Here are two opposite ends of the spectrum of what consultants often experience with clients.
GIVE ME A SESSION
We’ll often get contacted with the following, “We want a two day session for our senior team.” Many neophyte consultants lick their lips and pounce on the ‘opportunity’ with alacrity. They start shooting off proposals, buffing up their hallowed methodology, and more.
A more sane, measured and customer-serving response to the request for a two day session is, “Why?”
That always stops people in their tracks. “Why do you want a two day session for your senior team and how do you know that’s the right thing to do?”
In the act of asking that question, you start actually consulting. And if you engage in a real dialogue on the basis of those questions you will gain bracing insight into the real issues, challenges and aspirations of the clients. You may also get a bracing introduction to the assumptions they’re making — many of which are potentially untested.
It may well be that a two day session is like a relatively empty vessel, into which after suitable diagnostics and appropriate design, you can pour content that will actually serve their needs and best interests. But it may also be that a half day alignment session would suffice, and the real action needs to take place at other organizational levels, or with a different group of people, or may require preliminary contact with customers or other stakeholders. It could be that a six month process is needed, but woven in holistically to meetings already planned rather than a separate offsite.
My recommendation to clients is if you put out a request like the one above, and get a proposal back in response, disqualify the person or group from further consideration as the request has no meaning without further exploration.
And if you receive a request like the above, differentiate yourself meaningfully by helping to get to the core of what’s driving the request, rather than getting infatuated by the format proposed.
AVOIDING THE PANACEA OF EMPTY PROCESS
Here’s another common challenge. An organization decides they need to create a strategy and manage its roll-out. They get an organizational consultant with a strategy implementation process, anchored in the balanced scorecard or some other framework. As they proceed, courtesy of this framework, they are deluged with meetings, with process charts, with communiques, and eventually they arrive at what they perceive to be The Holy Grail. Namely, they have a clear map. All inconsistencies are removed (on the charts anyway), and the path forward glitters like a mythical Yellow Brick Road.
The problem is the map is not the territory, and never has been. The problem is that underlying the process clarity is dysfunctional relationships, misguided leadership behaviors, poorly aligned teams, social networks that don’t operate well, governance practices that may be out of kilter with strategic aspirations, information hoarded rather than shared, a culture that is ossified with past practices rather than vitalized by future aspirations. And eventually the ‘knowing/doing gap’ will become that much more profound.
I always advise people that once they have process clarity, they have to convert that into a more human map: of behaviors-in-action, team composition and alignment, presence of vibrant or nullifying relationships, communication and network effectiveness, leadership role-modeling and relevant efforts at culture-shifting in order to make the processes actually manifest. Until these adaptive elements are infused into the process steps, to humanize and actualize the processes, we run the risk of trying to run the world from an operating manual.
It doesn’t work. In fact, most of us don’t even run our computers from a manual. We get some hands-on experience while drawing on some guidance, then tinkering and adapting based on results. Alas in an organization there are many more moving parts, and my ‘tinkering’ can have expensive consequences if not synergized with the learnings and efforts of others.
Process clarity and human engagement must march together. You can see an organization as a collection of processes and plans. Fair enough. But you can even more meaningfully see it pulsating with what we call, human performance. In other words, the subtotal of all the actions, interactions, behaviors, collaboration and communication between all the people who make a difference to the success or failure of the organization. You can see the organization as a patchwork quilt of teams, conversations and acted upon commitments. These are human dimensions, and if not addressed, all the gewgaws and trinkets of process clarity will be fallow and leave your strategic vision unfulfilled.