Category Archives: The World of Consulting

Client Matters

Here are two opposite ends of the spectrum of what consultants often experience with clients.

GIVE ME A SESSION

We’ll often get contacted with the following, “We want a two day session for our senior team.” Many neophyte consultants lick their lips and pounce on the ‘opportunity’ with alacrity. They start shooting off proposals, buffing up their hallowed methodology, and more.

A more sane, measured and customer-serving response to the request for a two day session is, “Why?”

That always stops people in their tracks. “Why do you want a two day session for your senior team and how do you know that’s the right thing to do?”

In the act of asking that question, you start actually consulting. And if you engage in a real dialogue on the basis of those questions you will gain bracing insight into the real issues, challenges and aspirations of the clients. You may also get a bracing introduction to the assumptions they’re making — many of which are potentially untested.

It may well be that a two day session is like a relatively empty vessel, into which after suitable diagnostics and appropriate design, you can pour content that will actually serve their needs and best interests. But it may also be that a half day alignment session would suffice, and the real action needs to take place at other organizational levels, or with a different group of people, or may require preliminary contact with customers or other stakeholders. It could be that a six month process is needed, but woven in holistically to meetings already planned rather than a separate offsite.

My recommendation to clients is if you put out a request like the one above, and get a proposal back in response, disqualify the person or group from further consideration as the request has no meaning without further exploration.

And if you receive a request like the above, differentiate yourself meaningfully by helping to get to the core of  what’s driving the request, rather than getting infatuated by the format proposed.

AVOIDING THE PANACEA OF EMPTY PROCESS

Here’s another common challenge. An organization decides they need to create a strategy and manage its roll-out. They get an organizational consultant with a strategy implementation process, anchored in the balanced scorecard or some other framework. As they proceed, courtesy of this framework, they are deluged with meetings, with process charts, with communiques, and eventually they arrive at what they perceive to be The Holy Grail. Namely, they have a clear map. All inconsistencies are removed (on the charts anyway), and the path forward glitters like a mythical Yellow Brick Road.

The problem is the map is not the territory, and never has been. The problem is that underlying the process clarity is dysfunctional relationships, misguided leadership behaviors, poorly aligned teams, social networks that don’t operate well, governance practices that may be out of kilter with strategic aspirations, information hoarded rather than shared, a culture that is ossified with past practices rather than vitalized by future aspirations. And eventually the ‘knowing/doing gap’ will become that much more profound.

I always advise people that once they have process clarity, they have to convert that into a more human map: of  behaviors-in-action, team composition and alignment, presence of vibrant or nullifying relationships, communication and network effectiveness, leadership role-modeling and relevant efforts at culture-shifting in order to make the processes actually manifest. Until these adaptive elements are infused into the process steps, to humanize and actualize the processes, we run the risk of trying to run the world from an operating manual.

It doesn’t work. In fact, most of us don’t even run our computers from a manual. We get some hands-on experience while drawing on some guidance, then tinkering and adapting based on results. Alas in an organization there are many more moving parts, and my ‘tinkering’ can have expensive consequences if not synergized with the learnings and efforts of others.

Process clarity and human engagement must march together. You can see an organization as a collection of processes and plans. Fair enough. But you can even more meaningfully see it pulsating with what we call, human performance. In other words, the subtotal of all the actions, interactions, behaviors, collaboration and communication between all the people who make a difference to the success or failure of the organization. You can see the organization as a patchwork quilt of teams, conversations and acted upon commitments. These are human dimensions, and if not addressed, all the gewgaws and trinkets of process clarity will be fallow and leave your strategic vision unfulfilled.

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Time To Ask the Real Question

I was trolling through various websites, of various gurus and pundits. And you hear incontestable gems like, “Teamwork really pays off,” or “Managers have to care about who the person is beyond the 9 to 5 job,” or “Don’t let negativity get you down,” or “If you don’t care about your health, who will?”  Now, underneath the fortune cookie gloss there are veins of wisdom in each of these observations, that if mined can be genuinely illuminating.

But why are these base-line statements still needed? Why haven’t we moved on to saying, as perhaps a next-stage observation for each of these: “For teamwork to pay off you have to know who you’re on a team with and why,” or “Managers have to show they know their people by customizing recognition and coaching accordingly,” or “Look to reframe the negative concerns shared with you in a way that releases rather than inhibits possibility,” or “Care about your health by creating goals that would be fun to realize even if seemingly tough to reach.”  These are far more interesting insights and assume we’ve at least passed “go” already.

