130 – Another Giant for the Squire – David Maister.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1400 words

david maister

This post continues a series started by Squire to the giants about his giants. David Maister will be best known to anyone responsible for running a professional services firm. In the late 1990’s when he visited Australia his seminars were expensive and quickly sold out. ‘The Professional Service Firm’ and ‘True Professionalism’ are still must reads. Maister retired in 2009 and much of his material is still available from his website.

maister managing the professional service firmDavid Maister was born in Great Britain where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, economics and Statistics at the University of Birmingham (England), his Master’s in Operations Research at the London School of Economics. He received his doctorate in Logistics and Transportation from the Harvard Business School and prior to launching his consulting career, Maister was a professor at the Harvard Business School teaching the management of service businesses.

Before he specialised in professional firms, Maister wrote or co-wrote seven books that are now out of print on a variety of transportation topics, including three books on how to run a trucking company and one on how to run an airline. I think this practical grounding in service businesses was influential on his thinking. You always have a sense that his books are about things that you need to do, and can do, in the real world. He doesn’t just write about interesting theory.

“For the last 25 to 30 years I have been a management consultant and author focusing exclusively on professional service firms, so I have written at large for accounting firms, law firms, consulting firms, engineering firms, many of the marketing, communications, businesses, advertising and public relations, and so on, and my speech has always been that these professional businesses have a great deal in common and can learn from each others. They are not like industrial businesses, because all of their assets are people rather than machines, but all of their people share some very common characteristics of being very intelligent, very autonomous, so the management challenges of running these professional firms is very “similar”.Interview in 2009.

I would argue that many parts of local government are effectively ‘professional service firms’ offering those professional services directly to the community or to others within the council. Anyone paid to give advice is offering a professional service – I am thinking of the urban design teams, finance departments, engineering design, human resources, town planning, etc. Each can and should be run according to some of the principles so clearly described by Maister.

maister true professionalismOne of Maister’s key pieces of advice is to determine what consultancy business you are in and decide on your market positioning. He described this in different ways in ‘Managing the Professional Service Firm’ and ‘True Professionalism’ but it is the same idea. In ‘Managing the Professional Service Firm’, Maister argues that you need to determine whether you are offering ‘procedural’, ‘brain’ or ‘grey hair’ services.

With procedural work the solution is well known and can be delegated to less experienced staff. The key to selling this work is its efficiency and it has the greatest leveraging potential (i.e. senior staff bring the work in and oversee the effort of a large number of less experienced staff).   Brain work requires a lot of creativity and professional expertise, little of which can be specified in advance. Grey hair services are equally unique and difficult to proceduralise but the delivery of the solution is based on the experience and breadth of the professional.

In ‘True Professionalism’, Maister describes the various consultancy offerings differently and he uses the terms ‘pharmacy’, ‘nursing’, ‘psycotherapy’ and ‘brain surgery’ to describe the different service offerings, as shown in the diagram below.

maister nurse etc


Either set of descriptors can be used in local government to determine the type of services required/offered and the type of staff and structure needed to deliver them. I have often wondered about the ‘brain surgeon’ employed in human resources to help with routine recruitment (pharmacy services) only to leave dissatisfied within months. Or the procurement advisor who can only tell you what the rules are (nursing service) but can’t assist with the ‘brain surgery’ necessary for a complex procurement decisions.

 “The structure and management of consulting firms is driven primarily by two key factors: the degree of customization in the firm’s work activities and the extent of face-to-face interaction with the client. Both of these characteristics (customization and client contact) imply that the value of the firm is often embedded less in the properties of the firm and more in the specific talents of highly skilled individuals.”

When I am managing professional services in local government I always set out to understand what demands I am expected to meet – am I to deliver proceduralised services that people could deliver themselves if they had the time, or apply significant expertise to help resolve issues that are new to our client but familiar to members of my team, or to regularly pioneer solutions to problems at the leading edge of practice. Each type of service needs different people and different systems to support them.

Towards the end of Maister’s career he published quite a different book entitled ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker’. It followed a paper of the same name published in 2005. The title says it all in a politically incorrect and direct way. The opening paragraphs:

 “Much of what professional firms do in the name of strategic planning is a complete waste of time, no more effective than individuals making New Year’s resolutions.

The reasons are the same in both situations. Personally and professionally, we already know that we should do: lose weight, give up smoking, exercise more. In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, provide fulfilling, motivating careers.

We want the benefits of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it and we know how to do it. Yet we don’t change, most of us, as individuals or as businesses.”

The article (and the book) provide compelling reasons for why organisations fail to change and implement new strategy. He questions why people and institutions have to wait until something very serious happens to them to fix things they have known about for years. I have often wondered the same thing. It is as though we have to set fire to our organisations or trash them before we can summon the courage to change.

Maister provides six pointers for change.

  1. It’s about a permanent change in lifestyle – people and organisations ‘typically underestimate how much effort is truly required to bring about significant improvement’.
  2. You must change the core scorecards – ‘strategy, if it is to be lived and achieved, is about modifying the very rules of daily life and scorekeeping’.
  3. Leadership: get serious or get out of the way – ‘if the leadership of the organisation wants the people in it to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must figure out a way for it to be credible that they, top management, have actually changed their thinking and are prepared to change the way they act, measure and reward’.
  4. Principles are more effective that tactics – ‘successful implementation of a strategy requires both sustained commitment over time and broad participation across the whole organisation, strategies in business are implemented much better when the ideas are presented as matters of principle, not just as matters of expediency’.
  5. People must volunteer – improvement programs only work when people are doing it for themselves and they have made a personal choice to do it. Leaders must be the coach and draw people’s attention the need for change but it is ‘subtle stuff – the leader must be skilled in the process of helping others think it through to a personal conclusion’.
  6. People must get on or off the bus – ‘every individual can and must make a personal choice’. Strategy cannot be ‘what most of us, most of the time, do’.

“Everyone in the organisation has to decide if they want to try hard enough to sacrifice some of the present to achieve a better tomorrow. They may do so if they believe the effort is serious. They definitely will not if they think those at the top are undecided or divided.”

I recommend reading this article or book and the other writings by Maister on strategy. His thinking and direct writing style present clear and uncompromising advice.