After all is said and done, consultants are only as good as their ability to leave the client in a better position. Whether we're assisting with integrating a new technology, developing a sales or marketing strategy, or doing an organizational assessment, there is a common element in each of these initiatives; you and your people.
What are you really buying?
A new financial system is going in? — get an expert who can help you. Doing an organizational merger? Hire someone who can navigate these choppy waters.
What are you buying when you retain consulting services? In a nutshell, it's the promise that you won't have to reinvent the wheel. It's the hope that by relying on someone who has been through it before, you'll get the best path to success.
So why is it still such a common experience that organizations feel less than satisfied with external involvement? Yes, there are consultants who far surpass client expectations and deliver lasting value. But far more frequently, the client is unable to perform the tasks on their own, or make the changes permanent.
The Missing Piece
Consultants enter a project in one of two ways — Do I catch fish for you or help you learn to catch fish yourself?
Consultants and customers often have different expectations — the consultant delivers recommendations, while the client expects measurable benefits. These are potentially two very different outcomes.
What's really going on is both parties are often unwilling to do the difficult thing, that is, uncover how little the organization is prepared to inherit change.
So what is a better model for transitioning responsibility and skill to the true owner of the change, i.e. you and your people?
Helping Vs. Doing
The shift that needs to take place in organizations is "helping learners help themselves". Take any initiative where a set of skills needs to be transferred from one group to another. What would it take to make the learning stick? Here's a hint. It's not about recommendations, assisting, coaching or doing for you — but simply "helping you help yourself".
We're all so good at doing, but turning things over to others requires a different skill, sometimes described as "delegating". But delegating only is only the first step in transferring skills.
Helping others help themselves is about incorporating the following approach:
1. Model the correct behavior or point out the ineffective behavior
2. Observe your people in action
3. Provide correction and feedback
4. Step back and observe again
Try these steps the next time you're demonstrating how to perform a task - running an electronic report, incorporating a speaking skill or performing a new business process. It's step 2 and 4 that are key, but are the ones we avoid doing.
Your Worst Culprits
Who are they? It's those "experts" running around your organization doing everything for everyone. They are the worst culprits because we buy into their excuses of "it's faster for me to do it myself" or "I'm just not a great delegator or teacher" etc. etc. etc. "Those that can't do, teach — those that can't teach, consult".
A Personal Story
Over the last eight months, I've had the privilege of applying the principle of "helping others help themselves". A formal practice even exists that exemplifies these principles, i.e., the practice of "Process Consultation". My role with a particular client is to help them become a high performing senior management team — not by making recommendations or taking them through exercises, or even coaching. I observe them in action every two weeks during their all day staff meeting, continually looking for opportunities to apply the four steps described above. To their credit, they insisted that Process Consultation be used, which forced me to be disciplined about "what does it really mean to not do for you, but to get you to do for yourself?"
At first it appeared to be the ideal consulting gig. I listened, did very little talking, maybe even made an observation here and there, finally letting them deal with the problem. Sounds simple right? It's probably the hardest consulting work I have done to date and required the highest level of patience on my part.
Why? Because I am so accustomed to being the expert, the solver, the guy to make it happen. As the consultant, I'm expected to provide out-of-the- box ideas, lay out a plan, and to my private desires — save the day. Clients don't ask "Can you make sure whatever you're doing outlives your involvement?" and it's definitely not in my contract to make sure they integrate my recommendations.
We underestimate what it takes for people to make new behavior and skills their own. The book "Process Consultation Revisited", by Edgar Shein so exemplifies the challenges and value around the "helping relationship". His work is at the heart of making customers effective versus creating an enabling behavior between consultant and client. A must read for any internal or external consultant.
What's fascinating about this philosophical approach is becoming aware how much customers inadvertently turn over their power to suggestions, recommendations or coaching, as if our ideas are sufficient to make the change happen.
What Can You Do
Start by asking the question "How can I help prepare this group to help itself"? If you're the client, ask "What can I do to take ownership of this process?"
Once you shift the focus from doing to helping, an entirely new set of questions emerge.
"What does it take to genuinely transfer knowledge or skills?"
"What are the barriers to someone being capable to perform the task themselves?"
The Bottom Line
Consultants should help more and solve less. This is not to say that there isn't a place for expert consulting, bringing years of knowledge to a problem, evaluating it, then recommending a course of action. But how many times have the most well respected consulting firms participated in one of your projects, only to leave before the change is implemented. What's missing is genuine listening for what it's going to take to leave your organization in a stronger position, not just with good ideas that don't make it past a report.
If you're consulting, just know there are a million "fix- it" firms and individuals ready to solve clients problem. If nothing else, be different. Start applying a helping role in your work. You'll discover new areas of value you can bring to organizations.
And if you're using consultants, stop listening to everything they tell you and ask them to help you help yourself. Don't wait until they leave to realize you don't know where to start. This focus on accountability to results will serve all of us in the long run.
Quote About Learning
"We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself."
— Lloyd Alexander