Arguably the reason we keep reiterating basics as if they were first-time bolts from the heavens is because cerebral repetition, even of almost axiomatic observations, just doesn’t work. And while I can as a fan of  the indefatigable nature of the human spirit applaud the seeming immunity to lack of results (or can I?) that engenders such enthusiastic repetition, the consultant in me would suggest we’re using enthusiasm as a surrogate for strategy which is rarely wise. Sure, absent a viable strategy, I’d rather have enthusiasm, as we’ll  at least muddle forward until we find a way through — a way that can spawn a strategy. But when there’s a repeatedly failing and dysfunctional strategy, enthusiasm can be just a convenient name given to dogmatism and obtuseness.

The real question is not, “Do teams deliver value?” Surely we’re past that.  The real question is, “Given how valuable teams can be, why are we not one, or seeking to become one?”

The real question is not, “Should managers value people as people?”  Again, paradigmatically at least it’s the 21st century not the 19th. Rather it is, “Why would you practically expect to get the best from someone if they feel you don’t know them or care about them?” And, “How can we most effectively and appropriately care about those who work with us and for us?”

The question is not, “Should you let negativity get you down?”  Surely everyone from Zig Ziglar to the Dalai Lama have helped us tackle that one. The question is instead: “Why do we so often encourage and proliferate negative downward spiral conversations and thought patterns?”

The real question can’t be, “Should you care about your health?”  Our mania in this regard is well documented. Health-obsession, at least insofar as the cosmetic aspects of health having become a virtual religion,  the real question is, “Since we all have a vested interest in our health, how can we make sure that translates into how we live?”

Questions need to be applied at the fulcrum of knowledge and behavior, at the potential disconnect between understanding and emotional commitment. Repeating nostrums won’t help. Delving into barriers, obstacles, limiting logic, ineffective default positions, outmoded reflexes, can be transformational. The Archimedean lever with which to move the world is asking the right question. A question jarring enough to our complacency that it almost impels action. A question that mobilizes action, not just piles on more insight.

So beware of any adviser, guru, consultant, or otherwise, who spends the bulk of their time with you repeating homilies or seeking to browbeat you into acting on the patently obvious — by stint of its conceptual incorrigibility. There is a huge knowing-doing gap in human affairs. Otherwise the Golden Rule would have outlawed almost all conflict a couple of millennia ago.

Understanding what keeps that gap gaping in specific situations for specific people and organizations, and thereby understanding, learning and practicing how to bridge that gap based on such understanding — that’s where the mother lode is.

Decide to make 80% of all problem solving or educational or coaching conversations about why what needs to happen isn’t happening, and demanding accountable progress at those epicenters of the issue, and watch your business, your life and your results, and those of others you are seeking to help, positively transform!

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Communication or Reality?

There are numerous analyses of the US midterm elections.

However there seems to be a confusion over “ideas” as opposed to “communication”.

The ancients reminded us that communication effectiveness (as highlighted in an earlier post) revolves around the trinity of  “Ethos” (the credibility and character of the communicator), “Pathos” (appeal to common human feelings and emotions) and “Logos” (logic).

President Obama will never win the Ethos argument with some who reflexively dislike him, or who fantasize about Kenyan thought viruses in his make-up, or his being a closet Muslim (with the implications that he must be a Manchurian Candidate on behalf of radical Muslim extremists), or who believe anyone left of center is a card-carrying Trotskyite.

The President excels in Logos…in fact he’s a little too good at it. He seems to be lecturing the nation from a rostrum rather than engaging with us in the heartland. He comes across at times as our “Lecturer-in-Chief”. There are human forces stronger than logic, and logic provides a scaffolding for persuasiveness in a crisis at best.

So given the above, where he needs to shine is Pathos. I’ve heard pundits proclaiming he needs to get better at sound-bites. But what all the sound bites they refer to have in common (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” “Mr. Gorbachev, take down the wall,”  or even the Churchillian “We will never surrender!”), is that they engage, tap and appeal to common emotions, values, feelings, aspirations and pride. That’s where President Obama has to come through.

