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CONSULTING MASTERYHow the best make the biggest difference
By Keith Merron
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Keith Merron
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Decay of the Consulting Profession
We have met the enemy and he is us. —Pogo (Walt Kelly)
A few years ago, I was involved in a consulting engagement, partnering with what was then one of the "Big Five" consulting firms. We were helping a multinational Fortune 100 company implement SAP software as their new company-wide software system. This changeover took well over a year and required a ton of planning, training, and dealing with all the issues one deals with when undertaking such a massive change. Early on in my work with the consulting firm, one of the young, extremely bright, talented, and dedicated consultants (we'll call her Diane) showed me with great pride a document they had been developing—the consulting firm's plan for leading the changeover to the new SAP system. This plan was over 400 pages long and showed over 1000 different things a manager needed to pay attention to in order to successfully lead the implementation of the new system. This document had sections on how to train others, how to listen to others' concerns, how to gather information, etc. It was truly a magnum opus of SAP planning, custom tailored (so they said) to meet this client's particular need.
I cannot begin to guess how many consulting hours it took Diane and others to develop such a document. I'm sure hundreds of hours. What caught my interest, though, was not the huge investment in time and the client's money. It was the pride that Diane felt about the work, believing in her heart that this was truly value added to the client. With some degree of surprise on my part, I asked her how this document was used, and she reported to me with consternation that it seemed to have been given short shrift. The clients were, in her words, "resistant" to using it. In fact, she offered, "few even read it in the first place." Diane seemed to believe that if they were truly motivated they would actively read and use such a document and that their lack of use was a sign of their failing, and not hers or her firm's.
Diane's whole thinking and presumably that of the project leaders of the consulting firm was driven by a belief that good information and good analysis should carry the day. Rarely is this the case when it comes to influencing organizations. Organizations, and people for that matter, respond to a different song. To get organizations to change, they need to be inspired. Not much damps the human spirit more than breaking down an organizational problem to its smallest parts. Dissection rarely produces movement in organizational life. Diane was well on her way to being a good consultant. If she continued down her path, however, being a masterful consultant would elude her, for what she was learning in her firm had little to do with making a big difference.
It Starts with Goals
To understand the difference between good consultants and great ones, we need to go beneath the surface of the rules of typical consulting approaches and examine the goals and strategies that drive those rules. We will start with goals, for the goals of consultants, as for any human being, form and inform the strategies they use.
Take a moment and ask yourself: What do you want as a consultant? Why do you consult in the first place? You could want many things. If you are like most consultants, however, your goals probably fall into one of three areas.
To add value (fix a problem, plug a hole, introduce a new process or system)
To make a lot of money
To make a profound difference—to shift the organization to a new level.
The primary goals of many consultants employing the typical rules of consulting are to add value and to make a lot of money. In the story described in the Introduction, Sam was drawn to consulting because he wanted to achieve these two things as well. To make a profound difference would be icing on the cake, but not essential. He believed that making a big difference does happen from time to time, but since it is so elusive to him, he believes it is best to focus on adding value and making money. Not surprisingly, Diane had the same goals. Both were young consultants eagerly following the footsteps of a generation of consultants before them, wanting to help and to earn a very good living.
To add value and make money, the consultant typically offers help in the form of expert advice or an expert process. In a competitive bidding situation, often the consultant must also convince the client that this expertise cannot be found elsewhere and not only is it well worth it, but the client is at risk of failing without it. In most cases, clients are inclined to believe this is so. In addition, the consultant will often leverage the talents of others to expedite the consulting process for the client.
These goals, to add value and to make money, get translated into strategies, which in turn directly affect the actions and the outcomes of the client engagement. Let's begin with the primary strategy that drives most consultants' actions and behaviors.
The Savior Strategy: The Primary Strategy of the Current Rules of Consulting
Every day, throughout the country, clients and consultants are participating in a silent and powerful contract, often unaware of its existence. It is the basis of what I call the savior strategy. To understand this strategy, we need to strip away the complexity of consulting and get down to its essential form.
