05 January 2011

Service Models

This is an excerpt from an ill-conceived book I wrote a couple of years ago. I will post it here with some other excerpts (over time) in this ill-conceived attempt at blogging. The following essay only covers part of a spectrum that can be understood with reference to the Meadows' hierarchy of interventions, or the way in which I use Aristotle's causality as the basis for relational domains. I will post on those at a later date so the spectrum, as I imagine it, might be more transparent. I feel the essay is fairly well self contained, though some of my views have developed a bit since I first wrote it.
To operate, the armed forces need allies as consultants and assistants to the leadership.
Everyone looks up to those who are thoughtful and have unusual strategies beyond the ordinary ken, who are widely learned and have broad vision, and who have many skills and great talents. Such people can be made top allies.
Those who are fierce, swift, firm, and sharp are heroes of an age. Such people can be made second-ranked allies.
Those who talk a lot but not always to the point, who are slight in ability, with little that is extraordinary, are people with ordinary capabilities. They can be brought along as the lower class of allies.
(The Way of the General, Zhuge Liang, trans. Thomas Cleary)

The Need for a Mandate
It is important to be clear about what your mandate is as a change agent within the anthroposphere (the domain of human responsibility). You must be clear what you are serving into existence, particularly if you want to work with the leaders and leadership dynamics of these massive transnational corporations and global institutions. Whether such leaders are consciously aware of and taking responsibility for it or not, the decisions they make and the very way they relate to one another and their organizations day-to-day, even in small decisions and comments, have an effect at the planetary level. Imagine you are working with a senior executive team from one of the top ten organizations on the planet. Consider the scale of that. As a whole that organization will have one of the largest economies on the planet. The decisions they make effect the environment, entire societies, the whole network of human beings associated and interdependent with the organism of the corporation as a whole. These decisions are based on their individual and collective way of being in any moment. You will need a mandate of sufficient scale, depth and clarity to interact with this in a meaningful way. This could take many different forms, but it is required.

Consider the following business model for consulting in general. These are simply models and so grossly oversimplified, the reality of practice being somewhat more complex, but I hope they are a useful point of departure. Though we are talking specifically about a service model for work and partnership with leaders and decision makers in large global institutions, many aspects of this inquiry can be meaningfully generalized to other contexts. Imagine two basic types of consulting relationships: the epistemological and the ontological.

Epistemological Consulting
The epistemological model is essentially transactional and based on the assumption of objective knowledge or technology undertaking in some way. My client has a problem and I have an answer. I give them the answer and they give me money. This is a transactional model. It is essentially a subject object relationship, the use orientation of which is the relatively predictable manipulation of objects (Jurgen Habermas). We can easily see the domains in which this is a useful and appropriate model. The 'problem' is straightforward and has been addressed successfully in this context many times before. The application of this model requires some third system or context of reference taken as objective. We must be participating in an agreed on interpretative context as the basis for assessment, action and decision making. One of the difficulties arising from this way of working is that we often imagine that we are in such an agreement without sufficient inquiry into the matter. We often consider such an interpretive context to be self evident. This can lead to a dynamic of fixed conflict, where the fundamental assumptions leading to such conflict are not visible. In this case, in the absence of transparency, the navigation of such conflict simply becomes a matter of manipulation, domination or both. This way of working is consistent the historic paradigm and fundamental assumption of human being as separate from a world, where basic survival requires manipulation and domination.

One of the interesting aspects about our enacted consulting model is that the model also defines our client and marketplace. If epistemological consulting were our model, implicitly or explicitly, we can see what kind of clients we might have and some of the assumptions we might have to make about them. One of the fundamental assumptions we would have to make, for a successful business model, is that we know and they don’t. The is based on the often invisible and fundamental assumption required for a transactional model: there exists an 'us' and 'them'. In essence this objectifies the client, and typically ends up objectifying the consultant, with respect to that which is known. I am not suggesting that this is bad or wrong in any way, in and of itself. It is might be a conditionally necessary and appropriate position. There are times when it is necessary to act on the basis of an assumed predictability of outcome; to be able to manipulate objects in a predictable way. Technical undertakings are a particular example of this, such as industrial turnarounds for maintenance and upgrade, clinical trials, or even the basic safe operation of any manufacturing asset, etc. Of course, the manifested and idealized result never match, or perhaps only match for a moment, but it is necessary to hold the view that they can for certain types of results.

