Time To Change – Getting Better Value From Your Consultant

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Have you ever commissioned a piece of change consulting for your organisation with a great deal of enthusiasm, but then found yourself utterly frustrated by the relationship with your consultant, and deeply disappointed by the poor results at the end of the contract?  Organisations don’t always get the best value from their consultants, so in the current climate of austerity it is essential to rethink the way organisations contract with consultants to support their programmes of change. 

Among other services, I run consultancy skills master classes, and I provide coaching supervision to other consultants. I also find myself coaching clients who have had bad experiences with other consultants – I support them in analysing what went wrong and to identify how they could work differently with consultants in the future. Based on these experiences, here are my thoughts about how organisations  can invest their limited resources most effectively, so clients and consultants can enjoy a richer, more stimulating, and ultimately more effective working relationship. (Or download and save the full guide here.)

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The Problem

There are two related reasons for consultancy being less effective than it could be. Firstly, clients and consultants can have different unspoken assumptions about which model of consulting they think they are working to. So they have different expectations about how they should relate to each other, pull in opposite directions, and land up frustrating each other’s efforts. This is easily avoided if you clarify the terms of engagement from the start.

Secondly, at a deeper level, consulting programmes don’t always deliver the desired results because clients and consultants haven’t reached agreement about which model of consulting is needed for the programme to be effective. They often default to a classic  “expert consultant” model which assumes that the consultant will produce a perfect solution for the organisation with little input from the client. This is a seductive idea for both parties – because it paints a picture of minimum effort for the client organisation, and superior insight on the part of the consultant. But in this period of dramatic funding cuts, organisational life has become even more turbulent, so the task of achieving sustainable organisational change is more complex than it ever was. It is increasingly unlikely that expert consulting alone will deliver results.

This means it is essential for the client and consultant to negotiate thoroughly at the start so they both have a clear understanding of what outcomes are required, and how the consultancy intervention will deliver these.  They need to establish how they will work together and sustain meaningful dialogue throughout the contract. If consultant and client can line up in equal partnership and set aside time to think creatively together, it’s possible to arrive at solutions that fit the organisational context well and ensure that change is sustainable well beyond the consultant’s involvement. 

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Key Questions To Ask Yourself

1. Can the consultant actually consult well? What skills, knowledge and experience do you need your consultant to have? Often organisations emphasise an expert technical match with the organisation – at the expense of testing a good consulting match. Do they really need to have a detailed understanding of your organisation and sector or would a working knowledge be enough? Have you considered other qualities that are essential: trustworthy, has presence, establishes rapport, able to challenge constructively, able to facilitate dialogue and find common ground, intelligent and analytic, and able to “hold” the organisation through turbulence.

2. What outcomes do you want from the consulting? Rather than prescribe the methods to be used by the consultant, could you specify the outcomes you require and ask the consultant to explain what methods she would use, and how these would deliver the desired outcome?  Use the consultant as a sounding board, a trusted adviser, to check that you have formulated the problem > diagnosis > solution effectively, to make sure that the different stages of the change sequence stack up.

3. What outputs do you require? Organisations frequently commission outputs rather than outcomes, and will request formal written reports or “reviews” from consultants, when what they really want is a cultural change, or to have a conflict resolved. Are you sure you want to spend your scarce resources on outputs like a formal report or a written review? Who will read it? Would a quick “working note” be sufficient to capture the key points?

4. How will you and your consultant line up and think together about the organisation?  It is impossible for a consultant to have full insight about a new client system, so there is great value in you and the consultant reflecting together and pooling your impressions. There will be issues that you take for granted that an external consultant will see with fresh eyes, but equally, the consultant may not understand the full significance of what is seen and will need your insider knowledge to decode it.

5. Who needs to participate in the consultancy process? How would you define the “system” that the consultant needs to work within? Which people in what roles should be engaged in the consulting? Who is most likely to have valuable insights into the best way to introduce the changes you require?  Who should stay out of the consulting process? eg. Organisations sometimes include staff or service users out of general sense of ‘democracy’ without being clear about why they should be involved. There needs to be a clear rationale for each of the participants to be there in their organisational “roles”, and they need to be given the means of participation.

6. How will you engage your stakeholders in the change process? Think through with the consultant to identify what methods of engagement will unlock stuck bits of your system, allow you to access the knowledge already within the system, and enable safe resolution of difficulties.

7. Are you clear yet about the full course of action that you want to commission? Don’t be bounced into commissioning a complete programme of consulting if you don’t know what outcomes you are after. You don’t have to commission your solutions all in one go. Instead you can take the change process one step at a time, using:

  • Coaching sessions for yourself to clarify the issue in your own mind, and to map out your dilemma clearly.
  • An initial consultation with your senior team or governing board to engage them in defining and refining the problem, establish the common ground, and identify what expertise you already have in the organisation that might help to find a solution.
  • A well-facilitated, engaging change process, with specialist expertise bought in where necessary for specific elements of the programme (eg. specialist legal advice).

8. How much time are you prepared to contribute?  If the diagnosis of the problem, the development of the solution and the implementation require a collaborative approach to ensure that the most appropriate course of action is taken, are you prepared to find the time to be available to work with the consultant?   A good consultant will understand how to make best use of your time and to ask for contributions appropriately but will be frustrated if you are not able to be reasonably available.

9. How will you hold your positive authority and stay in role as leader throughout the change process? Can you entrust the consultant with generous access to your trustee board and staff, knowing that she will respect your leadership role? Is the consultant skilled and courageous enough to challenge you constructively when necessary – building rather than undermining you as a leader?

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You can download the full version of this guide with more details of the different consulting models here.

Time To Change – Getting Better Value From Your Consultant

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My grateful thanks to my colleagues for their generous comments on an earlier draft of this blog:

Denise Fellows, Director and CEO of Consultancy & Talent Development, Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness

Anne McKay, Clinical Psychologist

Mark Harrod, consultant and interim CEO

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