My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. – Peter Drucker
I call myself a Management Consultant – but few people really understand what that means. I don’t think I really do either, or at least, I don’t think I did.
There’s a thing called the Dunning Kruger effect that looks at the relationship between how confident you are in your abilities and how good you really are as judged by others based on your performance. It won’t surprise you to learn that people are sometimes overly confident when they shouldn’t be – but they don’t know yet that they aren’t as good as they think.
It’s only by immersing myself in the research in the field of Operations Research (OR) that I’ve learned that Management Consulting is really Operations Research by another name. It should be obvious really – OR is about making things work better – but not just machine things but people-machine things. People-machine systems if you will, although the word “system” will trigger some people into defining what a system is in the first place. If we sidestep around that point, however, Management Consulting and Operations Research are really about improving how organisations carry out their operations. So how do you go about doing that?
One way of approaching the question is in an “Expert Mode”. You bring in a titan of industry, an acknowledged expert, and you listen to his (all too often it’s a he) advice. That’s how it works or used to work or is the way some people wish it worked.
The world is much too complicated, however, to be solved by experts. There are too many factors, interconnected elements, intractable variables that do not allow for a simple solution. And that’s where Soft Operations Research (Soft OR) comes in. It’s where you’re asked to engage your humanity rather than your expertise.
This is a form of “Process” consulting, where you work with your clients rather than instructing them. And you can think of this as a four stage process – one that you won’t find in the literature but one that might help see what needs to happen.
The first thing is that you have to find a way to enter the situation – be invited in to help or offer your assistance. You can’t really work on something if you aren’t actually part of the team.
The next step is to get a rich appreciation of what’s going on. That means speaking and listening and seeing the situation from multiple perspectives – asking questions about the nature of the situation, and its context, including who wants what and who controls what – issues of culture and politics that surround every non-trivial situation of concern. It’s only through that appreciative process that you can get a sense of what needs to be done.
And then you do it – you propose a course of action and if it’s agreed, you go ahead and act.
You then reflect on the process, on whether you were able to appreciate what was going on, whether your action improved the situation or not – and what you learned from the process. And then you can go into the situation again or into a new one – with your purpose always being to make things better.
The thing with the world is that if you take the time to look and listen – what you need to do next will eventually become clear to you. You just have to have patience.