THE BLOG

Beyond Sage on the Stage Consulting

01/25/2014 01:03 am ET | Updated Mar 26, 2014

To borrow a phrase from the radically changing world of health care, the essence of organizational culture change can be boiled down to three words: "Physician, heal thyself"-- as in companies restoring optimum health to their enterprise from the inside out.

While many patients, anxious about their well-being, simply want the doctor to tell them what to do, that is, ultimately, a prescription for failure. Sustainable change only happens when people take full responsibility for their own condition.

Being told to "take two aspirins and see me in the morning" by someone with a framed medical school degree above their desk may be comforting in the short term, but it completely misses the point. It's a paradigm whose time has come and gone.

The long and disappointing history of organizational "change initiatives" bears this out. The data are there. Seventy percent of them fail. And the main reason that they fail is that most organizations that enter into the culture change process rely too much on outside experts -- smart people with big mortgages and nice clothes who invariably treat their "patients" as people incapable or unwilling to heal themselves.

Does the phrase "co-dependence" ring a bell?

If you expect your organization to make the kind of changes required for it to succeed in today's Hall of Mirrors economy, know this: the outside consultant as prescriber model (referred to in the OD world as "sage on the stage") has got to go. It's broken, obsolete, misleading, self-serving, out-of-date, funkadelic, silly, ineffective, inefficient, disappointing, bogus, and will not work.

Does the phrase "wart remover lotion" ring a bell?

I understand, of course, that your company's senior leaders need some kind of road map or blueprint to help them navigate their way through the mine field of organizational change. They are not, of course, about to embrace an "organic process" that does not frame out the strategies and tactics required to help your company become an agile, innovative, best-company-to-work-for enterprise.

Makes perfect sense.

But that's precisely the problem. Perfect sense is imperfect. In today's topsy-turvy corporate universe, you get can't there from here. There is no pre-existing roadmap, no off-the-shelf blueprint, no five-step plan. The path is made by walking on it. Emulating another company's best practices is a losing game. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It's the pitiful attempt to force-fit your company's culture into a Procrustean bed of someone else's limited imagination.

If you bring in outside consultants to help your company transform its culture, be mindful of this: No one outside of your company is going to transform your culture. The only way it's going to happen is if you, your CEO, senior team, and a critical mass of committed, collaborative, energized, creative, adaptive, change agents co-create the blueprint with your outside consultant, a person who has already made the transition from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side," someone with no ax to grind, nothing to prove, and is rooting for you to replace him or her as soon as possible.

One more thing: If you make the bold decision to engage the services of an outside consulting company, don't forget to ask them if they have a game plan in mind to help you internalize their expertise, skills and processes.

If not? Be prepared to have a very likable, well-dressed, acronym-savvy, report-generating, SUV-driving consultant with shiny shoes taking up residence in your organization like some kind of embedded reporter from CNN. And the only news you'll be likely to hear will have something to do with the most recently published Harvard-generated business case you won't have time to read.

Mitch Ditkoff is the co-founder and president of Idea Champions. He doesn't like to refer to himself as a consultant, although that's what some people call him. Instead, he refers to himself as a "change provocateur" or sometimes as an "innovation catalyst." His popular innovation blog is a destination for movers and shakers the world over. Recently he was voted one of the top five speakers in the field of innovation. Bats left. Throws left. Once bowled a 244.