How to Effectively Use Management Consultants

12/01/2014 06:06 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

A management consultant, like a doctor, will diagnose the problem (illness), offer solutions (remedy), discuss the possible consequences of each alternative (the side effects), help to implement the decision (treatment), and observe closely to see that the suggestions are followed correctly to avoid unintended consequences (follow-up visits). And just as a doctor may work only with the patient or involve the family in the treatment, a consultant may work with just the CEO, the management group, or the total organization. Both the consultant and the doctor will reassess and change the course of action or treatment if necessary.

As a management consultant, I am often called on to help an organization in trouble, but it is easier to know when a person is ill and needs a doctor than when an organization is sick and needs a consultant. What are some of the problems that may require these services?

Personality clashes may cause a group to work ineffectively, relations may be strained by power conflicts between different groups, or leaders may be unable to steer an effective course of action. The problem could also be in the system as a whole: the labor market or physical conditions are untenable or there is a general climate of malaise. When a CEO or manager is unable to cope with these problems alone, it is time to call in a consultant. The consulting process can be applied to any organization: a school, hospital, corporate office, bank, retirement community, factory, shop.

There are times when the objective viewpoint of an outside specialist is essential to solving the problem, whether it be diagnosing the difficulty, locating it within the organization, devising a solution, or implementing the new course of action. Spotting and eradicating trouble relies on a collaborative effort between the client and the consultant. Without top management's support, little can be accomplished. The consultant needs will gain the necessary credibility by demonstrating knowledge of what questions to ask, how to listen, what to look for, and how to observe.

The consultant will diagnose the organization in order to answer the question "What is really going on?" using data gathered from inside of outside the organization. Questionnaires may be sent to all employees or just to representative groups or key people may be interviewed. The challenge is to ask the right questions so that the correct issues will be addressed. It is also important for the consultant to spend some time in the organization in order to observe the various interactions.

Frequently, the information is fed back into the system. This means that the findings are reported back, often anonymously to safeguard confidentiality, giving people in the organization some indication of the issues involved. This knowledge allows the decision makers to understand the results and participate in a plan of action.

For instance, let us take poor performance: People don't perform up-to-standards due to one of three reasons, they are willing, but unable to due to their own limitations; the question then is can they be trained? Or they have the ability and desire, but they are being prevented by other employees, management, lack of resources, or policies; the question then is can theses obstacle be removed? Or, people could perform, but are not willing due to laziness, lack of motivation or different priorities; the question here is what can be done to get them on-board? Can anyone else in the organization act as a coach? A consultant defines the problems with the employees and sees if they can generate ideas on how to improve their own performance with specific benchmarks for evaluations on progress.

The next step--implementation--is a series of interventions. Intervention means change, and change is always a risk and most people resist it. This step demands the ability to deal with the resistance as well as the sense of how far to push against it. The consultant needs to think through not only the intended consequences but also the possible unintended ones.

The evaluation phase may be challenging. Assessing whether the feedback and changes made are having a positive outcome is usually a process rather than an end product. The ability to deal with error and change direction if necessary is a critical skill in this area.

The last phase is termination, requiring the ability to know when to stop. This is not always easy, because a mutual dependence may have occurred, and the desire to continue this experience may be strong for both the people in the organization and the consultant.

Using the eyes and ears of a person from outside the organization will make it easier to discover a different perspective and promote a novel solution.