Subba’s Serendipitous moments

March 3, 2009

Experience can be a big liability

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting and a provocative article on the relevance of experience. Though the article by and large focuses on the project management area (an area where I have significant experience both as a practitioner and as a consultant and hence competent to comment), the broad implications of the article are relevant across all disciplines.

In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

In my own personal endeavor, I have often felt that to remain current, one needs to constantly have a curious and questioning mind. It is too tempting to impose a solution that has worked in the past, or a solution that we are personally biased towards and force-fit the problem to the solution. As a consultant and an analyst, the temptation is all the more greater. And I have seen some unpleasant consequences of using an obsolete approach in the name of best practices.

This is another situation where an ounce of perspective is worth more than a pound of analytics and regurgitation.

I have blogged about the how being trained to see often masks our ability to see and why despite being wise, not being able to have the much needed perspective often leads to us going astray here.

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February 19, 2009

BearingPoint files for bankruptcy

Filed under: Business,Model — Subbaraman Iyer @ 9:18 pm
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BearingPoint (16,000 employees) which was spun out of KPMG in 2001 filed for bankruptcy. BearingPoint provides technology and management consulting solutions and had always reported losses since 2001.

The bankruptcy petition listed more than $1 billion in assets and more than $ 1 billion in liabilities. 30% of its business came from Government contracts and the firm may have to sell off some its business units to help deal with the debt.

I am still trying hard to understand how is it possible for a consulting and services firm to have so much debt.

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June 13, 2007

Policy, not implementation

Filed under: Business,Leadership,Model,Perspective,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 10:37 am
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A centipede consulted a wise old owl about the pain it felt in its legs.

Said the owl, ” You have too many legs! If you become a mouse you would have only four legs– and one twenty fourth the amount of pain.”

That’s a very good idea,” said the centipede. “Now show me how to become a mouse.”

“Don’t bother me with details of the implementation, ” said the owl. “I only make the policy in this place”.

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January 30, 2007

Analysis and decision frames

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Leadership,Perspective,Stories,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 9:50 pm
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A  wonderful parable called “Parable of the kitchen spindle” published in the Harvard Business Review in the 60s continue to provide valuable lessons in consulting. This is one of my favorite stories and I use this to illustrate the analysis frame of mind.

In it, a restaurant owner finds his cooks and waitresses bickering about orders, especially during peak hours. To resolve this issue, the owner consults four different consultants.

The first consultant– a sociologist by training, frames the problem in terms of status and hierarchy: The cook resents receiving orders from the lower status waitresses. He recommends sensitivity training for both the cooks and waitresses.

The second consultant–an anthropologist by training stresses cultural norms, especially concerning sex roles.  The male cooks disliked having their actions initiated by women. He recommends that a senior cook be given authority to manage the system, who will parcel the orders to the other cooks.

The third consultant– a clinical psychologist diagnosed the problems as one of sibling rivalry: the cooks and waitresses were like brothers and sisters competing for the attention of the boss who was like a father figure. He recommended weekly counseling sessions to improve communication.

The last was an information theorist (modern day IT consultant) who diagnosed the problem as cognitive overload. At peak time, too many orders had to be memorized causing stress. He recommended that waitresses punch the orders into a new computer system which would display the right order at the right time.

The Manager was thoroughly confused because he couldn’t afford any of the solutions. In desperation, he mentioned the problem to a junior cook. ” You know in the restaurant I worked in, they had a rotating thing in the kitchen and we clipped out orders to it. The cooks would just turn it around and pull off an order each time they were ready to cook something new. It made everything a lot easier. Do you think something like that would work here”?

The boss said he didn’t know. So he took the idea to the 4 consultants.

Guess what happened and this is when it gets very interesting:

Each continued to recommend the course of action they earlier proposed, but added as an after thought that the kitchen spindle might alleviate the problem.

The sociologist said the spindle would align statuses since the orders will have to wait till the cook got them.

The anthropologist said the spindle would im-personalize the initiation of the action thereby freeing the cook from the despised reversal of roles.

The psychologist said the spindle would reduce the friction causing interaction between cooks and waitresses, minimizing sibling rivalry.

The information theorist (IT consultant)  said the spindle would give the system external memory, comparable to a computer, by recording the orders on paper.

The manager installed the spindle and it was a great success.

Here are the takeaways:

  1. Each of the consultant projected his knowledge and expertise on the problem. They saw that from a very specific frame.
  2. The moment they saw a different kind of solution, they gave their own “spin” to the solution.
  3. When a decision is seen through various frames, and it makes sense, then it is a good decision.

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