July  12,  2017

Years ago, I met a surly executive, whose staff actually lit his cigar and handed him scotch whiskey as he entered the hotel lobby for our meeting. He greeted me with, “So, you’re the touchy-feely person.” That’s a change consultant. Touchy feely. Soft and emotional. That perception creates two problems. First, it attracts people who don’t have the disciplined background to be effective. I once facilitated a panel for a well-regarded professional organization. One of the panelists had a website promoting both her change practice…and her massage therapy business.

Second, this perception creates chaos for those trying to buy credible change services. Who should we trust? Our IT implementer? A noted author? An academic? Someone who is certified? Certified by whom?

The result? Wasted time, money, and credibility. Another project implodes because the employee side of the system/change was handled poorly, and the organization learns once again that failure is acceptable.

We know the required questions to ask a change consultant: What is your experience? Who are your references? How long have you been in the field? Are you the one who will actually do the work? But these questions do not separate the best from the rest.

What to Ask to Find an Effective Change Consultant

  1. Are you (the IT partner) willing to “throw in” the change work for free or at a high discount? A “yes” tells you the company sees the people side of the work as secondary – as a commodity – not a strategic imperative. This perspective affects who they hire, how they train, their retention, etc. In other words, you won’t get a strong change management team. In fact, many IT implementation firms have a habit of dismantling their people practice and associated training programs then rebooting them when the market notices. Ask how long each proposed change team member has been with the company, and in what divisions – that should give you an idea of when the company last revived their change management practice.
  2. Are your change practitioners full-time employees or a network of affiliated consultants? This speaks to the vendor’s commitment to the field and their investment in developing their people and solutions from one project to the next. Beware also of companies with a large rolodex of talent – a wide net shifts the screening process from the vendor to you.
  3. What am I buying from you, exactly? Are they methodology wonks, who love to show detailed processes and models? Far from being an assurance of effectiveness, this means you are buying activity rather than outcomes – usually slide decks, documentation, and “deliverables.” Your consultant should be talking about your business outcomes, not training plans and communications vehicles. The consultants with degrees in communications, learning, marketing, psychology or economics – the fields devoted to human behavior – are best equipped to focus on the behaviors that deliver the results you want.
  4. Do you do strategy, implementation or both? Beware the firms that do strategy only. Those who implement their strategy learn what works and what doesn’t. Companies that focus exclusively on strategy wash their hands of accountability. They tend to blame poor outcomes on bad execution. If you want results, focus on change management partners who take ownership for your success.
  5. Will you tell us about the outcomes we will see? You are not hiring a company to do change management; you are hiring them to deliver a promise someone made about your initiative. That usually looks like faster implementation, people using the system, increased revenue, undisrupted customer service…real benefits, clearly stated, with metrics attached. Having a laser focus on your outcomes matters. Your new partner should be able to express that clearly, in plain language, and help you stay on-message to your organization. In the midst of a difficult implementation, words like “pivot,” “unpack” and “value-add” will drive you and your organization crazy.

Answering these five questions will get you better results and some peace of mind. That leads me to the last tip. Any big initiative is stressful, so the most important question is: do you like the people you are meeting? If so, you’ve given yourself a gift – someone who makes the inevitable tough times lighter.