When asked what should be included in an Executive Director’s report to the board, I responded with this model of “OARS” to help the board be aware of the steering environment:

O = Opportunities . . . that the organization can (and perhaps should) pursue
A = Accomplishments . . . both little and big successes
R = Risk factors . . . things that look like they might go wrong, including action taken to 
mitigate these.
S = Surprises . . . that the ED encountered. Yes — even in a well run organization, with 
very professional staff, there are surprises

This model was inspired by the “Significant events” report I had file each week when I was a mid-level manager at General Electric. Each of my staff had to write such a report to me, and I distilled and condensed these, along with my own list, in my report to senior management.  Our “significant events” were named differently, but functioned in the same way to alert our managers about situations that would likely develop — either into more mature problems, or into inspiring successes.

The underlying value here is truth telling.  I knew it was easy for my staff to report great successes, or opportunities that seemed to be developing.  It was much harder to report those out of control situations that could get worse, those stakeholders whose dismay was escalating, those situations that seemed only to work against us.  But my job was to know of such situations, and to organize appropriate responses.  Were I kept in the dark, I couldn’t really do my job.

I’m often asked the difference between three kinds of external helpers that a business or individual might need — coach, consultant, and contractor. Just as often, I’m not asked how to make good use of these important helpers — even though I often hear from my colleagues how many clients don’t know how to work well with and get real value from these often highly paid individuals or firms.  Since I can and do function in all of these three roles, I need to maintain constant clarity about the kind of assignment I’m working under.

Here how I distinguish these three “C’s”:

  • As a coach, I help my clients find their own clarity, their own strength, their own resourcefulness.  Rarely will I offer advice, or take on a task that they could and should be doing.  I think of myself holding a flexible mirror in front of them, helping them see themselves in a new way.

I had one client who was great at maintaining accountability, budget controls, a good work environment, and other such aspects of the present situation.  But he told me that he had trouble planning, visioning, and otherwise getting beyond his organization’s present situation.  I gave him no advice, but simply asked him to imagine that his organization was going to hire a director of planning and visioning, and to bring me a job description for that role.  I also asked for an initial work plan.  What he brought back to his next coaching session was stellar.  Clearly, and despite his negative self-appraisal, he had quite a command of how to envision and plan possible futures for his group. The real challenge, it turned out, was figuring out which of his tasks he could and should give away, and which tasks might not be needed at all.

  • As a consultant, I do offer advice — extending the client’s knowledge and vision.  I might be called upon to review a client’s action plan, facilitate a meeting, interview stakeholders, map out possible strategies.  I will make recommendations to the client, that make include some surprises.

One consulting client hired me to review some technology work that was very poorly done, in the expectation that I could serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the technology provider.  Indeed, the work was seriously deficient, and I could easily have provided a legally correct statement of that assessment.  But my advice to the client was to step aside from the potentially consuming legal process, and to use all their resources to get enough of the technology working that they could get back to their core business.  This was not the advice they expected or wanted, but they took it and it served them well.

  • As a contractor, I take on tasks that my client might have handled themselves, but for whatever reason choose to out-source to another.  My role is not to offer advice, and not to catalyze their growth, but simply to perform the tasks they have assigned.

One software company used to regularly contract with me to teach their training classes.  I followed their course outline, used their other training materials. and represented myself to the students as somebody working on my client’s behalf.

After teaching a number of these classes, I expected that I might then be hired as a consultant to design improvements to the classes, drawing on my in depth experience delivering the material to a wide range of students.  However, that never happened.

When hiring a coach, an individual or organizations needs clarity about what change outcomes are desired.  A speech coach might help somebody speak clearly and forcefully before large groups, where that person might already have had a great mastery of the material but only felt comfortable sharing in small informal settings. But that same coach would probably not be helpful when the challenge is to develop an inspirational message that requires a new definition of the organization’s mission.  Bringing in a coach will generally increase the workload for the individual or group, as the coach will prescribe exercises and activities that engage  the whole team but require real effort.  Prior to hiring the coach, there needs to be a commitment to the learning process.

I’d offer similar comments about hiring a consultant — the need to have a well defined problem (or, perhaps, an agenda that starts with defining the problem), the commitment to staffing the consultant with access to the right information, insight, data, and experience, and the need to work with the consultant throughout the process.

