Consultant, heal thyself

Earlier this month I facilitated a meeting for a group of physicians who are members of a state medical society. The Governor of the state established a consortium for the prevention of prescription drug abuse in response to the national opioid crisis. The consortium in turn, reached out to the medical society to convene members for the purpose of establishing protocols, exchanging best practices, and aligning on a point-of-view to share with legislators that would ensure meaningful regulation.

My blood pressure goes up when I’m in a room with one doctor, so you can imagine how I felt about facilitating a meeting with 20 doctors. Nevertheless, I had agreed to help them tackle an important topic. We needed to make the most of a day-long meeting of professionals volunteering their valuable time. The expertise in the room wasn’t going to do anyone any good without a process that ensured shared understanding and produced actionable alignment.

Working with problem-solving groups is itself an exercise in problem solving.

Smart, highly skilled people who generally solve problems by themselves don’t automatically adapt to the challenges of collaboration. One of the challenges of collaborating during a problem solving exercise is slowing the group down enough to confirm that they agree on the problem before they start generating solutions. Doctors in particular, think fast and have been trained in a diagnostic methodology; they move from symptoms to causes and then prescribe or operate.

A challenge like the opioid crisis doesn’t present itself in the way a patient might show up with symptoms. A public health emergency is not just a more complicated set of symptoms requiring a differential diagnosis. Complex social problems can’t be outsmarted. Chasing down causes might help us feel more in control, but the causes are not static conditions waiting to be discovered. Asking what’s causing the opioid crisis is like asking what causes religion (no Marxist pun intended).

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a tension between competing research methodologies hid below the surface of our work together that day. The doctors had been trained as scientists. Science presumes that objective observation and analysis can lead to universal causal laws. I had suggested a collaborative process based on a social theory approach called, participatory action research. Participatory action research presumes a dynamic relationship between understanding something and changing it. By contrast, science presumes we need to understand something before we try to change it.

While we made respectable progress and agreed to a few clear action steps, I am only now coming to realize the mistake I made in designing a process for the meeting. Because of my anxiety about showing up as an authority, I inadvertently acted like a doctor. I treated the group as a patient. I diagnosed their group dynamics and prescribed process fixes. Alternatively, I could have recognized that together we represented our own complex social network. I might have been more open to the way our challenges and shared understanding emerged through our dialogue. Had I been more attentive to and less judgmental about the group’s natural tendencies, we may have made even more progress.

Uncovering Your Client’s Requirements: Four questions for connecting services and solutions to wants and needs

Changing the way we refer to things says a lot about our changing mindsets. For example, our organizations used to “train” people, now we “develop talent” through “blended learning experiences.” Companies that once employed “salespeople” responsible for closing deals, now have “business development teams” that form relationships with customers and clients.

Our changing descriptions of organizational roles and functions signify more than a gentrification of the way we talk about business. In the case of the interactions formerly known as “sales” and “training,” the change in language represents a shift from thinking in terms of transactions to thinking in terms of connections.

Once, we asked for coffee, received it and paid for it. Now we interact with a skilled and knowledgeable barista who assesses how much conversation will be required to meet our coffee needs, including the needs we didn’t realize we had: We can make your cappuccino frothier. Next time order it “dry.”

We no longer transact business. We connect services and solutions to wants and needs.

Our internal and external clients and customers no longer want our prefabricated widgets, our generic training programs, or our one-size-fits-all professional service methodologies. Even health care systems have started personalizing treatment plans to meet individual patient needs.

Sometimes, I have a very specific coffee order and I’m not interested in exploring my options. Similarly, sometimes, a client or customer simply wants to transact business with you. They know what they want and they’re looking for the best value. Before your scoping conversation, ask yourself (or even better, ask the client) about the importance of what Unstuck Minds calls, “The Four Imperatives.”

Find out the extent to which your client needs to…

  • Reduce the risk of missing something important

  • Avoid solving the wrong problem

  • Make it easier for people to take concerted action

  • Increase the novelty of their options

If the imperatives matter, you’ll want to walk into the scoping conversation with better questions. There are four primary questions that will change any scoping conversation from a business transaction into a conversation that connects services and solutions to needs:

What is changing? Start your scoping conversation with a question that demonstrates the importance of context. By the time you have been invited into a scoping conversation, your client has already decided that something needs to change or improve. To avoid being trapped by a discussion of the features and functions of your solutions, find out what has changed in the internal and external environment that triggered the scoping conversation. By asking. “What is changing?” you reduce the risk of missing something important.

