Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Ill Wind for Louisiana

April 20, a-state-of-the-art BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The uncapped well is located about 50 miles offshore and is estimated to be spewing around 5,000 barrels—more than 200,000 gallons—of crude oil into the gulf daily and the massive oil slick is just now reaching the shores of Louisiana, driven by a strong south wind. While there are massive efforts underway to stop the leak and to contain the spilled oil with booms, choppy seas are hampering the deployment.

The oil—so prized for the petroleum products we can manufacture from it when it arrives in tankers—is a deadly threat when it arrives as an amoeba-like blob, and the Gulf States are bracing themselves for hard times to come. It's bad news for birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—locals are gearing up for a total loss of this season's newborn—and will make a mess of the beautiful beaches, seriously undercutting tourism.

Among other things, the spill threatens to smother the most productive oysters beds in the US (Louisiana serves up about 250 million pounds annually, about one-third of the US harvest), perhaps shutting them down for years. I was glad to have enjoyed some gulf oysters at a raw bar this week. Who knows when I'll be able to enjoy them next.

Stopping the leak is going to be very difficult. The well penetrates the seabed at a depth of more than a mile and the break in the pipe occurred at around 5000 feet down. In the end, this incident may become the largest oil spill in US history, surpassing that of the Exxon Valdez, which leaked around 11 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters in 1989.

I'm visiting this weekend in Natchitoches LA (about 55 miles northwest of Alexandria) to gather with the other principals of the Green Eggs (a consortium offering business consulting to cooperative groups—see my blog of July 29, 2009, Incubating Green Eggs) to discuss our work. Our host is David Waskom, who runs an accounting firm in town and is well known locally. At lunch yesterday, state representative Rick Nowlin (who has an office in the building where David runs his business) stopped by for a few minutes and gave us a snapshot of how difficult this oil spill is going to be for state government. It's a triple whammy of a huge one-time need hitting while the state economy is still not recovered fully from the last one—Katrina in 2005—or from the national recession.
Rick has a tough job.

• • •
Amidst this impending doom, I've had productive conversations with the Green Eggs group (as they say, it's an ill wind that blows no good). The warm and humid weather hints of the oppressive heat to come (I have no idea why anyone would visit Louisiana in July or August), yet it's on the upper end of pleasant right now, with temperatures well into the 80s. In contrast, Green Eggs participant Susan Short slogged through four inches of wet, heavy snow to get to the Denver airport Thursday to fly to these meetings, emphasizing that spring arrives discontinuously and not everywhere at the same time.

This is the third time the group has met face-to-face (first in Ann Arbor last July, and then in Denver last October), and one of the joys of our getting together for a few days is that there's enough time together to synchronize electron orbits and get into a creative groove. We mix up how we spend the time: listening to presentations, going out to eat, seeing the local sights, and focusing on aspects of cooperative business—defining our client base, identifying business ideas, and concocting marketing plans. At the end of a conversation we select the most promising ideas and test to see if there's energy in the room to develop them into full-blown proposals. Every session, like Christmas, something surprising and potentially remunerative pops out of the rapid-fire dialog. It's fun.

One of the most intriguing topics we explored is an age-old one for consultants: a) how can you identify those clients who are most available for making changes in their lives; and b) how can you deliver advice—advice that the client paid for, mind you—in such a way that it's most apt to be used?

Who's Ready to Change?
We figure that there's two parts to this. From our end, we need to put out the clearest message we can about what we think is our area of expertise and what our motivation is, so there's minimal ambiguity about what's to be gained by making a change. From the potential client's end, we need to be firm about limiting our work to those clients who seem to most accurately understand what we're talking about, and are ready to look at themselves (and not just others) in considering what it will take to effect lasting improvements.

Digesting this leads to the conclusion that it's about quality more than about quantity, and that it behooves us to focus tightly on the people we think could benefit most from what we have to offer. Our marketing should be geared toward cooperatively leaning entrepreneurs, or toward community-based folks who are fine making money in cooperative markets. Our marketing should not be slanted toward convincing people that these two values can (and should) be married.

How to Enhance the Likelihood That the Client Will Use Our Advice
While the consultant should get paid whether the client decides to follows our advice or not, we're not in it just for the money; we're in it to build a more cooperative world. We figure that the client will be much more likely to seriously consider the changes we recommend if we make the effort to thoroughly understand the client's frame of reference and offer our suggestions in a language and sequence that matches well with what the client reports being interested in.

Further, we've learned that multiple, reinforcing visits tends to be much more effective in midwifing change than one-and-done raise-the-dead weekends. We need to break down the implementation into bite-size, digestible chunks, so that each step seems doable and within reach.

It is not enough to want things to be better and to believe that you have advice that's useful in that endeavor—you also have to serve it up in dishes that look appetizing, will be picked by people hungry for something new, and will taste good to others when they're ordered.
• • •
I like to think that good things will hatch from our Green Eggs weekend in Louisiana, in some small way compensating for the Pelican State being given the black marble twice in six years.

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