You Don’t Need An Expert. You Need a PARTNER.

When facing change, you don’t need an expert. You need partnership.

Your company probably looks at change with a mix of excitement and fear. And while you may want certain parts of your organization to change, it is scary to take on the actual responsibility of making it happen. It is much safer and easier to delegate the actual transformation to someone else. This typically is where consultants come into the picture. And why not? Experts are constantly touted as the only ones knowledgeable and powerful enough to lead.

But there is a catch.

Relinquishing responsibility to an expert breeds an unhealthy dependency. When problems inevitably come up again you won’t know how to confront them yourself.

There is also a problem for the consultant. If you’re the consultant, this tendency also makes your job harder. Removing the client from the problem-solving process makes it more likely the changes you recommend will be resisted.

So what is the way forward?

The Promise of Partnership

The answer is opting for partnership instead of relying on experts.

Experts merely seek to solve the problem. But partners bring change in a way that makes you take ownership not only for the solution but for the problem itself.

Partners effectively and compassionately dissolve unhealthy reliance on the expert. The result is that clients gain sufficient expertise to diagnose and solve future problems on their own.

But how does this partnership consulting work?

How to Make Pearls

A partner’s first task is to confront you with the true nature of your problems. Often you already know this, but you either don’t realize it, or you find it so hard to deal with that you struggle to admit it without provocation. This confrontation is often uncomfortable. But new wisdom cannot be formed without it.

The best analogy for this is how pearls are made. Two things are required to form these valuable prizes: sand and oysters. Sand gets into the oyster and rubs it the wrong way. The oyster reacts by trying to get rid of the irritant. But in the process, something beautiful and precious is formed.

Don’t get the impression that this is easy. Bringing any kind of meaningful change to an organization requires a high investment of emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical rigor. The culture and habits sustained in an organization are often ferociously rooted and feel “right” from the inside. And so the only way to shock the oyster out of its comfort is to throw a little sand in its shell.

Partnering consultants must first, therefore, bring the sober truth about the organization’s dysfunctions.

This is a painful process. But the reward is invaluable for the organization.

The Perils of Partnership

Just like making pearls, partnership is difficult to practice. First of all, it is hard to convince clients that they are getting their money’s worth. They often have a rigid expectation that they are bringing in an expert who will simply fix things and move on. On the other hand, it can be just as hard to convince consultants their task is anything but fixing things themselves. The secret here is to accept that as a partner you have to sacrifice that latent desire to take full credit for creating the solution. That’s not sexy, but it is ultimately better for both parties.

Another common pitfall is what is known as professional codependence. Just as clients can become dependent on the expert, the professional can become codependent on the client.

Professional codependence when the professional–consciously or not–begins to create client needs in order to prove their own worth and make ends meet.

One way that this manifests is when, rather than identifying opportunities for growth, consultants begin to see client needs as deficiencies. This is more than a labeling problem. This often leads to anticipating problems that don’t exist. Such a dynamic all but guarantees dependency because it presumes that the client lacks what they need to get rid of the deficiency. And even more than this, it then positions the expert as the only one who can determine whether the solution has been effective.

So how can you pursue partnership without the pitfalls?

Acting in Partnership

Developing partnership while avoiding dependencies on both sides is challenging. Let’s explore this challenge through the lens of parenting. To raise responsible adults, parents experience the tension, on the one hand, between protecting their children by sheltering them and telling them what to do…while on the on the other hand allowing their children to have self-discovery and learn on their own. Choosing partnership will often feel the same for the consultant.

It is essential to guard yourself against your client’s codependency even if this seems unloving at first. If not, you run the risk of getting lost in your expert role and short-circuiting the client’s growth and freedom.

Become Your Own Expert

Perhaps more than ever, society constantly reinforces the notion that experts are the only ones who can be trusted to solve your problems. But blindly signing over authority and action to experts only stunts your growth. You can’t learn how to think for yourself when you constantly rely on others to tell you what to think.

This doesn’t mean you will never need assistance. What it means is that you need to do the work to become your own expert even while you seek expertise from others. This is the promise of partnership.

Where Else Is This Working? Reframing the “Guaranteed Success” Problem

Business is risky. There is no way around it. You need to try new things to advance and yet you also somehow want a “guaranteed success.” Thus two major impulses are constantly in conflict: wanting to innovate and at the same time wanting the reassurance that what you are contemplating has been tried before. This is the paradox of success and safety.

How do you convince your stakeholders, and yourself, that the risks of the new venture are worthwhile?

The most attractive proof, of course, is an example of somewhere else the idea has worked well. This provides tangible evidence that this new opportunity will give you all-but-guaranteed success. But this is a false promise based on a faulty expectation. The answer is to reframe the problem.

If You Acted On This Definition

Based on the desire for a “guaranteed success” you would research examples of where what you propose is working. You would look for organizations in the same business as your client. You might arrange site visits, references, and a feasibility study.

