Episode #183: Interview with Peter Block

Ed’s Questions

What did an organizational consultant in the information services department at Esso do in 1963?

As you consider your career, what have you changed your mind most about?

In Flawless Consulting, you talk about three different types of consultants: pair of hands, expert, collaborators, and all three have their challenges, there’s no sweet spot. I’ve started asking people to draw a triangle with those three terms and ask the customer to place a dot closest to where you see me. Does the work with your model?

In your book, Freedom and Accountability at Work, you write that freedom and accountability are the same thing.

Peter: Liberty is the absence of oppression. Freedom is the act of commitment; a choice to have an intention to create a certain kind of world.

As a presenter, my job is to be more interesting than your email, and if I can’t be, you should do your email.

Most organizations exist to protect and preserve the status quo. Business enterprise and entrepreneurs are one of the few to challenge the status quo. The question is: is that scalable?

I have structured every outline/abstract around your advice in Community.

Ron’s Questions

Your book, The Answer to How is Yes, has this epigraph:

Transformation comes more from pursuing profound questions than seeking practical answers.

Would you explain this, because it’s not conventional wisdom?

Peter: If you want tomorrow to be like yesterday, methodology will get you there! If you want everything to be predictable, you’ll never be surprised.

Your six questions that postpone the future and keep us encased in our present way of thinking:

  1. How do you do it? (“Is this worth doing?”)
  2. How long will it take? (Oversimplifies the world)
  3. How much does it cost? (Ignores what price are we willing to pay?)
  4. How do you get those people to change? (Ignores the fact that you can’t get others to change!)
  5. How do we measure it? (If you can’t measure it, it does not exist. Things that matter most defy measurement [love, art, poetry, music, life]. Our obsession with measurement is really an expression of our doubt—we’ve lost faith in something. So much for imagination and creativity [how do we measure something new?]).
  6. How have other people done it successfully? (We want to be leaders without risk of invention and innovation)

You also quote therapist Pittman McGehee: “The opposite of love is not hate, but efficiency.”

I think this line is profound, "Asking 'how' is an escape from freedom and accountability. We want certainty before we act.  All of this is a wish to go to heaven and not have to die."

How did you reach this conclusion working as a consultant?

Your alternative Questions to asking “how” is saying “Yes,” a stance towards the possibility of more meaningful change:

  1. How do you do it? ➙ What refusal have I been postponing?
  2. How long will it take? ➙ What commitment am I willing to make?
  3. How much does it cost? ➙ What is the price I am willing to pay?
  4. How do you get those people to change? ➙ What is my contribution to the problem I am concerned with?
  5. How do we measure it? ➙ What is the crossroad at which I find myself at this point in my life/work?
  6. How are other people doing it successfully? ➙ What do we want to create together?

I think of the signers of the Declaration of Independence: they asked your questions, not the how to questions. Is this a valid example?

On #5 above, it assumes business is science, or even engineering. Ed likes to say: “Business ain’t science.” I think about:

  • Planes, boats, and bridges 100% fly, float and stand
  • Businesses and marriages, success rate is much less
  • One is materialist, other is spiritual
  • Humans are scamps, wayward, unpredictable creatures

You write an idealist is “one who follows their ideals, even to the point of impracticality. The willingness to pursue our desires past the point of practicality. Idealism dissolves in a world of measurement and instant results.”

Do you see enough Idealists today? Or have we become [in Tyler Cowan’s phrase] a complacent class?

Some Final Thoughts from Peter Block’s writings

  • "When we follow fashion and ask for steps, recipes, and certainty, we deny our freedom, for we are trapped by the very act of asking the question. Freedom asks us to invent our own steps. “to be the author of your own experience.”
  • "Knowing how to do something may give us confidence, but it does not give us our freedom. Freedom comes from commitment, not accomplishment."
  • "The pursuit of certainty and predictability is our caution speaking. Freedom is the prize, safety is the prize, what is required is faith more than fact and will more than skill."
  • "There is little discussion of faith in organizations, but it is only with faith that significant changes can begin."
  • "Who decides what is possible and what is practical?"
  • "Institutions are based on consistency and predictability, while intimacy relies on variation and surprise (people aren’t resources/assets)."
  • "Without willingness to go deeper, little chance for any authentic change. We prefer actions and answers."
  • "What is absent in a world dominated by the engineer and economist is the artist. The artist needs to enter our institutional experience in order to create a space for idealism, intimacy, and depth."
  • "One of the beauties of volunteer organizations is that they know how to take advantage of people’s gifts, whereas what he calls “systems” are more concerned with people’s limitations."
  • "Demanding a solution, or an action plan for everything, is also arrogant. It’s a wish for perfection. It’s our wish to be God."

Ed Kless

Ed Kless joined Sage in July of 2003 and is currently the senior director of partner development and strategy. He develops and delivers curriculum for Sage business partners on the art and practice of small business consulting. Courses include: Sage Consulting Academy, Business Strategy and Customer Experience Workshops. Ed is the author of The Soul of Enterprise: Dialogues on Business in the Knowledge Economy, a compendium of a few of the episodes of his VoiceAmerica talk-show The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy with Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute where Ed is also a senior fellow.