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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On Becoming a Consultant

January 5, 2011

I’ve often been asked for advice on making the transition from practitioner to consultant.  Here are a few of the points that I emphasize:

  • You don’t have to have answers, and certainly don’t have to have them right up front!
  • Ask insightful questions, listen, listen more. Let the clients voice what they need, the visions they carry, the kinds of support that will help them make needed changes. More change will happen when they name it themselves. And when the client’s management sees that real change follows your visits, you’ll be a hero.
  • You may have lots of information, see things very quickly, and could impress people by coming in swinging. In the long run, this works against you.
  • It’s fine not to know things!  Tell the truth, and say, “I don’t know” . . . but will find out, or lead your client to other resources.  Little lies fester, and always come back against you.
  • Not all money is green!  If you’ve serious questions about the integrity of an organization, about how they treat customers or behave in the markeplace — stay away.
  • Choose clients with whom who can succeed.  If you don’t believe your candid advice is really wanted, or expect that they are not ready to change in any significant way, it not a profitable engagement.
  • Define the evaluation criteria at the start of each engagement, so that you and the client can periodically assess your real progress.

Executive Scavenger Hunt

January 5, 2011

A member of the Organization Development Network asked, “I am facilitating a program for executives on the topic ofTransformational Leadership’.   What questions do you think should be asked to really get the heads spinning?”

In trying to respond to this query, I asked myself what might get executives to look beyond the surface view of their organizations.  Too often we see what we want, and not other things that don’t fit our paradigms.  What games might get them to look further — based on what they already know?  And then I had it — a scavenger hunt!

Divide the executives up into teams of two or three, and ask each team to identify where in the organization they might find:

  • Ecstasy
  • Greed
  • Delight
  • Fear
  • Contentment
  • Pride
  • Exasperation
  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Eenergy
  • Team spirit
  • Anger
  • Powerlessness
  • Ingenuity
  • Community

(or your own list, in this spirit)

Normally, executives don’t talk about these things. But ask them where these things might be found, and a new degree of honesty and courage may arise. That would be my hope.

Need I point out that most of these scavenger items are about individual feelings, that can lead to healthy or to destructive behavior.  Too often, I believe that managers think of their organization as a whole, and not of the individuals who make it up, and whose personal experience feeds right into an organizational culture.

Transformational leadership involves blending the best that indivuals can offer into an organized, coherent, creative, and profitable endeavor.  It means knowing all the stakeholders (and those who should be stakeholders, but, for whatever reason, are not), having a strong vision, creating a climate of trust, integrity, and creativity, and being able to model the values that should guide the whole organization.

On choosing a consultant

January 4, 2011

In an on-line discussion about guidelines for choosing a consultant, I suggested the following:

  • Start with a statement of your problem, that is as specific as possible. But be clear that you’re stating the problem, and not your sense of what a solution might be.
  • See how it feels to talk with your prospective consultant about that problem. Do their questions make you think, broaden your concept of how a solution might be found?
  • Don’t attempt to get a free solution from those discussions. Actually with a good consultant, you will learn something in each encounter, but the goal is to test the working relationship and not to move towards solutions.
  • Be very clear about fees, retainers, confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, ownership of new intellectual property, etc. If you and your consultant have trouble with these, that’s a red flag.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for references, and to speak with them.
  • The consultant must have the body of knowledge you require, feel like a comfortable partner, communicate his or her professionalism, and acknowledge your role in the consulting process.
  • Agree on evaluation criteria at the start of the engagement. (e.g. “So, at the end of phase one, we’ll look forward to having a feature list for the product we’ll be building, and a detailed definition of the market segment to whom it will be directed.”)
  • Enter into the consulting agreement only if you respect, trust, and look forward to working with this consultant.

On Elevator Speeches

December 27, 2010

On one of the LinkedIn groups, somebody asked about the relevance of elevator speeches.  It became an involved discussion, mostly criticizing the canned theatrical speeches that are becoming so common.

Into that mix, I offered the following:

Forget the words “speech” or “pitch”.

We need quick easy short ways to say what we do, without sounding like a speech, without intimidating. What we say should interest, perhaps excite, should invite questions, and should be very non-technical.

One of mine: “Have you heard of user friendly computers? Well, I help put the ‘user’ and ‘friendly’ into those products”.

Another: “I ask questions. Good questions. People learn from the experience of answering them. It’s kind of like coaching, but I don’t like that name.”

Or: “I inject doses of creativity into work groups that are bored with dull mediocrity”.

All of these are deliberately incomplete. They all invite responses. And they all feel very natural from me.

Of course, elevator speeches don’t tell our whole story.  they can’t,  and they shouldn’t.  But they may provoke discussion that leads to an understanding of our story.

I hope that mine plant healthy seeds, that will nourish and grow.

