprise knowledge game is to communicate relevant, important content from one person to another, and do so with economy of effort and timeliness of delivery. So therein lies an amazing irony. The daily enterprise activities associated with the knowledge game – the part of the enterprise that exists for the very purpose of clarity, precision, completeness, and efficiency in communication – is often an area where there is a most outrageous lack of a common language.

One of the primary issues underlying the disinterest, confusion, skepticism, and lackluster performance of in the 21st Century enterprise, is the sloppy use of terms and phrases.

Same words, new meanings

20 years ago terms that are commonplace in the contemporary knowledge game, meant something very different than they do now, in the 21st Century enterprise: learning, training, teaching, mentoring, information, data, IT… and even the term “knowledge”. To take a few examples…

  • 20 years ago structured training was predominantly held in the classroom. An employee went to a school-style classroom setting and received lectures which were occasionally accompanied with group exercises and a test or two. In 2007, for example, in the newly released Microsoft Official Distance Learning (MODL) product, there is a single course (equivalent to a 40 hour classroom experience) that has 370 individual interactions – including a blend of Conventional classroomcollaborative interactions, case study activities, brainstorm white-boarding, media clips, demonstrations, interactive scenarios.

So imagine if you used the word “training” – intended in the 2007 context – and an image of a 1995 classroom reflexively came to my mind.

  • 20 years ago information technology was largely a province of a handful of wizards behind the curtain in the air conditioned room with the big computers. MS Windows as most of us are now familiar with, was released in 1990

Mac DesktopSo imagine if you used the word “information technology” – intended in the 2007 context – and an image of a 1984 Mac came to my mind. We are exaggerating just a bit here to make a point, but the premise is very clear: when you use a key phrase or term in a discussion with another listener, the definition you intend to convey may not be the definition that audience receives. And if that disconnect occurs, all bets are off for that audience getting your point.

  • 10 years ago, for all purposes, these terms did not even exist – knowledge assets, knowledge economics, and knowledge supply chain.

We strongly recommend that if the enterprise intends to elevate its knowledge game, then a standardized glossary should be established.

Three value-laden purposes for a glossary

In truth there are a significant variety of good, solid business reasons for taking the time to build and implement a standardized glossary for the enterprise. Here are three purposes for establishing a knowledge supply chain glossary.

1. To standardize language: provide clear definition, grammatical and/or semantic interpretation for commonly used terms, well publicized and reinforced by management, that can be used for all enterprise communications and documentation.

2. To disambiguate terms: establish a standardized glossary that helps remove the ambiguity from common terms and phrases, as illustrated in the examples above.

3. Introduction of new terms: the glossary becomes an obvious platform for introduction of new terms and language that add increased clarity and richness to enterprise vocabulary.

The end result of fulfilling one or more of these purposes is value that is immeasurable… the enterprise will elevate its knowledge game almost as a side effect of the additional, substantial clarity and significant efficiency in communication and project activity alignment.

To emphatically position the point here, a “knowledge language” glossary is an invaluable insurance policy against miscommunication within the enterprise. AS LONG AS… everyone knows that the knowledge game glossary does indeed exist, and they further know where they can access it… conveniently and readily.

The glossary for the I-N Context: blog is a dynamic document, which we are constantly revisiting and updating with new terms and refined terminology. As you can see in this post, we frequently use the glossary via hyper-links that access the words we use. You can also jump to our glossary via the link at the top of each article in the navigation bar under the headline banner.


The Perfect Brainstorm – Part 2

May 2, 2011

The metaphor becomes a tool

When we use this metaphor in a dynamic learning strategy exercise, there are two very obvious questions that arise if indeed this metaphor will hold significant value to the participating executives and/or leadership .

  • What are the similarities?
  • What are the differences?

For sake of discussion, we will look at the ‘storm’ part as the ‘Outdoors’ phenomenon, and the ‘brainstorm’ part as an ‘Indoors’ event (i.e., where business usually takes place). So here are similarities that our participants usually find useful to the exercise.

The contributing conditions can be otherwise common occurrences. Outdoors – weather happens everyday. Indoors – thinking and learning happens everyday.

There were more then a few circumstances coming from multiple different directions. Outdoors – weather is not completely predictable, but we know it comes from somewhere, and it is always going to somewhere else. In this case several circumstances were coming from several different directions. Indoors – people are thinking and learning because they are usually trying to move forward in a particular direction [on a project, a program, an event, etc.] Sometimes, folks on several different activities happen to come together in a uniquely valuable way.

The storm occurred without the typical warnings. Outdoors – the weather went from OK to not so good, very quickly… because of the special circumstances that happened all at once. Indoors – the thinking and learning very often happens, not by design but rather by awareness, alertness, interest, and creativity of the brainstormers. Innovation happens when the moment is seized.

The result was an epic event, with immediate monumental consequences and long-standing implications. Outdoors – the weather generated an order of magnitude of power that rendered all objects and other elements involved, as non-consequential (e.g., $1B in damage, 12 deaths). Indoors – people can bring collective thinking and learning to such a focus as to produce greatness of unimaginable proportion. History is full of epic genius in special circumstances, brought about largely due to the “right people, right time, and right circumstances”.

The contributing conditions came together as if by chance (and of course were totally uncontrollable and their convergence was unpredictable). Outdoors – out of nowhere, low pressure systems met a dying hurricane over the Gulf Stream, along with a cache of other meteorological convergences. Indoors – ??? –

Well this is exactly the point we want to focus upon. Is the perfect brainstorm… unpredictable, happening as if by chance?

