This post on how giving our clients what’s popular instead of what works ultimately undermines consulting effectiveness continues our series that looks at what interferes with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. It speaks to both internal and external consultants––and to their clients––about the tensions between doing what is fashionable and providing genuine service.
Remember reengineering? It is a good example of an idea that became the rage and consultants that made promises to the point they were unsustainable. After a good run, the work fell of its own weight. We might say that the clients did not adequately implement what the consultants recommended, but that argument is too one-sided.
The idea that organizations should be structured according to a customer-driven work process rather than by discipline-driven vertical silos makes sense. It is a way to break up the bureaucracies that made organizations unable to give customers a unique, quick, anytime-anywhere response. As the methodology became more and more popular, it reached a point where whatever change we had in mind was called reengineering. Every department thought it was reengineering itself. I even heard individuals say they were in the process of reengineering themselves. The energy was more about becoming part of a movement than about becoming better. Reengineering became synonymous with restructuring and was sold by the large accounting and consulting firms with promises of a 30 to 50 percent return on the investment.
The bloom was soon off the rose. A large fashion company spent $600 million in consulting fees alone to restructure itself and bring up-to-date information technology to its business. After years of investment, a leader of this company acknowledged publicly that the effort had not been successful and eventually 2,500 employees were reassigned, retired, or laid off to help, in effect, finance the venture.
The dark side of reengineering threatened our whole profession because the promises made to sell the work either were never fulfilled or could finally be achieved only by eliminating jobs on a wide scale. In fact, many of the clients of reengineering projects soon began undoing their efforts because they found the concept unworkable. Some even sued to get their money back.
Reengineering is a good example of two complexities consultants still face: how we take advantage of what is in vogue and how we pursue covert purposes. When an idea is fashionable it becomes, almost by definition, a cosmetic solution. When consultants offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care. If we were strictly a business you would say, “What’s the problem? Customer is always right. We only gave them what they asked for.” Being also a service function, though, means that something more is due to the client.
Clients have a right to expect the consultant to decide whether what the client is willing to buy will deliver what the client really needs. If the client manager asks for a service that will not help, or may even be harmful, then when does the consultant say no and turn away the work? It is a tough thing to do, especially for internal consultants.
The other complexity that doing what is in vogue brings to mind is that consulting risks becoming a form of double-dealing––for example, when force reductions are packaged as organization improvement. In the case of reengineering, who could argue with restructuring for the sake of the customer? Organizations went through a long process of interviews, redesign teams, and extensive selling and training for the new system, when the real net result of the effort was the elimination of jobs with little real change in culture or function.
When I reflect on the complexities consultants face, the most surprising one is the willingness of line managers to follow the fashions and buy what is popular.
Whether it’s core competence, embracing mistakes, Six Sigma or whatever, many of the largest consulting efforts never deliver on their promise. Once the fashion parade begins, though, there is no stopping it, and we consultants participate and profit from it.
Consultants make a living by giving legitimacy to a manager’s efforts to sell an idea internally. Or to play the bad cop in pushing unpopular decisions, rationalizing cutbacks, implementing get-tough, back-to-basics strategies. It is the timidity of our captains of industry that drives these uses of consultants, but we need to own the nature of our participation.
Flawless Consulting Skills offer a different approach to consulting conversations! When participants learn about some of those skills, they tell me that “You can’t do or say that in our culture; you can do that in your organization, but here, it’s just not acceptable.” I hear the same thing from people in Barcelona, Chicago, Dublin, Istanbul, Tokyo, or Vienna – all across the planet.
What is it that we can’t do because of their culture?
We would like to talk about our wants, raise tough issues, offer alternatives, or deal with resistance but the risk feels too great. We feel that neither certain individuals nor the culture is ready for a different conversation. Our desire is to have Clients that see us as valuable, competent, and relevant.
We worry that using some of the Flawless Consulting Skills may disrupt the organization. Our experiences bias our thinking. So, we keep it safe. We do what the Client wants us to do. We don’t raise tough issues. We say “Yes” when we want to say “No.” Better to keep things comfortable. We “live with it”, blaming the culture and hoping that things change in the future.
Yet, we created the culture we complain about through the conversations we have with each other. If we want a different culture, we need to change our thinking, and change our conversations!
What does it take to do that? Courage!
Courage is about owning the choices we make and owning the results of those choices. It means taking a risk to deepen a relationship. It means tough conversations about unspoken issues.
Courage–the foundation of Flawless Consulting–is being authentic. It is about talking in simple, direct words with compassionate, respectful tones. It means having tough conversations, listening to others’ concerns, and being slow to give advice. Courage is offering choice and freedom. It is a precious gift to give others.
So, what do you do to act with courage?
1. Ask yourself, “What’s keeping me from trying these skills?”
What are others doing that makes me cautious or concerned?
