To my recent post entitled "The People Problem is Firms' Fault," David Maister commented that he agreed with the points but he posed to consultants the questions:
I agree these are important points and right on target. But I don't think I really understand why those of us who share your point of view, Michelle, seem to be fighting a LOSING battle. What you advocate is becoming less common, not more.
What are we doing wrong in our attempts to have a beneficial impact on the world? If what we suggest would truly help everyone, why isn't it happening? What do WE have to do differently to help make it happen other than just keep on insisting that we're right?
I answered with a comment but wanted to elaborate in this post.
As the last consultant on earth who wants a firm to invest in me for research and development of solutions and then, for whatever reason, fail to implement the solutions they participated in creating—and it breaks my heart when this happens—isn't it the responsibility of the firms, who've looked to us for guidance, to ensure implementation?
So, assuming that the scope of our engagement does not specify implementation (leaving it the firm's responsibility, overall) some of us are still very invested in the outcome. Given this level of care, how can consulting experts be more influential in inspiring firms to desire and achieve results?
These are the largest barriers I see when it comes to implementation:
1) Problems and Solutions are NOT Simple
2) Democratic Leadership
Perhaps if consultants work with fewer firms but in more depth, the results can be far stronger than when working with more firms, but more superficially.
Problems and Solutions are NOT Simple
They are complex and entirely interrelated. Consultants and media feed "easy" solutions to one small piece of a problem at a time. This doesn't seem problematic at first, and even seems a palatable way to make incremental change.
But what this approach fails to illustrate is exactly how interrelated most problems in firms are (e.g. low interest in personal marketing is perpetuated by the belief that no one is available to "do the work" if/when the marketing succeeds—though this appears at first like a capacity problem—often the capacity DOES exist to do the work, but leveraging is the issue). While it may seem trivial to fix a leverage problem, if we can show the impact of leverage on profitability (for example), it is easier to accept this as a beneficial change. Without a clear picture of exactly why a change is needed, buy-in tends to be half-hearted at best.
Unless the leader/s of a firm are true visionaries and connect these dots themselves, or can see the forest despite the trees, then we consultants may need to do more in this area in order to have deeper impact.
When firms are governed by democracy, multiple leaders seldom agree about making a change at all, much less about taking that commitment personally and supporting it all the way through implementation. To succeed, leaders must agree that a problem IS a problem therefore believe in a solution's need and then must trust in the appropriateness of the recommended approach to resolving it.
The firms that experience greatest success have at least one of the following:
- one key leader that others respect and follow;
- multiple leaders, but infrastructure for accountability (including mutual respect in order to adhere to commitments made);
- an emotional or psychological investment in the success of implementation.
Consultants can spend more time illustrating the interrelationship of problems for clearer understanding, and then facilitating solutions that are "right" for that unique firm. And consultants could probably work more closely with the firm to create custom solutions even if it means directing them to others to solve the problems.
Today, many of those in charge are making "enough" money and are close enough to retirement that "sticking it out" a little longer in the status quo is still an option for them. And it's an option that can be more appealing than making the sorts of significant changes we suggest.
Is the firm going to increase it's internal and external value proposition? Or not? That is the question.
Bringing in the consultant doesn't mean the desire to move forward is a given. We consultants could do a better job to always raise the question — it is an important part of the commitment to implement. Getting a solid answer is a must because choosing not to decide is always an option. As the song lyric goes, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." (Freewill, Permanent Waves, Rush, 1980). Any choice, or lack of choice, will have its consequences. Until or unless the consequences of not changing are actually painful to the current leaders, many firms simply won't.
What consultants could do more of here is to be more compelling about the benefits of improving the firm's value proposition for its people and/or its customers. When enough work is piled on their desks, partners don't care to worry much about tomorrow's dollar. When there are warm bodies populating the cubicles, they don't care to question if those are the right bodies or if those bodies will be there tomorrow.
Much like an attorney or accountant trying to convey the benefits in proactive tax or estate planning, we consultants are presently trying to communicate the price of NOT changing. And much like many people will never buy the tax or estate planning, many firms will never accept our advice to change. We consultants must accept this and focus our energies on the firms that WILL move ahead of the pack.
Leaders often think when someone says things need to change that we are saying THEY broke them or that THEY somehow failed. More often than not, all we are saying is that times they are a-changin' and firms need to change, too. Consultants could be more careful to avoid putting firms on the defensive which creates a barrier that doesn't need to exist.
The systems, processes, and expertise needed to apply our recommendations is not usually in place within the firm. If we don't help them to create that infrastructure, then we could be more proactive in helping the firm find the resources to build it and follow up routinely to counsel through the implementation.
Again, though it isn't always our "job" to ensure our advice is heeded, if we care to, those of us who consult can do more aid in implementation. If our personal satisfaction is in seeing firms advance, then perhaps we need to be better at our own client selection--choosing to work with firms with higher likelihood of applying our advice. Sounds a lot like our advice to the firms we serve...