Saturday, October 20, 2012

on SAP consulting ... and how to use the six aptitudes and more of the right side of your brain

My favorite book right now is Daniel Pink's "A Whole New Mind". A simple book in many ways, and a most profound and well-researched one as well. At about 250 or so pages, it's a quick read. "The future belongs to a different kind of person," Pink says. "Designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers — creative and empathetic right-brain thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn't." Pink claims we're living in a different era, a different age. An age in which those who "Think different" may be valued even more than ever.

"...an age animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life — one that prizes aptitudes that I call 'high concept' and 'high touch.' High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative....High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction..."
— Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind

What I found particularly valuable in Dan Pink's book were the "six senses" or the "six R-directed aptitudes" which Pink says are necessary for successful professionals to posses in the more interdependent world we live in, a world of increased automation and out-sourcing. You can quibble over parts of his book if you like, but I think there is no denying that these six aptitudes are indeed more important now than they ever have been. And I am convinced that us SAP consultants need to apply them more than ever.

Is there a new way of SAP consulting? I am not sure, but what I know is that the old way needs a lot of improvement. Following is more detail on Daniel Pink's six aptitudes - Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning - and me taking a shot on how each may make us a better SAP consultant:


- Design. To many business people, design is something like what roller skates are for a defensive lineman. It's not mission critical. In our field, design is necessary (when we present ideas using slides, show data tables in a spreadsheet or build a model using lego - as I love to do). But most of us decorate instead. There is a difference between design and decoration:

"Decoration, for better or worse, is noticeable,  - sometimes enjoyable, sometimes irritating - but it is unmistakably *there.* However, sometimes the best designs are so well done that "the design" of it is never even noticed consciously by the observer/user, such as the design of a book or signage in an airport (i.e., we take conscious note of the messages which the design helped make utterly clear, but not the color palette, typography, concept, etc.). One thing is for sure, design is not something that's merely on the surface, superficial and lacking depth. Rather it is something which goes "soul deep." 

— Garr Reynolds - author of Presentation Zen

"It is easy to dismiss design — to relegate it to mere ornament, the prettifying of places and objects to disguise their banality," Says Pink. "But that is a serious misunderstanding of what design is and why it matters." Pink is absolutely right. Design is fundamentally a whole-minded aptitude, or as he says, "utility enhanced by significance."

Garr Reynolds says: "Design starts at the beginning not at the end; it's not an afterthought. If you use slideware in your presentation, the design of those visuals begins in the preparation stage before you have even turned on your computer (if you're like me), let alone fired up the ol' slideware application. It's during the preparation stage that you slow down and "stop your busy mind" so that you may consider your topic and your objectives, your key messages, and your audience. Only then will you begin to sketch out ideas — on paper or just in your head — that will soon find themselves in some digital visual form later. Too much "PowerPoint design," as you know very well, is nothing more than a collection of recycled bullets, corporate templates, clip art, and seemingly random charts and graphs which are often too detailed or cluttered to make effective on-screen visuals and too vague to stand alone as quality documentation."

We have to get better at designing our means of teaching, communicating, convincing and presenting of ideas.


- Story: Facts, information, data; it has never been more readily available. Especially in our profession. But we are using it, dealing with it and processing it in a rather boring and unemotional way...says Pink, "What begins to matter more (than mere data) is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact." Cognitive scientist Mark Turner calls storytelling "Narrative imagining," something that is a key instrument of thought. We are wired to tell and to receive stories. "Most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories," Story" is not just about storytelling but about listening to stories and being a part of stories.

I always get a much better reception if I wrap my advice with a story. Merely explaining the difference between 'pull' and 'push' is not nearly as effective and memorable, as telling the story of how the State of California did not allow train wagons to be pushed by the locomotive anymore. This came after an accident, where a 'pushed' train crashed into a Jeep left on a crossing and had a much more devastating effect than any pulled train could have ever had.

Story can be used for good: for teaching, for sharing, for illuminating, and of course, for honest persuasion.

- Symphony: Focus, specialization, and analysis have been important in the "information age," but in the "conceptual age" synthesis and the ability to take seemingly unrelated pieces and form and articulate the big picture before us is crucial, even a differentiator. Pink calls this aptitude Symphony:

"Symphony...is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair."

