“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

A (Post-)Modern Atheist

I am become an atheist when it comes to bending the knee before the altar of the great god Odie[1] and his dogmatic consort, Systems-Thinking.   I no longer find sharing in the sacraments of Strategic Planning, Cost Benefit Analysis and Linear Problem-Solving nourishing, sustaining or edifying for myself or for the communities in which I live, work and breathe.

I question visions, missions, values and goals as centerpieces of metaphysical, spiritual exercise and contemplation for even, nay, especially,  secular organizations.  Quiet retreats, removed from the warp and woof of organizational life do not revive and restore – they only cover and obscure what is actually happening in our daily lives.  The doctrines of SMART objectives and best practices have become a new law, bringing not hope and redemption but terror and despair; the cult of performance measurement (performativity) and evaluation heaps shame, guilt and damnation upon all who dare taste of its body and blood.  Spontaneity, freedom and innovation perish before the demon-spawned children of these great false gods that dominate our secular-religious world – Loki-Illogic-Model, the god of mischief and deceit; FreyA-133 & Thor-990, the gods of Unreal Numbers; Baldur Best-Practice and Odie-Luv-Ya-Babe, the gods of Aligned Values, Human Potential and Suppressed Dissent.

Who can save us in these troubled and difficult times?

We sacrifice our first-born board members, staff and volunteers, our bloody knives of Duties and Responsibilities raised high … and falling.  While they struggle to love and serve those in genuine need, they find themselves serving false gods, corrupting their souls to meet bureaucratic needs, and in the process losing those souls to cynicism, disempowerment and depression.  When no longer useful, we throw them onto the red-hot altars of Burnout, plaque-ing, thanking and moving them on, casting them crematorily into the outer darkness of marginalization, disability and unemployment where they weep and gnash their socially worked-up teeth.

Oh who can save us from our gods and demons, that are tubercularly consuming us?

Thoreau was right – Men (sic) have become tools of the tools they made.

As The Economist noted in a December 17th, 2016 article – “Management theory is becoming a compendium of dead ideas. What Martin Luther did to the Catholic church needs to be done to business gurus.”

Time for a new Reformation? This time in the OD-Speak world.

[1] short for “Organization Development-Speak” or “OD-Speak”

Some First Thoughts

Much of this was written some three and a half years ago.  After a few edits here and there I’m thinking much of it still obtains.  So, here we go.

I recently read somewhere – probably online – that since 2004 more has been written on Twitter and blogs of all kinds than was ever written by humans in any medium from the dawn of history until 2004.  More recently, I’ve read that in the last two years, more data has been produced than in all of human history prior.  IBM came up with that last little bit. Since I read al of this online, it must be true, correct?

However factually true, or not, all of these lovely tidbits of information are – and regarding the facticity of facts, let us await another posting – I have been asking myself exactly what is it that I intend through this blog?  What can I, by writing here, hope to accomplish, change and/or reinforce?  New truths?  Confirmed truths?  “Actionable” successes in organizations?   The very verbiage makes my eyes roll back in my head, with a deep sigh.

If I may modestly and humbly suggest: what interests me most involves asking about how we act and think.  What often feels like a burning passion in me is this: asking how we reflect upon whatever it is that we are doing and reflecting upon.  And in what order – or disorder. And with whom.  Or for whom.  Or to whom.  Or upon whom. Or without whom.

I am not so much interested in answers to or prescriptions for life’s little problems – nor for that matter the big ones, either. Rather, I am more interested in the questions themselves – how we ask them and in what ways we pose them.  Do we propose sweeping FAQs or descriptions in detail? Do I ask after what I see happening or just distill out the essential facts, to tap objectively and scientifically into those hidden realities that lie beneath the surface of what we are about so that I might come up with – and market – my own Ten Best Practices?

What theories of action underlie what we are about? How do they influence how we think and act?  Or do they?  Or are they? Do we even understand how we think and act?  Are we even aware of what is “going on”?

What of complexity?  Something near and dear to my heart, if not also the name of my blog.  Is it more than the complications relating to our modern/post-modern/socially constructed (or could that be post-postmodern?) and highly differentiated societies?  Or less than?  Or other than?

What about power?  What is it?  How do we acquire it?  How do we use it? Is power even a thing, an object that we might accumulate?

Upon what do I reflect?  The individual?  The collective, the group, the organization?  What is my unit of social analysis?

What is the place of paradox in an organization?  What about contradictions? dichotomies? dualisms?  continua?  Must everything be cast as a problem to be solved?  Can we talk here about the “shadow” side of organizing, being human?  Might we here address what I like to call “that cheery, cheesy, official North American sense of optimism” that seems to be grounded in no reality whatsoever?  And may be masking a terrifying nihilism and despair underneath?

What is the place of uncertainty, ambiguity and anxiety in not only our cultures and societies, but also, and perhaps just as importantly, in our organizations?  Especially from my perspective, in religious and secular nonprofit organizations in the United States (I’d say North America, but I’m actually residing in Hawai’i … okay, I am writing from a North American context!).

Where do self-organization and emergence, on one hand, fit into all of this?  And on the other hand, what of intentionality and purpose?  Are they mutually exclusive?  Can these two dynamics be conflated, understood otherwise?

Why are we so desperate (or so it seems to me) to discover “best practices” under every organizational stone that we pick up and examine? What are we looking for when we chase after the wind?

Finally, for now, how is it that I am even thinking about all of this?  And why?  Toward what purpose?

If you have gotten this far with me, I am intending for this to be the most abstract blog I post.  (Famous last words) I want to reflect narratively upon my own experiences with people, including myself and maybe even my cats – for cats are people, too!  I might include a few dogs that I have lived with, who are now “dearly departed.” Without some good, detailed story-telling, what have we got?  Not much, I suspect.

I hope to post some things regularly, now that I’ve gotten going.  Thanks for reading.  Forgive me for not being too razzle-dazzle and utterly transforming.  That was intentional.  There’s enough of that on Twitter and in the blogosphere to have kept me from publishing anything thus far.  Please feel free to comment – thumbs up, down, or around.   Just tell me why.




Twitter: @ComplexityKeith

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