Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How charities use and abuse consultants

It's coming up to a year since I set up my consultancy, Stepping Out, and I'm glad to say we've worked with about 25 clients - many in the third sector.

So what have we learned about how the sector uses external advisers?

Broadly, clients come in one of three types: Adventurers, Micro-Managers and Ditherers.

The Adventurers have a clear idea of what they want from you, yet are open to advice. They have a sensible, faff-free process for hiring you that respects everyone's time. They know you bring something new and welcome you into their world.

Crucially, the Adventurers roll their sleeves up too, learning from you as they go, rather than seeing you just as a hired hand. And should the project change, you can have a sensible conversation without them getting in a tizz. Trust rules.

At the other end of the scale are the Micro-Managers. Ostensibly, they want help, but their fixed ideas make them impregnable to advice. When searching for a consultant, they set up such a drawn-out process that many of the better ones walk away.

If they go on to choose you from the 50 consultants they have met, you're then handed a shopping list of stuff to report back on every week. If you can't comply, the relationship starts creaking. Raise this with them and they get very shirty. You seldom make any real money because they're always on the phone to you about something. In truth, the Micro-Managers get little value from external support: they may as well do it themselves and save the money.

But the trickiest group by far is the Ditherers. They seek outside help because they are lost in their jobs, fearful of the future and haven't done any new thinking for a decade. Which is fine, but their organisations are often in such a bad state that, as an adviser, it's impossible to know where to start. But you do start - and then halfway through (and this always happens) they shift the goalposts and you're back to square one.

Ditherers also tend to be easily distracted by day-to-day fire-fighting - and these days, especially, a general sense of despair as the abyss beckons. As a consultant, you end up in a bubble, struggling to gain any traction in the organisation. The assignment ends in a friendly enough way but with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction on both sides. The Ditherers then pick up the phone to another consultant and the whole dance starts again.

OK, these are caricatures and I am happy to report that nearly all of our clients are firm Adventurers. But we come across Micro-Managers and Ditherers in the third sector all the time - more than in the public sector, I have to say. Fortunately, one becomes more skilled at spotting them. Only Adventurers really benefit from external consultancy.

Before they splash out, then, I would invite readers of Third Sector to reflect on whether they are, in truth, an Adventurer, Micro-Manager or a Ditherer. You might save yourself a lot of money - and your advisers a lot of heartache.


Sarah Jayne Hewitt said...

Craig - great article, I recognise all three groups and have had clients in all of the categories.

In fact, I got so frustrated in 2007 that I sacked the Third Sector altogether and headed off into Public once more. I came back in 2010 and am far more choosy about who I work with to avoid all the headaches that I experienced before.

Thank you for voicing this issue so eloquently. It acts as a good reminder to me to remain vigilant in routing out Micro-Managers and Ditherers!

Rob 'Arris said...

I enjoyed that post Craig and yes I too can identify the three main groups of people I have worked with, employed, and worked for. One of the interesting points for me is that you and Sarah both agree that the biggest ditherers and micro managers are in the third sector. Yet your 'bread and butter' and championing of said sector is supportive and nurturing. You have to be realistic and not evangelical about it i guess.

One point that i am clear on is that the 3rd sector finds itself in a much changed position (contracting, statutory roles, tendering & procurement, coming off a significant growth period, etc the list goes on ). The implied expectation that all managers will be dynamic go getters with the hunger to achieve greatness and press ahead with amazing strategic precision is frankly naive (my license to exaggerate is acknowledged!).

The fact that most 3rd sector orgs still rely pretty much on local volunteers to sit on boards and make decisions pretty much reflects and dictates the ability of the manager to do all of the dynamic things that we expect and see of public sector managers....hmmmph....this is where the argument collapses dramatically in my view. Maybe i missed a few meetings somewhere along the line or i have been clearly doing business with the wrong representatives of the public sector but i dont see better managers there at all; i see better paid managers, larger infrastructure to be invisible in and a distinct lack of ownership of what is being delivered. It also has to be acknowledged that the public sector is established in respect of infrastrucure - its a completely different place to manage. Loads of work for consultants but ditherers definitely. The facts in terms of success and productivity in the public sector are self evident, hence the shift towards employing ex private sector chief execs (here's another point, the public sector can financially afford to make sweeping change, the 3rd sector struggles to do that). What is also clear to me is that a manager in a 3rd sector organisation is usually far more exposed in respect of decision making, takes bigger risks and usually manages a much smaller team where personal relationships are more difficult and decisions cant just be thrown down from upon high. Your camparing or analyisng chalk and cheese in my view and thats why i enjoyed reading your post but i dont fully agree with it (for once).

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Thanks Sarah, Rob for your comments. This has attracted more emails and general buzz than most of my others put together. Thanks for adding to that with your comments. Sarah - good luck this time round. Rob -see you for more chat about this next Friday!