More important than my “elevator speech” is my pair of “elevator ears”.  Perhaps I’ll write another blog post about how to turn any moment into a listening moment.

 

On being a consultant

November 26, 2010

I was asked about making the transition from practitioner to consultant, and offer the following advice:

  • You don’t have to have answers, and certainly don’t have to have them right up front!
  • Ask insightful questions, listen, listen more.
  • Let the clients voice what they need, the visions they carry, the kinds of support that will help them make needed changes.
  • More change will happen when they name it themselves. And when the client’s management sees that real change follows your visits, you’ll be a hero.

Yes — you may have lots of information, may see things very quickly, and could impress people by coming in swinging.  In the long run, this works against you.

“The best time to win customer loyalty is when you make a mistake.”  I heard this surprising comment from an IBM executive speaking at a professional conference, and not long after that had an experience that demonstrated everything he said.

My IBM Thinkpad laptop had developed a persistent but intermittent problem.  I’d sent it in for warranty repair, but it was returned with the problem still present.  When I called IBM they offered to expedite another repair, again paying FedEx overnight both ways.  But I was flying off to Europe in four days, explained that I needed a working laptop, and that this was cutting it too close for my comfort.  The IBM representative promised to see what she could do.  A few hours later, she called back, to say that she was working on it.  And a bit later she informed me that an IBM repair person would be coming out (by boat) the next day to our island home to repair the computer.  This wasn’t normal practice, and she had to “borrow” somebody from another department.  But no matter — I was visited by a knowledgeable repair person who quickly found the real problem, fixed it, and got back on the boat.

The transaction cost here was the cost of sending a repair person to our home — perhaps a half day of his time.  IBM certainly didn’t have to incur this cost, but they chose to.

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On crafting a vision statement

September 10, 2010

So often I find myself writing to a client, or to group that I’m working with, and find that I’ve really written a short essay that deserves broader readership. That happened this morning, when a coaching client, director of a non-profit social service organization, wrote to me:

I really want to work on “the vision thing”.  But if I can’t articulate a vision for [our organization], I don’t know how I can get the staff or the Board to buy in.

I told him that this conclusion certainly didn’t follow for me, and then offered the following explanation:

Even if you don’t have a comprehensive and clear vision, you might understand the need for one, and might have in mind the outlines of a process that can move towards a vision.  In fact, if you had a very precise vision, that could become a problem itself, as you might be coming into the process without enough openness to what arises in the organization.

How is a “vision” formed?  I believe that it typically reflects several things (which I’m not listing in any particular order):

  • The character of your organization.  If you’re spiritually based, that faith might be central.  Whatever values and beliefs characterize the organization will figure strongly into the vision.
  • The needs of your community.  Your focus is on service, and a sense of the needs around you will help guide your vision of what needs to be done.
  • The capabilities of your organization, and of your staff.  Your organization is not a job training school, not a hospital or clinic, but a cluster of very specific constructive programs.  Those are clearly the starting point, and the ultimate vision will probably have something in common with them.
  • An understanding of social and economic change.  Energy and health care are dominant issues today, but were not so visible even a decade ago.  Connectivity via the internet, electronic privacy, and other new concerns are coming to the forefront.  An assessment of how they might impact your target populations will guide your visioning process.
  • Your current organizational governance community.  A vision that will guide you needs to be something that most, if not all, of your Board members and staff can in some way embrace.  That may require some education and work, but a vision that is too far from what these people can embrace will not be a vision that can actively guide your organization.

What’s the process?  I’d suggest that it begin by reviewing and updating this list, then taking account of which factors in each item are most significant.  There may, for example, be many changes in society that don’t and perhaps won’t impact your role in the community, and your program.  Then, you’ll need a process to review these, and put together a draft list of key points … which might get refined into a more polished statement.

Your role is not to articulate the conclusion, but to motivate people to join in the process, to identify resources that can help you and you organization, to keep the process moving, and to connect the various groups that may be working independently (or at cross purposes).

I’ve identified six critical skills, that serve me well in my coaching and consulting.  In fact, I think these may be all the skills that I need.

But check me on this.  Comment on this blog with what you think might be missing or wrong.

1. Listening (and looking, and listening)

Listening is an active process.  It’s not summarily waiting until the other speaker is done, so that you can respond!  At best, it includes offering some feedback, that allows you to test whether you’ve understood.  And the other modes — looking and listening — are just as active.  As a photographer, I have to constantly ask myself, “What’s visually interesting her”, and, “What am I seeking?”

2. Asking great questions

Lots of questions come from a wrong place — trying to show off, or make the speaker wrong, or some such.  Great questions illuminate, open up a deeper dialog, expose important issues.  They may also show some bias or committment, but they are not argumentative debating points.

