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I was asked a few weeks ago, ‘What exactly is a Critical Friend?’, having just explained that is what I provide, for a range of organisations.
I explained it as someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback, that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues. The role of the critical friend is therefore a strategic one and can be important in assisting improvement. It is essentially a role of support and challenge.
My last few Critical Friend assignments have included contributing to a project to reduce 27 software applications at North West Social Housing Group Torus, assessing the quality of a tender submitted for housing solutions outside the UK, and and innovative housing sector product, useful for DLO's and In-House Contractors.
I work with many different types of organisations, Social Housing landlords, suppliers to the sector and ones looking to break into it. Why you might ask, would anyone need the services of a critical friend? Well, a very good client, I have worked with for many years explained it as, “because sometimes, you just don’t know, what you don’t know”. That is an accurate definition, but it must be recognised that culturally, particularly in the UK and Ireland, few people will tell you the painful truth.
When our friends or family come around to see us, we say, “Sit down, make yourself at home!”. Which as we all know is the exact opposite of what we would like them to do. I.E. Stay there, don’t mess with my books, music, my fridge (certainly don’t go rooting around there!!) etc. We won’t tell them the truth as we are sensitive that we may hurt their feelings.
So, when we are in a business or work setting, we tend to behave the same. If you ask other staff, customers, suppliers or associates, how something is, we rarely receive honest answers. I am sure you have experienced that.
Suppliers often work in isolation, thinking their products or solutions are brilliant, (or pants), often with no proper critical input, to confirm or deny that opinion. It is easy to work in ignorance, continuing to fail, or be successful without actually understanding why. When I work with suppliers, they receive a ‘warts and all’ view from me, taken from an encyclopedic knowledge and practical experience of the sector. I think many suppliers who could improve their products or presence in the housing sector, shoot themselves in the foot, by not engaging a suitably helpful critical friend. I often work with suppliers new to the socialhousing sector.
Landlords and RP’s also have benefitted from critical friend work we have done together, to review how they work, software they have and how they use it, help to procure and particularly help to implement selected solutions, to time and cost expectations. I am fortunate in that I spent 14 years on the dark side, as a supplier. Uniquely, I know what goes on over that side and supplier limitations. Also, I implemented getting on for two dozen systems, over 6 or more years, so I have knowledge of product, data extract, reconciliation, implementation, effective integration, training and project management. When looking at how clients and suppliers are tackling those areas, I bring a lot to the table.
Often clients have not implemented a new system before, or experienced transformation, bringing many systems into a few less. This can be daunting and its best to ask for help early, or factor in use of a critical friend early. It might only be a day or more a month in some cases, but it enables an outside view to be incorporated into what can sometimes be very stressful projects.
In critical friend work, I have sometimes been referred to as the ‘Bad Cop’, compared to the clients ‘Good Cop’ stance. I always think of my role as being to shine a torch on to issues, providing options and solutions to move them on quickly with suppliers and clients. That can sometimes be forceful, occasionally unpleasant, but its agreed that it’s got to be put out there. While my involvement is relatively short term and a little disruptive, to make things happen, the client will continue to have a strong, positive relationship, hopefully for many years going forward. Recent work with Torus Housing Group and others, has been very productive and transformative.
I smiled recently, to have been described as the ‘Swiss Army Knife Critical Friend’, due to my wide depth of knowledge and experience. That’s very nice of someone to say so, I certainly have all the tools to bring to the job, as and when they are needed. It was also remarked that, ‘it was good to have a true friend, always going that extra mile and batting on our side during our project’. That I think is the other key to a great critical friend, they need to bring a can-do attitude, together with experience and tools for the job.
Related Post: Have you complex and functional systems, not properly implemented?
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Tubeway Army – Are Friends Electric?.
(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting www.acutanceconsulting.co.uk 07854-655009
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