Contracting and process consulting

I'm in Cairo today, Sunday, facilitating an organization design and development public program all day – it's day one of three days and with 23 people from a range of organizations I'm finding it very interesting to get a different cultural slant on the topic. The group members, all predominantly from an HR background have many, many questions about how to do organization design work. One that keeps coming up in various forms and also came up in the two organization design programmes I facilitated last week – so maybe it isn't national culture related but is more organizational culture and perceived value – is about the relationship of the consultant to the client: is the consultant a 'pair of hands', an expert advisor, a process consultant? This is something that in consulting skills terminology can often be sorted out in the initial 'contracting conversations' but consulting skills are not what a more traditionally trained HR person is equipped with. Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, a book I recommend on every organization design programme, runs a two day course on the contracting conversation. See a blog piece I wrote on it a couple of years ago.

Introducing it he says:

'As a staff person, our lives are challenged to make our work work for us and our internal clients. In cultures where control and predictability seem to be the order of the day, we realize our great expertise does not guarantee us control or even authority to make decisions or see our plans implemented. So what is left? Collaborative relationships with our clients and internal customers.

Most projects fail not because of the work we do, but because of the weak contracts we agreed to. To deal with this, we must have strong partnerships built through effective contracting from the start. The key is developing the skill and courage to act upon the fact that we have a right to make demands on the people we are there to serve. Courage, based on the power of our honesty and openness in the given situation. Listening intently; knowing what we want, and how to say "no" to what we don't want.'

I haven't done the course but it seems to me point to the thing I've noticed, and heard HR people say that they feel disadvantaged if they are lower in the positional power hierarchy than their client – they don't know how to challenge effectively and don't know enough about deploying influence and credibility. Thus they don't have the skills to have a discussion resulting in an effective contract.

Years and years ago I did an influencing skills course with The Impact Factory and I'm delighted to see that it is still available. I'm assuming that it's as good now as it was then. I still carry around a laminated playing card (the ten of spades) that they gave out on the course. On the back of it is a list of influencing capabilities which I think are brilliant and also plain common sense e.g. 'Adopt a calm, confident style', and their description of influencing as 'about being able to move things forward, without pushing, forcing or telling others what to do.' Is exactly the thing HR people taking on a consultant role need to be able to do.

The way Block stresses the collaborative relationship of clients and consultants and the way the Impact Factory talk about influencing point to organization design work being best conducted using process consulting techniques. In my book Organization Design: Engaging with Change (Chapter 2) I discuss this process consulting approach which was originally defined by Edgar Schein as basically a 'helping model'. He shows what that means by contrasting it with two other forms of helping models 'that seem to me substantively quite different': providing expert information, and playing doctor.

Providing expert information: this he suggests is giving information that is directly relevant to a client's problem.
Playing doctor: when a client asks a consultant to come and assess a situation, find out what is wrong, and suggest a cure, the consultant is in the role of 'playing doctor'.
Process consulting: Schein discusses this in terms of helping people who know something is awry but are not sure what or why. Once they have been helped work out what is wrong then they are usually in a position to fix whatever it is themselves (i.e. they don't need an expert). This means that the consultant has to suspend judgment on what the issue is, and/or how to fix it, and with the client develop an inquiry process where together they find out what is going on and what to do about it.

Schein sees this as a robust way of involving the client, ensuring that he/she takes responsibility for the issues, and feels a sense of ownership of the outcome and commitment to it. In my experience, knowing the roles and activities of client and consultant and the general orientation of process consulting as a 'helping' approach is not enough. Both client and consultant have to hold the basic assumptions on which process consulting is predicated:

  • The consultant and the client act as equals. The client provides the knowledge of the organization's nature, business, and issues; and the consultant provides the knowledge of the techniques, ways of thinking, and practices that can solve the problem.
  • The client owns the problem and determines the solution. The consultant helps the client to see the issues and find what needs to be done. By not imposing a point of view, the process consultant ensures that a real solution, not an attractive, trendy or unstable fix, is obtained.
  • The consultant operates from a position that two-way learning and collaborative problem solving will skill the client to continue to deal with the situation.
  • The sharing of problem and opportunity identification and action planning/implementation leads to shared vision. The expert consultant may have a toolkit of best practice methods, but the process consultant will ensure that the tools which are employed will best fit the organization's needs and interests. (21st Century Process Consultation, 2001)

These assumptions can clash with some of the realities of organizational life – that trust is often at a premium, and consultants – particularly if they come from HR – are often hierarchically junior to the client and have no real power base from which to approach the relationship as an equal. The consultant in this position has to build trust and trade on influence and credibility to make the relationship successful.
As Schein points out – in practice consultants are usually moving from one of these three helping models to another as the intervention proceeds.

So armed with skills to have an effective contracting conversation, the ability to influence and knowledge of process consulting you have the foundation for a good consulting relationship with your client. Do you have these attributes? Are they valuable? Let me know.

Schein, E. (1990, April 15). A General Philosophy of Helping: Process Consultation. MIT Sloan Management Review, 57-64.