I want to give you a “health warning”. The observations, comments and recommendations that follow whilst intended as objective are nevertheless inevitably subjective. They reflect my own many years’ of involvement with senior executives and consultants and other forms of third party support.
There are a number of factors that will have a bearing on how you approach using a change management consultant – or in determining whether you even should do so.
What deliverable are you seeking?
[See comment below re 3 fundamental motivations]. What do really want from a change management consultant? A short term fix to a threat to next quarter's results? An answer or solution that (a) you can implement or (b) someone else can implement for you? A solution, and the knowledge and means to be able to replicate it yourself, in future?
Your company’s size
The smaller you are the more you need to maximise the leverage of your budget. The difficulty you have is that you need the knowledge and expertise, but you can’t generally afford to pay a change management consultant to do it.
The larger you are, the greater the temptation and tendency to take the easy way out and pass the problem on to external consultants – rather undertaking the diagnosis yourself and training your own people and, when necessary, hiring interim or contract external support.
This is usually closely related to the size of your organisation. Thus the larger you are, the easier it is to “throw money” at the problem with an external change management consultant, and avoid taking the difficult steps to resolve the real issue.
The smaller you are, the greater the tendency to be reluctant to spend any money at all and to just “muddle through”.
What stage are you at with your change initiative:
- “We’ve done the strategic review, so… how do we do this and make it work...?”
- “We know what we’re doing and we know what the issues are… we just need some extra flexible resource to help get it delivered on time…”
- “We’re up and running, and - we’re up to our necks in alligators…”
Your knowledge base
What do you know about change management and change leadership?
This will have a considerable influence on your attitude to and propensity to use any form of external assistance.
A “positive” attitude may make it a more acceptable option but increase the likelihood of it becoming the “default setting”.
A “negative” attitude may preclude the possibility and for the “wrong” reasons.
3 apparent primary reasons for seeking any sort of external assistance
Consultancy – including the change management consultant – is only one source of provision for each of these reasons for seeking outside assistance.
However, behind these apparent reasons are 3 underlying motivations.
These can be identified in just about any human activity or endeavour but are especially applicable in larger organisations.
This is because firstly, there tends to be a multi layered management structure and where those who “lead” and “manage” are several steps removed from those who actually “do” at the front line; and secondly, OPM is involved. [OPM = Other People’s Money.]
In corporate life in the UK, motivations (1) and (2) are common. Consider how many times you have seen a new CEO or organisational head in public life instigate some form of “strategic review” shortly after appointment?
First recourse to consultants
How often is the first [or early] response to a significant issue or problem to recourse to external consultants?
In my view there is probably a direct correlation between the size of the organisation, the extent of the exposure [i.e. the personal accountability] and propensity to appoint consultants.
In these contexts it’s all about being seen to be doing something, buying time, putting distance or creating a layer of fat between the director and the problem – i.e. someone else to blame, buying credibility [or the perception of credibility], keeping up to speed with the latest techniques and management thinking.
Ego needs versus organisational requirements
If you stand back far enough from all of this, it is quite astonishing how much of all this is determined by the basic ego needs of senior people rather than clear organisational requirements - a fact that the major consultancies exploit so very well.
And to take this one step further, it is interesting to see how misaligned the needs of the client organisation are from those of the consultancy. And how little so many corporate clients seem to care – and why should they, as long as the ego needs of senior executives are met, whilst spending OPM?
Clearly, the needs of the client are a resolution of any one or combination of the 3 primary reasons for using outside assistance [i.e. development, diagnosis and delivery].
Whereas the needs of the consultancy are longevity and maximum utilisation of their labour pool via a multi-stage sequential process methodology, a “clean slate” approach [i.e. always starting from scratch], maximising client dependency, coupled with a charge rate and billing mechanism that exploits this. Am I being unreasonably cynical? What's your view?
In case you think I exaggerate, here is a relatively recent article detailing the total wastage on failed IT projects by the previous UK Labour government for the duration of their period in office. Consultants will have featured largely in all of this.
If your requirement includes “development” - via some form of knowledge transfer, education or training - then for the small to medium sized enterprise [up to 500 employees] internet sources [such as this site], training courses and peer group support is the best option.
For larger enterprises an interim or contract resource or a smaller bespoke change management consultant is the recommended route.
A requirement that includes “diagnosis” – problem identification, definition and recommended solution – is best met via a non-executive or some form of business mentoring via trade or business or government sponsored agencies for smaller enterprises.
