Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

To Diagnose or not to Diagnose?

The usual story about consultants checking your watch and telling you what time it is, has preoccupied me for a while now…primarily because it’s often true. The presumption behind the story is that the client knows his issues well and doesn’t need any diagnostic. In fact, increasingly consultants don’t do diagnostic or analysis any more, at least not officially and primarily because clients don’t want to pay for this service. From what you hear from consultants these days, they seem to take the description of the problem without any discussion and get straight into the socialisation of a solution and stakeholder management.

Really? Do we go to the doctor and expect him to prescribe medicine without any consultation? Do we go to the garage and expect the mechanic to magically pronounce what’s wrong with our car without running some tests and importantly listening to the symptoms? Do we go to our lawyer and expect him to take some action without an explanation of what the case is? To be a bit catholic for a second, do we go to the priest and ask for forgiveness in confession without outlining what we’ve done?

More to the point, doesn’t the act of diagnosis actually improve the result? In many cases,  explaining the situation through some intelligent questioning is the most critical process…it leads to greater clarity about the issue, it oftens forces one to re-examine the situation more critically and dispassionately, and it therefore starts the journey of finding the right solution. Note, I don’t say the ‘best’ solution…that is something which exists only in text books written in a sort of post dated, post rationalised, case study perspective which conveniently ignores the messy, disruptive and chaotic reality of getting to something that’s acceptable.

One of the reasons why knowledge management databases don’t work is precisely because the person reading the solution has not done the diagnostic. How can you trust a solution if you’ve not been involved in finding it? You’ll hear things like, “my client’s needs are different”, “they are very unique”, “the circumstances were unusual”. All of these things could be correct…however the reality  is, as anyone involved in our dodgy profession knows, unless our client has been actively involved in describing and then finding the solution, they will not ‘buy-in’.

Part of the issue with our strange line of work is that, like a portrait painter, telling or showing the reality, is often a poor strategy for getting paid! However, if we are to maintain any sort of credibility, honesty, transparency and independence need to remain front and centre of how we act…and diagnosis forms a key part of that.

Categories: Consulting

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2 replies

  1. Ben this is so bang on … how many millions of dollars have businesses wasted by not answering the right question. Of all the functions that consultants can play it is to help, with an objective ear, organisations think through what’s really the problem so that any response created has the best chances of success.
    I am bemused by the concept of ‘meetings to prepare for meetings’ – in the process of discovery, shouldn’t the preparation be … what questions can I ask? But no, the meetings to prepare for meetings are to work out our solutions, the scope of the project, who will be on the team .. all without having discovered the question/opportuity that client is talking about.

    How refreshing if the approach would be to … go with a blank sheet of paper, listen, ask questions, think creatively on our feet about ideas that are immediately tested with the client so that any response is created in their world, not that of the consultant?
    In the process of discovery (diagnosis as you put it) the most damaging mindset is one where a hypothesis is already formed. Then we only listen to what will support that, rather than ‘hearing’ what is really being said.


  2. It’s a bit of a two-edged sword I think (and forgive me for being a bit contentious):

    On one hand you have organisations who see diagnostics and/or analysis as an overhead because they want quick, rapid fire results and see Consultants as being able to deliver this for them.

    On the other hand you get Consultants (especially those from the big players) who come armed with an off-the-shelf set of pre-defined tools/approaches (which probably do not include diagnostics/analysis) because they want to be seen to deliver a solution in double quick time thereby justifying their engagement (and extortionate fees).

    On a number of occasions I have gone into organisations “post Consultants” who have tried to deliver a solution which was simply unworkable (probably for the reasons quoted above). My first piece of work was to always “Establish a Baseline” … meaning where is the organisation at regarding people, process and systems so any subsequent activity will enable the measurement of progress toward adoption and readiness.

    Only by doing diagnostics/analysis are you able to create bespoke approaches to solve specific problems or deliver appropriate solutions.

    As the much over-used saying goes … You don’t know where you are going until you know where you have been (or in this case where you are).


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