The Commoditization of Consulting was round one.
That was June of 2012. I would say it has gotten worse since then.
The Source from Consulting.com with “The Three Stages of Commoditization”, puts the process in to three steps:
- Clients believe consultants are all offering the same thing.
- Clients think if that is the case then they can probably do it themselves.
- The thing (say a specific service) becomes ingrained internally and so is no longer needed as an external service (except in a contracting scenario-contractors usually deliver commodities).
Contrast that process to Ben Broeckx’s Exploring the Black Box Blog, “From the Other Side of the Table- the (de)Commoditization of Consulting”. Ben, a consultant turned client, has a refreshing take on the need to de-commoditize certain kinds of consulting. He thinks commoditization erodes quality. Agreement from this consultant (thankfully I have gained revenue as a result). He also thinks consultants force commoditization on themselves (in contrast to the other blog post which pins the process on the client).
Ben’s best line:
“… because as a consultant you may not understand this, but hard selling profiles a business as a commodity.”
There is a LOT of hard sell of models out there. The “consultant” (those are commoditization bunny ears) is just the vessel to check the boxes.
- The clients are right. Many “consultants” (darn those bunny ears if you are one of these) ARE offering the same thing. If there is a model attached and the firm/person offering is excited you asked- sniff, smell commodity?
- If the clients just intended to check some boxes, yes they could do it themselves. If learning, introspection and experience are neccesary then NO they likely CAN’T do it themselves. (Been there, seen that, helped correct and make up for the internal commoditization of consulting).
- Let’s use CM as an example: been around for a good 10+ years, plus it was OD before and there is probably some new name for it in the future. Lots of things make it virtually impossible to truly have the right competencies within. Which is why some version of CM will be around for a long time.
In general a consultant who works hard to avoid commoditization will be available and able to consult. They will be more expensive and should be. But the hidden savings they bring are worth the upfront cost (versus the actual longer term cost of bad quality delivery and service that you get with the Cheap Commodity Consultant [there took away the bunny ears by giving those people a title]).
Most of those Commodity Consultants come in packs. Just because there are more bodies does not mean it is more efficient, longer lasting or effective.
In the middle of this mix there is a distinct spot(s) for independent consultants. Clients, with that choice you avoid number 1, get help with number 2 and come as close as is possible to number 3. (You can always bring that consultant back for the next program when you see 3 is very hard to attain).
Commoditization is not happening with ALL consultants and all consulting. But the more clients and “consultants” force commoditization the tougher it is going to be to find the TRUE consultants.
In the process of organizing my 900+ posts to be more readily accessible I realize there might be some Change Management Lessons Learned to be culled. So Tuesdays will now be a quick lesson learned post. My guess is these will be about consulting, change management specifically, approach, perspective and hidden tidbits of insight.
My Pace is not Yours
This took me a long time to learn.
Because I can often see how things could turn out, can envision a clients possible end state, I tend to get focused on the big picture, the planning and even a little visioning about the journey all at once (and pretty quickly). For that long time to learn I told myself this is about business and business needs to be quick to be profitable so my pace is the right pace. I have learned to stop telling myself that.
How many things out there in the big world, business included, move at the correct pace?
Isn’t EVERYTHING too fast?
Smack dab in the middle of my consulting career I ran a couple of marathons. It was then that I realized some things just can’t be rushed. Training, learning, development all take time. Most end states, in sports and business and life, take a form of all three to be successful.
An organizations pace, a leaders speed, a stakeholders change of perspective will ALWAYS be slower than mine. This I have learned. So patience, empathy and the ability to mediate people and pace have become competencies in my toolbox.
With this realization that I will be more amped up and ready than my clients and their stakeholders I am working to develop the ability to change pace depending on who I am working with.
Change practitioners take note- regulating your own pace is a competency. Clients and leaders take note- you might have to pick up your pace OR use your change practitioner to develop your change pace. Somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot.
Three times I have been asked by potential clients for “samples of my work”. As if CM practitioners have a Change Portfolio.
