In this third of a series of three blogs we address uncertainty in organizations where external consultants are involved, and there are also some common conclusions drawn from all three blogs. This first blog in this series talked about strategic planning, while the second covered critical decisions in high-performance organizations.
I have to tell this story because I found the situation so peculiar, and highly illustrative of the often-strange behavior of external consultants with agendas. (The points of this vignette could also be applicable to people inside organizations who have strong “going in positions” for a meeting, though this is an account is of an external consultant.)
I was collaborating with another consulting firm to design a senior management meeting for a global pharmaceutical company. In the meeting they needed to decide the future direction of an internal process improvement program they were doing, which was a combination of Lean and Six Sigma disciplines.
I’d placed on the agenda an item in which the senior managers would chart out a course for the next three months, and make some decisions on the level of involvement they wanted the general workforce to have in the upcoming changes.
The other consultant, whose firm provided Lean Six Sigma training and implementation support, expressed his immediate discomfort with this agenda item. He said, “We don’t know the answer to that question yet. Why would we ask a question that we didn’t know the answer to, or that they didn’t know the answer to before the meeting started?”
A bit taken aback, I replied, “Well, because all the key players and disciplines are represented in the room, and they can talk about the topics, debate the pros and cons, and come to an agreement on which actions would be the best for the company.”
Then Bob, the other consultant shook his head, and asked, “But what if they don’t come to the right decision?”
“Bob,” I said, “it’s their company, and their resources, and they’ll need to be comfortable committing to whatever they think is do-able. It will be the right decision for them, at least for now, and they can meet later and adjust if needed. As outsiders we can certainly provide our points of view, but ultimately this is their decision to make, own, and implement.”
What was interesting to me was that Bob’s reaction and intent weren’t malicious in any way. It’s just the way that he thought about the issue.
To his credit, Bob agreed to let the agenda item stay, and the group had 45-minute conversation on the topic. Decisions were made, tasks assigned, and an implementation schedule developed. After the meeting the group said this was one of the most productive meetings they’d had, and that it was much better than a series of one-on-one pre-selling and conversation meetings they’d had in the past.
But are group meetings always necessary to address big problems? No. There are times when you bring in a consultant to fix a specific technical problem in which that consultant has a demonstrated expertise. Maybe she knows all the quirks of a particular bioreactor and has a personal checklist of what do to when a certain error occurs. Or maybe a person understands the ins and outs of the new healthcare legislation, and how it impacts the insurance industry.
A key distinction and tips for moving forward
I think the distinction that Harvard researcher and author Ron Heifitz makes is extremely useful for determining when groups, vs. individuals need to be involved. He talks about the difference between technical challenges (where there’s purely a technical problem to address, like fixing the bioreactor quirks mentioned above) and adaptive challenges (where the solution may have a technical component, but also involves changing people’s attitudes, values, and behaviors). When the solution is unknown, and key players need to be brought together to collectively develop a path forward, it’s definitely time for the leader to convene people to get ideas, prioritize options, and come up with action plans to move forward.
So the bottom line for this thread of uncertainty is that organizations that outperform their competition tend to freely acknowledge that they don’t know everything about the future, or a particular situation before going into a meeting. This helps keep them poised to develop the best possible solution they can collectively develop, which, over the long run, favors their organization over others for sustained, long-term, high performance.