He’s an admirable, intelligent, genuine person…but he needs a broader team, and he needs to spend actual time with people not photo-ops where $15,000 a plate dinners, involve him arriving for 20 minutes to shake a few hands and then jet off, while people are left feeling like extras at a deserted movie set. His team seem detached, almost smug…their pulse needs to beat far more in tune and in time with the concerns of the larger populace. They need listening posts and relay stations back to the President.

President Obama’s ability to take on his own party, not submitting to Congressional fiat which made it seem that the White House was as inbred as Congress, would have been refreshing. Well, it’s a new day. And we have the “blessings” of divided Government that allowed Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to tackle the Cold War, and Bill Clinton and the once ‘saner’ Newt Gingrich (chastened after the debacle of his government shutdown backfired) to balance the budget among other accomplishments.

So now the President should become “Connector-in-Chief” and not let himself be “handled” into being a pastel President. We need primary colors, and we need him to be his own man, and take on Republicans where necessary and to work with them where wise. And he needs to do the same with his own Party. The tidal wave that brought him into office was generated in part by a belief that he was more of an “outsider” than Hilary and would constitute a real change. Those who stayed away from voting in the mid-terms, even some who despise the alternatives who were voted in, were arguably conveying through their seeming apathy that they would not rush out to underwrite ‘business as usual’. If that’s all we have to look forward to, then indeed let’s make sure neither Party can move without consulting with and gaining consensus from the other. It’s a lot safer all around…

Something radical may well be needed. But let’s hope it’s not the radicalism of imbecility and blinkered extremism as some candidates seemed to exemplify, but real radicalsim, a return to roots. Perhaps we can be radical enough to to execute on glaring basics. Namely get money (1 trillion parked with banks and corporations) into the market, to rehabilitate education and fast-track job training so those out of work can fill the vacancies out there, to seek to lead the Green economy and get manufacturing back to key parts of the country, to continue to attract foreign investment but put it to good use (not to underwrite the next consumption binge), to crack the cul-de-sac of current immigration policy and do an across-the-board cut in spending (as we’ll never do it program by program, all of which have their own lobbyists and interest groups). Americans will get behind a regimen where they can see “means” hook up to “ends” and where someone asks them to sacrifice for ensuring our future is bigger certainly than our recent past. This will require real leadership not just management. The latter is about managing today (important), the former is about creating the future (essential).

If such a President didn’t get re-elected, shame on us. If someone who has the office, won’t aspire to be or become such a President, re-election or not, shame on them.

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The Nature of Value

Some members of my team from the US and UK spent a fascinating day with my co-author and friend, Alan Weiss. I had asked Alan to help us with a new process for helping companies convert current performance into potential performance. We’re excited…it seems we’re clearly onto something.

With any consulting offering, a common question is, how should value be established? I can think of a particular company who hired an ex-consulting firm partner in a senior role, whose response to an outbreak of rabid cost-cutting was to try and convert every trusted advisor to the level of a commodity vendor, demanding time sheets virtually and even reneging on established terms of business. This then became a company that signed up for “deliverables” (consultant-speak for methodology, activities, inputs) at the lowest cost rather than outcomes at the best value (defined as ROI, transfer of skills, relevance of solutions, depth and degree of customization to their particular situation, etc).

Most of our clients are either inherently wiser, or have sagely allowed themselves to be educated in this regard. I remember recently an HR person going into “shock” when I advised that a coaching intervention being asked for by his boss, spanning six months would be $35,000. I wasn’t doing the coaching personally, it would have been more. But I’m not sure it would have been more value to the coachee, given the situation I wasn’t needed. This other coach from our network was the perfect foil. When I unpacked “value” in terms of this coachee being a country manager for a $25 million country operation, who they knew was at a behavioral plateau that would keep him from moving up in the organization to potentially oversee a $100 million per annum regional operation, the money ceased to be the discussion. We shifted to making the coaching valuable. We would do a base-line 360 before and after, provide access to the coach throughout the period and some teleconferences as needed in preparation for the face-to-face time, there would be time observing behavior “live”, their regional boss would get input as to how to reinforce the coaching, and we would be tracking throughout clearly defined improvement areas. Heck by the time we finished the discussion, they were excited by the “deal!” We received another call to engage another country operation head for them just two months into this assignment! Fees were never questioned again.

