Flawless Consulting

Flawless Consulting, by Peter Block, has been a long-time favorite of mine. Thursday and Friday this week I was using it as a 'course text' for the consulting skills program I was facilitating in Shanghai so I was paying particular attention to its content and relevance. A number of things caught my attention. (I was using the second edition but someone told me there is now a third edition which I just looked up and discover that it becomes available in March 2011).

First was the way he allocated discussion to the phases of consulting. He notes on page 6 that: "each consulting project, whether it lasts ten minutes or ten months goes through five phases". He then overviews the five – entry and contracting, discovery and dialogue, feedback and the decision to act, engagement and implementation, extension, recycle or terminate. All good so far.

What's fascinating is that he doesn't get to implementation until chapter 15, of 19 where he gaily says "when I wrote the first edition of this book I devoted exactly two pages to implementation", that's ok because he does cover some aspects of implementation and engagement. However, there's nothing at all on phase five extension, recycle or terminate, and this is a critical area of work that demands a particular set of consulting skills to do effectively and that is far too often neglected – but without doing a good job of this phase how else do we get any organizational learning? It'll be interesting to see if the third edition has anything on this.

Second it was interesting to see the book being interpreted through the eyes of a predominantly Chinese group new to consulting, with a background in HR (some with a lot of experience and some just starting their HR careers). One of the challenges was the focus on the relationship aspect of the book. Block says up front that "A major objective of the book is to encourage you to focus on and value the affective, or interpersonal aspect, of the relationship between the client and the consultant." This focus led to questions around how to manage power differentials in the client/consultant situation, how do develop assertiveness and influencing skills, what exactly to say in certain situations – like if someone challenges the validity of the data. It seemed to me that the set of cultural assumptions inherent in Block's book around organizational power and personal styles were quite a struggle for the participants I was working with to get to grips with.

Third the learners were looking for detailed 'how to', so they found the checklists Block dots through the text the most helpful thing about the book. In fact, for the purposes of the program just extracting the checklists and building one for the omitted fifth phase would, in retrospect, have been a sensible thing for me to do. Many of the examples in the narrative just didn't seem to have any resonance with the group members – a sentence like "If you are feeling expansive, you can even say to the client, "It looks like we agree on how to proceed. I am really happy about that, " seemed to be something of a concept and language disconnect. (What is expansive? Do you really want to reveal your feelings to a client?)

Fourth Block's orientation is that consulting assignments are messy, unpredictable, and somewhat chaotic. Thus they rely heavily for success on the consultant being self-aware, authentic, and able to deal with ambiguity in the workplace. Again discussion with participants seemed to suggest that order is what organizations are based on, and that ambiguity is ironed out as much as possible. So it seems that many of the consultant characteristicsBlock discusses would take great courage (one of the characteristics not listed in the interpersonal skills list on p9) to deploy in the workplaces the participants were familiar with. Nevertheless, the role playing we did and the discussion we had around stepping out of your comfort zone met with enthusiasm. We had great fun with an influencing skills exercise using playing cards where people act to the level on their card and others have to guess what number their card is. It's a game I learned years ago from Jo Ellen Grzyb of the Impact Factory when I attended one of her influencing skills courses.

So over the last two days working on consulting skills here in Shanghai I've learned a lot about my clients (i.e. the participants) expectations, and how I can adapt and improve the program to meet their needs more closely. It's going to take a more detailed thought process/evaluation to come up with something that I think is better but it'll be a good challenge to my own assumptions on what internal consulting is.

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