I had a client who used to shake her head at the credibility given to consultants, and mutter about how “the monk from the farthest temple” was always received with the greatest respect.
I think about that line often as I consult to clients, and I thought about it again reading The Troubling Flaws in How We Select Experts in the Washington Post.
The piece wanders a bit, mixing up staff and consultants, and even takes a side trip through online dating, but he poses a fundamental question: “what’s the value of bringing folks in from outside when the answers are often already known by internal leaders who have a more intimate understanding of the business and its issues?”
A fair point. Here are three rules I try to live by that answer his question.
1. Don’t Be Captain Obvious – In the discovery phase of most projects, there rapidly emerges the clear outlines of both the problem and the best solutions. And we’ve all sat through presentations by consultants that go no further than that, where the collective responsive is “Well, duh!” The challenge is to go deeper and get to the underlying issues. If everyone is clear on the problem and the solution, then why haven’t they acted? What are the organizational and cultural issues holding them back? Here’s where a good outside consultant adds value, by identifying the barriers to progress and strategies to actually address them. Helping a client overcome their own structural barriers will leave them equipped to prosper long after you’ve gone and your beautiful PowerPoint has faded from the screen.
2. Speak Truth to Power – The Post article argues that it’s irrational to value the opinion of outsiders who aren’t known and trusted. But too often being known and trusted makes it harder for internal leaders to raise the hard issues, challenge management, and identify problems. An objective observer, accountable only for his or her own integrity can do something that no insider can, and that’s speak truth to power. Recently I was facilitating a two day strategy session with a client and his Board. At one point, as I pressed the client to make some hard choices between priorities he responded: “I really hate you right now. I know you’re right, but I really hate you.” I took that as one of my greatest professional compliments. First, I’d created an environment where he felt comfortable saying that, and second I’d forced him to confront the conflict in his own strategy and make some very hard choices. His own staff couldn’t have done that.
3. Raise Up, Don’t Beat Down – Done right, a consulting project empowers internal leaders, and they come away with true ownership of the recommendations. But too often it’s done wrong. I had a client who referred to the team of external consultants as “Team Smarty” and I’d cringe every time I heard it, because of the implied put down to their own senior leadership. Instead, remember those internal folks who had the intimate understanding of the problem and the solution? Be sure they’re highlighted to senior management. Put your own ego aside and give them all the credit they deserve. And for the folks that aren’t quite so swift and aren’t quite up to the task? Your silence speaks volumes.
If you can be the monk with wisdom and humility, your visit will be welcomed and will bring value to your client.
And as for online dating………………..I got nothing!
I’m sharing a great post today from The Agitator, one of the blogs that I read regularly.
The centerpiece of the post is a painfully funny video skewering the worst of client/agency meetings.
Too often we’re order takers instead of strategic counselors. Not often enough do we push back on clients and partner with them to get to a better place.
A couple of weeks ago, during a strategic planning session with a room full of senior level folks, my client said to me: “I hate you right now. I know you’re right, but I really hate you.” He came up to me at the break to apologize, but I told him I considered it one of the best professional complements I’d received.
Please share your horror stories and success stories. Oh, and subscribe to The Agitator. It’s good stuff.
Recent airplane time gave me a chance to catch up on some back New Yorker articles, and one in particular really grabbed me. It’s a very fascinating article about Google, their approach to innovation, and the search for a self-driving car.
Several points jumped out at me as relevant for the non-profit sector.
First, all the tech companies and almost all manufacturing companies have a significant R&D function – well staffed and well resourced. Non-profits don’t have R&D – everyone works 110% on operation of the current program, with incremental improvement a vague goal, but no serious R&D. That seems to me a systematic barrier to innovation coming from within. It may also be a cultural barrier against adopting innovation from outside. Most organizations are like organisms – they have finely developed cultures that function as “immune systems” – resistant to outside ideas.
Second, all the innovators have an idea of the “moon shot” they’re pursuing, whether its self-driving cars, Google Glass, Amazon’s delivery drones, etc. The non-profit sector doesn’t even have a vision of what the “moon shot” would look like. So of course there’s no serious pursuit of it. The sector is left idling on the launch pad because it hasn’t identified a destination.
And third, innovation is often produced by unorthodox methods. DARPA’s use of the Grand Challenge is a great example of how they did something fairly out-of-the-box, particularly for a government agency, and by so doing, spurred tremendous innovation by a significant number of contestants. All for not very much money, in the scheme of things. The line that jumped out at me was that “in one year, they’d made more progress than their contractors had in twenty!” The non-profit sector is fairly risk averse – reluctant to change vendors, reluctant to adopt strategies from outside the sector, etc.
It all starts with the vision of the moon shot.
Imagine convening a dozen major non-profits from different sectors – innovative legacy organizations like Audubon, Habitat, ACLU, etc., along with a few disruptors like Charity Water and Do Something – for a private summit to envision what the moon shot could be. And then add in some genuine innovators from outside the sector – people accustomed to breaking through conventional structures and systems.
