The Parable of Diagnostics
William B. Wolf
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA
Many of the best executives with whom I have worked seem to have almost
psychic powers as to what is going on in their organizations. Again and again I
have witnessed actions where an executive asks a penetrating question
revealing a significant problem. Frequently I have heard their subordinates ask:
“How in the hell did he spot that?” My explanation is that through deep
involvement and intensive experiences one learns to react to minimum clues, to
interrelate data, to notice what is incongruent, and to recognize what is
experienced, felt and thought. The following is a case which gives a sense of
what I am describing.
A friend of mine called me and asked if I would help him in a consulting
assignment. He was doing organization development consulting for a company.
Most of his work had been training workers in group problem solving and
conducting team-building sessions with the supervisors. He had been working
with the firm for about six months and had more or less exhausted his bag of
tricks. He wanted to keep the client. They were paying him $1,000 a day and
expenses. My assignment was to advise him as to what to do next.
What I did was visit the firm. It was a single unit, corrugated carton
manufacturing company. My tour of the facilities revealed what I would say
was a normal or unexceptional plant. The equipment was standard. There was
no evidence of new or innovated manufacturing techniques. I interviewed two
workers. Then I interviewed the vice-president of sales and the comptroller.
After that I had lunch with the executive vice-president.
My friend, the consultant, was eager to learn what I recommended. We met
for dinner and he immediately asked:“If this was your consulting job, what
would you do?” I answered that I would buy expensive presents for the main
executives and tell them I was too busy to take the job. My friend was furious.
He wanted to know how in the hell I came to that conclusion. I explained: “You
are being used as a placebo in a Mafia money laundry scam”.
My friend’s immediate reaction was to demand: “How in the hell do you arrive
at that conclusion? You were only around the plant for about four hours”. I
explained that when I had lunch with the executive vice president I told him
that it seemed like the president of the company was on the edge of the Mafia.
The executive vice-president said: “On the edge, hell. He is in the middle of it”.
I was then interrogated as to how I arrived at my conclusion. It took me a
while to figure that one out. What seems to have happened is that from habit the
Journal of Organizational Change
Management, Vol. 7 No. 3, 1994,
pp. 6-7. MCB University Press,
© W.B. Wolf, 1993. Reproduced with the author’s permission from Wolf’s Wisdom: Parables for
Managers, Consultants and other Mortals.