An Introduction by Peter Block
There are three themes that are newly developed in this edition of Flawless Consulting. The first is about what to look for: Is it useful to look at problems and what is not working, or might we better look at possibilities and what is working? The second is who should do the looking; there is growing evidence that change occurs best when clients, employees, citizens are brought together in groups to examine their own situation, especially their strengths, and develop their own alternative future. Finally, the third innovation in this edition is an expanded look at where the skills of Flawless Consulting are being applied; there are powerful new examples from a consultative teacher in a classroom and the collaborative practice of a heart surgeon.
What to Look For. We have been discovering that looking for problems, using the medical model of expert diagnoses focused on disease, is good in a crisis, but has serious limitations in mobilizing action towards something new. Traditional organizational consulting looks at deficiencies and tries to fix what is not working–cut costs, eliminate waste, merge functions, make people work better together, automate.
The process has the consultant do data collection on problems, analyze the results, define alternative actions and make recommendations. Intellectually sound, but logic and reason do not address the capacity of social systems to hold onto dysfunctional patterns and give lip service to new ways of working.
The alternative is to focus on strengths, gifts, capacities, specifically who in a work setting or community setting is doing something right. The new edition reflects what we are seeing in fields like Positive Psychology which has people learn more about their strengths. The book also now talks of the work in Positive Deviance, where the total effort is to find someone inside a community or organization who is succeeding and bring them into contact with the larger system. The work of Appreciative Inquiry and Asset Based Community Development are further examples of this movement toward focusing on gifts rather than deficiencies.
Who Does the Looking. Here we question the widely held belief that it takes an objective third party consultant or support person to see what is needed and suggest ways to make things better. While this can be very useful, there are conditions where the consultant is better off organizing employee and citizen gatherings designed to help a cross section of employees or citizens self assess where things stand and envision what the future might look like. In this way the consultant does not make third party recommendations. Rather the book suggests high engagement strategies where the idea generation is done by those with the power to act on those ideas.
This approach goes under many names: Whole System Change, Conference Model, Open Space, Art of Hosting, Future Search, World Café. All share certain principles which use a cross section of groups to focus on the current state, imagine a different future, make peer commitments and define for themselves ways of measuring progress.
New Settings for Flawless Consulting. We have heard from readers from the beginning that the basic skills of contracting, discovery and engaging people for action are applicable to more situations than the typical consultant client relationship. This new edition describes in some detail what this looks like.
Ward Mailliard is a high school teacher who has renegotiated his relationship with his students. He contracts with them as a consultant and turns to his advantage the reality that it is the students who are really in control in the classroom. Ward has successfully created a culture among students that is pro accountability, pro peer support for learning, and pro civility. This is making a difference in a world that often functions in the opposite way––we have too many classrooms with a culture of excuses, marginalization of high achieving kids, and a continuous stream of cliques and negative peer interaction. This is not an easy path and Ward is clear about the many bumps along the way.
The second new example of applying Flawless Consulting practices comes from the world of health care. Paul Uhlig has developed over a period of years what he calls Collaborative Rounds. Like Ward, he bases much of his innovation on the principles of contracting and relationship building described in the book.
In a world where physician is king, Paul, a thoracic surgeon himself, has created a structure that acknowledges the contribution of every person involved in the health of the patient. Doctors, nurses, social workers, family members, other support people, and the patient all meet in a circle during rounds to discuss the best course of action. This is a massive renegotiation of the traditional set of relationships, and when it is done, hard as it is to arrange, it produces amazing results.
This work in the classroom and the hospital is changing cultures that many think are impregnable. The change is occurring through new contracting, engagement and invitation, a far cry from most of the reform conversation that is about hard bargaining, employee rights and long disputes over funding and who has control. Ward and Paul are achieving reform in a quiet, local, and powerful way. Neither waited for permission or needed the sanction of the patriarchy…true radicals in the best sense.
A Brief Nod to the Virtual World. One other addition in this edition is a discussion of ways to consult long distance, through all the electronic tools we are increasingly attached to, or owned by. The discussion centers on when long distance works and when we need to be in the room together. Many of the consulting skills can be used on line and with a telephone; it just takes some care and recognition that there are limits to what is possible. Email is fine as long as you realize half the time it will not be read. Teleconferences and Web based discussions are also convenient, keeping in mind that everyone, all the time, is also doing something else during the connection. The point is not to be for or against the technology, only to be realistic about it.
The point of all this is to invite you into this third edition of Flawless Consulting. In addition to new content, we have also pruned it to make it lighter and moved what is not essential to the Web, where you can read and download at will. Finally, and most importantly, we have added more of Janis Nowlan’s delightful illustrations to ease digestion.