In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Jonathan M. Stearn extols the benefits of building development opportunities into work projects, saying “live business projects can be powerful vehicles for learning, especially when they aim for dramatic outcomes on a tight timeframe.” It reinforces the classic notion that adults learn best by doing. However, what makes opportunities like Jonathan described (“live business projects aiming for dramatic outcomes on a tight timeframe”) so valuable for learning is also what may leave bosses weary of entrusting them to developing leaders, even those seen as having high potential. Faced with the very real need they have for key projects to succeed, senior leaders may turn instead to external consultants who have delivered on such a project before.
However, there is a third way; one which supports a project’s success while building skill and sustainability within the organization. It is a methodology I call Backstage ConsultingSM.
The idea of Backstage Consulting had its genesis in a conversation with one of my sisters, who began her career as a professional actress. When my sister used to tell someone she was an actress, they usually had a pretty clear picture of what that entailed; when I tell someone I’m a consultant, however, I’m often met with a blank stare and the question, “So what exactly do you do?” In fact, it is a question that I’ve heard frequently from my family. In trying to describe my work, I hit upon a metaphor. It’s like theatre; it takes dozens of people working both on-stage and backstage to make a concept come to life. If the “backstage” individuals do their job well, the audience is never aware that they are there, but they are the ones that lay the foundation for those on-stage to be successful. As a consultant, my “audience” is an organization and its employees. My clients are the main players and, depending on the project, I am responsible for functioning either on-stage or backstage, often times both. However, in working backstage and setting others up to be in the limelight, my primary goal is to be invisible to the “audience;” to design an environment that allows the organization’s talent to be their best, and then coach them to an effective performance. The more I’ve thought about the metaphor, the more I’ve come to realize that this is a very different approach to consulting than most people have experienced.
Backstage Consulting re-thinks the traditional client-consultant relationship. In traditional relationships, consultants are cast in the role of “implementation leads” or “subject matter experts” who do things for (or often to) the organization. They are the “onstage face” of the project to the organization. In Backstage Consulting relationships, by contrast, consultants work behind the scenes to help ensure the organization’s success. The consultant provides expertise, advice, coaching, design, support, etc. to the client, but it is the client who is experienced as the leader of an initiative, the client who learns by doing, and the client who gets credit for the success. The approach places the organization and the client’s needs at the center of the work and measures success in terms of capabilities built rather than knowledge bestowed.
It sounds nice on paper but how does it really work? A real-life example: In the face of shrinking margins, complex demands, and fierce competition, a global supply chain organization realized that it would need to re-shape its operating model to stay competitive or risk becoming obsolete. There are hundreds of these stories in business pages and broadcasts every month, of companies that must “transform themselves” to stay relevant. Yet all too often, this translates into an exercise in moving boxes and lines around on an organizational chart. With this supply chain redesign, the company’s President was committed to leaving the organizational chart as the last thing done: he wanted to make sure the process was focused on the strategies needed to drive the organization, and on creating the work flows and metrics that would best support those strategies. To accomplish this, he made a bold decision. Rather than bringing in an army of consultants to redesign the organization, he agreed to my recommendation to put the power in the hands of a small, internal design team, comprised of a cross-functional group of leaders. While he recognized that these leaders would have intimate knowledge of the organization and strong opinions on how it should be structured, they would also require subject matter expertise on organization design, and would need a structured process for funneling their ideas and passion into a design that could be readily implemented. To support them, he hired us to lead the effort backstage, creating an architecture for the project, coaching its leaders throughout the process, facilitating where necessary, and providing design expertise and perspective. The intent was to allow the organization to engage differently and do its own design while fostering sustainability and building capacity within the system for future design efforts.
People will nurture what they help create. When you move the external firm from the position of providing “the answer” to a position of creating the framework, discipline, and guidance for an organization to find its own answers, you open the organization and the individuals within it to new possibilities. Backstage Consulting builds engagement because it respects what the people inside a company bring to the table, fosters sustainability as people feel greater ownership for the solutions they co-create, and provides support and guidance which create an environment in which people feel safe to stretch and grow. In many ways it returns consulting to its primary purpose: for consultants to leave the organization in a better state than they found it.
photo credit: © Jorge Royan - http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons