Cheers to Jason Yip, who, in his blog post “Cognitive themes for effective consulting,” adapted the tenets of a US Army program “Think Like a Commander” to consulting.
According to Yip, the Army created this program and identified these tenets to address the issue that their commanders were not applying their training adaptively, but rather routinely, which was causing an issue in the field.
Yip draws the analogy that effective experts should be adaptive thinkers, who can develop a more subtle understanding of any situation and appropriately apply the right tools.
The US Army has a long tradition of trying to look at their activities with an eye towards what has succeeded and what has failed—it doesn’t mean that they always get the analysis, or conclusions, correct, but they make it a point to try to not make the same mistake twice. Their focus is on assessing their abilities to be effective and to identifying best and worst practices through a thorough understanding of why.
I would like to explore how Tenet 8 should be used in this tradition of assessment and how in taking Yip’s transfer of the tenet (he identified it as Theme 7) we should apply this to our own expert practices. I will discuss this only in the context of the adaptive expert.
The essence of the Tenet/Theme is to think in terms of contingencies. This is proactive thinking focused on identifying “risks, mitigation, and contingencies” as Yip puts it, and I’d like to take it a step further by applying the concept of Systemic, Substantive, Assessment.
If we think about assessment we are normally focused on a reactive process. The assessment is what we do after the event has taken place. But substantive assessment is not reactive, it is proactive. It takes into consideration that the assumptions we have made and the logic we have applied may be fallacious, not accurate, flawed, or down-right incorrect because the process forces us to identify tests for these items at the beginning of the exercise.
In the Agile development world, this is analogous to Test Driven Development (TDD) where you setup the tests prior to coding a single instruction. The purpose is to form your basic assumptions that underlie what you are going to do and why, and then establish the tests for success or failure prior to doing it. It doesn’t mean that you are going to capture everything at the outset—that is a best case scenario—but it does carry the expectation that you will have a more substantive understanding of the problem you are facing and how you plan to address it. Then you code.
In the consulting world, this is akin to uncovering and setting expectations with one’s client. Through this process of examining and defining what will be done and for what purpose, both client and consultant have a framework to systemically assess if the process is taking the direction they desire, and if not, why; thereby, facilitating substantive assessment and a successful engagement.
In the world of startups there is the concept of “pivoting,” that is, that you go in one direction until you have identified that there is a strategic or tactical impasse blocking your further progress or you uncover a path that can catalyze success, and so you take the new direction. To be successful at this though, you need to constantly assess what you have, where you are going, and why. While it may feel anathematic—that you cannot have pre-defined precepts, expectations, or tests—success is actually predicated on having a framework to define what is an impasse or a catalyst in your pursuit.
In the above examples the reason why we are doing something is important to us. It allows us to frame a conversation that will take place systematically. It gives us the tools by which we can define that conversation. It will suggest the very questions we need to ask in that conversation. As experts we have to take into account the very real danger that we have misjudged the situation and are taking the wrong path.
Systemic, Substantive, Assessment is the essence of “rich contingency thinking,” or “consider[ing] risks, mitigation, and contingencies.” By formalizing the process of thinking ahead and re-evaluating that process and its outcomes, you benefit from the development of a framework and even the definition of the frailties of that framework so that you can test your ability to achieve your goals, as well as testing your assumptions relating to the framework.