Book review: No More Consultants

Sometimes it is too easy to think (and write) of knowledge-related activities in the abstract. I am guilty of this myself, and I have many books which address the topic in that way — even when they provide examples it is difficult to think of them in concrete real-world terms. Geoff Parcell and Chris Collison’s new book, No More Consultants, provides a welcome dose of reality.

Bridge below Haddon Hall

This new book follows their earlier work, Learning to Fly, but has a much narrower focus. As a result, I think it is probably even more useful. The premise of No More Consultants is simple. In part it is provided by the book’s subtitle “we know more than we think,” but that is just the background. What Parcell and Collinson have done in the new book is to provide a workable framework for organisations to ascertain when and why they can rely on the expertise and experience of their own people, rather than calling in consultants. (Consultants can relax — the final chapter explains that better organisational understanding can lead to more fruitful engagements.)

The basic tool that Parcell and Collison introduce, explain, and show in use is what they call the ‘River Diagram’. This is a way of visualising the levels of performance in an organisation with regard to defined competences. A large gap between the level competence in different parts of the organisation provides opportunities for knowledge sharing.


In order to get to the river diagram, the organisation needs to identify an area for change and define detailed levels of performance. The next stage is for different parts of the organisation to assess their own level of performance. The sum of all this work is expressed in the river diagram, and each organisational unit can then decide where to focus their efforts to change by calling on the experience of other parts of the organisation (or even externally).

Within this basic framework, Parcell and Collison are able to spend some time fleshing out a number of key techniques, including facilitation, envisioning future developments, and peer assists. They provide a range of examples of the tools and techniques in use, ranging from development of HIV/AIDS programmes in Africa and India to knowledge sharing between Great Ormond St children’s hospital and the Ferrari F1 team. Along the way, they are also able to provide insights into ways of dealing with a number of recurring challenges to change, such as the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

Despite the fact that the book is an invaluable guide to practical knowledge sharing, it is carefully not positioned as such. Because of this, it is more likely to find a receptive audience beyond the normal KM community. This attractiveness is enhanced by the clarity and concreteness with which its central ideas are expressed.

Finally, this book does not just exist between two hard covers. Just as they did with Learning to Fly, Parcell and Collison have created an online presence for the book. Whereas Learning to Fly was complemented by a mailing list, No More Consultants is supported by a more nuanced Ning community. This allows resources related to the book to be shared and discussed, and makes it possible for people using the book to share their experiences in one place. It will be interesting to watch how people use the space to develop the book beyond Parcell and Collison’s core text.

Book review: Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting

I read Robert McKee’s book, Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting during my holiday last month. It is a fascinating insight into a crucial part of the film-making process, and has helped me understand movie storytelling much better. If that was all it did, I would recommend it wholeheartedly — by shedding light on the mystery of film, it actually enhances one’s enjoyment of the medium, rather than degrading it. If you are at all interested in film, read it — you won’t regret it.

Bee at work

However, McKee’s book raised two distinct issues for me. One is internal to the book and concerns the way in which we do work. The second is an external one — what makes an expert?

Towards the end of the book, having worked through the elements that make up a satisfying story, McKee turns to the actual mechanics of screenwriting. It’s not as simple as starting at the beginning and working your way to the end. This model is described by McKee as writing from the outside in.

The struggling writer tends to have a way of working that goes something like this: He dreams up an idea, noodles on it for a while, then rushes to the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams until he reaches page 120 and stops…

So the struggling writer gathers friends’ reactions and his own thoughts to start the second draft with this strategy: “How can I keep the six scenes that I love and that everyone else loves and somehow pretzel this film through them in a way that’ll work?” With a little thought he’s back at the keyboard…

He imagines and writes, writes and dreams, but all the while he clings like a drowning man to his favorite scenes until a rewrite comes out the other end. …

The writer then does a third draft and a fourth and a fifth but the process is always the same: He clings to his favorite scenes, twisting a new way of telling them in hopes of finding a story that works. Finally … back come reader reports: “Very nicely written, good crisp actable dialogue, vivid scene description, fine attention to detail, the story sucks. PASS ON IT.”

By contrast, writing from the inside out is a much more structured process in which the story stays at the heart.

