Solving Unstated Problems

Always interested in the big picture, through the years of my career I've tended to focus on system level observations by default. Listening to a customer discuss a component level problem within a company, team, project or product, I no longer consciously look for system implications. It just happens. Ishikawa diagrams self-generate, IF-THEN conditions line themselves up, risk-reward lists and COO/COA/ROI math begins to reveal itself and I may even begin considering possible feature sets, priorities and the like dependent upon my previous night's sleep and morning caffeine intake.

So while the customer is telling me about the problem of employees stealing information using memory sticks I'm naturally thinking about IP, Infosec, physical security, authorization and authentication, system activity logging, net traffic logging, employee contracts, local law and the social implications of getting caught in this environment. The customer? The customer is thinking about employees with memory sticks.

Consulting is sometimes hard. In my experience, cross-cultural consulting, particularly in unlike cultures, is harder.

If in one culture, we are paid to be assertive, be capable of justifiable confrontation, think about the system, mitigate risk, eliminate waste, argue solutioning options and choices, as well as, sell why we are the most fiscally responsible and viable solution provider for a problem, we obviously tend to behave in this manner and even amplify it through the years. Uninhibited, direct, complete, accurate, now.

If in another culture where questions are valued more than direct statements, near submissive-humility is valued more than direct frontal assaults, pronoun choices make or break the conversations, listening is valued over talking and solving a component level problem is the only thing that matters irrelevant of system implications all set in a community-relational setting, it is something we must then learn through preparatory study or risk blowing up the opportunity and relationship in the time it takes to consume one cup of tea (or less).

Understanding the socio-cultural differences between the consultant and customer may turn out to be more important than anything else and we need to know this before the meeting, not during.

According to Sun Tzu, understanding the enemy better than one understands self is critical mass and the key to success. In international relations, understanding the potential partner or customer better than one understands self has a critical place in long-term, viable, sustainable success. To defensibly understand the details of one's industry, company, product, service and team and be capable of direct frontal face-off leading to a win is excellent if that is the characteristic of the culture and people group in question. However, it is your finality if the people group in question values extended relational conversation and community over individualistic, bullet-list drive-bys composed of succinct, fact-based presentations.

For years we've discussed that the customer doesn't know what they want until they see what they don't want. It remains true over and over again. I've recently learned the statement is assumptive.

The assumption lay in the belief that if true, then we'll experientially understand the solution path journey that lay in front of us including COA, COO, ROI, scope shift, defect density potential and % rework from multiple paths. This intelligent, experienced understanding that we have is culturally context-sensitive. It doesn't transcend socio-cultural variation.

Useful for cross-cultural consulting, the customer not always knowing what they want until they see what they don't want may continue to be a true statement and may continue to transcend unlike cultures. However, understanding the follow-on solution path potentials, risk and financial implications thereafter does not transcend and has critical socio-cultural implications. The fact that there may exist multiple solution paths, there will be risks, rewards and rework does transcend. Anticipating how to effect the solution is culturally contextual. One size does not fit all regardless what our efficiency math suggests. Even franchise models have cultural variability.

The best example I have of this right now is an executive, in a culture strikingly different from my own native home, asking for help with a memory stick problem in his corporation. Over a meal that discussed life more than work and took three hours, his desired solution was to mitigate risk by putting virus scanners on all memory sticks as policy. The problem statement that I thought I originally heard was a form of corporate espionage, particularly IP leakage which required immediate responsiveness. The problem the customer ended up articulating was virus infusion through poorly managed memory sticks. So, we agreed on the problem of poorly managed memory sticks. However we were oceans apart regarding the implication of poorly managed memory sticks. His real concern for now was the introduction of malware, viruses and the like.

Why were we so far apart? It went like this:

The customer told me he was having problems with employees bringing in personal memory sticks, sharing personal data from home to work computers and then sharing between themselves and other employees. As he talked, my mind shifted into action. I thought about company property use policies, IP protection, systems management, network management, logging, sniffing, illegal distribution of data, elimination of memory sticks and so on.

Do you know which problem bothered him most? Inoperable computers. The introduction of viruses and malware into his house had made many computers inoperable. His communicated problem statement: preventing inoperable machines by mitigating virus and malware introduction. His desired solution was the installation of virus software on all memory sticks.

I disagreed that this was the greatest problem statement. I further disagreed that the posed solution statement was the correct path. I believed memory stick utilization leading to IP leakage, espionage and foreign controlled machines was of greater importance.

In the end, a contract could be had if the problem and solution statement verbiage, as well as, follow-on action, matched that of the customer's desire for virus and malware software on memory sticks. In the end, a contract would not be had if it were to discuss and deliver IP protective measures. All of this over an extended relationship journey requiring food, drink, conversation and relationship.

Customers communicate what is bothering them. And customers then understandably want that which is bothering them to go away. Anything less is failure.

To the customer, this component level or even elemental level problem is currently their systems view. We can challenge it. However, until this particular plank is removed from their eye in the form of delivering that which they asked, they often won't be interested in seeing what we believe is the true forest.

Now, add to the complexity of the relationship by discovering the customer wanted a relational, community based interaction with you that required food, drink and laughter. It is only then, after you additionally failed to recognized the customer's component view is their system view, that you recognize you've only brought armor, a shield and a sword covered in dried blood in your kit when they wanted tea, biscuits and a meal.

We can win or lose a contract based upon our ability to hear the customer well enough to solve their problem according to how they want it solved. However, unless we explore and seek to understand the socio-cultural idiosyncrasies of the customer if different from our own, we won't make it past a cup of tea.

Incidentally, the entire relationship hinged on my use of the word "we" and never the use of "I". In an individualistic society, "I" is expected. In a community-based society, there is only "we". The use of "I" facilitates social expulsion.

One pronoun separated me from contract and it had nothing to do with my career, education, experience or skill-set. I hadn't done my research. I didn't get the contract.