Monday, April 22, 2019

Magical and not so marginal!

Management Consultants are often seen as magical outsiders who possess powers that the employees in the organization lack. I have often wondered why this happens!
Some of the reasons are very much rational. Consultants often have specialized  skill-sets that the employees don't have. Consultants also have better access to databases, industry benchmark information and to best practices. In some domains (e.g. Job Evaluation) consultants do bring in proprietary methodologies.
But there are other (not so rational) factors also. Many of the organizations are not optimized for effectiveness. Organizations tend to gravitate towards a way of working that is most comfortable for the people who run it – even if it takes away from the effectiveness and efficiency. This can make it very easy for an external consultant to walk into an organization, do a diagnosis and find many areas where there was potential for significant improvement. While the fresh eyes’, specialized diagnostic tools and 'learning from other contexts' that the external consultant brings in are indeed helpful in doing this, one key advantage the external consultants have over the employees is the very fact that the consultants are 'outsiders' - who have not been part of the system and hence the problems that it is trying to solve.
Just having been part of the organization can become a liability as that can get the employees perceived as ‘part of the problem to be solved’ (even if they haven’t contributed to it). Sometimes, not disturbing the ‘convenient collective delusions’ in the organization becomes an unstated expectation for being an ‘insider’. ‘Remaining some sort of an outsider while being a full member of the organization’ is what can help internal consultants to  avoid this unfortunate situation. This is a tricky 'tightrope walk' and it might need somewhat unorthodox approaches (see ‘Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters’ for an example).
Another key factor here is that the external consultants can afford to sell/promise more ambitious possibilities (as compared to what the employees of the organization can) because what is at risk for the external consultant is an occasional success fee and not their jobs. Employees have more skin in the game. This can make the employees look ‘less ambitious’, ‘lacking in vision’, ‘change resistant’’ etc. Of course, this becomes a double whammy for the employees if they (and not the consultants) have to implement the over-ambitious plans that the consultants have sold.
Quite a bit of the consultant credibility falls into the ‘presumed credibility’ category which is based on the assumptions others hold about them (say, based on the consulting firm they work for and their educational qualifications). This can also lead to situations where consultants project expertise that they don’t really have.This is done by being deliberately vague, use of jargon, somber expressions, hiding behind proprietary tools and methodologies, making open-ended statements, doing name-dropping, using great-looking analysis and presentation templates, 'casual benchmarking'* etc. The risks arising from presumed credibility are more when one is working with a large consulting firm (as the consulting firms might deploy not so competent consultants especially if the client has negotiated hard on the consulting fee and/or the client is not too 'prestigious' for the consulting firm). Yes, this is also qualifies as magic - in the sense of 'creating an illusion' (of competence)!

Many of the consultants have also this great skill to see only the 'possibilities' during the proposal stage and to see only the 'limitations' after the assignment starts(till they start seeing possibilities that can lead to the next assignment)

Of course, not all consultants do any of this. I have also come across consultants (e.g. some very senior OD consultants) who have refused to take up the consulting assignment and by doing so forced the client to rethink the way they are looking at the 'problem'. SeeTruth and Beauty : Motivations and Elegance in HR’ for one such example. 
So there are both rational and not so rational aspects to the alchemy of the magic of external consultants! Now, let’s look at the 'marginality' dimension!
From a process consulting perspective, external consultants are supposed to remain marginal so that the clients can play the central role in solving their own problems. Of course, in content/expertise heavy consulting assignments the consultants have to play a more direct role. The problem happens when the clients ‘outsource’ all the thinking to the consultants and become dependent on the consultants for a long period of time.

Sometimes, the consultants become so central and influential that the business leaders will listen only to the consultants. Some consultants are very effective in creating some sort of 'learned helplessness' among the business leaders by making them believe that only the consultants would be able to convince the CEO. This situation becomes more unfortunate when the consultants (after establishing the dire need for consulting help at the diagnosis stage) gravitate towards telling the business leaders what they want to hear as the solution (typically something that minimizes the discomfort to the business leaders and places the most of the change requirement on the rest of the organization)! Yes, this can prove to be the royal road to influence and to more consulting assignments!
So, where does this leave us? There are right reasons (e.g. expertise, internal capability building, as an additional pair of hands etc.) and wrong reasons (e.g. to avoid blame, for the trophy value, based on unrealistic expectations on what a consultant can do etc) to hire external consultants. If one hires the right consultant for the right reason they can add a lot of valueEmployees also can learn a lot from the consultants – especially in terms of enhancing their skills, establishing credibility and projecting their expertise. It is most important that the clients shouldn’t relinquish their central role in solving their own problems and they should remain in charge. If the clients look to the consultants for salvation and allow the consultants to dictate the consulting agenda (instead of the clients choosing when to bring in a consultant, which consultant to bring in and what should be the mandate given to the consultant), trouble can’t be too far behind!
Any comments/observations? 

*Note: 'Casual benchmarking' refers to the practice of doing comparisons across organizations (on select parameters of interest) without paying adequate attention to the underlying differences between the contexts. This can lead to misleading inferences. 

No comments: