Why Consultant Recommendations Don't Work
By Dr. Ichak Adizes
For years, corporate management tended to accept at face value the advice they received from consulting firms. Hefty fees no doubt played a role in legitimatizing the practice but whether the counsel actually addressed the organizational problems companies sought to solve was moot because in most cases, the recommendations were never implemented.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how many well-intentioned consulting manifestos found permanent residence in corporate storage rooms, but an enterprising consultant could have become rich just on the printing revenues.
Why did so many bright people invest so much time, effort and money on so many proposals that were never put into operation? In my opinion, there are several reasons.
The Language Barrier
However well-crafted and impressively packaged, most recommendations were rendered ineffectual because of a language barrier. They were written in English alright, but they weren’t written in a language common to the various business units or functions they were intended to help.
The composition of consulting firms is a contributing factor here. They are typically made up of people who are smart and experienced, but whose specialization lies in an individual area or function, such as IT, Finance or Mark eting. Those that are process oriented — trained as organizational psychologists or in human behavior and group dynamics — are functionally or subsystem focused, and not well versed in content. As a result, their consulting recommendations tend to be similarly specialized, lacking a common business language element critical to successful implementation and problem resolution.
What is missing in these efforts is a multidisciplinary perspective, one that enables senior management to lead sustainable change without causing destructive conflict. This approach typically requires expertise in not one or two but several disciplines, and may involve a variety of professionals knowledgeable about business and what it takes to lead change successfully. This group might include psychologists, economists and attorneys, as well as MBAs and former business executives. Competence in content and process, as well as sharing a common language or methodology for leading sustainable change without causing destructive conflict is necessary.
Just as the military units from various countries that make up a United Nations army may have outstanding individual capabilities, without a common language to provide direction without confusion, the army’s combined strength cannot be fully utilized. So too without a common language recognized by all the organizational components, a company is unable to sustain any change strategy. Like an organization with multiple computers on different operating platforms that cannot communicate with one another, a company must find software that allows all the different operating systems to talk among themselves. This allows the company to take advantage of its indigenous competitive advantage and its totality becomes much stronger as result.
An individual cannot change an organization; it takes an organization to change an organization. Some companies employ coaches, but sending a coach into an organization to interview a few people and write a report that advises an individual — even the CEO — accomplishes little save for some personal growth. It takes a multidisciplinary team working together to provide the critical holistic component to achieve meaningful organizational change. A holistic treatment of organizational problems requires a diagnosis of the entire enterprise.
The Wrong Prescription
Most companies do not have a clear picture of their problem. If they did, it’s likely they would have found a solution without outside help.
Every organization has a lifecycle and at each stage of that lifecycle, it experiences problems that are normal. It may also experience problems that are abnormal or even pathological. The consultant must determine which problems to solve and which to ignore, within the context of a workable plan of action.
A physician does not prescribe the same medicine for a child and an adult. A business prescription — the plan of action — is contingent upon where the organizational patient is on its lifecycle. The proper medicine works better and faster because it is appropriate. Determining the proper medicine and dosage requires examining all the relevant factors within an organization — personalities, management style, structure, processes, finances, etc. — in order to identify the true causes of the illness, which may not necessarily be where management says it hurts. Companies, by and large, focus on problem manifestations, not causes.
Consultants commonly prescribe medicine without regard for an organization’s lifecycle positioning. The right medicine for a mature organization can be life-threatening for an infant company. For example, clear cut strategies, planning in detail exactly what to do and how to do it may be appropriate for an organization in or near its Prime. But for a start up, that practice could be dangerous because an Infant organization knows only its intentions and dreams. A certain amount of planning is necessary but not the level of planning certainty that an established company, one that thoroughly knows its market, can employ. An Infant organization has to be very flexible, able to change direction quickly as it explores what works and doesn’t work. By necessity, its planning must be a bit ambiguous.
Another example is when consultants try to discourage or dismantle dictatorial leadership because they believe it is harmful to an organization. While that may be true for a company already in Prime or beyond, it is not true for a startup; in fact, autocratic leadership in an Infant organization is functional and necessary because the founder has to protect his creation. It is natural — not abnormal — for the founder to be opinionated and protective of his child.
The consulting prescription of uniting sales and marketing might work for a young company but is a disaster for a company beyond Adolescence or approaching Prime.
The real danger in a single discipline approach to problem solving is the old saw that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So if a consultant is trained in strategic planning, he is almost certainly going to tell a company they must define their goals and strategy before doing anything else. And the advice is likely to be completely wrong because the company cannot clearly define its goals and strategy if its structure is convoluted. Consultants tend to work within a sequence that says strategy drives structure. That’s not so. It may sound correct and perhaps it should be that way, but it is not reality. The reality is that structure causes strategy.