The nature of value is multi-faceted. But eliciting and defining value from the perspective of the organization and the leader(s) in question is what our job is. Until that is established, running around “doing things” is just feverish confusion. Billing anything for that is definitely charging too much.

Some value facets include:

*Business outcomes (improvement in some overall business metrics or results)

*Market based continuous improvement and/or innovation (growing the capability to profitably and distinctively serve a market segment and customer base)

*Process simplification (ways to simplify, focus or amplify business activity for gains in productivity or elimination of waste)

*Interactive benefits (less wear and tear, candid and constructive communication, stronger relationships, more productive collaboration)

*Engagement benefits (creating an environment that enables discretionary commitment, improving your employee value proposition to improve retention and development of top talent, aligned and focused effort)

This is almost a “balanced scorecard” of value, where the business results are almost lag indicators and the improvement/innovation, process, interactive and engagement improvements are lead indicators.

Not all assignments may require a focus on all these elements, but to the extent that what you do, in partnership with your clients (as you have to ultimately get them to take accountability and take appropriate action), provides gains in these five arenas, you will not only deliver value, but that value will be palpable.

Without awareness of the potential interplay of these or similar elements, you may well help to produce gains, but your clients most often won’t be able to sustain them.

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When Carpeting Doesn’t Work…

I love Changi Airport. Justifiably rated as the world’s best airport. Why? Because it’s designed to facilitate travel, not as an ego-testament to a designer. It’s not jaw-dropping…but then distances aren’t back-breaking either. Your luggage is there by the time you clear immigration, which usually takes less than 10 minutes. In fact, you can count on being in a taxi within 30 minutes of landing. Wonderful!

Most airports are designed to look good in glossy magazines and fail miserably in terms of facilitating travel or enhancing the actual traveler’s experience. It’s a confusion between “means” and “ends”. As a Consultant, I am constantly exhorting customers to ask of every tactic they debate, “What is this really meant to achieve?” Ensure the “Ends” make sense and are aligned on, then and only then, debate tactics. As the old saw reminds us, “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Alas, even Changi in its revamped Singapore Airlines Terminal has fallen afoul of this confusion. To enhance the aesthetics of the terminal they’ve put in plush carpeting. That’s lovely, except for the fact that most travelers have some form of bag with wheels. Those wheels don’t perform well on thick, plush carpet. But they glide effortlessly on uncarpeted floors for which they were designed. So as you emerge, dragging your wheeled bag across the fine grains of a totally gratuitous and effort-exacerbating carpet, you curse whichever interior designer sold the decision makers on the misguided conclusion that carpeting would add finesse and aplomb to the glistening new Terminal. The “means” frustrate the “ends’, of efficient client passage and movement.

A good question to ask often is, where have we provided “unnecessary carpeting” for which we congratulate ourselves, but which adds nothing to client success, customer value or any enhancement of the experience people come to us for? The shiny brochures, bespoke offices, bells and whistles, scripted phone greetings, industry certifications and more land with a thud if at key “perception points” we misfire and frustrate those who deal with us. Then these gewgaws are irritating, nothing else.

As I write, people around the world have had travel plans disrupted as volcanic detritus is spewed into the skies from Iceland, and due to unusually clement weather, is settling in over much of mainland Europe (rather than being blown away). Weddings are being missed, family reunions ruined, key medical treatments and business engagements rendered impossible, people stranded and more. Many service providers are dealing with distraught and helpless people. How they handle them, at least hopefully with a modicum of humanity and empathy, will make all the difference to how these providers are perceived when the cloud finally moves on or is dissipated. The “carpeting” won’t count. But responding with imagination to mitigate what can be mitigated, and with clarity, grace and compassion otherwise — as much as strained resources permit — will bolster or decimate loyalty. When people are vulnerable, they are also most open.

We would do well to remember this in normal times. The invitation to serve someone is an invitation for them to rely on us.

Always separate out “means” from “ends”. Get the ends right, then keep course-correcting on the means. And don’t just rush to “carpet” everyone with tangential “solutions” and potentially irrelevant enhancements.

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Unhappy with Happy Sheets

Course evaluations are usually dumb, counter-productive and distorting.  Conference evaluations are largely the same.

They are actually NOT “evaluations,” that is the problem. They are “happy sheets”.

Moreover, what you want from participants and attendees is not “evaluation” of the Conference or training session primarily (though secondarily, that can be relevant and interesting). What you want is evaluation of the applicability of what they experienced, the “return on energy” once they seek to convert ideas into action.

