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Managing geodetic risks in E&P

Just for completeness, here’s another blog post I wrote at Exprodat last year (I forgot to repost it here) – a recap on geodetic integrity and some simple steps that oil and gas companies can take to protect themselves from mispositioning their data. It actually had a really good response from within the industry.

managing geodetic risks blog picture

Happy reading!

(Photo: private collection)




Re-evaluating your GIS

I recently wrote a new post over at Exprodat, discussing the conundrum of how to deal with unlimited technical options:

“In a world where everything is possible, you must first consider your true needs”.

Link here.

An edited version of this piece, customised for the marine sector, has also appeared in the quarterly magazine of The Hydrographic Society UKSoundings (paywall).

Challenging Perceptions: Journeys in the Global Oil Industry

Working in the global petroleum industry I’ve had the privilege of travelling to places I would never have visited otherwise. These journeys often provided remarkable encounters that challenged my preconceptions of different countries and cultures – and of the petroleum industry itself. The world is a complex place, but what we read in the news headlines is often oversimplified or misrepresented.

Here are some stories that made me think different about the world, appreciating its diversity and its multi-layered, nuanced nature – from gender equality in Islam to the redefinition of tropical paradise, from Norwegian liberalism to what it means to work in oil and gas.

world map

Locations featuring in the stories below.


Houston, Texas

Houston, the world’s oil capital, is a sprawling concrete jungle with endless freeways and shopping malls. People wear cowboy boots and eat man-size steaks. The dress code in oil companies consists of slacks, polo shirts and gym-sculpted bicepses. The 61st Mayor of Houston (2010 to 2015) was an openly gay woman with a green liberal agenda; she was re-elected twice, totalling three terms.

Feel free to read that last sentence again.


Mirror cube in the Museum of Fine Arts Sculpture Garden, another surprising find in Houston. (2013)



Tripoli and Sahara Desert, Libya

I visited Libya during Gaddafi’s regime in the late 2000s, after the lifting of economic sanctions. Tripoli had become a thriving boomtown with good infrastructure; clean and safe to walk around. Out in the desert, however, we were faced by a silent danger imported from European shores: German landmines left behind from World War II. In many areas we had to rely on bomb disposal experts to clear the way for seismic survey crews.

Today, Gaddafi’s dictatorship has gone, and the country has imploded into civil war. But in some areas those landmines, lurking beneath the sands, still pose a greater danger than anything that is happening above the surface.


German landmines from WWII, somewhere in the Libyan desert. (2007)



Seria, Brunei
Jakarta, Indonesia
Oman, Muscat
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The gender equality I’ve come across in Islamic countries is often more evenly balanced than anything I’ve seen in the West. This is particularly remarkable for technical disciplines such as geomatics and IT.

In Brunei, for example, almost 50% of the 30-strong geomatics department I once audited were female. These women occupied mostly junior positions, but western oil companies can only dream of such ratios. Some years later, one of these women was posted to her parent company in Europe, climbed up the ranks and returned to the Far East to become Head of Geomatics for the whole Asia-Pacific region.

It was a similar story with a major Jakarta-based operator: both the GIS and IT managers I dealt with were Muslim women. And in Oman, the Head of GIS at a ministry I worked for was a local women with nearly 20 years of technical experience. Next door, at the national oil company, one third of board directors (5 out of 15) were Omani women.

Once, when a client opportunity came up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we sent our people with the most relevant experience and expertise for this particular project. The fact that all three of them happened to be women did not raise any concerns, and the project was as successful as any other. It makes me proud to work with people who do the right thing regardless of any preconceptions other people might have.


The Sultan Qaboos Mosque at Muscat, Oman, is a marvel of modern Islamic architecture. (2014)



Perth, Australia

“Paradise is not some place you can look for… It’s how you feel for a moment.” – Alex Garland, The Beach.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Perth a few times on business. When schedules allowed I naturally headed for the beach. But Perth is also a windy place and, by evening, the sea was often too choppy to swim or surf. When I did get a swim in, it wasn’t always that pleasant. One day I got stung by a jellyfish. On another, a teenage surfer had a close encounter with a small shark (luckily it ended with just a few scratches). I had lived in Sydney many years ago, but this was not how I remembered paradise.

