My Approach to Consulting: Good Questions are Often Better than Good Answers

Two Kinds of Consulting

As a generalization, there are two kinds of management consulting: content consulting and process consulting. Content consultants believe that organizations have questions and the consultants have the answers. Process consultants, on the other hand, believe that the people in organizations have all the answers, if only they knew the appropriate questions.

Think of it as a spectrum, with content consultants on the right and process consultants on the left. On the right hand side there is high, hard ground, where the answers from the problem-solving model tend to be of a one-size-fits-all variety. This is fine as long as the organization is dealing with clear, “dry”, technical questions. These are questions like “What kind of ERP should we choose? How do we structure incentive plans?” These are important questions, but they are not my area of expertise.

My Expertise

My expertise and experience is on the left side of the spectrum in the area I call “problem-finding”. Here there is a deep swamp, where contexts matter and organizations, even those in the same industry, are quite different from one another. The swamp is the lair of what some have called wicked problems. Here the challenge is to find the right questions and address them, for if one can just describe these complex issues – “name the pain” – one is well on the way to resolving them. Even then, the answers to these messy questions often come in the form of dilemmas – apparent choices among two or more “goods”, or sometimes choices among two or more evils. Messy questions often have more than one “right” answer!

Many organizations attach more importance to prescriptions than to diagnostics and they often try to solve dilemmas with technical fixes. They usually call me in after things have gone wrong: the change effort has met massive resistance; revenues are stuck in neutral, despite the reorganization; or the ERP that they were so sure they needed turns out to be overkill. Often it is a general malaise; people are stressed, morale sucks and some jobs have turned out to be undoable. Other organizations get me in up front, often when things are still going fine, to help find the right questions; “What do we need to change while we can? How do we innovate before growth falters? Do we really want to grow at all?”

My Method

Although every organization is different, after meeting with the responsible parties, I always start with the organization’s context in space and time. I want to understand the expectations and constraints under which it is operating from stakeholders of all kinds – customers, owners, boards, unions, competitors, community, government. I put together a learning history, looking at the organization over as long a time frame as practical; Why was it founded? What was its mission? What are the values? What was it designed to do? What has changed and how? In short it’s about getting a grip on the continuities – what’s happened – and the contingencies – what’s coming. Then I need to understand the organization’s components; its products, services or technology. How are they changing? Where are they in their lifecycles. Woven throughout are the people; What gets them up in the morning? What keeps them up at night? What makes them sad, glad or just mad?

All the while I am looking for the images and frameworks, the lenses that the organization is using and might be using to make sense of its situation. Every perspective enables some views but disables others. A shareholder’s value model, for example, privileges one set of stakeholders over the others and has the inevitable effect of turning off many people whose engagement one needs. A “stage-gate” model of the innovation process often has the effect of saying “no” and discouraging innovation: the premature application of valuation techniques such as net present value analysis can have a similar chilling effect on creativity. I am always thinking of ways of reframing issues so that the systemic constraints and biases against effective action become plain.

The result of this inquiry is a coarse-grained, moving picture of the past, present and potential futures of the organization – the questions it has to answer and the choices it has to make. It is the skeleton of a story. Next comes a refining process: I use a wide variety of catalysts to control the rates of interactions, speeding up some, slowing down others. They may take the form of development programs for key groups or a series of cascading conferences, but they are always learning experiences. The situation may require questionnaires and feedback instruments at the individual, team and organizational level. But the objective is to take those coarse-grained challenges and have the organization’s people mobilize them – break them up and shrink them down until everyone at every level of the organization can get their arms around them. They will understand not just the meaning of the words, but their action implications because they have fleshed out the story and brought it to life. The power of this process allows them to become engaged, to transform problems that they have discovered into problems that they have resolved; to turn often airy rhetoric into concrete reality.

When one addresses the right questions, the wicked problems, it usually turns out that the organization itself is both the question and the answer and that improving the system itself is the solution.