A contractor needs an even more detailed job description, but, in return, should require less staff time for support, supervision, evaluation, and collaboration.

I’d strongly suggest that before hiring any of these helpers, the organization develop the evaluation tools to assess the success of the engagement.  Knowing how evaluation will take place means really knowing what’s expected and what’s important.

Coach, consultant, and contractor — They are all important helpers.  But know what kind of help you need, what you expect to receive, and what commitment you have towards reaching that end.

We need professional partners, and not just fee for service providers.  And we need to be invested in the relationships, and active in providing information, helping to define problems, evaluating proposed solutions, etc.

This post began in response to a question about choosing an attorney for a new business or non-profit organization.  Several other people had offered advice about paying attention to the attorney’s specialities, about the size and responsiveness of their organization, etc.  I agreed with all of this, but suggested looking not just at the provider, but about the kind of relationship required.

Here’s what I wrote in that post:

I believe there’s more. Your relationship with your attorneys (there may be more than one!) must be a partnership. It’s not just a fee for service. Setting up the corporation, protecting trademarks, etc. is not that complex. But finding the right guidance moving forward, managing risk, defining business relationships . . . these can be complex and interesting.

I’d ask each potential attorney (or firm), “What will you want from me? What’s going to be my role in making this relationship work?” Listen carefully, to see if their response sounds like the foundation of a helpful and productive partnership.

I might note that the same questions are very relevant in interviewing potential consultants, advertising agencies, web developers . . . all your business partners.

Are you willing to nourish and value that relationship?  Can you hear the guidance and advice that will be offered, and still remain an active partner in deciding how to proceed.  Can you stake responsibility for steering your ship, even as you gather information and ideas from all of your “crew”?


I’d read about Three Buoys — the new fish restaurant that recently opened up a few blocks from my office.  It sounded like a wonderful place for simple fish sandwiches, and for more sophisticated seafood preparations as well.  So, I thought this morning, why not try it for lunch today.

I was warmly welcomed, but then presented with a dense page of typewritten text, that must have contained at least 100 different menu items.  All were priced well above what I wanted to spend for lunch, and most were not seafood.

Yes — I could have scanned the menu, checking out the seafood items.  There probably were some that would have interested me, and at a price not too much above what I expected to spend on lunch.  But the very fact that there were so many items on the menu was proof positive to me that this place couldn’t be doing anything very well.

My “proof positive” may have been completely wrong.  I might have missed a taste thrill for lunch today.  But that’s not the point.  What’s interesting is that I entered the restaurant wanting to buy something, and I left feeling upset that this mission was so hard.  They might have lost not just my one purchase today, but a loyal customers for years to come.

What might have helped turn me into a real customer?

  • A menu sorted by kind of item — Perhaps fried seafood, broiled seafood, soups, salads, meat, poultry, etc.
  • A menu that was just shorter.
  • A server who has offered to help me pick out something on the long menu for this new place.
  • A page of lunch specials — perhaps only slightly cheaper than the full menu, but much more approachable.

Also, as I left, somebody might have asked, “We’re sorry you’re leaving . . . What were you looking for that you didn’t see on the menu?”

I want this little place to succeed, and may go back to offer my feedback — for what it’s worth.  But if they are not querying their customers (or would-be customers), there’s not a lot of hope that they will get it right.

What’s the real problem?

October 12, 2012

How often we try to solve a problem in the terms first presented to us.  Occasionally this works.  But very often the statement of the problem is self-limiting, and tends to steer us away from finding a real solution.  Or — and this is just as problematic — we may re–phrase a problem in limiting and perhaps misleading terms.

Not long ago I changed the e-mail address at which I receive notices from what had been a very active mailing list.  Instantly, I noticed that incoming mail from that list had stopped.  What was going on?  Was there a spam filter?  I realized that I’d changed the list settings before creating my new email account.  Had the list sent mail to the momentarily non-existent email address, and then turned me off?  What other scenarios could lead to such an email blockage.  I worked diligently on this problem, sought the assistance of the list owner and of several list participants, but got nowhere.  A whole weekend went by, but no solution appeared.

