Any engagement’s usefulness to an organization depends on the degree to which members reach accord

on the nature of problems and opportunities and on appropriate corrective actions. Otherwise, the diagnosis won’t be accepted, recommendations won’t be implemented, and valid data may be withheld. To provide sound and convincing recommendations, a consultant must be persuasive and have finely tuned analytic skills. But more important is the ability to design and conduct a process for (1) building an agreement about what steps are necessary and (2) establishing the momentum to see these steps through. An observation by one consultant summarizes this well.

“To me, effective consulting means convincing a client to take some action. But that is the tip of the iceberg. What supports that is establishing enough agreement within the organization that the action makes sense—in other words, not only getting the client to move, but getting enough support so that the movement will be successful. To do that, a consultant needs superb problem-solving techniques and the ability to persuade the client through the logic of his analysis. In addition, enough key players must be on board, each with a stake in the solution, so that it will succeed. So the consultant needs to develop a process through which he can identify whom it is important to involve and how to interest them.”

Consultants can gauge and develop a client’s readiness and commitment to change by considering the following questions.

What information does the client readily accept or resist?
What unexpressed motives might there be for seeking our assistance?
What kinds of data does this client resist supplying? Why?
How willing are members of the organization, individually and together, to work with us on solving these problems and diagnosing this situation?
How can we shape the process and influence the relationship to increase the client’s readiness for needed corrective action?
Are these executives willing to learn new management methods and practices?
Do those at higher levels listen? Will they be influenced by the suggestions of people lower down? If the project increases upward communication, how will top levels of management respond?
To what extent will this client regard a contribution to overall organizational effectiveness and adaptability as a legitimate and desirable objective?
Managers should not necessarily expect their advisers to ask these questions. But they should expect that consultants will be concerned with issues of this kind during each phase of the engagement.

In addition to increasing commitment through client involvement during each phase, the consultant may kindle enthusiasm with the help of an ally from the organization (not necessarily the person most responsible for the engagement). Whatever the ally’s place in the organization, he or she must understand the consultant’s purposes and problems. Such a sponsor can be invaluable in providing insight about the company’s functioning, new sources of information, or possible trouble spots. The role is similar to that of informant-collaborator in field research in cultural anthropology, and it is often most successful when not explicitly sought.

If conducted skillfully, interviews to gather information can at the same time build trust and readiness to accept the need for change throughout the organization. The consultant’s approach should demonstrate that the reason for the interviews is not to discover what’s wrong in order to allocate blame but to encourage constructive ideas for improvement. Then members at all levels of the organization come to see the project as helpful, not as unwanted inquisition. By locating potential resistance or acceptance, the interviews help the consultant learn which corrective actions will work and almost always reveal more sound solutions and more willingness to confront difficulty than upper management had expected. And they may also reveal that potential resisters have valid data and viewpoints. Wise consultants learn that “resistance” often indicates sources of especially important and otherwise unobtainable insight.

The relationship with the principal client is especially important in developing consensus and commitment. From the beginning, an effective relationship becomes a collaborative search for acceptable answers to the client’s real concerns. Ideally, each meeting involves two-way reporting on what has been done since the last contact and discussion of what both parties should do next. In this way a process of mutual influence develops, with natural shifts in agenda and focus as the project continues.

Although I have somewhat exaggerated the level of collaboration usually possible, I am convinced that effective management consulting is difficult unless the relationship moves farther in a collaborative direction than most clients expect. Successful consulting is expensive not only because good consultants’ fees are high but also because senior managers should be involved throughout the process.