Tom Gilmore and I have received some thoughtful comments from our initial post in this series “When is Help Helpful?” Those comments call our attention to the relationship or the system in which both parties are embedded. Our thanks to those who offered thoughts and even sent a great youtube video.
In this post we explore the ability of the receiver to make use of the help being offered. Particularly in today’s context, we are often too overloaded or lack the requisite competences to absorb or metabolize the help. Three studies help us examine this issue.
1. The Coast Guard’s Rescue Swimmer Program
The Coast Guard is charged with assisting ships in distress. Too often, they were able to get helicopters, men, and equipment to the area of a disaster but the people in the water were in such a depleted condition that the Coast Guard was unable to rescue them.
In 1982, a particularly tragic case spurred the creation of the rescue swimmer program. (Beard; Junger)
“A Coast Guard HH-3F arrived on the scene to find the ship’s crew scattered, floating and swimming in chilling heavy seas. The waves were too high to allow the amphibian helicopter to alight. The ship’s crew, all suffering from exposure, were no longer able to assist themselves into the rescue basket. … Three survivors were rescued; thirty three people died … Crews in a powerful rescue machine could only watch as victims died just a few feet below them.” (Beard, p.150)
This event caused the Coast Guard to conduct a review of the patterns across previous cases. They found that having a skilled person in the water with those in distress, who had the ability to communicate with helping resources, significantly changed the dynamics. Having the skilled person in the depleted context was significantly more effective than if they were on the helping team. This was the genesis of the rescue swimmer program. When the help arrives, a highly trained swimmer is ready to leap into harm’s way, to amplify the distressed system’s capability to make use of the help. The first intervention is often to calm and reassure those in distress, to provide “the human link … between exhausted, terrified and often injured sailors and their only ride to survival” (Beard, p.150). Simply containing the panic can help those in peril recover aspects of their own coping skills. The rescue swimmer, with communication links to the helicopter and others, can make more effective use of whatever resources are still present in the distressed situation.
2.New York City Rand Corporation’s ‘Help’ to Mayor Lindsey’s Commissioners.
Peter Szanton in Not Well Advised set his sights on studying ‘advice’ and why so often it goes unused. He studied in depth very talented Rand experts who were assigned to major city agencies such as fire, police, housing, etc. Like the Coast Guard story he found that very talented, costly resources were brought to the boundary, yet the results were deeply disappointing. In the fire department, for example, the Rand experts analyzed the elapsed time from receiving a call to having water on the fire. As a result they attacked a major component in the delay - the heavy hoses and the time it took after the equipment had arrived. They explored the idea of ‘slippery water’ as an additive that would allow 3” hoses that were lighter and required fewer men and therefore could be deployed faster. But the ultimate success of this as well as innovations in other city agencies was disappointing.
Szanto makes a thoughtful systems analysis of why the help was not helpful:
• The direct clients were not paying for the advising services because it was funded by a foundation. Therefore, the Rand experts were pushing the potential help they could offer to the city agencies rather than having it pulled and paid for by agency people who might have defined the focus and the terms of engagement quite differently. Like many cases of help that look dyadic, even when the actual exchange of help is a pair, the dynamics are often better understood in a triangular system. Another common example, are the many instances of executive coaching where the company contracts with and pays for a coach to help a manager who has been identified as “in difficulty” – clearly a triangular case of help.
• There were real skill and competency deficits in the targets of the advice in consuming the help (especially in the context of turbulent conditions that resembled the situations for sea rescue that the Coast Guard faced).
• “The advisor must be willing to provide ‘intensive care’” – again not unlike the Coast Guard putting a key embodiment of their expertise in harms way on the distressed side of the boundary. As consultants we are often sensitive to over functioning in a helping situation in ways that impede the learning of the client. We need also to consider that we may underestimate their capacity in the moment to make use of the help.
Cohen and Levinthal looked at the ability of firms to absorb learning and innovation from external sources. They argue, “the ability to evaluate and utilize outside knowledge is largely a function of the level of prior related knowledge. At the most elemental level, this prior knowledge includes basic skills or even a shared language but may also include knowledge of the most recent scientific or technological developments in a given field.”