And then the email I wanted started to flow.  It turned out that this once-active list had experienced a significant decline in traffic, and there had been absolutely no messages during the whole weekend.  Come Monday there was a trickle of emails on the list — and they all came through to me just as they were supposed to.

In fact I had originally seen the problem as, “No emails coming through”.  But then I had quickly rephrased it into a question that I thought would be more helpful — “What is blocking my emails?”  And holding on to that paradigm had blinded me to the very simple solution — “There were no emails for anybody”.

Recently a colleague shared with me her concerns about the board of the small nonprofit that she directs.  We immediately began talking about various training programs or board retreats that might make the board a more functional support for this nonprofit and for its director.  It felt appropriate for us to talk about the possible agenda for such training, whether it should be for all board members or just those on the executive committee, etc.  Our unspoken paradigm was that the board didn’t understand its best role, and so wasn’t behaving in the most productive manner.  Bring about the required understanding or attitude and the problem would be fixed, we believed.

It took quite a while for us to step back and reformulate the problem, into the simple statement, that “The board is not serving the role needed by the organization and its director”.  And with this understanding we could ask whether, in fact, the right people were serving on the board, whether the personal benefits they sought from board service were consistent with the organization’s situation, and whether there were any positive models of board service within the board’s recent history.  Board training (in the conventional sense) remained one possible option, but not the only option.

Another organization that I’ve worked with found that they weren’t taken seriously when seeking large contributions.  They struggled to produce clearer descriptions of their programs, that they were sure would excite potential major donors.  The new materials were better, and did attract more small donations.  But they didn’t solve the problem — major donors were still holding back.  It turned out that the public financial statements were unclear and inadequate. This didn’t bother small contributors, but were a real concern to major donors.  A new treasurer was able to produce much clearer financial reports, and larger contributions began to flow.

In each of these cases the relevant people heard a statement of the visible problem, but made assumptions as they translated it into a limiting reformulation.  Letting go of those assumptions and asking anew what was the real problem turned out to be the key.

The moral here is simple:  Our first question should always be, “What is the problem?”.  And we need to answer that in the most primitive way, trying to state the problem as seen or experienced, rather than as transformed by some suggestive but often inaccurate assumptions or deductions.

I’m just beginning to design two new “Skillbuilders” (workshops) for the Maine Association of nonprofits. Workshop design comes easy to me, and I’ve a track record of considerable success. Still, I’m expecting to learn significant lessons as we first experience these workshops being presented to live audiences. How can I maximize my learning from these pilot runs?  And how can I organize my initial work so that these questions are clear?

My first rule is to always list the goals, and design the evaluation process, before completing the workshop design itself. Just the titles, in this case “Asking Great Questions” and “Crafting Your Elevator Speech”, are not enough.

For example, digging deeper into my “Asking Great Questions” agenda, I began to see such questions as:

• Who should be learning what about the process of creating, editing, and asking questions? (Who is our target audience?)

• What key ideas or understanding do we believe participants in the skillbuilder should take away? (What are we aiming to teach?)

• What experiences (not what lessons) will have make this happen?

• Are there important things that participants may need to un-learn? (What habits, or what blindness, are we trying to overcome?)

Working with such questions early in the workshop conception stage, I began to see that the kinds of questions that might fit into an employment interview are very different from those that we might want to ask of other stakeholders in our organization, of lawmakers or regulatory officials, of teachers or of researchers and guides whom we trust.

With each clarification of the goals comes new clarity about how to observe and measure whether we have achieved those goals. And, so, the evaluation process is built as the workshop is designed. Even more important, the questioning process informs the whole conception of the workshop.

In fact, I needed to create another set of questions, to evaluate my initial description of the Skillbuilder, before even developing the main workshop agenda:

• Who will the description attract, and are these the people I want in this skillbuilder?

• What expectations will the description create, and is this an expectation that I can and want to fulfill?

• The skillbuilder will be require very active participation, and will include little content that can be received passively.  Will that be clear and a positive aspect of participant’s experience (or will there be comments about the lack of Powerpoint slides with detailed text guides)?

