I’ve been a consultant to organizations for a long time now. Three decades and counting, to be precise.
I have also often called myself an organizational consultant in that timeframe. I have described my focus as being organizational project management. And I have implemented a wide variety of systems, processes, methodologies, policies and training programs in organizations.
Those organizations have come in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Private sector and public sector. Two employees or twenty thousand. For profit or for purpose. The range of industries that I have consulted to even I find a little incredible. So you would very reasonably assume that I consider my clients to be organizations. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A core principle of mine for a long time now has been “our clients are people, not organizations.” That has a number of meanings for me. It shapes how I approach my work, my interactions and the ways in which I deliver solutions.
The most general implication is that the focus of the work needs to be on the people using the result. Methodologies, processes, software and policies are all intended to be used by people. They are intended to be helpful to people. The capabilities we build are supposed to make a positive difference in the work and the organizational lives of those that we support.
What the principle also means, though, is that it is people who engage me. While a contract I sign may have an organization’s name at the bottom, it is a person’s signature that makes it binding. The reason behind any engagement that I am hired for is that someone had a need—be that problem or opportunity—that they wanted my assistance on. It’s their need, their concern and ultimately they are responsible for whatever outcomes actually get delivered.
What that means is that I take pains to understand the person I am doing work for, and what their requirements and expectations are. They are the driver behind the work that I’m doing. They are the reason that I’m there. And they are the ultimate arbiter of the work that I do. Remembering that the client is a person is fundamental to framing and delivering good work.
That’s not to say that the work that I do for the person is at cross-purposes to the organization. They are the organization’s representative. They are the one wielding the authority of the organization in hiring me. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t fallible. What they believe the organizational challenge is when hiring me may not be the actual problem that needs solving. The solution they are asking for may not be the most relevant or appropriate.
There are times that I need to have difficult conversations about what’s really going on, and what might genuinely be most appropriate as a solution going forward. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. In fact , it’s where I do some of my most important work. Some of the most essential emphasis in contemplating organizational change is being clear about what needs to change, and why, and what results will deliver the greatest value going forward.
Those are perhaps the most straightforward explanations of what I mean by my clients being people, not organizations. But they aren’t the only ones.
One of the very interesting things about organizational transformations is that they rarely last for a prolonged period. Methodologies, processes, systems… they all have a life expectancy. Sometimes that is measured in decades. Most of the time, it’s at least several years. In rare instances, it is only months.
With the benefit of hindsight, what most often drives transition between different organizational interventions is people. Particularly, what most greatly influences the creation and demise of organizational practices is the transition of individuals in and out of key support roles associated with those practices. People sponsor the creation of capabilities as they step into or solidify their influence in performing their roles. And capabilities decline or disappear as previous sponsors move on.
A very specific example of this (and to be clear, I have very, very many such examples to choose from) was one of the participant organizations in the Value of Project Management research project. The organization in question had built an award-winning project management office capability (in all honesty, they believed that they still had one). The focus was on building a centre of excellence, a focal point for advocacy and improvement of project management practices throughout the organization.
This particular PMO didn’t control anything. It didn’t demand, require, police or audit. It simply provided good examples of good practices, delivered comprehensive training to support continued skills enhancement, celebrated accomplishments when they occurred, and otherwise got out of the way and let the organization do its thing and deliver its projects.
Shortly after the exit of the founding executive of this PMO, there was a new leader and a new mandate. The PMO would control projects. Project managers would move to the PMO (and out of the business units where they had previously lived). Project ownership would vest in the PMO, and not with the clients. As you might surmise, this was not a popular move. Business unit executives saw it as a power grab. Project managers saw it as undermining their value and role; most left the organization in the next year. The PMO continued to struggle; projects continued to be delivered over budget and late; satisfaction of business units went from stratospheric to submerged.
Partly this failure was about not just a change in leadership, but a change in direction. The organization had created very different expectations for the PMO, and assumed that everyone in the organization would align themselves with the new direction and play along. They could not have been more wrong. But leadership certainly played a role. The outgoing leader knew the organization, had a cultural sensitivity to what was acceptable and valued, and strove to deliver an organization that was wanted and appreciated. The incoming leader, by contrast, struggled with a mandate that the organization didn’t accept, and lack of political and cultural appreciation of how to build support in the organization. The result was outright failure.
As I said at the beginning of this story, this experience is not uncommon. I can point to many examples of organizational failure of improvements and interventions, many related to shifts in accountability and ownership. We have an enduring problem in that we don’t do organizational transitions of leadership well. Newcomers often want to make their own unique mark.
Rather than sustaining and building on what is in place and what works, they reject the work and the practices of the outgoing leader as irrelevant. No matter how effective, how entrenched or how valued an existing practice might be, it takes astonishingly little for an incoming executive to undermine and render those capabilities irrelevant.
This has been the case for processes and practices that I have audited. It has been true for organizations that I have assessed. And it has most assuredly been true for methodologies and capabilities that I have implemented. Some last longer than others, mind you, but all reach a point where they are no longer sustained and a new approach takes its place.
In one notable instance, that timeframe was less than eight months. After two years of nearly full-time work building methodologies, providing training, establishing on-going support capabilities and extensively mentoring staff, a new chief executive was hired. As frequently happens, several direct reports to the chief executive were replaced, including my direct client. Within weeks, our contracts wrapped up and the work that we had built (of which myself and my team were justifiably proud) was dismantled and replaced.
It would be easy to be frustrated by that experience. And I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t frustrated and disappointed and more-than-a-little-bit hurt. That is the plight of the consultant, however, and the privilege of the client. I can’t force my clients to do anything. I can influence, advocate and recommend, of course, but they own the final decision.
The reason I highlight this experience, though, is what happened next. I continued to run into people that we had worked with, that we had trained and that we had mentored within this organization. Often, given the structural changes that occurred, that was after they had moved to different employers. Many of those people singled me out, and took the time to talk to me. Sometimes this was because we were at the same event, or because I was consulting in their new organization. Very often it was because they took the time to get in touch with my by email, sometimes months or years later.
What I repeatedly heard was that people I had previously encountered and supported really valued the work that we had done. They had found the processes valuable. The tools we had built were useful. The training was exceptional, and they had learned an incredible amount from it. Most pointed to some aspect or the other that they still remembered, still applied and still received value out of.
This is why, for me, the organizational is personal. I might have been responsible for an intervention that was tied to a particular time and place, for a particular organization. But that was simply the reason that I was there in the first place. The work that I did lived on, far beyond the time that I was there, and in many more organizations than the one that had briefly been my client. It was the people that saw the value, embraced the work and continued to use it in their careers going forward.
The fact that this is true is rewarding, without question. But more importantly, it’s instructive about where we make change, the focus that it has and the places where it delivers value. We may think we are supporting organizations. But we are in fact supporting people. Those people will take and run with what we produce to the extent that they see it having value. And that value can remain long after they—or I—find ourselves working in the organization where we initially connected.
Change may happen in organizations. But it is people that make the change. It is people that embrace and use the results. It is people that ultimately take and use and evolve and adapt the capabilities that we produce. Those people are my—and our—ultimate clients.