where credit’s due

Of all the elegies inspired by the Blue Jays’ rise, and fall, my favourite was an R.A. Dickey quote:images (1)

"It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit.”  (http://atmlb.com/1RUsZOW)

Dickey goes on in this interview to recognize everyone’s effort in a team victory after he, in midst of a brilliant, play-off start, was replaced part way through the fourth inning by David Price, a fastball pitching gun-for-hire who was acquired at the end of the regular season.

Was this true modesty, false modesty, or sly leadership? He’s an unusually reflective athlete in a sport that seems to generate a lot of insincere, “aw-shucks,” platitudes. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

To go from consistent losing to winning, or winning to losing, a team goes through a change of state. Athletes, coaches, and managers aspire to be make the difference on winning teams, and to be recognized for it. Their careers depend not only on how they influence their team’s record, but on attribution of collective success to their individual efforts.

NetGain is also in the change business, temporarily joining teams to help them perform better. My advice, to any consultant, is to keep Dickey’s observation in mind.

We arrive from outside the client organization, without much history connecting us to our adoptive team. There’s a presumption that key people in the organization possess fine-grained, hard-earned experience that we can never fully understand or appreciate.

At first there can be reluctance to share that knowledge, and later there is often resistance to our recommendations. Everyone knows we’ll be gone once our assignment is complete, so there’s little incentive to build an enduring relationship.

We’re given the authority to advise and influence people, but not to compel them to help us, or by extension, themselves. When you add a measure of resentment about our self-directed style and our exorbident fees, a consultant often starts from the position of a water-boy, not a team mate, and certainly not a leader.

Of course there are exceptions in which executive buy-in to the consulting process is strong enough to create an unobstructed path to his or her objectives, and a willing team of staff and volunteers to help drive results. However it often happens that executive support isn’t effectively transmitted down to the managerial level of the organization, where consultants need access and engagement.

In many organizations, especially non-profits, executives are unwilling to demand too much of already overworked and underpaid staff. The consultant’s assignment can be seen as an extra burden on the team, rather than an integral part of its future success.

I’ve had short and long term assignments with large and small non-profit groups, all hoping to accomplish things that require that they change themselves to improve customer, stakeholder, and competitive relationships. But no matter how badly they want to change, there’s always some resistance.

Change aversion is not just human nature. Organizational behaviors mimic our worst individual habits, exaggerating our least admirable instincts. That’s what allows us to forgive our collective failings with a shrug. Organizations in government, commerce, and the charitable sector often behave in ways that their members cannot countenance. Yet of necessity, everyone is called upon at times to defend their organization’s reputation and practices, as if collective behavior can be unlinked from our personal contributions to intolerable group behaviors.

There are certain tactics consultants can employ to trigger change and help clients, even resistant clients, to score some wins. But these vary by circumstance, and require too much explanation for discussion here. Still, we can generalize about broader change strategies, at least to the extent that these cases fall under the Dickey principle.

A consultant never benefits from taking too much credit for a clieimagesnt’s success. Informed observers will recognize the consultant’s hand at work, but the effort will fall short if the rest of the team believes that the consultant is providing the momentum for change, or worse, is claiming accomplishments that belong to others.

As I repeat to anyone who’ll listen, the highest compliment from a client comes when they present my ideas as their own. This usually means they’ve taken intellectual ownership of an analysis or recommendation that lacked force until they became persuaded of its verity. In that moment, they have become public and energetic advocates of change, despite having ignored or disputed my findings, conclusions, and recommendations until that point.

To them, it’s like a new idea, formed from the interaction of their preconceptions with the arguments and evidence I’ve presented them. In this sense, assimiliation of a challenging new prescription for change is as much their accomplishment as mine.

In the end, who cares where all the evidence and argument came from, who actually synthesized the plan, and who made it intelligible to a resistant team? The 20th century habit of judging consultants by their inputs has given way to a 21st century focus on outputs. If the client succeeds, the consultant has succeeded. If the client fails, the consultant has failed.

This is a trend for professional service firms of all kind. All the giants in consulting, law, and accounting are affected by the heightened ability of clients to judge their effectiveness, and an ability to source services and distribute their work in ways that reduce the assumed advantages of size.

What does a proprietary analytic method mean in the digital age, when small, specialized competitors can develop and deliver customized programs for mass data management and analysis, or the most profitable parts of legal or accounting practice are stripped away by cloud based services, or when customized software performs better than the underpaid minions who slave unseen in the basement of prestigious office towers?

Gone are the days when a consulting firm can respond to a client’s RFP by simply restating the problem and reciting claims of prodigious expertise and specialized techniques. Those are all inputs. What clients demand now, given a richer array of service models and providers, is a promise of deliverables, and an understanding of how objectives will be achieved.

In terms of marketing, it means that opaque brands, brands that signify an identity rather than an activity, mean less than brands that entail a promise. Acronyms like KPMG or PWC, for example, mean less than they used to because they don’t convey anything distinct about how the firm works, or to what ends.

To the extent that it has come to mean anything, in its long, diffuse practice, NetGain has been the opposite. It is nothing but a promise of outputs, because the the correct inputs, and the effects of team dynamics, can’t be known in advance of the assignment. Proprietary methods and specialized analytic capabilities are meaningless if the work doesn’t require the consultant’s specialty.

A willingness to join the client in their uncertainty, to gain their trust, and lead them in their thinking, is essential to making change - for their success and ours. It may be hard to explain this in a client interview, knowing that giant competitors are just outside the door, waiting with elaborate presentation and print materials, to extol the virtues of being, in a word, “them.” The pressure to overstate claims of past accomplishment are difficult to resist, when the alternative is a promise to adapt the inquiry method to client circumstance. It takes trust.

More good can come of the relationship between a consultant and the client than from the discrete efforts or abilities on either side of that relationship. It’s a team effort in the broadest and deepest sense. Executive client leadership can be complemented by the unseen effort of a trusted consultant. If they don’t complement each other well, there is likely some subtle competition occurring, which can drain energy and good will from the process.

And maybe, like R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, you can’t be sure precisely where your pitch is going before you throw it. If your team is playing great defense around you, you’re getting a lot of groundball outs, and you’re winning, it’s unwise to risk everything on a rented ace pitcher with a smoking fastball that keeps getting hit out of the park. When winning takes a team effort, the attribution of credit and blame, based on individual talent, is much less important than most people think.

Comments are closed.