Companies that engage a consulting firm to restructure their organization often run into employee problems, forcing them to call in another consultant to deal with the unions, followed by still another consultant to deal with the financial restructuring that is now out of alignment with the strategic advice they received from the original consultant.
I once saw a cartoon in the lobby of a medical building. It listed the names and specialties of the various doctors: A cardiologist, dermatologist, urologist, etc. The last was Dr. Goldberg, whose specialty was side effects .
Organizations are like motorboats. Tell me the relative strength of the various engines and I’ll tell you which direction the boat is going to take. Regardless of what happens on the deck, no matter how much someone topside screams “Change direction,” the engine — or in the case of an organization, the power structure — determines which direction the boat will take. Most strategic planning initiatives fall victim to entrenched power structures that reject the changes. Their preference is no change.
One of the first things a consultant must do is to relax “the engines,” make them changeable, more flexible. Once that’s accomplished, a strategic plan can be developed that determines which direction the boat should take. It’s vital to begin not with the strategy but rather with the power structure that enables the strategy.
Most consultants work sequentially. They define the strategy then recommend the structure that ostensibly will deliver the strategy. That rarely goes anywhere. WE believe strategy and structure must be changed in a more interactive or interchangeable manner, much like an inverted V or triangle configuration that avoids the typical linear approach with strategy coming first and driving structure. At the base of one side of the triangle is Strategy; at the other is Structure. Beginning on the strategy side, the mission and nature of the organization is discussed. Then moving to the structure side, an organizational structure template that makes sense for the mission is created. This is not the final chart; merely a first draft. It induces the power structure to accommodate the mission. These discussion and conclusions are usually acceptable to participants because as yet, no change has been recommended. It is like anesthesia prior to surgery.
The focus then shifts back to strategy, working in more detail, followed by a move back to structure for more details. This continuous shifting back and forth is much like climbing a ladder, one step at time. Eventually, the two sides meet at the top. By then it is clear that the structure has to change if the mission and strategy are to be implemented. Note that the consultant does not develop the strategy, the mission or the structure. The top management of the company does this by themselves. The consultant’s role is merely to lead the discussion, provide the tools for management to deal effectively with the issues, and create a safe environment to prevent the discussion from becoming destructive. The consulting methodology provides both the tools and the process; the client provides the content. Our experience is that this methodology for leading change works in any industry in any environment.
Many consultants avoid this process because it is time consuming for the client and thus more difficult to sell. Others are afraid or are unsure as to how to transform the power structure through a participative process. It is often just too much political risk for them to deal with. But the consultant must be willing to deal with power structure without getting hurt or getting anyone hurt, continuously adjusting strategy and structure, fine-tuning each repeatedly in small increments until they fit together. The beauty of this is that the organization becomes accustomed to change, albeit small ones, versus a major upheaval every 5 or 10 years.
IBM is an example of a company that failed to make incremental changes, instead opting for a major upheaval, which was a disaster. The recent uniting of Sears and Kmart is another example of companies employing sudden upheaval instead of making continuous changes over time. The marriage may well destroy both companies. Typically, upheavals involve firing a lot of people, much like an organizational liposuction. The alternative would be regular exercise, keeping trim, making small adjustments in diet and habits; something most organizations fail to do. Instead, like couch potatoes, they sit on their organizational butts and wait until they have lost so much money they must do something, so they slash jobs, wreaking mayhem on morale and further endangering the organization’s health. At that point, radical surgery may save the organization, but it won’t make it healthy again.
Dell is an example of a company that successfully makes small but regular incremental changes.
Continuous small changes in process and structure on a continual basis are far better and more productive. The interdependency between structure and process/strategy is expressed by achieving systematic changes in an organization. This cannot be achieved within a singularly-disciplined process. It must be conducted in a sequential, systemic way, bringing strategy and structure together using continuous change.
The methodology employed should be transferred to the client so they can continue the continuous change process without the consultant necessarily being involved on an ongoing basis. Its one thing to give a company useful advice, but if the original recommendations become obsolete, forcing the consultant to keep returning with additional advice, the company is unlikely to sustain any gains. I believe the technology — the management leadership tools — must be transferred to the client, who must learn to use tools so they can continuously apply them and adapt to the changing environment once the consultant departs. That eliminates the need for the client’s continued dependency on the consultant.
The consulting industry is undergoing significant changes. A medical analogy might be the patient who goes to his doctor with a problem. The doctor, with many years of training, diagnosis the illness and prescribes a treatment which the patient follows but does not have to understand. This relationship represents empowerment of the medical profession and disempowerment of the patient. That is now changing, due to patient’s rights, better patient edu cation and the like. Nevertheless, the established protocol that the doctor is superior by nature of his knowledge and the patient is inferior has been maintained. Consulting should be transformed into methodologies that are therapeutic. Consider psychotherapists. They do not tell patients what to do but rather they eliminate barriers or blockages to enable patients to do what they realize they should. The same is true of homeopathic medicine; it removes blockages to the flow of energy so the body can take care of itself. Consultants will have to learn to act in the same way.
