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The Wisdom In the System

Once upon a time, I led the change management effort in a Fortune 100 organization as it implemented its first enterprise-wide, integrated, information system. Learned many lessons in the process, some of which apply to my current life as an independent consultant. Here's a musing from that era.

I’d like to think that in my years of consulting, I never condescended to my clients, never scolded as though they were wayward children and I the stern taskmaster, never dumped a grand conceptual mess on them and walked away while they struggled. Re-reading that sentence I really hope that I was innocent of those sins. And yet, I’m certain that at some point in my years of helping service, I left at least one client wishing that I had darkened someone else’s door instead of theirs. To those clients, I offer my humblest apologies.

I say this because I’ve now had that experience with a consultant who was smart, well intentioned, and skillful, as I like to believe I was as a consultant. And it’s a pretty comeuppance, I’ll tell you, to finally come to the table as a client and get a taste of what can happen when good consultancy goes awry.


Karen was a good consultant, possibly excellent, who worked for one of the big names helping executive teams demonstrate their commitment to organizational change. When the C-level project leader opted to engage Karen and her organization to address the dysfunctions of the executive team, I thought it would be good for us. It was, as evidenced by the reduction of infighting among the executive team. The blaming decreased, as did the angling for advantage; please note that was decreased, not disappeared. Shy of prescribing sedatives, nobody is that good at consulting. Anyway, valuable progress was made.

The problem arose when Karen expanded her scope beyond advising the executive team. The grand meeting with 50 leaders was a good idea. Karen’s vision of certain concepts and activities being included might also have been good. Leaving two days early for her annual girls weekend the week before the event wasn’t good. Returning the day before the meeting, riding a "facipulative" broom (that is, a thin veneer of facilitation atop manipulation worthy of Machiavelli) because her vision wasn’t being realized was a big mistake. The consulting colleagues she left behind lacked the clarity and wizardry about the work and the minimal connection to the client that was needed to bring the meeting to smooth fruition.

Karen forced an arduous remodel of the agenda and content that led me and my colleagues to hustle for obscenely long hours before and during the meeting. Karen facilitated debriefs in the meeting well. That might have been enough if she were the big name contracted to share wisdom – a rock star of organizational theory like Kotter, Collins, Senge, or – my own personal Bono – Edgar Schein. Instead, she was a foot soldier, contracted to help the organization accomplish a body of work.

By most accounts, the meeting was successful. Discussions that occurred led to valuable actions. The leader followed up with the meeting design team as those actions were implemented. He then learned of the Herculean effort they had invested in the success of the meeting and of the missed expectations and friction experienced with Karen. Three weeks after the meeting, Karen was informed her organization’s services were not needed for further activities.

So what?

First, know your scope. Not just the scope of the work but the scope of your capabilities and connections. When the required work isn’t in your sweet spot, when you and the client contact go together like dry pitch and a smoldering ember, save yourself. When the leader insists that no one could understand the organization as you do, resist the flattery and bring in someone who understands the work, someone who can establish common ground with the client contact, levels below the C-officer buyer. Give yourself the chance to succeed by admitting when you are and especially when you are not the best resource.

Second, really, truly, your magic bullet may not work here. We joke as consultants that each client is unique – just like everybody else. We suppress eye rolls when clients tell us that what was done in other places won’t work here because “we’re different.” We use the find-replace feature in our word processors to substitute client B’s name for client A’s in the proposal, summary, or reference tool. And by golly, it works – because while the clients are different their situations are often similar. That’s why clients hire us, because we have helped clients succeed in similar situations in the past. But recognize that sometimes the differences in a particular client organization are crucial. Penicillin is a miracle drug unless the patient is allergic. Then it’s a quick route to anaphylactic shock and possibly death. If your goal is to be a valued consultant, it’s imperative that you identify and respect how each client is different.

Third, recognize and facilitate the wisdom in the system. Lovely phrase that. I first heard it from the late Kathleen Dannemiller as I apprenticed on one of her large group interventions. In that context, it meant that the knowledge, insight, and secret sauce needed to address challenging organizational issues resides in the people within the organization, not in the hot-shot consultant or the deep theory. Giving individuals an opportunity and an effective forum to share that wisdom yields an answer, a plan, and an unstoppable commitment to implement the solution. I remain grateful for the lessons I learned from Kathleen. Sometimes, consultants (and leaders) have a delusion that we can deliver confused followers to the organizational promised land if they’ll only accede to our superior wisdom. Elephant doody! We’re just not that superior. The best wisdom we can bring to the problem is to see where and how our clients (or followers) are wise and to make it easier for them to focus on the issue and find the solution. Facilitate the wisdom in the system and success will follow.

Now what?

Go to your teams and to the organizational groups that rely on you to find solutions for your business problems. Don’t bang your head against the wall for so long that it’s painted with gray matter. Enough. You don’t have to be the smartest one in the room, just smart enough to get people to work together.

Photo note: Smile on a Stick was a gift that a long-ago boss gave to the whole team when our organizaiton was acquired by a competitor. Since then I've learned to speak-up more effectively, especially in tense situations. But I still keep the gift, just in case.

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