Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review: The Secrets of Consulting

When I started this blog, I set a rule for myself that I would never post simply to point out interesting ideas from others without adding some form of value regarding the application of those ideas.  I'm about to break it.

I was reading about Virginia Satir's techniques for helping others/yourself to transform ingrained behavioural rules a few days ago.  It offered the insight that you could apply a three-step transformation to a rule such as "I must always deliver good news" as follows:

  1. Change the word "must" to "can" - ie "I can always deliver good news"
  2. Change the word "always" to "sometimes" - ie "I can sometimes deliver good news"
  3. Apply a "when clause" listing the conditions under which you can do it - ie "I can deliver good news when I don't have to lie to do it or what might seem 'bad' to me might be good to someone else".
I thought this was an interesting technique to apply in helping people move into transparency under Agile.  Sometimes the "Green status report" culture is so deeply ingrained it takes a lot of shifting, and I could see this system really helping people to move through the transition.  

Then, I took the 'self-examination' focus and thought about rules I could apply it to in myself.  I am constantly encouraging both people I coach and friends to pick up books that have inspired me.  Twice this week I handed my kindle to a friend and said "here, this book is gold .. check the stuff I highlighted and you'll see why you need to read it."  Last night I realised I can write myself a new rule:

I can blog simply to point out interesting ideas from others when my purpose is to inspire others to follow the ideas to their source for elaboration.  

So, with that rule in hand I would like to inspire those who read this blog to go read Jerry Weinberg's 'The Secrets of Consulting'.  Jerry has written many many books, and prior to meeting him at AYE this book would have been absolutely bottom of the priority list for me.  I looked to him as a source of inspiration on Systems Thinking, not consulting!  I've now read it and highlighted more insights than in any other book I've read in the last 2 years.  Despite being written long before Agile came into being, it is just a must-read for anyone who is either an Agile coach or some other form of change agent.

Following are my favourite dozen quotes (in no particular order), enjoy them and go to the source to read the anecdotes that lie behind them and discover your own favourites:

The First Law of Consulting: In spite of what your client may tell you, there's always a problem.

The Second Law of Consulting: No matter how it looks at first, it's always a people problem.

You'll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit.

People who can solve problems do lead better lives.  But people who can ignore problems, when they choose to, live the best lives.  If you can't do both, stay out of consulting.

Know-how pays much less than know-when.

The chances of solving a problem decline the closer you get to finding out who was the cause of the problem.

If you can't think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there's something wrong with your thinking.

Any time you're afraid to say no to your client, you lose your effectiveness as a consultant.

Sometimes when I'm not getting anywhere with the words, I listen to the music ... When words and music don't go together, they point to a missing element.

Your ideal form of influence is first to help people see their world more clearly, and then to let them decide what to do next.

It may look like a crisis, but it's only the end of an illusion

Your primary tool is merely being the person you are, so your most powerful method of helping other people is to help yourself.

PS: I'm unashamedly on a Weinberg kick right now.  The rule transformation technique is taken from "More Secrets of Consulting"

Monday, November 12, 2012

What I learnt at the AYE Conference

I spent last week in New Mexico at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness (AYE) conference with Jerry Weinberg, Esther Derby, Johanna Rothman, Don Gray and 75 other attendees.

Since hearing about the conference format and making the commitment to attend, my excitement had been growing.  The concept of a ban on powerpoint, no session shorter than 3 hours, and every session facilitated by someone I deeply respected sounded too good to be true.

The week before leaving, one of the recurring themes in the office was the difference between “Capital ‘A’ Agile” and “little ‘a’ agile”.  The metaphor mapped ceremonies and practices to the “Capital A”, and teamwork, collaboration and vision to the “little a”.   We had enjoyed some rich discussions around the temptation to settle for proficiency with the “Capital A” because pushing into the “little a” was where it got hard.

AYE’s theme was “Human Systems in Action”, and I was very much looking forward to experiencing deep teaching on the “little a” side.   The first lesson I learnt was that I had gone for the wrong reasons.  I anticipated a week of “filling up the toolbox” with new coaching tools and techniques, and by the end of the second day I was feeling a little frustrated.  I was debriefing on the day with my wife, and the tone of the debrief was “I’m learning lots, but I’ve got no new tools I can put into practice”.  She looked over at me and asked whether I was missing the point.  Of course I hotly denied it at the time, but it raised a seed of doubt that started to grow as the sessions went by.

In the final session of the formal conference, it finally sank in.  It was a consulting masterclass with Jerry Weinberg, and he ran it as a series of case studies.  It was initiated  by asking us each to consider the thorniest problem we were currently facing as a consultant.   I was then introduced to Jerry’s technique of selecting the last person to raise their hand as the most fruitful case to examine and found myself in the 'consultee' chair next to Jerry.   Over the course of the next 20 minutes, I was turned inside out as he showed me the way in which my lack of belief in myself was the cause of the problem.    Whilst on the one hand it was incredibly useful, it was also an incredibly challenging experience being laid bare in front of 45 people. 

Over the following 2-3 hours, the reality of the power of AYE sank in as one after another people came up to me and thanked me for my courage in the hot-seat, commiserating with me on the pain of the experience whilst sharing the fashion in which they had benefited. 

A quote from Jerry’s book The Secrets of Consulting is the most fitting way to sum up my eventual AYE learnings – “Helping myself is even harder than helping others”. 

I didn’t learn any magical new secrets.  I didn’t learn any stunning new facilitation techniques.    The truth is there are no “big bang” revelations or magical secrets to Human Systems.  What I did was learn some new things about myself,  recognise some poor decisions I have made as a coach, and discover some new areas in which I need to grow in order to be more effective for my clients.

In the process, I made an incredible number of new friendships with people I look forward to learning from in the years to come.  If only every conference could be so fruitful!

Now that I've had a week to start to internalise it, I think the biggest insight for me lies in checkpointing myself as a coach.  I (along with all good coaches I know) spend a lot of time looking to fill up my toolbox with new techniques or deeper insights into existing ones.  I spend a lot less time searching for people who I trust to reveal flaws in my current insights.  

Thanks to Jerry, Esther, Johanna and Don for creating an environment where not only do they as facilitators hold the mirror up to attendees but also foster the trust and safety for us to share the mirror with each other.