One day, though, I returned to Perth to find a major sculpture exhibition taking place on the beach. It was a stunning scene, with over a hundred artworks made of glass, metal and stone. The sun was just beginning to set and the sculptures reflected the vanishing daylight like giant amplifiers, magnifying the sense of occasion. The balmy night air filled with the sound of crickets and cockatoos, carried by the smells of dune grass and Norfolk pines. The full moon came up and, searching for the Southern Cross, I noticed that the Orion constellation was upside down – a reminder of how far away from home I was.

It was by now too late to go for a swim, but that didn’t matter. The unexpected sight of an art exhibition had erased my preconceptions of what I should be doing on a white sandy beach. It was perfect.

Later that night I went back to my city-centre hotel and badly missed my wife and children at the other side of the world. The moment was gone.


Sculpture exhibition at sunset on Cottesloe beach, Perth. (2015)



Port Harcourt, Nigeria

One of the joys of travelling to far flung places is to experience cultural differences. Like things I never knew were a problem:


Health & Safety concerns in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. (2005)



Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Astana, Kazakhstan

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Progress means different things to different people. In high-growth economies it tends to spawn tall buildings and shopping malls. The resulting familiarity of finding an Apple shop sandwiched between Starbucks and Louis Vuitton can be mind-numbing, like a geographic version of Groundhog Day. Add to that the packed schedule of a business trip, and there is often no time left to sample true local culture.

In Dubai, where I stayed for one night and ended up feeling I’d seen everything there is to see, my cultural highlight was the purchase of two duty-free bottles of Bombay Sapphire. To my great annoyance I left them behind on my flight home, maybe as a subconscious act of rebellion.

In Astana the architecture was positively bonkers, but at least it was in keeping with the local sense of humour. Apart from almonds and horsemeat, however, there was little else to differentiate Kazakhstan’s capital from any other global metropolis – which was probably the intention.

In KL I was repeatedly told “there is lots to see”.  But no matter how far I wandered around the city centre, it was impossible to escape the grip of luxury consumerism. When I enquired about what else there might be to do, someone suggested Times Square. I checked it out the next day: it was, of course, another shopping mall. And the best food I had all week was Japanese.

Vietnam, finally, provided a glimpse of how economic progress may retain a local vibe. Ho Chi Minh City was a curious blend of colonial history, communist capitalism, and distinctly Vietnamese street culture. Yes, there were western shops, a French cathedral, and even an Opera House playing Bach and Handel, but all of these were counter-balanced by busy streets filled with locals going about their daily business. Reassuringly, the city somehow retained its own madness, including millions of scooter riders that flowed through the streets like water – no traffic lights required.


Progress (clockwise from left): Astana, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City. (2013-2015)



San Diego, California

America is not renowned for being pedestrian-friendly. But America is also the country where everything is possible. And so, America is – of course – home to the only major city I know where everything, including the international airport, is within walking distance. There is a car park on top of the hill where you can almost touch the wheels of landing planes.

San Diego is one of my favourite destinations in the petroleum industry. Not just for its fabulous climate, but for the inspiration it provides as the host city of an important event: Esri’s annual GIS User Conference. During this time over 15,000 delegates from every conceivable industry sector converge from around the world to share their passion about maps and geography. It is literally a breath of fresh air. And not just because you can walk everywhere.


View of San Diego airport from a residential street. Photo by Eric Harmatz (2007) on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.



Aberdeen, UK

I used to visit Aberdeen quite regularly. It never rained when I was there. I don’t dare go back now, in case I break the spell.


Heading into the Cairngorm mountains near Aberdeen, Scotland. (2009)



Cairo, Egypt

I remember the pyramids, and the grumpy camels. I remember the death-defying taxi ride to the airport, wondering whether it may be my last.

But I remember mostly Mohammed, our host. He wore trousers with braces and big, thick-framed glasses, and he had a wicked sense of humour.

Every time Cairo makes the news I can’t help but think of Mohammed.


Sunset over Cairo. Photo by Loic Lagarde (2009) on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.




