It was my firm’s Christmas party last night.  As I’m a virtual organization, this involved me sitting alone at my desk and drinking a crate of Tesco’s lager, before photocopying my bottom on my new all-in-one printer/fax/scanner/copier (ah, the joys of technological convergence: I can now choose whether to print the resulting image, fax it to someone, or spread it digitally around the globe.  If only I could find the manual….).  After an hour or so the party was feeling a bit under-energised.  I tried throwing a koosh ball to myself a few times, then someone (me) had the idea of playing some party games.  Reenergised, I challenged myself to a game of Connections.  The challenge: write an article that gets from Reality TV to Consultancy in two steps. Start here:

Modelling the behaviour I expect of others, I am adult enough to admit to having watched two episodes of ITV’s The X-Factor (if you insist on pretending you never watch it, it’s one of several in which members of the public audition to become pop stars).  The first episode I saw was one of the early open auditions, when the programme makers dwell on the embarrassing attempts by individuals with no talent to get through to the next round.  For the benefit of anyone asking the inevitable question ‘why does anyone watch this kind of thing?’ it seems to me the answer lies within us all.  This is quintessential freak show stuff: we laugh at these hapless individuals with the civilized snarl of those who are thinking to themselves “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Vicariously, we run the gamut of human emotion, burning with humiliation on behalf of the auditionee, while dismissing them with the acid wit of the panel. 

This duality of response was enshrined in my second encounter, the grand final, during which we were shown a clip of a chicken farm worker who was adjudged to have given the worst audition of the series.  His prize?  He was invited back to perform live in front of a studio audience, in an apotheosis of amateur drama.  Amazingly, he agreed.  “People call me Chicken Man,” he told the presenter ingenuously.  The audience whooped and cheered. The Brits love an underdog – until our cathartic identification with their human frailty stops, at which point we go back to snarling.  Just ask Paula Radcliffe.

Step One:

We live, allegedly, on the cusp of the Age of Aquarius.  Check out the evidence: my local plumber drives a van which says “Plumber and Feng Shui Consultant”; the local gym eschews a rubdown with embrocation in favour of an Indian Head Massage; and personal effectiveness gurus espouse a philosophy not so different from that of the Zen masters.  One example of this, a central tenet of Neuro Linguistic Programming, is the idea that if you focus on what you want, you are likely to bring it about.  This is where the tortured hopefuls of Reality TV auditions present us with an apparent problem.  They have a clear goal; they are focused on it; they can articulate it; and yet they don’t achieve what they want.

At the heart of this is the timeless instruction: “Go with the flow”, a phrase which conjures up in those rooted to a work ethic a picture of long-haired layabouts sitting on bean bags waiting for enlightenment.  Equally misunderstood is its companion phrase ‘wu wei’ which translates literally as “do nothing”.  In reality, the spirit of these concepts lies in being highly attuned to the real world, in order to be responsive to whatever is needed at the time.  As the old Chinese proverb has it: “You don’t stop ripples on a pond by hitting them with a spade.”

The whole point about being ‘in flow’ is that, while you may be clear about what you want, bringing any neediness or desperation will block your ‘flow’ and cut you off from the thing you desire.  Hence the average auditionee, desperate beyond measure for fame in order to gain the significance they feel they lack in their real life, drives it away instead (or, in a Roald Dahl-esque twist, becomes famous for their talentlessness – a kind of anti-matter version of significance).

Step Two: The Tao of Consultancy

For those hoping the next step was to reveal that management consultants are talentless individuals desperate for significance, sorry - that was not what I had in mind.  I wanted to return to my last column, and the story of the consultant who flew to New York to facilitate a meeting, sat in the corner saying nothing, and unapologetically collected a fee.  It seems to me that ‘wu wei’ can usefully be translated as “they also serve who only stand and wait.”  The Tavistock Institute in London made a great name for itself through its ‘T-groups’, in which participants would spend several days together with no agenda, watched by facilitators who never intervened.  And yet I would lay money that their presence alone caused things to happen which enhanced the ‘experience’. 

Anyone who has visited a coach, counselor, or similar ‘helping’ individual will know that the person helping you often does nothing but look, listen, and repeat what you say; but in doing so you find that you gain a focus and understanding of your issue.  I’m not suggesting that to not intervene is always appropriate – but if it is, then it is.  The world of business is full of busy fools, rushing around frantically in the belief that effort and reward must always balance.  Like the X-factor contestants, they assume that their desperation will be rewarded. But some situations require very little intervention – like the ripples in the pond, left to themselves, they tend to balance.  Thus consultants can perform a useful function in helping their clients ‘do nothing’.

Anyway, having beaten myself at Connections, I have to go – I’ve got a disciplinary meeting with myself over my behaviour at the party.  I wish all my readers a very happy and – dare I say – ‘in flow’ Christmas.


Copyright © Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved