Foundations of Consulting — Part 2: How Do Consultants Work?

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Sections of this topic

    Part 1 of this series is What Do Consultants Do?, which defines a consultant (as Peter Block puts it) as someone who is trying to change another person, process or organization, but who has no direct control over what they are trying to change. That post also listed numerous roles that a consultant might play during a project, e.g., coach, facilitator, trainer, advisor — and many others.

    In addition to the various roles in consulting, there are various approaches to consulting, as described in this post. This post describes two very different approaches to consulting: a systematic, planned approach versus an organic approach.

    Consultants might even do the same approach differently, for example, some consultants might involve the client in the consulting process much more than others. However, research suggests that, for more complex projects, the more you collaborate with your client in carrying out the particular approach to consulting, the more successful you all will be in accomplishing the preferred results in the project. That collaboration requires strong people skills — that’s the topic of another series of blogs 🙂

    Systematic and Planned Approach

    Many consultants use a systematic, or planned, approach. They tend to include the following phases, or some variation of them – perhaps with different names for each phase. A planned approach is much more cyclical in nature, than this numbered list.

    Contracting Phase

    The first phase is the contract phase, where the consultant and client explore the client’s problem (or exciting goal) and how it might be addressed. They learn more about each other, and decide whether to work together or not. This phase includes completion of a formal agreement to proceed with the project.

    Discovery Phase (Diagnosis Phase)

    In the discovery phase, the consultant and client clarify the problem, using various approaches to get more information. They try to separate the symptoms of the problem from its real causes. They analyze the information they’ve gathered, and come to conclusions about what actions should be taken. They share their findings with other key personnel in the organization.

    Action Planning Phase

    The action planning phase is where the consultant and client, and ideally more employees in the organization, firm up their action plans for addressing the problem, with specific goals to be achieved, who will achieve them, and by when. It’s very important that the actions be relevant and realistic.

    Implementation Phase (Change Management Phase)

    The implementation phase is where the action plans are implemented. The priority in this phase is to sustain momentum in the implementation – hopefully, generating a great deal of learning. Continual evaluations ensure the implementation is on the right track to solving the problem.

    Project Evaluation Phase

    The evaluation phase measures whether the problem has been solved. Other aspects of the project are also evaluated, including the quality of the collaborative relationship and the learning in the project.

    Project Termination Phase

    All projects should end with a Termination phase, in which the consultant and client decide what to do with the results of the evaluation. They might cycle back to an earlier phase, continue the current project, or terminate the project.

    Organic Approach to Consulting

    Some consultants use a rather organic approach. They get a strong sense of what they think the client’s problem is, and determine what they’ll do for now to solve it. The way they work with clients seems to naturally unfold during the project. Advantages of this approach are several.

    1. This can work very well for small projects or for cultures that don’t prefer structured approaches to problem solving or achieving goals.
    2. It can also seem to produce quick successes in a project, when the consultant very quickly suggests what the problem or goal is and how to address it.
    3. It can result in lower project costs because the consultant is continuously making rather quick decisions and suggestions.

    The organic approach also has some disadvantages.

    1. The consultant might not have taken the time to do the discovery needed to find the real causes of the client’s problem, rather than reacting to its symptoms.
    2. Without a systematic discovery, many of us consultants tend to see only those problems that can be fixed with our favorite tools. For example, if we’re coaches, then we see primarily the need for coaching. If we’re advisors, then we see primarily the need to give advice.
    3. The consultant’s estimate of the time to complete the project, might vary widely, thus, costing far less, or for more, than the client expected.
    4. It can also be very difficult to involve clients in a way that they fully understand because the consultant is continually intuiting the situation — it can be very difficult to explain the results of one’s intuition 🙂

    This post is not claiming that any one approach to consulting is always best. The best approach to use depends on the nature and needs of the client, more than the preferred approach or technical expertise of the consultant. A good consultant might have a variety of approaches and roles to use, and knows when to call in other expertise when needed.

    What approach to you use?

    Look for the articles in this series, including:

    1. What Do Consultants Do?
    2. How Do Consultants Work?
    3. Most Important Goals and Working Assumptions of Consultants
    4. Major Types of Consultants
    5. Internal and External Consultants
    6. Good Reasons – and Poor Reasons – to Hire Consultants

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    For more resources, see the Library topics Consulting and Organizational Development.

    Information in this post was adapted from the book Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD. For training on consulting skills, see the Consultants Development Institute. For more resources, see the Free Management Library’s topic All About Consulting .

    Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD – Authenticity Consulting, LLC – 763-971-8890 Read my blogs: Boards, Consulting and OD, and Strategic Planning .