At Changi Airport I once missed a connecting flight. The only option of getting to Perth on time was to buy a new ticket with another airline. But the cost I was being quoted was preposterous, and the flight options limited. I tried another desk, where a friendly ticketing officer tipped me off about a travel agent that was quietly tucked away in a remote corner of the underground lobby. Indeed, this agent had seats on flights that only 10 minutes earlier I was told were full – and for much cheaper. But there was a catch: cash only.

So here I was in Singapore, one of the most advanced and connected cities on earth, securing my seat on an intercontinental flight like a dodgy dealer – with a massive pile of dollar bills.

In times of emergency, cash is still the most powerful currency. (And luckily the ATM didn’t eat my card.)


Departing Changi Airport on an intercontinental flight paid for, 3 hours earlier, entirely in cash. (2015)



Above China

I’ve never been to China, except for Hong Kong airport and a brief hike in the nearby mountains of Lantau Island between connecting flights. Perched on top of a mountain ridge, looking down at the South China Sea, was not very different to being in an aeroplane – except for the fresh air, of course. And, walking past a giant Buddha statue, I learned that Chinese people love selfie sticks.

But that’s my entire experience of China in a nutshell. Even though I’ve crossed its length by air a number of times, I basically don’t know anything first-hand about the most populous nation on Earth.

It’s the same story with many other countries in the world. I’ve seen Mount Fuji in Japan, or Mount Elbrus in Russia – but only through a protective layer of plexiglass.

If you fly over a country at 30,000 feet, or touch down at one its airports, or even decamp to one of its nearby hotels, have you actually been there? As a frequent business traveller I’ve visited many places, but how many of these were more than just a simple shift in spacetime coordinates?


Top: Full moon and mountains, somewhere above China. Bottom: View atop Lantau Island, near Hong Kong airport – note the giant Buddha on the ridge. (2014-2015)



Stavanger, Norway

Norwegians, like all Scandinavians, are renowned for their open and egalitarian attitudes. But on successive trips to Stavanger I found the limits of their liberalism in a graffiti depicting Mona Lisa in a pose deviating from da Vinci’s original masterpiece:


Graffiti depicting Mona Lisa in Stavanger, Norway. (April vs October 2013)



The Hague, Netherlands

Holland is where I started my career in the oil industry. I was first posted to regional operations in a northern town, followed by an assignment at global head offices in The Hague. This dashed some of my preconceptions of the industry.

As anywhere in the Netherlands, most staff commuted by bike or tram. Not only did they slightly dent their employer’s oil revenues in doing so, but many of the geoscientists I worked with were active outdoor enthusiasts with a natural affinity for the environment. One senior geologist I worked with was a proud member of Greenpeace; he went on to lead oil exploration teams in Africa and Russia.

Everyone was made to attend countless Health, Safety, and Environment briefings. People obsessed about healthy, ergonomic work places. Holding the handrail on the stairs was mandatory at all times. Environmental standards were such that often no expense was spared to get permission to drill, whether by wrapping an entire rig in a sound-absorbing cocoon or rerouting a pipeline to avoid whale breeding grounds.

As a group of GIS analysts we mapped oil and gas assets, but we also mapped environmental sensitivities and animal migration paths. In one project I helped locate a massive wind farm off the Dutch coast; the success of this project largely depended on offshore expertise derived from decades of oil and gas experience.

The energy industry is huge and complex, but mostly it’s an industry that is changing dramatically. These experiences have marked new beginnings in every sense of the word. Long may it continue.


Wind turbines in the Dutch North Sea, installed using expertise and investment from the offshore petroleum industry. (2007)


Text and photographs by the author, unless indicated otherwise.
World map made with ArcGIS Online, where this post originally appeared as a story map.

True or false? Norway upside-down would reach Africa

Map projections can play funny tricks on people. Recently, over a couple of beers, a Norwegian friend told me that the size of his native land is best imagined as follows: if you rotated Norway around its southernmost tip, it would reach Africa.

Fair enough, it’s a big country!

But a few days later, the geodesist in me felt compelled to check if it is true. Keen on any excuse to play around with maps and projections, I fired up GIS.

We all know that most people look at the world through the lens of the Mercator projection. And indeed, if we rotate Norway on the plane of this projection, it does reach into Africa:


So is it true?

We also know that Mercator famously exaggerates areas towards the pole. So could this make a bloated North swing too far south?

