The Consultant's Grain
Why (their) culture eats (your) strategy for breakfast
You might think that being a consultant is easy. Clients hire you to help change their company in some way. You make some recommendations and provide some insights and then…
The change rarely happens like you recommended.
Why is that? Well, we think consulting is:
analysis -> insight -> recommendation -> review -> implementation
At best this is too simple, at worst it’s flat out wrong. The problem is just below the surface - you’re hired to change their company in a way they’ve so far been unable to change. That simple addition starts to help us understand the complexity and challenges of “consulting” or “strategy”.
In summary - the key to effective consulting is to first understand the culture within the organization that resisted this change. And then recognize which recommendations go “with the grain” of the organization and which go “against the grain”. Going against the grain is a long slow process and requires changing people’s beliefs at scale.
Every company has a grain
When you’re hired to do a job you have to understand the central question:
Why have they been unable to make this change on their own?
Every company has a deep rooted culture. Some talk about it explicitly, some paint it on their walls, some just breathe it everyday. But every company has a culture. And that culture comes from the people - the messy organic interactions between founders, executives, workers, passionate employees, internal writing, internal talks, external press coverage and so much more.
So as you think about putting together a strategy and a set of recommendations for a client you have to think clearly about whether what you’re looking to do cuts with the grain or against the grain of the organization.
Going with the grain is fast, easy, seamless and requires moving fast and mostly just making the way forward more clear.
Example: I recall when I was working with Fundera a few years back and was helping them think through some content strategy. I pitched them on several concepts and themes to help elevate their content above just SEO-driven headlines. As an organization they were already primed to increase content quality and the founder Jared understood the value of content deeply so we almost instantly went from concept to details. This is a clear sign that you’re going with the grain - when you instantly get into logistics and execution. Fun fact, their series “the economics of…” that I recommended is still running today!
Going against the grain is hard, messy, slow and can cause friction.
Example: I worked with a B2B saas client last year who wanted to re-balance their organization from being too sales-driven to being more marketing driven. The problem? Sales ran the show. Here, even though they were explicitly seeking help there were many organizational and cultural blockers to enable marketing to be a first class citizen within the company rather than just playing support to sales. Driving change here was messy and slow and it was increasingly obvious that what was needed was more than simply hiring a new VP of marketing.
But how do we understand which way the grain goes? How do you understand culture as a consultant?
4 ways to better understand a client’s culture
Sometimes I wish I could be an organizational anthropologist for a living. The undocumented everyday lives of workers within systems (and how technology plays a role) is fascinating and nuanced. There’s no real blueprint to follow here. But here are some of the ways that I’ve found helpful to quickly get to the heart of what an organization’s culture is:
- Get close enough to smell the client - by this I mean you should be meeting with them face to face wherever possible. Sit in meetings, run workshops, sit next to them while they work, overhear them on phone calls, go for lunch with them. And the digital equivalent is just as important - don’t settle for the sanitized presentations and polished documents they send to you - get invited to their slack, get access to their internal wiki, get inside their basecamp, get under the skin and into the spaces between the work. This helps you listen and understand what’s really going on but it also allows you to observe the small things - what kinds of wins do they celebrate? Do they work cross-functionally? Are there obvious tensions between groups or people?
- Listen to the language - language and culture are inextricably linked so one of the best ways to understand culture if you can listen to enough chatter you can pick up on repeated phrases, repeated company myths, often cited documents or projects. Listen for patterns and repetition to really get a feel for the markers by which people are judging and aligning their work.
- Note the extreme - this is a tricky one and requires careful listening. I’ve found that when dealing with execs and founders of companies, they will often use extreme examples as a way to illustrate or emphasize their point. I used to think that these extremes were deliberately used to get the change they want faster. Increasingly, however, I’m beginning to realize that these extremes are often much closer to their mental models than they might like to admit. Pay attention and work hard to synthesize why they’re using this extreme example (that sounds crazy!) and how you might actually bring it to life or implement it, there’s more truth here than they’ll admit.
- Assume everything is deliberate - Don’t assume malice, but assume that everything is as it is because someone wanted it that way. Because mostly that’s how it happens. For example - a client wanting to hire their first VP marketing might be making a good decision but remember they got this far without a VP marketing! A series of deliberate actions led them here. If they’ve deprioritized something until now, ask why. What have they been prioritizing? That will shed light on their culture and how they think about their business. Actions speak louder than words.
Consulting Fast & Slow
You can (and should) go against the grain of the organization. That’s where the big important work is done. I think about it as consulting fast and slow (inspired by the book thinking fast and slow).
Fast consulting is the aforementioned projects, ideas and change that runs with the grain where your goal is to clarify, articulate and execute.
Slow consulting is the work that runs against the grain. I think about it a lot like running a campaign; you have to change mental models and belief systems at scale.
Sometimes you need to start grassroots and build momentum from an ever increasing number of people, sometimes it’s a focused drip drip for key execs to get them to change their mind. Either way, the key in my mind is to build an ever-increasing momentum for the direction you want to take.
Some ways you might campaign for change within an organization:
- Send out a weekly message - A weekly email/slack/basecamp message highlighting evidence, anecdotes, case studies and more that supports your case can help change minds over long periods of time. Everyone appreciates being informed of industry trends and people love reading this kind of information (surprisingly there’s often a lack of good industry trend reading within companies).