Reframing “Guaranteed Success”

“Where else is it working?” seems like it’s a valid and compelling inquiry. Who would argue against learning from others? The problem is that the question perpetuates the belief that others know and we don’t. This does not mean that we cannot learn from others. It is just that asking “how” is a poor method of learning.

We learn by bearing witness to how others live their lives. We learn from the questions others have the courage to ask. We are more likely to be transformed from dialogue about what is real and what is illusion.

These conversations are qualitatively different from seeking methods and answers.

“Where else has this worked?” is a reasonable question, within limits. It is dangerous when it becomes an unspoken statement: If this has not worked well elsewhere, perhaps we should not do it.

The wish to attempt only what has been proven creates a life of imitation. We may declare we want to be leaders, but we want to be leaders without taking the risk of invention. The question can lead us down a spiraling trap: If what is being recommended or contemplated is, in fact, working elsewhere, then the next question is whether someone else’s experience is relevant to our situation—which, upon closer scrutiny, it is not.

The value of another’s experience is to give us hope, not to tell us how or whether to proceed.

While it is prudent to try to mitigate risk and do your homework, guaranteed success does not truly exist. Even if it is working somewhere else, there is no assurance that it will work here. Every new idea has to be customized locally. Although it is tempting, you risk making a false promise if you support the idea that a change can be imported with little risk into your client’s workplace. Although there may be much overlap in some details, there are always hidden factors that may have allowed success in one setting, but which would prevent it in another.

The Root: Doubt and Anxiety

So what can be done? The role of the consultant, in this case, is to help the client understand that behind their question of where it is working are doubt and anxiety. They have a wish for a guarantee that this “risky thing” will be successful. It would be strange if this were not present. Yet as a consultant working in partnership, you cannot make this promise because so much depends on the energy and investment of the client. Part of the work, therefore, is to help the client see that while wanting reassurance is natural, the expectation of a guarantee is driven by fear and is not realistic.

On the other side of the table, consultants can also face the tension between selling and consulting. You are really doing both but lean toward the consulting. Selling means your goal is to make the sale; consulting means the goal is to help the client make a good decision. Because there is a tension here, beware of any tendency to “oversell” a course of action, especially one that you have successfully pursued before. This inadvertently reinforces the false hope for “guaranteed success.”

Clients will make a better decision if they understand all that is required to make a change, especially at the local level. The field of consulting carries the shame of promising too much too soon. The search for what is working elsewhere might be useful, but can’t be a substitute for a willingness to try something new, with little more than your own faith as proof you are making a good decision.

To act in this new frame:

  1. Don’t assume that success elsewhere guarantees success here.
  2. Help the client and yourself by recognizing the place of doubt and anxiety in any new venture.
  3. Bring as much local knowledge to bear as possible. The more the idea is locally customized, the better chance it will succeed.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 401]

Tom & Jerry: Reframing the “Conflict Resolution” Problem

Tom and Jerry don’t work well together. Sure, every workplace faces relational difficulties at times. But this has gone beyond cat and mouse games. Their increasingly public tension is dragging the whole team down and disrupting the atmosphere. They simply have to work it out or nothing is going to get done. Conflict resolution is another classic consulting situation in which the presenting problem likely needs reframing, or else it will continue to reoccur.

As we’ve discussed in earlier articles, the majority of generic consulting situations require looking for the underlying dysfunction in the human system as opposed to the surface issue. But in the case of interpersonal conflict, the problem is eminently “human.” So what are some of the ways this common situation can be reframed for new possibilities?

If You Acted On This Definition

Taking the issue at face value, you meet with Tom and Jerry separately to hear their viewpoints, then bring them into the same room and use some mediation process to help them come together. There is sharing of grievances, perhaps some negotiation, and the hope is for the two parties to shake hands and start playing fair again.

Reframing “Conflict Resolution”

Conflict resolution is very valuable; that is not the question. The standard approach may well help in many instances. But there are just as many where the animosity seems insurmountable, and nothing seems to be working. This is where we need a new frame.

The first way to reframe this issue is to be careful to test whether Tom and Jerry want to work it out. Too often, the boss wants a resolution, but the combatants do not.

The simple question is to ask whether each party wants to win or work it out.

If one or both are so entrenched that they just want the other to simply disappear, then don’t move ahead. Conflict resolution strategies depend on a certain level of goodwill. If it does not exist, then surgery may be required.

Secondly, don’t make the mistake of believing that all conflicts are resolvable. They are not, and you lose your credibility, especially in your own eyes, by taking on a task that never had a chance.

Sometimes confronting the players with the belief that you cannot help them raises the stakes and wakes them to the cost of their conflict.

