Consulting in the Invisible Spotlight: Q&A

Question: As I read this blog, I find myself thinking about the consulting you do as much as the management problems you describe. I wondered if there was a time you can recall where your initial diagnosis about what made an organization perform well or get stuck in the mud turned out to be just plain wrong?

Answer: What a fascinating and unexpected question! Well, my answer may seem evasive, but I think it’s the truth:

It’s rarely our charge (or our preference) to make “declarations” about what makes an organization perform or not. While we’re occasionally asked to make “organizational assessments,” far more often we’re asked to:

  1. Help individual managers work through their challenges of the day by seeing their obligations and options more clearly;
  2. Mediate individual and departmental relationships that have gone awry because of things like territoriality, misunderstanding, incompatible habits and routines, or truant leadership;
  3. Facilitate difficult discussions among parties with divergent interests who must make a decision, solve a problem, or plan a strategy together.

In situations when we do make more formal, organization-wide “diagnoses,” the nature of the data we collect and the way we collect it are almost safeguards against being wrong. Here’s what I mean:

Certainly we bring our own organizational ideologies and values to these assessments, but our findings aren’t dominated by them. They’re dominated by the combined impressions and observations of the very people we collect the data from! And we always visit every corner and layer of the organization to get a wide-angled picture. So in this sense, it’s hard to be “just plain wrong.” That would mean we fundamentally misheard what many people had said to us.

In our line of work, doing a good or bad job is less about being right or wrong and more about being adept or inept, insightful or unobservant. On a good day, we artfully help an individual or group break through their impediments. On a bad one, we fail to grasp those impediments or the people contending with them, and as a result, we leave the situation no less entangled than it was when we began the consultation.

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