The Problem™ is never the problem

Talk with any consultant and they will tell you: The Problem™ is never the problem.

That is a short-hand for saying that complex problem solving is always an exploratory and iterative process: both clients and consultants have to be willing to challenge assumptions and to regroup as soon as they find out what the real problem is.

So many client-consultant relationships go bad because each part tends to stick to their guns: client are unwilling to change ideas about what the problem is, or how complex it is, while consultants are unwilling to say an out-of-the-box solution they thought they could work doesn’t really fit.

We are all victims of the sunk costs fallacy: the only way to escape that vicious loop of wrong problem framing and thus wrong solution implementation is by shrinking down our hypothesis of what’s working and what’s not.

And by that I mean: we should focus on the smallest possible change, and verify the impact of that change in course of a few days, or few weeks, at most.

For me one effective way of introducing the smallest possibile change is the “coaching clinic”, especially with companies that present themselves as really chaotic environment right from the start.

I do this very often when I don’t have direct access to a team, but I can only work with a selected group of people — business or product owners, subject-matter experts, tech leaders, and various stakeholders.

The coaching clinic is setup this way: with a group of people we agree upon a given recurring time slot, say, two hours every week, same day, same time.

Participation is voluntary. We build a common backlog of themes to talk about: some are brought by me, some are brought by them. We decide on the spot if we have to follow-up some theme from the latest session or something new came up during the week.

Why did I say this is an experiment of the smallest possibile change?

Well, first of all: as an external consultant I’m someone new in the organization, we need time to build rapport, understand my role, their roles, and reciprocal expectations.

How companies welcome and onboard someone new is a great test, if not the best, really, of what that specific company culture feels like.

Second: what’s my immediate impact on everybody else’s schedule? Until yesterday they didn’t have time for me, now they have to make time for it.

Can they?

You see, even something apparently simple like working with a consultant for two hours a week can become a difficult task for any group and company.

As a consultant who’s brought in to solve The Problem™ and sets up a coaching clinic only to see it rapidly fail because nobody has time for it, it’s just one way to highlight that there might be Other Problems™ too.

More urgent problems, with higher priority, or, as it often happens, just the latest, freshest problems — not urgent, nor important, nor strategic in any way.

It’s incredibly frustrating when you introduce the smallest possibile change –”How come they can’t find two hours for me?”— and it fails. As a consultant you wanted to do more, better, you settled for less, and even that less is too much.

It took me —and still takes— a lot of patience and practice to understand the value of meeting people where they are.

Being accepting of the current level of maturity and awareness you find in a company is crucial: the allure of being the “lone consultant”, working mainly on deliverables, building only surface-level rapport, is tempting.

Moreover, keeping busy is a badge of honour in most companies and there are countless ways in which you can keep busy as a consultant and be seen as someone who contribute without really changing anything.

Escape the “keep busy” trap, meet the people where they are.

Consulting 101 is a series of articles about what it means to be a consultant.

Header photo by Kathy I on Unsplash