Monday, June 6, 2016

Consultants Can Foster Dissent, Too

Opinions on management consulting tend to polarize into two camps:  the “functional” or validating view of the consultant and their role in driving process and dialogue, and the “critical”, which questions whether consultants are motivated or empowered to provide novel advice to their customers.

When a company’s strategy team, senior executives and employees largely buy the former, consultants are in a strong position to shape the strategy process with independent thought, courageous observation and leadership grounded in experience. In particular, they can help not just with strategy but with the delicate, and often thorny, business of fostering healthy dissent.

In “Seven Ways to Fail Big,” Paul Carroll and Chunka Mui emphasize the need for Devil’s Advocates, or these voices of healthy dissent, in a company’s strategy process. Acknowledging the practical challenges of finding the right people - and protecting their independence - they underscore how important it is to ask the tough questions before taking big risks on strategy.

”Most discussions of decision-making assume that only senior executives make decisions or that only senior executives’ decisions matter. This is a dangerous mistake,” management guru Peter Drucker once said.

That’s especially true when big strategies are involved. They’re usually devised by executives or senior managers with a personal and professional stake in their success. They’re often designed in small working groups comprising like-minded staff. The process itself builds personal loyalty to the idea because of the sacrifice and effort committed to the recommendation and/or organizational pressures to get on board. And they’re potentially game-changing.

To be effective as a supporting voice for dissent, the consultant must communicate early, often and to anyone who will listen, the role it’s playing in the strategy. Executives fund consultants to help with strategy, but it can be unclear exactly what the consultant is there to do.

Are they designing the process for arriving at the strategy? Are they informing the strategy itself based on industry knowledge? Are they “auditors” and sense-checkers? Are they advocates for the executives and their strategy?   

If focused on process, establishing trust and transparency early opens opportunities to build in space for dissent. So does separating the process role from strategy development and advocacy. Through courageous observation, the consultant can foster healthy dissent by carving out space in the process from Day 1, defining the skills required of a Devil’s Advocate, providing a discreet channel for gathering dissent and interviewing/recommending individuals with the right amount of organizational capital and independence to sit as Devil’s Advocates.

They can also help ensure that management understands the importance of respecting the channels for dissent. They can be clear about how their own process and advocacy roles might conflict, and the steps they and the organization will take to resolve the conflict.

Without this kind of active promotion of dissent in the process, consultants reinforce the second “critical” viewpoint, and reduce to a punch-line: that a consultant “is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps your watch.”

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