The Iron Curtain – Then and Now

How things have changed, and yet not at all.

I took the train from Budapest to Vienna on Friday for the first time in about twenty years. When I first lived in Budapest in 1987, the city was still behind the Iron Curtain, and it was a journey I made regularly, especially in the winter, to get away from the greyness of Budapest to the colour, culture and sophistication of Vienna, not to mention the nightlife. Passengers were few and the journey took more than four hours. Eastern Europeans, as they were then called, couldn’t travel without an approved purpose and a visa, and foreigners living in Budapest were very few.

It took nearly half an hour (and the stamping of half a dozen documents) to buy a ticket at the railway station in Budapest, and when the train stopped at the border it might take up to half an hour for the border guards to make their sweep of the train. Suspicion abounded, and I was often the focus of it.

iron curtain

On Friday last week, it took me just one minute to buy a ticket (though, admittedly I waited 30 minutes in the queue with dozens of other eager travellers) and the journey was scheduled to take only three hours. The train left on time, was full, and stopped for just a few minutes at the border. After all, we were all travelling from one Schengen state to another, and in theory passports aren’t required.

But suspicion still abounds, albeit of another kind. As the train left Budapest Keleti Station hordes of a new generation of police (no more polite than the Communist-era variety, but nowadays multi-lingual) swept through the train, demanding (often very aggressively) that anyone ‘suspicious’ (which in their book meant anyone of any colour other than white) should show his or her passport. I sat in the restaurant car with a middle-class Singaporean family (probably ‘ethnically’ Indian). I didn’t have to show my passport, but they had to show theirs. About ten passengers were then removed from the train before we reached the border.

I suppose that what I saw was the EUROPEAN IMMIGRATION PROBLEM at first hand. Hungary has recently and unilaterally adopted an aggressive attitude, though why this means preventing them from leaving the country rather than letting them go, I do not know.

We are back where we were. Borders still matter. If the government of Hungary can get away with it, there will be a new physical Iron Curtain soon on the country’s border with Serbia.

The Art of Consulting – What’s a Good Question?

Share

A question is the most important tool in the consultant’s armoury, especially, of course, during the investigative phase of a project.

You should never run out of them. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate and if there’s one thing I learned it is that there is always another question.

Questions

But there are good questions and bad questions.

What makes a good question?

A good question needs to do at least one of the following:

  • Find things out, efficiently and precisely
  • Confirm things, even the obvious things that you think everyone already knows
  • Establish that you’re an expert
  • Establish that you’re a person of broad interests
  • Establish a good working relationship

Finding things out

A good question is one that finds the most out, and delivers the most information. When I’m running my training course on Non-Technical Skills for Consultants  I make everyone play Twenty Questions. You have to ask no more than twenty questions of the yes-or-no variety in order to identify a single thing. It might be an elephant, a submarine, Mars, Manon Lescaut, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a cappuccino, indeed anything at all. The best questions, of course, are those that divide the remaining possibilities approximately in half.

If you were just thinking of a number then twenty questions would enable you to identify any number lower than 1,048,576. You’d start by asking ‘Is the number lower than 524,288?’ and then, depending on the answer, asking the same of 786,432 or 262,144. Assuming that most people can’t in practice think of more than 1,048,576 different things when the game applies to things other than numbers it’s usually possible, with judicious questioning, always to find the answer. Of course, you’d need a good taxonomical mind to do it well. But asking ‘Does it have a head?’ after learning that it’s a mammal is an obvious example of a bad question.

Another kind of bad question is one that doesn’t have an answer, or can’t have an answer in the situation you find yourself in. ‘How many archangels can dance on the tip of a pin?’ is an obvious example of an extremely bad question, but you should also avoid questions to which you must know there’s no known answer, such as ‘How many of your team feel demotivated?’ if this isn’t something anyone has attempted to measure. Better to ask a question to which there can  be an answer, such as ‘Have any of your team told you they feel demotivated?’

It’s often said that a good barrister never asks a question of a witness in a courtroom unless he or she already knows the answer. Whilst a discussion between a consultant and client doesn’t take place in the same adversarial context an amended version of this is still a good rule: a good consultant never asks a question to which there cannot be an answer.