If, hypothetically and hopefully, a screenplay can be written from first idea to last draft in six months, [successful] writers typically spend the first four of those six months writing on stacks of three-by-five cards: a stack for each act — three, four, perhaps more. On these stacks they create the story’s step-outline.

Essentially, the step-outline is used by the writer to describe a single scene on each card. These cards come and go — a scene may be written and rewritten a dozen times on a dozen different cards. The relationship between the cards — which are key scenes and which promote sub-plots, for example — may change over this time. Finally, when the writer is satisfied that the whole things hangs together properly. At this point, the story can be pitched to someone else.

The writer never shows his step-outline to people because it’s a tool, too cryptic for anyone but the writer to follow. Instead, at this critical stage, he wants to pitch or tell his story so he can see it unfold in time, watch it play on the thoughts and feelings of another human being.

Once the story is seen to work, it is time for the treatment: each scene is expanded into a readable description. That process allows the story to be honed further until it is ready to be turned into a screenplay — dialogue, directions and all.

The wise writer puts off the writing of dialogue for as long as possible because the premature writing of dialogue chokes creativity.

Writing from the outside in — writing dialogue in search of scenes, writing scenes in search of story — is the least creative method.

The description of this process is fascinating. I think there are elements that can be drawn out for wider use in the work that we do. Rather than draft agreements which are then batted back and forth between parties (in much the same way as the screenplay in the “outside in” example), could we envisage the legal documentation of a transaction from the inside out? Perhaps the following key points might be useful.

  1. Why is this deal being done? (In McKee’s screenwriting terms, this might be the “Inciting Incident”)
  2. What are the major points of agreement (and disagreement) between the parties? (Tension between protagonist and antagonist; character and characterisation)
  3. What other issues are at play? Are there any external pressures — time, regulators, etc?
  4. Can the deal (and the answers to the preceding questions) be summarised easily? (The pitch)
  5. Does everyone agree with the pitch? (Develop into a treatment)
  6. Once the treatment is agreed, the documentation (formal contractual provisions) should easily flow from the treatment.

To be honest, I have no idea whether this would work. However, I have seen enough frustration borne of endless argument over the minutiae of legal drafting to be interested in seeing if an alternative would be any better at conveying the commercial meaning of a transaction into legally enforceable wording. Just as dialogue restricts creativity, so does legal drafting. Once a clause is set in Word and becomes the subject of argument, it is difficult for lawyer and client alike to think creatively about alternative ways of achieving the same object, or even whether that object is actually a desired one — consistent with the ‘story’ of the commercial transaction that is being documented.

The other issue that McKee’s work (his book and the seminars that he runs) raises relates to expertise. McKee is an adept critic and analyst of screenwriting, but he is not a great screenwriter himself. His record at the Internet Movie Database indicates that he has written a couple of TV movies and some TV series episodes. Some of the comments on his work suggest that this apparent lack of success undermines his authority on screenwriting. Others use the traditionally snarky riposte “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Both of these reactions miss, I think, the fact that McKee never says “copy me.” Instead, he brings a thorough reading of a range of good and poor films. (In fact, one could be concerned by the fact that he relies excessively on Chinatown for examples, were it not for the impressive list of films referenced in less detail but obviously equally well understood.) Out of that reading, he extracts incredible insight, which should be regarded more highly, not less, for the simplicity with which it is distilled into a set of clearly understood principles.

That, I think is part of the essence of expertise — insight translated into clarity, so that one’s audience can hope to achieve the same insight. That is the opposite of the traditional obfuscation which many experts (many in the field of law, I am sorry to say) typically indulge in.

Another aspect of expertise, which needs to be harnessed in the service of insight and clarity, is passion or enthusiasm for the subject. That passion is clearly evident in McKee’s book. He wants to eradicate poor storytelling in the movies by making the basic element — the screenplay — better. According to the Wikipedia article on him, McKee’s insights are not all especially original. I do not think this necessarily matters — his passion brings them to life more vividly than their originators were able to.

There is clearly more to expertise than just insight and passion, but McKee’s work shows how those elements in combination with even a limited body of material can generate real value.

Using expertise — a survey

I recently participated in a survey on how expertise is leveraged and managed in organisations. This is part of an open research project where the results of the research are made available to the KM community as they are finalised. The project blog is at, and there is also a wiki showing the outcomes of project workshops at

If you have time to complete the survey as well, please do add your perspective. The survey is at, and when you have completed it, you will see the results of the survey collected so far. This has the potential to be a really useful resource and source of learning, especially if as many people as possible share their experiences.

