Why do companies tend to go to an external consultancy to solve a problem, when the people in your team already know, in depth, what the issues are, why they have arisen, how they could be mitigated, and what the solutions are? Some consultancies can rightly claim to be experts in particular fields, but they still don’t know your culture, ethos and team inside out.  External consultants have to spend a significant amount of time getting to understand issues that your team already know. This will be followed by production of a plan, developed by the consultant with the aim of helping you, but one which ultimately few people in your organisation understand, buy into or agree with.  Resistance to change sets in, the plan falters and all that has been achieved is a hole in your working capital.  According to articles and research in HBR, 60-70% of change initiatives fail and this statistic has remained relatively constant since the 1970s.  There is clearly a need for a refreshed approach to problem solving and change.

One answer is perhaps to use your people better.  My experience in the military gave me a thorough education on making the most of the team I had. I clearly wasn’t going to be able to know everything there was to know about all of the specialisms and the daily realities of the issues they faced, so I relied on my team to advise me.  I didn’t tell them what to do.  Instead, I described to them what I wanted to achieve, the manner in which I wanted to get there and the delegations I was willing to give them.  They would then go away to come up with their own plan as to how they were going to achieve the objectives, within the boundaries I had given them.  Stephen Bungay articulates this approach more eloquently than I ever could, in his seminal book The Art of Action, particularly with regard to ‘alignment and autonomy’.

This approach allows you to retain control of the direction the organisation is going in, how much risk you are going to accept and what you are seeking to achieve, but provides your teams the freedom to consider the actual problems, propose solutions and use their collective intellectual and professional ability to best effect.  It also allows them to adapt and be more agile when problems arise.  It is your people that best understand the daily frictions and realities that will stymie new initiatives, or ways in which to overcome them.

Such a consultative, collaborative approach requires a certain style and ethos; one in which you are seeking to encourage people to their best efforts.  Also, by involving them in the planning of a strategy, project or programme, you significantly enhance its chances of success from (a) a technical perspective (i.e. a reality check on what will/won’t work) but also (b) a behavioural performance perspective.  By allowing people to have their say, you align thinking, improve understanding of the issues, the objectives and the manner in which they are going to be achieved.  Your people are therefore prepared for the change, but more importantly, they own the change and want to see it succeed.

I’m not about to suggest that the above is easy to implement.  It isn’t; and its difficult to do on your own.  Nor am I saying that consultancies are irrelevant; that would be rather ill-advised from someone who runs a consultancy!  External advice and input to help objectivity and can often be the catalyst for change that long-ingrained behaviours need.  All I would suggest is that when you use external consultancies, select those that will help you make the most of your own people and leave you independent in the future.

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