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Change Agents ARE Consultants

After one has worked with another organization or community for a while, one generally gets a pretty good idea of what they would do if he or she was in charge. The problem for most change agents is that they are not in charge. So how do they get the managers of the organization, or leaders of the community, to do the what the change agent thinks best?

  Well one solution, which I have heard from some colleagues from US based NGOs, is to give the organization or community money. Apparently, this strategy is to use the offer of money to leverage the changes promoted by the change agent's agency. And I suspect that it looks like it works much of the time, because cash strapped NGOs and communities will often make themselves look like anything to get the money they need. Hell, ten years ago, I went through all sorts of logical contortions to fit what were essentially social programs into a income generation project for a major donor. As far as I can tell, that is often how the game is played -- say just about anything to get the money, then do what you need to do. 

But is this development? If the "game" is played this way, are the impacts real and sustainable. I don't think so. I can't see how using money to "buy" changes can be called any type of development.

Let's look the problem another way, based on consulting skills. Why consulting skills -- two reasons. First, consultants can't give their clients money to follow their suggestions (such as donors can). Second, consultants are like change agents in that they are not in charge of anything and have no managerial control. Both facts require consultants to learn other ways of becoming effective. The ideas and concepts presented below are basically from Peter Block's Flawless Consulting. This book is required reading for anyone working as a consultant to another organization, and extremely useful to those working with communities also.

The Consulting Process

Lets look at the consulting process; there are five basic steps. First, there is entry -- getting to know the client and understanding the  client's problem(s). Second, there is data gathering concerning the problem(s) faced by the client. Third, there is analyzing the data. Fourth, there is creating solutions and deciding to implement one. Fifth, there is the actual implementation of the solution. In all consultations, someone goes through each of these steps. However, who undertakes which steps depends greatly on the role the consultant takes in the process.

Three Roles the Consultant Can Take in this Process

There are at least three strategies consultants can use to deal with the fact that they do not have managerial power. First, the consultant can take the role of "expert". Second, the consultant can take the role of "pair of hands", and third the consultant can practice collaborative consulting.

The Expert Role  



When a consultant takes the "expert" role, he/she basically manages the consulting process. The consultant plans the data collection, analyses the results, and decides on the best solution for his/her client. The client's involvement in this process is minimal.

There are a variety of weaknesses in this process. First, that the consultant, as an outsider, can never really know what is happening within the client's organization or community. Without insider information and input into the consulting process the accuracy of the consultants diagnosis and solution are purely hit or miss. Second, there is minimal skills transfer from the consultant to the client. Even if the consultant solves the clients problem, the client has not learned the process to solving such problems in the future. Finally, it is very easy for the expert consultant to develop solutions based on his or her personal beliefs and skills. Such solutions generally can not be implemented by someone else in the way envisioned by the consultant. 

  Moreover, if the client buys into this role, then the client gives up his/her managerial prerogative in order to do what the "expert" consultant says to do. This is a nice position for the consultant, as the consultant can make decisions for the organization but, not being a member of the organization, does not bear any of the consequences of those decisions. 

The results of this type of consulting are often long reports and no follow up action. My feeling is that after this type of consulting, the consultant knows exactly what he/she would do if she were a manager, but the client is only left with lots of paper and recommendations. Then the client has to study the report, going through all five steps of the process again for him or herself, in order to figure out what he or she will actually do. That is, of course, if the client feels they have the time to read the report.

Just to note, many local NGOs (at least in Indonesia) expect this type of consulting, especially from foreigners. They expect the outside consultant to come in and tell them how to fix their problems.

Also, this is also the role that consultants often play in project evaluations.

The "Pair of Hands" Role

  The "Pair of Hands" Role is just the opposite of the expert role. In this case, the client collects and analyses the data and determines the solution, and then has a consultant implement the solution. The weakness of this type of consulting are also the opposite the weaknesses of expert consulting. In this case, the client does not receive any of the benefits of the consultants skills and observations. So, again, there is no skills transfer or development of the client's organization or community. The underlying assumption here is that the client has correctly diagnosed the problems he or she is facing and does not need any input from the consultant, just a "pair of hands" to implement the solution. 

The result of this type of consulting may be a completed project, but there has been no skills transfer. The client organization will still lack the skills brought by the consultant. Therefore, to fix, upgrade, or recreate the consultants work, the client will need to bring in another consultant.

This type of consulting is often used by international NGOs when they need a report written, proposal prepared, or feel they lack staff.

