Collaborative Consulting for Performance, Change and Learning

Much of the content of this topic came from this book: Consulting and Organization Development - Book Cover

Sections in this Topic

What is Collaborative Consulting?
Major Benefits of Collaborative Consulting (Helps Client Own the Process)
How Much Should Your Clients Be Involved in Collaborative Consulting?
Overview of the Phases in Collaborative Consulting Cycle
Activities in Each Phase of the Cycle
Also See These Closely Related Topics

Strongly Recommended Pre-Reading

All About Consulting - Types, Skills and Approaches

What is Collaborative Consulting?

NOTE: Collaborative consulting is not a discovery, development or trademarked service of this author. The concept has been around in one form or another for several decades, ranging from Carl Rogers' collaborative approach to psychotherapy to full explanations in Peter Block's seminal book on consulting, Flawless Consulting. Rather, this topic in the Library gives the reader a full explanation along with acquaintance to guidelines and resources to begin implementing the process.

See a video about the collaborative approach to consulting, including description, benefits, cycles, shared and individual responsibilities, and collaborating with busy clients. From the Consultants Development Institute.

A traditional view of a consultant is an expert who works primarily alone in the client's organization to do some analysis, generate recommendations and then bestow them on the client to implement somehow. Research shows that traditional approach rarely works when the consultant is trying to help the client to accomplish significant change in the organization. The consultant's recommendations are rarely implemented. Be sure to read:
10 Myths of Management and Organizational Consulting Part 1
10 Myths of Management and Organizational Consulting Part 2

As important as the accuracy of the your recommendations is the client's commitment to actually implementing them. Research shows that kind of commitment comes from their truly understanding your recommendations and how they were produced. In turn, that comes from collaborating with you, as much as possible, to analyze their situation and what to do about it. Overall, that collaborative approach is much more likely to produce the kind of political support, momentum and learning that are necessary for successful organizational change. Highly collaborative approaches apply to technical consultants, too, especially if the focus of the project is on a complex technical system, where the consultant needs to ensure that the system is adaptable to the client's organizational culture. Many other helping professions, for example, therapy, social work and education, have realized the critical role of working in collaboration with others.

Major Benefits of Collaborative Consulting (Helps Client Own the Process)

Consultants in organizational change efforts must be able to work comfortably in collaboration with their clients. Often, that starts by explaining collaborative consulting to the client, including why the process is so useful. The following list outlines the benefits of working in a collaborative approach.

  1. Ensures you work according to the standard goals of professional consultants.
    Primary goals for any effective consultant are to work collaboratively with clients to ensure current problems are understood, options are identified, problems are solved and that clients can solve problems themselves in the future. A primary working assumption includes that, for projects to be successful, clients must freely provide accurate information and maintain internal commitment to the project.
  2. Provides powerful means to identifying the real causes of the client's problem.
    Organizations, like people, rarely struggle because of a missing piece of information. Rather, they struggle because they cannot see the situation differently, they have conflicting feelings about the situation, or they are afraid to take actions to address it. You and your client need to work together to share perceptions, discussions and conclusions about the symptoms versus the problem and then accountabilities to take the necessary actions.
  3. Ensures that plans remain relevant, realistic and flexible during projects.
    Plans are rarely implemented exactly as planned. Instead, changes inside and outside of the organization frequently cause plans to be modified. Without the ongoing participation of your clients in changes to the plans, it is not likely that the plans will remain relevant and realistic.
  4. Ensures the most long-lasting solutions to your client’s problems.
    Long-lasting solutions to complex problems involve necessary changes to the structures and systems in your client’s organization, not just in inspiring and motivating its people. Changes are not incorporated without the strong, ongoing ownership, commitment and participation of your clients. That commitment requires their ongoing trust -- the trust that comes from their continual collaboration with you during the project.
  5. Ensures continuous learning and improvements in your projects.
    Adults learn by applying new information to current and real-world situations, reflecting on the results of those applications and exchanging ongoing feedback with others about their new learning. Projects provide a clinic for learning when you and your clients do this together in your projects.

