No. 13 The Crisis, or ‘It’s a big trough and I want my snout in it’

You know that feeling – a dawning realisation that someone, somewhere has stuffed up mightily, and that there is going to be hell to pay?

Well the good news is that a crisis is a peculiarly human invention. Indeed, strictly speaking, it is entirely and exclusively a human affair. The other piece of good news, for the freelance consultant, is that every crisis is a massive opportunity. From the freelance point of view a crisis is a splendid example of ‘The Mess’ (see previous article on freelance consulting).

A crisis is a very different thing from a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake. While any kind of natural or man-made disaster will offer opportunities to the astute freelancer, the crisis offers an embarrassment of riches due to its uniquely human aspects. A disaster can precipitate a crisis for the unprepared executive, but a disaster is not, in and off itself, a crisis.

A crisis is caused by the executive failing to deal adequately with a disaster whether natural or man-made. It follows that an executive who deals quickly and effectively with a disaster will not precipitate a crisis. Essentially, what the freelancer is looking for, is a failure of confidence in the ability of those tasked with dealing with a disaster, to deal with it effectively. This is your opportunity to swan in with a quick fix.

Recent examples of political crises might include the Brexit Vote (June 2016), the emergence of Donald Trump as the front runner in the Republican presidential nomination race, or the collapse of the Australian Liberal Party’s vote in the recent general election. Commercial crises of recent note include the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the VW car ‘defeat’ software that falsified carbon emissions, and the endless and repetitive corruption scandals afflicting banks and the financial sector.

All these events have become crises because the powers that be, and in particular the powers that popular opinion believed should have dealt with the underlying issues, singularly failed to do so. The fall of the UK conservatives David Cameron and Boris Johnson as well as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, and the leadership challenges about to engulf Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, are all directly caused by the failure of these ‘leaders’ to understand and deal with the underlying causes of the disasters which have befallen them.

The push in Australia for a Royal Commission into banking corruption is a perfect example of how a commercial crisis can become a political crisis if both sets of executives fail utterly to deal with the underlying problem.

In the business context a disaster happens, but only results in a crisis when management fails to address the issue adequately. So crises in commercial and organisational settings are always and everywhere due to a failure of management (N.B. $$$).

The failing executive will of course seek to deflect the blame – onto the economy, onto more junior employees or even competitors, but this is merely sleight of hand. The truth will always be that the disaster has triggered a crisis because the underlying disaster has not been dealt with effectively. For the freelancer, it is essential to remain fully aware of this fact while absolutely ignoring it. Focus instead on suitable deflections, shallow solutions, and broader targets for blame.  If you can come up with a plausible solution that will enable the failed executive to keep his or her job you are laughing.

So for all executives, everywhere, I offer this word of advice: When disaster strikes, ask yourself how best to handle the matter to avoid a crisis. Decent continuity planning and risk management will help you prepare for the foreseeable, but when the unforeseeable happens, and it will happen, remember that clear thinking and honest leadership are your key to avoiding a crisis.

That said, and in the sure and certain knowledge that only one in a million executives will heed my advice, I will just remind the freelance consultant that a crisis frees up cash, lots and lots of cash, which it is incumbent upon someone to spend – well it might as well be you, right?

No.8 Having Secured the Contract, the ongoing revelations of a freelance consultant…

I finally figured out how to secure my first contract. Which, as it turned out, was only the beginning of the journey.

Having secured the contract I duly turned up on day one at the imposing offices of my first client, bright eyed and bushy tailed. That’s when I ran into my first, err, opportunity. They had no requirements, or those that they had pertained, as far as one could fathom, to a different company of the very same name. They had no real idea what the problem was, though there was, definitely, something very, very wrong, probably.

This is when I made my first discovery as an independent consultant. I discovered ‘The Mess’. My client was in a mess. The Mess, as it turns out, is the thing that stops the client from being able to diagnose and correct their problem for themselves. They cannot see the problem for the mess.

The mess is the independent consultant’s friend, and the best thing about it is that all organisations are, to a greater or lesser extent, in a mess. Being in a mess is actually the natural state of the human organisation, and there is a very good reason for this. A rational reason that makes sense and everything. And it is this:  all human organisations are optimised as far as possible to keep doing those things which resulted in past success, and to stop doing those things which did not result in success (notice I do not say ‘stop doing those things which result in failure’ – I will come back to this). Lastly, all human organisations look for somewhat new things to do which in one way or another resemble the successful things they did in the past (for those who have an interest in these things the principle was discovered by Igor Ansoff and immortalised in his very splendid ‘Ansoff Matrix’ – google it.)

Well, with all this success going on there is no time to clean up the detritus, further, it is demonstrably the case that cleaning up the mess as it develops will negatively impact the bottom line (cleaning up is a cost and costs impact the bottom line by directly reducing profitability). It therefore follows that to clean up the mess is actually counter-productive in the short, and often even the medium, term. So having a slowly increasing mess does not impact profits, at least to begin with!

