Those Who Can… Do. Those Who Can’t… Consult?

28 Sep

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.



Posted by on September 28, 2013 in ADLT 610



4 responses to “Those Who Can… Do. Those Who Can’t… Consult?

  1. searchingforknowledge

    September 29, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    I feel like you are asking some of the same questions that I was thinking about this week. You did a lovely job summarizing the paradox of consulting without being a subject matter expert. What happens when consultants don’t know the answers? How we will come up with solutions for our clients?. Even in my case, where I am familiar with the issues, I still don’t have the answers. Will Schein and Block really help us deliver help? What can we be expected to deliver of value to our clients? So many questions are swirling around in my head. I hope we find the answers soon, and more importantly, before we lose any respect with our clients.

  2. ajgordon2013

    September 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Great summary Joanne. @searchingforknowledge, I don’t think consultants are supposed to have all of the answers per say. It is my interpretation from the readings that when you are in the contracting phase and negotiating, you should be open with the client and let them know exactly what service you are going to provide. If its not “results” or the “answer to your issue”, then one she never expect the answer directly from the consultant. But you can offer “a new way of looking” at your issue, or “help with coming up with solutions” to your issue. I totally agree Joanne, there is definitely a great deal of teaching in the “process consulting” model. The best way for me to grasp the concept is to reflect on experience. I am often asked to serve on search committees for the university. When the search is for a high profile position, the university will hire an outside “Search (consulting ) firm to assist the committee in the process. The search firm will advertise the position, consult with departments to gauge candidates, conduct initial interviews, as well as encourage buy in on the process with campus community. They assist the internal search committee (and the university) by doing all of these things. But I’ve noticed they have never said “You should hire this candidate” or “This is the best candidate for your position”.

  3. searchingforknowledge

    October 1, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    Thank you, that’s helpful perspective. I need to step back and remember that I am not responsible for solving everyone’s problems. And the role of consultant should actually give me permission to keep my distance and objectivity. I will keep reminding myself of that as we work through the steps! 🙂

    • Joanne Even

      October 5, 2013 at 8:24 pm

      @ajgordon2013 and @searchingforknowledge… it makes me happy to know that my blog created an opportunity for discussion and sharing. I also find myself reflecting on experiences to put the concepts we’re talking about in class into context. It’s lucky for me that I am currently working with a consultant in my “day job,” so I’m getting to experience it from the client side and observe how the consultant is doing his job. I hope the assistance he can provide us with on the contracted project is as valuable as the learning experience I’m getting watching him consult with us.


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