Yes! and... Chapter 3 - Blocking & Unblocking Clients

Generating & Co-Creating Strategy in the Theatre of Work

December 6, 2019

This post is part 3 of the Yes! And… series. Catch up on Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

Good strategy sessions, like good improv sessions, are a product of multiple actors working together to build scenes collaboratively. Typically, however, we spend more time thinking about how to craft good strategies than we do thinking about how to create productive strategy sparring sessions.

This reflects a core misunderstanding of what strategy is.

Strategy is not a single point in time powerpoint deck. Good strategy is an unfolding network of associations throughout an organization. And the unit of progress for the consultant is often the sparring session with the client.

As I reflect back on the most effective consulting engagements I’ve worked on it’s the ones where I was able to build a strong improv reflex with my client and where we had arrived at a Yes! And… mindset between us - enabling us to co-create strategy with little regard for ego.

But to get there requires deliberate work to unblock clients, in fact to realize that often the consultant is the one blocking the client! (I’ve certainly been guilty of this.)

And the output? Usually the most ordinary of strategies that simply make deliberate movement towards important new capacities.

Let’s start with the most basic improv technique of them all…

Use “Yes! And…” to stop yourself blocking clients

The first and most basic tool you learn in improv acting is the Yes! And… exercise - it helps actors be more creative and flow better through the process of opening up, not closing down.

The principle is simple and hinges on accepting your partner’s ideas and building on top of them instead of closing them down. “Yes! And…” is the simple phrase to remember but not every sentence has to literally start that way.

This concept is deeply ingrained in my consulting work.

When working with clients there’s a tendency for consultants (especially newer consultants that are less confident) to place a primacy on their own ideas, to “have the answers” and also to believe too strongly in their own approach - and in the process block the client from expressing their ideas.

At heart, the idea of yes and is about accepting the gambit from another actor and building on top of it - of opening up the world through the lens that they have offered and not attempting to close down their world and open your own - and spoiler alert, this is an effective approach to consulting!

Example: I remember consulting for The Wirecutter years ago (before they were acquired by the NYT) and attempting to convince them that they should create product review pages alongside their category pages They have actually started doing this relatively recently post-NYT acquisition. See example here: peleton review . I distinctly remember a conversation that went something like:

Instead, let’s imagine a conversation like this:

This conversation is obviously both made up and exaggerated but hopefully it demonstrates the premise of opening up the client to new ideas through accepting their prompts and building from them rather than trying to block their ideas to talk about your own.

This approach relies on two powerful ideas - firstly that everyone (clients & consultants included!) want their ideas to be listened to Listening could in fact turn out to be the ultimate consulting skill…. and that using the Yes! And… conversation as a tool ends up with a co-created strategy.

The Power (& Limits) of Co-creating Strategy

This Yes! And… mindset quickly leads to a generative strategy situation where the ideas, strategies and projects are co-created between the client and consultant.

I imagine a “branching” visualization like this (blue for client, green for consultant):

As I talk about in my frameworks post the co-creation process allows for more crucial client context to be part of the strategy (i.e. it’s more true) and it allows for more ownership from the client (i.e. the IKEA effect).

Example: Continuing the Wirecutter conversation above you can see how we’re already folding in more of the client context into the strategy and we’re already co-creating vs me (the consultant) just telling the client what to do. This process will better uncover exactly why these category reviews are part of their company DNA or more concrete examples of missed opportunities from not publishing stand alone review pages. This co-creation ultimately creates a shared vision of how we might move forward.

Of course - let’s get real for a moment the theatre of work and all this talk of improv only goes so far. You can’t keep building and bridging forever - and sometimes clients are simply going in the wrong direction.

So it’s useful to understand the situations where Yes! And… is most useful and powerful. The answer is at the start of the engagement or session to establish a base reality:

Upright Citizens Brigade improvisational theory suggests that Yes And is only the most important tool to an improviser at the beginning of scenes, when they are obligated to establish a Base Reality. Yes And, in this view, expedites the process of finding a Who, What, and Where for the scene, allowing a context to solidify on top of which an absurd element can be found. - source

I like this idea - that the most useful thing you need client input and co-creation on is the “base reality” - the “Who, What, Where”. For consultants coming in from the outside attempting to “solve problems” for clients the biggest flaw in generic strategies is not properly accounting for who is at the company, what we’re actually trying to solve and where this strategy will play out Recall from chapter 2 - there is no ‘just’ in consulting - clients are ecosystems in balance… .

And this can be useful because clients can ramble - they can get wrapped up in their arguments. This is no pejorative statement but rather just a function of how much time clients typically devote to “strategy” and improv thinking.

So the Yes! And… exercise can be powerful for co-creating strategy with clients accounting for their particular expertise and wisdom around the base reality of who, what where.