At the core of any consulting activity is the desire by the client to get help and by the consultant to offer help. Help tends to take the following form:
Client defines a problem.
Client hires consultant to either solve the problem or tell the client how to solve it.
Client pays for this service and sometimes implements the advice.
The desire to be helpful runs deep in the psychological makeup of most consultants. They have spent many years honing their craft, driven by this desire. More specifically, they have a belief in how organizations can be better run, and a genuine desire to show clients the way.
Simultaneously, clients often have a deep desire to be helped. Rarely seeing consulting as an aid for growing or developing the organization, they often seek out consultants when something in the business is not working well or is "broken." Out of consultants' desire to help and clients' desire to have something "fixed" is born the savior strategy. To occur, the savior strategy requires two consenting parties—the helpers and the receivers of help. The helpers must be motivated to help and also believe they have a better way. The receivers of help must want to be saved, believe they are capable of changing, and believe that the helpers have a magic elixir obtainable only from the helpers.
Many consulting firms are brilliant at playing the savior game and preying on the fears of clients that, without the firm's help, the company is either doomed or in deep weeds. These consulting firms make impressive presentations, backed up by recent research, demonstrating the trends that are impinging on the company, followed by multiple examples of how clients have been helped enormously by the consulting firm's intervention. That these charts are often pseudoscientific is usually not evident, because the client so wants to believe that the consulting firm will save them. It is a lesson carried over from the snake oil salesman of the 1800s, who made a good living selling exotic elixirs to "cure all that ails you." When you want to be fixed or saved, you are easily prone to being convinced.
Preying on the client's need to be saved is a significant modus operandi for many consultants, particularly those that employ an "expert" model of consulting. What better way to hook the client into believing in the necessity of hiring the consultant than to cleverly participate in the game. To be fair, most consultants don't seek to "hook" the client at all (at least not consciously). They simply want to be of service and to add value in the best way they know how—by solving a problem. Nonetheless, both consultants and clients participate in the same implied contract. You, the client, need help. I have what you need. I'll sell it to you, and then you'll have it.
It sounds so wonderful. But the negative consequences of the implied contract can be severe. Once the consultant leaves, the client organization will not have more knowledge than it had before, because knowledge—the consultant's stock in trade—cannot be given away. You can give people information; it's like giving them a bag of groceries. But knowledge transfers less easily. In the realm of human and organizational dynamics, knowledge must be learned and earned through exploration, deep shared thinking, and often struggle. Many consultants do indeed often have useful knowledge, but by the time it is transferred in the form of a presentation, report, or other form, it is rarely more than information. Since the knowledge behind that information is rarely transferred, it is never truly owned by the client organization. The bookshelves and credenzas of managers around the world are laden with well-crafted consultant presentations—collecting dust.
Yet in spite of this, clients are happy to pay for information and to expect positive results. This willingness to be "done to" and be "given to" is natural. Most organizations are overwhelmed, and they look for the quick fix. Most consultants are happy to oblige.
I used to work in a consulting firm that had a well-developed process for "transforming" organizations. Our primary intervention was a 4-day "team building" event that many people described as life changing. The beauty of our approach was that we started with the executive team, helping them through very difficult issues. The executives came out the other side with a renewed sense of passion for their leadership and for working together, thus, they were ripe to sign on the dotted line to have others throughout the company experience the same thing, for a hefty sum of money. We also did a number of other things to help the client "align" its resources and create a high-performing culture, but the team building was the primary transformation vehicle.
Having led many of these interventions, however, I noticed a pattern. In most cases, the executives were happy to have us "roll out" our process throughout the company. The more we could do for them, the better, thereby freeing the executives to focus on things they were more comfortable with—strategy, dealing with investors, planning, etc. Metaphorically, it was as if they wanted us to wave a magic wand over them. And we did. However, in almost every case, little or no change took place in the client organization. Individual people might be transformed, but the client organization as a whole remained stuck in neutral.