The recommendation for medium and larger enterprises with over 500 employees is for an interim or contract resource or a smaller bespoke change management consultant. [See comment below re “Diagnosis and Delivery”].
A requirement for “delivery” - implementing a solution to a business need to realise a business benefit – for a smaller enterprise is best met via a non-executive or some form of business mentoring via trade or business or government sponsored agency.
The recommended option for larger enterprises is via an interim or contract resource. I would not recommend using a change management consultant resource for delivery unless it had a proven record of change initiative delivery. For fuller explanation of why – please see this comparison sheet.
Diagnosis and Delivery
The traditional and classic big consultancy approach to diagnosis is extremely “left brain”, long winded and comprehensive.
After all you did want that big layer of fat between yourself and the problem didn’t you? And the more analysis and supporting commentary you receive the better. It will baffle and impress your board, shareholders, investors, and /or bankers with the sheer attention to detail.
From your consultant’s perspective, the bigger the report, the bigger the fee. So everyone’s happy?
If there really is a requirement for substantive quantities of data, then I would recommend setting up or using an existing in-house team under the guidance of the experienced interim or contract resource. The only exception to this is where the scale is so great that only the manpower and sheer weight of numbers of a larger consultancy can resource this.
Furthermore, the experienced interim or contract resource will back their judgement with a delivery and implementation – which is something that the traditional change management consultant will not do.
Perception and analysis
I want to be controversial! Why does a diagnostic process have to be exhaustive, comprehensive and massively documented? If we remove all of the cynical and traditional big consultancy rationale, at core what do we have – but a human perception and subsequent analysis of a problem? Or am I missing something?
Perception always precedes analysis. Perception is intuitive and “right brain” and incredibly quick. Perception is the product of a mind that functions in a particular way - using a balanced brain - and that is categorised and articulated via the filter of extensive experience.
Paralysis of over analysis
The arguments against relying on this approach are primarily based on the need for “evidence” and “support” to justify or validate a perspective. Put another way, senior executives often don’t trust their judgement in these situations.
I am not against rationality or evidence – simply the deadening, delaying, expensive paralysis of over analysis that traditional classic consultancy so often delivers.
How to select a change management consultant, interim manager or contract resource
Continuing in a spirit of constructive controversy, issuing a written “Request for proposal” to potential change management consultant service providers and inviting submission of a written proposal to be followed by interviews of the selected few is, in my view, a complete waste of everyone's time.
It is not possible for the change management consultant to do anything other than provide a generic “cut and paste” response to this type of enquiry. There are always factors and issues that are not apparent in a document - especially true with change management - and there are always implicit assumptions, biases and filters in any document [however well written].
Here is how I do it:
Speak with potential change management consultant service providers, give them a high level briefing and have a discussion with them – on the phone initially. See if they talk sense, ask the right questions and seem to have a good intuitive grasp of your issues, and assess the personal chemistry.
Provision of information
If you both feel it is worth proceeding to the next step invite the change management consultant for a meeting and email them a non-disclosure /confidentiality agreement to sign, then email them the output of your latest strategic review or any other relevant documentation.
Preliminary analysis FOC
If you both feel that it is worth proceeding, then rather than requesting proposal invite the change management consultant to spend the time they would otherwise spend preparing written submissions in undertaking a brief on site preliminary analysis.
Give the change management consultant a clear brief and allow the change management consultant to meet a cross section of key people involved. There should be no charge for this but you cover their pre-agreed out of pocket expenses.
The “deliverable” to you is a face to face to debriefing and one [2 maximum] sheets of A4 summarising the change management consultant's assessment. Then if you both feel they can help you then, and only then, does the change management consultant prepare a succinct proposal addressing the first and most obvious step – with an outline only of possible following steps.
Developing a mutuality of interest
The benefit to you is that you don’t pay the change management consultant to understand your business, you get to see them in action and to decide if you want to work with them, and they get to see the real issues firsthand, to see if they can help you - and if they want to.
Then, if both parties are happy, contract them to implement the agreed first and most obvious step. Then, if both parties are still happy, hire them for the duration of the assignment, and if needs dictate, beyond that.
The key to this approach is that it is organic and incremental; it most closely mirrors the way that relationships develop naturally in “real-life” and it allows for the development of a mutuality of interest. This is my perspective - what's yours?
Leading your people through change, putting it all together and managing the whole messy business