Perhaps the (only) three requests in my entire career are aberrations.
All three times they did not specify what they were asking for. Mind you this was not a side role for design or training or web work. These were change roles (one of them high level).
Sorry, but this makes me disillusioned.
First, two of the three were insulting.
At the point of the interview/conversation they had seen a resume, looked at my LinkedIn profile and, for one, even had a recommendation/referral.
Second, what kind of “samples” would a high level practitioner have? And what the heck would that tell the client? You have a style sense? You know how to use a certain software? You are totally willing to reveal proprietary information (come on-99% of any “sample” has to be scrubbed to gernericicity- I just made that word up…like you might have to do to honor a request like this).
The first two times it became obvious very quickly that they had no intention of bringing anyone in- they were stealing intellectual capital with a bogus carrot. After the second I swore if I ever had that happen again I would give them false information to mess them up (kidding. I would not fight ethical fire with more of the same, but it was fun to pretend).
I thought of all this today as I was cleaning up some folders. Right there in the “Vision to Work” client-work-folder were all the scrubbed and made up “samples”. On the second time around I thought this might turn into a bad trend so I created stuff to show on the fly.
Are we ever going to get to the wonderful for this Wednesday?
This time around I think it will be an enjoyable exercise.
As usual I have no idea what they are getting at.
Let’s feel wonderful and pretend we know:
- They are looking to understand the change process better. I have been invited to show them my somewhat contrarian approach.
- They are looking to understand my thought process. EVERYONE responds to my end state back perspective, so this is a fantastic invitation to spread that understanding.
- They are looking to see if I can handle some software. Fine. But if it turns out the samples don’t satisfy that (or the presentation doesn’t match their expectations) and I still get/take the role think of the happiness they will have when I learn to create things to match their expectations. We change practitioners do this on EVERY engagement. Sometimes we are lucky enough to figure it out before we start.
- They just want a higher comfort level. Change is scary. Something has to feel secure in the mix. I am guessing clients hope it is the presence of the consultant.
So there you go.
To react by being insulted might just be breaking one of my cardinal rules- do not automatically see the world from your own vantage point. Take a breath and look back at yourself. Your first impression is probably wrong.
Whether or not a change practitioner can have a “portfolio” is fodder for a different post. To be asked for samples might be insulting. Or in a wonderful world it might be an opportunity-for the change, for the practitioner and for the comfort of the client. The potential for good and bad when asked for “samples” makes me Wonderfully Disillusioned.
Heather Stagl over at Enclaria has a nice succinct post listing, “Four Reasons Leaders Need Change Agents”.
She didn’t mention external or internal although did say, “When there are people in your organization who are dedicated change agents…”. That still does not indicate internal or external. I will save that discussion for my next post.
The Four Reasons:
Heather’s post stands on its own, but, of course, I see some add-ons and twists of thought that might be helpful in the interest of never-taking-things-at-face-value and always-digging-just-a-little-deeper, for knowledge and understanding.
Heather’s take was feedback as a form of crisis protection-recovering from the “cringe-worthy” were her words.
How about feedback as insurance?
Experience in 70 different cultures with four or five times as many leaders, for me, makes it pretty easy to predict what will happen when certain things are done and said. If this change agent to leader relationship is trusting and equal then discussion will reveal potential smart moves and not so smart moves.
Feedback requires something to have happened. Planning and strategy conversations always have an element of the past (can’t predict outcomes without comparison). Those past elements are a perfect time for change agent feedback. That kind is easy because the “crisis” has passed and the discussion may just prevent the next.
All change requires mediation.
This is a crucial role and competency for change agents.
My add here is that is can be very beneficial for the mediating change agent to “pretend” a perspective and then make an argument for it. If they are really good they can do it twice for both sides of the discussion. Complete neutrality isn’t always the most effective approach.
I personally have never liked the, “I hear what you are saying… blah, blah, blah” form of mediation. Sometimes the change agent needs to insert refined opinion into exchanges. (The added bonus is that others- leaders- get taught how to make arguments that can be heard).
