Internal consulting models

Here’s a brain-teaser that arrived in my in-box recently: ‘Today, some folks here were discussing the role of cluster leads, that we have in our organisational structure. Cluster leads were appointed when we started self-organizing, categorizing all work that came in into “projects”. Each cluster lead looks after a category/ group of projects and is supposed to integrate and find synergy among/between the projects.  Today, we evaluated that role and realised that the intended purpose has not worked well.  Have you any thoughts … about how to practically structure a way of working in, what I think of as, multiple dimensions?   We want to be able to:

  • Guide our customers/clients/end users (e.g. leaders or practitioners) in reaching the right person to respond to their needs
  • Enable internal sense-making, knowledge growth and information sharing across projects
  • Assess and anticipate the possible/likely future needs of our clients’

The question came from someone in a large enterprise’s internal consultancy.  The consultancy offers consulting, research, and leadership development around organisational change and transformation.   Any of these 3 service lines are delivered either within a particular business unit or across business units.

I’ve been noodling on the question since it came in.

It would be very hard to give ‘the answer’ to a question like this without knowing a lot more about the operational context and the more granular aspects of what isn’t working well (and what is working well).  However, I started to consider three angles on it:

  • The nature and structure of internal consultancies
  • The way ‘self-organising’ works and doesn’t work
  • The role of ‘cluster leads’ specifically their objective to integrate and find synergy between/among projects

The nature and structure of internal consultancies:  A research paper from Nick Wylie and Andrew Sturdy, Structuring Collective Change Agency Internally: Transformers, Enforcers, Specialists and Independents, discusses four types of internal change agency unit.

The question I got came from a change agency unit that closely resembles Wylie and Sturdy’s ‘Independents’.  This type of unit is established, ‘Where organisations identify the need for the persistent presence of a more generalist change delivery unit.’ The authors note that ‘The impact scope of these units tends to be localised as they deliver change through specific, often small, projects within business units.  At the same time, Independents are detached from core structures and operational areas and so operate largely outside of managerial hierarchies. In this way, Independents most closely resemble external consultancies because they are required to source their own work and often to be self-funding.’ In their structure ‘Independents can combine former external consultants and managers from within the organisation in an attempt benefit from both the exotic-outsider status and detailed insider-knowledge’.

Additionally, ‘they are sometimes involved in creating and managing links to external consultancies’.

The challenges that Wylie and Sturdy report that Independent units face are, the need to guarantee a pipeline of projects, loss of credibility over time and a great deal of their role being involved with relationship management activity.

With this information my questioner can follow some lines of enquiry that could work towards a structure and way of working that delivers more of what they want.  Questions I suggest are:

  • What can we learn from external consultancies on pipeline, credibility and relationship management? (Go back to their question at the top of this piece and you’ll see that these are the three things they want to be able to do, albeit expressed in slightly different words).
  • Are there things in the other three consulting models we could consider, learn from, migrate towards to achieve our objectives?

The way ‘self-organising’ works and doesn’t work: In my blog Self Organising Volunteers I talk about four conditions for self-organising

  • Understanding the concepts of self-organising
  • Agreeing authority level of the self-organising team
  • Selecting the individuals who will comprise the team
  • Ensuring you have the ‘appropriate conditions’ for self-organising

I won’t go into the detail of all of these here as that blog has the discussion plus links to other resources on each of the four conditions.   But it’s worth looking more closely here at the authority levels condition.  In his book, Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances J. R. Hackman’s presents an Authority Matrix: 4 levels of team self-management.  He describes four team functions: executing the task, monitoring and managing work process and progress, designing the team and its organisational context, setting overall direction.  Depending on who has the authority for each function results in four levels of team organization.

  • Manager led teams who only have authority for executing the task
  • Self-managing teams whose members have responsibility not only for executing the task but also for monitoring and managing their own performance.
  • Self-designing teams whose members have the authority to modify the design of their own team or aspects of the organizational context or both.  Managers set the direction for such team but give members full authority for all other aspects of the work.
  • Self-governing teams whose members have responsibility for all four major functions:  team members decide what is to be done, structure the unit and its context, manage their own performance, and actually carry out the work.

My questioner could investigate how their self-organising stacks up against the authority matrix as it might be that there is something in the authority levels that is mitigating against their achieving their objectives.

The role of cluster lead: I haven’t seen a role description for a cluster lead, and it’s not a role I’m familiar with.  I found that cluster leads are fairly common in the humanitarian aid field.  The World Health Organisation has a detailed description of both clusters and cluster leads.  There a cluster lead ‘commits to take on a leadership role within the international humanitarian community in a particular sector/area of activity, to ensure adequate response and high standards of predictability, accountability and partnership.  Their key responsibility is to ‘ensure that humanitarian actors build on local capacities and maintain appropriate links with Government and local authorities, State institutions, civil society and other stakeholders.  … cluster leads have mutual obligations to interact with each other and coordinate to address cross-cutting issues.’  Substitute the labels around ‘humanitarian’ with a label representing my questioner’s organisation.  The questioner could then compare the two role descriptions (theirs and the WHO’s) and see if they could learn anything from that comparison.

In summary:  before heading for a ‘solution’ to a perceived issue, I suggest following some lines of enquiry to determine what the underlying causes may be.  It’s possible that some small adjustments to the existing model will make it workable.  On the other hand, the investigation may suggest a more radical rethink.  One of the points I make on organisation design training programmes is not to ‘solutionise’ to start.  It may seem like time is wasted in investigation and enquiry, but it is an investment worth making.

How would you advise the questioner?  Let me know.

Image: Internal Teams Need Better Positioning