Thinking about this process led me to look back at the first outline I wrote for an earlier Skillbuilder I had developed with Deb Nelson. Along with my first rough draft outline, I had sent her a memo with a heading “Questions for Us”, and the following content:

• Our goals for the workshop

• What we have to tell or teach vs. participants learning from each other

• How we will know we have succeeded — Key evaluation question

• Possible pitfalls — What should not happen?

• Personal goals — Why we are doing this

Ask yourself these and similar questions as you prepare your presentations, your lectures, your workshops.  Even when the answers seem to be obvious and so clear, write them down. Revise that draft copy. And let your questions be your guide.

What makes a great story?

September 7, 2012

Deb Nelson and I have been teaching a Skillbuilder (workshop) for the Maine Association of Nonprofits entitled “Finding and telling our stories:  Bringing our mission and method to life”.  It’s about helping people identify stories about their organization that are compelling, illustrative, and can be told in just a few words.

As part of this workshop, we ask participants, “What makes a great story?”.  These are some of the answers that we hope to hear (and we usually do):

  • The story has a compelling narrative
  • It’s not obvious (e.g. you must keep listening)
  • It’s accurate, true, really happened
  • It can be told with authenticity and authority
  • The imagery is vivid.
  • It’s culturally relevant for the audience
  • It fulfills the right goals for its audience
  • It has a real beginning, middle, and end
  • It’s suitably short

These are the kinds of stories that we want to tell in describing the work of our organizations — whether in fundraising for a non-profit, marketing a commercial service, or offering an innovative product.  Compelling true short stories draw people in, create interest, and communicate most effectively.

My best mistake (!)

September 6, 2012

Does something sound wrong with this title? Most of us want to trumpet our successes, and hide our mistakes. And yet it’s through important mistakes that we can learn the most important lessons.

With this thought in mind, here’s my “best” mistake. Mark (no, not his real name) had hired me before, as a consultant with two of his companies. And now he was CEO of an interesting multi-division firm, with lots of appeal. He brought me in first to rework systems in a smaller division, and then to work on the major corporate systems. I was doing a great job (or so I thought), even though I was running into resistance. Projects that create change always incite some resistance, so this was not a concern. But then Mark left the firm.

All of the sudden, I was alone, really reporting to nobody. Nobody owned the project that Mark had created. And, not surprisingly, I was asked to leave as well. It wasn’t because of my work, or my results. I was just an orphan, and nobody was a stakeholder in my success there.

What did I learn from this? Well, no longer after he left, Mark referred me to another firm, whose CEO, Peter, was a friend of his. Again, it was the CEO who wanted to hire me, and I was instrumental in his plans to bring the organization to another level. But I didn’t want to repeat the same boom and bust scenario again. So, this is what I set in place:

I insisted that Peter form a management team, to take supervisory responsibility for my work.

Each month, before I arrived for a week of week, they would set the agenda, identify goals, and develop detailed plans to insure that I was given the needed resources.

Then, after I finished my week of work, they would meet and review the results.

My work was valued, and so there were often conflicts about which projects were given to me. I could deflect all of these, pointing to the management team that was setting the agenda.

In short, I created a place for Arthur Fink the consultant in their management chart — even though I was never a full time (or even part time) employee. And even when Peter became the target of criticism for some of his decisions (or lack of decisions), I was well insulated from this political stuff.

Business, and the work of non-profit organizations, is all about relationships. But when your position of tied to one possibly frail connection based on one relationshp, everything is at risk. By creating groups or communities, and establishing relationships with them, one can be better informed and much better protected.

I do ask lots of questions, but sometimes I also do provide answers! Here’s are some of the answers I provided to the Linked In “Answers” forums:I
As a nonprofit consultant, which assessment tool(s) do you recommend when trying to understand and evaluate where the organization’s biggest problems lie?

The starting point is not a set of “tools” or automated programs, or report. It’s my own ears, listening to staff, board, and critical stakeholders reporting their understanding of the organization and its issues. And it’s the probing questions I ask, to elicit these comments. Once I’ve identified some core issues, various reports and tools may be relevant. And if the issues are primarily with finances, I may involve other consultants who work more intensively in that area.

Think about getting a good physical exam. After a few simple preliminaries (height, weight, pulse, blood pressure, etc.), the doctor will ask how I’m feeling, will look VERY carefully at my posture, demeanor, coordination, etc., will feel my skin for temperature and moisture, etc. More detailed tests may follow, but they are never the starting point.

