Towards the end of last year I walked away from a consulting opportunity with a client. Long story short, during the contracting phase it was becoming obvious that they were expecting me to be accountable for the successful implementation of their change – no matter what! It was actually a liberating feeling as I upheld my values and beliefs about the role of consultants and more importantly, the role of internal leaders, sponsors and those impacted by the change. This blog is more a sharing of my reflections and musings.
As I have got older and more comfortable in my professional skin, I have come to realise that it is not my role to create success for my clients. I no longer measure my success only by their success or happiness. Now I know that sounds incredibly arrogant, so hear me out.
In my younger days I felt it was my responsibility to ensure that the desired client outcomes were always met. That we achieved the detailed goals of a workshop, or the flawless implementation of a change project. We would create the perfect plan full of roadmaps, stage gates and a plethora of performance metrics. And in my mind people would happily wonder down the pathway to success, why wouldn’t they? I would run team sessions so tightly that we completed everything so that the team leader got the predefined output they wanted.
On reflection, why approach to the work was a need for professional validation by others. As an example, I would ask participants to leave their baggage at the door, misguided by a belief that they would then be “present”. My request was really driven by a desire to make my task easier. I displayed little regard for their valuable ‘here and now’ experiences and the importance of bringing the outside in. I had a path and brilliant plan that I needed others to follow.
In recent years I have read, and reflected, more on ego – my ego – and how this has influenced my approach to work. Those who know me well will know that deep humility is a virtue I need to continue to working on. I have also been learning not to have teams and clients transfer what is their accountability onto me (that is transference).
So why the long preamble? Stick with me.
As a consultant, internal or external, I have become comfortable with expressing that I cannot make your team, your department or your organisation do or become as you would like. In fact, nor can you. As Peter Sense wrote: “Most leadership strategies are doomed to failure from the outset. Leaders instigating change are like gardeners standing over their plants imploring them: Grow! Try harder, you can do it”.
I see my role as helping create, or better still co-create, the conditions so that individuals are encouraged to choose a desired course of action. Hopefully the same course that the leader is on.
What do I mean by conditions?
In simple terms, conditions are those few factors that need to be in place order for a desired outcome to occur. A metaphor I like to use is that it is the fertile soil that then gives a chance that the plants might grow; however at the end of the day I cannot make them grow – my garden at home is testament to that.
Conditions magnify the opportunity for choice, or agency.
What do I mean by agency?
In social science, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. All action, even doing nothing, is a choice.
There are many benefits to creating the conditions for agency. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, argues that people are happy, engaged, productive, and creative when they are intrinsically motivated. Agency contributes to that intrinsic motivation. Without agency, we cannot develop mastery, autonomy, or personal purpose. Without agency our commitment to outcomes is limited and accountability diminished. In short, with out agency, change generally doesn’t stick.
But what does all this mean?
Glad you asked. In short, it has changed the way that I approach my work and engage with my clients. I work more as a partner tapping into my experience to provide insights, proven approaches and ideas that are appropriate for the context of my client. We spend time exploring the organisation system and the required conditions for success before jumping into activity and task. We also are more mindful of the agency being created and choices that are on offer and the potential consequences for making certain choices. I have been amazed by the creativity that emerges from the most unexpected parts of the organisation when allowed the opportunity and given voice.
Finally, I have also learnt to resist the need to be the problem solver, and rather sit alongside my clients. All in all, this makes my work more enjoyable and I hope my clients appreciate working with me in this way.
References and Further Reading
Senge, P. M. (1999). The dance of change: The challenges of sustaining momentum in learning organizations. New York: Currency/Doubleday.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.
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