Like any professional consultants (whether that consultancy is provided internally or – even more so – externally), the privilege of being selected to provided our service carries responsibilities. Some are mandatory in the strictest sense – the legal framework defines a range of liabilities and risks – while others are better categorised as ‘professional’ or ‘ethical’.
To maintain our standards (and the standards of professional bodes to which we belong, as we are proud to support organisations that work to define, maintain and drive up standards), we are committed to regular and ongoing professional development. A further ethical concern is to recognise the boundaries within which consultancy is provided and presented: the opportunity to present ideas does not translate into a right to see them implemented. (Indeed, insisting too adamantly ultimately undermines the recipient client: effective consultancy should be based on mutual professional respect.)
In promoting the criticality of ensuring the successful transfer and application of learning and coaching interventions, we are seeking here to identify and encourage the achievement of best practice in this business critical area.
Ensuring the Effectiveness of OD Consulting
As with any development activity or intervention, whether organisational or personal, establishing excellence of theory and concept is not the aim: the ultimate objective of OD should be sustained – and sustainable – improvement in performance. Any consultancy provided with the aim of improving performance must, for the sake of its credibility, accept that it is provided in an arena where its effectiveness will, and indeed must, be tested.
Organisation Design (OD) consultancies should have a clear commitment to evaluate – and be evaluated – across all OD projects: just like any other service, OD consultants shouldn’t expect invoices to be honoured where a service is promised but under-delivered. But perspectives on what constitutes effective consulting – and, more crucially, on how (and on what criteria) OD Consulting projects are evaluated – are varied and continue to evolve.
For many years, it has been commonly understood – if that is the right verb – that there is a gap between ‘theories in books’ – the ideas, tools, processes and techniques are introduced during a consultancy intervention and ‘theories in action’ – the application of that learning that leads to improved performance. (A gap that can be less elegantly expressed as the difference between understanding what could be done and actually doing it.).
In that time, our understanding of the wide range of factors that cause this ‘transfer gap’ has been enhanced by a growing body of academic research, which has also identified the ways and means by which the gap might be bridged. What is less evident is the extent to which organisations have embraced the challenge of the transfer from theory to action, and adopted new techniques that could, if the researchers are correct, improve the effectiveness of the OD intervention.
Your OD consultancy projects will, of course, be underpinned by contractual agreements, defining the services to be provided and the way in which the project is to be managed. As well as the (vital) on-going contact at both strategic and operational level between consultants and clients, there should regular review meetings to monitor progress, review strategy, identify and address issues as they arise, and make modifications that address changing circumstances. There may be formal evaluation processes and criteria built into the project scope – indeed, we would argue that these are essential, and should be as rigorous as possible.
What follows is the work we have completed on one vital piece of the jigsaw- namely, how best to evaluate the effectiveness of OD consultancy interventions, where effectiveness is defined as what we can show to our clients that makes a compelling case for the proof positive of the bottom-line improvements to be gained from highly effective partnering work with them.
A Self-Evaluation Questionnaire For Consultants
Regardless of the formal evaluation processes to be followed, OD consultants should always be prepared to ask themselves the following questions – and be prepared to respond to these questions when they are raised by their clients.
1. Has the project enabled complex problems to be appraised and dealt with?
Answers to complex problems should emerge during the project, as consultant and client work collaboratively to identify and clarify current and emerging issues (and the factors driving them), and then continue their collaboration to address them. This process should also be a learning opportunity for both parties.
2. Has the OD intervention encouraged and recognised diverse perspectives and values?
Experienced OD consultants should always remember that any issue within the client organisation can – and will – be seen from many perspectives, not just through individual differences but through the filters of a variety of operational and strategic agendas and priorities. The ‘helicopter’ and ‘ground level’ views will naturally be different: both see elements that will be invisible to the other. By encouraging and exploring these differing perspectives, opportunities are generated for more successful problem solving – and for greater mutual understanding.
3. Regardless of the destination, where did you start from?
Consultancy means working with your partner: the need to work hand in hand with them throughout the process means that there may be a need to accept their pace rather than to impose your own – and thereby risk travelling ahead of them, which in turn risks communication and understanding. Likewise, consultancy can start only from your client’s starting point: to work with their starting perspective, you must first take time to understand it – explore the initiatives that they have previously tried, what has worked – and not worked, and their own view of what needs to be done. While you may (feel a) need to modify their perspectives, you can only – in the words of the cliché – start from where you are, no matter how far that is from anywhere you might consider ideal.
4. Were you able to demonstrate that the real value of their input lies not in the details of the project but in their management of the flow of the project process?
Project details will be subject to change throughout the project lifespan: it would be remarkable – and possibly even cause for concern – if they did not. Your greatest value lies in managing these changes of detail while maintaining the overall direction, focus and effectiveness of the project.
5. Have you been able to articulate how the OD project has provided a framework for change?The framework’s role – like the consultants’ – will evolve during the project. In the initial stages, its purpose is to provide a shared frame of reference within which consultant and client can discuss project goals, methods, evaluation and learning. To do this, it must be articulated and understood clearly by the client – it should quickly become apparent if this is not the case. But the framework will also evolve in parallel with the project:: communicating these on-going modifications as you work with your client and ensuring that these changes are understood are vitally important.. If there were evident problems of understanding and mutual comprehension, review communication processes.
6. In delivering the agreed objectives for the OD project were you able to build trust and rapport?
OD interventions are, by definition, highly dynamic: rarely cleanly linear, they will often take many twists and turns, and there is considerable potential for the client to feel either bewildered or confused. In ensuring delivery on agreed objectives – and ensuring your client’s perception that this remains the case throughout – consultants must make every effort to remain grounded, clear and consistent to build trust and commitment and achieve the clarity required to resolve problems and overcome obstacles.
7. Were you able to demonstrate effective partnership working?
OD interventions do not work if they are seen as consultant-led; the best advocates of change and re-construction are internal. Likewise, consultants do not simply advise. They should always explain the reasons for their advice and the benefits their client that accrue as a result, and allow their client time to respond.
8. Did your relationship with client mean that they felt free to take – or not take – your advice?
There are two issues here. External consultants must be mindful that they are providing a service to enhance and improve their client’s business, but they are not actually taking it over. It is easier to be mindful of this by reflecting on the second issue, which is one of the most challenging for consultants (in any field or context) to accept: people learn only what they are ready to learn. Your client has a right to reject your advice, even if it would bring real advantage; they are, however, more likely to accept the advice if your consultancy has prepared them to do so. Just as clients must take ownership of new learning and new behaviours, similarly they must retain ownership of the project and the organisation – which includes the right to say ‘no’.