Wednesday 4 September 2013

Advisor (Consultant) Roles

At yesterday's Awayday with the Clinical Trials Unit, I had an interesting conversation with the Director and Deputy Director, about the different roles an organisation like theirs can find itself operating in. It reminded me of the fascinating analysis by Peter Block in his outstanding book 'Flawless Consulting.' 

Here's my notes and reflections on the relevant part of his thinking.

Advisor Roles

“Clients” (who may be individual managers, or whole departments or organisations) tend to prefer us to work either in an expert capacity  or a ‘pair of hands’ role.

Equally we may feel more comfortable in one of these roles, particularly if dealing with senior or powerful Clients.  They are clear and either flattering (on the one hand) or easy (on the other).

While either of these roles may be appropriate on occasion, there are risks to both of them; not the least of which is setting a precedent (and associated habits of thought and behaviour) that will make it harder for us to re-negotiate a collaborative relationship when that is what is truly required.

The Expert Role

You go away and come back with the answer - you’re the expert.

The problem here is that although an ‘expert,’ we may lack some of the Client’s understanding of his or her particular issues or organisation; also it is very much easier for our proposals to be rejected if they are formulated in isolation and then presented back to the Client.  If the Client feels that as experts we are challenging the Client’s understanding, wisdom or experience, we may well provoke a defensive response - and an equal and opposite reaction.

The Pair of Hands Role

Here’s what you need to do - go off and do it.

As a ‘pair of hands’ we may find our expertise undervalued, and find that we are in a position where any suggestions we have to make are ignored, and that a lot of our time is wasted on trivia.  We may be expected to assume that 'the Customer is always right'; but that is a very simplistic stance that implies we have nothing to add to their understanding.  Likewise, we may find it difficult to negotiate for what we need for the successful delivery of a solution, setting ourselves up for failure.

Sometimes, if we are pushed towards a ‘pair of hands’ role and feel under-valued, our instinctive response is to emphasise our expertise - and move to expert role.

However, in both cases, seeking to move more towards a collaborative approach will give us more leverage in the Client’s system.

The Collaborative Role

The assumption here is that both you and your Client have something of value to bring to the situation, in terms of generating appropriate ways of working and developing solutions to whatever issue you are addressing. You have particular skills, knowledge, experience or expertise, which is why you are involved. The Client knows his or her needs, people, system, problems, history, and so on.

So a collaborative relationship is one that enables you to draw on both your understanding and insights, and your client’s, in order to develop the best ways forward - and to build the client's understanding and commitment to those solutions from the start of the process.  However, it is harder work for both you and the client, and takes more time...

Moving Towards a Collaborative Role

As with all movement, the direction depends on where you are starting from...

If you are starting the relationship from scratch, use your initial meeting to negotiate a contract on how to work together: take the opportunity to model a 50:50 collaborative relationship.  Make requests/demands as well as offers of help.  Treat the client as an equal, worthy of respect; and demonstrate that you expect to be treated in the same fashion.

Then use every opportunity thereafter to model a 50:50 approach: invite the client’s ideas and contribute your own, too.

If you are already in a relationship where the client sees you as an expert, seek realistic and relevant opportunities to involve the client.  Seek his or her views or advice on key decisions or options as you work through the project.  That will increase the client’s involvement, and also prepare him or her for the final presentation of your thinking, so that there are no surprises and much less likelihood of rejection.

If you are already in a relationship where the client sees you as a ‘pair of hands’ you may wish to engage with a role re-negotiation about how you can add more value if you are able to get involved with the decision making more directly.  Or you may choose simply to ask to be involved in specific meetings where you know key issues are to be discussed.  Another strategy is simply to start making suggestions in a proactive way, starting with issues which are important to the client and where you have suggestions that are likely to work.

In all cases, the issue is to identify where the client is (implicitly) placing you on the grid, and work out how and how far you will be able to move to a more collaborative working relationship.

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