Archive | August, 2013

What’s your marketing plan?

25 Aug

When is help really helpful?

20 Aug

There is a proverb saying Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. This is a very powerful principle which can be extended to almost any interaction between a person who needs help and a person who is willing to help. Yet for a number of reasons a helping relationship does not (and should not) always work this way. Also, not all attempts to help are actually helpful as you have surely experienced yourself many times before. This blog post elaborates on the topic further and outlines two other ways of helping using Edgar Schein’s philosophy of content versus process facilitation.

Schein identified three basic types of helping relationships which essentially differ in who diagnoses what the actual problem is and who comes up with the solution. Especially the first point is very important as people have often troubles expressing what they need help with. They might not know how to formulate the problem, might be afraid to do so or might not know what the problem is in the first place and might suggest they have some other, secondary, problem instead.

Schein refers to the person needing help as client and to the person offering help as consultant. This language evokes corporate setting however the principles outlined bellow can be applied in our personal as well as professional lives.

Expert mode

In this mode the client identifies her problem herself and approaches a consultant to solve the problem for her. She says I am hungry. This mode works only if the client is able to correctly identify the real problem and explain it to a consultant who has the knowledge how to solve it. It also assumes she is willing to and able to implement the solution the consultant gives her.

While at times all these assumptions hold and at such instances it is the most suitable mode of help, the client is often unable to identify her real problem as we mentioned before, is unable to explain it to the consultant or the solution the consultant comes up with might not be suitable for implementation. For example if a client who does not eat red meat says I am hungry and the consultants takes it at face value and brings her a burger, such help would not really be helpful.

Doctor-patient mode

In this mode the client only knows something is wrong in a certain area but leaves it up to the consultant to identify what the problem is and to solve it just like an ill patient comes to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. She says I do not feel well. This mode assumes that the client has correctly identified what area needs help and that she is willing and able to reveal relevant information to a suitably identified consultant to make a correct diagnosis. It also assumes that client will understand the advice, will be willing to accept the advice and will be able implement it correctly, just like in the expert mode.

Help in this mode can work for example in the medical setting where the patient is able to say which part of body hurts her and where the doctor is well trained to identify and solve the problem. In other settings however, more often than not, the consultant might identify a wrong problem or come up with a solution unsuitable to the client. Using our fishing example, if the client says I do not feel well (because she is hungry), the consultant might think that she is just thirsty and offer her a cup of water instead. Such help would not really be very helpful either.

Process consultation mode

In the final mode the client engages a consultant not to identify or solve a problem but to take her through a process at the end of which she will have done so herself. The consultant therefore does not provide her with diagnosis or solution but merely with a process. Most crucially, the client retains ownership of her problem.

The fact that she owns the problem has several far reaching implications. Firstly, she is able to with the help of the consultant to correctly identify what her real problem is. She still says I do not feel well but because the consultant asks he a series of questions, she figures out she is hungry – identifies the correct problem. Secondly, she comes up with solution to her problem herself which means she has buy-in into this solution and consequently willingness to execute it. The consultant asks the client what she wants to eat and she realises that she would like a fish.

Thirdly, she learns two key things. By this point, through careful observation of the consultant, she has already learned how to identify her real problem and a suitable solution to it – she has learned the process of doing so. Finally she also learns from the consultant how to fish. This means that next time she does not feel well, instead of needing to ask for help, she can go herself through the now learned process of identifying her problem and coming up with a solution (unlike in the doctor-patient mode) and can solve the problem herself as well (unlike in the expert mode).

Which mode is the best one?

Since most situations are unique, each mode is suitable for a different context. It can also be useful to switch between the modes within one helping intervention as the process consultation one might be more suitable at the beginning when we need to correctly identify the problem and once we have done so, we might realise that the expert mode is the best one to continue in.

The real benefit lies in knowing that these three modes exist, being aware of their differences as well as benefits and limitations and think consciously which one to apply given our situation. This should help us be more helpful when we want to do so.

Edgar Schein discusses these modes and nature of interventions in general at length in his book Process Consultation Revisited published 1999. He also has a recent book on helping called Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help which I am yet to read.


The flaw of averages

6 Aug

Is the average value always really the best one?

An interesting piece on why taking only a single average number is not always the best approach. Based on Sam Savage’s book The Flaw of Averages.

As the drowning statistician who thought the lake lake is three feet deep on average had to find out the hard way…




You can read the piece here: