Process Consulting in Action

Using Schein’s process consulting philosophy and Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting model, my team and I helped the School of Business’ Office of Student and Alumni Engagement discover ways to improve their communication strategy with student organizations. Our goal was to gather data from organization members and faculty advisors, which included their process improvement ideas. We provided valuable feedback to our clients that targeted the original problem brought to us: a better way to advertise events and increase attendance rates from the business and surrounding VCU community. I think we met our goal as consultants because we provided our client with the tools and data necessary to put in place a viable solution for their department.

In early October, my team met with our clients to assess the situation and where we could be of help. Within the first five minutes of our active inquiry, Director, Doug Knapp and Assistant Director, Claire Calise, listed multiple problems in their office such as uncertainty about what student organization events take place, ways to better advertise these events, and ways to improve collaboration with other business units. I left the contract meeting with my head spinning about where our team needed to start. I, also, instinctively went into “solution-mode” wanting to solve each problem for them. Since I am close colleagues with Doug and Claire, my initial desire was to have a pre-packaged solution for them in order to quickly alleviate their problems. My team members were crucial throughout this process in helping me view consulting from more realistic and authentic perspective.

Immediately following the contract meeting, my team members decided to have a debrief meeting in order to make sense of the real problem. In our discussion, we were able to see clearly that before even looking at how best to publicize student organization events, we need to first understand how best to capture that data. I left our debrief meeting with a new awareness about the power of collaboration.  As much as I gravitated toward the doctor-patient relationship, my team kept me focused on on my role as process consultant (Schein, 1999, pg. 11). We purposely established a helping relationship designed to increase our clients’ own ability to develop and implement a sustainable action plan (Block, 2011, pg. 27). We were careful never to choose the best method for them. Our product was in the form of student data, which better informed our clients of effective communication strategies students were willing to use.

As their consultant, I did not interpret the survey data for them. To our clients’ credit, both Doug and Claire “owned” the problem and the solution (Schein, 1999, pg. 20). They never asked us to pick out the solution or implement their chosen communication method as a next step. Our group did a fantastic job of actively listening, facilitating the discussion, and helping them stay on target in the feedback meeting. Schein (1999) writes, “Only clients know what will ultimately work in their organizations. Consultants cannot…learn enough about the culture of an organization to suggest reliable new courses of action” (pg. 18). The decision ultimately remains with the clients. Our job was to “constructively intervene” so our clients were able to improve their organization on their own (Schein, 1999, pg. 18). In this way, our team established a helping relationship with our clients built on trust, collaboration, and respect. We created conditions under which learning and change are likely to happen down the road (Block, 2011, pg. 300). Our clients agreed to follow up with us six months after implementation as part of our original contract, which I think is a testament to the positive experience had by both parties.

Importance of Assertive and Authentic Behavior

After the presentation in class on preparing for the feedback meeting, I was reminded about the importance of using assertive and authentic language in my job. Block thinks being assertive is stating directly how you see the problem while not putting others down in the process (Block, pg. 221). The danger in being too aggressive in your language increases the amount of resistance you will get from the client and risks damaging the relationship.  As an advisor, I try to be as assertive and supportive as possible. If I have a student where I’m quickly seeing patterns of course withdraws or D or F grades in required business courses, I know he or she is not likely to succeed as a business major and want to help him or her get back on track toward degree completion. The School of Business has a deadline policy, which is heavily enforced by upper administration. If students don’t meet certain requirements by a certain time, then he or she needs to change their major outside of business. Coming from a helping/consulting mindset, however, involves not trying to alienate a student when telling them he or she has failed to meet expectations. In other words, I don’t want to make the student feel dumb and hopeless. I also don’t want to risk the student leaving VCU entirely (retention is key!). It’s my job to state the policy very directly and assertively, so they know early on that there are high expectations one must meet in order to be accepted into the business school.

I mirror Block’s technique in my advising/feedback meetings by describing what I’m seeing using the transcript without evaluating it. I’m simply presenting a clear, specific picture of the situation and letting the student do the analyzing of the situation. I’m also careful to use supportive language that assists them in developing a parallel plan. Block says “People need support in order to have the strength to take responsibility for problems” (Block, pg. 226). It’s still part of my job to assist students in their learning and development, so talking about possible changes that need to be made is essential. Most of the time students know what I’m going to say before I have to say it and already understand what needs to change. I think underneath the surface is the student’s own anxieties about finally dealing with their problems or perhaps facing up to their parents that business is really not the major for them. Just like any consultant, my goal is to have our advising/feedback meetings be the beginning of some positive action.

 

Misperception Trap in Consulting Project

When reading about Schein’s ORJI cycle, I thought about situations where I’ve fallen into a misperception trap that resulted with an inappropriate response based upon incorrect data. In my role as an academic advisor, I misjudge a student’s academic ability because I see a a bad midterm grade. A lot of times, however, advisors don’t know the full story until the student comes in to meet us for the first time and tells us about other issues like mental health, family, or personal relationships that have affected their ability to successfully complete assignments. There’s always more to the story than what’s at face value. Therefore, I try not to judge my students based on what I see on a transcript. I’m reminded again of how important it is when consulting/advising to be aware of your biases. Or, as Schein likes to call them perceptual filters that determine how we interpret an event and respond.