Transparency because of lack of authority was Heather’s take.
Back to that trusted partner relationship between the leader and the change agent, my add- the addition of a conduit for information.
Stakeholders love and cling to anyone who represents the owner of the change. If a change agent can walk the fine line of representing the owner without jeopardizing that leader or the change, information can fly back and forth.
In terms of communication adept change agents can quickly flatten the organization. (I have always thought that is the element that drives project managers crazy- we are able to make things happen quickly because we step right past political obstacles).
We understand informal communication which can be the underlying foundation of change or the liquid soil that is a sink hole waiting to happen.
Change agent ability and competency transfers through the organization is Heather’s take.
This is true and most applicable at the tactical level. I have always thought change agents at a tactical level are simply teaching, modeling and mentoring the learning of leadership skills (that we used to have and that companies used to pay to have). Capability when it comes to change is about competency and experience. Change agents bring the experience and can teach competency.
My add is that change agents (especially multi-organization externals) bring a capability that the organization does not, and arguably cannot, have internally. We often make it OK to temporarily go around internal politics and OK to call out organizational root causes. When a light is shone on politics and root causes, capability increases geometrically (pretty darn fast).
The chance for: feedback, neutrality, communication and capability follow a change agent everywhere they go.
Change = +
It seems practitioners and some “thought leaders” like to talk about what change takes away.
That has always seemed a little strange to me.
Change Adds not takes away.
What Change Adds
There is no change without the stakeholders learning something new.
“They are going to resist this training”.
Maybe if we just changed the label from training to learning change would get easier (and more fun)?
Change should be an opportunity to learn new things. Maybe that is technology (the closest to training). Maybe some soft skills have to be added or enhanced. Maybe the learning is about the organization and its connections. Maybe there is something to be gained/learned from external input?
You can’t have change without interaction.
Even the lone individual pursuit of learning to play an instrument will likely entail a trip to the music store.
Change really is interaction.
Yes it is interaction different from the current version.
Would people around you say you are hopping, skipping and smiling to get to your current version of interaction?
And who says you can’t take some or most of that with you to the end state (and add some new hopping, skipping, smiling interaction)?
It is possible to have truly transformative change that is entirely future/end-state focused.
Since people are people though it is hard to make big changes without looking inward and back.
Change forces assessment, analysis, comparison, critique, facts and realistic retrospection.
You want to make sure what you add makes sense.
And yes you want to make sure there is room (sometimes something has to be taken away to add) for the change.
Retrospection that illuminates strengths and then takes that into the end state is re-adding right?
A new tool is not a change.
Change is not about tools.
But most change has a tool addition.
I have been on a couple of social media initiatives lately that had stakeholders fighting to be the guinea pigs for new tools (SharePoint, Yammer, training tools etc.).
New tools rarely address all concerns. And new tools require genuine skill based training.
New tools always have positive additions. You can find them if you look past the changes in process.
Tools always seems to be one or the other though. The emphasis on replacement, as in “end of life”, makes calling out the positive “adds” difficult.
I know the most painful part of change.
I see it in the eyes of “resistant” stakeholders.
I can feel when it starts and builds.
It is being forced, or having to, look at things in a different way.
It baffles me that is not a fun exercise.
If the change process is good, perspective should be addressed from the beginning. Which means there will be a chance to blend current perspective with that of the journey and the end state. If fact if the end state is not the old perspective with some new additional tweaks the change will not stick.
Change is about Adding (as opposed to the opposite). Change adds learning, interaction, retrospective, tools and perspective. Are you communicating that?
Change is complicated.
Change tends to take longer than wanted or expected.
Change involves people and people are hard to figure out.
So how do some practitioners, project managers (and their peer organizations), mid-level leaders and anyone trying to profit from change deal with this?
They try to make Change an event.
How to Make Change an Event
- Advocate the tool over the practitioner.
- Define distinct beginnings and endings.
- Create defining borders.
- Layer change efforts over a project approach.
The best way to turn change into an event is to make the tool appear to be the solution.
