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What is your approach to consulting? And… what suits a co-design process?

I’ve been consulting for 23 years, and I think I’ve settled on the consulting approach that works for me. When I say ‘approach’ what I mean is how we work with our clients. I’ve reduced it, somewhat simplistically, to three types of approaches.

The first I would term as ‘the contractor’ approach. It is where you do anything to try to please your client. You do as you are told. You jump through hoops in the hope of winning their approval.

I remember one of my first consulting jobs. I was in my mid-thirties, keen to win the approval of my client, and prove myself to the consulting firm who took a chance with me. It was understandable given my age and lack of experience.

One of the interesting things I learned from this approach is how unsettling it was for the client’s project manager. She was very anxious about this controversial infrastructure project. The more I tried to follow her ideas the more anxious she became. The less I trusted my instincts and the less I tried to negotiate an approach, the more in control she should have felt, but I was wrong. It was only in retrospect that her anxiety was due to me not taking a stronger stand, leading her to feel that I couldn’t give her the help she really needed. Having shared this story a few times I know this is not an uncommon experience.

Behaving as a contractor has some drawbacks; one being that is deprives my client what I have to offer. It can make for a harmonious arrangement if my client believes they have all the answers, and they just need someone to carry out their plans. For complex projects (in the Cynefin sense), no one really has the answer. It’s about trying things, exploring and adapting. Behaving as a contractor may not be the best way to help with complex and controversial projects, in my experience.

Now for the second approach. I’m Struggling for a name for it, but let’s call it the uber-expert approach. This is the approach where the consultant basically tells the client to get out of the way, and to let them ‘run the show’. There’s an underlying belief the client needs help, actually needs rescuing. It works well for consultants who have their favoured methods, and recipe for success. All projects are best fitted into their formula. It means there is less need to think things through; and it makes life easier if clients don’t try to make things messier then they need to be.

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of clients who have been frustrated by consultants who do not appreciate their experience, insights and resources. Moreover, organisations who feel ‘done to’, or ‘done for’ often undermine the process and outcomes. I recall my early days doing some effective community engagement, only to find later, I had not engaged the right people in the client organisation. The result – well the community liked me but still didn’t trust the client. The recommendations of the community were ignored, and all I had achieved was to drive a bigger wedge between the community and the organisation I was meant to assist. The Uber-expert approach certainly does not serve organisations or communities when it comes to complex issues.

The third approach, and the one I try to live up to, is the collaborative consultant. This involves bringing the best of what I have to offer, but not at the expense of what my client has to bring. It’s about making the most of our collective resources and wisdom. It is one where we are all curious about learning from each other, learning something new, and being open to new and better ways. In my experience this is the most constructive way of working with clients to tackle complex projects.

For really complex projects it is also important to work with communities and external stakeholders in this way. Co-designing solutions may be the goal, but it’s important to build a solid foundation for that to be possible. Establishing relationships and co-designing the process is both necessary and incredibly useful. The collaborative consulting approach is the one most conducive in my experience.

If you are a consultant which approach has worked best for you?

If you engage consultants what approaches have you encountered and which works best for you?

If co-designing solutions with communities is something you are interested in you may like to join our Authentic Co-design community of interest.

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