Who is the client, and do you need one?

‘Start where the client is’ is something I suggest to people who ask what they should do if someone hands them an org chart and asks them to ‘make it like this’.   In fact, it’s my stock response to any similar questions:  common ones are, ‘what happens if the client just wants the answer without any assessment on background work’ or ‘how do you challenge a client who doesn’t value org design expertise?’.   With the phrase, I usually give people a handout adapted from Stephen Brookfield’s article on Four Critical Thinking Processes.  This offers some questions for the consultant to start a discussion with the client.  For example, the first of the four critical thinking processes is: ‘Get some context. Decide what to observe and consider. Related questions help gain awareness of what’s happening in the context of the situation, including values, cultural issues, and environmental influences.’ Questions include:

  • What is going on in this situation?
  • What else do I need to know? What information is missing?
  • How do I go about getting the information I need?
  • What about this situation have I seen before? What is different /dissimilar?
  • What’s important and what’s not important in this situation?

This supposes that there is a client.  But now I’m wondering if organisation design work inevitably needs ‘a client’.   It’s a useful challenge to myself as on the organisation design programmes I facilitate, we spend a fair bit of the first part of the first session discussing, in relation to a short case, the question ‘Who is the client for this piece of organisation design work?’

In real life the client is often not who we (the consultants) think it is.   I’ve been caught out several times in my career by writing a proposal or accepting work from someone without checking carefully enough on his her client ‘credentials’.    I’m still learning to ask whether the person asking me to do the work and who I think is the client:

  • Has got any necessary permissions, support, or backing of the person or team who can make the actual decision whether to proceed with the work or not.
  • Will identify a back-up client in the event that he/she (the original client) ‘disappears’. (In her book The Business of Consulting Elaine Biech provides a checklist of questions for consultants to consider after the first meeting with the client.  Questions include:  Did I determine the primary client?  Did I determine the secondary client and stakeholders? Did I evaluate the client’s expertise and ability to support the effort [over the period that it will take])?
  • Has a plan for managing conflict and disagreement – this especially applies if the client is not a single individual but a leadership team.

Getting this information is critical whether you’re an internal or an external consultant but internal consultants may be able to do organisation design work without having a client – by just starting some design work either by themselves or with the participation of an interested and willing group.

Years ago, I read Debra Meyerson’s book Tempered Radicals.  In the preface she says ‘Tempered Radicals, are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations.’  Later, she notes that, ‘Tempered radicals are likely to think ‘out of the box’ because they are not fully in the box. As ‘outsiders within,’ they have both a critical and creative edge. They speak new ‘truths’.  She tells us ‘They are quiet catalysts who push back against prevailing norms, create learning, and lay the ground work for slow but ongoing organizational and social change.’   The book has many examples of people who ‘under the radar’ have changed the shape of their organisations.

As I struggled and failed to find ‘the client’ for a piece of design work that is recognised to be organisationally essential by a body of people I remembered the lessons of the Tempered Radical and realised that I could, and should, start it without a ‘client’.  It is work that I can do from my consultant role using, in Meyerson’s words: ‘several strategies to create change that run the gamut from very quiet and cautious to more explicit and strident.’ I can act by ‘subtly calling into question taken-for-granted beliefs and work practices’.  Acting on my experience (and Meyerson’s reinforcement).  ‘It is everyday acts [that] can create ripples that lead to significant change … a single atypical action sets the stage for others to follow’.

Re-reading an interview with Meyerson I am strengthened by her reinforcing view that sees organizations ‘as organic and evolutionary, which means they are changing all the time. If we think of organizations that way, little nudges in the system can change the network of relationships, stimulate learning, and affect how work gets done. It means that small actions actually matter and that people can provoke change from many places within the organization.’

Seeing (reading) again what I already knew but had suppressed in the conformity of looking for the client I am starting the work with no client but some confidence.  I’m also wondering if I will change my stock response from ‘start where the client is’ to ‘start where the organisation is’.

Do you think you need a client for organisation design work? Can design be done without one?  Let me know.

Image: The Shadow People