Sunday, 16 January 2011 00:00

The Consultant's Lore

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"Why is it that when you get hired you are no longer the expert?" A chuckle rippled through the audience; however, the woman asking the question was serious. I turned the question back to the audience of director level managers, "Why is this the case?" There was silence. Finally, I proffered that it was management's lack of understanding the skills of the people working for them. "Who in your organization can you implicitly trust?" More silence. It is sad that organizations know so little about the people that they hired—the people on which they stake their company's future.

The Work Environment

When problems arise, the team can be classified in three groups—the accusers, the politicians, and the fixers. Each has their roll in confusing management on what the problems are and what the appropriate solution should be. The accusers lay blame and offer quick, often self-promoting, solutions. They are vocal and obstinate. Unfortunately, they lack the vision or data to make a proper assessment. The politicians say little. They try to stay out of the spotlight. Many of these people have a good grasp of the issues and even some solutions. However, they shy from the responsibility for defending or implementing their ideas. On the other hand, the fixer sees the picture and can determine the solution—given the chance. They spend time analyzing the issues and the people, and develop solutions. Regrettably, management has not spent the time to understand these traits in their staff and they have no recourse but to hire an outside party to assess the problem.

They want Pulp Fiction's Winston Wolf to come in and "solve problems." The Wolf makes problems go away. He works with the team, understands the problems, and makes the decisions that put the project back on track. Once the identified problem is corrected, the business can continue as usual ignoring the fact that management is still ignorant to its team's capabilities. The accuser, politician, and fixer are still there and management does not know whom to trust.

The Consultant's Job

In nearly all cases, the consultant's job is to simply listen. Everyone on the project has an opinion, someone needs to poll the individuals, understand their concerns, and use this data to identify the problems. When called in to rescue a problem project, one of my first tasks is to assemble the team and deliver a blunt message. I frankly tell them, "You know the problems and you know the answers. I am going to assemble that data into a solution to present to management. And, as you might expect, they will give me the credit." It is a sad and stark admission of the political truth. The earlier the team recognizes this, the sooner the project will be on the road to recovery.

At the root of this scenario is the issue that management is failing. It has been unsuccessful in assessing the team's strengths or knowing whom to trust. It is the consultant's fiduciary responsibility to highlight this as a key issue in the recovery, the project, and the organization. Rarely is the case that the lack of understanding, trust, and communication commences as the project heads into the red. It existed long before, contributing to management's inability to correct the situation prior to the project spiralling out of control.

Management's Challenge

Managers must find the time to objectively understand the capabilities of their staff. This is a primary responsibility of being a manager. They need to minimize the effect of the accusers, create an open management style where politics has no place, and leverage the strength of the fixers. It is hard work and often requires confrontation to marginalize or remove the people who create strife in the group. Simply put, organizations run much better if managers spent time with their team members differentiating between the ones that divide and the ones that unite.

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