Consulting Practices: Use “Gene Therapy” to Fool Clients’ Immune Systems

As a consultant (or any advice giver), getting clients to take action is one of the biggest challenges you face. Avoiding the dreaded “binder on the shelf problem” is crucial to success. So how can I increase the likelihood of action?

One way is to understand the organizational context you are working in well enough to disguise your advice cleverly to avoid rejection.  

I was just working with one of my teams on how to frame solution options to a client of ours. The basic question was “how do I best describe and position my thinking to increase the probability of driving buy in and action for a client that has a lot of existing intellectual capital and process but can’t pull it together on this question? 

The general approach I teach and coach is to start by understanding the client, their culture, process, data and stakeholder perspectives. At the same time, you need to be bringing an outside perspective based on a mix of experience and subject matter expertise.  

Recommendations need to be presented in the client’s language and from their perspective so they can absorb the advice. I know many firms make their money delivering “best practices”, but in my experience clients can only take so much cure at once and they need it to be framed so their organization can actually understand and implement it. 

Telling me what I already know!

A charge often hurled at consultants is that they “take your watch and charge you for the time!” A team comes in, interviews you and then tells you what you already know, but in much better looking charts that the C-suite likes better. 

There’s an element of truth to this. Some consultants really do just re-package client work. Most firms don’t consistently do this, though. They’d be out of business if they did. If you aren’t bringing serious external knowledge and thoughtful analysis then you aren’t serving your client well and it’s hard to fool everybody all the time.

On the other hand, the reality is that many clients have components of the answer resident in their organization. A nice process tool here, a good training presentation there…pieces. Our current client has full blown processes with numerous templates. Their challenge isn’t lack of thinking or process. It’s that the exiting process isn’t tuned to work for a new set of problems they are facing. 

So as you do your analysis, how do you conceptualize recommendations and solutions that can work for your client? 

You have to frame the solution in ways your client can understand and can actually deploy successfully. This means incorporating their own language, processes and tools as part of the solution. Stated differently, it doesn’t mean just changing the client name on the PowerPoint template and representing it. 

“Gene Therapy”

As I was explaining my philosophy about how to do this, I stumbled onto my new favorite metaphor for how to think about it. “Gene Therapy”.

History major’s summary: Gene therapy is used to try and fix fundamental health problems arising from flawed DNA sequences. It takes “healthy/correct” genes and sneaks them into the flawed DNA sequences by hiding them in any number of Trojan Horses to get past the immune system. Things like viruses and “retro-viruses” are able to target cells and create healthy DNA in the right circumstances.  

See where this is headed?

We need to embed our healthy solution in a package that can get past organizational hurdles.  

So to get my “leading practice” (healthy gene) past the immune system (inertia, skepticism, “that’s not how we do it here”) we need to somehow disguise it enough to prevent persistent and direct attack. Better if we can convince the body to embrace the new and drive a systematic replication of it.

Sometimes clients need “radical transformation” (think General Motors), but usually they don’t.  

I’m talking about the more mundane types of improvement that most organizations struggle with every day. These improvements require commitment from a reasonable base of employees, because the reality is most things can’t be “mandated”. If you don’t generate “pull” or demand for the idea the white blood cells will kill them.

To make these kinds of change you need to make the solution seem new and useful, while not so radical that people don’t see how it would help them. 

Making the “Mutation” Stick

So what strategies will make the proposed solution stick? Here are a few viral strategies.

1 – Use language the client is familiar with.

For example, we had a client whose “fulfillment” function is what anyone else would call “supply chain”. Don’t argue. It just became “fulfillment” in your solution. No one at client will understand you if you don’t make the change in your thinking. 

2 – Leverage existing client process and tools (where appropriate) and splice in your improvements.

For example, a current client has an existing process that literally thousands of people use. We are not going to blow it up. It’s not “broken”. The problem (mentioned above) is that it doesn’t deal well with a particular type of problem. So we are designing a “hack” of the process that works for specific situations the current process doesn’t handle well.

How many project charter templates do you really need? I’ll go for 1 (not 13).  

3 – Get key clients to advocate and speak to benefits (both executive sponsors and respected line employees)

This doesn’t fit elegantly in my metaphor, but you’ll fail without it. You need relevant and visible executive and key influencer sponsorship.

4 – Demonstrate some early wins by clients (or at least a clear case for why life will be better for employees).

It’s better to show success than to describe it. So pick a good case study or pilot and “prove” your recommendations. Nothing triggers viral spread like success. 

For a consultant to become what David Maister calls a “trusted advisor”, you have to strive to understand your client. If you truly understand them and bring an external perspective, you’re better positioned to deliver advice and solutions they can use. A key to accomplishing this is properly framing solutions.

Be the doctor who helps fix their DNA without damaging it.

One thought on “Consulting Practices: Use “Gene Therapy” to Fool Clients’ Immune Systems

  1. Seems like consulting is more like career coaching than I initially thought! These are great tips for a career coach as well. Thanks Phil!


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