Why are we doing this KM thing?

I was reading Strategic Intuition (there will be more on this fascinating book at a later date) on the train home yesterday, and was prompted to ask myself an odd question: “why are we doing knowledge management? What will be different, and for whom?”

The passage that made me ask this question was a description of a firefighter’s decision-making process.

Never once did he set a goal, list options, weigh the options, and decide among them. First he applied pressure, then he picked the strongest but newest crew member to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher, and then in the truck they put the victim into the inflatable pants. Formal protocol or normal procedure certainly gave him other options — examine the victim for other wounds before moving him, put the victim into the inflatable pants right away, and assign someone experienced to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher — but Lieutenant M never considered them.

The researcher whose work is described here (Gary Klein) started out with the hypothesis that the decision-making process would conform to the model of a defined goal, followed by iterative consideration of a series of options. However, he rapidly discovered that this model was wrong. Instead, what he saw in the experts that he studied (not only firefighters, but soldiers in battle, nurses, and other professionals) was overwhelmingly intuitive weighing of single options. (There is more in the book about why this is.)

We often talk about decision-making processes, and one of the goals of knowledge management is often to improve those processes by, for example, ensuring better access to information, or by honing the processes themselves (the HBR article by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone on “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” is an excellent example of the latter). Although these activities may well improve decision-making, those decisions are ultimately made by people — not processes. The question I posed for myself, then, was: what impact does KM have on people? Exactly how will they be better at decision-making as a result of our work?

My instinctive answer is that I want them to become experts (and therefore able to act swiftly and correctly in an emergency) in whatever field they work in. That means that we should always return our focus to the people in our organisations, and respond to their needs (taking into account the organisation’s direction and focus), rather than thinking solely about building organisational edifices. The more time that is spent on repositories, processes, structures, or documentation, the less is available for working with people. In becoming experts in our own field, we also need to be more instinctive.

Coincidentally, I read two blog posts about experts over the weekend. The first was Arnold Zwicky bringing some linguistic sanity to counter fevered journalistic criticism of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’.

Kristof is undercutting one set of “experts”, people who propose to predict the future. Lord knows, such people are sitting ducks, especially in financial matters (though I believe they do better in some other domains), and it’s scarcely a surprise that so many of them get it wrong.

Other “experts” offer aesthetic judgments… and still others exhibit competence in diagnosis and treatment…, and stlll others simply possess extensive knowledge about some domain…

The links between these different sorts of expert/expertise are tenuous, though not negligible. Meanings radiate in different directions from earlier meanings, but the (phonological/orthographic shapes of the) words remain. The result is the mildly Whorfian one that people are inclined to view the different meanings as subtypes of a single meaning, just because they are manifested in the same phonological/orthographic shapes. So experts of one sort are tainted with the misdeeds of another.

Expertise that results from real experience, study, insight, rationality and knowledge does not deserve to be shunned as mere pontification. It can save lives.

The other blog post, by Duncan Work, is a commentary on a New Scientist report about how people react to advice they believe to be expert. It appears that key areas in their brains simply turn off — they surrender the decision-making process to the expert.

This phenomenon has both adaptive and non-adaptive effects.

It is evolutionarily adaptive by being a “conformity-enforcing” phenomenon that can kick in when a large group needs to quickly move in the same direction in order to survive a big threat.   It’s also adaptive when the issues are extremely complex and most members of the population don’t have the knowledge or experience to really evaluate the risks and make a good decision.

It is evolutionarily non-adaptive when there is still a lot of confusion around the issue, when the experts themselves don’t agree, and when many experts are guided by narrow interests that don’t serve the group (like increasing and protecting their own personal prestige and wealth).

The real problem is not just that many of the crises now facing businesses are founded in actions, decisions and behaviours that few people understand. It is that we make no distinction between different categories of expert, and so we follow them all blindly. At the same time, as the New York Times op-ed piece critiqued by Zwicky illustrates, many of us do not actually respect experts. In fact, what we don’t respect are people who style themselves experts, but who are actually driven by other interests (as Work points out).

So if our KM work is at least in part to make people into experts, we probably need to rescue the word from the clutches of people who profess expertise without actually having any.