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.
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?
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.
“Back in the day” (barely 6 years ago) an independent consultant could contact or be contacted by a client and within days be working together toward solutions. There were big firms, but those firms often left a bit of a trail to clean up. It was entirely possible to set up an S Corp and then professionally approach end states and client success.
I remember being excited about all of Alan Weiss’ writings because value based billing and client owners made so much sense.
That stack of Weiss books about consulting and the business of consulting seem so antiquated now. The advice certainly would not work in our current environment (at least not for a company of any size and or a public entity).
5 things have ruined THAT kind of consulting:
- Fear a consultant will be considered an employee.
- The growing gap between senior executives and board members and everyone else.
- All those who could be consultants but cave to contracting
- Withering competencies
It started with fear of lawsuits over whether or not an external should be considered an employee. The fear was justified because many companies were treating externals as employees. The things I value which employees do not officially have (supported by law): freedom to “choose” my schedule, no performance evaluations (new engagements and more compensation each time satisfies that for me personally- likely true for REAL consultants), my “boss” is my partner (I run away from clients that act like my boss) and more.
There is always an element of control in the contracting process between client and consultant. The farther down the internal hierarchy the worse that gets-and the closer the relationship gets to employment.
Fear caused work to be pushed down into the middle of the organization. That caused control issues. That turned consultants into contractors (pseudo-employees).
The more this happened the more the gap between senior leaders who are supposed to be making the big decisions and the work to implement increased. At the same time society as a whole built a growing income and cultural gap. While it used to be a career builder to have outside help guiding you through executive decisions it is now an exercise in filling a gap that from the top seems just fine.
The gap feeds project and contract focus and distances top leaders from decisions and mistakes.
But it all looks good on paper apparently.
If I had the time I would crunch the numbers on this, because there is NO WAY some of the contracting relationships I have had to deal with in the last 5 years saved money. 13 staffing firms calling for the same role? 5 or 6 people making phone calls before the client even talks to the candidate (god, we have become “candidates” that is what happens when you apply for EMPLOYMENT).
It could be this pencil pushing has saved money because consulting fees for independents have plummeted. Maybe from the client side it all looks the same and it is the 5 people in the middle who are skimming all the cash?
If you are a true consultant you know how this scenario has really ruined consulting for the career and for the results that used to be produced and can’t be produced by contractors.
Consultants have to blame themselves for this.
Or to be more clear their stomachs.
Too many times I have heard, “It is what it is. If I have to go through a staffing firm so be it”. These are people that used to get paid $300,000+ a year. Oh how easy it seems to be to just chop that number in half when there are mouths to feed…
A sound bite world
Maybe it really is what-it-is?
In our sound bite world I am not so sure individuals spend time to learn the things that can feed their work.
Everything has to fit inside a spreadsheet now or into a sound bite of communication. It is hard to do that with human nature (pretty prevalent with Change Management consulting and probably a lot of other different versions of Management Consulting).
Forcing those sound bites and data pieces is a great way to turn anything that could possibly have a consultative influence into a “tick-the-box” exercise to show completion of something.
Client fear, income and control gaps, pencil pushing (data crunching in the modern world), tiny mouths to feed and the world of work turned into check boxes have ruined consulting.
Huge Kudos go out to Jennifer Frahm for her post, “70% of change projects fail: Bollocks!”.
The time has come to topple this change management sacred cow.
I won’t steal her thunder. Go read the post, see how she even has the guts to tackle Kotter converting-observation-into-assumed-fact.
Here is why that “statistic” has been used (use this to weed out poor consultants clients):
You are already fearful of your change. If I REALLY scare you do death maybe you will pick me as your savior (and pay me lots and begin to depend on me to salve your fear…maybe for years and years!).
If I bring up the dreaded number you will automatically think I am in the 30% category. Always go with a winner, right?
- A little Erudite mixed in
If I whip out that 70 number with no hesitation it must mean I have really studied this change thing. No way would I drop a number that has absolutely no scientific basis.
- Science based Change
If I can show you there is a way to approach this change thing step by step in a scientific way with “numbers” to show how well we are doing (we not you or I- no practitioner actually wants to OWN a number like that) then I am a shoo-in for the role.
That number has been a crutch and lever for practitioners and “Thought Leaders” for years. No one dares touch it. It is- was thank you Jennifer- a sacred cow. The perfect thing to keep going back to if it turns out you as a practitioner are in the 70 area. (Hint we all are AND we are in the 30 area because the number is bogus).
- Tool Setup
This is a post on its own. If I knock off those first five things then I can introduce you to my set of tools. ‘Cause we all know not every hammer or saw is the same or works for building a house…Change without just the right tool is what has caused those many “failures”. (I have had a couple of huge initiatives that, if the power went off permanently, I could have accomplished with pen and paper).
Don’t buy the snake oil clients.
If ANYONE quotes the 70% statistic either walk away or have fun and toy with them- ask them to cite the study with reliability and validity (just mentioning those last two words will likely make a 70% ’ers head swim).
Clients-topple the 70% change statistic now and stop its use for fear, competition, false knowledge, false science, distraction and a set up for emptying your budget. Change Practitioners don’t embarrass yourself (or set yourself up) by talking about failure that can’t really be measured.