• Bruce Mullan

How to figure out, and ask for, what you really need!

Being a successful leader of any kind of business relies on three things: being clear on what you are trying to achieve, your people are working well together and effective business processes are in place. These are the first three things we look for during our organisation reviews.

It seems so simple. Yet it seems so hard to accomplish all three at some organisations.

We find the biggest obstacle to innovation, transformation, strategy execution and major IT projects is that your people are just not working well enough together.

As a consultant, I am often asked two things:

1. Can’t you just come in and fix it for me or

2. Just tell me what we need to do.

This weeks article is about how you can take control of your business challenges to solve the right problem, and ask for what you need in the right way so you can be clear on your goals. The benefit is that you and your people can work well, together.


The best example of a consultant fixer is cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) from the movie Dirty Harry (1971). The Police Commissioner has run out of options and calls on Harry to solve his problem. Harry brings his unique problem solving skills to the table - his way or no way. The challenge for CEOs is that you need to be sure that you've got your Harry “fixing” the right problem.

Last year I worked with an organisation that incessantly complained that they needed a new IT system. By exploring their situation and understanding what they were trying to achieve I found two things:

1. Their operational roles were not clear (they overlapped and were not properly documented)

2. Their business processes were largely in-effective.

No one had clarity on what they were supposed to be doing, and the Administration, Service Coordination and Case Management teams were blaming each other.

Frustration, duplication, blaming, delays and poor service administration were the outcome. The customer lost out as well with poor service. All of this was hardly the IT system’s fault. Their position was that a new IT system would fix everything, and it wasn't the real problem.


The all seeing all knowing Oracle consultant reflects, and uses words rather than weapons like Harry. Another flavour of The Fixer but with a different emphasis. The trouble is some consultants and managers use their words to promise glorious benefits if you do what they tell you to do. Despite the sales pitch, it’s always hard to implement someone else's solution, especially if you’ve had no say in how that solution should be implemented. So to keep up appearances people comply. Later, often, the outcome does not match the promise (i.e. solving the wrong problem or people are disengaged). What I find works best is collaboration through a clear picture of your situation, so your people can understand for themselves what’s really going on inside your business. This is engagement and it’s an art. While some people say they are experts in the sector, every business is unique and it’s your team that has a significant amount of knowledge about day-to-day operations to contribute to the improving of your situation. A good consultant will present the findings in a way that can make sense to your people, and educating your team on how they can contribute to the solution. The goal is a commitment to a better future, rather than compliance. I like to provide the space for your people to define their own accountability by designing their own systems and processes within my framework.


When it comes to solving a business problem, the solution will inevitably be some kind of change. There’s always a genuine problem to be solved otherwise a consultant would not be needed. That means, for individuals, there is a shift to a world of uncertainty of some degree.

Uncertainty produces anxiety. Change is experienced personally. There needs to be a place where people can digest and deal with what the change might mean for them.

CEOs who focus on the strengths and capabilities of their people do well. You probably already have most of what skills you need on hand right now! Nothing really happens until the people doing the work make real changes.


Once the solutions become clearer and take shape, people realise what they might need or might be missing. A good consultant empowers your team to be clear about what they need to be successful in their areas of responsibility. When it comes to departments working well together, people probably don’t ask for what they need well enough which leads to expectation gaps, confusion, disappointment or frustration. How can this be overcome? This comes down to asking the Who, What and Why questions in the form of a story.

As a [ WHO ], I need [ WHAT ] so that [ WHY ].

As a Program Manager, I need visibility of the direct income and expenses for each funding body across all departments so that I can assess the funding body’s entire financial performance and make informed decisions about allocating resources and business planning.

Start big and broad first and then work your way into the detail of what you need.

The clearer you can be on asking for what you need, the better you can be working together and aligned with your organisational objectives. Everyone is clear, especially those you work with.


The fruit of your labour will be in the implementation of your solution. That might be how your customers view your organisation, a new service design or even a more effective operating model. You can take control of your business challenges to solve the right problem. Being a successful CEO of any type of business relies on three things: being clear on what you are trying to achieve, your people are working well together and effective business processes are in place.

Take the time to engage and understand what the real problem at hand is. The secret sauce is to not make assumptions prematurely. Your people can do the research to validate those assumptions as you go. Next as the solution emerges, ask for what you need in the right way: WHO, WHAT and WHY. If you can be clear on your needs, your people can then design a better solution.

By going through our discovery and solution development process properly you might find you’ve probably already got the right people on your team, right now. That's a good thing for everyone I reckon.

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