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Un-Sexy, Boring Management Consulting May Be Your Organization’s Perfect Fix. Here’s How.

I may have the least sexy area of expertise in the entire management consulting universe. While my peers and colleagues do great work in trendy areas like vision setting, leadership style discovery, Agile project management, innovation, DE&I, and the like, I’m sitting over here talking about what’s going on in meetings, whether graphs look forward, and how decisions get made day in and day out.  Bo-ring.

[[RELATED: YOUR MANAGEMENT CULTURE DRIVES OR THWARTS DE&I]]

And yet…

“We need to do a better job setting our strategic objectives this year,” a prospective client tells me.

Now, I don’t know how things work where you live, but in my world strategic planning is beautiful and alluring. What could be more compelling than helping a company’s leadership decide, together, what they want to get their entire organization to accomplish over the next one to five years? It’s unarguably crucial. It impacts everyone, and everything. It’s OMG-level important, and we consultants are positively dying to help companies do it. Many of us do a great job at it, too.

But…

In this case, with a few questions, I soon learn that “do a better job” isn’t really about the process or the objectives. What this client really needs is for something different to happen this year so that the beautiful objectives set by leaders actually get done this time around. That’s what hasn’t been happening.

Enter Mr. Boring with, “what do you do with your objectives after you create them? How do they get woven into the actual work and meetings in the organization? Do they appear in graphs?” Strategic planning is great, but no amount of objective setting automatically leads to objective delivery.

“Well, they get sent out and discussed, but then we tend not to work on them. Oh. Hmm. Yeah. Execution could use a look.”

Thus begins one conversation.

[[RELATED: TOUGHER ON THE TOP: WHY I HOLD SENIOR LEADERS TO A HIGHER STANDARD]]

Or…

“We’re going to take time to reflect as a leadership team on our individual styles and values so that we show up as authentic and transparent,” claims another client proudly.

Whoa. Wshew. Be still my heart. There’s nothing more popular than working with leaders on how their individual preferences, unique approaches, and particular perspectives fuel their personal brands. Cross this with the call we’re all hearing for authenticity and transparency, and you’ve set up a hero’s journey of reflection, self-discovery, and personal development that rises to reality-TV levels of intensity. Again, it’s legitimately important, and several of my contemporaries do a great job helping senior leaders go there.

Except…

In this case I discover that the problem they’re solving for, “how we show up,” is based on feedback from an employee survey. At issue is the employees’ perception that decision-making by leadership happens in a vacuum, divorced from reality.

“Great,” says Captain Uncool. “Style is super important. But how have your team members and their subordinate teams agreed to build transparency into decision-making every day? How does leadership and management consistently ensure that people understand not just what has been decided, but why?” Deep personal reflection may not be the ticket.

“Hmm. I guess we mostly just tell people what to do next.” Thus begins another conversation.

[[RELATED: QUESTION AUTHORITY – A WORKPLACE IMPERATIVE]]

Yeah, it’s true. I’m the weirdo management consultant who cares deeply about whether your charts are forward-looking and whether your group decision-making follows a rational process. I talk about organizational immune responses and systemically habituated behavioral patterns. I point out that most research on group problem solving doesn’t apply directly to management teams (because it was run on groups of strangers), and I pay attention to how much time staff meetings spend looking forward (versus talking about current status or history). It’s OK. Don’t try to console me. I’ve made peace with my oddity.

Here’s why…

There’s a whole bunch of interesting, shiny stuff you can work on in an organization, and it’s all potentially quite useful. But whatever you choose – vision-setting, transparency, accountability, agility, innovation, DE&I, or the like – one inconvenient fact remains: in real life, it all eventually gets forced through the keyhole of management habits and systematic behavior. If the people meeting at all levels to run the company regularly look at new and different information and decide whether to change things based on what it tells them – what I call Iterative Management® – any of those highly attractive efforts may have legs. But if the keyhole is too small – if management as a whole is more likely to filter out new information instead of seeking it, discourage messengers from bringing contrary news instead of rewarding them, and hold back change instead of enabling it, those beautiful and important initiatives will all fall equally flat. Everyone will be left with only frustration and the vague sense that “nothing ever really gets better around here. Which means, worst of all, the next initiative will have an even steeper hill to climb yet no greater chance of success.

[[RELATED VIDEO: FIVE KEY PRACTICES FOR ITERATIVE MANAGEMENT]]

Don’t get me wrong. The exciting, alluring stuff can have extremely high value. It’s worth a look, and can be especially powerful with external expert support. But please accept this as a friendly reminder: if you find yourself trying to do those things but getting consistently stuck, or if you’re trying to do those things as a force-fit solution for a more systemic problem, well then – take it from Mr. Boring – your best step might not be to just try harder. It might instead be hiding in the least sexy area of management consulting you can possibly imagine.

Want more? Visit the Group Harmonics Industry Intelligence Archive for ideas, whitepapers, and case studies about management culture and how it impacts so many facets of the organization.

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