A tool you can sell to anyone. A service? Not so much.
Those trying to make change an event (the most guilty being potential clients for those service providers) will spend a lot of time talking about and pushing the tool- as if that was the only way to approach change.
If they have a winning (selling) argument then practitioners and stakeholders can be made subordinate to the tool.
(PS you can facilitate change with Word and Excel or with pen and paper).
Starts and Stops
Distinct starting and stopping spots sells (in both senses of the word, as in- buy this and buy into this) for change.
It is comforting to know that this scary change thing will come to an end at some point.
It is comforting to be able to pinpoint when it starts, so everyone can be ready.
Things with beginnings and endings sell easier than stuff with vague timelines.
(PS change is pretty much constant and never-ending and the instant the first person with the change idea talks to someone else change has started).
A false start (pun intended) and stop is only the first level in containing this change thing so it seems manageable and is sellable.
Making a box can create clear edges to this ephemeral change thing.
Assessing (and selling assessing “tools”) can help create some more lines around the change.
Groups can be contained or pushed out; people can be included or not; costs can be “controlled when boundaries are set.
That has the added bonus of looking and feeling just like project management which is something everyone is comfortable with.
(PS Change Management is not project management, nor does it fall under that umbrella, and it flows past boundaries like water to rocks in a downhill stream).
To make this change as an event thing really work you need to layer the approach right over the project/program process of the organization.
If you are selling into organizational change this is perfect. Project processes within organizations are littered with phases, steps and tasks that need a change component right? What better way to add work and effort than layering over each one of those requirements!
(My nicer take on Layering Change).
When change management is layered it automatically takes on the first three items in our list.
(PS Thanks to the global nature of most organizations Layered Change tends to quickly break free of its bounds and touch something outside predefined limits).
Make change an event if you choose- rely on tools, mark starts and finishes, draw out boundaries and layer your approach over existing project management parameters. Be forewarned though- tools are not solutions, change starts as soon as two people discuss it, change boundaries are always subjective and project management is usually the smallest box you can put change into.
I think I found the true role of a change management practitioner.
They are the Messenger.
Whether it is high or low, transformational or transactional, the most visible role (duty for internals) is to relay information back and forth.
This explains why a lot of CM roles have a communication tag on them.
The fact that messages are not often understood shows why the training tag gets added.
Because organizations and individuals do not seem to be too good at transferring information through structure CM roles now have Org. Design and Business Process tags.
Regardless of which of those tags seems the most important for this particular change all initiatives need a Messenger.
Mini Roles for the Messenger
Starting with the owner and working down, most of the messages that go out to stakeholders have to be translated into a different language. It might be the language of function, or group or geography (which may, literally, be a language translation).
When we are brought in early and high there is a chance we can help build an understanding and description of the end state. In those rare occasions there is less translation needed.
Is a higher level of translation.
“What he meant was…”.
With time and, again early entry, we can guide and consult owners to explain in a way and at a level that stakeholders connect with. Those owners learn to interpret their own person message that resonates for the change and the work it will require.
As Messenger we also spend a lot of time delivering messages back and forth. Most are not interpreted or translated. (In fact a lot of it is junk mail that does not get read and its quickly “thrown away”- change models are great at creating LOTS of “junk mail” and “spam”).
The real mailperson sorts, stacks and delivers. They don’t get to decide what gets transferred and what does not. That is usually the case for CM practitioners. We can question though. Imagine if you could tell your mailperson, “if something is junk and you think I will throw it away don’t deliver it”.
We often get to stand on the “hilltop” and predict the future through our wise, sage advice.
On our best days people come from far away for our futurist perspective.
We most often become the Oracle though in those organizations that are the biggest mess in terms of underlying root causes. When there are deep seated problems a window into a brighter future is helpful. (And I would add not a window that someone stuck in the middle of the root cause quicksand can see through or open).
Let’s face it CM practitioners spend an inordinate amount of time scribing the messages.
Sometimes it really is with paper and pen, most of the time with keyboard and screen.