For example, some organizations that have attempted to implement a knowledge management initiative have stumbled because their employees have little experience of working in teams where members necessarily learn how to collaborate and share knowledge with each other in order to accomplish the team’s task. The implementers of KM find that this lack of knowledge slows down and sometimes defeats the implementation of the knowledge sharing processes.
Cohen and Levinthal labeled the extent to which previous knowledge is needed to take on new knowledge, absorptive capacity. Further, referencing the ability to bring innovation in from outside the organization, they suggest that “if all actors in the organization share the same specialized language, they will be effective in communicating with one another. But they may not be able to tap into diverse external knowledge sources.”
These examples speak to the capacity to make use of help in several senses. In the case of the rescue swimmers it was both the physical and emotional capacity of those in distress that was lacking. For the Rand experts as well as the Cohen and Levinthal study, there was a lack of skills and knowledge to absorb what was being offered. For the Rand experts there may have also been a lack of awareness that help was needed. Finally, the overload with other pressures in the context may be a major barrier to using the help because of the inability to pay sustained attention.
1. Get deeply into the context and concerns of the help seeker, not just the presenting issues but the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ (Wm. James), that surrounds the issue. Too often advice givers are too filled with the assets they represent. At our worst, we fall into the dynamic of the narcissistic Hollywood producer who is going on and on about himself, and then says, “But enough about me, Lets talk about you. What do you think of me?” There may be echoes of this in our first case.
2. Assess the absorptive capacity for help. The more diverse the group asking for help, the more likely that organizational members will be able to relate to the incoming information. “It is best for the organization to expose a fairly broad range of prospective “receptors” to the environment.” (Cohen and Levinthal) In some situations it may be appropriate to offer the step before the requested knowledge.
3. Time the help appropriately. We know in therapy that the timing of an interpretation deeply impacts its power. Harry Levinson (1976) in his organizational diagnosis work would read his report to his client in the evening with a ground rule of only questions of clarification. Then the following morning, they would meet again for a rich exchange. This enabled some ‘taking in’ of the findings, some working through of defensiveness, some dream work on what it stirred up before taking up the collaborative work.
4. Get the help on the right side of the boundary. As in the Coast Guard example, all the assets in the world will make no difference if there is no capability of those in distress to link up with them. Often the choke point in help is in the capacity of the client system to metabolize assistance.
5. Begin by assessing what the organization might stop doing to create more space for development. One aspect of Jack Welch’s effectiveness in leadership at GE was his emphasis on shedding as well as development (Tichy, 1997). This is particularly true in today’s overloaded, skinnyed down settings.
Questions the examples raise:
• How far does the helper need to/have to go to be helpful? Do we have to get in the water? If we don’t, does it just make the situation worse for those in the water? Is deep empathy a form of connecting with the distress of the other in a powerful way that helps them recover some of their inner resources?
• In these situations the person or organization asking for our help may not know that they lack the absorptive capacity to accept it. Is part of our role to break the bad news that they are not yet ready to be helped? Nancy remembers a young technician whose questions were routinely ignored by the leading technical Guru. When he complained to a peer, he was told, “The questions you’re asking, any one of us could answer for you. You shouldn’t bother Hans with those kinds of questions.”
• What are the skills for being an effective asker of help? In our teaching in business schools with student teams (and sadly in many top executive teams), the skill and proclivity to give advice greatly exceeds the skill in asking for help – which often feels taxed with the shame of being viewed as ‘helpless.’ Yet as Nancy has suggested in Does Your Organization have an Asking Problem.pdf” often the place to begin is addressing the ‘asking questions’ competence.
We would enjoy hearing from you about your answers to these questions or thoughts on the three examples. You may have other examples that will inform our thinking about these issues. Please make your comments here or respond to Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org or Nancy at email@example.com
Beard, Tom, Lt. Cmdr. “Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers: Filling the Void.” Proceedings, January 1999, pp. 106 – 107.
CFAR, Briefing Notes: “The Challenge of Helping Depleted or Overloaded Systems.”
Cohen, W. M. and Levinthal, D. A. (1990). Absorptive Capacity: A New perspective on Learning and Innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly. 35 128-152.
Junger, Sebastian. The Perfect Storm. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Levinson, Harry. Organizational Diagnosis. 1976
Szanton, Peter. Not Well Advised. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1981