This is an article exploring the concept and practice of “obviousness” in facilitation, training and consultancy. What is the real case for change? I’ve used to this challenge those commissioning services from outside to get a real return on their outlay.
Recently the worlds of academia and consultancy (the boundaries between the two have become recently blurred) have become peddlers of what I would like to call the ‘bloody obvious’. It began with the emergence of Total Quality Management, the rather self-evident idea that everyone should be responsible for quality.
An entire industry has grown up trying to make this concept appear more complicated that it is, in order to attract research funding in academia, and fees in consultancy. Other related and also bloody obvious concepts arose in parallel. These include “right first time”, the crudely obvious idea that we shouldn’t allow mistakes or errors to occur in the first place, by developing systems of prevention; the obvious notion of Continuous Improvement which makes the startling proposition that we should try to continually improve what we do! Recently other outrageously obvious ideas include: the idea that people work more effectively when they are given more space (empowerment), when we invest in them (investors in people), when we do things more efficiently and effectively (lean production), when we work more flexibly (agile management), and so on.
You will be invited to buy books, attend weeklong courses and workshops, and buy programmes that are in their essence based on the patently obvious that even your own ten-year-old daughter or son could have told you. They are all flannel and their obviousness is (obviously) hidden in patronising and nice-sounding jargon, fake tools and techniques, bulshitty methodologies and language, fabricated theory, to hide the fact that you only need to act with common sense in order to put these ideas into practice and save yourself a lot of time and money.
The ideas can be arrived at with a little time for reflection. Of course reflection time is not allowed in many business organisations. Hence the vulture-like behaviour of consultancies and academics who fill this gap and charge enormous fees for what is essentially a very low cost and high benefit activity if businesses and public sector organisations were only to wake up to its importance. Selling the “bloody obvious”, wrapped in jargon and acronym is a sure sign that reflection on experience is sadly lacking in industry and the public sector.
And of course, because there is so little reflection, there is also virtually no reflection ON reflection and a whole industry has sprung up that one might call the “reflection” business. All kinds of methods and jargonistic processes to aid reflection have sprung up including action learning, learning from experience methods and so on. So one is often double charged by the consultant. First there is the charge for the obvious idea or method followed by a further charge for using some preposterously obvious way to reflect on it. Sometimes there is even a further charge – essentially a further reflection on the process of reflecting on the experience. This is often called “follow-up” on the four or five figure invoice.
Here are a few more unbelievably obvious ideas that have been gobbled up by the credulous non-reflecting managerial world:
– The idea that one should have a vision of where one is going and that that vision should be er… visionary
– The idea that it is better to deliver products on demand, “Just in time” to customers rather than investing heavily in stock “just in case”
– the idea that we should be more “sustainable”
– The idea that one should listen to one’s customers and be responsive
– The shocking and groundbreaking idea that it is important to consult people and involve them in major change
– The idea that one should design products that are easy to manufacture.
No attempts to disguise such patent obviousness in acronyms such as TQM, IIP, CI, JIT, BPR, TPM, CIM, DFM, will hide the fact that basic common sense and five minutes reflection will lead to the realisation of such obviously er… obvious ideas and practices. Why pay £30,000 when five minutes on the lavatory and a little frowning thought can generate the same so-called wisdom?
If you feel the need for an external view, for some outside help, make sure you don’t spend a fortune on getting a bad case of B.O., namely a case of the bloody obvious. Put in a bit of reflection time, step outside for a day and look in at your own organisation. Nail a white board to the inside of each lavatory door and hang a pen there. When you finally do get some help, make sure you are not being conned into buying the bloody obvious. Look for help that is beyond the obvious, that doesn’t just take you out of the box only to land you in another equally tedious and obvious box. Look for help that moves you into the truly new, the exciting unknown and into what Tom Peters might called the innovative “wow”! But hang on a second, is that bloody obvious as well?
Facilitators have an ethical responsibility to help their clients to move beyond the bloody obvious. Yes, it can be powerful and vital to finally name what is right in front of our nose. Just because something is obvious doesn’t mean we recognise it. But in many cases, what is obvious can be named quite quickly and then we can move on. We don’t need to wrap it up in overblown facilitation or play it for drama just to big up the role of the facilitator.
People collude at workshops, especially when there is a fear of going into the needed zone of discomfort. Then everyone colludes with mediocrity and names the obvious as revelation. What is known is simply re-invented as fake newness – dramatic newness. Bloody obviousness can also arise because participants are passive and have low expectations of “events like these”. They then assume that what they already knew and is being simply restated is the best there could be, especially is it is all a bit fun with a nice lunch.
Yet, innovation and transformation are usually about what is not obvious, about what emerges that we didn’t imagine at the start. The real cause of the pain is not always the obvious cause. We might have to risk. as facilitators, being thrown out, for pointing towards the less obvious, the less known and the less comforting and comfortable.
Obviousness can confirm we are doing the right thing right now. But too often it is a way of avoiding what we really need to uncover – the treasure, not of the obvious, but of the obscure, of the hidden, of the scary unknown.
Facilitators guide us through obviousness to the important mysteries we need to explore.
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