Facilitation, not consulting
When do leaders need help from outside experts? Generally when change is needed: either a new initiative requiring focused attention or when things are “stuck” using existing approaches. For completely new activities they may need specialized technical expertise, but more often than not the constraints are not about information or know-how, rather about effectively addressing the right issues in the right way with existing internal resources.
When leaders need help they often bring in an outside consultant. They may do this at the start of a new project or when progress on an initiative is already below expectations. Sometimes bringing in external experts helps, but often it slows things down further and can be perceived as wasteful to internal teams. Stakeholders may resent the outsider or mistrust her motives, leading to low engagement and underutilization of available information and valuable expertise.
But what’s the alternative?
Instead of hiring a traditional consultant, leaders should consider working with external facilitators to drive alignment on the most important issues for internal cooperation — including defining what success looks like, agreeing on resourcing assumptions, and identifying how decisions are to be made as the initiative progresses. By having an external third-party manage this process before plans are set, internal stakeholders save time and are much more likely to address important issues that could become problems down the road.
The value of an outside facilitator comes in part from the very fact they are outsiders. They are less likely to have biases held by insiders and more likely to seek out divergent opinions. In addition they are experts in “facilitation” — that is, helping a group co-create solutions. Their job is to encourage teams to better apply their own expertise, not bring in technical data or override internal knowledge.
So the next time you are thinking about using a subject area expert to consult with your team, ask yourself: “Don’t we already have all the relevant expertise we need?” And “Is the problem that we need help constructively engaging our team?” If the answer is yes to both, hire a facilitator to accelerate collaboration, not a traditional consultant to give you advice on something your team already knows a lot about.