Trading the Consultant’s Black Box for Shared Knowledge

Long before I committed to a consulting career, I recall management colleagues observing that consultants rely on a black box of secret knowledge and processes they use by sleight of hand to extract money from our pockets into theirs.

That image alone might have deterred me from discovering how satisfying a consulting career can be.  Fortunately I apprenticed with a consulting group that believes in teaching clients to do as much as they can learn to do for themselves.  This belief never made my mentors very profitable. They didn’t care. They measured success by the legacy of their work.

Teaching others what you do is also the most demanding and very best way to hone your own knowledge and skills.  For the third time I am training a team of volunteer leaders to act as facilitators and drive the outcome of a summit.  This latest team of six volunteer facilitators will guide 400 people through a visioning process to change how people are prepared to enter the profession. This team desperately wants a great outcome for their profession and they naturally want to be seen as capable leaders by their peers. For all the right reasons, they are peppering me with question after question about why and how these group processes work. 

Breaking down everything I do somewhat instinctively into detailed instructions and resources others can follow is the most demanding mental work I do.  Roger Martin describes this phenomenon as a knowledge funnel in The Design of Business.  I concluded after reading his explanation that this is how organizational learning occurs—those with an aptitude for exploring mystery and uncertainty find ways to turn what works first into heuristics that other skilled people like my volunteer facilitators can learn.  This knowledge funnel ultimately leads to algorithms anyone can use to produce repeatable results.

I doubt I will ever be able to turn my consulting practices into algorithms. There’s too much of the human dynamic in processes that help groups of people see the options for their future and act with a shared vision to make the most of their opportunities. 

Teaching others the why and how of consulting work requires a lot of effort by both consultant and client. However, teaching others how to help themselves is the best way to deliver on the Signature i measure of success:  are more leaders able to lead the change they want?

No consultant can pull change leaders out of a black box. Consulting contracts end; the client’s work always continues.  Our best legacy is teaching them to do the work when we are gone.