How can consultants create value for clients who seek certainty, predictability and control in a complex, uncertain and ever-changing world?
Managers’ ‘backs are against the wall’. They are under pressure to deliver. At times like this, many are tempted to ‘batten down the hatches’, and to retreat into the familiar world of formal plans, programmes and routines to see them through. "Do it better and get it right" becomes the order of the day, as they seek to cope with the never-ending demands of a world that is full of ambiguity and in constant flux.
At times like these - and somewhat ironically - external guidance and support is often one of the first things to be cut. But, if and when the call for help comes, what should the consultant's answer be? Faced with their own need to win business and earn fees to survive, how should they respond to this seemingly sensible but deeply flawed approach? Should they collude with the manager’s view of the world? Or challenge it?
The critical issue
It was with this question in mind that I recently took part in a great conversation with a group of what might loosely be termed "OD practitioners". We had come together in South-West London to talk about our practice and the current state of the consultancy world.
One of the themes that resonated most was a general disillusionment with much of the mainstream approach to consulting work - and with the assumptions on which this is based. Organizations are complex. And yet, managers continue to be seduced by simplistic, step-wise approaches, which appear to offer ease of implementation and certainty of outcome.
The general feeling was that many in the consulting industry enthusiastically embrace this formulaic approach. They genuinely believe their own rhetoric and hype. Others do so reluctantly. Faced with the dilemma of swimming with the tide or not getting the work, many take the pragmatic view that it's better to be on the inside 'chipping away' than not being able to influence things at all. The challenge then becomes one of how best to avoid colluding with practices that appear commonsensical but which are based on misplaced - and ultimately value-destroying - assumptions. Examples were given of managers whose willingness to be challenged had ebbed away over time, as they came face-to-face with the seemingly inexorable pressure to conform. It became easy then for the consultant’s challenge to be seen as unwelcome confrontation, putting the manager-consultant relationship at risk and reducing the consultant's capacity to add real value.
Questions to answer
Reflecting on the discussion, it seems to me that some of the most critical questions for us to answer, as practitioners, are these:
- Are we creating real value if we collude with those managers and consultants who seek to deny or ignore the complex dynamics of organizations, and who cling to illusions of certainty, predictability and control?
- In a complex world, does it make sense to advocate such concepts as n-step change methodologies, the ROI of development interventions, ‘best' practice, one-size-fits-all competency frameworks, and so on?
- Would we add more value by challenging the assumptions on which these taken-for-granted aspects of management orthodoxy are based?
- If so, how can we do this without it being viewed as unwelcome and/or confrontational?
- How can we help managers to survive and thrive in the somewhat ‘muddier waters’ that are found in real-world organizations?
- Are we prepared to take the risk of rowing against the stream?
- Can we afford to?
- Can we – and the managers we set out to help - afford not to?
Related post: Don't give clients what they want!