What does it mean? After hearing about what is changing, find out how your client has interpreted the changes. Consider other explanations for the identified changes. Why has the client’s current interpretation of the changes become a priority? By finding out what the change means to your client you avoid solving the wrong problem.

How do others see it? You have heard one perspective on the context and rationale for the client’s stated need, now it’s time to find out about the thoughts and feelings of others in the organization. Be suspicious of a client who describes strong alignment on a consistent set of needs. The scoping conversation should include a discussion of what people may end up losing when the client’s needs are met, not just what people stand to gain. Finding out how others think and feel helps make it easier for people to take concerted action to meet the client’s requirements.

How else might we define the challenge? The client engaged you in a scoping conversation by framing a request. If you’ve had a productive dialogue prompted by the first three questions, it’s likely that new information and perhaps some new insights have emerged. In asking the fourth question, you are adding value to the conversation by broadening the solution set. You may even uncover needs that set the stage for future scoping conversations.

We are all Advising Professionals

Colleen is a lawyer and works in the legal department of global retailing company. She wants business leaders in her company to consult with her earlier in their decision making process so she can mitigate risk to the company before agreements are finalized.

Jacob’s company produces advanced chemicals for use in manufacturing plants. The company has transformed its approach to selling. Instead of promoting the features and functions of his company’s products, Jacob now leads a sales team including chemical engineers who are expected to solve their customer’s problems with a combination of products, data analytics and on-going consulting support.

Alfie leads an agile software development team supporting the technology needs of his financial services company. Alfie often feels frustrated and overly constrained by requests from his internal customers. He wants to discuss options with business leaders before they become fixated on a specific solution.

One might presume that when it comes to their job descriptions, Colleen, Jacob and Alfie have nothing in common. Colleen is an attorney, Jacob is a salesperson and Alfie is a software engineer. They work in different industries. They have different functional expertise. Their success is measured in different ways.

Despite the obvious differences, they share a common mission. Like many of us, they want to help decision makers make better decisions. Colleen has expertise that would help her company’s leaders avoid costly mistakes. Jacob’s customers often miss out on valuable insights about how to use his company’s products and services. Alfie’s internal clients regularly overlook creative options for solving their technology problems.

Being the most skilled and knowledgeable lawyer, salesperson or software engineer does not necessarily mean that your expertise will be used. Professional expertise is necessary, but not sufficient. Professionals who want to help decision makers make better decisions also need advising expertise.

Advising expertise relies on the ability to influence and the ability to align. Advisors need a variety of tools and skills to influence and align. A Google search on “influence without authority” will turn up several books, articles and ideas for getting your professional expertise used by decision makers.

One promising and perhaps counterintuitive approach to helping advising professionals has been gaining traction lately: Instead of honing your ability to give advice, ask better questions. For example, the journalist Warren Berger has devoted his career in recent years to writing and speaking about the power of inquiry. The Right Question Institute hopes to create a movement that improves decision-making through the participation of stakeholders who learn to ask better questions.

In essence, a decision is an answer to a question. A decision maker looking at a menu is answering the question, “What do I want to eat?” A decision making team at a strategy offsite is answering the question, “Where will we invest our resources in the next three years?” A customer meeting with several sales teams is answering the question, “who do I want to do business with?” Let’s consider an example to highlight the difference between influencing the decision and influencing the question that the decision answers.

Imagine that a marketing executive in Colleen’s global retailing company brings her a contract to review. The marketing executive is trying to decide whether to commit the company to a one-year agreement or a three-year agreement with a vendor. Essentially he is posing the question, “Which agreement should we sign?” If Colleen reviews the contracts and renders an opinion, the company makes an informed, but limited decision. If Colleen focuses on influencing the question rather than influencing the decision, she might request a bit more context from the marketing executive about the vendor and their services. She might learn that the marketing executive has some concerns about using the vendor, but has a project deadline to meet. At one point in the conversation, Colleen might pose a different question to the marketing executive, “How can we use this vendor to meet your deadline without committing ourselves to a long-term contract?” After considering the question, perhaps the marketing executive would offer a new deal to the vendor: The retailer will sign the three-year contract if the vendor successfully helps the marketing department meet the deadline on the current project. A better question leads to a better decision.

When advisors think of their job as influencing the decision, they are limiting the value they can provide because they have implicitly validated the question being asked by the decision maker. When advisors think of their job as influencing the question, they are creating an opening for a breakthrough.