Example: in chapter two I illustrated a client where we have a shared joke for SEO consultants that come in and attempt to to improve content quality without appropriately understanding the base reality of content quantity being part of their cultural DNA. Of course early in the engagement I too was that SEO consultant coming in talking of content quality! Thankfully a keen intuitive sense of co-creating strategy with clients and opening up their ideas (rather than closing them down) led us to a place where we could get more nuanced and realistic around the quality/quantity ecosystem.

Of note here is that clients often have a very keen intuitive sense of their specific market - while often failing to properly draw analogies from other markets that they are less familiar with. Helping clients understand adjacent and oblique markets can really aid their own generated strategies.

So long as the foundations are co-created with the client the consultant is then free to build on them with their own ideas and point of view.

All of this, however, relies on being able to get clients to a comfortable Yes! And… mode in the first place. This co-creation process feels a lot like an improv session (or a series of sessions) and good improv requires two (or more) actors! Unfortunately, I sometimes find that clients are like blocked actors.

They have been trained to shut down their open-world generative side and they need coaxing and coaching to open up.

Unblocking Clients & Original Strategy

Blocked clients are frustrating and confusing to work with - partly because it’s very difficult to disentangle your own presence from them being blocked and partly because you quickly hit personal bias, emotional ideas and feelings of identity and security….

Here there be dragons.

Some of the ways I’ve encountered blocked clients:

For all of these situations, Impro has delightful and rich ideas to help you coach actors into unblocking themselves. The book is very much about how to teach people to unblock themselves - which again is valuable for a consultant.

Many of these can be mitigated or helped through a default optimistic and positive attitude and mindset as outlined in chapter 2 - optimism as an operating system. Remember the powerful phrase “this is a solvable problem”.

Let’s take a look at one specific situation that I see a lot however and that Impro has a particularly good solution for - the situation where a client expects original strategy or clever strategy from the consultant. From Impro:

Originality

Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly what originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise things that are avant-garde.

We have a concept of originality based on things that already exist. I’m told that avant-garde theatre groups in Japan are just like those in the West — well of course, or how would we know what they were? Anyone can run an avant-garde theatre group ; you just get the actors to lie naked in heaps or outstare the audience, or move in extreme slow motion, or whatever the fashion is. But the real avant-garde aren’t imitating what other people are doing, or what they did forty years ago; they’re solving the problems that need solving, like how to get a popular theatre with some worth-while content, and they may not look avant-garde at all !

The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever.

They’ll say and do all sorts of inappropriate things. If someone says ‘What’s for supper?’ a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow. He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he’d just said ‘fish’ Look at your fish! is a good reference here for the power in un-original things… the audience would have been delighted.

Hopefully it’s obvious how painfully relevant this is for the client who expects “original” or “clever” strategy. The simple “fish” strategy is usually the right answer - and clients that expect extravagant or over-engineered strategies are actually blocking the consultant.

Impro has valuable insights and strategies here - and the good news / bad news is that the most effective way to unblock clients here is simple and hard: have them experience good improv.

The book walks through exercises and ideas for coaching actors into new ways of thinking and explaining the power of overcoming insecurity, overcoming trying to be original, overcoming status issues and so much more.

Of course, the best way to open up is through keeping this Yes! And… refrain in mind - it reminds me to keep the positive edge and optimism. There are no bad ideas! Blocked clients often don’t realize they’re blocking!

It keeps you in the beginner’s mind of accepting that the client knows their business better than you do - so you push them to generate new directions themselves rather than providing them “answers” of what to do.

And in fact “answers” and “solutions” are not really what we’re being hired for anyway…

Take a Hard Look in the Mirror

All of this talk of blocked clients however misses something important - in my own work, 80% of the time when you feel the client is blocked - it is you the consultant that is blocking the client!

The consultant’s ego places a high value on your own ideas - you want to be the hero that has the “right” answers. And in fact you can feel like a fraud if you work on a consulting project where you don’t have any original ideas.

This thinking will lead you into trouble.

Instead - remember that mostly there is no “correct” strategy and strategy is certainly not a stable idea - it’s an unfolding network of ideas. I love this quote from Stripe Partners:

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. - source: strategy is an unfolding network of associations

In my experience when you feel a client is blocked the most useful default response is to move out of the way!

Look for ways to bridge from the client’s ideas to new directions that are only slightly divergent and position you to unfold into a correct strategy later on. This can be paradoxical to begin with (how can I feel good about helping the client go in the wrong direction?) but in fact the most useful thing you can provide the client is forward motion and momentum.

Shaping the strategy when it’s “in-motion” is much easier than blocking and shaping the strategy from a standing start.

In fact - we can extend this idea further. There is no right or wrong strategy. Most consulting projects have nothing to do with solving problems - instead they’re all about building new capacities…

Consultant as Capacity Builder

In Chapter 2 we looked at client organizations as ecosystems in balance. Even if we adopt Yes! And… ideas and co-create strategies with our clients there will be a gap between the strategies on paper and the strategies in reality.