If you charge Trainers and Conference organizers with getting rave ratings from people, you incentivize them to taper what they do to “popularity”. But what if organizational value comes from making people uncomfortable, from challenging them? Then the “evaluation” should be related to whether this discomfort was constructively provided, led to a helpful change in behavior, or created positive momentum in a direction sought. People may hate having to be challenged, and the organization may love the results.

If a key strategy has to be understood, then lack of social time may be indeed a Conference deficit objectively, and yet consciously be taken on, because of how mission-critical getting everyone’s engagement around the strategy is at that juncture. Though everyone may understand that, they are unlikely to give high scores to the statement “We had enough time to relax, socialize and enjoy our surroundings.”

We can while prioritizing landing the strategy, consider if slightly  more time can be taken, or a more neutral location selected (if truly we cannot enjoy where we are, why bother?).  And that’s why I say these observations are secondarily relevant.

But the primary issue is to discern and advance whatever the real aims are. Now if another Conference was created primarily to build relationships and bridges across disparate global teams, then the critique of inadequate time for bonding, engagement, team-building and more, becomes more damning.

The point:  there should never be a one size fits all “checklist”. But we should be checking on achievement against our highest priority aims.

I also have found that if people are being chased for evaluations, they are never “in” the experience, but are constantly second-guessing it, often from the default settings of their own preferences, paradigms or at times, even prejudices. There is a time to engage and experience and get the most out of an  experience. Then, there should be time to reflect, to consider and to recommend. These are different faculties and should be utilized distinctively as such…each at appropriate junctures. And the questions we ask, should reflect what we are really after, not a generic set of standardized aspects.

Relative to learning experiences, evaluations should consider pre-session engagement by bosses and preparation of attendees, the actual experience, action-planning and tracking with bosses or other mentors in the aftermath, results achieved, and therefore an evaluation of the total process, including the briefing given to the learning provider, and the customization done if relevant.

“Presentation skills” of providers are a certainly relevant and valuable but hardly the most critical aspect we should be evaluating. That’s wonderful icing. But did the right cake get baked?

Presenters can wow and enchant, and provide little of take-forward value. Or people can be charged up, ready to go, and bosses can be disinterested in their experience or its applicability….thereby blunting the cutting edge of any learning.

The learning experience should be construed as a multi-faceted partnership between boss, participant, experts or coaches, and the organization-at-large. Otherwise there is scant ROI, and we are just tossing money overboard in the hope that some stimulus will “stick”.

So forget happy sheets. Get people to engage first, evaluate second. When they evaluate, evaluate actual outcomes of value to the organization primarily, and the entire process that is to deliver them. Secondarily, check out what people thought of acoustics, food, visuals used, even presentation skills. A total “hit” in terms of being wowed by the presenter, hotel, visuals, can deliver a total dud in terms of learning value.

No reason not to have both we can argue…but get the split of attention right based on what is really essential. Let’s sweat the real stuff first…and the “surround sound” next. First value, then sizzle!

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Making Conferences Matter

I’m writing from Penang, Malaysia, after a Global Conference for a global personal care powerhouse. We helped design it, organize it, facilitate it, and to coach key leaders in engaging their people.

It was in direct contrast to typical Conferences which truly are elaborate time wasters. There are numerous problems with conventional Conferences.

1) They waste budget that could go into genuine development efforts.

2) They allow mechanical and uninspired bosses to tick a box to demonstrate they’ve done something “to bring our people together”.  Even though often they’ve confirmed grounds for apathy and cynicism and additionally served to entrench cliques who tend to flock together, hang out together and fortify each others pet prejudices.

3) There is not only a huge cost but scant ROI because the real cost is all the untracked commitments made during the Conference. Fuzzy questions (as no one wants to say the Emperor has no clothes) elicit fuzzier answers (as titular “leaders” are loathe to commit to anything without first going to committee to ensure any action has been rendered anodyne).

4) Any “team building” or “bonding” component is artificial, contrived, treated as a graft or an off-ramp, and rarely integrated with the overall flow of activities.

5) The quality of internal presentations is often truly appalling, with Powerpoint overload and acronym avalanches predominating.