When they do that how do I respond, what do I do?
What response do I need to choose to change the conversation?
2. Practice! This will build your confidence.
Even if you think you already use the skill or think the skill is inappropriate, take advantage of the time to practice in a safe environment–especially during the workshop.
Have a colleague practice with you.
Video yourself using your cell phone.
3. Start with friendlies!
Talk to a couple of Clients that you have a good relationship with and tell them you want to start using the skills and ask for patience as you try them.
Until you’ve had some practice and built your confidence, avoid trying them on your toughest Clients
4. Start using the skills with everyone.
…And if you choose not to use the skills, own your choice. Don’t blame the culture or others!
I’d love to hear about your acts of courage. Drop me a note. Let me know how it’s going.
Learn more about how you can influence your clients to take action on your recommendations, producing stronger organizational outcomes with this webinar from Designed Learning’s Managing Partner, Jeff Evans.
One of the most important lessons I have learned in my years as a consultant is that a project’s outcome, success, or failure is highly connected to the contract set up with the client. Everything comes back to the contracting phase. Were you crystal clear on the scope? Did you agree to openly share feedback with your client? Did you ask for what you need to be successful? Do you feel like this is the right client to be working with?
One of the things we teach in Flawless Consulting is how to effectively contract with your client. The outcome of this preliminary phase is to generate an agreement about what the work is, how the work will be executed, and what underlying client relationship is needed. When this is done well, the end result feels really good. As a consultant, you feel seen, validated and set up for success.
What separates a good contracting conversation from a Flawless contracting conversation?
Whereas a good contracting conversation hits all the bullets on your agenda, a Flawless contracting conversation is characterized by depth and authenticity. It connects the players a personal level. It confirms the initial organizational issue. It allows both parties to vulnerably ask for what they want. It creates a level playing field where the consultant and the client can lean into each other for support. Sounds pretty legitimate, right?
Many times I have walked away from a contracting conversation and have felt good. It was easy. I hit everything on my agenda and the client was amiable. After reflecting, I start to think that maybe it was too easy. Did I really dig deep with the client to better understand her level of commitment? Did I address any noticeable resistance? Perhaps I contracted for giving the client feedback, but did I inquire into how that feedback should be delivered? An effective contracting conversation is thorough, relational, professional and at times edgy. Lean into the edge but maintain professional credibility.
I challenge you to go there and to model the type of relationship you want to have from the very beginning. Don’t sell yourself short during this seemingly easy, but critical step of the process. Be the bold consultant that you know you are. Get on your client’s level. This allows you to be a true strategic partner in the effort and it sets you up for success. Remember, contracting is crucial!
We have very little resistance in our culture, Charlie.” came the statement from a participant. “We feel that our open collaborative culture promotes working together and so we just don’t encounter much resistance.”
I’ve heard those words in the Flawless Consulting Skills workshops. They come from a mindset – strategy or approach – that staff or service groups develop toward internal consulting. This mindset believes:
The customer (client) is always right.
Our client is in management and they know what they want.
Our job is to serve…to respond to their requests.
We do not question the clients plans.
We avoid disagreeing with the client since it could be seen as a challenge to the client’s authority.
Our goal is to make things work using our expertise, our special and unique knowledge.
With such an approach, internal consultants often minimize their wants, skip Discovery & Feedback phases, and move quickly to Implementation. In Flawless Consulting, the name for such a mindset is the “Pair of Hands Role” in which the Internal Consultant takes a passive, transactional role deferring to the judgment and wishes of the client.
The upside of such a role is that decisions come quickly, implementation is fast, the Consultant knows what to do, and conflict is avoided. The hope is for a successful outcome based on the client’s plan. It fits into the work smarter and harder pressures of today’s world.
The downside is that the Consultant assumes the client has correctly identified the situation and its solution. Such an assumption may impact the Consultants’ credibility and reputation if the client is wrong. Also, the Consultant may be under-utilized offering little to identifying the situation accurately or generating ideas for an effective solution. Over time, the Pair of Hands approach can lead to the Internal Consultant being seen as low value added.
The most severe consequence comes when we don’t have a real problem or implement the right solution. This costs time and money in rework and damages our credibility.
The Pair of Hands role is a choice based on a mindset wanting to serve and please our clients. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong. Like every choice we make, it has consequences. Knowing those consequences before we make a choice is helpful.
So little or no resistance from the client may be a sign that we’re operating as a Pair of Hands. If we want to change that, we need to change our conversations. The “Contracting” meeting from Flawless Consulting describes that new conversation and helps build the skills needed to move toward a real collaborative role and a real partnership.
I’ll leave you with something to think about.
“What is my approach (mindset) to working with my clients and what are the results we’re getting?”
I’d love to hear your stories. Drop me a note. Let me know how it’s going