Finding things out another way

As for good questions, there are many other kinds. How often, when you’re trying to understand how things work do you feel that you haven’t got the right answer. Another good question is the same question, asked again and again in an entirely different way. You must always indulge that nagging feeling that your client has a different understanding of what you’ve asked, or has answered incorrectly. Never allow yourself to think that it will somehow be clarified later, or that your client will think you stupid for asking for clarification. Inaccuracy grows like a weed if left untended.

Open questions

Open questions, of course, are fun at the beginning, especially if you think of yourself as a psychoanalyst. ‘What’s on your mind?’ ‘What do you spend most of your time worrying about?’ ‘What’s the biggest problem you face?’ can get you started, but only if it’s your plan to delve into the forensic detail later. Such a game won’t impress your client for very long.

Social questions

Questions also serve a social purpose. I’ve seen consultants so intent on their cross-examination of a client that they forget to show a wider interest in what the client does. Don’t forget that an interest in others is a sure way to win trust and promote friendship. How often have you met people who never ask you anything, and how often do you want to meet them again? If you want to show that you care then you must ask questions that suggest you have a wider interest in the world than, for example, the minutiae of stock control. ‘How is your business doing?’ is, at least, a start.

Show-off questions

You’ve also got to establish that you know what you’re talking about, so you’ve got to ask some questions that demonstrate your technical expertise. If you’re looking at the efficiency of a professional services organisation (my particular field) then you’ll ask questions about the ways an organisation measures its work – about utilisation (and what your client means by that measure), about realisation, revenue recognition problems, and so on.

Positive questions

It’s also very important to ask some ‘positive’ questions. We spend our time as consultants nagging away at problems, concentrating on the bad things (which we hope to do something about) rather than on the good (which we generally leave well alone). But people are naturally defensive and if you’re only asking them about things they feel they’ve failed to do something about, you will be the doctor who only brings bad news. How we like it when our GP has something positive to say as well, such as ‘You’re in really good shape for your age.’ So, ask some questions that let the client show off his competence or excellence.

Don’t forget the basic questions

When I worked in Hungary in the early 1990s I was sent from Budapest to a pharmaceutical company sixty miles from the capital. My mission was to discover if they needed any kind of management consulting. I got down to the detail straight away. I asked dozens of questions about their systems – whether they needed software to do both local and corporate accounting, whether they needed a payroll system, or some software to manage their manufacturing processes. I entirely forgot to show interest in, or even to ask them, what they actually ‘did’, until I was leaving. When I asked, the answer was an unusual one: ‘We extract tiny amounts of a particular hormone from the urine of the Hungarian Army,’ This obviously accounted for the slightly familiar smell of the place.

I felt a fool because so many of my questions were irrelevant and the client must have thought them (and me) rather silly or naive. The company was called Urinex, after all.

Be prepared

Before you begin your discussions with a client, note down a few good questions that will achieve all of these objectives. And never forget to write down what the answers are and the extent to which you can put your faith in their veracity.

See also:

The Art of Consulting

The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent

The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills

The Art of Consulting – Listening

All You Need

biking stuff

You don’t need much for eight days’ cycling around the edge of Hungary. I’ve been known to go on trips where your luggage is carried from hotel to hotel, whilst you cycle at a leisurely pace, unencumbered by clothes and equipment, but those trips are for softies. Serious cycling is a penitential experience, and you must fend for yourself, comfort generally shunned. That said, I confess that don’t carry a tent, nor cooking equipment and I do stay in hotels and eat in restaurants, when I can find them.

So, what does a moderately penitential cyclist carry? What you see in the picture is what I took.

