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Passion, People and Principles

Preventing the Train Crash

post # 93 — June 1, 2006 — a Client Relations post

Confession time: I’ve been very busy this week, and did not prepare (as I sometimes do) a week’s worth of blogs in advance.

So, for today, I thought I’d dig into my past files and see what was there that might still be current and of interest to all you kind folks who are tuning in.

Here’s a question that was posed to me (on my website) in May 2003:

David, one of my clients’ has become accustomed to operating in crisis mode. They are constantly in reactive mode vs. proactive. I have not been asked to help fix this, my firm is involved in other projects. However, I feel like I am watching a train crash about to happen. How can I get them to see that reactive mode and crisis is not a normal way of conducting business, when they have not asked for help? Thanks.

Here’s the reply (slightly modified) that I gave three years ago:

I don’t completely accept your premise that a “reactive mode and crisis is not a normal way of conducting business.” It may not be a good idea, but it IS remarkably common.

But let’s address your question: One of my rules is that you shouldn’t give your opinion until it’s asked for – it will just be resented (spouses and best friends, take note!) First, you must build a relationship and earn the right to comment.

Next, remember that there’s no point commenting to someone who isn’t empowered to change things. So, you must ask “If they were to change this mode of operating, who would have to lead that change? Who is the key decision-maker here?”

Even when you figure out who that person is, you must tread carefully. Imagine this: you observe that this person in your social circle that you’ve met (not a close friend) is overweight and unfit. You think it’s not healthy to live that way. They haven’t asked your opinion. But you want them to understand that there’s a better way. How would you approach THAT???

I’d almost certainly try to find an INFORMAL occasion (out of the office, over a drink?) to do this. If it’s going to work, it’s only going to do so when it’s human-to-human, not when it’s “consultant” to “client.”

You’ll probably have to guess that you are not the first person to point out to them that they are fat and unfit (and ugly, as well!) They’ve heard it before, in all probability.

So what’s going to be different about your approach? It’s important to remember that it won’t be the logic of your argument that will prevail. (Let me really PROVE to you that you are fat, unfit and ugly!)

Whatever the process is will mostly be about learning to influence people’s emotions: creating the DESIRE for the benefits that fitness can bring, helping boost their confidence and courage that, the self-belief that, yes, they CAN change. You must be skilled in quelling their fears about dropping their past habits.

Since you will be dealing with an organization and not just an individual, you must also be very astute in understanding the group psychodynamics that led them to operate the way they do now. There’s probably a reason – not a good one, I grant you, but a reason nevertheless. There’s always a history that you need to take the time to figure out if you are going to help them break free from it.

cover of David Maister's co-authored book, Thr

You’ll need to be a skilled counselor, psychotherapist and corporate politician to pull all this off. I don’t claim to be immensely skilled at it myself. In part, I (co)wrote the book Trusted Advisor so that I could force myself to think all this through. And understanding whta you shuld do doesn’t always mean you have the rescence of mind or the self-control to do it and say it the way you know you should.

Helping others ain’t easy.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes!

1 Comment

Dennis Howlett said:

My psych degree has held me in good stead for a long time.

To David’s main pont. I would seek to advise the client. There’s a difference between offering an opinion and stating alternatives.

The important thing is to be very, very sure of the facts you want to use in support fo your argument.

I am for instance currently involved in a financing project where the crux of the business model is essentially a replacement service that can and almost certainly will be commoditized.

As part of the valuation research, it has become apparent the business model is flawed. This is not something I can ignore. It requires me to make suggestions which may or may not be nonsense to the owners. I’ve got to take the risk the message will be rejected.

Because the alternative is an unsustainable business model that will be difficult to finance in the way the owners wish.

That’s a train wreck about to happen – IMO.

But then I can envisage occasions where my opinion will be as welcome as a whack over the head with a baseball bat.

It’s usually reserved for clients with whom I’ve not been able to develop a relationship and who doesn’t wish to deal with any other person.

They’re the clients who are on top of my next culling list.

posted on June 1, 2006