Collaborative Consulting -- Partnership


What Peter Block calls collaborative consulting, I call Partnership. The basic goal of this type of consulting is to share the responsibility of the consulting process. In other words, the client and consultant share in designing data collection, share in collecting the data, share in analyzing the data, share in generating possible solutions, and then, the client takes the responsibility in choosing the solutions to implement.

There are three major advantages of this type of consulting. The first is the consultant and client can pool the skills, knowledge, and experience in order to define and diagnose the problem and then develop appropriate responses. In this process, the consultant contributes his or her skills, knowledge, and perceptions, and the client contributes his knowledge of the organization and its workings. Combining these often brings new insights to bear on the problem and solution. The second advantage is that the client can learn from the consultant the process for dealing with organizational problems. This means that the next time a similar problem arises, the client will be able to deal with the issue without having to call in an outside consultant again. Finally, in collaborative consulting, the client maintains his responsibility as manager and does not give that responsibility to the outside consultant.

The result of this type of consulting is a client who has greater understanding of the issues at hand, who understands how the agreed upon solution will solve those issues, and who is ready and committed to implement the solutions him/herself.

In Indonesia, I have found that Collaborative Consulting is often a difficult type of arrangement  to establish. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, NGOs are typically used to and expect the first two styles of consulting. The consultant needs to work with the client NGO to introduce the concept and practice of collaborative consulting. Secondly, collaborative consulting requires a commitment of time and effort on the part of the client; Many NGO clients do not want to make that effort - actually, they often want the consultant to fix the problem for them. However, if the client sits back and expects the consultant to do all the work, then the relationship is not collaborative. For true collaboration the client will need to involve himself or herself and the staff in the work. This not only allows the client to learn, but also allows the client to maintain their position as manager during the consultancy.

Developing Collaboration

So how does one develop and contract for collaboration? Below is a brief outline, followed by a link to Amazon Books for Peter Block's Flawless Consulting. This is a must read for anyone hoping to influence others, but who do not have direct or managerial control. In other words, this book is for Community Development Workers, Funding Agencies, Institutional and Organizational NGOs, and of course, consultants.

Step 1 (for developing partnerships as an outside consultant or change agent)

Understand the problem from the point of view of the client, recipient organization, or target group - and show that you understand their perception of the situation. You don't need to agree with it, but you need to understand it. The bottom line is - Who wants to work with someone else who doesn't understand them? Not many people if they have the choice.

Step 2

Define the wants of the client, recipient organization, or target group. Get very clear on what they want from you as a consultant or outside helper and from the project overall. As a consultant or outside helper, you do not need to agree with the clients wants nor do you need to promise to fill those wants, but it is important that both the client and consultant are clear on what those wants are. The key to collaboration and partnership is a common goal. Since a consultant or outside change agent is there to help the client or target group, that common goal needs to be built around their wants - in other words, start where the client is, not where the consultant or outside organization want to go..

Step 3

Clearly explain what you can offer to help the client or target group meet their wants and goals. This is the key to the partnership - your offer to help. There are two keys here. The first is not to offer what you can not deliver. The second, is not to pretend to buy into the wants of the client/target group with the hopes of changing them later. Be up front - if your goals as a consultant, community worker, or funding agency are so different from your client's goals that you can not or will not help, say so and move on.

Step 4

Discuss what the client, recipient organization or target group can offer you to help make the project a success. Collaboration takes two sides working equally together. Find out what the client or community can offer to the project to make it a success.

Step 5

Discuss what you, the outsider, want from the client organization or target group. Be clear and upfront about what you as community development worker, community organizer, or funder need from them to make the project a success. If you, as a consultant, can not get what you need, you can either reduce your offers (e.g. if you asked for a three day workshop and were only offered a one day workshop, you can reduce your objectives) or you can forgo the partnership. It is generally better not to get involved in a sure failure than to try and fix as things go along.

Step 6

Mix and match offers and wants until you can come to an agreement. This may either be an agreement to continue and form the partnership or an agreement not to work on this project. Below is a graphic presentation of the process:

Being up front, honest, and open about these issues during negotiations will help both clients (recipients of outside help) and consultants (outside helpers) develop partnerships which are both efficient and productive. Clearing up these issues early in the partnership prevents surprises and conflicts later on down the road.

For further information on consulting skills, follow this link to Flawless Consulting at Amazon Books. This book is a good investment.

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