In my role as consultant for this course, I continually find myself filtering data that was not what I “expected” or “anticipated” based on my prior experience with my clients. I play a unique role as consultant because I’m close colleagues with my clients already. I’ve collaborated with both Claire and Doug for over four years doing events like new student orientation programming. They also come and present to my classes I teach to discuss the importance of getting engaged at the School of Business. I fall into the misperception trap of not seeing some of the gaps or areas for improvement when working with these people for so long. I feel as though this project has been a great way for me to be aware of my biases toward that office. I think Claire and Doug are great people and therefore see only the great things they do. The results of the student survey opened my eyes to issues that I never knew existed. I have to say I was surprised at the lack of communication between student organizations and the Office of Student and Alumni engagement.  My own bias toward Doug and Claire led me to assume that I thought there were great communication channels in place already. I definitely think this project has allowed me to see the inevitable flaws/challenges that every office faces. I am impressed that Doug and Claire are aware of the issue, and am thankful they brought it to my team for us to help them. I don’t want to discount all the amazing programs and events they do run well in that office. I just wanted this blog to be a reflection of how I need to continually access my ignorance. Schein states that “Accessing one’s ignorance by actively figuring out what one does not know is, in the end, one of the most important tools available” (Schein, 1999, pg. 98).

I’m even more appreciative that I get the opportunity to consult with a team. My team has helped me see things or ask questions that I normally wouldn’t have asked because I’ve assumed the office would have already done that. Because my team members are a true neutral party, they help me to use what Schein calls as systematic checking procedures where we are asking questions, using silence, and maintaining a spirit of inquiry (Schein, 1999, pg. 97-98). My team has helped me clarify the real problem in that office. I think this project would have been a lot harder had I done it alone and with people I already knew. I think internal consultants must have a harder time staying unbiased, which makes Schein’s recommendations for avoiding misperception traps all the more important.

Understanding Resistance during Discovery and Dialogue

Last night’s class involved a consulting simulation. My group members and I were part of the consulting firm sent in to help a watchmaking company resolve manufacturing concerns and customer service complaints.  After hearing Sam and Allison’s presentation on Discovery and Dialogue and presenting last week on resistance techniques, I carelessly thought  I’ve got all the knowledge necessary to ask the right questions and develop a rapport with a potential client. All you have to do is read the Block book, pick out the questions, follow the techniques, and ask those questions to your client. Wow, was I wrong.

I think the Block book makes it seem so easy – like following a recipe; however, when you’re in the moment and you are getting extreme resistance, it’s hard to remember the steps. It’s hard to keep that mentality that you want to help this person. I kept thinking how do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped or doesn’t view themselves as part of the problem? I don’t think you can. In fact, I think you have to use that resistance as constructive data and put it in your recommendations and results. Block says you can support and confront during a discovery meeting. A consultant should pick up on one word answers, controlling behavior, or portraying negative attitudes. His recommendation is to pick up on the cues, name it in the meeting, and wait for the client to respond. In the simulation, however, the client didn’t respond to idea of being resistant. It almost felt like the Block technique didn’t work. Or, maybe it’s my own personal bias toward not liking to deal with resistant people? I have to say I left class wondering a little bit about what biases I bring to the table as a consultant.

After last night’s class, I’m not sure what to expect in my own consulting project in regards to discovering how the operation currently functions in the School of Business’ Office of Student and Alumni Engagement. Since I work so closely and am personal friends with those colleagues, I don’t want it to bias me toward seeing some of serious implications of the problem. Now that I’m more aware of it, I can better manage it. The awareness is definitely a result of this class.

Academic Advisor as Consultant

I initially assumed I would learn more about external consulting when I signed up for this course. My assumptions were based on limited experience working with professional consultants hired from outside my organization.  I thought we would learn how to do external consulting in case we were ever in a situation that required our outside expertise and skills.  The first two courses in addition to the readings broadened my perspective about what it means to internally consult and how I currently practice process consulting as an academic advisor.

If you buy into Edgar Schein’s process consulting philosophy, then anyone at any point in their life could be a consultant. According to Schein, consulting is helping. However, Schein is careful to clarify that proper helping involves helping people help themselves. From an OD perspective, it’s about helping the system to solve problems on their own. The key is to build healthy, functioning relationships. It’s not a technique, but a philosophical approach to learning and development. If you think about all the different types of relationships we have on a personal and professional level, this philosophy can be applied to all different types of situations. The ability to be a helper applies perfectly to what I do professionally (I will spare you the ways I think this could also be a great approach with my husband, friends, family, etc.:)

As an advisor, I teach introductory courses about the university, meet individually with students to set up individualized development plans, and maintain an electronic learning management system (Blackboard) with the sole purpose to help my advisees formulate their own educational and career goals. I try to take a more developmental (or perhaps process consultation?) approach when it comes to advising in that I’m not prescriptive. I don’t tell them exactly what to do and what to take. I don’t take the doctor/patient approach. Instead, I try to focus more on the relationship that I develop with my students and view them as an active partner in this advising process. Part of my strategy involves establishing trust by asking questions and developing rapport. I suppose it could be tied to what Schein calls “pure inquiry” questioning in the initial advising stages then perhaps moving into a more diagnostic inquiry phase. I will admit there are times I want to say what they should be doing, but I’ve learned from experience, it’s a wasted effort if they can’t relate. I really enjoyed reading what Block says about accountability in that “All you can do is to work with clients in a way that increases the probabilities that they will follow the advice and make the effort to learn…” (Block, 2010, pg. 47 ). Flawless consulting/academic advising is developing the student’s expertise and learning potential – not mine. I can’t take it personal and I can’t expect them to always take my advice and recommendations. I’m looking forward to ways that this class can be good, positive reinforcement of my own professional philosophies when it comes to academic advising.