“Consulting” Re-Thought

We have often, if not usually thought of consultants as persons with a particular expertise that might benefit our organization, especially in challenging times such as we are now facing with the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID19. They swoop in, do some listening to upper management, maybe even the woman or man in the trenches through a few focus groups and surveys, analyze the situation, which may, or may not, be full of ambiguity and anxiety, reference their favorite response solutions, and tell us how to find our way out of our predicaments and “move forward.”

Problem solved. Our organization is once again on an even keel, clear-headed, mission and vision-oriented, and on our way into an even better future than we could have imagined. No doubts or uncertainties entertained. We are moving forward together to make ourselves great again!

Except it doesn’t ever seem to happen that way. In fact, once the “consultation” is over, we often find ourselves back in the same old grind … similar patterns, themes, and rituals pervade and persist. By Monday morning nothing much has changed.

And we’ve spent a lot of money on these so-called “experts.” Oodles. And for what?

One response is to blame ourselves for failing to implement and execute their plan, model, and/or best practices. So, we beat ourselves up. Just before we hire another consultant to help us effectuate (efficiently, of course!) our previous consultant’s proverbs, plans and profferings.

Another response is to lie low and try to “make things work” – however vague that may sound. If we just try harder, each and every one of us. If we all just try to get on the same page and get along. Play nice, work hard. Yeah, right. There’s a recipe for success.

But what if we paused for a moment, a long moment, and asked ourselves, “What does that word ‘consultant’ and its derivatives mean? What does that core word – “consult” – lead us to consider?

If you go back, way back, to the origins of the word “consult,” you will find it comes from the Latin word, or words, “consulo,” or “consulto.” The former means “to consider, to reflect (on); the latter “to consider maturely, to deliberate, to look after, to care for, to reflect on.” They are related to “delibero,” which means “to weigh well, to ponder, to reflect, to think seriously on.” To deliberate.

A bit different from what we think of, these days, as “consulting.” There is a humility, an egalitarianism, and a conversational tone to the ancient notion of consulting. People “talking story”, as we say in Hawaii, deliberating with each other, pondering amongst ourselves, and perhaps most significantly reflecting together with others upon what is going on in an organization, a gathering, a congregating, a hui. In such an approach the consultant may not come into an organization with anything other than the gift of listening and reflecting back what members of the organization are saying to her/him and each other. The consultant may help members of an organization look at the wider processes of human relating beyond the mechanics of simplistic strategic planning. The consultant may not even be an outsider but rather someone from within the organization who has the gift of helping others to reflect up what is going on.

The first syllable of “consulting” is “con,” which means “together.” We deliberate or reflect in the moment together upon what is happening to us. We do it “together.” We are detached in our reflecting, yet involved with each other at the same time. On the move while standing still. Sort of like “building the plane” while “deliberating upon how we are building the plane” at the same time. It takes all of us.

There is an African word I like. It seems to be rather popular in certain arenas: Ubuntu: I am because we are; and we are because I am. We call that paradox. Two equal and opposite truths happening at the same time, such as acting and thinking, building and reflecting, simultaneously. More on than later.

We think on what we know best: ourselves and our most immediate relations, at work, at home, at play, at worship, at service. We reflect together, while doing “it,” whatever it may be.

Some – including me – call it “reflexive reflection” – thinking upon what is going on while it is going on. Not so much stepping back, as in the typical board getaway-strategic-planning-retreat-to-figure-things-out-with-a-consultant/expert-who-knows-more-than-we-do and then to re-emerge to tell everyone what to do and possibly even think (usually a cheery, cheesy optimistic mantra) as stepping into the moment, the acting, the doing, and reflecting upon what is going on even as we are participating in what is going on. And then, wondering why it doesn’t work. Instead we think on things even as we are doing them – “building the plane, even while we are flying it.” And we all do it, from the greatest of these in the organization to the least of us.

So, perhaps we need to rethink what a consultant and consulting are. Not an “expert” coming into our organization from the nebulous outside to tell us how to better, that is, more efficiently and effectively, “do things,” but as one who has some experience in listening, talking story, describing, and working with those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around what it is they are doing together in said organization and then, helping them consider what their next steps might be. The consultant deliberates with, ponders, and helps create a safe space, perhaps, for those involved, to reflect, ponder and think about what is going on, and make their own immediate choices on how to take next steps into an unknown and increasingly unknowable future, even as they take next steps.

I’ll have more to say about this, but for now, this is enough for us to ponder … together. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Aloha e a hui hou!

Pr Keith, The Complexity Consultant