David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life

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Tricks of a Master Teacher

by Tom Peters 1990

from Tom Peters Syndicated Column, 1990

Being in the presence of great teachers gives me chills. Their sense of timing, their instinct for drawing people out and their ability to make order out of chaos matches the craft of great surgeons and orchestra conductors.

At a recent seminar outside of Munich, West Germany, I had the treat of watching David Maister at work. He used to teach at the Harvard Business School—an uncharacteristic graduate institution that takes teaching very seriously. Nowadays he’s a Boston-based consultant and perhaps the leading analyst of professional service firm management.

Maister was a guest at a meeting about West Germany’s powerful midsize business sector (the Mittelstand). After a heavy lunch of meat, potatoes, apple strudel, wine and beer, the discussion not surprisingly bogged down. Maister began to fidget. Finally he couldn’t contain himself.

Most meetings are an utter waste of time. Participants dance around each other and the issues. A presentation is made. A few desultory questions are asked. The presenter is dismissed. “Next item.” Little or no honest argument or engagement occurs. It’s a slow and painful living death. The simple exercise Maister initiated leaped these imposing hurdles.

He vaulted over to an unused easel. (Good teachers in general instinctively head for easels!) He jotted down a cryptic ten-item list of factors that potentially threatened or made the Mittelstand stronger—for instance, capital availability (or the lack thereof) for midsize enterprises, the spread of globalization.

My notes contained some of the items on Maister’s list and, I thought, some better factors. But that’s not the point. Maister’s list was a wake-up call that served its purpose.

We were, Maister said, to decide if each factor was an advantage (+) or disadvantage (–) for the Mittelstand, as compared to larger West German and non-German firms. A +5 (the highest possible score) meant a huge advantage; a –5 (the lowest) meant a huge disadvantage. Another dimension was also to be scored: How important is the factor? A score of one meant unimportant; five, all-important.

A sleepy discussion was transformed into a hot debate as we began to struggle over the first issue: was the list “right.” (The deeper meaning—had we talked about the right stuff so far?) We began hacking away at Maister’s list, suggesting additions and deletions and subtle wording changes. Then came the rank­ing. The roomful of powerful adults—one of West Germany’s leading venture capitalists, a founder/CEO of a 23,000-person global services firm, top consultants to the Mittelstand, etc.—scrapped like kids. “Hell, no [in German]. This is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Here’s why.” “Plus two, my foot! It’s a minus one or worse. You’re ignorant of the real world” (you guessed it: a practitioner to a consultant).

The biggest battles were over the slightest differences in a factor’s ranking. As a person made his or her strong case for +3 (and not, under any circumstances, +2) detailed explanations and numerous rich examples and counterexamples poured forth. Furthermore, everyone was forced to take a stand.

My prior notes had been meticulous. But now my enlightenment soared. Not, I reiterate, because Maister’s list was all that hot. But his trick of turning “his” mushy list into “our” precise list led to our engagement and commitment.

And that’s my story. The essence of success in business (as in the classroom or on the local school board) is drawing others out, getting them to share their knowledge, to examine their heretofore hidden assumptions, to commit to one idea or another. Such commitment and examination rarely occurs in group settings, even though most of us (supervisor, manager, CEO) spend most of our workdays in such settings. The failure to examine and engage and commit costs corporations billions.

The Maister experience is not unique, as I think back on it. I have experienced from time to time such productive exchanges. Participants in retrospect shake their heads at how much they’ve learned, at how some quiet people (with a lot to say) have been drawn out. The essence of such events has almost always been the same—the provision of an incomplete or provocative target (e.g., a list) that is to become a signed-off group product. One executive colleague, for example, writes a few brief scenarios about, say, the future course of behavior in an important market. Participants are asked to support or refute the patterns of actions and reactions that were laid out, aiming toward agreement on a “most likely” case. Without fail, hidden assumptions about customers, distributors and competitors are unearthed. A thoughtful planner I’ve accompanied to various meetings will interrupt and summa­rize an unfocused or meandering discussion by writing down a terse, somewhat extreme conclusion that, he declares, should go into the formal meeting minutes. Invariably, the group comes to life as it takes to editing the statement. Simmering issues boil over adjective or adverb selection (wars have started over “more” versus “most”).

Such experiences have not always been orchestrated by a master. Forcing devices like these can be used to great effect by anyone. I strongly urge you to man your easel and start experimenting now.

“Peters on Excellence” is a syndicated column appearing in a variety of newspapers.