Keeping consultancy simple does not mean it’s simplistic

As a non-technical chief executive of IT companies over many years, I was conscious that one of my key roles was to understand what benefits our clients were seeking from investing in technology systems and to match these with what was being proposed by our technical staff.

I was an interpreter and a mediator, bringing together supply and demand to the satisfaction of both parties. The challenge was to absorb the essence of the need and the response so as to help align the two.

I had to rise above all the jargon used by the techies on each side, and engage with the clients’ leadership in language to which they could relate. Vital to this was conveying what was intended in a simple and straightforward way.

In my current life as a management consultant this business of ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid’ (KISS) continues to serve me well — I believe it helps me with my columns too.

But it is not without its challenges, as so many of the organisations with which my colleagues and I interact seem to revel in over-complicating much of what they do.

What we have found is that the more educated and sophisticated the senior leadership, the more they expect that we will engage them with impressively complex models and frameworks and methodologies with theories of change and multi-dimensional matrices, overelaborate manifestations of the balanced scorecard and very clever assessment as well as incentive schemes.

So when we offer them the simple approaches to strategy development, culture change, performance management and such like that we have evolved over the years, a good number are unimpressed.

And the reason is that they mistake the simple for the simplistic, imagining our uncomplicated approach, our absence of management-speak, to be beneath their intellectual dignity to apply. They are also skeptical that our simple approach is sufficiently robust to be effective.

Many large international organisations, not least development partners and NGOs but also corporates, have teams of head-office boffins — no doubt supported by consultants paid multiples of what I and my team command — who roll out intricate strategies and plans, systems and processes, that boggle the mind and often do more to distract from delivering on their organisations’ visions and goals than to support their achievement.

Never mind that before people have fully understood the ramifications of what has been handed down to them the whole thing has more than likely been replaced by yet another intricate masterpiece.

It was Winston Churchill who once apologised for giving a long speech, explaining that he hadn’t had enough time to write a short one. Well, similarly I believe those who roll out complicated ways of doing things haven’t spent sufficient time making them less so.

And while what we do may look simple and indeed be simple, it takes intense preparation and deep concentration to focus on purpose and deliver impact: we are actually like the proverbial swan, gliding smoothly along the surface yet paddling like mad underneath.

Disparagingly, it is said that consultants and coaches are merely people who “borrow your watch to tell you the time”. To me, however, there can be much goodness in that. For our job is to bring out the wisdom in the group or the individual, not to preach from on high.

The less we do the better, and the more we can help our clients to read what their watch is telling them without us the better. To succeed we must therefore be excellent listeners, and skilled at continuously assessing at what speed and in what direction to guide the process.

In many of our workshops, coaching sessions and other initiatives we smilingly give those involved “permission” to be simple. Sometimes we are forced to instruct them to be so!

And it is very gratifying that once we have completed an assignment it is not unusual for one or more of them – including earlier skeptics – to tell us how much they appreciated the way we progressed their issues in impactful yet uncomplicated ways.

Let me conclude by asking: are you so afraid of being seen to be simplistic (including by yourself) that you do not dare to be simple?

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