- Bring the outside in - Changing mental models and beliefs requires more than just telling someone. It requires showing them. Bringing the voice of the user/customer into the organization is powerful to reinforce a particular message. This can be done with focus groups or surveys but also just by surfacing and highlighting conversations on the web (i.e. twitter, quora, reddit etc).
- Speak for the employees - In the case where the culture you’re trying to change starts at the top of the organization you are in a unique position as a consultant to identify key frustrations within the company and bring them to the attention of the execs in a way that they might actually listen.
- Create language - Remember how language shapes culture? Well you can inject a little of your own culture by repeatedly using language, referencing examples and showcasing the direction you want to go in. This is especially true if you’re embedded within the organization and in their slack channels or working out of their office.
In addition, there’s a secret weapon I don’t see talked about much: internal blogging. Yes, I harp on a lot about blogging but seriously, serialized, shareable content is a highly effective tool for campaigning for change and helping people to see things from your point of view:
- Serialized - means you don’t have to create the magnum opus or manifesto overnight. Publish your thinking, publish your half-thoughts, publish your experiments, publish your links to interesting reading. The point here is to create a drip drip drip of ideas. So publish.
- Shareable - this is often the hardest piece to do well within an organization. Don’t let your campaign for change get trapped within an email thread or lost in the slack stream, give it a permanent home, ideally a URL (shocking I know!). How you do this will depend a lot on what your tech stack looks like. When I was working at Google you could spin up a strictly internal App Engine instance so I used it to build my own blog where I had my own URL and I could publish content. It helps when you do this to use a format that’s not commonly used internally. Standing out helps any idea gain mindshare.
If you only focus on one thing here though - hone in on the idea that it has to be shareable and easy to circulate. That could simply be with a google doc that has a big written “please distribute freely” label on it and access open to all within the company.
When I was at Google (pre-slack!) we used Google+ as an internal social network experience and that was effective at bubbling up disparate voices who were “blogging” internally. As an example of what this looked like this was a great piece that made it outside the walls: Steve Yegge’s platform rant.
The Consultant’s Grain
Ah. There’s one more piece to this puzzle. I’ve talked a lot about the organization’s grain. This was a concept I fully realized and started to deliberately address about a year and a half ago. But only more recently have I stumbled across the uncomfortable though obvious follow up: the consultant has a grain too.
Let’s reframe that positioning of why consulting is hard - you’re hired to change their company in a way they’ve so far been unable to change and you will attempt to do this in ways you’re comfortable with.
It’s important to realize that businesses come in so many more shapes and sizes than you read about in the tech press. And you’ll have some preconceived notions of how a business should operate, some of which may or may not work or be appropriate for a given client.
In short - while you can work against the grain within an organization up to a point, there is definitely a limit to the amount of friction you can generate. Too much friction and things will get set on fire. Projects, teams, people, ideas, budgets.
So when you’re considering change within an organization you have to understand your own bias and take a long hard look at which of your usual ideas and often-repeated mantras actually apply to this client, and which are pushing too far against the grain. And, importantly, which of your go-to ideas are explicitly with the grain of the organization.
Because without some kind of forward motion you’re not going to be able to stick around long enough to get the bigger change done.
Further reading on consulting
Hopefully this piece is relevant both for external consultants and for internal change agents. If you found this interesting here’s some further reads about the consulting world that made me think recently:
The management myth - a great rallying cry for the need for humanities and human thinking and some great context on where management consulting comes from in the first place.
Strategy as an unfolding network of associations (PDF) - kind of dense but fascinating case study of evaluating strategy within the context of culture:
The evidence from the case suggests that the concept of strategy can be reappraised. From strategy as a static set of choices made at a specific point in time to strategy as an unfolding network of people, shared experiences and artefacts that is constantly being remade.
Since strategy has almost inevitably been conceived in terms of what the leaders of an organization ‘plan’ to do in the future, strategy formation has, not surprisingly, tended to be treated as an analytic process for establishing long-range goals and action plans for an organization; that is, as one of formulation followed by implementation. As important as this emphasis may be, we mould argue that it is seriously limited, that the process needs to be viewed from a wider perspective so that the variety of ways in which strategies actually take shape can be considered. For over 10 years now, we have been researching the process of strategy formation based on the definition of strategy as ‘a pattern in a stream of decisions’
Small groups and consultancy - by the ever brilliant Matt Webb:
I don’t think strategy can be outsourced, I think it has to emerge from a company’s nature. So when strategy evolves, there has to be organisational change. When an organisation looks outside itself (for answers that should be derived from strategy) that says to me that it’s not thinking straight, that the organisation isn’t put together quite right yet. An organisation has these informal components, and cross-team small group meetings feel like a good way to weave them in.
The art of sharing - Jan Chipchase is a master at this and I can’t wait to read the full handbook but this excerpt is especially relevant for the sharing / campaign thinking I mention above.
Consultancy, Creativity and Cooking with Sunday Dinner - from the great Lindsey Slaby thinking about new ways of getting creative projects staffed, funded, connected and thought about. I love the strong emphasis on people. They are the capital at work here!
Venkatesh Rao on Q lab - Venkatesh’s new slack only! consulting project. Given my advocacy to getting into clients slack groups you can see why this resonated with me.
The Fieldguide to Independent Consulting - ok, I’m gonna sneak one of my own links in here but if you enjoyed this post you should read this little thought-starter around independent consulting.
The Web’s Grain - last but by no means least this excellent essay from Frank Chimero is where I stole the title of this post. It’s a beautiful meditation, not on consulting but just on the flow of different mediums. Highly recommended reading.
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