For those keeping track, I have joined a UK global strategic consulting firm called Group Partners as a Director, global practice leader, and head of the firm in the United States. The firm has built an extraordinary practice around working to solve really challenging commercial and ethical problems. It is a true global firm and has done amazing work for amazing clients. Its scope and reach is all out of proportion to its modest size.
If you know me through DQI, don’t worry. It’s still there and still doing great decision quality training. If you know me through DecsionStreet, that company is in suspense (or perhaps suspenders).
If you’d like to read more about what Group Partners does, here are two good links:
The Rationale For Group Partners
The 4D™ Approach
A World of Wicked Problems
Ever hear of wicked problems? I hadn’t by that name until recently but I’ve known about them for some time. Problems that just hurt your head to think about. Problems that defy top-down solutions. Problems that won’t go away with “better execution.” Problems that live somewhere out past your experience base, or the experience base of anyone you know or can find.
At the top of the problem food chain, think about global terrorism, any large-scale health issue, global warming, reconciling warring peoples (lots of examples of those), and sorting out health care in the United States. They meet all those criteria. They are the true wicked ones.
Click down a bit and you might think about staging an Olympics, tackling homeland security, staging a global charity event, rethinking energy for the future. Not as wicked but plenty hard.
Another click down we might think about taking an old line established business in a completely different direction, figuring out what to do when people in your mail center start finding white powder in envelopes, or figuring out how to keep customers while the financial system melts down around you. Non-trivial.
Or it could be something altogether smaller in the grand scheme of things, but in your world experience, its wicked and hard. Figuring out what to do with yourself after walking away from 9/11 is one that rings personally.
Me and My Mission
For the past several years I’ve sat with a question that I could never quite get into focus much less answer: “What am I here to do?” It’s not a question that’s unique to me and it takes many forms. It’s also a question whose presence I feel more and more keenly with every passing year.
In 2002 a new professional direction opened up when I started a firm called DQI with two colleagues to use a discipline called decision quality to help firms crack hard problems. Sometimes we did it through consulting assignments, sometimes we did that through training, and sometimes both. We did fabulous work and the training is the finest I’ve been associated with in the 25 years I’ve hung around training.
Earlier this year I felt that now familiar question start nagging me again. Maybe I was feeling restive. Maybe it was more profound. At any rate, my longtime friend and colleague, John Caswell, the founding partner of a firm called Group Partners, called me to suggest we meet. We’ve done projects together over the years and I have huge regard for his vision, talents, and considerable accomplishments.
Me, John, Hazel Tiffany, another longtime colleague and pillar of the firm met in Dallas Texas to talk, dream, and scheme. The folks at Group Partners have made a career of using seemingly simple approaches and tools to crack problems that fall generally into the category of hard all the way up to certifiably wicked ones. They’ve done it a couple of thousand times over the past decade or more for a collection of blue chip clients and first order causes that would make a firm 100 times larger bust with pride. I’ve been in business a decently long time and been around more consulting shops and professional services firms than any right-minded person should, and truly I’ve never seen anything like it.
Hello Group Partners
The first thing anyone sees when they’ve looked at Group Partners are amazing visuals. “Oh, visual facilitation!” or words to that effect, to which I would answer, “Yes and the SR-71 is an airplane, a Ferrari Enzo is a car, and a ’61 Petrus is a bottle of wine.”
John Caswell wasn’t the first person to draw pictures to help people tell and record their deepest thoughts. That honor goes to folks who likely didn’t have names, or if they did, never recorded them on the cave walls or smoothed over patches of dirt on which they worked.
Nor is Group Partners the first to integrate visual thinking with structure and process. Others have done that. Same with facilitation and co-creation. It’s just that nobody that I’ve ever seen in 25 years has so thoughtfully integrated the wonders of modern information-age thinking, with industrial-age engineering, with pre-language semantic and visual “best practices”. More to the point, there are those 2000+ examples and all those instances of taking on really hard problems and helping people sort it out. Could it be that simple? Could it be that elegant?
