Consultants can choose from among three main approaches to their work, whether internal to an organization or externally hired. Edgar Shein in the 1960s (see references below) identified these roles as: expert, pair-of-hands, and collaborative. Which one you choose depends on the tasks, your preference, and other factors – most of us will go between these roles during our consulting careers, even during one project!
In an “expert” role, the consultant provides solutions based on his or her knowledge, experience, and proficiency in a given area or topic. The solutions are handed to the client as a prescription, and the process includes very few other people. The “pair-of-hands” role is often a technician one, where the consultant can literally roll up their sleeves and go to work alongside the client as a member of the client team, and is subject to the leadership decisions of the team.
The “collaborative” role takes on problem solving jointly with the client, and assumes that the issues presented can most effectively be dealt with by joining his or her specialized knowledge with the client team members, in an equal status. The goal is not to solve problems for the client, but to co-create solutions with the client that the client then applies to solve their own problems. This leaves the client with their own problem solving resources for longer lasting impact.
This collaborative role is often aspirational, but you do hear it talked about in different terms. Agencies characterize client relationships as “partnerships,” corporations have cross-functional task forces, social media programs create “communities”… all of these are forms of collaborative applications and leadership. But it can be a tricky approach. After all, if a consultant isn’t demonstrating expertise that’s different from what people in the client organization already know, is the ROI strong enough to justify the consulting fee?
Peter Block, in his book Flawless Consulting (2000), calls this “the fear of holding hands” (p. 27) – we are afraid to collaborate with others because our expertise or contribution might be diluted or blurred. He recommends a layered approach: client collaboration occurs in project phases such as planning, involving other employees in the project, deciding how to gather and analyze data, interpreting data, deciding on approaches to change, and the like. Expertise of the consultant is still needed, and can be woven throughout the collaborative process. Block’s premise is that any client will be more likely to adopt the consultant’s expertise if they are included – collaborated with – in the entire process, and their knowledge is added to the mix that leads to the solution.
I’ve seen this at play many times, and I’ve seen it miss the mark many times. What’s your experience with collaborative consulting? I’d love to hear!
Block, P. (2000). Flawless consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Schein, E.S. (1999). Process Consultation Revisited: Building the Helping Relationships. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley/Longman.