More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX



Expert vs Generalist

My recent blog on the importance of experts prompted one reader to comment that he preferred the term “specialist” (in a non-medical sense) to “expert”. This got me thinking about the notion of “experts” as distinct from “generalists”, and whether we need to re-evaluate our assessment of skill, competence and aptitude when assessing someone’s suitability for a task, project or role. (And these days, is “generalist” itself something of a pejorative term?)

A few days later, I was having coffee with a strategic consultant who is known as a future thinker. He describes himself as an “extreme generalist” (with no hint of irony), because he has wide-ranging and multiple interests, some of which, of course, he has deep domain knowledge and experience. But because his work and his curiosity take him into different realms, he maintains a broad perspective which also allows for the cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. (I think we all recognize the value of analogy when problem solving – taking the learning from one discipline and applying it to a new scenario.)

Separately, but in a similar vein, I was discussing career options with a senior banking executive, who did not want to be pigeon-holed as a banker, because her core skills and professional experience would lend themselves to many industries, not just financial services. So in her case, this expertise would best be applied in a particular type of role, not in a specific domain, or a specialist capability.

And during an earlier discussion on leadership with yet another futurist, I found myself debating the notion of situational styles, as opposed to structural models – both of which require skill and expertise for CEOs and managers to be successful. But broad experience will be just as important as formal methodologies, and general business knowledge just as valuable as technical specialisation. (On reflection, as with so many constructs, it’s not a case of either/or – more a question of adaptation and dynamics.)

As a result of this ongoing dialogue, I was challenged to develop what I might describe as a 3-D model, comprising the following axes:

“Generalist”/”Specialist”: In product management terms, for example, the generalist understands the full end-to-end customer life cycle and the production process. Whereas, a specialist might know their particular part of the process extremely well, but has little to no awareness or understanding of what might come before or after. (Think of those frustrating customer calls to utility, telco and insurance companies – in fact, any business with highly siloed operations – where you get passed from one “specialist” to another, often revealing contradictory information along the way.) At the extremes, this dimension might be described as the difference between knowing a subject “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and knowing it “a mile deep and an inch wide”.

“Novice”/”Veteran”: This is probably obvious, but I don’t necessarily mean seniority, age or tenure in a specific role. When it comes to new technology, for example, someone who is new to the role, but who has just been trained on the latest software and equipment, may have better technical ability than someone who has been doing the same role for several years (and thus, has more knowledge and experience), but has not refreshed their skills. Although I concede that in many situations the incumbent veteran may have better developed problem-solving, trouble-shooting and decision-making capabilities. This axis is also really important to consider when transitioning older employees to new roles within the same organisation or team – if they were younger, they would probably be given more time to adjust, adapt and grow into the role. Whereas, an older employee may simply be expected to “pick it up” much more quickly, with less leeway for learning on the job, because of assumed expertise.

“Broad”/Narrow”: Here I am thinking about aptitude, rather than the degree of specialisation. Drawing on the idea of using analogies, someone with wide experience and a broad perspective (sees the big picture, displays both critical and design thinking) will have quite different qualities to someone with a very narrow focus (especially within a very specific domain or area of practice). Based on the particular context, do you need an all-rounder, or a placekicker? This axis also relates to the age-old issue of organisations only wanting to hire square pegs for square holes – it might make sense in the short-term, but risks stagnation and lack of fresh thinking over the long-term.

Assessed along these three dimensions, we might see that an “expert” could be qualified according to how highly they rate based on their overall “depth”, measured by criteria such as experience, knowledge and reputation, as well as formal qualifications.

Next week: Making an Impact at Startup Victoria’s Pitch Night


Change Management for Successful Product Development

Recently, there have been a number of commentaries on the current trend/fad for applying Agile and Lean product development methodologies to corporate management. I’ve also noticed an increasing focus on “Product Management” as a formal discipline by training and professional development providers. Consequently, I’ve been revisiting some work I did many years as part of a Change Management Diploma.

Situational Leadership

My thesis is that different Change Theories of Management can be applied to each stage in the Product Development Cycle*, to ensure that the organisation is aligned with the business needs as they relate to strategy, capabilities, capacity and execution. This is also the context in which organisations use Situational Leadership techniques to cope with constant change in technological, social, economic and environmental forces.

(*This work was based on a reading of Theories of Organisational Change as Models for Intervention by Dunphy & Griffiths (published by Australian Graduate School of Management – Centre for Corporate Change, University of New South Wales, 1994). For a copy of my model, please contact me:

1. Fit for Purpose

Various skill sets are needed along the journey from ideation to production, and management has to harness appropriate resources to increase the potential for success. Organisations may need to consider restructuring to maximise their ability to develop sustainable product development systems that incorporate continuous improvement, feedback loops and market responsiveness.

For example, moving from annual software updates to quarterly releases might simply suggest some production rescheduling, but it may also mean changes to documenting user requirements, customer billing systems and client support tools.

2. Playing to Our Strengths

The person who is great at capturing the design specs may not be the best person to undertake market testing with beta users. And it’s generally accepted that someone who is adept at working in a production or QA role on an established product may need some re-training before they get to work on building a prototype.

3. The Model Approach

In conclusion, my analysis reveals that at each stage in the Product Development Cycle, there is a need to review the relevant Business Challenges, address the corresponding Change Issues, and apply appropriate Change Management models or techniques.