It could be a lot of things and that’s why I jumped at the chance to be part of it.
Group Partners is . . .
Global. We’ve done work all around the world. The projects we’ve done span many of the problems I alluded to in my contemplation on wicked problems all those paragraphs ago.
Commercial. We’ve done business with an amazing array of blue chip clients on four continents, ranging from homeland security, energy, national health care, global and strategic accounts, corporate strategy, corporate repositioning, major product launches, multi-billion dollar IT initiatives . . .
Ethical. We searched for a word to describe what we mean and this seems to do it best: Ethical. We’re deeply committed to tackling the issues that affect all of us. We’ve worked on projects involving clean water, homeless children in third world countries . . .
You Can’t Smell The Coffee From 30,000 Feet Up
Our approach is fundamentally co-creative. The bigger and more wicked a problem gets, the less it lends itself to top-down, fundamentally analytical approaches. This is true of both commercial and “ethical” problems. In fact, I find myself ever more suspicious of any problem-solving approach that fails to account for what actually goes on at the point of contact, vs. some abstracted view of reality.
While wicked problems, or just hard problems, are quite visible at the macro level-lots of homeless people, melting ice caps, out of control costs, flagging earnings, poor customer service scores, that sort of thing-the texture of the thing at ground level almost always reveals a richer picture requiring new and different ways of thinking.
This last bit sounds like an applause line but I say it with all humility, finding myself repeatedly guilty over the years of being one of those “smart people” that was quite comfortable with the idea of figuring things out from my vantage point 30,000 feet up and miles removed from reality.
Group Partners traffics with loads of wicked smart people and has figured out how to engage them with people who actually live the problem through a process that goes simply by 4D: Discovery, Development, Decision, and Deployment. The words are dry and you could easily use others like them, but imagine a shipwrecked group of people washing up on a mist-shrouded island. That’s the idea. Explore the problem with really fresh eyes. Really discover the place. Develop some hypothesis and see where they lead. Make decisions to allocate some of those precious resources and see what happens. Rinse and repeat once you’ve got something that looks like it will work (Deployment).
But because we don’t want to actually stumble around in the mist, Group Partners has infused an intuitively obvious process with a methodology called Structured Visual Thinking™ (SVT) that combines powerful process, framework, tools, and practices, with visual, visceral and visualizing experiences and interfaces, with methodologies for provoking and capturing deep thinking, so that hard and wicked problems might yield enough of their essence that we can solve them. It’s our secret sauce.
Most importantly, the combination of right-brain and left-brain approaches both appeals to the folks who like one vs. the other, while gently (or not) forcing them not to get stuck in what’s familiar and safe.
The net is that Group Partners has built up quite a reputation for doing what seems almost counter intuitive: speeding the time it takes to get to decision while increasing the quality of thinking and rigor while making the whole of it easier to understand. Say that in plain English: better decisions, quicker, with more buy-in, fewer meetings, and better results. Working on hard problems. Working on wicked problems.
Onward and Forward
I feel like TV pitchman when I say this, but I came to the firm because I was excited about all those blue chip clients and interesting commercial problems. How to help this client sells billions of dollars of something? How to enter a new market? How to train thousands of people to use new tools to crack the problems they face on a daily basis? I like those kinds of problems and have a lot of experience with them.
What gets me up in the morning is the ethical side of the business: Working with wonderful people to crack the problems I lie awake worrying about: The kind I hope not to leave to my children. It’s not that people aren’t and haven’t been working on those. But I think people like Bono, the folks at Comic Relief, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Tim Phillips and others we know at Group Partners are onto something-bringing together the frameworks and processes needed to scale, with the tools and techniques to work in the small, to do something about the mess my generation has made of things.
Finally, let me say that I am even more convinced, and I’m not the only one, that the world of the commercial would be better off to learn from the challenges of solving the large ethical problems . . . and the other way around. Group Partners has done brilliant work in both spheres, and I intend to bring everything I’ve got to the game to help the firm do much more of both in the future.
Tags: wickedproblems, ethics, decision making, group partners, decision quality