How do you personally evaluate speakers you hear?

Great speakers have me engaged. They present memorable images, powerful questions, great metaphors. I don’t have to “evaluate” their performance. Their message stays with me, guides me, informs me. I notice that.

How successful is your donor newsletter at raising money?

I’d be surprised if most donor newsletters succeed at raising money — since that’s not what they are supposed to do. They keep donors and prospects in touch with the organization, cultivate them as stakeholders. Then, when the “ask” comes, the donors or prospects want to support the vital organization that they are so clearly in touch with.

What is your favorite way for nonprofits without alumni to get email addresses?

Just be very careful that you understand “opt in”. An e-mail sent without permission, and without explanation, casts a very bad first impression.

What is the biggest mistake you see new, first time EDs make when working with their Board?

The most common mistake I see new executive directors make is to regard their board as more a burden than an asset. Indeed, it takes work to maintain a board, but a board is a resource to help keep an organization on track, connected, and grounded.

How do you find web developers/designers that are willing to offer Pro Bono services to a NFP?

In most communities, you’ll find an organization that brings together web developers and designers to share skills and insights with each other. Try to identify that group (or those groups) in your area, and ask them to circulate a request from your nonprofit. Be clear what the request is, and include a short statement about why it makes a difference. But do be careful that the skill set you get pro bono is the skill set that you need. A web developer MAY not be the best web designer or web marketing consultant. Interview your pro bono workers just as you would any contractor.

What’s the best accounting software for nonprofits?

One early responder to this question asks, “Why do you think it would be different from any profit making business? ” In many many ways, the needs are the same. But many non-profits need fund accounting, as they keep track of many different grants, contracts, etc. There are packages designed for this, and I’m aware of several add-ons for Quickbooks to provide fund accounting functionality. How important is this for your nonprofit? For many, it’s not important at all. But it makes sense to have on your board at least one person who really understands these issues, and can help guide the organization. As with any software choice, the REAL cost is not the cost of the package — It’s the cost of working with it daily, of putting up with unexpected quirks or lapses in support, and — worst case — of replacing it if a wrong choice was made.

Chartered affiliate organization must file state filing and register for the DOJ and FTB, yet Central Org won’t sign documents, claims it’s unnecessary. Central org does not include chapters in 990 or file a group exemption.

Speak to a lawyer in your state. Informal advice on forums such as this can be valuable in many ways. But it’s no substitute for good professional legal advice. I’m amazed how often people don’t go to the source — and here the source is somebody with the precise legal knowledge.

What is your best tip for leading effective online small group coaching programs?

The key to any individual or group coaching is clarifying goals. Often that’s the full agenda, and its’ repeated again and again. “What are we trying to do?” “Where do we want to be?”. Individual (1-1) coaching may be a useful adjunct to group work. But be careful that people don’t try to use this to point towards others as the source of a problem. The only place that belongs is in the whole group, stated in the most positive way. Yes — accountability is important. I’d suggest that the last part of each session be on “confirming agreements”, and that the first part be on “agreement check in”. I agree that “homework” can be a negative word, even though the concept is great. I might call it “preparation”.”

  1. Work with staff and their managers to identify the skills on which training is needed. Communicate this clearly to the training group.
  2. Allow enough time and space for the training to really work. Often going off site is helpful. In any case, staff should be totally free to be present with the training.
  3. Insure that staff will be able to use the skills they have learned right away. I used to run a technical training department, and was amazed how often staff were sent for training on a new piece of software, but didn’t get to work with it for six months or more. By that time, the value of the training has long been lost.

Any consultant wanting to hone his or her skills should read this recent article by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here are the ten points they list:  (For a detailed explanation, read the article!)

Following this list, I’ve added eight more that I believe are at least as important.

* Have self-confidence and be as adept at delivering bad news as good.

* Have a good understanding of the business and of themselves.

* Have transferable skills.

* Have the ability to simplify and explain a problem.

* Have more than one solution to a problem.

* Be a good listener.

* Be a team player.

* Be able to market.

* Gain client trust.

* Remember who’s the star.

