Leaders face many challenges in running their organizations. One of the hardest is managing change. Change is a constant environmental condition in the business world today. No company can escape it. Change can happen for all sorts of reasons including: shifting market conditions and workforce demographics, ever evolving laws and regulations, new technology innovations, new competitors, mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, or simply new policy roll outs about pay and benefits. New hires on teams or in the management ranks can engender anxiety for employees coping with building new relationships and navigating roles and hand offs.
For all these reasons as well as the need to continuously evolve, adapt and improve, leaders hire internal and external organizational development (OD) consultants to help, but they don’t always get the help they need because they hire an “expert” who actually isn’t one except on paper. There in lies the problem, identifying the genuine article, the excellent OD practitioner, is harder than you might think. I know this because one of the first things I was trained to ask potential clients is, have you ever worked with another OD consultant? If the answer is yes, my next question is, how did it go? When the client answers, poorly or nothing was implemented or the report - as Levinson notes – is collecting dust on my shelf – then there will be some clean up to do.
OD practitioners that are worth your time do a handful of particular things really well. First of all they collaborate and involve you regularly – right from the contracting conversation. They keep their clients close. The mantra I teach my students, as taught to me is, people will only support change they help to create.
One sign that this is not the case is when the consultant is doing all the work on a change effort and/or making sure you rely solely on their expertise that does not get transferred to you or your people thus creating an unhealthy dependence. Changes made this way are not sustainable. Note, that there are appropriate times where you use consultants as, what Peter Block calls, “Helping Hands”. This is when you give them the work because you don’t have the bandwidth to do it yourself. Hiring a bookkeeper to keep the books for your start up or having a contract recruiter on site to help build your ranks are examples of effective helping hands roles consultants take. However, when it comes to making systemic transformations that need the support of your employees or all team members, helping hands alone will not be enough just as expertise alone will decrease buy in to the change.
To this end, another goal I have when working with my clients is to work myself out of a job. Success for me is the client organization that broke down its silos and now communicates across departments and functions well without my help because of work we have done together or the team that doesn’t need me anymore because they are now meeting their goals and interacting beautifully and productively.
Great OD consultants collaboratively create structures that their clients move through in order to bridge the gap between the current and future/desired state. One of the main ways the excellent OD practitioner does this is through the use of the action research as a process model and foundation for all their systemic change work with the client. Leaders need to ask potential consultants what process they use to do their work. Action research is the collaborative process of entering a client system, doing an assessment and jointly diagnosing the problem, then jointly implementing programs for change and then evaluating to see how things went. That’s the Reader’s Digest version. If your would-be change management expert does not mention any of these things you’re better off moving forward without them.
A more nuanced answer by some consultants is that they use a particular approach like management training or appreciative inquiry or conflict management. These are all great interventions to build skills, find the positive core of a system or resolve discord respectively, but they only work if that is what is needed. If you interview a consultant and they are immediately selling one approach, you are getting a cookie cutter solution that may not be what you actually need to make the changes necessary to get to higher performance.
When I contract with leaders and ask them what prompted them to call me, they always have thoughts on what needs to be fixed in their company. However, more than 50% of the time their understanding of the problem is either not complete or completely wrong. A consultant who follows action research will insist on taking some data to customize their work to the client’s actual need. It’s much easier to say, sure thing, one management training coming right up. However, treating the identified problem that is not the real problem does more harm than good by increasing anxiety among employees and leaders, ruining the consultant’s reputation after they have delivered “the fix” and things are even worse, and wasting time and money.
One of the most critical parts of the action research process is assessment and diagnosis. While most consultants may be good at interviewing the leadership team for example, they may not have a scientific process to analyze the data they collect. Make sure to ask the consultant what their data analysis process is. I did this recently when I was speaking with a clinical psychologist who worked as an organizational development consultant assessing an organization. They had conducted interviews using a protocol filled with double and tripled barreled questions (not a good start). Their response to my question about how they analyzed the data was, “I read it.” I probed deeper and that was it – they read it and used their hunches from that reading to diagnose the client system. They wrote a report and exited. This is the antithesis of great OD consulting.
To be sure, reading the data is a great start. However submitting interview content to an organized method of qualitative data analysis that includes coding and leads to thematic development is much, much better.
That’s the trouble with expertise – anyone can try to claim it and if they do it just right we want to believe them. Society is addicted to experts. We look to experts to solve our problems and put us at ease. Since there is no licensure in the field of organizational psychology, it is particularly vulnerable to an infusion of false experts. However, the excellent OD practitioner will share their expertise with you to make sure your organization can create and sustain the change.
Disclaimer to Would-Be Organizational Development Consultants:
You don’t necessarily need a lot of higher education to be a great OD practitioner. I pursued a lot of higher education because I was humbled by the fact that in doing this work I would be making changes in companies that could impact peoples’ salaries – their livelihoods. That’s a huge responsibility. I wanted to be able to work with human systems safely and ethically to make them healthier places to be because there is a lot of suffering at work. To go from being an artist to an OD Practitioner I needed help. So I got degrees and experience and apprenticed and got certifications, etc. This is one way to do it. There are other ways.
Two of the best OD consultants I know, both mentors at different points in my career, do not have advanced degrees in the field or anywhere. What they do have is past experience running their own successful companies and being in successful multinational companies on top of apprenticing with expert organizational psychologists and strategic human resource leaders as well as reading all the seminal works in the field and taking various certifications like DISC and MBTI. They are life long learners who keep current with the field and also have a granite foundation in the science of human systems and change. They know action research cold. They practice advocacy and inquiry and understand team and group dynamics. They are dynamos. When a project comes their way that is beyond their expertise they decline. I bring them up to say to would-be OD practitioners that it doesn’t matter how you educate yourself on this work, what matters is that you do.