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If You’re Stuck, Get a Jiggler

In Stephen Covey’s latest book, The Eighth Habit: from Effectiveness to Greatness, he includes the following Q&A:

Q: “In your experience, what is the best question to ask people when you hire them?”
A: “In my experience, the best question is to say ‘Starting with your earliest memory, what did you really like doing and did well?’ Then push that through grade school, junior high, high school, university and work assignments afterward, until you start to see a pattern of where people’s real talents and strengths are— where their real voice is.”

Before you read any further, think for a few minutes about how you would answer such an interview question.

I’ve thought about how I would answer the question, and I’ve found my own pattern. All of my favorite memories are related to learning something new, teaching other people how to use it, and leading a team to put it into action. One of my friends from long ago used a World War II analogy, saying that I’m a “take the beach” person as opposed to a “hold the beach” person. I think he was right; I can certainly look at my work experience and find a large number of positions that I started from scratch.

We made a similar distinction between types of people when I worked at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). It was the 70’s, the big growth period for minicomputers, and DEC was adding manufacturing plants at a rapid rate to accommodate all of the orders for computers and peripherals. DEC found that the person they send to start up a new plant is not the right person to leave in charge of the plant after the startup period. The startup person has to be good at improvising, creating something out of nothing, and getting everything to the point where it works. But it requires a different kind of person to take something that works and tweak it to the point where something good becomes better. If you leave the startup person in charge, then things will never settle down: someone who is comfortable with big changes will continue to make big changes, or will get bored when the big changes aren’t needed.

Much has been written in the management self-help press about the differences between incremental change and radical change. The phrase “outside the box” was invented to describe the type of thinking that’s necessary to create radical change – to see fundamental flaws in an approach and to (forgive the overused expression) “change the paradigm” to make things significantly better. But the trouble with a lot of the management press is that they don’t recognize the value of both sets of skills: not everyone should be an outside the box thinker; you need inside the box thinkers to manage the day-to-day operation and to “keep the ship afloat.”

Even Michael Hammer in his reengineering books recognizes that companies go through alternating periods of incremental change and radical change. No one can tolerate constant radical change, and in big companies it can shake the company apart. You need a quieter period of incremental change after each radical change, so that the organization can absorb the big change and gradually bring its lower level processes into equilibrium. Thus there’s a need for two types of managers: one type who manages outside the box, and another type who manages inside the box.

But how about the companies where everything is inside the box? Where all change is incremental change? Is that good enough? In today’s world, I would say “no.” A hundred years ago, this type of company behavior was the role model for industry. Companies who could institutionalize their processes and guarantee consistency over a number of years were hallmarks of success. But in today’s global economy with competitors coming at you from all directions, there aren’t very many businesses (I can’t think of any) where absolute consistency is a virtue. Change is an inevitable part of keeping your company alive.

So if you’ve got an inside the box company, with inside the box people, what do you do? There’s where a “jiggler” comes in. I first heard this term from Gerald Weinberg, one of my favorite authors and an inspiration for process consultants everywhere. The term comes from the way that people try to fix a toilet that’s stuck and won’t stop running: they jiggle the handle. The idea is that a jiggler goes into an organization and looks at it with a fresh set of eyes. The jiggler looks for processes that are stuck and need major change, or for new viewpoints that need to be considered. The jiggler provides the outside the box perspective to a company that may not have the right people to provide that perspective within their own organization.

By definition, the jiggler is one of the “take the beach” people, the type of person who would start up a manufacturing plant instead of just making it a little better. You don’t necessarily want to have a jiggler full-time within your company (unless you’ve got a whole lot of jiggling to do). But it’s the perfect role for a consultant: someone brought in for a specific purpose and then sent away until needed again down the road.

And there’s another reason why an outside consultant is better as a jiggler. People inside a company – even the outside the box thinkers – are usually inhibited in their comments by their desire to have long-term personal success within the company. They’re afraid that if they go too far in their suggestions, then their co-workers and managers will laugh at them, and their credibility will be ruined. So while internal jigglers are better than no jigglers at all, they will be self-limiting in the strength and depth of their ideas.

Ok, I admit it: I’m a jiggler. But this isn’t so much a sales pitch as it is a description of a role that you ought to consider. No matter where your jiggler comes from, the important thing is to use one from time to time. You need someone to periodically introduce fresh ideas, provide a different perspective, point out things you need to do better, and even to point out things that you do well that you shouldn’t be doing at all. Every so often you just need to jiggle your organization.

And, oh by the way, if you haven’t made a major process improvement in the past year, then you’re stuck – whether you think so or not – because I can almost guarantee that your competitors have made such a change. And if you’re stuck, get a jiggler.

[Note: This article is also available as a free downloadable Acrobat PDF file. Click here to go to the page where it can be downloaded.]

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