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My fellow consultants will confirm that very often, organizational problems are clear and apparent from the day one of an engagement with a client. On such occasions, rapid diagnosis and resolution stuns the client and the typical comment is “Wow, thank you, I cannot believe we couldn’t see this ourselves.”

Actually, it is not surprising at all. Self-diagnosis is exceedingly difficult for a variety of reasons, such as the emotional attachment, the too-close-to-the-grinding-wheel myopia and the lack of perspective (“We’ve never thought of it this way”). 

At the same time, we live in the times when the do-it-yourself approach to anything is more popular than ever. There are television programs and literature available on pretty much any avocation or endeavour. This is often taken into such areas as mental health, wellness and marital counselling and there are lots of books on these subjects in your nearest bookstore. Be it do-it-yourself renovation, gourmet cooking or gestalt therapy, there is a sense of empowerment and fascination that comes with seeing and feeling the results.

Unfortunately, the DIY approach that works (cooking, pottery, etc) or sometimes works (nutrition, sports, renovations, personal finance, etc) for an individual, does not work well for organizations. The problem is with identifying the issue that needs to be addressed and, as I have mentioned in the beginning, it can be exceedingly difficult.

And so we have it – a great danger that the key problem is misdiagnosed and the overwhelming propensity to go DIY route. Result: misguided projects, changes that produce little value, lost business opportunities, millions down the drain.

I like DIY (my home-grown tomatoes are probably $50/lb) but I know when to call in a professional. Do you?

Last week, life offered me a wonderful lesson in organizational design, which I am going to share.

I saw how a notary in a small Russian town organizes her work. In Russia, notaries do not merely administer oaths and notarize documents. They are trained legal professionals who often get involved in real estate and property matters, services that, while being routine and mostly straight-forward, make the notary’s work very valuable indeed.

Let me describe how this particular notary runs her business.

The reception is teeming with people. There is a queue, but unless you poke your head into the office where the notary’s three helpers reside, you probably won’t get served. The helpers concern themselves with typing, copying, fetching stuff and other like light duties. They don’t do any other work and aren’t allowed to say much.

The notary, a rotund woman in her 60’s with a lot of presence, does almost all the work. She tells the helpers what to type and what to copy, evaluates documents, proofreads, takes payments, writes receipts and so on. While serving several customers at once, she also takes and makes phone calls on matters not necessarily related to the immediate work. There is a lot of face time with the customer but this is clearly where the bottleneck is.

It takes forever (3 hours, in my estimation) to get the first client served. The process is inefficient, confusing and taxing on everyone involved.

Now imagine that you are charged with transforming this small business. What would you do?

If your mind works along the process lines, you will probably think about better queue management, prescreening of applications by a member of staff (a law student would do fine job), extensive templating, delegation of all admin duties, and other measures positioned to alleviate the existing bottleneck.

I am certain that these and other like steps will improve the throughput, but is this what the notary will want? Is this in her best interest?

You see, there are other factors involved here besides the operational efficiency:

  •  The onerous process makes the clients believe that the work is more complex and therefor more valuable than it realy is. A client develops a sense of gratitude and indebtedness.
  • To empower someone to make decisions on her behalf (prescreening), the notary will lose a significant portion of her expert power.
  • The extensive face time with the client allows the notary to evaluate the usefulness of the client, which is so much more valuable than the fee received for her services. What connections does this person have? What services can be obtained from him or her? In the society where one’s success is contingent on who you know and given that she operates in a small town, this is worth a lot to her.
  • Paperwork and receivables are not always transparent, which means that it would be highly undesirable to delegate the seemingly menial cash and receipts duties.

Do you see what is going on here? Too often, organizational transformation is initiated with a one-sided view of the issue. It is tempting to take an engineering approach and build a beautiful process, but it just won’t work at all here. Having the broader take on the issue, understanding the culture and the environment leads to better recommendations, better decisions and better outcomes.

I don’t approve the Russian notary’s way of doing business, but I certainly thank her for the wonderful example.

I trust you’ve seen martial artists demonstrate their strength and skill by smashing a stack of bricks, blocks or boards with bare hands.

There is first a moment of intense concentration, with breathing carefully controlled. Then, in a bat of an eye, the hand comes down crashing upon the target with an incredible force, shattering an enormous stack of decidedly flesh-unfriendly objects. How do they do that?

Not surprisingly, the mental preparation has as much to do with it as the physical prowess. During the intense moments before his or her upper extremity comes down on the pile of building material, the practitioner visualizes the desired impact in a slow motion, with one crucial nuance.

You have to see the impact go beyond the immediate obstacle and deliver the blow as if you intended to hit that target. In other words, if you see five bricks in front of you,  you have to strike to smash the sixth brick sitting just below them. Don’t even think about the other five.

Business leaders can learn from martial artists and use this technique to propel their organization forward with dramatic acceleration. Set stretch goals and you will breeze by the conservatively set milestones.

Why plan for conservative growth when you can grow dramatically? Why strive to hit the $2 billion revenue mark when you can reach for $5 billion, define the strategy accordingly and leave the previously intimidating $2 billion mark in the dust?

This is how mankind planted its first step on the moon and this is how you can touch the previously unthinkable frontiers too. 

Just think of the sixth brick.

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