Today when I was asked a question about organizational change I found myself repeating a story from a few years ago. There’s a lesson in it for all of us who make our living with ideas. The lesson is this. As a change agent, you are constantly making a choice. Take credit. Or make a difference.
The trick is that many people don’t know that this is a choice they have to make. Witness the following real story:
A consultant in my practice was reporting back to me on a big meeting he’d had with senior execs. He was very proud to have the CEO there.
“They loved us. I can’t count how many times I heard the consultant’s plan is great. ”
My response. “We are dead. We are soooooo dead.”
The consultant was dismayed. There was always a little bit of tension between us. He’d wanted my job. I got it instead. That much is fact.
But personal relationships are not about facts. They are about perception. I know his perception was that I was more critical of his work than I should be. Like so many times when we attribute motives to people, he was simply wrong. I wasn’t trying to undermine his “victory”. We really were in trouble.
Sometimes a question is the best way to explain. “When they say the consultant’s plan who is accountable for delivering that plan?
His answer was quick, “Their team has to deliver. We’ve done our job.”
My reply was also quick. “So how can they be accountable if it’s our plan?”
By the way. I took no joy in it, but I was right. Despite all the great words, that project did not move forward. Somewhere in a backroom, a casual conversation, or just in the general stuff that happens it got buried, lost, derailed or just forgotten. We lost a big potential sale and a lot of revenue.
It was our plan. It had no champion. No-one at that company would be willing to put it forward, to believe in it and to make sure it was not forgotten.
If only someone on the client’s team had taken ownership. But why should they? It already had an owner. It was the consultant’s idea. In fact, if they had tried to take ownership they would have looked like they were taking credit for someone else’s idea. Admittedly, for some — that’s not a problem. But there’s another corporate issue. Why take the risk? No new idea is without risk. So let the consultant float the trial balloon and see if it goes anywhere. If it does, there’s lots of time to get on board.
In fact, I have often proposed that this is a great use for consultants. We can raise subjects that nobody else will touch. We are — or should be — regarded as intelligent and objective. Some of these ideas are true game changers for the companies we serve. At those times we provide a very useful service. We help make lasting and measurable change.
As I pondered this consultant’s problem, wondering why he didn’t get it, a light went on for me. It was something I knew internally, but had never really articulated fully. In the art of being a consultant, you have to have wisdom to know when – and when not to take on initial ownership of an idea. That is, if your real goal is to make change.
That’s where I had to take my own medicine. Instead of worrying about this other consultant’s problem, what I should be asking myself is, what can I learn from this. You cannot change others if you can’t change yourself.
Here’s my reflection. I don’t know why everyone gets into consulting. I can only tell my story and see if it resonates. I like to help people, I like to solve problems and — but deep in my heart, I’m still a bit of an entertainer. My friend Ian Tamblyn (one of Canada’s great songwriters and a great entertainer) captures this so well in his song, Campfire Light. “I like to sing, I love to dance, I will play the fool if I have the chance…”
The danger for me is that I do like to the be the one who comes up with a great line, a joke — or an idea. I like to win debates. And I like recognition for my work. It’s a part of what drives me to be a consultant and facilitator. I have to say it is also a factor in any successes I’ve had. I’ve been able to get my ideas across because I present well and I can grab an audience.
But I’m also driven by the need to make real change. Life is precious. You spend a lot of that time working. I can’t simply sell that much of my life for money. What I do has to have purpose.
What I didn’t really realize is that sometimes I might have to choose between the two.
In these little moments when life sends you a message, you have to decide what you are going to do. I decided that it was time to wrestle with my ego. I wanted results more than I wanted the applause.
So I started to try to let others come up with the great ideas. They need to discover the answer for themselves. And like any major change of unconscious behaviour, I embarked on a long journey of becoming aware of a multitude of tiny things and changing them — one by one.
I’m still on the journey. But believe it or not, I’m a lot further than I was when I had this conversation with the other consultant. I’ve changed a lot about how I tackled problems. I worry less and less about presentation to the audience and more and more about engagement. I get groups on their feet. I get them doing things. I get them thinking. I listen more. I take more chances.
It’s not easy. Especially when I know the answer. And often I do — before the group does. Don’t get me wrong, this is not ego. As my partner Darrel Berry says, “we’re not smarter (than our clients) we just do this every day.” To quote another famous musician, Brownee McGee, “If you do something for 30 years and you don’t get good at it, shame on you!”
So I sit there, looking externally calm (I hope) while inside me, the “keener” kid from grade 6 shakes his arm frantically, trying to get the teacher to see him. Oh! Oh! I have the answer! When that seizes me, I try to take a deep breath and restore my patience. I wait for calm. I bite my tongue. I wait for someone else to discover the answer.
If they don’t, I realize its my challenge as a facilitator to try to create the conditions that will help them discover it. I do everything short of discovering it for them. They have to do that.
the bottom line is this. Aristotle said “the understanding changes nothing.” As someone who values logic, that phrase has troubled me for years. I think I finally understand. Even if you logically understand the issues, it does not give you the inspiration and the drive to make real change. Real change involves risk and sometimes sacrifice. And before people are going to go on that journey, they need to engage on a visceral level. They don’t need a fact handed to them, they need a realization from within them. They need to come to an insight – that flash, that aha! moment. And from that insight, they need another step. They need to take ownership of the problem.
If they discover the solution, they’ll own it. If they own it, they’ll be driven to solve it. If they solve it successfully, they’ll learn to be successful. It’s a virtuous circle.
If the consultant takes ownership, or solves it — it breaks the circle. They learn. But it’s a different lesson.
Not as easy as it sounds. But every time I start to doubt this, or if I get lazy, or if my ego gets in the way, I replay that story of me and the consultant. I think of how different it would have been if instead of it being the consultant’s plan or report, if we had one champion among the client’s own employees — coached by us — but having their own solution. If they had made the case. If they had offered to be accountable for the results — what would have been different at that meeting?
I’ve tried to build this into everything I do. Everything is about the client and their team — learning, experiencing and engaging with that solution.
Was it Harry Truman who said that great things are possible if you don’t worry about who gets the credit? I wish I’d thought of that!
On second thought…