Internal and external OD & D consulting

A friend has just asked me what she can expect moving from being an internal to being an external consultant in the field of organisation development and design (OD & D) and how she should prepare herself for the move.

It’s too easy to look at two-column tables that highlight the differences.  I have one from Gary McLean’s book Organization Development: Principles, Processes, Performance . This tells me, for example that internal consultants ‘know the organisational culture better than an external can ever know it’ while external consultants ‘do not have pre-knowledge of the organisational culture, so do not enter the process with any preconceived notions.’   And, ‘[Internal consultants] have relationships established that can get cooperation more quickly’, while external consultants are ‘Often given more respect by insiders because they are not known except by reputation’.  You can see another table adapted from Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development here.

At first glance these differentiations look ok but take a more critical look and you’ll see several assumptions around the statements. For example, can we safely assume that external consultants do not come to an organisation with preconceived notions?

Additionally, the lists appear binary – know the culture/don’t know the culture.  In terms of giving support to someone making the transition from internal to external consulting, the statements are not that useful. They are superficial observations not actionable insights that would help my friend get to grips with a different take on what is often perceived to be a similar role.  Consultancy.UK, for example, states, ‘An internal consultant is, at first glance, just like an external consultant: a professional that is hired to solve an organisational problem and implement the solutions in order to improve the performance of an organisation.’

More importantly these types of comparisons don’t address how:

  1. Theories and approaches to OD & D are evolving
  2. Changes are being made to way the OD & D is being ‘done’ in organisations (assuming it is ‘do-able’ see last week’s blog)
  3. The evolution of theories of OD & D and the way it is done has a consequential impact on the role of internal and external OD & D consultants and the relationships and interdependencies they are part of

O & D is about changing aspects or the whole organisation.  As Sturdy and Wylie find ‘change has become normalised or business as usual in many contexts’ and, to paraphrase, that rationalist theories that suggest that ‘change’ is a ‘thing’ amenable to linear, planned and structured approaches, is shifting towards theories that change is complex, ‘fragmented and incoherent’.

This evolution is leading to thinking that OD & D is less of specialist/expert capability and more of a generic leadership/management capability,  or even a whole organisation one which is ‘dispersed and decentred’ in a number of ways including through various individuals, formal teams and informal groups.

If OD & D consultants are to migrate from structured approaches e.g. Appreciative Inquiry’s four step model of discovery, dream, design, destiny/deliver, and if OD & D is becoming accepted as both a management capability and an organisational capability then what does that mean for the expert OD & D consultant?

It means thinking about a different ‘offer’.  This is a challenge to management consultancy in general, as managers become less commanders, and more consultants themselves.  McKinsey, for example, is one consulting company changing its offer.  It ‘is targeting medium-sized companies, which would not have been able to afford its fees, by offering shorter projects with smaller “startup-sized” teams. As it chases growth, the firm is also doing things it used to eschew as being insufficiently glamorous. In 2010 it moved into business restructuring and it has also set up a global strategy “implementation” practice. That is a far cry from the days when its consultants stuck mainly to blue-sky thoughts in their ivory towers.’

This shifting landscape me wondering what I can tell my friend to expect as she moves from internal to external OD & D consulting.   Some thoughts:

  • On the whole context shift that I outlined above she can expect to have to keep a close watch on organisations she is interested in a see how their approach to hiring and using external consultants is changing, although for this she’d have to have access to insider knowledge.
  • She can expect to have to keep her own skills honed as the theories and practices of OD & D change.  I wrote on this topic in 2014 and re-reading the piece I can see an update is necessary as skills required have moved on since then.
  • As OD & D becomes a capability reliant less on individual expertise and more on collective capability she can expect to act more as a coach, mentor and support to managers (assuming her knowledge is current or even in the vanguard of thinking).
  • In terms of her own job satisfaction she can expect to feel a range of emotions that are different from those she might have felt as an internal consultant.  There’s the financial insecurity, the worry about business development, and the isolation if you go-it-alone.  These types of downsides are balanced against the autonomy to accept or reject work, the ability to develop skills and experience by working with a variety of organisations, and the opportunity to meet and build relationships with more people than you typically meet as an internal consultant.

What do you think she can expect as she moves from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role?  Let me know.

