Trusted Advisors and Order Takers

I remember several years ago when a colleague of mine – let’s just call him Jorge – was hunting for real estate. He shared with me a very curious email from his realtor. The note was responding to request to make offers on a couple properties. I don’t recall the precise text, but it fairly bluntly told Jorge that he was becoming enamored with glitzy add-ons to properties, such as high end appliances or custom counter tops, which were frequently put into these houses to compensate for bigger issues such as the location or overall condition of the building. The realtor went so far as to say that he thinks it would be foolish to make an offer on any of these properties, and that he should really think about what he wants before asking for more help. Now I’d like you to contemplate for a moment, here was a realtor effectively telling a customer to not purchase properties, and possibly to stop looking at real estate. Of course my coworker was so impressed by this authentic advice from the realtor that he only thought more of him and proceeded to recommend him to anyone who was interested in buying a home. This realtor effectively transcended the position of being a transactional broker to help purchase a home and became a trusted advisor.

This buying agent could have just as easily taken my colleagues money to help him buy the house that he requested. I suspect that Jorge would have bought that house in the bad neighborhood, been dissatisfied with the purchase long term, but never think to blame the realtor, who would have surely executed those instructions competently. Yet, he gave up the sale to offer advice more useful to his client than doing what was being asked of him. This memory has persisted in the back of my consciousness, because I believe a similar tension exists throughout the business world, and it is only amplified by the increasing use of contract labor and outsourcing. When you contract for someone to work with you, are you hiring an order taker – or “pair of hands” – or are you hiring an advisor?

I’d like to say that when I’m working at a client, I am serving that role of trusted advisor. I am offering candid feedback and sharing my valuable perspective. Indeed, we all probably feel that way, so what are the pressures that would conspire against us from always living up to that high measures? I’m sure this is an incomplete list, but there are numerous situations whose siren song can pull you away from staying true to your authentic voice.

  • Compartmentalization – no matter how broad one’s mandate is when working at a company, you always find a problem just beyond your horizon. For example, one time I was working on a project where the team, credit to them, was able to prove that the technology platform they were expected to use would not work. This meant the company had to go and license another tool. This was an endeavor that could take more than six months at this particular company. Now I was chartered to help this particular team that no longer had a platform to build upon, and wouldn’t for about half a year. This makes it particularly hard to teach a team Scrum. At first I accepted this constraint and we found some interesting things on the periphery for the team to work on until those were used up. We had a nicely delivering team and I was helping them adopt Scrum – meeting the expectations of my mandate – but we weren’t pushing on this organizational impediment. Eventually, while they waited for their tool to be purchased, they asked me to help them build specifications for the various features they would implement once the tool was available. Looking back, I know that this was the point when I should have left, but the shrinking compartmentalization was tough to see in the moment. I was able to add real value by helping them build other solutions outside their approved platform, why couldn’t I help them succeed with this. Indeed, I suspect that my guidance helped them write better specifications in two week sprints. However, at that point I was no longer advising them to deal with their bigger problems, I had become an order taker.
  • Need to Establish Credibility First – At another client, I recall getting time to talk with the CIO and we discussed the role of the entire IT organization, the need to do more portfolio management, and how to broker a closer relationship with the business. He didn’t disagree with any of my points, but expressed his primary concern, that we needed to establish credibility first. Namely, we needed to deliver according to the business’ current expectations before we could push and make suggestions of our own. Only later, did I realize that the fundamental problem was that the business’ expectations were not grounded in any understanding of the throughput of the current IT organization. Additionally, there was quite a bit of wasted work that we took on in the name of trying to establish rapport with the business. Sadly, that moment where the business appreciated us more and asked to have a more trusting relationship never emerged.
  • Seduced by Fire Fighting – Sometimes it is really fun to roll up your sleeves, get involved, and turn around a tough situation. I know that I have found myself in positions where I got a high for the fast paced action of fighting project fires. The only problem with this is that firefighting can be limiting when you are trying to be a change agent. First, it is exhausting, while seeing the positive impact on individual projects or initiatives can be truly compelling, I have found that it can be very difficult be both focused on solving immediate tactical challenges and looking towards larger organizational impediments. Additionally, it can be easy to acquire a reputation in a company, at one client I allowed myself to be seen as the “problem solver”, whenever a project was in trouble, they would send me in and I was able to do some pretty impressive things. The only problem is that this organization had a lot of problems, and I had made myself part of that system. I was no longer dialoging with leaders about the patterns that were creating these challenges, rather I was running headlong in to solve them. The moment one crisis had subsided, there was certain to be another one on the horizon.
  • Mandate for Execution – This is probably the most direct problem, and one that I have seen more of in the past year or so. Stated quite simply, people are not looking for organizational transformation or other change type services. They are simply looking to run some projects. Most likely these are challenging projects fraught with risk, but they are using consultants as insurance, they are paying a premium to have really good people available to ensure that things don’t go wrong. There is nothing wrong with this approach, per se, but I have found that a certain mandate for execution may be severely hindered by other impediments, and if expectations aren’t set correctly, the organization will not properly understand how they are related and simply look towards their coaches or consultants to work with the bounds of the current system, which is falsely perceived to be inviolate.

