What Does A Consultant Do?


It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed. – Napoleon Hill

Edgar Schein made a number of contributions in the organizational development field, looking at career models, organizational culture and consultancy. In his paper on process consultation (Schein, 1990) he introduces the idea of “helping” and how you can think about this in your own context.

Helping others is a fundamental part of being human, whether it’s as a parent or a friend, a teacher or a manager – in addition to professional helping roles such as being a consultant or a therapist. The link between consultancy and therapy is interesting because there are many common features of the literature in both camps. For example, the idea that reality is a social construction, something that is created by an individual or group in a bid to make sense of what they perceive, is common to both. This means that the biggest thing we can do to make things better in our lives or organisations is to learn how to think more clearly about the problematic situations that we find ourselves in.

Schein talks about three types of helping – expert, doctor and process – and each of these ask you to do different things.

Most of us are familiar with the expert mode of helping. If you have a problem, say with a CRM system, you know who the expert is and can get in touch with them to help solve your problem. An expert knows what to do in their area of expertise and can come in and sort things out.

The doctor mode of helping is a little different – here you have someone who knows quite a lot and can come in, ask some questions, look at what’s happening, run some tests and come up with a diagnosis of the problem and suggest a cure. For example, you might call in a technical expert if you’ve got glitches in your network with random outages. That’s something that needs to be diagnosed.

The last kind of helping is process mode helping your client understand what’s going on in their situation and what they could do about it. This is a process of enquiry, a curiosity led process where asking questions and exploring is the way you understand what’s going on. The main difference is that client still owns the problem and they decide what to do next.

Schein argues that none of these helping processes are better than any other – instead what’s important is knowing which mode you should shift into and when.

When you first enter a problematic situation you should always start with a process mindset. Don’t make assumptions about what’s going on. Ask questions, understand why the client is looking at this situation now, is there really a problem, do you see why they are asking for help?

As you understand more about the situation the client is in then you can move into the other modes. That’s when you can play doctor, asking for symptoms, running tests and coming up with a diagnosis – and making possible suggestions for a cure.

If you end up talking about an area where you have relevant expertise and know what’s the right thing to do then you can say so. This is your expert opinion at work and you should speak up.

Why should you start with process consulting rather than diving straight into providing your expertise or diagnosing the problem? That’s because there are a number of assumptions that underpin the two other approaches. With an expert approach you assume that the client knows what the problem is and knows the kind of expertise needed to sort it out. With the doctor approach you assume that the client knows they have a problem, that they can recognize the symptoms and know what kind of doctor is needed.

It’s fair to expect that clarity in a number of situations, but in many cases we don’t have a deep understanding of what’s going on. We have to start by understanding what the problem really is before we can get on with the job of solving it. What we need to do is work with the client to make sure that they see what the problem is, they recognize that they own the problem and they’re committed to making things better.

Only then can we expect things to change for the better.


Karthik Suresh


Schein, E.H, 1990. “A general philosophy of helping: Process consultation”, Sloan Management Review, pp 57-64

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