Questions, obviously, are the forte’ of a consultant.
They reveal information.
They shine a light on perspective.
They help build arguments.
They are the basis for descriptions for communication.
For myself they eventually become End State descriptions.
Questions can have a hidden power.
Changing Behavior with Questions
Let’s say we have a senior leader, maybe the owner of some big change, who tends to talk a lot, listen rarely and come to conclusions (and oh forbid even strategy) by speaking out loud.
As a consultant do you just let them talk and hope you can steer the conversation?
Do you use the power of the question for that steering?
And if so does that do anything more than reaffirm what that leader was going to “talk themselves” (and you, but whatever, they are not likely interested in that outcome) into anyway?
Here is your exercise for that:
Ask questions that force them to listen to themselves talking.
Look to make them explain the path their talking is taking them on. That might steer the conversation or not.
You are looking for them to get forced into (or voluntarily) ask YOU questions.
If this happened over a short period of time with you getting more and more creative in the way you ask the questions their first question to you is a behavior change.
Ask a question and no matter how much you like your own voice you will HAVE to listen (at least a little).
Behavior change #2 you will be looking for is their question that is obviously to themselves (the kind we make inside our own heads). If or when you get that you have gotten to the level where they are not only listening to themselves, but also to what their words may sound like (as in how someone else might hear them).
Behavior change #3 is when they ask you to give them feedback. Obviously that means they are willing to listen to someone else now.
This may take the length of an exchange (as in months). Or in rare circumstances with an empathetic and talented consultant in one or few conversations. Consultants do have the power of being expected to consult. As with any change (even at the individual level like this) be ready with an explanation of why. In this case the why you attempted this behavior change may be because now it appears no one listens to the executive (oh they let that person talk away though). The why may be something more empathetic. Maybe you really see this persons possibilities and you REALLY see the obstacles they, themselves have created. Your why could be a what if.
What if you, leader, heard your own voice, asked for the voice of others and heard them as well. What would THAT End State look like?
In previous posts I illustrated change begins when the third person hears of an idea, coined the term “front loading change” and dug into Consulting Commoditization (this is a follow-up post the original, “The Commoditization of Consulting”). That serves as background for the idea of a Change Advisor (had a post for that too, “C-Level Leverage of your Change Management Trusted Advisor”).
Jonathan Baynes has a post at transform.ed that tightens this up to specifics, “Change Advisor or Full Time Change Contractor”.
I see (and sometimes practice in) a middle ground.
Call it “Change Strategist” (or perhaps just an old-fashioned “Management Consultant”). If you are versatile you can provide early advice, create plans after some initial client visioning and implement. Those “contractors” Jonathan mentions USED to be “consultants” who ran with an initiative from start to finish- guiding the client rather than replacing them (or an employee and their work).
Semantics aside (does it seem like CM makes us set aside semantics a lot?) it is the “advice” part that is important. Commoditization, procurement (and the staffing firms that created) and short-term corporate approaches have stripped away the ability to get and give simple advice. The earlier and less attached the external consultant is the more chance for exchange- of knowledge, which equals advice when filtered by the client.
As the advice turns to guidance a consulting arrangement has begun.
The perfect contract has that advice appearing at the right time later, and/or being available on a schedule, but not necessarily present at all times. The always present high level contractor gets leaned on to help (actually make?) decisions, do the work that should be done by an internal and create a dependency relationship that is not healthy.
Two things get in the way: the difficulty for independent consultants to have a large enough book of clients to fill the in between spots AND the focus on distinct deliverables and “ROI” by clients (advice can be valuable, but words are apparently not deliverables). (In fairness it is usually the clients who understand that while procurement and internal systems make the connection of understanding to value almost impossible).
Clients- try to buck your systems a little. Get a senior consultant in early- it will likely save you money. Consultants- do everything you can to work directly with clients (financially and in the consulting relationship).
The getting and giving of advice may be a lost art.
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.