Presenting problem

Yesterday I was facilitating a session at the HRExcellenceCenter, Organization Development Conference in Shanghai. The topic was 'consulting skills' and there was a lot of discussion on a cartoon I showed to illustrate the concepts of a 'presenting problem'. The cartoon dialogue runs like this:

Manager: I want you to design a new appraisal performance form for my group.
Consultant: But the problem is not in the form it is in the way it is used.
Manager: That may be true but we should start with a new form.
Consultant: But the form is being used successfully in other departments in the organization
Manager: Our department is different! Our people are different! We need a new form! We also need a new staff person who is truly interested in serving her client!!
Consultant: When you put it that way I suddenly see the wisdom in designing a new form.

My contention was that the client had 'solutionized' the issue before going through any reflection on what the issues with the form represented (if anything). The consultant's task was to 'help' the client see that the issue may not be the form but the way performance appraisal was handled in his group.

The discussion was around whose viewpoint was right. Should a consultant just do what the manager asks? In which case is he/she a consultant? Or should the consultant do a better job than the one in the dialogue in suggesting to the manager that there might be other things in play and it would be worth investigating before leaping into designing a new form?

This then led into questions around where power lies and how it is used. Why did the manager decide that designing a new form was a good idea? Again there were a range of views on this within the group, and a lot of debate on what would be a good way for the consultant to steer the conversation differently from the way she did, and at what point.

Picking this apart the consulting approach the group came up with would be to start with questions immediately following the manager's first statement, "I want you to design a new appraisal performance form for my group.' They felt that the questions could take a range of directions involving what Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, describes as probing, but with no agenda. So in this situation the consultant could ask:

Why does this (the new appraisal form) matter to you?
What price are you paying for the current form?
What have you tried before you decided on a form redesign?
What do you want a newly designed form to accomplish?

The point the original exchange of statements that opened the dialogue illustrated was how easy it is to go down a route that is non-productive, or confrontational, simply by opening with viewpoints and counter viewpoints rather than questions.

However, talking this over the people I was working with felt it would take a fair amount of courage not to just knuckle under and do what the manager wished. This is where the consulting skills come into play so the discussion moved on to debate whether an HR person would do what the manager said while an OD consultant would take a different tack. Clearly that answer is dependent on the personalities and styles of all involved, but again Peter Block has a view that 'being helpful' is not useful. In his instance a newly designed form may not address whatever the underlying issues are particularly if they lie with the manager's own role in the way he manages the performance appraisal system. Consultants who have a clear view of their own role, have a good range of consulting skills, and are self aware are usually capable of moving from a request to fix a symptom to making the better investment in diagnosing the underlying causes and aiding the manager in fixing them.