To this end, it’s important to understand the type of consultant that you’re trying to be: a “problem solver” or a “capacity builder”

This wonderful piece sums up the two mental models:

Consultants are ideally capacity builders who develop links between research and practice rather than problem solvers. They provide methods and tools to help others expand their capabilities and skills on an ongoing basis, thereby transforming concepts into practical know-how and results. These consultants may have knowledge in a variety of areas, but the contribution they make is framed as building capacity for learning and interpersonal connections rather than providing expertise.

They go on to identify four core mental models that separate problem solvers and capacity builders:

Much like when I stumbled across “strategy & stewardship” this concept of “capacity building vs problem solving” gives language to something I’ve known intuitively for a long time.

It’s going to be foundational to my thinking about consulting and I suggest you give this a close read: Consultants as problem solvers or capacity builders?

I’d go one step beyond this article however to argue that there are no problems inside organizations - a problem is just a point between two systems! (as per Chapter 2).

There are no problem solutions without building new capacities…

Build New Capacities by Interrupting Routines

For consultants that are embracing the nature of co-creating strategy and where we are aiming to build new capacities the central problem of consulting then becomes:

How do we help clients move out of the status quo to do new things? And where will the resources for these new things come from?

Let’s turn to Impro for inspiration again… Here’s Keith on the power of interrupting routines:

If I say ‘Make up a story’, then most people are paralysed. If I say ‘describe a routine and then interrupt it’, people see no problem. A film like The Last Detail is based on the routine of two sailors travelling across America with a prisoner whom they have to deliver to a prison. The routine is interrupted by their decision to give him a good time. The story I fantasised earlier about the bear who chased me was presumably an interruption of the routine ‘Walking through the forest’. Red Riding Hood presents an interruption of the routine ‘Taking a basket of goodies to Grandma’. Many people think of finding more interesting routines, which doesn’t solve the problem.

It may be interesting to have a vet rectally examining an elephant, or to show brain surgeons doing a particularly delicate operation, but these activities remain routines. If two lavatory attendants break a routine by starting a brain operation, or if a window cleaner begins to examine the elephant, then this is likely to generate a narrative. Conversely, two brain surgeons working as lavatory cleaners immediately sounds like part of a story. If I describe mountaineers climbing a mountain, then the routine says that they first climb it, and then they climb down, which isn’t much of a story. A film of a mountain climb isn’t necessarily anything more than a documentary.

While this might seem less relevant for business contexts - this paralyzed reaction to “make up a story” is exactly the same as many employees and teams when faced with a question of “doing a new thing” (i.e. building a new capacity).

Further - employees and teams are heavily incentivized to maintain the status quo. Even if it’s made clear the importance of doing something new their muscle memory is built around maintaining and optimizing the status quo…

The trick is in interrupting routines. And there’s a good way and a bad way to do that.

The bad way to interrupt routines is through a deliberate intervention - something like an off-site. This forcibly removes people from the environment usually for a day or two of “blue sky thinking” and “brainstorming”. There is a time and a place for them but mostly off-sites will allow for new ways of thinking but not new ways of doing.

Rather - the better way to interrupt routines is via a thorough understanding of existing workflows, processes and routines I’m reminded of the phrase amatuers talk strategy, experts talk logistics here . Most new capacities relate to an existing routine either directly or indirectly and the job of the consultant is to map the organization effectively to understand where and how we can interrupt to build new routines.

Example: let’s return to that Wirecutter example to see how the idea of “growing organic traffic” translates into a co-created strategy for “experimenting with review pages”. So how? With what resource? Here the idea of interrupting routines is useful. Once you clearly understand how the workflow of research -> planning - > publishing works at a company like The Wirecutter you would be able to identify parts of the research & planning routines that can be interrupted with new data or new insights to enable the teams to look at publishing review pages when the opportunities emerges from the data.

The trick is not to get new capacities off the ground from a standing start but to interrupt routines to get new capacities built “in-flow” of existing teams and workflows.

This “just in time” strategy of hijacking an existing routines in-flow and re-directing some portion of it into a new capacity experiment is way easier than getting a new process kicked off from a standing start.

Getting new capacities off the ground from scratch requires a herculean effort and while this is good for the ego complex of the consultant - as they imagine themselves moving mountains and molding the organization like clay - the truth is that our job is not to change the organization but to help the organization change themselves…

Conclusion

As I reflect back on the most effective consulting engagements I’ve worked on it’s the ones where I was able to build a strong improv reflex with my client and where we had arrived at a Yes! And… mindset between us - enabling us to co-create strategy with little regard for ego.

And the output? Usually the most ordinary of strategies that simply make deliberate movement towards important new capacities.

Up next in the Yes! And… series we look at a new skill consultants need to learn: status switching.


This blog is written by Tom Critchlow and this piece is part of an ongoing strategy series. If you like what you read please leave a comment below or sign up for my Tinyletter.