Let’s choose a map projection more suited to the purpose of this particular exercise, e.g. the orthographic projection (a.k.a. “the world from space”) which mimics a globe view.

If we centre this projection on the southern tip of Norway (the point of rotation for this experiment), the distances radiating from this point should remain comparable in any direction (albeit not true in an absolute sense).

And here’s the result:


Alas, Norway does not reach Africa – it only stretches to the French Riviera.

To verify, you can measure it on Google Earth or, even simpler, just look at it on a desk globe.

In other words, it’s yet another myth perpetuated by the Mercator projection. It distorts people’s world views and undermines geographic understanding.

To illustrate the point further, here are the comparisons on the orthographic projection (left) and Mercator projection (right), where the red areas are the Mercator-based  rotations of Norway, and the black areas the original and orthographic versions. The scale of the deception is especially apparent with Norway’s arctic islands of Svalbard bloated beyond all proportions:



Credits: Data from Natural Earth and ArcGIS Online. Maps produced with ArcGIS Pro.

Test your geomatics knowledge with this artwork

The intersection of art and science is known to be a fertile ground for creativity and innovation. If at first you can’t see much overlap between art and geomatics, I challenge you to draw a Venn diagram and think again. Cartography, visualisation, geodesign, architecture… the list goes on.

And then there is land art.

Land artists use nature as canvas and exhibition space for their artworks. From huge spirals in the desert to sun tunnels, land art is a kind of outdoor sculpture that often requires accurate positioning and alignment within the landscape – in other words, geospatial expertise.

There is one particular piece of land art that would make a perfect set of exam questions for geomatics students.

The Lightning Field is located in a remote area of New Mexico, and consists of 400 stainless-steel poles erected in a precise grid pattern covering an area of 1 mile x 1 kilometre. Designed and installed by land artist Walter de Maria, it’s been dubbed one of the most significant works of art of the late 20th century. The idea is that the poles attract lightning during thunderstorms, thereby inducing Mother Nature to put on its own show. But also without lightning, The Lightning Field is designed to convey a deep sense of space and isolation for those few people lucky enough to ever wander around it. (Yes, it’s on my bucket list.)

The Lightning Field (photo by thefriendlyuser, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Lightning Field (photo by thefriendlyuser, Flickr Creative Commons)

But anyway, here’s the geomatics bit.

The poles are not just arranged in a precise grid of 220 feet (67.06 metres) squares, but also their tips are aligned in a horizontal plane such that they support a perfectly flat, imaginary sheet of glass:


In other words, despite the natural undulations of the desert plateau, the tip of every pole is at exactly the same elevation above mean sea level. In fact, the height of the poles varies between 5 and 8 metres.

So here’s some exam questions:

  1. What geomatics techniques would you use, and how, to ensure that all poles – and their tips – end up exactly in the right position, horizontally and vertically, within a tolerance of say, 5 cm?
  2. How would you work out the length of each pole required, knowing they all need to be buried 30 centimetres deep into the ground?
  3. What techniques would you have used in 1977 when the Lightning Field was installed? (i.e. no personal computers, no GPS, no drones, no cheap 3D modelling software, no laser or electronic distance measurement tools)
  4. Geospatially speaking, if you wanted to realise the Lightning Field in the most (unnecessarily) creative way that somehow involves all major branches of geomatics (GIS, remote sensing, photogrammetry, geodesy & surveying), how would you do it?

With today’s plethora of geospatial technology on offer, there are many ways of doing it. But mind you, not all of them would be accurate enough.

Feel free to post your answers below… or maybe you can think of further questions to ask!

P.S.  I doubt you can google the answers; I couldn’t find an online reference to how the Lightning Field was originally surveyed in the 1970s. If you find one do let me know!

This post first appeared on my LinkedIn blog.


Geospatial careers: 12 things I’ve learned… so far

This post first appeared last week on my LinkedIn blog where it received an overwhelming response (thank you!). I’m reposting it here on Georeferenced for archival purposes. As for everything posted here you are welcome to re-use it under the Creative Commons license. Feel free to comment below or, preferrably, on LinkedIn.

