Are you working on it?

There are a number of paradoxes of the the consulting professional that can cause the careless practitioner some difficulty.  In this short article I would like to consider one of these: do consultants work "on" organizations, or "in" them?

I have often defined the work that I do as helping leaders to work on their businesses while they keep working in them.  In some respects this is precisely what I do.  Consultants have a unique contribution to make from their vantage point of not being overly connected to the system, and leaders are are often too close in space and time to be able to see their organizations accurately.  In this sense, I encourage leaders to regularly take perspective breaks to see afresh.

Nevertheless, consultants who insist on an aloof engagement have limited shelf-life in the organization for two reasons:

  1. Firstly their status as a trusted advisor hinges upon the fact that their feedback is contextual.  All organizations want to think of themselves as different, while consultants want to think of organizations as the same, at least within industry sectors.  In fact both of these perspectives are valid and the consultant would do well to remember that industry similarities are much too broad a brush with which to paint their clients, who for their part can surely acknowledge that there are common themes that they can leverage.
  2. Secondly, as a professional commercial practice, long-term, stable client relationships are better for business than regularly restarting such relationships, both at a key account management level and at an individual consultant level.  Consultants who were first-in are often first-out at low tide. 

On the other hand, consultants who become overly entwined in their clients' organizations can begin to lose objectivity, and run the risk of being relegated to operational functions which is not their place (unless they want it to be their place, but then they are not really consultants anymore, are they - contractors, maybe?).  The client can then begin to distance themselves from their own core business as they exchange roles.

So the balance to maintain is very delicate. 

Business leaders should work in their organizations, and spend a good deal of time working on them.  Consultants should work on their clients' organizations, and spend a good deal of time working in them.