The Third Man

Lastly, consider that what seems to be a problem between two is often a problem among three. The person who asks us to get involved is often a player too. Be open to the possibility of a dysfunctional triangle and try to understand the role of the sponsor of the mediation, who might be unknowingly keeping Tom and Jerry at odds. If this is the case, Tom and Jerry will feel it. Ask them what role your sponsor plays in their relationship and what impact that has.

In summary, to act within this frame:

  1. Test whether the combatants themselves desire conflict resolution.
  2. Challenge the assumption that the conflict is in fact resolvable.
  3. Understand the role of the sponsor of the mediation.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, p. 400]

The Three Consulting Roles: How to Stop Fixing and Start Collaborating

As a Human Resources (HR) or Support Services professional, you have expertise that is critical for the survival and growth of your organization. You have expertise, and you can offer it by playing anyone of three consulting roles at work.

Unfortunately, you may often find yourself being underutilized, overworked with transactional tasks, and being told to “fix” things and people. Is this true for you?

Do You Find Yourself Frustrated When…

  • Your leaders come to you at the last minute and tell you to implement something?
  • You aren’t involved early enough in the process to influence decisions and share your ideas?
  • Most of your day is spent putting out “fires” and expending energy on non-strategic issues?
  • You have so much more expertise to offer the organization, but they don’t appreciate it or even ask you for it?
  • You are asked to “handle” tough conversations, “problem” people, and fix them?

This is probably not the way you want to be treated. Instead, you want to have your expertise utilized, and be treated as a trusted advisor.

The issue is that others, including managers and clients, don’t know how to best utilize your expertise, so they default to the quickest option: tell you what to do.

But There Is Good News

You may be able to dislodge others from a default way of treating you at work. You can adjust your own approach by leveraging the three consulting roles to have your expertise better utilized.

But before you do, be aware that you may have unintentionally trained your leaders to treat you the way they do.

Here’s what I mean.

Many leaders, in the spirit of customer satisfaction, often operate with the mentality that “the customer is always right.” In this frame, they utilize you for “fixing” things and implementing their ideas in order to resolve problems.

Leaders then create conditions where you end up agreeing to do what clients tell you to do, even when it’s not the best thing for them or the organization. And if you attempt to push back or disagree with your clients, they get upset and even escalate a complaint to your boss.

There is a better way

You have the power and opportunity to change the conversations you are having with clients and the leaders in your organization. You can start by discussing the topic of how to best utilize your expertise by intentionally establishing the role you’ll play in the engagement.

We have found that HR and Support Service professionals can fall into three consulting roles.

The 3 Consulting Roles

The Three Consulting Roles

  1. Expert Role – They count on you to fix things with your expertise, and they don’t want you to be involved in the diagnosis or solution. “Make it go away” is their mantra.
  2. Pair of Hands Role – They come to you with their solution, and they want you to implement it. “Don’t ask questions, just get it done for me.” You end up being an “order taker” and implementing suboptimal solutions. Sometimes these solutions can cause harm to people and the organization.
  3. Collaborative Role – You share the responsibility and accountability with the leaders to diagnose and develop solutions. Your expertise is equally utilized along with their expertise.

Learn More

If you want to know which of the three consulting roles you and/or your teams are playing at work, then we invite you to take our free Role Orientation Quiz.

Much of the growth of consulting has been riding the wave of the technology explosion combined with the trend toward downsizing. Most large organizations have found it more profitable to shrink and merge and outsource jobs. This creates the challenge of having fewer people doing more work, and the consulting industry has been the beneficiary of this movement.

The demand for consulting services has also grown because of the interest in quality improvement, better customer service, and changing cultures toward more engaged workplaces. All of these goals are worthy, but what I want to explore is how the commercialization of our services ended up subverting their intent.

Reengineering is a good example of an area of practice that had power and relevance. Its intent was inarguable but something shifted when the idea became commercialized and popular. Reengineering became the rage and consulting firms began to make promises that were unsustainable. After a good run, the work fell of its own weight.

The reengineering craze reached a point where whatever change we had in mind was called reengineering. Every department thought it was reengineering itself. The energy was more about becoming modern than 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 dark side of reengineering, which threatened the whole profession, is that the promises made to sell the work either were never fulfilled or could finally be achieved only by eliminating jobs on a wide scale. The goal of restructuring the work process for the sake of the customer was more often than not unrealized. In fact, many of the users of reengineering began to reverse their efforts because they found the concept unworkable.

Reengineering,  like the more current desire to be lean and agile,  is a good example of two larger consulting complexities: how consultants 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 we offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care. If we were strictly a business you might say, What’s the problem? The 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.

Jeff Evans is a Vice President at Designed Learning and oversees delivery, product quality, and managing our team of international consultants. He’s been partnering with Designed Learning for over 25 years. He’s delivered training in more than ten countries to a diverse set of organizations and participants, including engineers, managers, manufacturing executives, healthcare professionals, human resources and IT.