The Digital Champions Club recently celebrated its third birthday. At our most recent bootcamp, I shared with members the story of how the program came to be. Prior to starting the Digital Champions Club, I had spent a few years working as a consultant. I would go into organisations and work with them to map their internal processes and information flows. From this we would identify improvement opportunities where technology could create a competitive advantage. On the back of the process mapping, I would then often get asked to come back and help implement solutions.
But somewhere around three and a half years ago I became increasingly disenchanted with the approach I was taking. Although I would always enter into a consulting relationship with the best of intentions, I realised there were systemic issues with the approach that would always stop me from creating the best outcomes.
My goals weren’t necessarily aligned with the client’s goals
The client was looking for long-term sustainable change, but as a consultant I was generally paid a fixed price to deliver short term outcomes (either the mapping process, a report, or ‘implementation’). As it is difficult (and often unappealing) to structure consulting arrangements with long term incentives (consultants don’t like being tied to outcomes they have little control over and businesses generally don’t like paying consultants to do more work than absolutely necessary) the structure of most consulting agreements encourages consultants to do ‘just enough to be invited back’ rather than ‘everything they can’.
I left and my expertise left with me
One of the biggest challenges with consulting relationships is that at the end of the agreement the consultant leaves, and when they leave most of their expertise leaves with them. But perhaps even more perversely the consulting model incentives consultants to keep their intellectual property secret. The more they share the less the consultant is required next time.
As a result, it makes little sense to hire consultants for work that is critical to long-term success and enduring in nature (consultants are most suited to providing specific expertise in small amounts over short periods). For critical, enduring work we are better off employing someone directly or developing the skills internally. Given the increasingly significant role that technology plays in organisations, I felt the identification and implementation work really needed to be managed internally (even if I might be needed for some technology-specific expertise).
I didn’t know the organisations intimately
As an outsider there was always much information and many people I didn’t know. This meant I was generally guessing when I gave someone a proposal. It was an educated guess based on what had mostly worked for similar organisations in the past but it was a guess none the less. You could quite accurately describe this as a ‘cookie cutter’ solution.
The nature of the relationship also meant I had a vested interest in diagnosing a ‘problem’ and recommending a ’solution’ that aligns with my expertise, even if it wasn’t the primary problem the client was facing. This was not something that was done unethically but the limits of my expertise would have undoubtedly blinded me to alternative ideas.
Finally, a lack of intimacy would always negatively impact implementation. Without a deep understanding of an organisation’s systems, how they were used, and the people who used them, it was always difficult to know where to focus change efforts and to do them in a way that stuck.
From consulting to coaching
This was the catalyst of moving from consulting to coaching. I realised that all these three issues could be addressed by working with my clients to develop internal champions to do the work that I had previously been doing. Much like the software as a service model where you pay for software on a monthly basis (and stop paying if you stop getting value) coaching resulted in a longer term engagement that better aligned my goals with the goals of the client.
This approach also ensured that expertise was developed and retained internally. Not only did this provide clients with a certain peace of mind, it also meant that change happened continuously and, as a result, became easier. The coaching model also solved the problem of intimacy. By training up internal experts who already had knowledge of the organisation’s systems and the trust of their colleagues it meant that the right opportunities were identified and individual needs could be better understood and addressed.
I think the idea of coaching to develop internal experts over hiring consultants makes sense intuitively. It’s perhaps why all three of the clients I was consulting to when I launched the Digital Champions Club were all willing to make the move to a coaching approach.
This is not to say we should have a world without consultants. There are undoubtedly situations where access to short-term specialist expertise is required (in fact members of the Digital Champions Club are often encouraged to engage them on specific projects). But rather it is reminder to understand the limitations of the consulting model and appreciate there are other approaches that have the potential to offer better value and greater long term success.