A stereotypical image of a ‘consultant’ (and there are different consultants out there – but let’s go with management consultant for now) is someone who is expert in their chosen field; they ‘fly’ into an organisation or situation; analyse, diagnose, advise, impart their wisdom, and intervene to ‘fix’ whatever needs sorting out. Superman/Wonder Woman both come to mind… expert consultants may have an aura of ‘hero’ about them. Problem fixed – the client rejoices, the consultant breezes off into the sunset; their work is done.
Of course, real life is rarely this simple, neat or tidy; yet consultants continue to be commissioned on the basis of their expertise, with the expectation that any presenting problem/s will be diagnosed and perhaps fixed (to some degree) by them.
This consultancy approach definitely has validity and there are places and legitimate need for this more conventional approach to management consultancy.
Collaborative or emergent approaches to consultancy are gaining popularity. These are arguably a more effective way of responding to some of the complexity which the modern world presents: recognising the larger system an organisation is part of, exploring its interdependency with the environment.
A collaborative consultant works very much in partnership with the client – jointly analysing, diagnosing, and working together to propose a solution.
A consultant adopting and emergent approach requires consultant and client to develop a curious mindset – noticing patterns, exploring possibilities, learning together. All the while being ‘comfortable’ with uncertainty and anxiety, with not knowing the answers already, with not being the “expert”. The consultant ‘holds the hand’ of the client as together they engage with the process of exploration and discovery.
Working in a truly emergent way requires courage from all parties. The courage to be vulnerable; the courage to notice, disrupt and change patterns which might feel uncomfortable and difficult to do; both exploring future possibilities whilst cultivating an open mind.
Personally speaking, in my OD work I think I generally glide between all three. Sometimes it feels more comfortable to drift towards the ‘expert’ end of the spectrum, and I usually fit well with a collaborative approach with the type of work I do. Being truly emergent in my approach is harder – partly because it feels less familiar and, of course, less comfortable. I am learning to go there more; to step into the unknown, to sit with and explore my fears and uncertainty, to be truly curious. This can be quite an exciting place when all conditioned preconceptions and ego-driven desires to hold/control things are relaxed. That said, I am still very much a work in progress!