Disrupting Organizational Consulting

My secret goal with Changemaker Bootcamp is to disrupt management and organizational development (OD) consulting.

My rough and totally unscientific estimate is that the budgets for 90 percent of all management and organizational development consulting projects would be better spent on capacity development for staff.

Good consultants already orient their work toward developing this capacity, but it comes at a premium cost. When compared to other consultants who are charging similar or higher costs but are providing far less value, these costs are more than justified. However, I think there’s a huge market opportunity for something that provides greater, broader value at a fraction of the cost.

Physical fitness offers an apt analogy. If you want premium service, you can hire a personal trainer. At the opposite end of the market, you can buy a book or search the web for tips on how to stay fit. There are many services in-between as well: DVDs, bootcamps, gym memberships, and so forth.

Fitness Market

With organizational work, there are two extremes with very little in the middle, and it’s skewed heavily (and needlessly) toward the high-end.

Organizational Effectiveness Market: What Is

There’s consulting on the high-end, and there are books and articles on the low-end. Most existing training programs fall on the low-end of the spectrum as well, because they are oriented primarily around delivering information rather than on shifting behaviors.

There’s no reason why the market for organizational effectiveness should not look more like the market for physical fitness.

OE Market: What Should Be

I think organizations in general — and, by extension, society as a whole — would be much better off if it did. I think services like Changemaker Bootcamp have the potential to shift the market in this way.

An Example: Strategic Planning

Consider strategic planning. Organizations bring in consultants to help guide the process or to provide content expertise. The vast majority of strategic planning processes focus on helping the leadership team develop the “right” strategy.

Some organizations really benefit from these processes, because they understand what strategy is, and, more importantly, they understand how to act strategically. I’ve worked with several organizations like this, where my primary role was to create the space for them to have the strategic conversation. Once they had that space, they were able to align quickly and execute effectively.

The vast majority of organizations — and people, it seems — don’t fall into this category. In these cases, hiring a consultant is a waste of money. These organizations don’t have the capacity to evaluate the end result, and they’re not likely to act on it regardless.

Unfortunately, these organizations often hire consultants anyway, and the results are predictably ugly — “strategies” consisting of long lists of goals that are too general and abstract to mean anything. Not that it matters, since no one in these organizations generally knows what those goals are anyway.

The worst part about all this is that developing a good strategy is relatively easy. Acting strategically is what’s truly hard.

Acting strategically takes practice. Good consultants can help organizations practice in the same way that personal trainers help their clients. However, most consultants do not take this approach. Even if they did, there ought to be more and better ways to support practice than consulting.

Changemaker Bootcamp’s approach is to offer a set of exercises for practicing asking generative questions. These exercises don’t require any specialized skill to do, but they can help develop specialized skills if repeated often enough with constructive feedback from others.

My hypothesis is that most organizations would benefit far more from having their staff go through exercises like these than they would from hiring expensive consultants lead them through traditional planning processes.

“Learnings” and More Wonderful Jargon

My friend, Joe Mathews, posted the following vicious diatribe against my people today on Facebook:

Anxious to prove my friend wrong, I sought out a definitive source. This is what I uncovered:

It looks like the inmates truly have taken over the asylum. So sad to live in such a narrow-minded, hateful world. I’ll just have to take my learnings somewhere where they’re appreciated.

(Nevertheless, that jargon site is pretty hilarious.)

My Ideal Project

I had coffee with a colleague last week, and she asked me to describe my ideal project. I didn’t even have to think about my answer. My response:

  • Socially impactful
  • Collaborative
  • Very, very hard

I love projects that make you stop and think, “How the heck are we going to do this?”

I love projects where stuff gets done, not just talked about.

I love projects that require you to gather as many smart, passionate, caring people as possible and to get them aligned and activated in order to even have a chance at succeeding.

I love projects where everyone is working their butts off, learning, and having the time of their lives.

I love projects that are meaningful.

Not all of my projects are hard, but they’re all meaningful, and I feel very fortunate about that. Still, I’m constantly craving bigger, more impactful challenges.

Recently, I’ve been turning down a lot of speaking opportunities. I love to give talks, and I want to give more of them. They’re great excuses for me to reflect and synthesize and tell stories. But sometimes, I get the feeling that people are asking me to speak as a proxy for actually doing something.

The more my reputation grows, the more people give weight to what I say. It’s a nice feeling. It’s gratifying, it’s safe, and it makes me uncomfortable. I hate safe.

In theory, I know that all of this translates to more opportunities to work on the kinds of challenges I crave. Still, I would much rather have someone say to me, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say. I want you to show me.”

And when my reaction is, “Wow, that sounds super hard and super scary, and if we pull it off, a lot of people will be better off,” then I know that I’ve found the right project.

Why I Love Working Openly

This morning, I was reminded of two reasons why I love working openly, and why everyone should do more of it.

First, I noticed this tweet from Stephanie McAuliffe:

The Organizational Effectiveness group at the Packard Foundation has been quietly capturing its learnings on an open, public wiki for over a year now. In a field that struggles with transparency, this is a remarkable act in and of itself.

So what has the impact been? I know that they’re constantly asking themselves that question… because they’re doing that openly as well.

I also know that, generally, one of the big hopes / expectations around doing something like this is that others will join in as well. I think this is reasonable, but I also think it’s overstated in terms of value.

Of greater value, in my opinion, is the ability to do what Stephanie did. You want to know what we learned? You want to know what we’re thinking? Easy. Go here. Doing your knowledge work openly allows you to reuse this knowledge in useful ways — repackage it, redistribute it, refactor it, with the ongoing possibility of others joining in as well. Beautiful.

Second, I’m currently working with the leadership team at a Fortune 500 company exploring ways they can collaborate more effectively at a global level. As part of this process, we’ve immersed ourselves deeply in one particular project, trying to understand what’s working and what can be improved.

Most consultancies do this sort of thing in a very closed way: Talk to a bunch of people, gather some data, then go off in a corner and think really hard by yourselves until you come up with something smart to say.

We don’t work this way. For us, participation isn’t constrained to “input” and “feedback.” It’s about learning collectively, which leads to activation. That means opening up our process, sharing our artifacts, and allowing the client to see our thought process with all of its inevitable warts and missteps.

It’s a tricky balance. Our client is busy. We can’t expect them to sit in on all of our meetings or to look at everything we’re looking at. So we’re strategic about designing our process to maximize the time we have with them. But, we also create opportunities for emergence by making our artifacts available and by inviting (but not requiring) participation whenever possible.

One way we’ve done this was to invite everyone on the project to get our biweekly status messages. We’re doing these updates primarily for the project’s leadership, but we saw no reason to restrict it to them if others were interested. And people were: Over 30 people (half of the project team) opted in. Think about the activation potential we untapped through this small act of opening up our process.

In our last update, we included a brief summary of a social network analysis that we had done, and included a link to a seven-page report that provided greater detail. We didn’t expect many people to click on the link, but over half of our subscribers did.

This morning, I got an email from one of the subscribers, an important member of the team, but someone we had not interviewed due to resource constraints. He provided detailed, thoughtful context for several of the questions we raised in our analysis. We would not have gotten this context had our process not been open. We certainly wouldn’t have thought to approach him first.

Net participation from opening up our process in this case was “only” one additional person. But that serendipitous interaction greatly improved the quality of our work, and we would not have found him on our own. This, along with the activation potential that continues to go up because of the broader engagement, adds up to a huge win for everyone.