Monday, September 26, 2016

My 3 take-aways from Edgar Schein’s “Humble Consulting”

Prof. Edgar Schein’s book “Process consulting” was published in the year I was born – 1969. Since then he has been refining the concept over the past five decades. I have found the concept very helpful in my consulting career. In fact, I have read all of Schein’s subsequent books in “processing consulting” series – Process consultation revisited (1999), Helping (2009) and Humble Inquiry (2013). The latest entry from this series is “Humbleconsulting: How to provide real help faster” published by Berret-Koehler Publishers (2016). Here are 3 of my take-aways from “Humble consulting”.

Humble questions may result in big impact: One of the key points Schein drives here is that carrying a humble attitude (being curious) towards the client is important in the helping process. And even a simple humble inquiry may lead to a big impact for the client. Here is an example Schein gives from his personal experience. Schein was having lunch with the CEO and his executive team of Alcoa Australia. The CEO pointed out that the VP Administration is retiring and proposed if Steve could be his replacement. VP Finance, VP Operations and a few others said that they were not comfortable with Steve as VP Admin but they were not able to point out the exact issue. At this point, Schein intervened and asked, “Sorry for jumping into the conversation, but I am curious what VP of Admin does.” CEO said that VP Admin heads a bunch of functions such as HR, internal accounting and finance and public relations. At this point, a VP jumped in to point out that Steve won’t be able to handle public relations. Others agreed. So another VP proposed that public relations could be separated from the VP Admin function and a new VP of Environmental Affairs and PR can be created. Everybody was comfortable with this idea and the issue was resolved. The point of this story is that Schein’s humble enquiry on the role of VP Admin led to a workable solution.

Beware of content seduction trap: Schein says, “The consultant must have empathy but carefully avoid content seduction because, as an outsider, he will never have the insider’s direct knowledge of what will and will not work in the client’s culture”. Empathy is understanding the client’s situation while content seduction is a feeling that I understand the client enough and can suggest a workable solution. This looks at odds with the traditional consulting wisdom which says that an expert consultant should be able to provide a workable solution to his client. Schein cites several examples where he and other consultants conducted several interviews with the client executives, formulated a problem and devised a solution. When the solution was presented to the client, he either ignored it or rejected it outright. If proposing a solution is not a good approach, what does a humble consultant do? Well, Schein suggests using adaptive moves which will help client diagnose the problem as well as see a solution.

Adaptive moves for simultaneous diagnosis and intervention:  To understand the philosophy behind an adaptive move, it helps to understand following profound statement from Schein:  There are no “real” problems, only a set of worries. Here, Schein questions the existence of problems as objective reality independent of client. According to him, a problem exists only as a set of worries in clients’ mind. Perhaps the client himself may be unaware of the real worry. A small step one can take in order for the client to see his real worry is what Schein calls an adaptive move. Let’s illustrate this using one of the examples Schein cites. He was trying to help a bunch of smart engineers at DEC in strategy meetings. The engineers were argumentative and would often interrupt each other and shoot down others’ ideas. Schein made several attempts to bring this unruly behaviour to their notice which they acknowledged but continued to behave as before. At one point, Schein got up, went to the flip chart board and started jotting down the ideas that were being discussed. While writing down an idea, if a person got interrupted, Schein would excuse the group and request the person to finish his idea so that he could write it down on the flip chart. That made sure all the ideas were captured and the group thanked Schein for being really helpful. It was a small gesture, but it solved the real concern in the minds of the engineers of losing out on ideas. What Schein originally thought to be the real problem – unruly behaviour – was not a worry as far as the group of engineers was concerned. Subsequently, other group members began to go to the flip chart and learnt to do similar facilitation themselves.

Schein uses 25 cases from his personal experience to illustrate the principles. In addition to presenting the conversation between him and his client, Schein also gives what went on in his mind, something like a mental commentary, before he replies to the client. I found this style very helpful. I am amazed by Schein’s productivity at the ripe age of 87 and wish him many more creative years!

image source:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Empathy as accessing 3 kinds of ignorance

As a Design Thinking facilitator one of the key challenges I face is following: How do we create an experiential understanding of the concept of empathy? Participants do go through observations, interviews etc. However, how does one know if one is actually empathizing with the other? In this article, I am proposing a way of looking at empathy that might help in answering this question. The key is to understand empathizing as a process of accessing our own ignorance. What does “accessing ignorance” mean? And, what are the types of ignorance we need to access? Let’s explore in this article.

Accessing ignorance: After an hour of field research, a group of participants returned to the training room. The team had visited a nearby bus stop and were eager to share their findings. A team member explained how people are in a hurry to reach home and can hardly wait for the bus to come to a full stop before jumping into it. I asked him how many people he interviewed. He said he didn’t have to interview anybody because he is a bus commuter himself and knows their pain. This anecdote illustrates what it means to not access ignorance. Every situation can be approached with one of two attitudes – that of knowing or that of ignorance. The gentleman in the bus stop team, approached the empathy exercise from the attitude of “knowing”. Empathy demands that we approach a situation from the position of ignorance.

There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion. Let’s look at them briefly.

1.      Content ignorance: If one needs to understand more about bus commuters, one needs to ask questions like: Where do people travel to? How long do they have to wait for the bus? How long is the typical journey? How frequently do they use a bus? When do they typically travel? Etc. Answers to these questions begin to create a better picture about the bus commuters’ situation. This is what I refer to as “content ignorance”. If this conversation builds some trust and openness, it may help us access the next level of ignorance: intent ignorance.

2.      Intent ignorance: This ignorance is related to the anxieties and aspirations of people. Why do they travel by bus? Is it because they don’t like driving or is it because they can’t afford a car yet? Is it the long commute time that makes them anxious? Or is it the time taken away from family? Do people ever enjoy a commute? If so, under what circumstances? In short, intent ignorance tries to understand the emotional triggers and the intents that drive people to take up or not take up certain actions. Unless there is a level of trust and openness, a person may not reveal his anxieties and aspirations. For example, an auto drive may not tell you that his school going son is still ashamed of the fact that his father drives an auto.

3.      Illusion ignorance:  This is the toughest of the three kinds of ignorance to access. When the bus stop study team member mentioned that he didn’t have to interview anyone, he actually believed that he knows everything about bus commuters. This is called an illusion of understanding. Our deep seated beliefs are treated as truths and we are unable to question them. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs are not easy to access as they are buried deeply in our unconscious. Hence, it helps to ask oneself from time to time, “Could this be wrong?”

In short, if you are interested in learning to empathize, you should learn to approach a situation from the position of ignorance rather than that of knowledge. There are three kinds of ignorance that need to be accessed: content, intent and illusion.


I first read the term “accessing ignorance” in Edgar Schien’s book “Humble inquiry”.