This is a very good thing – for the independent consultant. It is also inevitable according to physics and is demonstrable to anyone after only a moment’s consideration. For instance, the city that lays down a modern and efficient sewerage and waste water system first, derives a huge advantage over other cities in terms of public health, general well-being, improved commerce and thus increased tax revenues. All cities are at all times seeking to increase their tax revenues. Even when they say they’re not. Indeed, especially when they say they are not.

Having laid down a most excellent sewerage system the city moves on, focusing on other things, such as laying down a most excellent cabled telephone network, a superlative electrical distribution grid, an exquisite gas distribution network and a mathematically perfect arrangement of roads, avenues and alleyways. Each magnificent advance improves the wellbeing of those living in the city, increases commerce and thus tax revenues. Each innovation in town planning and urban development also increases the complexity of these ‘legacy’ systems. The term ‘legacy’ is nowadays ubiquitously used to refer to old and outdated treasures that stand in the way of modernisation, laissez faire and city taxes.  They are also known, both jointly and severally, as ‘The Mess’.

All human organisations are subject to the thermodynamically pre-determined growth and accretion of ‘mess’, especially Clients. Just as a city, for very good reasons, inevitably creates a mess, so does every other human organisation.

I am about to reveal three secrets. These three secrets taken together comprise the secret sauce of the successful freelance consultant.

One: It will always be the case that some organising principle will have previously been deployed, a principle which, while delivering success, will also have delivered The Mess.

Two: The freelance consultant is duty bound to attribute the current mess to the previous organising principle.

Three: The freelance consultant must then introduce a new organising principle to replace the old organising principle.

Now there are of course subtleties to all this. For instance, the previously employed organising principle may not be immediately evident. In this case it will be necessary to reconstruct it before rubbishing it.

It may not be completely obvious how the previous organising principle inevitably led to the current mess. In this case a plausible story, incorporating all the current politics, jargon and organisational mythology and prejudices, must be woven together.

Lastly, it may not be evident to one and all how the new organising principle is going to fix the problems of the past and/or clean up the mess, and/or drive success in the future. Fortunately this is the least tricky of the objections you may encounter. A superior and condescending attitude coupled with a brisk and breezy manner may be all that is necessary to dispel doubt – after all, these people are desperate for a solution and are depending upon you to provide it. If attitude and manner alone prove insufficient, the freelance consultant should call upon the doubter not to be cynical, not to repeat the sins of the past but to have faith in the organisation, in his/her colleagues and most of all, in him/her self.

Explain how the organisation understands that for a few, embracing change may be challenging, and how, for those stragglers support mechanisms will be put in place. If necessary, explain how extra-organisational opportunities may be appropriate in a few, die hard, cases.

Having discussed the ‘organisational change management’ aspect, it is just worth noting, in passing as it were, that by-and-large it is not important which organising principle is selected to take the organisation forward, only that one is selected and repeatedly presented, explained, alluded to and acronym-ised.

This is because, while some organising principles may be a better fit as a solution to current issues than others (occasionally one may even find a perfect fit), overall any change in organising principle is better than none.

I have even seen the previous organising principle rehashed and rebranded (refurbished and recycled, as it were) and applied again under an assumed name – with great success.

Selecting the Organising Principle

Time for a bit more on organising principles. An organising principle usually takes the form of a key idea, augmented by a framework, perhaps a process, and some easy-to-use templates.

Examples of organising principles from the world of IT include ITIL, Cobbit and a host of others, and from the world of Management Consulting we get the (in)famous BCG Matrix, Porter’s 5 Forces framework, and so on. There are specialist frameworks for almost anything you can think of.

If you have a rough idea what sort of a framework you need, for instance if you have figured out that The Mess is most acute in the logistics area, you could try a quick internet search such as ‘logistics consulting frameworks’ which, amongst many, many more, brings back a treasure from Logisticshelp.com.

A cursory study of their diagram suggests an overall review of supply chain strategy coupled with a review of current supply chain operations – and we’re off. We have a key idea, “it’s all logistics’ fault“, a busy and colourful framework, and from the US Office of Logistics and Acquisition Operations, a veritable raft of useful analysis templates.

Summary

  • All human organisations are in a mess
  • First priority is to identify what kind of mess
  • Then apply an organising principle (key idea, framework, templates)
  • Google is your friend – the trick is to ask the right question

This approach enables you to define the client’s requirements for them, suggest an approach to solving their problems and, through word of mouth, secure that all important second contract.

I did say I would come back to why it is that human organisations express little interest in desisting from those things which result in failure. I believe the answer is worryingly simple – most human organisations have no interest in raking over the coals, few want to carry out so-called ‘post mortems’ on failed projects (although most have a policy of doing so), consequently no one ever really knows why a specific project failed, only that the project manager has left and we can speak his/her name no more.

