Collaborative Consulting: Three Degrees of Difficulty

Consulting—especially collaborative consulting—requires artful presence and, consequently, is inherently difficult. It requires us to manage at three levels simultaneously: the consulting process, our relationship with the client, and ourselves.

In my view, Peter Block’s description of a practitioner-based process represents one of the great contributions of Flawless Consulting. Collaborative consulting requires paying attention to the process while simultaneously being willing to improvise within it. This represents the first degree of difficulty.

W. Edwards Deming, in his quality control work (and I think he is not fully appreciated as an OD practitioner), discusses “natural” vs “special” variation. Collaborative consulting has a lot of natural variation resulting from organizational complexity and the uncertainty of human behavior. The problem with behavioral “science” is that the standard deviations are significant. Little we do is 100% predictable, yet there is an underlying process we as consultants are responsible for knowing and following.

Can I use the contracting conversation to open the doors to discovery and the meeting for decision? Can I renegotiate my wants when the scope and scale of the work changes? Can I confront the client with how his behavior affects the situation we are discussing? Can I identify the real client?

Each client is unique. Do I have the interpersonal flexibility to adapt to and connect with my clients? Can I interact with compassion and authenticity? So, managing the client relationship in a way that engenders trust and openness represents the second degree of difficulty.

Personally, I apply Carl Jung’s principles (and teach them) as part of my consulting and coaching practice. My personal favorite is Insights Discovery—but the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, and others all rest on the same foundation. What clues to the client rest in the physical appearance of her/his office? Is it neatly arranged and orderly with a lot of manuals? I’m probably going to need to be precise and detail oriented in my approach. Is it more casual with toys and a playful feel? I probably need to dial up my extroverted-feeling energy. In adapting, I have to remind myself that introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling, sensing/intuition are preferences I’ve developed and not hard-wired characteristics.

 If I want to connect (and we teach the principle of connection before content in our work), I will be more successful if I can move closer to the client’s preferences.

Managing myself in the face of client behavior, emotional resistance, lack of responsiveness, indecisiveness, and intellectual challenges represents the third degree of difficulty. For me personally, attitude toward authority is something I must continually monitor. There is a part of me that wants to find those who have power wrong simply because they have power. There is a part of me that wants to be viewed as capable. There is a part of me that wants to be seen as helpful. When I indulge any of these wants uncritically and without awareness, I can get in trouble as a consultant. If I am sitting in judgment, true connection will be unlikely. If I want to be seen as knowledgeable, I can get into expert mode. If I am intimidated by the client’s power, I might withhold valuable feedback or lapse into a pair of hands work because it feels safer.

How we handle these personal issues materially affects how we do our work. Let me conclude with a reference to Shakespeare. There are clients who want to seduce us into offering “expert” advice that supports their view of the world. This is captured in Julius Caesar in Act 2, Scene 1, when Metellus says:

“Oh, let us have him, for his silver hairs
Will purchase us a good opinion,
And buy men’s voices to commend our deeds
It shall be said his judgement ruled our hands.
Our youths and wildness shall no whit appear,
But all be buried in his gravity.”

My translation: the change agents (Metellus, Brutus, and their confederates) recruit an “expert consultant” (gray-haired Cicero) to cover for their insecurity and sell their change strategy (assassinate Caesar).

Jeff has been affiliated with Designed Learning for more than 20 years.

Having held leadership positions in marketing, sales, organizational development, and HR, Jeff brings years of large-system experience in internal consulting to his work with Designed Learning. Jeff believes that when the human spirit thrives, organizations thrive as well.