When the scribing is effective it has a lot to do with pictures, diagrams and visual elements.
I have always thought one of my best value/ROI cases is the fact that my questioning of process (which scribing is always buried in the middle of) with adjustments from my suggestions might easily pay for my cost.
We change practitioners are really the Messenger in disguise playing translator, interpreter, mailperson, Oracle and scribe often almost at the same time.
It is Wednesday and I am not in a disillusioned mood (thankfully).
The wonderful side is coming from enjoyment of people interacting and dialoguing.
I started a conversation at the Organizational Change Practitioners Group on LinkedIn with the question,
“Can an Internal (employee) really be a Consultant?”.
It stirred up a bit of a firestorm.
Internals upset, externals soothing and jabbing at the same time (oops that was me….), the usual marketing cloaked as discussion and LOTS of good comments.
Separate from my own answer to the question (tomorrow) I am struck by how role oriented business and work has become (it seems- to be a little disillusioned- lately, as in the last few years).
There are the roles that are jobs (with the incumbent acronyms (here is an aside- did you ever notice managers, directors and senior versions of each don’t have an acronym? above that we have AVP, SVP, VP, C something) and there are the things-that-need-to-be-done that are turned into roles.
Is this because everything is so mechanized now?
If you can’t put something quickly into the cell of a spreadsheet then it can’t exist?
I keep contrasting this discussion about what it means to be a consultant with the endless contacts I get from third parties (and, gasp, other consulting firms) that want to explain some available role. Actually I have a role I sell to others.
It is called consultant.
A client can easily hire me as a “Consultant”. That is a role I guess. A role with leeway. A role that will give the client a big broad perspective (narrowed down to specific options and suggestions when the time is right).
Most important it is a role that is not previously defined by the client. If that is the case then what is the point in being consulted?
If the definition is narrowing interest to a certain area fine. But if the definition, or the creation of a “role” in general, is to pigeon hole the consultative process then I am not a consultant I am a contractor.
The misunderstanding (and frankly disinterest from some internal people I meet) is disillusionary.
The analogy I used as part of one of my comments on the LinkedIn thread was a child’s messy room. They do not see the mess. It takes quite an effort to illustrate to them the importance of “clean” first and then to get them willing to clean up (in order to have a straightened room).
I have to say many change efforts (huge mufti-million dollar ones) to an outsider look like a messy room. Those in the organization do not only not see the mess they do not understand why it needs to be cleaned up…they create a role it gets straightened, only to get quickly messed up when the role is gone.
True consultants- I keep using that term because I think it needs to be shouted to the treetops for client/practitioner/solutions- know that their knowledge, experience and distinct perspective on the world have hidden value.
The more arrangements are set up as deliverables, transactions and measureable results (which have the time are measures for the stakeholders within the organization) the less those hidden value elements have a chance to arise, be used and get leveraged.
Contractors rarely get the chance to provide extras. And why would they if they are not getting paid for each little thing (or each little minute that takes- see how this hourly, transactional environment works? Alan Weiss for the 2000′s).
Those extras, I think- yes selfishly, maybe, are most likely to come from an independent consultant.
A partner in a huge firm, who by definition should be a true consultant, is a business development/resource manager in disguise. Should they provide value adds, first they will charge for it (by the hour) and second they will do it with a mind to increase revenue and footprint rather than altruistically to make themselves more valuable. (Yes a generalization and yes maybe not true for any single individual out there, but really…).
Enough lead in.
True Consultant Extras:
- An external can be very helpful for career jumps.
- An external can be a scapegoat.
- Mentoring is usually a value add.
- Coaching is usually a value add.
- True consultants have solutions and end states in mind.
Helping the Owner
I know my own approach takes into consideration the solution, the organizations and the career of my client. Change requires risk. So leading change requires individual risk. A true consultant will know how to frame that for the owner in a way that gooses them forward to doing things that feed the change and their potential.
A true consultant will also call out those times when the owner is on their own pursuit rather than a journey with a bigger picture. Part of becoming (and staying) a good leader is absorbing the things you do not see or agree with into the bigger picture sponge.
