I am often asked which books I recommend on consulting skills. I’m asked both by people contemplating a freelance consultancy career and increasingly by people who have adopted an internal consultant role supporting a change management programme. Having started in a management consultancy (now Deloitte) in 1987, been an independent consultant for over 20 years and running training workshops on consulting skills I have read more than my fair share of consulting books. But I thought I would review just three books on consulting – an introductory book on the process of consulting , a more advanced book on consultancy processes (this one) and one that focuses on the helping relationship (which will be of particular value to coaches and counsellors). It’s interesting to reflect on how similar the process is for consultancy services to other professional services – whether legal, accountancy or surveying services. So, here is the second review : Consulting skills 2 – Book review: Flawless Consulting by Peter Block.
At 320 pages Block’s book (subtitled “A guide to getting your expertise used”) is more substantial than the Markham book. It was written in 1978 and is now in its third edition. It is regarded as “the consultant’s bible”. It’s thorough and offers a deep dive into the consultancy process. I like the substantial material on being an internal consultant and also on resistance. It’s far-sighted as it anticipates the challenges of distance bias and isolation arising from remote working. It provides plenty of advice on how to ask better questions and deal with difficult clients. There are many helpful checklists and other resources online. The author’s huge experience in consulting – particularly moving from diagnosis to engagement, commitment and action – shines through on every page.
Introductory chapters (consultant roles)
“A consultant is a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group or an organization but has no direct power to make changes or implement programmes. A manager is someone who has direct control over the action”.
The goal or end product of consultancy is some kind of change – whether organizational, structural, policy or procedural in nature or people learning something new. There’s early differentiation between technical skills (specific to your discipline), interpersonal skills and consulting skills. The main consulting phases are:
Key aspects of the relationship with the client are: responsibility, feelings, trust and your own needs. Consultant’s assumptions include: problem-solving requires valid data, effective decision-making requires free and open choice and effective implementation requires internal commitment. Consultant roles include: expert, pair-of-hands and collaborative (apply special skills to help managers solve problems for themselves). Consultant’s goals include:
- Establish a collaborative relationship
- Solve problems so they stay solved
- Ensure attention is given to both the technical/business problem and the relationships
There’s step-by-step guidance on staging client’s involvement (which is valuable in any project requiring collaboration):
- Define the initial problem
- Decide whether to proceed with the project
- Select the dimensions to be studied
- Decide who will be involved with the project
- Select the method
- Do discovery
- Provide the results
- Make recommendations
- Decide on actions
There’s material on the flawless approach: know your expertise, behave authentically, complete each consulting phase and build capacity for the client to solve the next problem on their own.
There are three chapters on contracting – the explicit agreement of what the consultant and client expect from each other. (Legal contracts contain two basic elements that apply to consulting relationships: mutual consent and valid consideration). The elements of a contract are explored in detail. Business, learning and organizational objectives and the type of data needed are examined.
In the chapter on the contracting meeting there’s a review of identifying the client, navigating the meeting, communicating about the problem and wants and needs (for the client and the consultant). There is guidance for when you get stuck and how to understand organizational communication. There’s some material on selling: “selling is removing obstacles more than lighting fires”.
The author explores dealing with low motivation, shifting roles and issues from the virtual world.
Internal consultant, discovery and resistance
The differences between internal and external consultants and triangular and rectangular contracts are considered.
“Resistance is a predictable, natural reaction against the process of being helped and against the process of having to face up to difficult organizational problems”.
There are two great chapters on resistance. The first is about understanding different types of resistance – requesting more detail, flooding you with detail, time, impracticality, “not surprised”, attack, confusion, silence, intellectualising, moralizing, compliance, methodology, flight into health and pressing for solutions. There’s good advice not to take resistance personally: “Resistance is about defending against some difficult reality and how the manager has been handling it”.
Underlying concerns are analysed – control or vulnerability being the main ones but other emotional reactions are also considered (e.g. fear of being dependent or asking for help, wanting confirmation not change etc). I enjoyed the comparison of ogres and angels.
The second chapter offers guidance on dealing with resistance: “Behind the resistance are certain feelings, and you cannot talk people out of how they are feeling”. He suggests that the basic strategy is to help the resistance blow itself out, like a storm, and not to fight it head on. “Getting the client to talk more about their concerns is helping the storm to pass”.
He offers three steps to handle resistance:
- Identify what form the resistance is taking (use Non-Verbal Communication)
- State – in neutral terms – the form of resistance
- Be quiet
He adds: “Defence and resistance are a sign that you have touched something important and valuable” with some practical ideas for when you are “consulting with a stone” (someone who is resistant, withholding and uncommunicative).