Devices

  • 1 Dell Notebook PC and cable
  • 1 Kindle and cable
  • 1 iPhone and cable (iPhone not in the pic, since in use)

Bike Wear

  • Three light luridly-coloured easy-to-wash easy-to-see miracle-fibre tops
  • Two light easy-to-wash miracle-fibre shorts
  • Helmet (including net to prevent insects reaching hair)
  • Waterproof jacket from sponsor Helly Hansen

Elegant Evening Wear

  • Three pairs black socks
  • Three polo tops from sponsor Banana Republic
  • Hoody for chilly evenings

Constant Wear

  • Rigidly-soled cycling sandals
  • Underwear (five pairs)

Food and Drink

  • Small bag of nuts
  • 40 Gold Blend teabags from sponsor Marks & Spencer

Bathroom and Medical Supplies

  • Savlon for abrasions and mosquito bites
  • Toothpaste from sponsor Colgate
  • Deodorant from sponsor Gillette
  • Toothbrush
  • Painkillers for headaches caused by dehydration and drink
  • Blood pressure pills to alleviate the high blood pressure brought on by age and an unhealthy lifestyle
  • Razor from sponsor Gillette
  • 50+ Sun Cream
  • Black Pepper Cologne by sponsor Molton Brown
  • Bag to put them all in

Miscellaneous

  • Glasses and case
  • Cash
  • Passport
  • Credit Cards
  • Bag to put them in from sponsor Etihad
  • Pens from sponsor British Airways
  • Earphones
  • Two maps

That’s all. Try it. Who needs furniture and paintings and things? Life can be simple and free.

But I’m off my bike now. I’d go further, much further (‘second star to the right and straight on ’til morning’), but having arrived in Timisoara two days ahead of schedule, I added on Szeged, reached in two days through a corner of Serbia, and there, after 675 km, I stopped and got on a train.

bike map

The Art of Consulting – Listening

Share

Ask anyone what their idea of a salesman is and they’ll usually tell you it’s someone who doesn’t stop talking, someone who wears you down with words until you surrender and buy, just to shut him up.

But it’s not like that at all, at least not outside the world of second hand cars and home insulation. The best salesmen listen more than they talk, and that’s true of the best consultants too. After all, consultant comes from the Latin verb consultare, to discuss, and discussion must be at least two-sided.

Listening is the basis of everything. There’s no possibility of your giving your client some good advice until you’ve understood what his problems are. And the best way of finding them out is to listen (and use all your other senses too).

ears

But listening isn’t just a matter of sitting back and letting sound assault you. It’s work. It needs concentration. You must listen neutrally, deeply, sensitively and critically. It isn’t necessarily the downhill free-wheeling part of the consulting process.

Listen neutrally

Especially during the early stages of the consulting process you must listen neutrally, and avoid listening selectively to fit the evidence to the theory you’ve already constructed or are constructing. Don’t just hear what you want to hear. Record the evidence that refutes your theory as assiduously as that which supports it. Whatever theory you put forward must accommodate the evidence that goes against it.

And when you hear things that you disagree with, don’t combine argument with listening. The time for argument comes later. Listen as comfortably to things you don’t like as to the words that confirm your views.

Listen deeply

Sometimes people say the opposite of what they mean. That includes lying of course, for which you must always be alert. But sometimes it’s more complicated than that. It need not be as dramatically evident as in this song by Kurt Weill – Je ne t’aime pas – but people may be constrained by loyalty to say things they don’t really believe, and if you listen deeply and thoughtfully you can tell.

Listen sensitively

General Practitioners often say that the most important moment in an appointment comes at the end. The patient has explained the relatively trivial pretext for his or her visit, the doctor has produced a prescription, then just as he or she is about to leave, the patient says, ‘Oh, I know it’s probably a very silly thing, but I’ve got this lump…’

Listen to everything, and give equal weight to what the speaker regards as trivial or serious.

Listen critically

Think about what makes the speaker says what he says. Always consider the advantage or disadvantage to be gained by the speaker from what he says. Most of the people you listen to have an interest in the outcome of your engagement and will want to influence it.

And listen with a pen, pencil or keyboard…

Always make notes of what you’re hearing. And always seek clarification if something isn’t clear. You will never be a fool if you ask for repetition or clarification, regardless of the irritability or impatience of the person you’re talking too. Don’t let acronyms pass you by without getting the speaker to spell them out. How often I still listen to people who say things like, ‘The trouble with the CFD is that the TKIO doesn’t really understand the aims of the NNBVC.’ Everyone has their own familiar technical vocabulary and their own shortcuts. They often use these to establish their own belonging and to demonstrate that you’re an outsider, consciously or otherwise. Don’t let them get away with it!