Image:  Henry Moore, Upright Internal External Form


Were you as amazed and thrilled by Elon Musk and team’s feat in launching Falcon Heavy + roadster with Starman, on February 6 as I was?   My delight at a massive bet that paid off, couldn’t match Musk’s own.  “Holy flying f—,” Musk says in the video, seconds after the Falcon Heavy pushed off the launch pad. “That thing took off.”   Watching the rocket go skyward, Musk exclaimed, “That is unreal.”

At a press conference later that day he told reporters, “Crazy things can come true. I didn’t really think this would work — when I see the rocket lift up, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it’s amazing when they do.”

I can’t claim that an organization design/transformation project could generate anything like the same reaction as the crowds at the launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  If only they did.  We don’t celebrate success of a project in much of a way.  Maybe we should.  As Elon Musk said “I’ve seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it’s a big relief for when it actually works.”

What I loved about the Falcon Heavy is the sense of the absurd harboured within immense endeavour.  Musk’s roadster car with Starman figure is the payload, “It’s just literally a normal car in space — I kind of like the absurdity of that,” Musk said. “It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that silly, fun things are important … I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world, and it’s still tripping me out.’

I don’t see much silliness and fun in leaders of organisation transformation. And it’s a pity we don’t encourage it, because, as Musk says – that’s what’s going to get people excited. (Or not)

In the same week as the Falcon Heavy take-off, I was in a programme planning meeting (on organisation transformation), where the question of ‘do-ability’ of what we’d designed and planned came up.  It’s not in the same league as off to orbit Mars but it’s important in our micro universe.

Asking if something’s do-able is a good question.  What are the conditions necessary for making an aspiration or a plan do-able?  Are there common factors of ‘do-ability’ that we should look out for?  Learning from Musk’s and the Starman venture we can identify:

  1. A leader capable of putting together a truly expert team of people dedicated to achieving the common mission even if it looks like a big risk at the outset. Musk points out that ‘there’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.’
  2. Having enough cash and other resources available to fund the project from initiation to outcome (and onwards)
  3. Doing a lot of planning and accepting you can’t plan for everything. “We’ve done all the (computer) modeling we could think of,” he said. “We’ve asked … third parties to double check the calculations, make sure we haven’t made any mistakes. So, we’re not aware of any issues, nobody has been able to point out any fundamental issues. In theory it should work. But where theory and reality collide, reality wins.”
  4. Showing a reasonable sense that things might not work out but that whatever the outcome there are great learning opportunities. “It would be a really huge downer if it blows up. But hopefully, if something goes wrong, it goes wrong far into the mission so we at least learn as much as possible along the way,” said Musk at Kennedy Space Center on the eve of the flight
  5. Being willing to say clearly that this is not going to be right first time. Musk pointed out, “This is a test mission. We don’t want to set expectations of perfection by any means.’ (He put the odds of a successful flight at somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent which is the often quoted, but maybe not accurate,  success rate for change and transformation projects)
  6. Recognising that modeling and scenario planning are not failsafe. For Falcon Heavy, ‘It is also difficult to model the vibration and acoustic environment at the base of the rocket where the 27 Merlin engines will be firing. The engines were test fired at the pad on Jan. 24 and SpaceX said later there were no problems. But, Musk warned Monday, “there’s so much that can go wrong here.”’
  7. Giving an implementation timeline but being prepared to move it out. Musk, ‘the SpaceX CEO is known for his — let’s call them “aspirational” — timelines.’
  8. Having done the planning, then being willing to take the risk of moving ahead knowing things may not work out.  As Musk says ‘you’ve got to take big chances in order for the potential for a big positive outcome’

Now I’m looking at that list and thinking that isn’t totally convincing as a complete list of do-ability criteria.  It’s a good start, but insufficient because Musk is not your average programme director or middle manager.

Most project do-ability conditions are also about more prosaic things like maintaining business as usual while introducing the new ways, working with sudden budget cuts or loss of key staff,  overcoming the difficulties inherent in patched together legacy IT systems,  having the ability to change organisational policies and rules, overcoming the long shadow previous transformations cast, working through the organisational politics, and being reasonably confident that organisational data is valid, current, reliable, and easily accessible (quite often not the case).  I’ll add those to my list.

What are your project do-ability criteria?  How do you create the conditions to make a project do-able?  Let me know.

Image:  The roadster in space

If you want to know where the roadster + starman is now, look here where there is an up to date tracker.