The first problem is YOU – A cultural thought piece by our “foreign correspondent”, Glen Burridge
Why are you here?
There is a barrier that lies at the heart of any consultant trying to transform an organisation, namely that you present an intercultural challenge by your very presence. Yes, you, as a consultant are the first problem the customer has to deal with when they bring in someone to help spur improvements in their organisation.
As a consultant, have you ever had the experience of sitting in a meeting room and, after all the niceties are done with, listening to the most senior person of the room start talking and realise they know next to nothing of why you’re there? Or, they think they know who you are, but the words they’re using are at complete odds with your perception with what you think you’re doing there?
What happens next can range from genuine curiosity – with an eye to why they weren’t briefed properly by their own people – to outright dismissive, even aggressive, behaviour. Experienced consultants will tell you that they’ve felt the full sweep of this spectrum at some time or other and, with a wry smile, it may conceal much more beneath. Even if the consultant is usually the most vulnerable person in the room, the sense of the threat that you may present can be palpable.
Don’t expect sympathy for your own precarious position.
It will be ultimately up to you to either dispel the drama or learn to work within it, since it centres on you and that disturbing vibration around maybe why you were brought you in – to shake things up. And that is the paymaster’s right.
The opposite situation is also worth considering. Where you are so seamlessly integrated in a situation that no-one knows you’re a consultant or they’re forgetting it rapidly. In this scenario, it’s entirely possible you may already know more than many of the people in the room. Remember, if you’re lucky enough to cope with working ‘sideways’, you may soon become the custodian of an entirely unique perspective, which could easily walk out of the organisation the moment you leave. So, this misconception may be something you’ll want to correct very quickly – it is the basis of your livelihood and code to maintain a professional detachment – but, if you’re well established and have a strong rapport with the commissioners of the work, you will be more relaxed and it makes the ‘sell’ of your work seem like another form of ‘internal project initiation’.
In business, we are working in the midst of an organism, some of whose processes are a source of positive wonder, some of which should be exemplary and obvious but have yet to evolve to cope with the role they’ve inherited, some of which is worn out or doing a function it was never designed for. The individual organs that drive this creature might have a long and distinguished history or they may be new and experimental. Some elements will be moving towards each other, others not even aware of what the other ones do. We can never make too many assumptions about who, where and when they can see what. Perhaps one of the defining qualities of an organisation is its opaqueness or transparency. The secret to good organisational consulting is to see enough of the machine working as a whole to do something meaningful at the scale you’ve been engaged at. If you’re lucky, you can build from there, once you gain the buy-in; this might be one level above or below, but in many ways the most interesting – although by far the more difficult – is if you can reach across.
The Client Side
Now consider the perspective of that manager from the client side for a moment.
You’ve just come from three meetings this morning already. You’re thinking that perhaps you won’t eat till 2pm, if you’re lucky, and you’ve learnt about two knotty problems and an uncertain one already this morning. Now, you find yourself on your way to a meeting your PA has kindly accepted for you but wish you could have avoided, with this new person that you’ve never met in your life. They’re not even on the email system. You know they’re something to do with a particular initiative that sounded a good idea a few months back and wasn’t backed by too much of the department’s budget anyway. But, frankly, the context is a little vague, because The Good Idea is not fleshed out yet and no-one’s quite sure if The Team should be setting the agenda or leaving it to the consultant to get on with Do Their Thing; they’re the ‘expert’ aren’t they? If only I had the time I’d sit down and sort this out myself, but we’ve got 30 mins and I’ll try and figure out what the hell we do. You know, these deep-field initiatives really should shape our world, but when can we show something tangible from them? Who but a consultant will want to make these kind of waves though?
Now, multiply that by the range of personalities found in a manager and you get the spectrum of meetings that can transpire.
If the organisation had all the answers to their problem, you wouldn’t have even been invited in the building.
So, we always need to consider that whatever wonderful bag of tricks, enthusiasm, wisdom and experience we think we bring into any organisational setting, we are the source of an out/in-group problem with all the attendant cultural dimensions that entails from the moment we step away from the Reception desk wearing our visitor’s badge.
Our first organisational problem we will have to fix is the one we create by simply being there.
About the Author – Glen Burridge
Earth Scientist, Consultant, Aviator and Intercultural Enthusiast, Glen is just down the road in Perth, Australia…