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You probably remember the old saw about the wisdom of bringing a knife to a gunfight. Obviously you’ll be out matched and have a bad day. Yet, so much of the thinking that goes into shaping and changing companies revolves around the tools and tactics that a consultant brings to the table (the knife), rather that the reasons for them to be used (the gunfight).

This isn’t helped by the fact that many change consultants and coaches are clueless about how to run a company day to day and how to manage people with varying interests and agendas. What usually happens is the consultant will bring in whatever toolset they have developed (or are required to use) and apply tactics to the situation without developing an overall strategy.

For example, a closely held company was run by the four people who founded it. Over the ten years it’s been in operation, a lot of the control became concentrated with one autocratic founder. This person rubbed everyone, including customers, the wrong way. Yet, because of loyalty, and perhaps fear, the other three founders ignored his behavior. As would be expected, this individual’s performance began to affect the company negatively. A consultant we know was hired to help them sort out the situation.

Early on, the consultant chose to perform a 360 review, a survey that collects opinions and feelings about the team from selected staff members and then synthesizes their responses into a management report. The participants were told it was anonymous. Predictably, the frustrated founders and staff unloaded on the difficult, but powerful manager, thinking they could hide in the language of the document. In the report debrief, the problem manager knew exactly who made what comments. Result: Two managers reporting to the founders were fired and the consultant was handed his hat. Now the company was in a worse position than had it done nothing.



If an organization is underperforming, or dysfunctional, it needs change. Change requires planning and deep understanding of the existing state of the business, its history and the alliances that have built up over time. It also requires the careful setting of goals so that the reason for change is clear to everyone. People generally don’t like change, so it works better if they understand why it’s happening.

The change in this case, altering the behavior of an erring manager or his removal, was a traumatic event. The balance of the management team needed something to hang on to during the process, because they had not been making rational decisions. They made emotional decisions that they used logic to justify. If the three founders were making rational decisions they would have never let power become concentrated in the first place.

The first step in any change is understanding why you’re doing it. What do you want to have happen? What does the future look like? With that future in mind, what price are you willing to pay to achieve it? Once you know that, you can make an intelligent decision about the tools and tactics you’ll use. Never go forward without a clear goal in mind. Change is difficult and disruptive; you need a reason to do it.

Beware of the consultant that says she can fix you, or starts the conversation by telling you how she’s fixed problems with other clients instead of asking you deep and possibly uncomfortable questions. If you feel a little bit anxious or upset, you probably have the right consultant.