Turning Consulting on Its Head: The Case for Change

I have been a consultant for my entire career – first, as an internal consultant providing communications advice to the organizations I served as an employee, and for the last 14 years, as a professional consultant in communications and change management.

Looking back on my experience as both an internal and external consultant, what strikes me is how traditional and static the field tends to be. Sure, various trends come and go, but in essence, the foundational culture and structure around consulting has remained stubbornly consistent.

The relationship and “dance” of consulting generally goes something like this:

  • The client (either internal or external) has a problem, and is seeking help
  • The consultant (either internal or external) is called upon to define, and often execute a solution

Billions of dollars have been made on this model, and no doubt many problems have been effectively solved. However, the inherent flaws and limitations of the traditional business model of consulting have escaped scrutiny and analysis, likely because neither the client nor the consultant community have a viable incentive to examine what might be broken (or at least sub-optimal) in the established consulting model.

In my case, traditional consulting has felt limiting and unsatisfactory, particularly in recent years as our work shifts toward an increased focus on working with clients to support change initiatives. As I’ve written about in the past, these assignments call for a focus on agility and adaptability, which are often in tension with the traditional box of a consulting engagement. In fact, it’s that dissatisfaction with the limited sustainable results achieved through the classic “consultant knows best” model that led us to develop the Results Map program in 2004. The program (which is the antithesis of traditional consulting) is based on a premise of building internal capacity among our clients by offering our knowledge through tools and templates. It’s driven by a commitment to leaving an organization stronger after a consulting engagement.

Edgar Schein, professor emeritus at MIT Sloan and the grandfather of the concept of “organizational culture” suggests a fundamental reframing of the consulting relationship.

The art of asking questions

“Humble Inquiry is the skill and the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

In his excellent book Humble Inquiry, Schein advocates that consultants focus on the “gentle art of asking questions”, rather than proposing ready-made solutions. Schein astutely describes the social economics at play in a consulting relationship, characterized by the client being “one down” in feeling weakened or even humiliated by having a problem. He explains that the inequality of the dynamic is in effect exacerbated by a consultant who seems to have instant solutions to challenges the client may have been grappling with for weeks, months, or years.

“Don’t we all know how to ask questions? Of course we think we know how to ask, but we fail to notice how often even our questions are just another form of telling—rhetorical or just testing whether what we think is right. We are biased toward telling instead of asking because we live in a pragmatic, problem-solving culture in which knowing things and telling others what we know is valued.”

Recently I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Dr. Schein speak at the Coaching Ourselves Reflections 2015 Conference in Montreal about the importance of humility – required both on the part of the consultant, and the client who share a responsibility to build an open and trusting relationship based on understanding the situation and facts as they are.

He called for a dramatic shift in the traditional assumptions baked into the consulting industry today – the client has a problem, the consultant has a solution, and an assignment based on fixed deliverables and milestones must be formalized in a contracted agreement (usually structured around charging for billable hours).

The adaptive move

Recognizing the pace of change and the exponential rise in organizational complexity, Schein favours a fundamentally different model for collaborating through consulting. He challenges us to consider starting an engagement from the perspective of a relationship first, and a contract second. Rather than arriving with a solution and a plan to bill by the hour for a series of pre-identified deliverables, he suggests that the client and consultant focus on the next “adaptive move”.

The theory here is deceptively simple: given the pace and complexity of change, we have to be aware that the situation is actually transforming while we’re working on a deliverable. As such, it’s nonsensical to put forward a fully developed plan because the organization is changing as we’re operating. The client can’t anticipate what she will need, and neither can the consultant (assuming that we adhere to Schein’s advocacy for humility in favour of the much more traditional hubris found in the consulting business).

Working in this new model, the client and consultant build from the strength of their open, trust-based relationship and work together in identifying the best “adaptive move”. While the suggestion may come from the consultant, it remains the client’s decision – this is critical, since the next best step may well be an action that can and should be done internally, thereby running contrary to the gravitational pull toward billable deliverables that is central to traditional consulting.

The Ingenium experience

The “adaptive move” model is interesting, and lends itself well to the context of an internal consultant who is unconstrained by the usual parameters of budget and scheduling that exist in the business of consulting.

The question then becomes, can the model work in a case of a client working with a consulting firm?

In our experience of delivering hundreds of projects over the last 14 years, we have had one example of real success with such a partnership (ok, so not a lot – but still a good news story!). We worked for two years with a client, starting with a fixed contract to develop a Communications and Change Management Strategy, and then to collaborate on implementation through a retainer model that scaled down in level of effort over a period of time.

That structure combined with our high level of mutual trust and openness with the client enabled us to be highly responsive in figuring out, and then implementing the next “adaptive move”. That might be a communications product, an issue management requirement, or a facilitated team session delivered in close collaboration with the client organization. From our perspective, the engagement proved to be highly satisfying and enriching – we had a strong sense that we were doing work that mattered, and felt we achieved incredibly positive results. The client reported being very satisfied, and appreciated the scalable nature of the collaboration – when they needed us, we were there, and when they could handle the work internally, they did so. We helped build their internal team’s capabilities, which I am confident will yield successful results over time.

Not coincidentally, the project we delivered using this model was recently recognized with a national IABC Silver Leaf Award of Excellence for change communications – external validation that partnering with a client with shared mutual trust and openness on an “adaptive move” basis can deliver breakthrough results.

Based on our experience, we are enthusiastic about continuing our quest in 2016 to shake the industry from its legacy assumptions, and try turning traditional consulting on its head. Time will tell how successful we’ll be, but I’m confident it’s a road worth exploring, and that we’ll have a lot of fun in the process.