This model is consistent with understanding a marketplace, and world in general, as a competitive phenomena. The model assumes a sort of zero sum game dynamic about the market place in which it is then necessary to win (or lose) through competitive acts. The distinctive market value of this business model is that we know more, or better or can act faster than our competitors in the solution of a problem, in a predictable fashion. Naturally, we also know more than the client. Most scaled consultancies operate according to this model most of the time. We have an answer, and though we may tailor that answer, our business model is based on this knowledge and we are providing that answer at scale to the entire market place, possibly distinguishing ourselves by the cost or speed with which we do so. In my experience, this can be an extremely useful, though deadening and exhaustive undertaking since it is objectifying and fundamentally violent. Usually this model commoditizes the 'right answer' at some point and the economics and culture of the organization reflect that. It is usually a leveraged economic model, where low cost resources support a high margin base of expertise. Most scaled consultancies are investing in the next big thing, the next answer, or seeking to be more efficient or innovative than their competitors in the delivery of a known answer. This can even lead to market wide problems being created that fit the service offering of the consultancy, rather than the reverse. This model also implies a particular sales and marketing approach. In its most extreme we must persuade our client that they do not know and that we do know. We must persuade them that we have a better answer to their assumed problem, and we must persuade them that we can deliver something about that answer in a better way – better ROI, cheaper, faster, smarter. We may even engage in the creation of dependency or invest in the learned incompetence of our client. Since it is a competitive zero sum game, every ounce of our superiority in these things is an ounce of inferiority in the client and competitor, and the reverse.

A consulting team in this model will sometimes reach a kind of crisis or meltdown moment with respect to some particular project or client system. At some point someone else might begin to win the war of right answers, superiority and domination, or we might feel we are losing it. At this point the consulting team will go into high gear, producing endless amounts of analytic work, data and variety of 'right answers'. The implicit intent is to overwhelm the client and any competitors in the battle for epistemological superiority. In the case of business management, the consultants themselves will have been trained and socialized to believe that there is a right answer, and of course in some cases that is true.

Ontological Consulting
The ontological model of consulting is essentially inter-subjective. The use orientation is the generation and derivation of meaning. This is an appropriate model for phenomena understood as human systems and living systems. This practice is more concerned with the questions of being and meaning than with a proscribed answer of any sort. In this business model, the consultant has some sort of larger contextual frame (or mandate) that he or she would be serving into existence, with or without any particular client, because it is viewed as intrinsically valuable by the consultant. Clients consist of organizations that share that frame in some way. In essence the client also sees some intrinsic value in the larger frame and understand themselves to be serving that into existence as well independent of functional role or business imperative. This frame may exist in the epistemological model, but it is typically fixed, rather than living. A living frame or mandate is enriched and even changes through active interaction with the client, marketplace and other practitioners. In the radical sense the consultant assumes he or she does not know. The primary capability is learning, based on curiosity and contemplation. The consultant assumes that the client does or can know and that critical knowledge resides in the clients individually and collectively. Part of the role of the consultant is to hold this space of radical ignorance and discovery. The application of this model is particularly useful for non-linear growth, interruption of mechanistic ways of being when those have become obsolete or self limiting, addressing highly complex and seemingly unsolvable problems, and the resolution of conflict, etc. The ontological model does not rely on a third system of reference taken as separate from the subject and so considered objective. The model relies on situated knowledge, knowledge that is present ideographically in the experience of a subject, whether individual, collective or systemic, and the generation or derivation of meaning. This model can be scaled, but it is much more difficult. The basic competitive strategy in this model is collaboration. The selection and decision making processes are not seen as variable, leading to zero sum competition, but as structurally determined within a dynamic system (Maturana). When done really well it distinguishes itself in the ability to effectively collaborate with practitioners from the epistemological model in service to the client and of the shared context or mandate. In the market place practitioners distinguish themselves competitively based on mandate, ability to work cooperatively, disciplines of insight, reflection and dialogue, etc. The practice in general takes the form of:
  • cooperatively re-creating or re-presenting the felt and actual current condition as an exploration individually and collectively
  • enabling or creating the felt and living articulation of aspirations individually and collectively
  • enabling and building the capacity of the organization to collectively and individually learn and change
  • effectively and practically working on the leadership, causality, and agency of the individuals and collective to feel and stay present to the dynamic and structural tension actively present in the gap between the felt current condition and the living aspiration
  • design and implementation of practical co-created interventions to work with that creative tension, address the current condition and resonate with the aspiration

Basically we are working with the client to ask what they want and explore how to get that, rather than insisting upon or persuading the client of a prefigured answer. Clearly these are basic human skills and disciplines of living and can be applied to a wide variety endeavors. Most clients in the corporate world today however may not wish to hire you based on the profound quality and richness of your ignorance.

