Seek First to Understand

Whenever I arrive in a new context—a new client engagement or a new team in an ongoing gig—I seem to arrive right in the middle of something. A significant planning event, a technical design session for a major component, implementing a new productivity tool.

Phew, it looks like I am just in time! A few days later and they would have totally messed up that quarterly plan. They are going to use what technology to solve that? So much to do, so little time! It is fixable, but only if everyone stops what they are doing and listens to me right now!

Or maybe not. I want to share a couple of techniques that I have adopted over the years that have helped me to resist the urge to Fix All The Things.

The idea that I should hold back when I first arrive somewhere is one of the most important consulting truths I have learned, and one I wish I had known a couple of decades sooner. You need to make your peace with the idea that you will not “fix” it this time.

If it helps, there are two things to bear in mind: they would have messed up whether you were there or not; and it is probably not as serious as you think.

Fix the Next One

Something sucks. Maybe several things suck. That is why they hired you in the first place. Unless your objective is to “fix this design decision, today”, the likely goal is to help people make better choices in the future.

Work in motion wants to stay in motion. In-flight initiatives tend to have political as well as human momentum, and the energy and effort required to stop the moving train is likely to be greater than you think. Ensuring future trains go in a good direction is a better investment of your time.

Accepting that you will not fix the plan for this quarter, or the design for this component, is oddly liberating. You may not even make the headway you need to fix the next one. But the one after that? Well that is definitely up for grabs!

By observing how something fails, you can learn a lot about where a team or organisation is. The specific case does not matter, you are interested in the patterns of failure. Now you know where to start work. I call this technique Fix the Next One.

The flip side of all of this is that you might be wrong! Perhaps the way they prioritise work, or make technical decisions, is exactly right for this context. You saw a fence in the road, and you jumped to conclusions about what needed to happen.

When you “seek first to understand”, you gain an empathy for your client and their circumstance which may inform your approach to engaging with and supporting them.

The Rule of 63

A related phenomenon starts in a similar way…

Whenever you arrive in a new context, you will see a whole pile of things that you would just love to sort out. If only these people could just… communicate better, work in smaller chunks, have more effective meetings, resolve that silly political spat, take a moment to listen to that quiet developer who clearly understands what is going on, care about that build, document or even automate that weird query they seem to run every three days.

The thing is, this is just how they get work done. If you point it out, they will still do it because this is what works. And you can’t fix the world overnight. And they don’t know what you know. And you don’t know what they know. And you may be wrong about a bunch of this anyway!

I call this phenomenon of walking into a new environment and wanting to fix things my Rule of 63, and it is one of my core consulting strategies. I do not remember where I came across this, or whether I named it myself, but I am grateful for the patient mentors who implanted the idea.

When I enter a new context, I assume that I will see 63 things that need fixing, and I resolve to pick three! What are the three biggest, baddest, most impactful or painful things that I can see right now? What is the best way in which I can help or serve?

Then I decide to focus on those and those alone, and just suck up the other 60! I will do nothing about anything else. I will thrive in the filth that is their multi-hour, flaky build; I will relish in their pointless box-ticking status meetings; I will bite my tongue as the alpha male talks across the smart-but-quiet junior developer; say nothing about their repetitive, error-prone manual processes. All this can wait.

Once you tackle those three, go back for the next three. Now you are only sucking up 57 things that need fixing while you work on the next ones, and so on. Eventually you will have tackled the big issues with them.

If you are doing it right, not only will they have learned how to navigate these issues, they will have learned how to tackle the remaining ones themselves. This is double-loop learning: not only learning how to change things, but learning how to engage with change.

tl; dr

This is one of the toughest lessons I have learned as a consultant. If I try to solve All The Things, I fall victim to Jerry Weinberg’s law of raspberry jam: “The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets."

Instead, if I ignore the distraction of This Thing Now and focus on how we got here, and if I choose to prioritise and make my peace with the residual noise, I am more likely to create lasting impact, and my clients will thank me long after the current crisis has played itself out.