Question to the board: what if a consultant’s report is not the solution to your knotty problem?

Thirty years ago, as I was embarking on what became the RSA Tomorrow’s Company Inquiry[i], I had a conversation with a senior partner in an international management consultancy. I liked him and felt that he had a lot to contribute to our work on the role of business in a changing world. Yet I couldn’t persuade him to do what other leading companies were doing and commit money as well as time to this process. He reassured me. ‘We have intellectual capital that is worth hundreds of millions of pounds and we are willing to bring this to the inquiry’.

A year or so later we talked again. Individually, he had made a great contribution to our work. But where, I asked him, was the intellectual capital worth hundreds of millions?  My question obviously hurt him, and our relationship never recovered.

How do organisations tackle knotty problems? Do they call in McKinsey and get them to spend a great deal of time interviewing everyone and then come up with a report? There is a growing sense that the big consultancies are conflicted, with their priority being to make money and grow rather than serve the best interests of their clients.

There is another concern about which we hear less often. It is the emotional, and indeed spiritual dimension of an organisation. A Harvard-trained or Harvard-influenced management consultant will understand how to analyse cash flows. How sensitive are they to the spirit of the business, its real essence, and the emotions of its most important actors?  

Not long ago I spent some time recently worrying about the future of an organisation in which I have been involved. It never occurred to all of us who were doing this worrying to go to a consultancy. But I was given the opportunity by a pioneering provider called Organisational Alchemy to explore a different approach. The approach  is known as ‘systemic mapping’. The process I committed to was known as a Constellation.

The return on an investment of a single afternoon (plus modest preparation time) was outstanding. In under 3 hours I gained powerful insight into options and ways forward that I’m convinced traditional consultancy methods wouldn’t have found.

How to explain the Constellation process? It isn’t meant to be an easy or comfortable process. Most of all it reminds me of drama. The role of the facilitator is to realise the real-life problem by , as it were, putting it on stage. Different representatives are invited into the space and assume the persona of different people or elements of the system who have a stake in or a role to play in the problem that is under consideration. I was able to see the different elements in the organisation problem that we faced as they interacted with each other. The facilitator helped us observe how different stakeholders or job holders felt at different times. In an uncanny way, we began to see the problem in its three dimensions. I came to understand where we might be stuck with elements of our system;  to uncover hidden depths and strengths in the organisation; to sense how events that had happened some time ago might be influencing people now on the scene. We realised the importance of looking to past history as part of an examination of possibilities for the future. We experimented with different configurations and this allowed me to see in real time different future impacts on stakeholders and beneficiaries.

Asked at the end how I personally felt about what I had experienced I said I felt uplifted. A good choice of words because the experience was not only good for the spirit, but elevated us all to what felt like an aerial view of the issues.

The insights were immediate. They came within a few hours in an afternoon. Clients are advised to keep a journal and reflect on the insights and patterns over the next few days and, sure enough, I found myself embarking on a series of positive steps that moved things forward.

The organisation in question could never afford a Bain or a BCG anyway. And nor would it have obtained the same value. We hadn’t outsourced the analysis to others. We had been pitchforked into a deeper understanding and left with a clearer motivation and sense of responsibility to tackle the problem. 

Going back to that Tomorrow’s Company Inquiry of over 30 years ago, I was reminded of the wise words of John Neill, then CEO and now Chairman of Unipart. ‘You can’t think your way into a new way of acting. You have to act your way into a new way of thinking’.  As I look back on this experience I feel that that is a good description of what was happening under the guidance of Organisational Alchemy.

So board members, especially non executives. The next time executives recommend that you use the highly tuned skills of a traditional management consultant, ask for a pause while the board considers this question. Does the proposal in front of you cover all the dimensions – emotional and spiritual as well rational and analytical – of the problem you are trying to solve? There may be different ways of getting to its heart and better ways of reaching conclusions that will be implemented. 

[i] In 1993 while working at the RSA, Mark Goyder engaged a group of companies in asking ‘What Are Companies For?’ This led to the foundation of Tomorrow’s Company in 1996. Thirty years on, a BBC Analysis programme invited Mark to revisit the question.

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