That could be a powerful start.
Or we could continue to languish on the launch pad.
Idling our engines,,, burning fuel,,, wasting time.
Bad pickup lines are the stuff of Hollywood movies (and a particular fascination of mine.) You know the type, the guy or girl who’s convinced they have the killer pickup line, the one that never fails?
And that’s the second reason I have to wonder if conservation advocates ever get laid – they are solemn believers in the absolute power of message. And as a result, they spend literally millions of dollars on research and consultants searching for the perfect message, like Ahab searching for the white whale. Now, don’t get me wrong. Message is important. Research is crucial. And far be it from me to question the wisdom of hiring smart consultants.
But it’s the damage caused by the false hope that there exists some set of words that will have such transformative power, if only they can be discovered. I’ve sat in hours of meetings with groups looking for “the” message on climate change. And those meetings have been both sad and funny. “Drowning polar bears!” “Your barbecue grill is safe!” “Changing your light bulb will save the world.” Conservation advocates are true believers in the fundamental rightness of their own values, and utterly convinced that they can convert everyone to their church. Utterly convinced that there is some magic phrase or set of words that will magically convert Homer Simpson into Al Gore.
Just look at history. In a single generation, we completely changed social norms around drinking and smoking while pregnant. In the 80’s and 90’s the gay community adopted safe sex, (but then began to abandon it in the 2000’s.) Across the globe, advocates have been able to achieve targeted behavior change, but message is only one part of a complex puzzle.
And yet still the conservation community searches for the perfect message. The problem isn’t just that it’s wrong. The problem is pursuing a single strategy almost totally to the exclusion of the broader range of strategies and tactics. When you bet the house on a single bet, you’re risking everything.
There’s not one audience. There’s not one message. There’s just sound strategic marketing & communications, fully integrated and based on data to be sure you’re meeting the customer where they are, not where you want them to be, or where you are.
It’s time that conservation advocates moved out of their parent’s basement, learned the value of authentic engagement with their intended, and practice some adult relationship skills.
Ever have that experience where too soon after meeting a romantic prospect they try to close the deal? They haven’t even bought you a drink at the hotel bar but they’re inviting you to their room? Or they lay some line on you that makes you want to barf, a line they KNOW is just irresistible.
Creepy isn’t it. You quickly escape, shaking your head and asking yourself “does that EVER work?”
But those creepy guy moves seem to be the fundamental advocacy strategy of the environmental movement.
First, about courtship, or the lack thereof. Surf on to almost any enviro groups website and you’re bombarded by “TAKE ACTION” buttons everywhere. Sign this petition. Send this letter to your Member of Congress. Pledge to only wear clothes made of hemp. You get the idea. You just wandered in, and they’re trying to close the deal. You barely know them, you’re not sure you trust them, and they’re asking you to sign up for their cause, to surrender your personal information and put your name next to theirs.
And even worse, once you’ve taken that first step, you might get a thank you, but most likely you’ll just get a hundred emails asking you to take a very similar step again. If you let them get to first base, they’re just gonna want to stay on first base. Or they’re going to dump your name into the fundraising pile. The non-profit equivalent of dumping you onto their unattractive friend who can’t get dates on their own.
This doesn’t happen in the commercial sector. Commercial marketers have a highly refined vision of something called the customer journey – the path an individual takes starting with identifying a need, then beginning to research online, asking friends on social media, and then perhaps taking a first step, trying a small bite. After that, if the experience is good, you might buy the item. Hopefully become a regular purchaser, and perhaps even a recommender to others.
At every stage you are engaged, your actions reinforced, and information is gathered to help move you to the next level. But they aren’t asking you to recommend the product to your friends before you’ve become a loyalists – they aren’t ever that creepy guy.
Because it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t have to be this way. First of all, the advocacy folks could walk down the hall to talk to their colleagues in fundraising, who have a slightly better sense of the customer journey. But even there, it’s far from perfect. They acquire donors talking about saving fuzzy animals, and then at some dollar level suddenly switch the conversation to climate change. A classic bait and switch. Donors are surveyed but no one reads the results. Those surveys are just bogus engagement device, not a learning tool.
The best thing the advocates for conservation action could do would be to spend more time shopping online – I recommend Amazon. Notice how they cultivate their customers. Notice how they survey you – did you like your purchase? Were you satisfied with how it arrived? And they don’t just ask those questions to make you think they care, they actually act on the data to improve their customer experience and to improve their stewardship of you. They are constantly attuned to how they can take friction out of their systems and make it easier for the customer to take the journey.
The other place that conservation advocates should study is behavior change programs related to health – smoking cessation, HIV/AIDS prevention programs, teen pregnancy prevention efforts, etc. Based on decades of behavioral research, the best of these programs have a pathway toward the desired behavior, and an understanding of the support and reinforcement required to sustain individuals on that pathway.
In the meantime, until you can learn proper courtship behavior, stop turning off potential mates.
Because they always remember the creepy guy.
Next time – the killer pickup line.