You’ve probably heard that title phrase before, whether in relation to consulting, teaching, or coaching. But is that really a fair statement that consultants (teachers or coaches) can’t do the task? Or is it that they shouldn’t be doing, but rather helping others to do.
Ron Ashkenas, a managing partner at Connecticut-based Schaffer Consulting recently asked a group of MBA students to define what it means to be a consultant. He says, “they quickly rattled off phrases such as ‘trusted advisor,’ ‘problem-solver,’ ‘objective 3rd party,’ and ‘subject matter expert.’ What was interesting was that none of their definitions mentioned the word ‘results.'”
At first glance, that omission seems to be okay within the confines of what I’ve learned so far about the particular type of consulting known as process consulting. The idea behind process consulting, as Schein says, is “how powerful it is not to tell people what to do, but to create a situation where they have to think it through for themselves.” Schein postulates that the client should own both the problem and the solution. “At the core of this [Process Consulting] model is the philosophy that clients must be helped to remain proactive, in the case of retaining both the diagnostic and remedial initiative” (p. 20). But does this really mean that the consultant is off the hook for what does or doesn’t come from their work?
In Flawless Consulting, Peter Block takes a very direct approach in terms of the consultant’s role. “Your responsibility as a consultant is to present information as simply, directly, and assertively as possible and to complete the task of each of the phases of the consultation” (p. 50). He says that taking on responsibility for tasks that belong to the client are detrimental to the consulting process. “In the final analysis, you [the consultant] are not responsible for the use of your expertise and recommendations. If consultants really believe that they should be responsible for implementing their recommendations, they should immediately get jobs as line managers and stop calling themselves consultants” (p. 46).
Let’s go back to Ashkenas’ notion that “shielding of consultants from the responsibility to achieve results is potentially dangerous both to the consultants and to the managers who hire them.” This would seem to be in direct conflict with Block’s approach. And yet, if we really dig into what Ashkenas see as “results,” we find a concept that he, Block, and Schein can all agree on.
Ashkenas says the consultant’s work should “focus more on what’s possible and has the best chance of making an impact – instead of on what’s theoretically ‘right.'” Block says consultants need to “understand enough about the politics of the situation to see how it will affect your project and the implementation of your recommendations.” And, I believe, both of these ideas are echoed in Schein’s second principle — always stay in touch with current reality — which takes into account that “current assumptions and perceptions create that reality and how they [consultants and clients] should best deal with that reality in terms of the client’s intentions to improve the situation” (p. 6). Therefore, the result that consultants should be held accountable for is to deliver a recommendation that is achievable given the current environment and constraints.
This all hits home for me as we start planning for our initial meeting with our client this weekend. What will we actually be offering the client? A plan? A solution? Something even more tangible such as a new website? What does the client think we’re offering? What deliverable will have the best chance of making an impact? How can we begin to discover the politics that might affect the implementation? What should we be listening for to begin to piece together the current reality?
It seems to me that doing something — creating a new website or writing press releases about upcoming shows — might be easier. But if we don’t bring the client through the process with us such that he understands how to keep driving traffic to the website or how to write a compelling press release, then we’ve failed in our attempts to help our client. Consulting takes “doing” to the next level and leaves the clients with the tools to do for themselves.
I started with a quote that was not so flattering, so I shall leave you with one that is much more flattering, and to my mind, much closer to the truth.