And while I agree strongly with all of these, there are more traits that I believe are equally important:

* Be comfortable telling the truth.  Clients may just want to hear positive words, expressions of praise.  A great consultant is willing to say what needs to be said.

* Be tactful and affirming.  Truthtelling doesn’t need to be negative and abrasive.  A great consultant can phrase criticism as helpful suggestions, and can lead the client toward constructive action.

* Know how to ask great questions.  Great consultants ask great questions.  It’s through such questions that we learn what’s really going on, what the client thinks is going on, and what different groups within the client organization think is going on.

* Be willing to play together.  You can learn only so much sitting at the conference table.  Spending some quality time with the client outside of the office environment is important as well.  A great consultant can engage the client in different venues, and, by so doing, learn much ore about motivations, hopes, fears, etc.

* Have lots of integrity.  Confidences need to be respected.  Promises need to be kept.  A great consultant only makes promises that he or she can and will keep.

* Admit mistakes.  Great consultants aren’t always right.  What’s important is that they take responsibility for the advice they offer, and are willing to acknowledge when it proves to be “off” in any way.

* Love simplicity.  Even when Business and organization problems seem quite complex, some simple models will help clients understand.  A great consultant and report and prescribe in very simple terms, but will still be ready to address the added complexity that may be part of a full understanding.

* Enjoy the work.  Great consultants have fun.  Working with clients can be like playing in a sandbox, and helping clients solve their own problems can be like building those sand castles most of used used to create as children.  Clients will catch on — that it’s fund to learn, to develop new understanding, to think up new possible solutions, to test ideas, and to work together in a collaborative environment.

As I work with non-profit boards, these are some of the questions I usually raise.  But you can use these on your own.  I’d welcome feedback about which are most important, which need to be changed, and what should have been included but was not.

Mission / Vision:  Does the organization have a clear mission statement, and a vision of what it seeks to achieve? At what point in time might the mission be accomplished? When has the board last revisited mission and vision? Are staff, board, and executive aligned on mission and vision?  Are mission and vision statements referenced when program ideas, and internal policies are being considered?  Does the board notice when stated mission and actual function are different, and can it take constructive action?

Stakeholders:  Who are the stakeholders, or potential stakeholders? How does the board connect with or represent the stakeholders? If some stakeholders are not in some way represented on the board, how does the organization maintain ties with them? To what groups does the organization feel itself accountable?

Board membership:  How are Board members chosen? Does the board include people with experience to evaluate and clarify the organization’s need for legal services, accounting, publicity, marketing, program development, fundraising human resources, etc.? Is the board primarily a policy-making body, or does it seek is it a “working board” (providing some of these services)? Are there term limits for board members? How does the board identify and cultivate new members with the right skills, experience connections, and commitment?  Is there a training protocol for new board members, and a regular check in with continuing board members as they get re-appointed?

Board  meetings:  Are board meetings well attended lively events, that engage the board and that result in useful dialog and decisions?  Do board members come away excited and involved? Is there a clear agenda, with board questions presented in enough detail and accompanied with enough background material?  Are meetings run in a manner that encourage candid sharing, creative problem solving, and the generation of consensus whenever possible?  Is the board able to listen carefully to minority views, to see how these might provide helpful insights and guidance?  Are minutes taken carefully, and then reviewed by the board? Read the rest of this entry »

When faced with an interesting problem, some consultants may start by offering advice — usually well seasoned advice.  That’s not my style.  I prefer to ask questions that define an agenda, that help the participants find their own insight and clarity.

So, when preparing to take part in a meeting of entrepreneurs who might be growing their solo business into a firm with two or more employees (perhaps many more than two!), I prepared the following twelve questions:

Note that I do offer some comments after each question, but these do not attempt to suggest what the answer should be.

1. What’s the core product or service, and how will it get refined / expanded /replaced as the company grows?

[If the plan is for you to do that yourself, think more about delegating.]

2. What are your key strengths, and, most important, your key weaknesses.

[The later should define your hiring priorities.]

3. What the company “brand“?

[And, if there isn't one, how will it get established?  (Note that the brand is not just the product or service you offer, or a statement of its advantages.]