How Much Should Your Client Be Involved in Collaborative Consulting?

Prominent psychologist, Carl Rogers, asserted that you cannot teach anyone anything. People can only learn when they are ready and willing to learn. That is in accordance with Block’s assertion that effective implementation requires the internal commitment of your clients.

Block asserts that, as a consultant, you should not be contributing more than 50% of the effort in a consulting project. Your client should work the remainder. You should never be doing what your client can do in a project. This is especially true for external consultants. Internal consultants might do more than 50% of the work. However, they still should strive to have clients do most of the work if those clients are to learn to solve problems for themselves.

Others might believe that the amount of work each party contributes depends on the nature of services in the consulting project. For example, if you are a technical consultant installing a computer system, then you might do most of the work. However, even in those projects, you need your client to be committed to learning about the system and using it to its full advantage. That will come if you actively involve them in helping you to customize your methods of training, practicing their use of the system and sharing feedback from their experiences.

A challenge, particularly for new consultants, is to actually cultivate a collaborative relationship with their clients. They might feel they need to impress and satisfy the client by doing all the work themselves. Or, they might fall victim to the myth that they can somehow descend into an organization and “fix” it without the client ever having to participate. The irony of this situation is that when the consultant follows that approach, the client often reacts positively at first.

However, soon after the consultant leaves, the client begins to realize that the recommendations were not fully understood -- not enough to actually implement them. People are confused about what to do because little or no learning occurred from the project. Instead, the client is now in a situation worse than before. The report from the consultant sits unread on the client’s shelf. Perhaps worst of all, members of the organization lose faith in the value of ever bringing in a consultant again.

Overview of the Phases of the Collaborative Consulting Cycle


Various books on consulting usually suggest similar designs, ranging from five to eight phases in the overall consulting process. Authors might use different names and emphasize different terms, but the approaches they suggest are usually somewhat similar. After all, their approaches are often based on the same action research model developed by Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology, about 50 years ago.

Collaborative consulting has its roots in several disciplines. For example, Carl Rogers, a humanistic and existential psychologist, developed the practice of client-centered psychology. Professor Edgar Schein is widely credited with founding and developing process consultation. Schein stressed the importance of working with clients. Consultant Peter Block was one of the first to mention the phrase “collaborative consulting” in his writings.

The Nature of the Cycle and How You Experience It

The organizational change process is often like that of a wide-ranging and wandering journey with your client. Accordingly, the phases in the collaborating consulting process are much like a highly engaging and constructive conversation with your client. The various phases provide a common frame of reference during that conversation.

The phases of the consulting process are highly integrated and often cyclical in nature. For example, it is not uncommon to return to an earlier phase because some major aspect of the client’s organization has changed, for example, a key leader left the organization or a new issue has arisen in the organization.

There often is no clear-cut distinction between the various phases. The order in which you proceed through the phases and the amount of time that you spend in each depends on a variety of factors:

  • Your preferred approach to consulting. See How Consultants Customize Their Approaches.
  • The nature of the issues to be addressed by the project, including its focus and the extent of change needed to address the issues.
  • Any particular model that you might be using to accomplish organizational change, for example, action research or strategic management.
  • Your expertise as a consultant while working with your client to proceed through the phases.
  • Whether you are working for a service provider who has certain policies and procedures for conducting their consulting projects.
  • Whether you are a specialist who focuses primarily on certain functions (Boards, marketing, staffing, etc.) or a generalist using a combination of different methods.
  • Whether you are contracting to provide recommendations only or to guide your client to actually implement the recommendations.
  • The amount of resistance from your clients and yourself during significant changes in the project.
  • Your client’s available resources to commit to the project.

Activities in Each Phase of the Cycle

Here is a one-page Overview of the Collaborative Consulting Cycle. The following paragraphs go into much more detail about each phase.