Doesn't this sound like integration? The best consultants can illuminate the relationships that we may not have seen before. They can "see the relationships between relationships." Symphony requires that we become better at seeing, truly seeing in a new way. "The most creative among us see relationships the rest of us never notice," Pink says. Anyone can deliver chunks of information and repeat findings represented visually in spreadsheets and powerpoints, what's needed are those who can recognize the patterns, who are skilled at seeing nuance and the simplicity that may exist in a complex problem.

Symphony in the world of SAP consulting does not mean dumbing down information into soundbites and talking points so popular in our industry To me, Symphony is about utilizing our whole mind — logic, analysis, synthesis, intuition — to make sense of our world (i.e., Sales & Operations Planning), finding the big picture and determining what is important and what is not. It's also about deciding what matters and letting go of the rest. A symphonic approach to our job and our ability to bring it all together for our customer will be greatly appreciated

- Empathy. Empathy is emotional. It's about putting yourself in your customer's shoes. It involves an understanding of the importance of the nonverbal cues of others and being aware of your own. Good consultants have the ability to put themselves in the position of the user. This is a talent, perhaps, more than it's a skill that can be taught, but everyone can get better at this. Everyone surely knows of a brilliant adviser who seems incapable of understanding how anyone could possibly be confused by his (or her) explanation of how to create a production schedule using repetitive manufacturing in SAP — in fact he's quite annoyed by the suggestion that anyone could "be so thick" as to not understand what is so "obvious" to him.

We can certainly see how empathy helps a consultant in the course of an engagement. Empathy allows a consultant, even without thinking about it, to notice when the audience is "getting it" and when they are not. The empathetic consultant can make adjustments based on his reading of this particular Users group. This is important since I have witnessed all too often how advisers impose their strict methodology without even knowing if it can help. As an example, I know of a consulting company which comes into every customer site with the pitch to "reduce 30% of their inventory, increase service levels by 20% and fix their exception handling and the way they do inventory analysis (without knowing the way they do it today)". That kind of behavior has absolutely nothing to do with empathy. It rather is a desperate attempt to get a revenue-rich project when one doesn't care about the customer's real pain and needs.

- Play: In the conceptual age, says Pink, work is not just about seriousness but about play as well. Pink quotes University of Pennsylvania professor, Brain Sutton-Smith who says, "The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression. To play is to act out and be willful, exultant and committed as if one is assured of one's prospects."

Indian physician Madan Kataria points out in Pink's book that many people think that serious people are the best suited for business, that serious people are more responsible. "[But] that's not true," says Kataria. "That's yesterday's news. Laughing people are more creative people. They are more productive people." Somewhere along the line we were sold the idea that a real business project must necessarily be dull, devoid of humor and something to be endured not enjoyed.

Let's employ more lego models, the beer game as a way to visualize the impact of the bullwhip effect and bathtubs to demonstrate Little's Law. It will raise the interest level but, more important, take the seriousness and dullness out and put some fun and smiles in. As Pink points out, "Laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy and that is even more contagious than the yawn..."

- Meaning: I don't want to put too fine a point on this, but performing well on an SAP project, is an opportunity to make a small difference in the world (for your customer, their employees, your fellow consultants). An SAP project gone bad can have a devastating impact on your spirit and on your career. But an optimization which goes insanely well can be extremely fulfilling for you and everybody involved. Some say that we "are born for meaning" and live for self-expression and an opportunity to share that which we feel is important. If you are lucky, you feel passionate about your job. If so, then it's with excitement that you look forward to the possibility of sharing your expertise — your story — with others. Few things can be more rewarding than connecting with someone, with teaching something new, or sharing that which you feel is very important with others.

Frankly, the bar is often rather low. SAP customers are so used to less-than-excellent performance that they've seemingly learned to see it as "normal" even if not ideal. However, if you are different, if you exceed expectation and show them that you've thought about them, done your homework and know your material, and demonstrated through your actions how much you appreciate being there and that you are there for them, chances are you'll make an impact and a difference, even if it's just in the smallest of ways. There can be great meaning in even these small connections

Getting the opportunity to work with SAP users and having the stage to present my ideas, has been most rewarding to me. It's an opportunity to share knowledge and experience, broaden my own network, and it serves as good practice. What could be better?