Greetings from the Libyan desert. (author's private collection)

Greetings from the Libyan desert (author’s private collection)

Last month, when I was interviewed on GeoHipster, people seemed to take note especially of the comments I had made on geospatial careers. So here is an extended version of my thoughts, and I’d be really interested in yours too. What have you learned?? Please add it below!

Note: By ‘Geospatial’ I mean GIS, GIM, Geomatics, Surveying, Cartography, etc. – take your pick.

1. Make up your mind: Geospatial vs X

The geospatial profession cuts across many disciplines, so you first need to decide what your professional identity is. If you are committed to a geospatial career you are basically making a choice not to be a geographer, geoscientist, engineer, computer scientist, urban planner or whatever else you might be mistaken for. If you want to be one of those things, go study their subjects and enter their professions proper – it’s much harder to get there via the geospatial route. Of course you can also be a bit of both, and such a combination is highly valuable. But the career of a geologist who has GIS skills will probably look very different to the career of a GIS professional who also knows about geology. In fact, as a geospatial professional you need to know about many other things too, being both a generalist and a specialist. You’ll work with many disciplines, providing input and joining things up (hence also the comparison with architects in my interview). So you need to be clear: Are you a geospatial professional, or a professional in another field who also has some geospatial knowledge? The difference can be huge.

2. Build a technical foundation early in your career

Geospatial is a technical profession. Whether you want to be a guru analyst, champion account manager or visionary CEO, in the geospatial domain you will have little success and credibility without a solid grounding in its technical aspects. So resist the temptation of going into managerial or commercial positions too soon. Clients can spot bullshitters a mile off, and so can your staff (but they may be cruel enough not to tell you). Get as much work under your belt as possible, looking for a diverse range of technical responsibilities. It may not pay big bucks now but it’s a long-term career investment that will pay dividends later. Besides, once you reach that coveted leadership position you may well find all that glitters is not gold. Doing stuff is often more satisfying than talking about stuff. But, just like teenagers wanting to be adults and adults wanting to be young, you may only learn this the hard way.

3. Build a unique skillset

You can’t be all things to all people. This is especially true in the geospatial domain where many ‘geospatial’ skills overlap with those of other disciplines. If you dilute yourself too much as a geospatial professional you’ll end up becoming the Swiss army knife that people only use when there’s nothing better to hand. Also, it’s not enough to be good at “programming” or “making maps”. These days, any five-year old can do that. Ask yourself, what is unique to you? Where can you make a difference? This could initially be a single skill (say, geoprocessing for environmental workflows), later growing to become a unique combination of skills. The list is potentially endless, hence the need to focus.

4. Focus

The geospatial arena is very broad and cuts across all industries, so it’s very easy to go off in different directions. This brings with it a lot of opportunities – and distractions. Make conscious choices at every step. Ask yourself: What skills am I learning to apply here? What goal will this help me achieve? What development gaps am I plugging? Don’t just fall into things unless serendipity is your chosen life philosophy.

5. Depth vs breadth

As in all technical professions you will, at some point, face an important decision between depth or breadth. Do you want to become a technical guru, or go after a more general role such as project management, sales or leadership? In some scenarios you may be able to hang on to both but that’s tough – just ask any geospatial entrepreneur or freelancer. Again, this requires conscious choices. Remember, after you’ve left the technical track for a while it can be hard to get back on it.

6. Learn ‘the business’

This may sound contradictory to some points above but OK, life is full of contradictions. It’s not enough to have geospatial knowledge, you also need to understand the industry vertical in which you are applying it. Your data analysis skills may be legendary but if you don’t understand what your clients do for a living and the specific issues they face, you’ll only scratch the surface with generic solutions and get nowhere. Google for example has the best map in the world but they have learned to leave market verticals alone – it’s a different kind of expertise, and that is where you come in.

7. Embrace the full geospatial lifecycle

The geospatial data lifecycle is long and varied, and people often get sucked into a particular area such as data management, IT development, or surveying – and end up staying there. Whatever you do, though, make sure you gain exposure to the full lifecycle, not just your immediate area of expertise. Understanding how data flows from data capture to manipulation, analysis and visualisation is critical. So from GPS to geostats, from GIS to JavaScript, stay up-to-date and try to gain knowledge across the board, even if all you can do is learn the basics. Also acquaint yourself with the softer aspects of data including legal, commercial and policy considerations. Whatever your role, you cannot afford to ignore these things.

