7 lessons I’ve learnt consulting as a “complexity practitioner”

I’ve now been using a complex and emergent approach to consulting for around 17 years.  A friend of mine read me his coaching “manifesto” recently including his approach to internal change consulting.  It made me think about what I’ve learnt about using this approach so I decided it might be useful to reflect on them here.

  1.  I need to be congruent with my message and approach

If I sell my services as someone who consults from a complexity perspective, I cannot show up with a bunch of pre-packaged solutions or recipes.  There are too many consultants out there who are simply repackaging old solutions with complexity language.  As Dave Snowden famously said: drawing a linear process in a circle doesn’t make it non-linear … similarly slapping a VUCA label on existing consulting methods does not magically turn them into complexity appropriate methods.  One of the tensions I’ve always felt is the need for professionally packaged marketing materials that clearly communicates what I am selling, with remaining true to what I believe which is  …

2.  Every context is unique – I can’t assume I know what is going on or have any answers

No matter how much experience I have in a given context (e.g. culture change or agility) or industry (e.g. financial services) I cannot assume I know what I am dealing with before I interact with the system.  I cannot afford to have an hypothesis before I engage as that may blind me to what is really going on in that particular system.  It always pays to show up with humble curiosity and to remember …

3.  It’s a partnership … don’t show up as the expert

I prefer to call myself a “thinking partner” not a coach or consultant.  That makes it clear that I am not planning to show up as someone with superior knowledge to that of my client.   I may know quite a bit about complexity and I may have many frameworks and principles that I can bring to the engagement, but I can never know as much about the context as they do.   I’ve also learned to lose unnecessary jargon … I don’t always need to sound clever.  I am however very intentional about the language I use: I make extensive use of analogies to help my clients grasp the difference between complexity and complicatedness as well implications for their business.  Analogies like this one: “It’s hard to survive in the jungle if you were trained in the zoo” brings the point across much faster and more effectively than a long theoretical conversation.  I am also careful not to use common language that is incongruent with my approach (see this post for more on that).

4.  I am not an objective outsider – I am part of the system

In complexity, there is no such thing as an independent or neutral observer or consultant.  When we enter the system we become part of it, and it changes in response to our presence.   A team is not the same once a coach arrives … even if all that person does is observe.  When a consultant turns up, the system changes.  New connections and meanings form that changes prevailing systemic patterns in unpredictable ways.  Also, I’ve learned to be wary of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the system often attempts to seduce me into colluding with some of its dysfunctional dynamics.  One of the biggest learnings I’ve had in recent years is not to consult alone; I always try to partner up or at least be part of a professional  reflection group where I am forced to look in the mirror myself.

5.  Don’t be afraid to challenge and hold up a mirror to the client

Clients hold deep contextual knowledge, but they may have been part of the system for so long that they are no longer able to see what’s right in front of them.  Also, they often got to be in the influential positions they are in because they were the best competitors in the old paradigm.  It is hard for people to face the idea that the knowledge and skills that brought them this far in their careers, may now have become a detriment.  I’ve learned to cultivate a thick skin as I often encounter defensiveness when I challenge long-held beliefs and “best practices”.  For example, if people have believed for years that what they need is alignment, and I start telling them that “alignment” can be dangerous in a complex environment, I know to expect resistance.  Also, usually by the time I am called in, client organisations have already spent a lot of money on solutions that other consultants have sold them, that made things worse or at best made no difference at all.  While I need to be honest, I also need to …

6.  Meet the system where it is and follow the natural contours of the organisation where I can

Introducing too much change at once or being overly critical about long-held paradigms or new pet methodologies can alienate the client.  I don’t have to agree, I can be honest, but still allow them to continue using one or two familiar crutches for a while.  In fact, the crutch can become a scaffold that enables faster learning as they venture into the unknown territory of the emergent.  A recent example involved a team who needed to transition towards new ways of working (in their words, become more Agile).  We did not send them on any training, we didn’t introduce any Agile language or frameworks and we didn’t tell them to stop any of their current practices e.g we allowed them to keep their Gant chart.  All we did was start to visualise the current flow of work through their system.  Once they were able to see, they stopped doing some of their existing practices on their own and became curious about the new.  Now, several weeks later, they still have a Gant chart up on the wall, it’s a crutch that makes them feel safe as they venture into the unknown world of optimising flow and not doing batching, estimations and premature commitments,  but we know they will soon realise that updating it is a waste of time.  They will let go of the crutch when they are ready.

7.  Changing the system is not my responsibility

I need to keep reminding myself that I can’t change the system: the pattern we are dealing with as well as the responsibility to change it remains the client’s responsibility.  Or in other words – they own both the problem and the solution.  My role is to help them see and think differently, to be a mirror, to challenge and sometimes to teach or mentor and introduce new tools and method.  But in the end they remain the owners of the process, I can’t control what they do with my input or advice.

There are many others that I haven’t touched on here.  I’m sure you also have some I haven’t thought about yet.  Why don’t you share them with us in the comments?  I am hoping to twist my friend who inspired this post’s arm to guest blog his own principles, so watch this space 🙂 …

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3 thoughts on “7 lessons I’ve learnt consulting as a “complexity practitioner”

  1. Sonja,
    Great points. I will use them in my consulting skills course this Fall. I especially liked item #7 as we often have customers unwilling to change. We can inform the customer but cannot make them change.
    I would add identifying the customer’s desired state compared to their current state (after front-end analyses), then map out how to go from current to desired.
    Thanks.

  2. Thanks Sonja, this is a great read and challenges us in our role of ‘ Consulting’ as practitioners in the various fields. Will use it in my executive session as we embark on a new journey to facilitate the understanding of our various responsibilities as I take them along with me.

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