Changing the way we go about organisational change

As I look out over the slice of the business world I can see, I feel a sense of injustice at some of the work that is being done by consultants in the name of organisational change.

The big consulting firms, McKinsey, Boston Consulting, Bain, KPMG, PwC, Deloitte et al, are propagating a version of organisational change in all the large organisations I am working with, paying no heed to the human system. The damage they do to the human system starts from the minute they are engaged, when trust levels drop, as people fear for their job security.

 The mental models that drive these firms are not human relational, they are capitalist and task focussed, they represent a continuation of the status quo, perpetuating the mindsets that have got us to where we are, exacerbating levels of disconnection, stress and exhaustion. The book, ‘The Big Con’ articulates what I have been feeling in much more depth and, whilst it is a somewhat depressing read, the authors explain how conventional big firm consulting is stunting the changes that are much needed in organisations today.

The consulting world has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, since I founded Meeting Magic. The number of small firms and independent consultancies has grown enormously, so the range of what is on offer has widened significantly. I can see how hard it is for client organisations to navigate this and, no one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey!

I see a parallel between the world of organisational health and human health.

The big firms are like our hospitals that provide Western Medicine. They have the capacity to get ‘all over’ a disease. They gather data, diagnose and then recommend treatment. This approach to healing can be truly life-saving, but they are largely unwilling to acknowledge the limitations of drugs and knives and the potential benefits of holistic approaches.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of holistic practitioners offering treatments from hands on healing, to herbal remedies and energy work. I am a strong believer in holistic medicine, but it is hard to navigate this market, to find the right practitioner. So, this means most people stick to what they know, conventional Western Medicine, even when it doesn’t work.

I think it is the same for an organisational health.

Most people who have experienced working with the big firms know that they might have a role in slicing and dicing an organisation to make the P&L look more profitable, but they do not provide sustainable, positive impact because they deny that organisations are living human systems and do not have the skills to work on the intangible, relational issues that human system work requires. Even with their poor track records of positive impact, they are hardly held accountable and the “transformation failure” is quickly blamed on “change resistant” employees, without questioning the validity of their methods.

I definitely do not think I have all the answers, but I have been having conversations with clients and consultants about this and here are some ideas ….

  • Decide what kind of consultant you are looking for.

In part that is about the type of working relationship you want with a consultant. Ed Schein identified three ways consultants work with clients and offers the distinction between

  • Expert consultants – where the client wants to find an expert to figure out what is wrong and fix it.
  • Pair-of-Hands -where the client has diagnosed the problem, figured out what needs to be done, and needs a pair-of-hands to implement the solution.
  • Collaborative – where the consultant partners their specialist skills with the client to jointly solve a problem.

I would like to offer another distinction between different types of consultants …

  • Industrial view of an organisation – this mental model of an organisation assumes that every organisation is a combination of systems and processes, connected through the organisational design. Change is assumed to happen when leaders or consultants change systems, processes or the organisational design. Ways of working change by telling people how they need to work differently within these new structures. The ‘soft’ stuff to do with people is intellectually seen as important but it is not fundamental to this world view.
  • Human relational view of an organisation – this mental model of an organisation stems from seeing an organisation as a complex living human system. The bottom line of the P&L is as a result of human activity and therefore how people work together, in relation to one another, has as much impact on results, as what is done. Sustainable change happens through people connecting and collaborating to sense and respond to external changes.

At this point I need to claim my bias. Anyone who knows me will know that I am a collaborative consultant, with a human-system, relational approach to working with organisations.

One of the big issues I see at the moment is conventional, expert-style consulting methods being used on human system issues. The big firms are claiming they can deliver impact for clients on the intangible, human, relational stuff, like culture, trust, conflict … but conventional consulting methods do not work in this sphere.

I know the big firms will deny this, but they are not equipped to work relationally.

It is a completely different mindset from conventional consulting and requires a particular quality of personal development and skill building.

  • Once you have decided what type of consultant – find your consultant …
  • Ask for recommendations from people you trust … and remember that part of the magic of a great consulting partnership is the chemistry between people in the partnership so, use other people’s recommendations AND trust your instincts.
  • Also look for bodies or organisations who might help you find the type of consultant you are looking for…  for example NTL Institute, The Tavistock, these organisations have members who do human systems organisational consulting.
  • Once you find a consultant, check them out …
  • Track record – how long have they been a consultant? Who else have they worked with? Can you speak to one of their past clients? One word of warning. Whilst a proven track record in a corporate role, speaks to someone’s capability, it does not necessarily mean they are a great consultant.
  • Professional development – how have they trained and developed as a consultant? Do they have supervision of their work?
  • Beware of Procurement! I say this with love for all the people who work in Procurement roles. However, I have been on the receiving end of painful procurement buying processes that are only fit to buy toilet roll, or transactional services. Most Procurement tendering processes indirectly discriminate against anything unconventional. So, if you are looking for something different, and effective, you will need to source this yourself and navigate procurement at the end.
  • Take the leap – sticking with what you know or what is familiar is not a route for change! Ultimately, you will need to take a leap, and I know it can be hard as your reputation can be on the line with the choice you make. So, ideally start with something small and make sure you put in time to reflect, review and course correct as you go.

The challenge for small consultancy firms and independent consultants is that we will never have the scale and budgets to market the way big firms do.

However, I believe in abundance, that there is more than enough work for everyone, and the quality of our work speaks for itself. Only small firms can offer the quality of service and expertise we do.

We don’t have to compete.

For example, I believe in and work with a human systems approach, I prefer to connect and create community amongst fellow practitioners in the hopes that our values and approaches might stand out more and become more accessible to clients.

When we connect and collaborate with other consultants, we not only support one another but we also enable clients to get more than one person can offer without the cost of a big firm. If we can work more like this, then we can offer a realistic alternative to a big consulting firms for medium and large client organisations.

  • Be clear about your offer – what do you do well, and therefore, what don’t you do? It is hard to collaborate with a consultant who claims they do everything!
  • Find your people – connect with other consultants who share your values. By collectively sharing what we stand for we make more of an impression and make it easier for clients to find the right help
  • Do your work together – when we form a consulting collective it is key that we do our work to become a connected, collaborative, healthy system ourselves, if we want to have a positive impact in our client systems. I once hired a consultancy formed as a collaboration between two parties and ended up having to do conflict management work between them – I left feeling like they gained more from the work than we did! Collaboration isn’t always easy so it takes intention and effort to curate, convene and form a healthy consultancy collective.

Conclusion – consultancies and client organisations need to work together the change the market.

In an over crowded consultancy market, all too often people turn to the comfort of the familiar.

This is not the way to create change.

Even the way we go about change needs to change 😊

It is hard for clients to find the right support and it is hard for small firms to stand out amidst the noise and attract the clients who need their help. Matching these partnerships requires integrity on both parties behalf. This blog is just some initial ideas, I am wondering what other thoughts and ideas are out there to improve the situation.