6) More time is spent on getting t-shirts and banners right than engagement right. This then begs the question, “How much of what we experienced or achieved could have been done by Webcast?’  The answer had better be that at least 50% of what we did could only have been or certainly best be accomplished in a “high touch” setting, or don’t bother.

The Conference we just concluded was one of the very best I’ve seen.  Here’s why:

1) The leaders have spent time becoming a true team — a team with both unity and diversity in appropriate measure. This was evident and remarked on by numerous delegates.

2) Messages were crystal clear. The split between vision (where we are going) to plans (how we will get there) to capabilities (things we have to build and transcend in order to deliver) to people (tracking an intensive engagement survey and team dialogues as prep) to action planning (real actions we will take in our natural teams right away) to leadership commitments (made clearly, unambiguously and with a time-line by the senior team) was just about right.

3) Different modes of engagement were in evidence. Superb videos to titillate the senses and replete with comments from key stakeholders, the ability for delegates to Tweet comments in real-time, plenary huddles and live Q&A with senior leaders in a “fishbowl” at the front, culturally relevant activities like helping to paint a part of your portrait on a Batik that became ultimately a stunning piece of art with everyone’s “piece” being a part of the whole, a chance to compete in a race around historic Georgetown (the Unesco World Heritage epicenter of Penang) interacting with locals and partaking of local activities and delicacies, innovative venues for dinner in historic mansions and glittering ballrooms and our own outdoor hawker stand, great jazz bands and DJ’s and local dancers, a chance to make music with rhythm experts, a caricaturist who captured key moments with insight and edge, a wonderful recognition ceremony where teams (and not just individuals) were acknowledged for specific achievements and progress, wonderful break-out syndicates where different leaders presented plans and answered questions, daily huddles and rehearsals by the senior team to course correct and calibrate, and the willingness of the global boss to be coached, and to connect as both leader and human being in a closing that was an “opening” and which brought 200+ people to their feet.

4) Each presentation was challenged to be a) specific b) interactive c) relevant d) future-creating  e) succinct  f) delivered by someone who had a real passion for the subject.

5) Facilitators from our side coached and helped capture commitments and will follow through. The mode of follow-through and the time-lines are clear and committed to.

People found it illuminating, fun, entertaining. New relationships were created (the most critical thing you can’t do by Webinar), next steps understood, emotion engaged.

Then the price-tag becomes a true investment, the time and energy provide astronomic returns, and the Conference becomes a true launch pad and catalyst.  Don’t settle for something else — it will inevitably then be something less than what it should be.

A Conference is to bond, provoke, guide, focus and liberate collective potential. If two days or so can do that — and they can when done right — wow!

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Chad Barr Interviews Omar Khan

In this fabulous podcast interview, Chad Barr had the chance to chat with Omar Khan, founder and senior partner of Sensei International and author of several books. We discussed some fascinating topics: What is a global consultant, how do you become a successful one and how do you get started. We also talked about his international company, building and sustaining remarkable relationships, how to succeed in this economy, his blog and the book he co-authored with Dr. Alan Weiss, The Global Consultant.

Click below for podcast to start

and now also on iTunes

Click Here for Chad’s entire podcast series

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Beware of “Facts”

I’ve always urged that consultants are at their best when they help clients interrogate assumptions posing as facts. The almost “holy” question is, “How do you really know that?” Assumptions lead us often into a cul-de-sac of our own paradigms.

The other danger is what is called “research”. All of us can skew “statistics” in infinite ways. There is the Yogi Berra story I love about stats. Someone asks whether the pizza should be cut in four or eight slices. Comes the reply, “You better cut it into four, I don’t think I can eat eight.”  That in turn brings the old saw to mind, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Today there has been a report released, blazing across news channels about how a new study links sugary soft drinks to an up to 87%  increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer. Wow! Well, that is, until you read the small print of the study.

Some news channels segued from this to panning diet drinks and saying they were “poison.”  They may well be, but not on the basis of this study, which only speaks of sugary soft drinks. The same study confesses that fruit juice has virtually the same amount of sugar, but doesn’t have these alleged effects.

Let me say right out, I think the fact that sugary sodas have a host of health ills is probably not controversial. So my taking on the “spin” being given to this study is NOT a defence of soft drinks. It’s an expose of our tending to state definitive conclusions based on ambiguous, if not gossamer facts.

