Getting Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors

In Flawless Consulting, author Peter Block writes, “Most consulting projects get started because managers feel pain. When the organization feels the pain, managers start to describe for themselves why the pain exists.” It should be no surprise then that projects defined from an initial place of pain may be a lot of “smoke and mirrors” designed to unintentionally draw attention away from what is really happening inside an organization.

In magical illusions, smoke and mirrors are a classic technique designed to obscure or embellish the truth of a situation. And while managers may not intentionally be obscuring or embellishing the truth of a situation, those experienced in the Flawless Consulting model know what is stated initially is rarely what is at the heart of a problem.

To get at the heart of the problem, you need to first discover the underlying dimensions of the situation by analyzing what you’ve heard initially against what still is to be learned. To do so, look first at the top layer which is usually described as the presenting problem – what the manager or client believes is at core of the issue. It may or may not be all smoke and mirrors at this point, but flawless consultants dig deeper by looking at the middle and core layers of the problem to understand how others in the organization are contributing to the problem and how the client may be contributing as well. The process of doing so is called Discovery.

In the Flawless Consulting process, gaining a clear picture of the problem begins only after the initial meeting with the client and contracting around how to best move forward. Once an agreement is reached, the consultant works to discover the underlying dimensions of the situation. They do so by asking the client and others in the organization to restate the problem as they see it and then go further by being direct and asking:

  • How are others’ in the organization contributing to the problem?

  • How are you contributing to the problem?

  • What’s the future you want to see?

The objective of Discovery is to understand the dimensions of the problem and describe it in a way that is enlightening and actionable – something someone can do something about.

This initial inquiry will help direct where you look next to discover how the problem is being managed … or not.

In medicine, it’s easy to understand the difference between treating the symptoms or curing a condition. A broken leg hurts and pain killers may temporarily ease the pain, but you need a completely different treatment plan to heal the leg. In organizations, it’s easy to want to treat the symptoms of a problem for even a momentary respite from the technical or interpersonal issues causing the pain. Experience tells us however; the pain will return.

Flawless consulting provides a roadmap to get a picture of what is really happening inside an organization and then make recommendations on how to address it. By shedding light on all the layers underneath, the mystery is revealed and a clear picture emerges on how to solve the problem so it stays solved.