8. Go out into the field

Field experience will immensely boost your geospatial understanding and professional credibility. Let’s face it, you can’t solve the world’s problems from behind a computer. Get out there and see for yourself what the real issues are. I started off my career as a surveyor and geodesist, but soon ended up in the office doing ‘GIS’ for a big oil company. When, years later, I finally got the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks with seismic survey crews in the Libyan desert, it blew my mind. The sights, the smells, the sounds – it all made sense. And it made me have slight regrets of not having done it sooner, and for a longer period of time. If you ever get the slightest chance to take on a field-based role overseas or closer to home, grab it with both hands while you can. The office can wait.

9. Travel and keep moving

In my opinion travel is still the best way of finding inspiration and learning. If you can somehow combine this with your career, even better. As a young student in Luxembourg and Germany I suddenly saw my whole life flash in front of me, and embarked on a drastic change. I took out a big bank loan and enrolled at a renowned university in Sydney, Australia to continue my geospatial studies there. It was the best investment I ever made, and a turning point in my life that completely changed everything that followed. If you can’t travel or relocate physically, at least consider ‘travelling’ between different industries or working for different-sized organisations – you’ll be come a more rounded professional as a result. Just make sure your CV does not end up looking like you’re suffering from chronically itchy feet. Don’t move on until your learning curve goes flat, and remember that many organisations can offer new roles and challenges internally.

10. Never stop learning, and look beyond geospatial

In my book, status quo equals decline. You can never afford to rest on your laurels, especially not with the rate of technological change we’re seeing. Having said that, don’t waste your time following hysterical technology blogs that proclaim “the next big thing” every 5 minutes. Unless you’re the next Steve Jobs you’re much better off investing your time in learning how to exploit the latest trends for your own needs. Also, find out what can you learn from other, unrelated fields. To me learning is not about collecting badges, diplomas or even CPD points. Learning happens everywhere – you just need to know what to look for. You may learn something in an art museum that you can apply to your cartography. You may learn something from your kids’ Lego set that you can use in your geoprocessing workflow. You may learn something from a philosophy book that you can incorporate into your leadership style or negotiation strategy. And most importantly, you can learn a lot from other people.

11. Learning from people

With all their strengths and imperfections, every boss I ever had taught me something valuable. When I was on placement as a grad student, the chief surveyor showed me the value of delegation by taking a risk and trusting me to do a full building site survey on my own. Another one taught me how to run a team and develop people. And so on. But don’t just look to bosses as role models. You can learn something from literally anybody: colleagues, friends, family, children, random encounters. Mentors are obviously useful too, but don’t overlook the opportunities that day-to-day interactions bring. Nobody knows everything, but you can piece together a lot by talking to different people and collecting different viewpoints (and in return share with them what you think). Learning from mistakes can also be powerful, but again don’t just blindly follow the mantras from fashionable business or technology blogs (“fail fast” etc.). A product flop may well hold useful lessons but some things, like building bridges or positioning oil rigs, are best not done by trial and error. Be open minded, but don’t switch off your critical functions.

12. It’s not about the career, stupid

Finally, let’s take a step back and consider this for a moment. We live on a small planet orbiting a star, going round and round in circles. Sooner or later this star will explode in a massive supernova. Whatever you believe in, you were probably not put on this planet to file papers, collect badges, or clock endless miles on a hamster wheel (besides, the Earth’s orbit is doing that for you already). So whatever you do, you should do it because you love doing it – not because it has better career prospects in some distant, uncertain future. Career development can take on many shapes and forms (upwards, sideways, deeper, broader) – and then one day the Sun will blow up and destroy everything you ever worked for. You’ll never regain the time wasted doing something you didn’t enjoy. A career is basically a journey where, one day, you can look back and say, that was fun! Nothing more.

So actually, forget everything I said. Go your own way. Good luck!

The value of questions

(I’m currently experimenting with writing about general topics going beyond geospatial. This piece, like the last one, is reposted here from my LinkedIn blog.)


“Good question,” said the geologist, “nobody has ever asked me that before. Hmm… I’d say about 30%.”

