Mathematician as Organisational Effectiveness consultant

As I resume working as an independent consultant helping organisations become more effective, I was reflecting on my background and training as a mathematician and how this helps me and my clients.

When people think about maths they almost always think about numbers. And yes, it is really useful to be able to manipulate and analyse data well. Indeed, in modern organisations it is increasingly an essential skill not just to be able to look at data but to do your own analysis on it, to search for your own solutions. As an OE consultant it is critical to be able to gather and analyse data (sometimes in quite sophisticated ways) to ensure that you are making the right diagnosis of the business issues. Having a natural affinity for numbers and the tools to analyse them is a real bonus. What we do when we analyse data is look for patterns that help us understand what is happening in the real world. At its heart much of what mathematicians all over the world do is pattern finding, searching through data to find the nuggets of insight.

Maths is also about the ability to build models to explain and predict. As a mathematician I am always looking to understand which factors really matter (whether it be in numbers or not), how they relate to each other and what happens as a result. My brain seems to automatically build these interlinked representations (or models) of what is happening in any situation very rapidly. In complex modern organisations, this is essential as we need to understand how changing one thing might affect others, and also make sure that all the changes we are making are aligned with each other and not pulling in different directions (a more common occurrence than one might hope).

The ideas of complexity science such as adaptation, emergence, and agent based modelling have a lot to offer here. Complexity science was initially developed at the Santa Fe Institute where a group or researchers came together in recognition that academia had become too siloed and that the real problems in the world needed a cross-disciplinary approach to solving them. We still see this silo effect when organisations are trying to improve their situation – everyone (HR, IT, marketing etc etc) has their own solution that they know think will make the difference but very few people are able to really consider the whole system (both within and outside the organisation) and how the parts of it affect each other. This is how mathematicians think naturally.

Maths is also a language. It is used by all the other sciences (physical and social) to define their problems in a rigorous way. Mathematicians have to have the ability to understand different situations and people, and to translate what they are saying into a clear definition of the problem and then find the appropriate tools to solve it. They also then need to be able to translate their solutions back into the language of the people who had the initial problem. This is so critical in business situations – people from different functions talk their own language and whilst they are in the same room talking to each other they often really have no idea what everyone else is really saying. As mathematicians we have to help with this translation and be precise about what is being said otherwise the wrong problem will be solved.

Finally, using maths also requires you to consider not just the numbers but also how people process data, how they think about it and how they make decisions as result. This leads you to consider the process of decision making in organisations and how to help people make better decisions. The rapidly expanding cognitive and decision science fields have much to offer the OE practitioner here.

I reflect then that the four main abilities that being a mathematician allows me to bring to my role as an OE consultant are being naturally comfortable and capable with numbers and statistics, the ability to create mental maps or models of situations which reflect the interrelated nature of different factors or levers, the skill of a linguist to translate between people speaking different (business) languages, and the ability to step back and think about how other people are thinking (and feeling).

Of course, to use a mathematical term, these are necessary but not sufficient skills for being a good OE consultant (years of experience helps as does my NLP training and coaching skills). However, I believe that they are necessary and am pleased to have them.

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Delivering solutions not selling tools

There is always a risk when people are specialists in a particular discipline that the solution to any presenting problem is whatever they are expert in. So, for example, L&D people might always think that the answer is some sort of learning intervention (or worse still, always think that it is a training course). This is like the tradesman coming to fix a problem in our house and only bringing a hammer with him. External consultants with their proprietary solutions and specialisms can be a bit like this, but so can internal specialists.

The reality meanwhile is that any business situation is a complex interplay of people, their capabilities, structures, processes (and systems) and organisational culture all set within a context of the business strategy and external environment. The most important part of improving performance is understanding the problem and what changes, interventions, approaches etc. will lead to an effective solution. The focus needs to be on what any intervention achieves rather than the activity itself

For example, I have been working in partnership with four client organisations of various sizes and sectors to help them move through a period of challenging change. If this was described in traditional HR discipline terms, we could say that it includes workforce planning, structure and job design, job evaluation and pay design, coaching, new models of service delivery etc. etc. But actually, all the work with these clients is much more integrated than that. It is about working with them so that they can respond to the changing external environment (increasing customer demands, reduced funding and so on) in a way which allows them to survive and thrive.

I have helped these clients make decisions about what are the right solutions for their situation and then worked with them to identify the best route to implementation and how to manage the change. Often, this is the client doing things for themselves with my support and challenge. Sometimes, I will carry out specific tasks in the programme (such as designing jobs or run a coaching programme) or it may be about finding a third party who can deliver a specific solution (such as an assessment centre). But whatever the specific interventions, these clients value someone working alongside them so that the solutions remain integrated and focused on improving Organisational Effectiveness.