Next Edition – The Crisis, a uniquely human invention.

No. 4 It’s wrong to eat people

I think we can all agree that it’s wrong to eat people. This is rightly one of our strongest taboos.

The word Cannibal is derived from word Caribbee (the Carib people of the Caribbean) corrupted by Spanish to ‘Canibbee’ and thence to the English ‘Cannibal’.  The Carib people practiced a form of ritualistic cannibalism intended to imbue the cannibal with the strengths and powers of the victim. In modern times we use the word more broadly to include the extraction and reuse of spare parts from cars and other equipment and in marketing to mean the sacrificing of one product in order to increase sales of another.

Oddly enough ritualistic cannibalism in symbolic form remains at the heart of the Catholic Church’s ceremony of Holy Communion during which the wine and the wafer are ‘transmogrified’ into the blood and body of Christ – and consumed by the congregation. Perhaps because we know it is not ‘real’, the public ritualistic cannibalism practiced within Catholicism seem to be socially acceptable. If, as was the case in the past, the Catholic Church argued that in the moment of consumption the wine and wafer were genuinely transformed into human tissue – that might engender a different response.

Apart from this peculiar religious exception, Cannibalism – actually to consume the body or body parts of another human being – is a source of universal disgust. Even the case of plane crash survivors who were forced to eat the frozen bodies of their fellow passengers in order to survive, while understandable, fills both us, and the survivors themselves, with loathing.

If, as has been documented, individuals proffer their flesh to be eaten on an entirely voluntary basis, we are still repulsed. It cannot therefore be a question of whether the human flesh is given voluntarily or not. That can’t be it at all. Whether as an act of altruism, compassion, kindness or necessity we just don’t like to see people eating each other.

Why then, when it comes to blood transfusions and organ transplants, do we take the diametrically opposite view?

When it comes to the Red Cross Blood Bank and Transfusion Service we applaud both the donors and the harvesters, and we count the end recipients fortunate indeed at such public spirited behaviour.

When an accident victim is given a blood transfusion they are assimilating material from someone else’s body into themselves. When someone accepts a kidney or a liver they are, for all intents and purposes, doing the very same thing, yet there is no public outcry. We do not think of this as cannibalism.

Blood transfusions and organ transplants are, from this point of view, essentially identical to cannibalism but for some reason they do not trigger the same abhorrence.

We might attempt to tidy all this unpleasantness away by arguing that it is really the act of eating human flesh that is wrong, but there are other factors to take into consideration. Firstly, the purpose of ritualistic cannibalism was, amongst other things, to provide the recipient with the strength and powers of the, albeit unwilling, donor. This sounds remarkably like the expressed purpose of blood transfusions and organ transplants to me.

Further, according the US heart research and stress management organisation, HeartMath, the mind is distributed throughout the whole nervous systems. “The heart and brain maintain a continuous two-way dialogue, each influencing the other’s functioning. The signals the heart sends to the brain can influence perception, emotional processing and higher cognitive functions. This system and circuitry is viewed by neurocardiology researchers as a ‘heart brain’.”

http://www.heartmath.com/about/research-information.html

Furthermore, the human gut itself contains a nexus of over one hundred million neurons (more than the spinal cord) called the ‘enteric nervous systems’ which directly interacts with and affects brain function too.

These facts suggest, certainly in the case of heart transplants, and possibly in relation to other human organs, that the recipient is in effect excising a diseased part of their own distributed mind and replacing it with healthy parts of dead person’s distributed mind.

And it’s not just a matter of some kind of abstract biochemical substrate either, transplants have long been associated with changes in tastes, interests and even musical like and dislikes of the recipients.

In Thomas Fields-Meyer’s article (http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20147267,00.html) he identifies three individuals all of whom reported substantial changes in their tastes and preferences after receiving a transplanted organ and all of whom associated their new preference or taste with that of the organ donor:

  1. Bill Wohl, found himself weeping and rocking to a Sade song having never previously even been aware of her. Later he discovered that the organ donor had been great Sade fan.
  2. Paul Oldham’s donor had been a fourteen year old boy. Paul suddenly found himself developing a taste for chocolate bars having never previously had a sweet tooth.
  3. Jamie Sherman suddenly experienced cravings for Mexican food – his donor had been a lover of cheese enchiladas. Jamie associated his sudden and unexpected bouts of anger post-transplant with the fact that his donor had died in a fight.

There are therefore significant reasons to question our view of organ transplantation as benign and cannibalism as evil. Both cannibalism and organ transplantation share the same purpose and both may share the same unintended consequence of passing on more between ‘donor’ and recipient than was intended or has previously been widely understood.

Comments welcomed: Poppy