We often make a not so useful, rigid distinction, from within the epistemological model, of hard and soft skills, and practitioners of the ontological model are thought to have the answer in the domain of soft skills. This is just another version of the epistemological model. This is what scaled attempts at this usually look like. Typically the successful organizational form this model takes is small consultancies or individual practitioners collaborating with one another. In its dysfunctional forms it is incestuous and ideological. These communities often suffer from an “inner circle” phenomena, sometimes centered around a guru or particular religiously held ideology. They resemble a cult in this way, and so drift into a subject-object dynamic. Practitioners begin to have a morally right way and punish or shun those who disagree. Because it is not scaled, it is often a senior leadership practice as well. It is not the case that the senior leaders are the only ones in the organization who understand what needs to happen or are asking these sorts of questions. In this dysfunctional form the practice is viewed from a particular model of hierarchical leverage and ROI, where that model itself becomes a fixed mandate.

Sales & Marketing
This means the sales and marketing endeavor is in many ways quite different than the epistemological model. We are not trying to persuade the client of anything. We are acting or working to be in service to our mandate – no matter what is happening. Our clients self select on this basis. When we enter what would typically be considered a sales or marketing conversation with our client we are already doing the work. We do not wait until the work is sold. The work being sold is an arbitrary distinction in the transactional model, though of course it can be considered a useful indicator for the purposes of learning and reflection. Just do the work you are always doing, everywhere, all the time in your life. If our mandate is sufficiently robust, functioning as a way, and maybe even our Way, in life. There is nothing to sell. People will either resonate with that or they won’t. Enter these conversations free from any need or desire to have the work in any way, in so far as possible. When we feel that desire, check to see if it is sourced in your mandate. If it is not then work with that. If you really want the work, be able to clearly say why. Simply confess your actual motives.

If the primary reason we want the work is scarcity based, about the money or some such, then we are in a particularly fixed form of the epistemological model. If that is what we want, then we should act accordingly and recognize how that will effect our practice and the delivery of our work. I say “no” to a lot of work based on a cooperative assessment with the client that they actually need an epistemological practitioner (though I do not say it that way, of course). Enter the conversation with the commitment to produce actual value right then and there, not at some later date. In formal bidding processes and sales conversations I will often make this explicit.

Remember our 'competitive' advantage comes from a radical sense of collaboration. I usually offer to help consider the intervention and design and what kind of practitioner is needed, regardless of whether they choose to work with me or not and without collecting any fees. I will consider all the various types of design and intervention together with them, with competitors, and with other parts of their organization as we explore the presenting problem and what they feel they need together. When possible it can be extremely useful to the client and the endeavor to convene all past service providers and 'competitors' with a key group of clients to consider the endeavor. In order to effectively do this you must be truly free from expectation about the outcome or absolutely confessed in yourself and with them about your expectation. This is a practice of the systems thinking law of requisite variety that states “the most flexible component of any system is the controlling part of the system.” In the activity thought of as marketing and sales, be that component, truly free of attachment to any particular outcome, acting and being consistent with your mandate as an expression of a living system, and really committed to creating value within the conversation.

Often clients will ask, “what are the outcomes?” Try telling them, “I don’t know. How could I? I have a point of view, but that is only my point of view at this moment. It is limited by the very fact that it is my point of view. Perhaps it is something we will explore together and more broadly with others who might be involved. Right now all we have is your view of the problem. It is likely that your view is based on the same set of assumptions and way of being that gave rise to the problem in the first place. It is likely that you and others are acting in a way that is completely consistent with the system that is occurring, as it occurs for you, with the intent of producing a positive outcome and that this problem is an unintended consequence of that. Let’s explore that together and see what we learn.” Of course this implies several outcomes and several forms of intervention: learning, capability growth, “problem” definition, systems analysis, dialogue and inquiry, creating a collaborative way of working, etc.

1 comment:

  1. I laughed out loud when i saw this, and i think this may be changing now: Most clients in the corporate world today however may not wish to hire you based on the profound quality and richness of your ignorance.