1. Contracting

This phase is also sometimes called the Start-up, Entry or Agreement phase. Although some practitioners distinguish the Start-up phase as being especially about the consultant and client learning about each other and considering whether to connect with each other. They might see the Start-up as being when the consultant and client actually meet together and come to agreement about the project.

This is usually the first time that you and your client meet. The overall goal of this phase is for both of you to understand each other’s nature and needs, the intended outcomes from the project and how you prefer to work together. You also begin exploring the presenting priority in your client’s organization, assess the readiness of your client to begin a consulting project, decide if there is a suitable match between you, and then identify next steps, including if and how an agreement can be established. If you are an external consultant, you might choose to provide a proposal or do a contract.

Guidelines and Resources for Contracting Phase of Consulting

2. Discovery

This phase is sometimes called the Diagnostic Phase. The nature of discovery depends on the philosophy of the change agent and client. Some prefer a rather orderly sequence of phases, while others prefer a more emergent approach.

During this phase, you and your client work together in a highly collaborative fashion to further examine the presenting priority, its context and causes, and what can be done to effectively address the priority. Discovery involves carefully collecting information about the priority, how it has been managed and its effect on the rest of the organization. During this phase, you and your client might review documentation, administer questionnaires and conduct interviews, to get information about the priority. You will use principles of systems thinking and organizational change to identify issues and generate recommendations to address the issues. Then you and your client will share with the rest of the organization the results of your discovery, including issues that you discover and recommendations to address those issues.

Guidelines and Resources for Discovery Phase of Consulting

3. Action Planning, Alignment and Integration

As with the discovery phase of consulting, the nature of action planning depends on the philosophy of the change agent and client. Some prefer a rather orderly sequence of phases, while others prefer a more emergent approach.

By now, you and your client will have a fairly clear impression of what the issues are and the specific actions needed to address them. Now you will work together to develop those actions into action plans, identifying who will do what and by when. You will ensure that those action plans are relevant, realistic and flexible and that they are fully integrated with each other. Next, you will integrate the action plans into an overall Implementation Plan that will include plans for evaluation and learning, recognition and communications.

Guidelines and Resources for Action Planning Phase of Consulting

4. Implementation

As with the contracting and discovery phases of consulting, the nature of this implementation phase depends on the philosophy of the change agent and client. Some prefer a rather orderly sequence of phases, while others prefer a more emergent approach.

During this phase, you will guide and support your client in implementing the Implementation Plan, including its various related plans. The focus of your efforts will be on guiding the implementation according to principles of successful organizational change. You will help your client sustain motivation and momentum throughout the implementation. You will inform your client of a variety of tools to track the status of implementation, as well. During this phase, you and your client will continually be evaluating the quality of the change effort and making adjustments as necessary.

Guidelines and Resources for Implementation Phase of Consulting

5. Project Evaluation

This phase is sometimes referred to as the Evaluation and Adoption Phase, although some practitioners separate the Adoption phase and consider it to be focused especially on ensuring the client has adopted the new practices needed to solve the client's problem -- and learned how to solve similar problems into the future.

This phase is marked by having successfully addressed the presenting priority in your client’s organization, as well as addressing any issues found during your discovery activities. You and your client will conduct an evaluation to verify that those accomplishments indeed did occur. Your client will have learned a great deal during the project, including how to successfully manage change efforts in their organization.

Guidelines and Resources for Project Evaluation Phase of Consulting

6. Project Termination

This phase is sometimes referred to as the Separation Phase.

You and your client will reflect on what both of you have achieved. If you are an external consultant, you will develop a project termination plan that will address how you will begin moving out of the project . You and your client will further attend to evaluation results and clean up any loose ends in the project. You will likely discuss any future engagements, as well.

Guidelines and Resources for Termination Phase of Consulting

Also See These Closely Related Topics

Overview of the Field of Organization Development
Guidelines, Methods and Resources for Organizational Change Agents
Competencies and Resources for Organizational Change Agents


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