Limits of Being a “Pair of Hands”

Being focused in a tactical engagement is not inherently bad, indeed sometimes it is exactly what the situation requires. When I stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts to get a morning coffee, I’m not looking for a consultative discussion about the importance of a good breakfast or the proper amount of caffeine to consume in the morning. I simply want a task fulfilled. However, while I’m sure we can all think of situations when we want people to simply execute a task for us, more often than not, we’re looking for a little more than just that. Even if I’m doing something as simple as taking my car in for an oil change, I would like the mechanic to point out if there is something wrong with my vehicle meriting further attention. The challenge then comes into what we could call the race to the bottom for services. Strictly bound services are much cheaper to deliver than consultative services. A mismatch of expectations can be costly for both involved. If I am going into an engagement that is looking for me to basically be a good ScrumMaster, they are going to be disappointed with the cost of my service. This could cut the other way, when a cost conscious company seeks out a consultant or outsourcing firm purely on price, only to find out that the breadth of their solution or service is much more limited than they expected – in this case, the most common examples seem to be an isolation of doing “just development” without incorporating either upstream analysis or downstream testing. Beyond financial implications, I have found that disconnects around expectations around the breadth of the service you are offering invariably lead to disappointment for both the consultant and the customer. So, it is not so much that being a “pair of hands” is bad, but rather the real risk is when someone is expected to play a role inconsistent with their own expectations.

The Continuum of Team Goals

When talking to a colleague recently, they introduced me to a powerful technique for visualizing and discussing these precise expectation mismatches. The Continuum of Team Goals provides a clear view of the scope of a team’s expected mandate (The technique is further detailed in “The Quality Toolbox” by Nancy Tague). Imagine that whatever project you’re working on, the mission could fit somewhere on the spectrum laid out below.

Continuum of Team Goals

This scale can be used when evaluating the mission of a team, possibly in a planning poker style to survey the whole group, where each person indicates where on this continuum the team’s particular mission falls. On the right, we see a fairly finite focus on solving an immediate problem or implementing a specific plan. Within the context of an Agile Software development this might be things like, “help a department improve their code quality” (Problem) or “Train all ScrumMasters” (Plan). Into the middle, we still see bounded goals, but they are focused on a higher level looking at a whole product or service. Keeping with examples from Agile software development, these might look more like, “Improve the XYZ product to…” (Product) or “Improve innovation within the new product development group” (process). Finally, in the far left, do we see the totally unbounded area where the goal is to improve all processes, services and products.

I am not saying inherently that any one of these is better than another, but that making sure everyone is clearly aligned on expectations is the important thing. I know I have found myself in a place where I thought I was going in to help transform an organization on the left end of this spectrum and they were looking for me to solve a few important, but specific, problems. This mismatch ensured that no matter how good a job I did, I would not be satisfied with my work and that the client would be frustrated with my inability to focus on what was truly important for them. Having agreement on the proper breadth for a given engagement is critical, and I should elaborate that this doesn’t mean simply asking a client and codifying it. This must be a deliberative discussion where you help them better understand the true nature of their need. The client who says “we need to train all our PMs in Scrum” may ask at first for you to “implement a plan” for them, but that may not actually achieve for them what they are hoping to get. Indeed, calling out the mismatch when you see it may be the most important thing you can do, just like Jorge’s realtor did when he was being asked to simply produce an offer letter (implement a plan), rather than advice on real estate (Improve a product – that product being Jorge’s home).

Increment Your Way to the Left

While it may be very hard to change expectations midway through a project about the breadth of the scope, there is no reason we can’t use and incremental approach to move left across this spectrum. Indeed, if we look at traditional consulting, this is a common pattern. Consulting companies frequently begin with an assessment project, which would probably be the definition activity to solve a problem or improve a product. They carefully bound that activity and come back with their recommendation. The nature of that recommendation frequently recommends other, broader changes. Assuming the client likes these, the nature of the progressive work moves further and further to the left as the consultant builds rapport, becoming the “trusted advisor” we discussed in the beginning of this post.

comments powered by Disqus