“Yes, but what exactly is it you do?”

April 17, 2006

If I’ve been asked that question once, I’ve been asked it a hundred times in the last few years. In an age of the “sound bite” trying to talk about the complexity of human relationships that make up business life doesn’t quite lend itself to co-operation.
All of my work comes to me structured as a “problem” that needs to be “sorted out”. That “problem” may be a plan that needs to be written, a consultation process that needs to be designed and rolled out; a “difficult” person or team in an organisation that needs to be “fixed”. While the framework around which my invitation is phrased can often look quite generic – the underlying issues are always about people and relationships. What I “do” is design processes for engaging people in dialogue. What happens as a result of that is that we create plans that are owned, consultation processes that are genuinely dialogical/meaningful and solve human resource issues.
My toolkit consists of questions – rather a lot of them at times. I work from the perspective that there are no “taken for granteds” and my starting point is generally trying to explore the assumptions and hypotheses around which the particular problem or issue is constructed. One approach I use is Appreciative Inquiry.
I like working with problems. I see them as solutions. By that I mean that a particular kind of behaviour – whether it is bullying, excessive praise, stubbornness, stuckness etc… – is the only way at this moment in time that an individual or a team can give voice to an issue. As such, I approach problems from a benign, curious position. I don’t begin my work by assuming that this problem is a bad thing (which can be challenging for my clients sometimes!). In fact, it may be a very useful thing. It may contain rather a lot of information about how the whole system is communicating. That way, I avoid falling into the trap of blaming and I hope that I can approach each member of a team or organisation from an appreciative position. It gives me, and the organisation, a richer understanding of how this issue is relevant to the broader organisational system.
As well as working appreciatively and asking questions about what is going on overtly, I’m curious about what’s not said – the unconscious processes that contribute to organisational life – and more interestingly – the emotional climate in organisations. Because like it or not – we don’t leave our emotional selves at the front door and enter into a rational entity that is “organisation” even though there is a dominant discourse that organisations are “rational” entities. Organisations are emotion generating environments and asking people to be rational only is a fairly irrational request when you think about it.
Approaching consulting to organisations from this perspective means I offer insights that address the overt “problem” while also addressing the “covert” issues that may be informing it at a deep and unspoken level.