When a consultant — no matter how bright or renowned — listens to a client’s problems and prescribes a treatment, the answers belong to the consultant, not the client. The client merely has the option of following the advice or not.
I believe a consulting methodology should be the reverse of that and I have spent the past thirty years preaching and practicing that theory. The consultant asks the questions, yes, but the client must articulate the answers. Like a psychotherapist who does not provide the answers but rather knows what questions to ask and in what sequence to ask them, this process forces clients to come to their own “aha!” and find their own roadmap. Any initial consultant recommendations should be in the form of a trial balloon. In this way, clients learn how to use the tools provided by the consulting methodology. And in this way, the final solution to the problem is their own.
The Coaching Myth
Management coaching simulates the psychotherapist process by asking questions, but is not holistic or multidisciplinary. The questions coaches ask are by and large of a psychological nature, and the focus is on the individual being coached. This assumes wrongly that changing the individual will change the organization. What should be addressed, however, is the business of the organization: What makes the organization operate successfully in a changing environment so that the individual will fit within the organization. Organizational climates cannot be altered by changing individuals; but changing the organizational climate allows the behavior of individuals to change.
Coaching may ask questions for the client to answer — a psychological treatment — but it treats the individual rather than the organization. It employs psychological tools versus tools of a business and organizational nature. I’ve seen many coaches actually miss the problem because of their focus on psychodynamics and individual needs.
Training consultants typically coach individuals on how to be a better leader, inspire better teamwork or change management style. But these changes do not affect changes in the markets, product lines or strategies. On the other hand, companies hire consultants to uncover new markets, change their product line or realign strategy but fail to change the culture of the organization as well. Either process must consider the other. Changing a company’s orientation must also include changing the culture, and vice versa. This requires teaching people how to change together.
What makes an individual operate better is not necessarily what makes an organization operate better. People who row the boat do not rock the boat. When there is a problem with the boat, the first questions to ask are: Who can rock this boat? Assuming we know what the solution is, who can rock it? What power pieces must be involved in order to implement the solution?
Of course, all this will not work if a CEO is not committed to making changes along with his people, or if he first makes a decision with outside consultants, then attempts to impose the “solution” onto the company. All change planning and implementation should be made with the people involved, and that requires a confident CEO who is not afraid to hear from or even learn from people lower in the organizational ladder. It requires a CEO willing to invest the time — both personally and that of the appointed team — to deal with the problems; a CEO who does not outsource problem-solving and solution to outside consultants ostensibly to save time, only to end up with a disempowered management team. The CEO must participate in actively leading the change.
Who Sits at the Table?
In my experience, the solution generally resides somewhere within the organization. It may be the employees on the line, such as salespeople or other workers close to what is happening on a daily basis, but the info rmation never flows back to the people who can make a decision to do something about it.
Sometimes, the people who make the decision have the authority but not the power to implement solutions. This can occur when barriers to implementation exist as a result of people being afraid to make changes or if certain senior interests are threatened. This causes organizational disintegration because those who know and understand the problems do not have authority to rectify them and those with authority do not necessarily have the power to enforce it. It is possible for an organization to know the solutions but not be able to get them to the formalization or implementation stages.
To overcome this, the organization must bee able to coalesce power, authority and influence. The people who know what is going on must be included at the table, as well as those who are necessary for implementation of the solution, assuming the solution can be discerned. As info rmation is unearthed, the composition of the group at the table might have to be altered, and others brought in. Whoever has the authority to say “yes and no” most certainly must be included. I do not mean the people who can say “yes or no” but “yes AND no” to the solution. This is a critical distinction, one most consultants miss. I find in many organizations, people have the right to say “no” but not to say “yes”. It is essential that the people who can say “yes” are included at the table.
This coalescence will not take place, however, if the consultant fails to ask the hard questions that determine who within the organization needs to be included. Some are afraid to stipulate that the “yes” people attend. Too often, the group is composed of people who know what should be done but do not have the power nor authority to make it happen. They may have the power to undermine the solution without even knowing what the solution is supposed to be. Typically, that’s because they are trying to protect their self-interests.
The divergent groups must be brought together and made to jointly begin analyzing the problem, come to a conclusion as to what the problem is, why it is necessary to reach a solution, and at the end of the day, to jointly conclude they should cooperate to get things moving forward. In this way, the whole company moves ahead towards the solution because the knowledge, power and authority have been united. If for some reason the knowledge does not already reside within the company, which is rare, the knowledge must be imported using outside consultants. However, I have only seen that occur twice in thirty years! The solution is almost always resident within the organization. However, the art is in helping the company uncover, examine, discuss and implement the solution in an environment of mutual trust and respect.
