There’s a story about how a Japanese company invented the first bread maker that you could use at home to make one loaf at a time.
No one had managed to create one so far. The way in which bread was kneaded by human hands seemed impossible to replicate with a machine. Perhaps it was just impossible.
So, one of the engineers at the company went to work for a bread maker for several months. He learned how to make bread and spent his time learning all the steps – the mixing, the kneading, the rising and everything else that goes into making the perfect loaf.
Then he went back and came up with a design. In the 1986, 84 years after Joseph Lee patented the first bread machine, the first bread makers for home use were released.
This little story illustrates something about how modern organisations work in real life that we often miss.
On the radio a few days back someone described how all organisations are now information processing machines. That isn’t a new concept, however. The Western approach has always seen companies as machines, as things that can be directed and programmed and controlled.
This is because of how much the scientific approach has influenced everything we see. The success of science in dissecting everything around us and explaining how things work according to laws and rules has made it the natural way to think about things.
Which is why you hear people talking about hypothesis and experiments in the context of startups and businesses. That’s straight scientific thinking. Reductionist and absolute and on a search for truth.
So, when you get consultants, especially those with a scientific or engineering background, coming into an organisation to improve things – you get a very strict, scientific approach to things.
I’m guilty of this. I saw many problems as technical ones – ones that could be solved with the right application of logic, mathematics or programming.
The thing that people like us miss is that human situations are not like scientific ones, especially stuff like physics.
The difference is that when you come up with a theory about how the earth and moon move around the sun, the sun, earth and moon don’t really give a damn what you think and don’t change how they act.
When Trump comes up with a theory about how to solve the U.S trade deficit, you get a global standoff that turns into history in the making.
The difference is what happens when people are involved.
So, as a consultant, you really enter into a real world problem situation carrying some ideas you have, perhaps a framework and methodology that you think you can apply here.
Like the guy learning how to make bread, you also take part in the situation, doing things, working on things, changing things.
The difference between you and everyone else is what happens next.
This action also enables you to reflect on your involvement and learn from what is going on.
Now, you could be an armchair consultant or book writer – advising from a safe distance.
But, almost by definition, what worked for you in another situation is not going to work in this one, because the people involved are different.
You can’t step in the same stream twice.
The Japanese have a view on this – they believe that you learn through direct experience as well as from other sources – learning with your body as well as your mind.
As a consultant, you learn more through experience in the problem situation, because your reflection then lets you pull it all together, perhaps presenting your findings to the company and peers.
Importantly, it also helps you refine your own ideas, framework and methodology, giving you more that you can use the next time.
This model is adapted from Peter Checkland’s writing on action research, and is something many consultants do without realising this is what is actually happening.
Some, unfortunately, are too blinkered to realise that this is how the real world operates and instead try and ram through solutions that are based on reductionist and engineering principles.
Those people… you just have to wait for them to fail and leave.
Real change happens not just with the mind, but when you immerse yourself in reality – the reality of the company you are working with right now.
It’s about being open and prepared to learn, rather than an impartial provider of expert advice.
That’s how you’ll probably fix the real-world problem your client is facing.