This study, which was conducted in Singapore, tracked 60,000 individuals over about 14 years. Of these 60,000, 140 developed pancreatic cancer. Of those 140, 30 they say consumed sugary sodas on a regular, weekly basis. The balance, 110 who developed the illness, did not consume sugary sodas. So how is this being advertised as a “finding”?  How can these numbers not more persuasively argue for a chance connection at best? The researchers also refer to 4 past studies that found no link between such drinks and pancreatic cancer!

Yet the headlines proclaim, “Sugary sodas linked to pancreatic cancer.”  What ineffable twaddle!  Or, certainly so, on the basis of the facts actually cited in the study. Now excess sugar intake can precipitate the onset of diabetes, which is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. I get that link and rationale…which though is a sidebar to this study, and wasn’t anything particularly studied here.

The takeaway? Beware of grandiose sweeping conclusions, from scant, inconclusive facts. Consultants be the voice of bracing balance. We can’t solve what we don’t understand. While everyone runs around drowning in data, be enough of a contrarian, enough of a healthy skeptic, to make sure that what glitters in that instance is really gold, not brass.

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How Hard Can You Try To Get it Wrong?

A man attempted to set ablaze if not blow up a flight headed from Amsterdam to Detroit. The flight originated in Nigeria, and the alleged perpetrator (not so “alleged” as he put himself on fire!) was on a terrorist watch list.

Why was he allowed to get on a plane, particularly one headed to the US? The inanity is mind-boggling. We’re told he was on a “watch list” but the concerns weren’t “aviation related” and so he wasn’t on a No Fly list! Spend a bit of time on that one and see if you can extract any sense from that. A terrorist may surely switch their focus without broadcasting it to intelligence officials. Surely a simple rule that we don’t want people on a terrorist watch list on airplanes wouldn’t be too controversial?

Moreover, if a potential terrorist presents themselves at an airport, pays all cash for his ticket (as he did), has no checked luggage and the smallest possibly carry-on, don’t we want to flag this somehow in a common database so he can be detained, searched and questioned? Why do we think there is union discipline among terrorists whereby say railway bombers don’t step on the turf of airline arsonists and vice-versa?

This gets even more bizarre. The Nigerian terror suspect was refused a re-entry visa into the UK 7 years ago for various reasons — one, he was known to have some ties with radical Islamic extremists, but also because he claimed he was returning to carry out studies at a University that doesn’t exist! Surely, that was a modest red flag. Less than a month ago, his own father reported to the US Embassy his concerns about his son’s ties to extremists! When your Dad turns you in (an affluent and respected individual), you’d think (and here the consultant in me comes forth), you’d get that information disseminated to border patrol, airlines and more. Shockingly, the re-entry visa to the US of this individual was kept valid despite what had happened in the UK and this information from his father. My own uncle (I’m an American, but originally was from Pakistan), who has a son who is a US citizen, was himself former Pakistan Finance Secretary, and is over 80, needed over 4 months to get his own multiple entry visa re-issued! Surely we’re missing the point in how we focus our energies?

There are now largely irrelevant panic-stricken knee-jerk responses. So now coming into the US, we are told no one can get up in the last hour before landing (that’s when the incident occurred). What if the next person does something in the first hour? So then we can’t get up in the first hour either? What is the relevance of the “last hour” necessarily to this incident? We had blown our obligation for due diligence well before we got to that point. No blankets on our laps in the last hour either we are told. How ridiculous! Talk about locking the gate after the horse has bolted!

If this happened from someone we had no reason to be concerned over — not a one way ticket buyer denied a visa in the UK and on a terrorist watch list — maybe we would say we’re down to that and have no choice. But why is the response to inconvenience as many law-abiding citizens, further decimating the airline industry as people further try to avoid air travel,  for what are utter lapses in inter-agency communication and scrutiny? Why this rush to more indiscriminate symptom management? So we’re all to interfere with countless businesses and lives to compensate for lack of integration and competence? This needs surgery, not Pavlovian mania.

Rushing to “ban” peripheral activities that are often quality of life issues (say for a shivering passenger wanting a blanket, or a pregnant woman needing the bathroom) is an almost insulting response to such a core breakdown.

Congratulations to the passengers and crew. We’ve at least as a public started to re-empower ourselves. It’s high time that same accountability filters through to the inane if not insane ways our intelligence lists are managed, shared…and acted upon.

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