Read the rest of this entry »

Lots of people will parody the work of consultants — suggesting that we’ll contract for a study of whether to do a study studying why a study might be helpful. But forget that foolishness.  A good consultant will work with their client(s) to identify clear goals, important questions, kinds of knowledge that must be transmitted or answers that must be obtained.

I believe we need to teach good “clienting” just as we learn good consulting. My best clients work with me to define goals, they welcome surprises, and allow space to make changes based on what they learn. They know that they’re getting value from my work. Or, if they don’t, they initiate a meeting or other process to set things straight.

Yes, of course there are times when I can see an issue that I believe should be addressed, and the client does not.  It’s my challenge to suggest a project that will, in the end, provide value for the client.  I may or may not convince the client that the need is real, and that sufficient budget should be allocated to address it.

Let me stop here, and ask you what teaching good “clienting” should mean, what needs to be taught.

Here’s a proposal I made to a group of entrepreneurs, who wanted to re-vitalize their meetings, and provide more value to each other:

I’d suggest that at each meeting we function as a Board of Advisors for one member business or business to be. We’d have that business make a brief presentation about goals, organization, status, and some critical decisions that they are facing. The group could then ask questions, and, finally, offer some advice.

A few notes about this process, what’s required, and what might go wrong:

  • We’d all have to respect confidentiality — that’s what’s shared in the meeting room stays there.
  • It’s always temping to listen little and speak quickly. This process demands a process of listening carefully, then asking questions that really are about clarifying and understanding. Only after that it advice appropriate.
  • I deliberately said board of ADVISORS and not of DIRECTORS. Assume that we have no power, except the power of good ideas.
  • From experience, I can tell you that the discussion needs to be carefully moderated, and by somebody who is not going to be a main contributor. The moderator needs to slow the group down, allow for good sharing, keep the discussion on topic, and counteract the presence of any egos that may be present in the room.
  • The advice we come up with may be worth the price paid (and no more!). It’s important to be modest about our knowledge and skill — even as we work with integrity and energy.
  • The whole endeavor also requires committed subjects, who are really trying to develop their business, who want to tell themselves and their advisers the truth, and who are open to change.

I should note that I’m happy to work with groups (profit or non-profit) interested in trying this process.

This is not new!  I’ve been doing such user interface review work for some time, but have now “packaged” it as a service, and sent out the following  news release explaining what I do.

Portland consultant offers “User Interface Review” service

Insight and Clarity, a consulting and coaching firm in Portland Maine, has introduced a new “User Interface Review” service, to help technology developers create products that are easy to use and hard to misuse.

Arthur Fink, owner of Insight and Clarity, explains that, “Most developers intend their products to be ‘user friendly’, but seldom does anybody spend enough time watching users trying to befriend the product”.  Fink sees himself as a cyber-age anthropologist, observing business cultures to see what tasks are being done, what tools are used. how these tools are used, and — perhaps most important — where users encounter stress, frustration, boredom, fear, or angst.  The result of this observation will be a strategy for revision or re-design, or, in some cases, a total blueprint for a new user experience.

In working on the redesign of a point of sale computer system for Subway restaurants, Fink spent many hours shadowing Subway associates at several Maine locations, and he worked for a few hours actually running the computer cash register.  “What appeared to be a fairly simple job turned out to actually be quite complex, and I learned so much about the difficulty of doing that job with inadequate technology,” Fink said.

Fink’s graduate degree in computer science from Harvard, along with studies there in social relations, linguistics, and cognitive psychology all appear to be strong credentials for his current work.  But Fink points to his years of experience visiting factories as a consultant and learning how to ask probing and provocative questions as his most important education.

Fink has been an independent consultant since 1982, working in such diverse areas as improving management structure for telecommuting programs, training system developers in user interface design, actually building database systems for a variety of industries, and helping senior managers improve communications within their organizations.  He’s currently working on the design and implementation of a hospital messaging system, and is writing a book whose working title is, “Asking Great Questions”.

Fink has been a featured speaker at conferences in the U.S., Canada, Holland, Norway, Sweden, and Ireland, and has spoken four times at Pecha Kucha gatherings in Portland, Maine.

Contact Arthur Fink at  arthur@InsightAndClarity.com  or  207.615.5722.


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