The Problem of the Strategy, Culture, Change & Filters (Post 12 of 13)
Author: Peter Jay Sorenson CMC®, StrategicOrganizationDesign.com
17 September 2013
It is hard to be objective. It is hard to find objective, filter-free information. Too often people will tell us what they think we want to hear. Or tell us what makes sense through the filter of their own point of view.
People, even consultants, bring their points of view to the table. Those points of view act as filters to what we see, what we think, what we say, and what we do. Triangulation is the most important tool we have to cross-check the accuracy and validity of what we ourselves think, what we see or think we see, and what we hear from others. So find multiple sources of data. Evaluate the quality and reliability of those sources, and compare what you are getting from one source with another. That comparison is your triangulation mechanism.
One of the dilemmas a consultant faces is that for every project they have to quickly figure out the lay of the land in both the marketplace and their client’s organization. With limited access to people and information. And not knowing the points of view and vested interests of the people they interact with. Again, triangulation is the tool we need to use.
When a consultant enters an organization, to either do work or sell work, gathering information is a first critical piece of work on the agenda. One approach is to do either a formal or informal stakeholder analysis:
- Who are the players?
- What points of view and interests do they represent?
- Who has what kind of power?
- What are the unwritten rules and protocols?
- What issues and problems do people see?
As you gather data you are building relationships and fueling your triangulation process.
One of the most difficult tasks for both the consultant and the client is the process of building a working relationship or contracting:
- How are we going to work together?
- What are the project boundaries?
- What are the presenting problems?
- What data backs up that diagnosis?
- What are the outcomes we are trying to achieve?
- How do we disagree with each other constructively?
- How do we approach sacred cows?
It is very common for clients to not be forthcoming with important data or to be sufficiently out of touch with what is really going on in the organization that they mislead you as the consultant. And a few will deliberately mislead you and try to manipulate you into supporting their own self-serving point of view. You need to discover early in the relationship which of these categories the client falls into. If they are in touch with the organization and the marketplace, forthcoming with data, and not misleading or manipulating you you have hit the trifecta1 and the client will probably be a joy to work with.
By the way, it is very common, as a consultant, to be brought in to do a well defined, narrow slice of work that is done quickly. The same issues still apply, but the narrow targeting and speed of the process may keep you from being able to do a descent job of stakeholder analysis and triangulation. But you still need to keep your sensors open for important information.
A colleague once told me about a project he was called in to consult on where the clients were partner organizations from two countries. The two organizations had a tepid relationship at best. There were strong points of view, cultural filters, and vested interests on both sides. The consulting team was confused by some of the communication that went on. They thought it might be culture or language differences. As they probed deeper their confusion grew. They were concerned that critical technical information was lacking. They made back channel inquiries that lead them to data that one of the client organizations had that was being suppressed by the other client organization. They only discovered this by putting out feelers to a third organization that had deep relationships into the client who had the data. They were triangulating.
After examining the data they concluded that the project should not be pursued by the partners. But there appeared to be no way to make that recommendation because of the political barriers and filters from the middle management of one of the clients. Those middle managers were hell-bent on moving forward in spite of the data.
Fortunately, a government regulator started asking questions, learned about the data, and went to the CEO of the blocking organization. The CEO had been hoodwinked by the mid-management filter. The consultants recommendations were brought to light and the CEO cancelled the project.
Networking and Triangulation:
What should we learn from this example? One key thing to learn is that in order to overcome filtering you have to have multiple points of access and open lines of communication on a project. And your relationships need to be broad and deep both inside and outside the organization. You need to start this data gathering as early in the process is possible. And you need to use the information you gather to triangulate, to build an accurate picture of reality which can be the foundation of your analysis and recommendations. Let the networking begin!
Both consultants and clients have fears and wonder whom they can trust. Those fears are based on our uncertainty about each other’s motives and intents. Sound contracting about our relationships and excellent triangulation with robust information will help both sides manage their fears and and apprehensions and build trust. And build the shared view of reality that can lead to successful projects.
But that is easier said than done. Trust building takes time and is hard work.
One other quick point. On consulting projects, work and relationships are often handed off from one consultant to another. Clients often complain about revolving doors with new consultants showing up every Monday morning. The best way to manage these changes when they are necessary is through a robust handoff protocol that is information intensive.
A consultant handed off a project to a colleague in a three hour meeting with documents, charts, and visuals. The receiver of the handoff said he was amazed that the handoff was so thorough. He was a seasoned consultant. He said he had never had a handoff be so helpful. He was able to come quickly up to speed, build a trusting relationship with the client, and the project never skipped a beat. And the firm looked good in the eyes of the client.
That and other experiences have taught me something. Most handoffs are neither well crafted nor well executed. We as consultants can and should fix that. It takes time and a disciplined approach, but it pays huge dividends. It builds a positive reputation with the client for both the consultant and the firm. And it will help us manage the filtering that is a characteristic of all organizations.
So we return to the ideas from James Bryant Quinn and Jamie Houghton and others.
Building multiple sources of data, deep and broad relationship networks, and using triangulation to display reality along with patient, persistent, sticky change to move the project and organization forward.
And manage handoffs well.
Consultants can use that prescription too.
1 trifecta: A system of betting in which the bettor must pick the first three winners in the correct sequence. Also called a triple. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language – 4th Edition – Deluxe Smart Phone App)(By the way, hitting the trifecta is really hard to do! – PJS)