Hollywood Westerns have a great tradition of temporary outsiders - Gunslingers - who come to town, offer a solution, then move on again.

Some teams are fortunate enough to bring in external consultants, however not every team has a budget for that and not every initiative requires an external consultant. In these cases, we can leverage our own teams to find Gunslingers. The law of the golden hammer says that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Despite our best efforts, that type of misguided but well-meaning thinking can sometimes affect us all, and an outside perspective can be valuable in helping cut to the heart of an issue, without foreknowledge, prejudice, or assumption. A Gunslinger, as a temporary outsider of the immediate group or process under review, can see opportunities or obstacles that those of us too close to the topic may have in our blind spots.

Last year, I had the opportunity to serve as Gunslinger on a major initiative, and I learned a few things. Our organization has team members at a few locations, including one team that can sometimes seem a bit cut off from the studio as a whole (that team mostly resides in two locations, neither of which is primary Studio location). Other than their remote status, the team could also largely be characterized by their steadiness and long history in the company. Most team members had been here for quite a few years, their client base was reliable and happy with services provided and there seemed to be little need for change.

Because of this, the team did not get as much attention as other teams whose business might be more complex, problematic and/or offer greater opportunity for improvements and growth. In short, a review of the team was often pushed down the list by more dramatic priorities, both positive and negative. Sensing some frustration around the team's performance and culture, I volunteered to conduct a review of the team--even though it was outside my area of responsibility. Like Clint Eastwood, I would come to town, take care of business, then head out again.

I started by asking high-level stakeholders both within and outside of the team, for their buy-in and also by asking them what they would like to see come from this review. What questions and issues would they like to see addressed? Initially, there was some concern among the team members about why the review was being done now. The simple answer was just that someone was ready to take it on, but getting the stakeholders onboard required some trust building, leading to my initial advice:

  • Don't step on any toes - You're an outsider here, so tread lightly.
  • Establish trust - I don't think it's wrong that people want to know why you're looking over their shoulder (or even to wonder why you're there at all), so tell them.
  • Establish value and the WIIFM - By doing this review I was able to help my colleague who oversaw the team, but also a number of other stakeholders who had unanswered questions... in some cases, questions they didn't even realize they had until a Gunslinger came to town and asked!When I moved on to interview the individual team members, it would be an understatement to say that there were trust issues. However, it was primarily because I was from "Head Office," and I was able to leverage Gunslinger status to address any skepticism. Once I was able to explain that I was simply there for information, my position outside the direct chain of command for the team was a definite plus.

Spring-boarding off the previous lessons:

  • Don't rock the boat, just learn about it - My Gunslinger status meant that, not only was I not looking to make changes, but I couldn't. This placed me in a unique position that provided unique advantages.As an outsider rather than a direct supervisor, I was able to get many of the team members to open up about their honest concerns, and I was ultimately able to gather quite a bit of useful information. The broad conclusions were not that surprising, but some of the fine points were unexpected. Some issues proved to be far more troubling than anticipated, while others were in much better shape. I even learned a few things I was able to take back to share with my own team to improve the relationship between the two groups.

And when I was done, there was a final lesson in being a Gunslinger:

  • Get in, get out, move on - Part of the deal for me in this, and similar circumstances, is that I'm there to advise and educate, nothing more.So, I passed on my information. Some changes were implemented, others were not. New observations were formed once others got involved.

And me? Like John Wayne at the end of an old time Western, I rode off into the sunset content that, although many folk might not realize, I had done my part to help improve the situation.