Update on Perspective – Introducing the “We R One World  Game”

In a recent post on “Perspective”, I commented on the value of stepping back and taking a different look at current ways of doing things. For an immersive, interactive and experiential learning opportunity on how to gain a new perspective on problem solving and how we might address global challenges, the Slow School of Business is running the “We R One World Game” on Saturday, July 25 in Melbourne


The Dymaxion or Fuller projection is a world map, which can be rendered in 2-D.

Facilitated by Ron Laurie, and based on the pioneering work of Buckminster Fuller, this event promises to combine a hackathon, a meetup and an unconference all in one! Tickets available here.

Next week: Who needs banks?

Help! I need to get some perspective….

At a recent professional networking event, I found myself in conversation with a business owner and tech entrepreneur. As I was describing my work, he suddenly asked, “Do you mentor your clients, because my business partner and I could use some help?”

perspective-35266_640I was somewhat surprised by the question, because although I see my role primarily as a business consultant and coach, it hadn’t occurred to me that what I did included mentoring, even though it’s probably in the mix of services and support I offer. And from experience, working with business partners can sometimes be likened to relationship counselling….

To be clear, though, I see that there are distinct differences between consulting, coaching, mentoring and counselling – even though the boundaries may at times be blurred.*

The one thing I believe they have in common is that they each bring external perspective, especially when there may be a need for fresh thinking, such as a new take on current processes, or simply a circuit breaker when businesses get in a rut or hit a road block.

Here’s what I regard as the essential and unique qualities of each of these roles:


At its simplest, consulting can be described as initiating the dialogue between an organization and itself. When it concerns a review of ongoing operations, or a strategic initiative, most organisations call in consultants because they want an outsider’s view – not because they don’t know what they are doing, or can’t think for themselves.

As external consultants, we have the privilege to be invited into a client’s organisation; and our obligation to the client is to tell them what we really think, not what we think they want to hear. Our purpose is to capture the relevant information and “play it back” to the client to make sure we have understood what we have heard, whilst adding our honest interpretation of the data, along with some informed recommendations for action (which, of course, the client is free to disregard).

Our key contribution is to highlight inconsistencies or ambiguity in the data, to ensure that the client has considered all possible options, and to point out relevant external factors that the client may not be aware of. Above all, as a consultant I try to bring insights as well as perspective – what one person I have worked with described as “pure gold”.


The most effective coaches are those who can help clients identify specific goals, the steps required to achieve them, and then support them through the process. While business coaches can work with groups or teams, they are more suited to one-on-one relationships, to ensure they are keeping the client accountable for their own progress.

Many business coaches see their primary role as helping the client develop a strategic plan, and then making sure they stick to it, sometimes by telling them what to do. Whereas executive coaches may hone in on a particular aspect of an individual’s performance, to sharpen their skills and to make them more effective in their role; or in the case of a career coach, help them achieve a career change.

In some cases, a coach is similar to an instructor, and aims to help the client improve a skill or competency in pursuit of better outcomes and results. As a coach, I know the best work I do is when I get feedback like, “You’ve helped us to do in three weeks what it would have taken us three months!”


Mentoring is mainly about helping the client to become the person they aspire to be. More so than coaching, mentoring is most effective in a one-on-one relationship, and unlike coaching may not be linked to specific or time-based goals. A mentor may bring deep domain knowledge and experience, but doesn’t instruct the client or tell them what to do. Instead, a mentor may ask, “So, what are you going to do about it?” when the client raises an issue or a problem.

While a coach may focus on “doing”, a mentor may be seen as helping to develop certain behaviours or attitudes. Although the mentor is also there to provide some external perspective, in some ways their role is to hold up a mirror so that the client can reflect on what they (and others) can see.

In some situations, a mentor can provide a role model, so long as this is not about following someone we admire, and more about self leadership. More importantly, a mentor can act as an advocate, which is significant for entrepreneurs, business owners, CEO’s and senior executives, for whom it can be “lonely at the top”.

The best mentoring probably happens when the “process” is invisible – and the dialogue happens in the moment. I know from experience that my role as a mentor has had most impact when I hear my words or ideas being expressed by others – not as plagiarism, flattery, imitation or even sycophancy, but because the mentee has taken on board what I have said, and made it their own.


Counselling could be defined as the dialogue around change and transformation, although it is different to mentoring in that it can address cognitive perspectives, as well as behavioral issues.

We are familiar with the role of change managers, but without engaging the organisation on the need for change, their work can become process-driven (and a thankless task). It’s much better to foster an open dialogue about the broader context and opportunity for change, which can open up new possibilities for transformation. Ideally, this approach can take some of the fear out of the change program, as well as creating a sustainable change model.

I have known some managers to use counselling techniques to resolve operational issues within their teams, because it can be an effective way to get to the bottom of a problem without apportioning blame and without being judgemental.

Counselling can cross the line into “giving advice”, which is not always helpful if clients are not receptive, or if it means clients don’t learn to think or decide for themselves. I once trained and worked as a counsellor in helping people resolve personal, employment, financial and legal problems. The key requirements of the role were helping the client to see that there may be a number of different solutions (without telling them which one to choose), and to uncover the underlying issues (rather than dealing only with the presenting problem).

The best counselling provides clients with a sense of empowerment, backed by a clear understanding of their responsibilities, and an appreciation for the consequences of choosing one course of action over another.

Putting it all together

As mentioned earlier, despite their differences, the roles of consultant, coach, mentor and counsellor can overlap – and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as practitioners and their clients understand when and how the positions may alternate between one state and the next. Ultimately, it will depend on both the circumstances of the situation, and what is appropriate to the clients’ needs.



* There is a particular tendency to use the terms “coach” and “mentor” interchangeably, even though they are quite separate. For a good summary of the differences, see this recent article.