Above all, when you’re listening, make sure you’ve understood everything. If you allow inaccuracy and misunderstanding to creep into the process at the earliest stage, it will only be amplified as the engagement continues, and the end result might be wildly inappropriate.

See also:

The Art of Consulting

The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent

The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills

Facebooks before Facebook

It’s the time of year when pupils are graduating from secondary schools all over Europe. You notice it particularly here in Central and Eastern Europe because each graduating class creates a kind of Facebook and places it in the window of their town’s most prestigious café, department store or bookshop.

facebook 2

It used to charm me in the late 1980s when I lived in Budapest, since we never did this when I was at school, but what’s depressing is that, although 28 years have passed, these pre-Facebook Facebooks haven’t changed at all.

Graphical styles have undergone all sorts of revolutions since 1987, and the whole of Communist Eastern Europe has revolted politically and been liberated from the straitjacket of Marxist orthodoxy, (which has always given a rather serious cast to education) but it might as well never have happened. These displays of (probably) bright young lives and their teachers are still as dull, as dreary, as empty of originality and promise, as they always were. See a particularly dire example, above, from a window (albeit of a religious bookshop) in Debrecen.

Look carefully. The only male teacher without a tie is the drama teacher (you wonder if he will ever be promoted after this sartorial dare) – and only he and his theatrical colleague permit themselves a slightly open-mouthed smile. Of course, a certain license has always been permitted to the more expressive arts. Otherwise it’s all pursed lips, at least for male teachers of mathematics, chemistry, history, and literature. And men, of course, have their greater dignity to consider, whilst women may smile a little more informally.

drama smiles

‘Kati Neni’ (‘Auntie Kate’), plum centre of the picture, and this year’s class teacher, has something rather unsurprising to say.

‘Finally, it’s over!’

kati neni

I imagine she says this every year, but whether in sadness or relief we cannot tell from her expression.

Deputy Director Katalin is a dead ringer for a 1970s Miss Moneypenny

deputy director

And her colleague, the second deputy director, looks a tiny bit mad – a good candidate for Q.

other deputy director

As for the pupils, properly relegated to the lower ranks, the only one who looks remotely like fun is Mizi Marietta, who, with a name like that must go on to a starring role in a new operetta by the dead but much-loved Franz Lehar.

mizi marietta

20 girls, 7 boys. What’s happening in Debrecen? Are boys now exposed at birth on the Puszta to be picked at by vultures?

And why do they all wear black and black ties? Is graduation a kind of funeral?

Now, I must also confess that although I have a particular love for Hungary, since, in a certain sense, I grew up there, I couldn’t help thinking, when I saw the Czechoslovak Facebooks in all the shops in Prague in the same late 1980s that they did it rather better there. They were funny, irreverent, imaginative, unconventional. Is there a deep-seated conservatism about Hungary that has resisted change over the last 28 years (and for how many decades before)? Or is it just this eastern part of Hungary that is stuck in the Puszta mud?

Anyway, boys and girls, do try harder!

Oradea – City Under Wraps

Oradea, since 1945 a Romanian city, is a city that’s under wraps, still recovering from the depredations  of the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War that followed. It must get back to where it was before it can become something more. Over the last hundred years it’s been Hungarian twice (as Nagyvarad), and Romanian twice, and you can still hear both languages used interchangeably in the street, though sadly you can no longer hear the Yiddish or German that the large Jewish community spoke before the Holocaust.

IMG_2227 IMG_2246   IMG_2229

The cities of Hungary,to the West, such as Debrecen, and Miskolc, have recovered from history, and gone further. They have renovated and inhabited the shabby, rundown, sometimes bullet-scarred buildings of the Habsburg era. But many of Oradea’s wonderful Jugendstil apartment blocks and institutional buildings are still vacant, shrouded to protect pedestrians from the crumbling, falling stucco. It’s a sorry sight and no doubt a matter of money, not intent or confidence. But underneath the wrappings are architectural wonders waiting to be restored and used again.