He mentions “positive deviance” – developed by Jerry and Monique Sternin – to look for examples in the system where something is working well. And similarly appreciative inquiry by David Cooperrider. He reminds us that the focus on relationships that was emphasised during contracting continues to be important in the discovery phase. And adds “we also must be concerned about how to handle the politics and personalities surrounding the discovery phase”. He argues that there are no purely technical problems and that one of the consultant’s most important contributions to a client is a redefinition of the problem.
Whole system discovery and feedback
He talks about action-oriented discovery and the difference between the problem and how the problem is being managed. He labels organizational problems as “social system problems”. He suggests involving the whole client system in redefining the problem, naming a desired future, outlining alternative actions and deciding how to proceed. This is because the people doing the discovery and making the recommendations are the same people who will implement the change.
He talks about the independent point of view obtained by using third party consultants. But the involvement in discovery and designing solutions is because “people will resist change that is inflicted on them, no matter how compelling the case” (I have written on this topic on many occasions – search for articles on “buy in”). This approach promotes engagement. He advocates large-group methodology – getting lots of people together in a room – with a high-interaction approach.
He talks about the growing interest in looking at a system’s gifts, capacities and possibilities. Some call this seeking best practice, positive psychology, asset-based community development and future search. Chip and Dan Heath in their book on change call it “finding bright spots”. And there is a great illustrative example from the health care sector.
After discovery, he explains how to paint a picture of what is happening and document future possibilities with 14 steps. And lists 16 questions to help you get to the heart of the matter. There’s detailed guidance on interviewing (“joint learning events”). He uses an onion analogy to discuss levels of analysis.
There’s a chapter on preparing for feedback. “The consultant’s primary task is to present a fresh picture of what has been discovered. This is 70% of the contribution you have to make. Trust it”. He talks about how to condense the data into four or five items. He warns against colluding and projecting. But encourages supporting the client’s expectations, confronting and being assertive. He uses a court room metaphor to consider the roles of the consultant – with witness being the preference.
Action, implementation and engagement
There’s a chapter on managing the meeting for action with detailed guidance on structuring and presenting and a helpful breakdown of how much time to spend in each area. “Remember to be finished with data and recommendations after only 20% of the meeting”. He suggests a third of the time to obtain client reactions. He suggests checking that the client is getting what they want half-way through the meeting. There’s more discussion about resistance.
His comments on the challenges of implementation resonated with me: “Unfortunately, knowing what to do (the product of the discovery phase) and finding the right way to do it (the focus of implementation) are two different worlds”. He argues that the engineer in us needs to be complemented with the thinking of the social architect and the skills of a community organizer (building support for the business or technical change you are planning).
There are some great observations about installation failures such as leadership by lamination (“I finally realised that it was the act of creating a vision that matters, not so much the content of what it was”), we need higher standards, people need fixing and “if we can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter”.
There’s a chapter devoted to the elements of engagement which starts “One powerful service of the consultant may be to raise clients’ consciousness about the value of engagement in the implementation process”. There’s guidance on organising meetings to gain maximum engagement by creating a platform for openness and doubt. “If doubt and even cynicism cannot be publicly expressed, then internal commitment cannot be offered freely” and “In creating high engagement, it is the expression of doubt that counts, not its resolution”.
The final chapter is titled “The heart of the matter” and starts with a reminder that consulting is primarily a relationship business. He reminds the reader to choose learning over teaching and to see learning s a social adventure. And that the question is more important than the answer (with a focus on “Why?” rather than “How?”). He also reassures us that insight resides in moments of tension and that capacities bear more fruit than deficiencies. There’s also a profound insight that culture changes in the moment.
- A consultant by any other name
- Techniques are not enough
- Flawless consulting
- Contracting overview
- The contracting meeting
- The agonies of contracting
- The internal consultant
- Understanding resistance
- From diagnosis to discovery
- Whole-system discovery
- Discovering gifts, capacities and possibilities
- Get the picture
- Preparing for feedback
- Managing the meeting for action
- The elements of engagement
- Teacher as consultant
- The heart of the matter
Recommended books on change management
Change management – Change Catalyst book review by Kim Tasso September 2018
A related book on large, complex sales which is also appreciated by management consultants is “Let’s get real or let’s not play – The demise of dysfunctional selling and the advent of helping clients succeed” by Mahan Khalsa which focuses on the ORDER methodology (Opportunity, Resources, Decision process, Exact solution and Relationship)