References: what does good look like?

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From time to time in the consulting business, you hear a variation on “You talk positively about Client X, but I heard it didn’t go so well for you”. Let’s talk about what good looks like in a consulting engagement.

When we work with a client, we help them set aspirations for what the ideal future would look like, and to work towards that.  Between here and there is a vast swamp of reality which has a nasty habit of getting in the way.  As we advance, our fine ideals get worn down and compromised by:

  • conservatism and risk aversion, sincere attempts to “protect” the organisation
  • limits on resources
  • practical limits on how far and how fast thew work system can change
  • petty politics and local fiefdoms
  • cynicism, white-anting, and resistance to any change
  • historical wrongs, legacy systems, systemic and cultural debt
  • distractions, crises, and competing initiatives
  • loss of executive support
  • fatigue, loss of momentum

…and more.

No matter how good a job we all do together on advancing an organisation, we will always fall short of ideals.  It will never be perfect.  Humans will always find a way to **** it up.  So, if we measure any work against perfect, it will always show a gap, there will always be a negative difference. If that’s all we consider, it will look bad, and make us sad.

On the other hand, hopefully there is a positive difference over time.  The organisation is advancing, things are getting better.  [If not, something much deeper is wrong.  We have not had that experience.]  If we measure that advance, we can see what value we got from the work, we can feel good about it. Set a vision for a perfect future, but measure progress from the past. You never sail noticeably closer to the star you are navigating by, but you can come a long way from where you started.

Both lenses are looking at the same reality: one is dismal and gloomy, one is optimistic and energising.  The only difference is the attitude (and agenda) of the observer.


Secondly, no execution is perfect either. It is a VUCA world. Nobody knows what stimuli will be effective in changing how an organisation works.  We can only try. Sometimes we will fail, and learn. This is perfectly normal. In fact it is the only way forward. So, when we examine the advance of an organisation, there will always be “errors” and “mistakes”, if that’s how you want to see them. Alternatively, they are valuable experiments that enrich our understanding of how the organisation works, of how it responds. Every stumble improves how we dance with the system.  Once again, it is two different ways to view the same reality, with the only difference being the observer.


  Thirdly, there is the J-curve.

Every time we change anything about how we work, the performance of the work system goes backwards before it goes forwards.  this is a law of nature, for at least two reasons: (1) people need to practice the new way, to get the hang of it (2) we make mistakes, as we just discussed above, we almost never predict perfectly what the new way should be (and if we do, it’s a fluke).  An observer can take a short-term view of a J-curve and say it was all bad. Or take a longer term view and look for the up-turn.

It is all about your intent. Whether your intent is to find out what worked, what was good, what benefits accrued, or to find out some dirt, what went wrong, the bitterness and cynicism, …. either way you will find what you seek in every transformation advancement , and in every consulting engagement. We try to help people use a different lens.

We are happy that all our engagements have advanced the client. We only continue to work with a client if we are delivering value, and we ask them to put us to the same test. Almost every client we have ever had has renewed the engagement. The relationships end when the client’s attention wanders or motivations change, not because our value stops.  Applying the new ways of working and managing is effective in advancing the work system.  It’s never perfect, some experiments fail, there’s a dip before the up-tick, but the work always advances.  That’s how we judge ourselves, and we ask you to do the same.  Is it better now?

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