Do more than only what the client thinks is safe

Posted on by Brandon Klein


The engagement team will want to “play it safe” and be in control. This can lead to a narrow view of what can be accomplished, attempted, or explored.

Many E&Y partners became partners by managing the details of work, maintaining control over every phase of a project, and managing that work in a linear/vertical way. They are very experienced at it, have been successful because of it, and are extremely suspicious of what appears to be an uncontrollable black box process. They have deliverables to crank out and facilitation to them is a way of moving a group though decisions already made. Partners are not stupid people: they know a lot about their client and a lot about selling and delivering work. However, their instincts towards linear work are wrong in the ASE context.

The ASE appears to them to be dangerously ‘out of control.’ Any issue could come up and throw a monkey wrench into things, the client could get into scope creep, or generate a solution that is not in keeping with the E&Y program. This causes them to attempt to manage you as the facilitator very tightly, frequently by pre-empting your role in creating the objective of the session with the client or attempting to change it once the client is safely out of the room.

There are some partners that lead by infecting others with their own nervousness and fear. They work to make you so nervous or concerned that you will then do what they suggest as the only way out.



When they demand an approach, try the opposite. For example, it makes sense to design a process in detail and then test it. The opposite way would be to do the simulation prior to the design to identify what critical aspects need to be designed right. It makes sense to get everyone familiar with all aspects of a problem before attempting to solve it. The opposite is to make everyone familiar with a particular piece of a problem. It makes sense to carefully program who goes into which Act Day team. The opposite is to trust that the group can sort themselves into teams that have the skills they need. This sort of reverse thinking can lead to very powerful ASE modules, but its counterintuitive nature is difficult to grasp.

Encourage the engagement team to use the DesignShop/Facilitator to say things or ask questions that are hard for the engagement team to ask. Our job is to find the ‘win’ for the client, but to also remember that both the ASE and the engagement team work for E&Y. There are times, particularly after a successful session, when the facilitator is regarded as a fount of wisdom and can give the client key messages that are difficult for anyone else to convey.

Other counterintuitive examples:


· When you want something done, get a smaller group together so you can really make progress. Instead, we use larger groups because we need their perspective and input on the problem, we need their ownership of the solution and we need their bodies on Day Three to get all the work done.

· To conquer a problem, break it into discrete chunks to make it easier to manage. Or don’t try to solve it at all. Instead, more complicated is better. We work best on big, hairy, cross-functional, geographically dispersed simultaneous equation kinds of problems. It fits complex business problems where there is a large volume of date and information to be absorbed.

· Do it right the first time. Instead, take multiple cuts at the solutions and build in sufficient iterations to get to the 1000% better quality.

· Cost, time and quality multiplied together are a constant. Instead, we can break the need to compromise on one or two to improve the other.

· Some firms or cultures are not traditionally good at change. Yes, each firm has its own ‘organizational gradient’ of change they can comprehend or manage, but we have not yet found an organization or culture that did not respond well to the ASE environment or process.

· No serious work can be done in a place that has toys. Instead, the toys and books are camouflage for the way we get work done. This is a wonderful place to get detailed results. It is not a pillows-on-the-floor think-tank, retreat, encounter session, intervention or group grope. It is about hard-nosed business. The toys and books are a diversion that allow groups to frame and conceptualize their own challenging issues in an indirect way. This sets the pattern for solutions to emerge in a way that they could not in a conventional business setting or process.

· Progress on a project needs to be planned and linear. Instead, we ‘go slow to go fast.’ We use a Scan, Focus, Act approach that creates an exponential output. Sure, a linear approach will outperform exponential in the short run or on non-complex problems. But exponential is the way to go for the big wins and create the ‘six months of work in three days time.’

· We have to focus on business issues from beginning to end, because we don’t want to make the client uncomfortable. Instead, the good ideas and paradigm shifts in thinking occur by going way out there, with metaphors that stretch participants thinking, skits that allow the unsayable to be said. If we don’t push them off-balance, they won’t move anywhere. Biological or whole systems metaphors get a different way of regarding the issues. Making the client uncomfortable, when used as a way to generate creative tension, is a powerful way to set up a breakthrough.

· We have to know the answers ahead of time. No we don’t—or if we do, we don’t need a DesignShop. Do not get lured into work that is secretly directive or use the ASE for manipulation. Work with the engagement team to be OK not knowing the answers. Instead, focus them on what the questions need to be and what form the outcome needs to take.

· There are issues we cannot explore with this client. Only if we want to fail! Explore the “untouchables.” Take them away for a stress test exercise. Don’t allow the open secret to remain a secret.

· All the breakout sessions must deal directly and practically with the challenge the DesignShop is to address. Many of them must, absolutely. But, reserve 20% of breakouts for stretch scenario topics. Cast the net wider than the problem. Only through forcing clients to break their patterns will they generate breakthrough ideas—otherwise you will attain only creeping incrementalism.

The ability to push the participants beyond the real problem and say the unsayable is the biggest threat to our engagement team. After we do that, they may have to live with it. From a tactical viewpoint of E&Y, its a threat. Our challenge is to stop saying that, “Oh, they are just sphincter freaks.” We need to work with them as customers, and design working with them in a different way. We have a considerable number of engagement team E&Yers who are pretty smart about the process—we cannot discount what they bring.

“To the rationally minded the mental processes of the intuitive appear to work backwards.” --Frances Wickes


“Recently Russell built a thinking expedition around a scenario that he dubbed Hurricane Hilda: ‘Imagine that a hurricane sweeps through Newport, wipes out every building, and kills nearly everyone. The task of the remaining 50 people is to rebuild our organization. Where would we put it? Which facilities would be critical ?’ The logic behind the exercise: “I wanted to shock people into thinking about why we exist. What is our real contribution?’” --Richard Russell, quoted in Fast Company #24

“The smaller the team, the faster the team members work. When you make the team smaller, you make the schedule shorter. That may sound counterintuitive, but its been true for the last 20 years in this industry, and it will be true in for another 20 years. The only method that works is to restrict the size of the teams arbitrarily and painfully.” --Russ Mitchell, ‘How to Manage Geeks,’ Fast Company #25