There are, of course, some delightful exceptions, such as this restored hotel.

IMG_2239

Another exception is the splendid theatre, designed by the astonishingly productive architectural partnership of Fellner and Helmer, who were to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its theatres what Mimar Sinan was to the Ottoman Empire some centuries earlier, though Sinan generally stuck to mosques, madrasas and the occasional bridge. I don’t believe he ever built a theatre.

Wrappings put me in mind of Christo (and Jeanne-Claude), the Bulgarian wrapper-up of the Reichstag in Berlin, and the Pont-Neuf in Paris.

reichstag

pont neuf

Christo and Jeanne-Claude don’t claim to mean anything by their art beyond the immediate impression they elicit, but it’s hard to explain the strong emotional reaction we feel on seeing these powerful symbols tamed by drapes. It’s certainly not the melancholy induced by Oradea’s buildings. Wikipedia quotes art critic David Bourdon, who says it’s all about “revelation through concealment.” But I think it’s simpler than that (art critics so rarely write sentences that means anything).

Wrapping up means presents, generosity and pleasure (think of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music – ‘brown paper packages wrapped up in string’). Wrapping up implies manageability and control. Wrapping reminds us that we can encompass the mechanical, the monstrous, the powerful, the irrational. We can defuse these things if we care to. It’s telling that the Reichstag was wrapped (and thereby disarmed) just five years after the reunification of Germany. Indeed I’d like to see Christo go further. He could wrap up a nuclear bomb, a tank, a Kalashnikov, Vladimir Putin, or even this revolting dish (Women’s Fancy) that I foolishly ordered in Oradea for my dinner (looks like vomit on a plate).

women's fancy 2

The Art of Consulting – The Essential Skills

I’m a business software consultant, so I know I can’t speak for consultants of every kind, but I believe that for all of us the consulting process is somewhat similar.

consultant magician

Putting aside the time we spend in selling our services, during which the consulting process must, in reality, begin (fees, or no fees), we all start with Diagnosis:

  • We do some background research
  • We listen to what our client and others have to say
  • We ask questions
  • We think and theorise
  • We structure and analyse our findings
  • We write our findings down

Then, when we’re sure we know what we’re doing we Advise

  • We recommend a course of action
  • We explain

Then, according to taste, or the conventions of our particular profession we may Execute

  • We persuade
  • We plan
  • We manage, implement, and measure what we do

And then we Disappear.

The most difficult art is surely that of disappearance. Consultants are often centre stage during an engagement, full of ideas, full of determination to see their ideas bear fruit, but it’s no good at all if their clients can’t do without them. When the show is over the client must be able to manage without us.

This is the hardest part, to be dispensable. And the beginning of dispensability is not to be seen as the entire source of what’s happening. The most altruistic, self-effacing of consultants can pull off this trick by making everyone believe that the ideas are the client’s, not the consultant’s. Given that consultants tend to possess slightly larger egos than those who choose a quieter life, this particular trick is to be especially admired.

Why do clients seek the advice of consultants in the first place? There are many reasons:

  • The client doesn’t have the time to address his issues. He has the skills and knowledge in his team, but his staff are fully deployed on operational tasks. He just needs more manpower.
  • The client needs expertise that he can’t find internally, expertise that he needs only occasionally, so it makes sense for him to obtain short-term advice externally.
  • The client wants an apolitical, independent point of view that hasn’t been formed internally. He wants a fresh, new, look at problems that may seem intractable to his managers or on which he can’t obtain internal agreement.
  • The client needs to bolster his own position to persuade his staff of a particular course of action. He needs a consultant to act as a catalyst for change he wants to push through.
  • The client needs coaching to help him perform his role.

Whatever the reasons for our engagement, these reasons must always be at the forefront of our minds as we carry out our work.

See also:

The Art of Consulting

The Art of Consulting – What’s the Role of the Consultant?

The Art of Consulting – Impartial, Honest and Independent