Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Making Omelets for Cooperative Groups

As a process consultant, most times my work with a client involves putting out a fire. To be sure, I'm often asked to teach how to prevent fires as well, but most times there's one already burning before I get the call.

Sometimes, in the process of extinguishing one blaze I uncover another and there's not time to handle both. Several months ago that happened to me and I made the choice to keep my focus on the problem I was asked to address, letting the new fire smoulder while I attended to the original one. 

In the final hour of my time with that group, we were headed toward a solid conclusion—where the fire was coming under control—when suddenly someone in the group unexpectedly tossed a gas can into the meeting, a couple folks got badly burned (I'm still speaking metaphorically) and stomped out of the room, leaving me to pick over the charred remains, and tend to the wounded as best I could. It was not the ending I or anyone else was looking for.

The group was frustrated at not getting a happy ending, and the people at risk from the new fire (the one I uncovered and didn't address) were doubly disappointed because now there were two fires and I was going home.

While I tried to set up a fire brigade for the new blaze (a plan for how it would be dealt with as a priority after my departure), and I pointed out that knowledge of the new fire was itself product (because it's much better knowing there's a fire and its location then mistakenly thinking there isn't one), those offerings brought scant joy. In consequence, there is a significant fraction of the group that came away from the weekend with the feeling that they were burned by me, and want no part of my working with the group again.

While that's sad for me, it goes with the territory, and that's what I want to focus on in this blog. 

While I'm brave enough (or foolish enough) to always think I can help a group in trouble, the truth is my work is not always effective. Perhaps I don't learn enough about the full dimensions of the problem ahead of time; perhaps I don't find a way to connect with all the stakeholders; perhaps I make a poor choice about how to proceed, or misinterpret a key statement; perhaps I underestimate how long it will take to clean the wound, apply the salve, and bandage the patient.

In any event, my souffles don't always rise; sometimes they fall flat. What I don't do is play it safe. If I was hired to put out a fire, then I'll do my best to extinguish that sucker, which almost always means working close to the heat and under pressure from the clock.

Completing the transition to a cooking metaphor, I'm reminded of the famous Harry Truman quote, If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. As a process consultant I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, trying to turn grease fires into tasty meals. With the group I mentioned above, the dinner party was naturally disappointed by the food displayed at the end of the weekend: charred on the outside and undercooked in the middle. 

On the one hand, it makes sense to not bring back a guest chef who didn't produce a delectable meal the last time. On the other, I was asked to work in a kitchen that no one else wanted to enter, to demonstrate how it was possible to produce good food (unifying agreements) without building a new kitchen (switching to a different decision-making process), or firing some of the kitchen staff (asking some challenging folks to leave the community).

In a hot kitchen, I work deliberately and with purpose. While I try not to rush, I meet people head on, making sure I've heard what they have to tell me, letting them know how that fits (or doesn't fit) with what others have said, what I'm doing with all that I've heard, and what the plan is.

Not everyone responds well to my directness. Not everyone likes it when I share news from others that they don't want to hear. I don't always make a good choice in how I share hard information. There is always room for me to improve; ways in which I can learn to be less triggering and more compassionate. In short, I can always be a better short order cook, and it's on me to find the lessons when meals I prepare go uneaten.

All of that said, if someone wants an omelet, it will necessarily mean breaking eggs. Even though there may later be remorse over the unborn chickens or the lost beauty of whole eggs—for which I can have genuine sympathy—I will always break the eggs once an omelet has been ordered. Even when the customer tells me after the fact that they didn't really want an omelet, it's my job to hear that with as much grace as possible… and then prepare myself to go back into the kitchen.

If you need clients to like what you cook every time, I agree with our 33rd President: stay out of the kitchen.

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