As IT consultants, we deal with challenges daily. Of those, the more frustrating ones can be those challenges which seem completely out of our control. Office politics, silo-building, and power struggles most certainly fall into this category. And as much as I would like to retreat to the comfort of my desk to do something productive, I feel it is in everyone’s best interest to facilitate some sort of framework for moving forward. But how can you do this?
As a customer-facing consultant, you build relationships with your client counterparts. In a strong client counterpart relationship, the temptation is to take sides with them during any such heated discussion. After all, you’re ‘friends’, right? And that’s what friends do. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are also representing our respective consulting firm. What does that mean? Well, the firm’s interest is almost always invested in finding the best possible solution for the client — not necessarily the best possible solution for the client team you’re working with.
To that end, we must all see ourselves as agents of change. This means recognizing the impacts that our actions will have and anticipating how those impacts will be received by all parties involved. A positive change for one team may equal a negative impact for another. Even if the change is only ‘perceived’ as negative, there can be some work to be done to change minds and build acceptance.
Building acceptance can be a difficult task. Often, the best place to start is by enabling a channel for communication. You’d be surprised by how effective a simple process-focused discussion can be — especially in a siloed organization. Teams can often make requests from others to ease their side of a process without understanding the impacts of those requests. When enough of these requests are made, resentment can build between teams. And tension. The silo mentality — “us” and “them” — is toxic and only results in building those walls higher. As a consultant, I always try to refocus the discussion back to the process. In other words, make the process become the common enemy — something that everyone can rally around. If you do have a preferred outcome, it doesn’t hurt to come prepared with examples and visuals. If a process is resulting in too much paper-pushing, bring along a stack of those printouts to help make your point. If a process is resulting in too many phone calls, quantify it in hours or number of phone calls per day or week.
Of course, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes, when consultants step into a meeting to discuss a process, we’re actually stepping into an argument that started weeks, months, or even years beforehand. The phrase “grudge match” may seem appropriate. This type of discussion are not only unproductive, but they’re a waste of time and money. In this case, it may help to look around the room and see if any decision makers are actually present. I’m not known to quote Mel Gibson, but he says it best in Payback: “You go high enough, you always come to one man”. …or woman; I’m not like that, Mel. When you reach a stalemate, put the discussion on hold until you find a decision maker who can help the group move forward. On larger projects, it can be helpful to designate a ‘process champion’ — usually an executive — to perform this exact role.
There may be issues too deeply rooted for one consultant to manage. But following the above steps to recognize impacts, discuss the process, build acceptance, and — if needed — escalating to a single position of authority can help focus the team and quickly come to a resolution.