3. Giving and receiving feedback

The most helpful feedback is offered with understanding and compassion.  It may be as simple as, “I see you doing this, and wonder why you feel you need to?”.  Feedback to you is best received as helpful advice — not as criticism.  It’s coaching, editing, insight that can refine, sharpen, augment.

4. Design thinking

A good design is an economical, functional, beautiful solution to a well-understood problem.  It may be an elegant bridge that supports many cars, or a simple tool to cleanly cut pieces of pie.  A design may be a process, an interaction, or may be embodied in an object.  Design thinking is focused on creating such full solutions, rather than makeshift steps that appear to solve an immediate problem.

5. Feeling and showing empathy and respect

Conflict can be constructive, if we see those who differ from us as helpful messengers of new points of view.  Even if those points of view seem to us completely wrong, perhaps even counter to our core values, an empathetic and respectful relationship leads us to seek understanding, welcome deep sharing.

6. Integrity, including being able to say “I don’t know”

Truth telling is becoming increasingly rare these days, but it still matters.  And one of the most important truths — especially in business situations, is that we don’t know the answer.  Why not just say so?

Exceptional Leaders

January 28, 2010

What are the behaviors of exceptional leaders?
What do exceptional leaders do?
What do exceptional leaders say?

Exceptional leaders . . .

  • Have lots of integrity.  They can be trusted to hear difficult points of view, to speak the truth, to take responsiblity for their actions and words.
  • Ask probing questions.  They want to really know what is happening, and why, and seek out people who can provide solid answers to their questions.  They are not afraid to admit their ignorance.
  • Speak and write clearly.  They know that their words will have a strong impact, and they insure that these words have the right impact.
  • Trust the people they are leading — most of the time.  They have a sense of when that trust might not be fully deserved, and work to instill values of trust, integrity, and cooperation.
  • Can stay focused on the big picture most of the time, and are not overwhelmed with the details required to carry out policies.  They can delegate tasks effectively and completely.
  • Have clear goals — for themselves, and for their organization.  And they can articulate these goals as a clear vision that can guide the work of everybody in the organization.
  • Have a passion and energy that inspires all those around them.
  • Regularly affirm the contributions of others in the organization.  While they will take credit for bringing in the right people, and motivating them effectively, they recognize that any final product or result is a team effort
  • Have strong interests and involvement in a various endeavors.  They are nurtured by their involvements in the arts, and by their work with community, religious, and civic groups.

Twitter is not Trivial

December 14, 2009

I’ll confess — For years, I regarded Twitter as a trivial exercise — couldn’t understand why I’d want to reduce my deep thoughts to tiny 140 character sound bites.  And when I joined Twitter, I could find some of those trivial tweets — many of them, in fact.

But I also found a pleasant surprise — lots of real content.  Some are just nuggets of wisdom, some are self-promotion well done.  And I’ve begun to write such myself.

This morning I sat on the boat from our island into town drafting seven such tweets.  Here they are:

  • Wanted: Creative projects, where deep questions, grounded in design thinking and spirit rich vision can bring insight, clarity, and results.
  • Real consultants listen more than they talk, have more questions than answers or solutions, cogitate, enjoy collaboration, bring value.
  • “What are we trying to do here?” Amazing how seldom this question stays on the table.
  • Listening is the key. Not talking. Not responding. Not correcting or interrupting. Listening is the key.
  • I’ve rarely met a problem that I understood at first. Yes, I had insights, possible answers, but it was bigger than I understood or imagined.
  • My key question in interviewing possible employees: What’s an interesting “mistake” that you made, and what did you learn from it?
  • A team that always agrees — deprives itself of joyful and creative diversity.

Sometimes clarity converges!  I was thinking my next blog post, playing with thoughts about abundance, scarcity, and sharing, when I received a Facebook message from my new friend Arne Van Oosterom asking whether making oneself obsolete could be a useful business model. That was the connection I needed to bring together personal sensibility and business productivity.

Many consultants set themselves up as the expert — the priest of a certain domain of knowledge and understanding.  They encourage dependency, and at first reward that with reliable grounded recommendations to their clients.  But the resulting dependency is not healthy.

The healthy alternative is to be as transparent as possible, share not just the result but the process as well, make known the sources and references that you use — in short to act as if the client is about to be on his or her own, with the consultant/guide becoming  obsolete.  Of course the most common result of this approach is that one becomes more valued.

The distribution of material goods may follow a “zero sum game rule”.  More for me  means less for you.   But give away information or understanding, and you have more.  That’s sound thinking (and good morality) in any modality, and it’s particularly relevant in a social networking environment.

[I could now continue this post in several directions, but, instead, will get ready to go visit some friends for a second thanksgiving.  In the spirit of what I’ve written, though, I encourage all of you to continue it via your comments on this site.  There’s an exciting community of thoughtful people reading this blog, but most of you say so little.  Here’s an invitation!]