Differences – the Perfect Brainstorm becomes attainable… and realistic!

Here is where the knowledge game can become very very interesting indeed. We often think of the great innovation environments as kind of “think tanks” – like Rand Corporation, MIT, Stanford University, etc. – as elite institutions filled with super smart people and working in ideal thinking environments. If you are going to have great cerebral things happen, you need to have a perfect environment, with astoundingly knowledgeable people using superior tools to produce the kinds of intelligence we would label as “superior innovation”.

It is our experience, that this stereotype is exactly where the perfect storm metaphor wanders away from the perfect brainstorm… and becomes a bright, fair weather day!

There are two substantial differences between the perfect storm and the perfect brainstorm:

The landscape and environment in which the perfect brainstorm can occur – is controllable and replicable.

The landscape and environment in which the perfect brainstorm can occur – can be sustained indefinitely.

It was no accident that we used the labels Outdoors and Indoors to respectively compare and contrast these two concepts – The Perfect Storm vs. The Perfect Brainstorm. We all understand that the things that go on Outdoors can be wild and wooly, and for the most part, uncontrollable and unpredictable. Yet it is no stretch of the imagination to grasp that things that go on Indoors are much more susceptible to being controllable and predictable. We create the indoor environment that makes that control much more feasible.And when the indoor environment we are referring to is the human brain – we had all better believe that we can control and predict what goes on in that environment!

The perfect brainstorm happens when the usual human thinking and learning are engendered in a somewhat different way than how it usually takes place. But make no mistake; thinking and learning are ALREADY going on. This thinking and learning however can be modestly redirected – maybe it involves a bit of restructuring of the overall working situation – but the correct conditions for producing the perfect brainstorm can most definitely be controlled and replicated. We have seen it done many times.

Even more encouraging is the understanding that the perfect brainstorm can literally be an ongoing event… not awaiting special circumstances or conditions (in fact, this is part of what we mean by “controllable”). Here again we return to the fundamental point that thinking and learning are already going on anyway – regardless of what the enterprise is doing to help foster, direct, augment, or otherwise influence the process. So when the enterprise and the potential brainstormers come together with an agreed Indoor environment… well magic can happen. In fact, we have seen stellar examples of where the perfect brainstorming process has become an essential part of the enterprise culture.

Examples of the perfect brainstorm results

So why is this metaphor so appealing, and why does it have real world relevance in the 21st Century enterprise? Applied appropriately the metaphorical model actually does help the enterprise draw out that which it already knows. The Perfect Brainstorm exercise simply creates an environment and circumstances that allow the enterprise to more clearly experience its existing knowledge assets.For some excellent examples of the principles of the Perfect Brainstorm put to wonderful results… the interested reader can take a look at the Intelligence-NEXT: Track Record.

The notion of our Perfect Brainstorm exercise was in fact, drawn from past activities in which we have been fortunate enough to participate – situations that have generated outstanding results. We have studied the prevailing business environment (a.k.a. Indoors conditions) to build our model for the Perfect Brainstorm activity. It really does work!


The Perfect Brainstorm – Part 1

April 28, 2011

The perfect metaphor?

In building a knowledge supply chain model for purposes of enterprise innovation we have used a technique involving an exercise we call “The Perfect Brainstorm”. Although this exercise is only a part of the overall process, it provides a very useful metaphor for illustrating possibilities… opportunities that are often imminently available to our client, but the client has not yet built the kind of mindset needed to see “what’s already there”.

The Perfect Storm

The phrase perfect storm refers to the simultaneous occurrence of conditions or circumstances which when combined generate an epic powerful weather event. The implication of the phrase perfect storm is if these same conditions are taken individually, the result would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combination. Such occurrences are rare by their very nature, so that even a slight change in any one event contributing to the perfect storm would lessen its overall impact.

As a point of reference, the real life event known as the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter was an example of a perfect storm. There was a book, a movie, and countless articles on this particular event, in part due to its tragic consequences. But the fascination for this phenomenon was probably more due to how it exemplified the ultimate and awesome power of Mother Nature, created by what the weather guys called “perfect conditions” for such a monumental event. It is an interesting phenomenon in its own right (see the story)Eye of the Storm 2

In this case the simultaneously converging conditions have been described as… “the merging of two low-pressure areas, a large flow of warm air from the south, cold air from the north, and moisture feeding into the storm from the Gulf stream all conflated with cold air from strong northwesterly winds and warm air from strong northeasterly winds to create an exceptionally powerful storm across a very large area.” The perfect storm resulted.

The Perfect Brainstorm

With a vision in mind for creating milestone enterprise innovation… we might use the metaphor of the perfect brainstorm.

For sake of discussion, let’s imagine the simultaneous converging of the most appropriate individuals, possessing the most appropriate roles in the enterprise, working within the framework of the most appropriate business processes, using the most appropriate technologies, and working in the most appropriate socioeconomic environment that is conducive to producing milestone, epic results for the enterprise.

Mix all of that with a little luck and bit of chance… and you may get something special. At least that is a popular stereotype of what it takes for amazing innovation to happen. The perfect brainstorm at 3M produced post-it notes. Other perfect brainstorms have produced…

  • Velcro
  • Penicillin
  • The “Xerox” machine
  • “Just do it” (the Nike marketing phrase)
  • Gatorade
  • the internet
  • Google

And on and on…

Can a business experience a perfect brainstorm? Not only do we know this is possible, we have ourselves been in the middle of these phenomenon with our clients – more than a few times. [See The Perfect Brainstorm Part 2…The metaphor becomes a tool]