His response identified the crux of the issue – and it was much bigger than what I had been hired to investigate. I’d asked the geologist how much of his time he spend doing… geology.

Voltaire, the French philosopher, is known to have said that people should be judged by their questions not their answers. In many situations a pertinent question can indeed be more effective than the ‘right’ answer. And sometimes the most obvious questions can be the most incisive.

This is not easily done. I’ve noticed this especially since becoming a consultant. There is often an expectation that, as a so-called expert, you should show off your skills and experience by providing authoritative advice. After all, how else can you justify your salary or day rate?

But providing answers can be a problem.

If you use your expertise to simply prescribe solutions, it narrows down the options for the recipient and reduces their ownership. They will have no choice but to depend on your advice – or reject it.

This is as true for client-consultant relations as for any other relationship at work or at home. Just try prescribing ‘expert’ advice to your husband/wife or teenage kids… Now, how effective was that? Did you live to tell the tale?

Whether you’re an individual or an organisation, you should never outsource the core of your very existence: decision-making. It’s throwing your problem over the fence. It’s avoiding the tough questions that enable you to progress. It’s keeping you vulnerable, and you’ll get stuck.

Unless you’re dealing with an emergency, no problem can ever truly be solved from the outside. If you’ve got a bad back because of lack of exercise, you simply need to exercise more. Outsourcing your gym membership to someone else won’t fix it.

Business is no different. The job of a good consultant (or colleague, or boss) is to find useful questions that help people find their own answers, and then let them get on with it. It’s basically like therapy without the couch, and it can work miracles. As a client or project sponsor this is the kind of service you should be asking for – not a bulky report which nobody reads.

Projects succeed when people within an organisation are empowered to take full ownership. This works because people are intelligent enough to come up with their own solutions, given the right information. The expertise comes in helping people discover this information without judging or prescribing. For a solution to succeed it needs to be their idea, not yours.

Your expertise is to take them there – by asking the right questions.

Too busy being busy?

I love my new job: great people, interesting projects, exotic locations. When, 18 months ago, I joined a boutique consultancy I had a flying start – and I’ve had a total blast ever since. But in truth, after 15 years in the corporate world, it wasn’t an easy adjustment to make.

The challenge with the transition manifested itself particularly when working from home between office and client trips. Sat at my computer, I often felt strangely unproductive (and even guilty), despite working hard and making a difference. I first blamed it on domestic distractions – a beeping washing machine, a ringing doorbell – but that didn’t really explain the feeling. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

And then it hit me.

I missed being ‘busy’. I missed my diary filling itself up with meetings, guiding me through the day like handrails. I missed an overflowing inbox to keep me occupied. I missed having random issues of varying urgency and importance thrown at me from all directions, so I could prioritise, delegate or delay actions.

As consultant working directly for fee-paying clients I now had the relative luxury of being able to focus on just a couple of projects at a time, which was something I hadn’t experienced since I was an analyst in my early career. There was much less overhead activity to deal with, meaning my time was now free to get stuff done, rather than talk about getting stuff done.

So now, devoid of the many forms of distraction I had grown accustomed to, I actually felt anxious. I was now in control of my own diary, but afraid of wasting my time through nobody’s fault but my own. The kind of busyness I was used to had acted as a guide and protective cocoon, but it had also numbed my senses and prevented me from being truly productive. This realisation came a bit as shock as I had always prided myself on empowering my teams with a flexible and holistic work ethic. It was time to eat my own dog food.

I’ve since realised that many corporate working habits are just various forms of procrastination in disguise. Sure, in large organisations there are many lines of communication to deal with, but a busy schedule can be no more effective at making progress than wildly thrashing about in the water to cross an ocean. The effectiveness of multitasking is a myth. You either need to step up, or step back.

So now, I’ve rediscovered that a walk in the woods can be more productive than curating my inbox, or that a chat in a coffee shop can have more impact than all office meetings combined. The best ideas can arise whilst emptying the washing machine. Truly productive work comes in many shapes and forms. And as knowledge workers, there is no need for us to clock in and out of offices as if it was still the Victorian times.

What are you busy doing today?


This post is reprinted here from my Linkedin blog (posted yesterday).