Many consultants rely on what I call “the bypass system.” They enter an organization, talk to the people who understand the problem, then write a report and submit it to the people with the authority to decide. Unfortunately, this goes nowhere because the people who decide do not have the support of the people needed for implementation.
An analogy might be a husband and wife who cannot communicate. They go to a psychotherapist and pay a lot of money for someone else to do what the unhappy couple cannot do by themselves at home; create a safe environment in which to communicate. In an organization, the necessary people must be assembled and given a methodology that allows them not only to feel safe but also provides a road map and tools so they can actually solve the problem themselves. I would repeat that it is vital to have the people with the authority to solve the problem in the room. Organizations typically allocate problems by responsibility, but that’s wrong. Problems should be allocated by authority, not responsibility.
Write Down the Problems
Resistance to change exists in almost every organization. If a silo mentality exists, it must be removed through self-diagnosis of where the organization is in its corporate lifecycle, and whether its problems are normal, abnormal or fatal. A good way to do this is to have everyone in the room write down the most pressing problems within the company. This should be done anonymously so people can be candid. No one should be mentioned by name and the problems should be expressed in language that indicates they are controllable by people in the room, who must include those with ultimate authority for the company. This might include several layers of the organizational structure, perhaps twenty or thirty people. The problems should also be expressed appropriately: Not “It’s raining outside” but rather “We don’t have an umbrella.” Not “Interest rates are unpredictable” but rather “We don’t have a strategy to respond to unpredictable interest rates”.
I have conducted many sessions like these. After everyone has written down their problems and before they are discussed, I ask, “How many of these problems existed last year? Two years ago? Three?” Typically people will say “Most of them.” Well, if a problem has existed for the last three years, it’s not hard to get agreement that chances are, the same problem will still be around in another three years. When I ask how many problems can be solved by any single individual, including the CEO, people usually say “none of them”. So even though I don’t know what they have written down, their admission that no one, not even their CEO, can solve their problems indicates that if the problems could have been solved, they probably would have been solved by now. But that hasn’t happened. Typically, these are not simple problems and the phenomenon that no one individual can solve the problems helps explains why the problems have continued. But it manifests what is wrong with Western civilization’s management edu cation. We assign responsibilities to individuals even though as individuals, they cannot contend with most major problems included in that responsibility.
Typically, each executive is chasing ten problems instead of ten managers chasing one problem at a time. The first step in overcoming this issue is to decide which problems they should solve together and which problems should be put on the backburner until the problems on the front burner are solved. The first task is not deciding which problems to solve but rather which problems not to solve. This way, the organization can free up resources and jointly work on the priority problems. People begin to see that they have been chasing too many problems and the reason they have been unable to get the cooperation of others is that those people are busy chasing their own set of problems. Everyone is running in place while stepping on others.
An important aspect of this problem analysis is determining where the organization is on its corporate lifecycle, which in turn determines which problems are normal and which are abnormal, leading to a better alignment of priorities. Because no one is mentioned by name when the problems are written down, no one is on the hot seat and people are free to open up. They learn to accept that “we” have a problem, not “he” or “they” have a problem. The questions can then relate to what “we” should do, which makes a huge difference in the room’s climate. People can join hands to solve problems versus pointing fingers at one another.
All of this is predicated on first correcting the organizational structure. People quickly recognize the linkage: They have a climate issue, which is causing a structural issue, which is causing an info rmation flow problem, which is causing a strategic problem, which is creating functional problems that are causing the company to lose market share. There is a sequence to the problems and after counseling hundreds of companies, I believe the sequence is universal. Once organizations realize how their structure is causing their problems, it legitimizes the rationale that they have to first deal with the structure, not just the problems. Unless the structure is repaired, nothing much will change. The approach must be interactive regarding strategy and structure.
When consultants write reports regarding what an organizational structure should be and try to change it over a weekend, failure is unavoidable. When people return to work on Monday morning, the new organization is announced and immediately there is enormous resistance. It can take years to make the new strategy work because of the resistance and implementation difficulties. Balancing changes in structure and strategy in a sequential manner is much more likely to succeed and become ingrained in the organizational culture. We see this approach increasingly embraced worldwide by businesses and governments alike.
Consultants can play a meaningful role in helping organizations improve. They often bring the best seeds for planting. Unfortunately, the seeds are often planted in frozen land. Consultants should be more like farmers, first assessing the land to see whether it can be productive and can be worked. They should plow the land and fertilize it so the seeds can grow. Some seeds are indigenous to the organization; it already knows how and where to plant them. When it doesn’t, it’s time to call in a consultant who can work the land and plant seeds that will bear fruit.