In the few cases where we struck a different relationship and where the client took full responsibility for the transformation process, we had much better results. Naturally we preferred the latter scenario, because we sincerely wanted to see enduring results from our work. However, we were perfectly willing to accept the former scenario. As one of my colleagues, Tom Shenk, puts it—"great payday, no difference."
Secondary Strategies of the Current Rules of Consulting
The goal to add value and make a lot of money gets enacted and expressed through the primary savior strategy. This strategy, in turn, produces secondary strategies that support the desire to help and to make money. These strategies, in turn, determine the kinds of choices consultants make. The typical strategies of the consulting process fall into one of three categories. They are: the consultant's relationship to his client; the consultant's relationship to knowledge; and the consultant's relationship with himself— his character, in other words.
In the arena of relationship to client, most consultants employ a strategy that gives them tacit power over the client, and they use that power to try to get the client to do what they believe is best for the client. In the arena of relationship to knowledge, most consultants claim and use specialized knowledge, processes, tools, and techniques as their primary added value. In the arena of relationship to self, most consultants seek to develop presentation and sales skills for gaining more business. Let's look at each more deeply and its consequences.
Create a "power over" relationship to the client. Most consultants say they want a partnership with their clients. They talk about the importance of give and take and in working together to solve a problem. And, indeed, in most cases that is what they desire. However, many consultants are unaware of the multiple ways their behavior implies a different relationship—one best described as having "power over" their clients.
Consultants who consciously or unconsciously employ a "power over" strategy do a number of things that are designed to maintain control over the client and the consulting process. For example, they chop up the business into parts in order to analyze it. On the face of it, this seems sound. However, the more consultants do the work, the more likely they will understand the business better than the client (at least those aspects relevant to the consulting engagement). Consultants then use this understanding as leverage to get clients to do what the consultants think is best for them. Additionally, many consultants control the consulting process as much as possible, convincing clients that these "tried and true" methods guarantee best results. Since consultants know these methods, and the clients do not, a "power over" dynamic is created or maintained. Finally, the very act of promising to deliver success feeds off the client's desire to be fixed or saved and puts them in a childlike position in relationship to the consulting "parent."
Claim and use specialized knowledge, processes, tools, and techniques as the primary added value. Most often, the added value consultants provide in the form of knowledge, tools, and techniques is really worth something. So is the research they tailored to meet the unique needs of the client. Conducted by bright and eager consultants and led by savvy partners, consultants do provide useful analyses, sound techniques, and thoughtful recommendations, much of which has real value for the client. The only rub is the claim that it is specialized and unavailable elsewhere.
Consultants place a high value on being special, on having something the client cannot get anywhere else. Sometimes they claim that the knowledge may not be special, but the methods for implementing that knowledge are. However, rarely does a consultant have something a client can't get elsewhere. Many times I have seen consultants scramble to put together a presentation from a recent Harvard Business Review article, slap their logo on it, and claim to have specialized knowledge. Astonishingly, it works. They dazzle the clients to actually use this knowledge well. This ability is indeed a rare commodity among expert-based consultants.
Develop "self" skills for gaining more business. Many firms teach their new consultants the importance of presenting themselves well. Partners "dress for success" and encourage their consultants to do the same. They place a high emphasis on conforming to the kind of social etiquettes that appeal to those in positions of power in their client organization. And they hone their influence and persuasion techniques. To them, developing "self" is about outer image and presentation, not about the "inner self." Indeed, you might argue that the "inner self" has little to do with effective analysis. Masterful consultants take issue with this, however. One masterful consultant I know left her highly successful partnership in a firm finally fed up with the over-attention to image and inattention to issues of character and lack of true commitment to the client. In her words, "the hypocrisy of how the consulting firm ran counter to the very principles it taught clients was too much for me to bear."
Excerpted from CONSULTING MASTERY by Keith Merron Copyright © 2005 by Keith Merron. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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