Anyone who owns change also has very little time to think of the details (and the bigger picture) that might feed their career in a positive way. And even if they did how would they find the time to implement and model those details? A true consultant can help by being an advisor and a conduit.
Taking the Heat
Scapegoat was a post I did to show how clients use consultants.
This post’s version is providing the scapegoat out. There have been many times when I have taken the heat for something on an engagement knowing full well it was not my fault. A few times I knew it was the clients fault. As long as being the scapegoat does not cut into my values or ethics I am perfectly willing to take the heat, especially if I know it will further us toward the end state.
Passing on Expertise
This should be a given for true consulting.
When you have scenarios where there are proposals, where the consultant brings in some method and where extras are sold as part of the package you, as a client, are getting some very specific expertise (that does not necessarily match you current situation).
It rarely happens, but I think the ideal situation for a high level client to consultant relationship is a high paid retainer. The consultant is comfortable, the client knows where the consultants focus is and legally it is the easiest arrangement. I would add to that- clients help independents with those extras to market to someone else (not a client a buyer of specific intellectual property).
A true consultant looks to pass on as much expertise as they can. A smart client pays them in a way where that can happen.
Combined that can create some excellent mentoring relationships.
Detail When Needed
Usually a consultant coaches someone junior when needed.
Coaching is different than consulting in that it involves specifics to teach, practice and learn.
My early life (and my Master thesis) centered around presenting and exchange of information. I often coach for that as a value add. I am there, we are interacting, it feels good to help.
There are lots of little details aside from coaching that we pass on too. Web design, informational presentation (a la Tufte) and the technology around interaction are all hobbies of mine that always have detail that is valuable.
Getting it right
One of the realizations you get at some point as a senior consultant is that you are probably never going to get anything big exactly right.
Certainly not your version of “right”. We senior consultants have pie in the sky expectations. Once you realize that though you see that you can help the client/owner get a lot of things right (within THEIR framework of success).
Successfully getting things right (not the “test” of deliverables but the bigger picture things) is the focus for an independent.
Anyone who talks about getting it right and has a number measures or a file that can be printed attached to it does not understand what I am talking about.
Big picture understanding and the getting it right within that framework defines a true consultant.
Is your consultant helping with your career? Are they taking a little heat while they also mentor and coach? Do they see your end state and the solutions you will need to get there? Are they a true consultant?
This must be some sort of mid career evaluation, or the change practitioner in me refusing to be silent when a voice needs to be heard. I am on a string of posts that question consulting, a little on the practice and a LOT on the environment.
Here is the current run if you want the lead in:
- The latest in the Wonderfully Disillusioned Series- Consulting
- 5 Things That Have Ruined Consulting
Why Consulting will (actually) NEVER die:
- We all have a lot to learn. Executives and leaders (who hire and receive advice from consultants) are part of that “We”.
- With Change consulting there are some things internals just cannot do. Which brings up an interesting thing to think of: Can an employee “consult”?
- True consultants are tenacious. We know we have experience, advice and perspective that is valuable, is needed and should be marketable. We will always find ways to illustrate that to owners and leaders.
- Consulting can always just be a scapegoat .
- Symbiosis and Parasitism. Consulting can be both. The first one might die, but the second will always live on.
- It can be unbelievable how different the inside is from the outside. As a consultant I often ask myself, “how to they NOT know this?” (I meant one particular thing, but this applies to my statement too).
- The big firms will always find a way to insert themselves (see #5).
- There will always be “backs to be scratched” (see #5 again).
- Everyone wants to (and usually tries) be a consultant.
- Consulting works. Anytime one person takes and translates the advice of another with more experience and utilizes that help to change things, there is a chance for geometric improvement and success.
Consulting will never die because it is at times parasitic, symbiotic, a scapegoat, a learning process, the outside in, the insertion of tenacious practitioners, the trail left by revenue grabbing big firms or something that..wait for this…can actually WORK.