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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Brief, solution focussed consultancy

Translation of “Hacer consultería [Dedicada a Eugenia]” by Mario López de Ávila Muñoz in nodos en la red.

It sometimes occurs to me that it is not what you do that is important, but the way in which you do it. I am not saying that this is always the case, but that it´s true more often than we think. Let´s take the case of nodos, our little consultancy company. I don´t believe that what we do is as important as the way in which we approach our work. After all, anyone can say that they know about something, but it is quite a different thing to demonstrate this knowledge. It can only be demonstrated by by action.

Although I know that this blog post will be of interest no more than a couple of people, I would like to explain how my associates and I think about our work. In other words, how one should do consultancy. I am going to present a few ideas, the majority of which, like a good consultant, I have gleaned from various sources and then have made my own.

I´m passionate about my work. I love ideas, intellectual challenges, the challenge of an apparently insoluble problem. I love learning. I love working with people very different from myself, with very different professional backgrounds. In nodos we believe that we should do our professional work with passion. I often say that I have known many employees of consultancy companies, some of them very good professionals, but that I have only come across a few Consultants. The difference is in how they live and breathe their work. No true consultant works from Monday to Friday because the profession is more like a vocation; it is an integral part of one´s being. If you aren't passionate about what you do, then you can´t be a good consultant.

How should a consultant approach the work? What is the work of a consultant? I like to say that a consultant is something of a modern day wizard, a kind of sorcerer, who faces up to the dragons of our times - falling sales, badly designed processes, insane working climate, etc. - not to defeat them, but to transform them into something else, something better. Change is inevitable, but it is not always in the direction in which we wish to go. A consultant's work is helping his clients turn in the direction in which they wish to go. To change for the better.

We have to bear in mind the ever present truth that every client is unique. For this reason we do not bind ourselves to any methodology or to any fashionable techniques. Our way is the eternal search for that which works, which gives results. This can be called Six Sigma, Earned Value, Real Options, or Common Sense. As every client is unique, every project is the first. This viewpoint helps us resist the temptation to believe that we know the solution for our client on the basis that it worked in another similar case. The probability of finding a better solution is directly proportional to the degree of respect that the consultant feels for the client. And to the “curiosity”, the sincere interest, which is demonstrated in the assignment.

We are convinced that our clients already have the resources to help themselves. This is one of the principles that is most easily forgotten. It's easy to forget it when you are dressed in a 600 Euro suit and come from very expensive offices where the most stupid member of staff has an MBA. But our clients know their own business better than we do; they survive every day in very competitive markets, and they too have an idiot with an MBA in their offices. A consultant must help the client to find those resources that are already in place to search for and implement an effective solution. In fact, to get the client focussing on the strong points already puts into effect a positive change in the majority of organisations. Most of the time improvements are achieved merely by asking the client to tell you what he thinks he should do.

Another basic principle to guide us is that “resistance” does not exist. “Resistant” is a term that is employed by consultants to describe clients who don't agree with the consultant's idea of what should be changed, the direction in which to make the change, or how to put the change into effect. In reality, it's foolish to think that you can change anyone. Here's a tip to employees of consultancy companies: you can't change your clients; only they can change themselves. This isn't a reason for avoiding your responsibility - which is to help them to provoke a change in the direction that they want or need to go.

Most of the time, this process of change is slow, but the consultancy period must be short. Consultancy is brief because although change is slow, helping our client find and set off in the right direction can be achieved in a surprisingly short period of time. No one wants to pay for interminable hours of diagnoses, nor for tons of PowerPoints. These are not necessary if the work is done well. Here we feel very close to the principles and methods of Solution-focussed Brief Therapy by the late Steve de Shazer.

We like to claim that we prefer to focus on the solution, not the problem. Often, people look for a cause without being sure that finding it will help to solve the problem. We believe that the most important question in the process of change is, “In which direction should we change?”, or, “What should be different in the future?”. It is not always necessary to find the cause, nor to understand the finer details of the problem, in order to find a satisfactory solution. I know that this sounds like heresy, but experience confirms this hypothesis. In addition, we can't change the past, so we have to focus on the future. The future is more open to negotiation by the interested parties than is an agreement over the past.

Still more extraordinary to the uninitiated must be the claim, like that made by Shazer in his time, that the solution may not necessarily have any relationship to the problem. Said in another way: a search for solutions in the general area of the problem may impede the process of change. A financial problem may be resolved by the introduction of a new system of production. A fall in sales with the introduction of a new system of technical support. This is one of the reasons why I continue to be a generalist. One generalist can bring more benefit to the table than 10 specialists and is much less expensive.

In conclusion, some employees of consultancy companies tend to focus on the task, on the control of hours spent or on how to present a CV to the Director of Human Resources of the client - if they are not thinking about how to poach work from the client. A Good and True Consultant knows that he works with people. When one is working with people, emotions are always a part of the problem. They are also a part of the solution. It is critical to pay attention to the emotional climate in which our work with the client progresses. It is essential to dedicate time and energy at creating a good relationship with the client, to try to understand him, to discover how he feels about the problem. We must also pay attention to our own emotions during the process. If we forget to do this then it may not be possible to find a satisfactory solution.

In summary, this is how we work at nodos: brief, solution-focussed consultancy.


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