People generally don’t come to me for “coaching” (I prefer to call it clarifying) because their lives are working well, because their creativity is flowing, or because their organizations are functioning at maximum potential.  They come  because of perceived gaps, deficits, problems, and challenges.

Typically we’ll start work with the client filling out “Wheel of Life” forms, such as the one shown at the left.  This one focused on personal issues such as health and family’ others are more about business or work, creativity and production, organizational health.

My clients probably assume that I’ll zoom right into those quadrants with the lowest score or ranking.  If “health” or “personal growth” is the area of least success, isn’t that the place to start?

“No!”, I insist.  Instead we start with the best ranking areas, reviewing what efforts, what paradigms, what personal initiatives led to that success.  By experiencing, and reviewing, how we succeed in some areas, we can best plan our success in others.

This chart focuses more on management skills and tasks, such as planning, team building, maintaining accountability.  Most managers experience challenges with some of these areas, while enjoying success with others.

Coaching (or clarifying) is not a substitute for skills training, but it can be critical in bringing out those skills when needed.  Sometimes what’s needed is not a whole new skill set,  but just a metaphor, a paradigm, or an idea.

One client of mine was challenged bringing out the aliveness in one of the managers who reports to her.  My asking, “How did I just get that strong response from you?” was all the hint she needed.  We each model behaviors for those around us.  The  questions I was asking her were part of our coaching — they were also tools she could use with her staff.

This model is not complex, and is can be completely transparent.  Most coaches have no secret agenda, or magic method.  By asking cogent questions, offering honest support, and allowing our clients space to think, to respond, to take charge, and to grow, we get to see incredible results.

Many years ago General Electric acquired the small firm that I worked for, and my job changed from being a a senior figure in this firm to a mid-level manager within one of GE’s companies.  This was not my dream job, and when GE had a “reduction in force” I was delighted to be able to leave it with a very desirable packet of benefits.  The one I thought I didn’t need was the job counseling — but it turned out to be one of the most valuable benefits I received.

“Don’t just write a resume of positions you’ve held”, the counselor told us.  “Think of all the times you’ve added value to your company, or to a client, and write each of these up as a ‘worth point”.  Your resume should be a set of these worth points, and you can save others for use in particular job interviews.”  The format of a “worth point” was very specific:

  1. In my job, I noticed a need / opportunity.
  2. Responding to that, I took initiative — with very specific action
  3. My company / organization experience some direct benefit from my effort.

For example:

  1. We wrote custom specifications for each of our clients.  I noticed that many elements of each spec were common.
  2. So, I designed a generic specification form, that would make it much easier to re-use specifications pages from one document in another (that was for a different client).
  3. As a result, the time to prepare each spec was reduced by xx%, typically a saving of $yyy.

I ended up working for myself as a consultant, and never again seeking a full time job, but this advice in building my resume was still very helpful.  I learned to think of what I was doing as adding value, rather than just performing tasks.  And when telling prospects about how I can help them, my story is not about thingss I can do, but about how my work will add value.

Indeed, clients hire me to add value to their organization, and not just to provide a product, perform a service, train somebody in a skill.

When asked to help clients in marketing strategy, this idea informs the question that I always ask them:  How will you add value to your clients?

I was in junior high school, and it was time for our first “dance”. I put dance in quotes, because it wasn’t about dancing at all, but about sitting on the far side of the room, not getting to courage to ask a girl (young woman) to dance. Any real dancing happened in the mandatory dance class that our gym teacher taught. And that’s where I heard it:

If you take little steps, you’ll make little mistakes.

Yes, it’s true, the tiny step might not take me too far in the wrong direction.  And small steps in dancing might be more graceful.

But as advice for life . . . totally wrong! Look around, think ahead, plot your course, and take a real step.  Don’t be afraid of mistakes.

Mistakes?  The original  core values and beliefs ftext from Earthlink.com (an Internet Service Provider) included the statement that they encourage employees to make mistakes.  They’ve left out that part, but still include the following helpful clarification:

We see a huge difference between “good mistakes” (best effort, bad result) and “bad mistakes” (sloppiness or lack of effort).

With this distinction, it should be clear that the best response to not knowing how to dance isn’t taking small steps — it’s learning more about dancing, making a real effort.  The steps taken should be deliberate — not tentative — steps.

A dose of realism: It may be fine to take measured steps.  Introduce a new product, a new dish on the menu, a new service — but don’t bet the company, the restaurant, the consulting firm on this innovation.  Measure the resources you’re spending, and be aware that it might not work as planned.  Be prepared to lose sometimes, win often.  But don’t hide from your mistakes — embrace them!