We hear from our consultants all the time that their clients want to be more agile, but struggle to make the changes needed to get there. Ironically, it’s a lack of the agile mindset they seek that is keeping them from making progress. They lack the agility they need to be more agile.
This matters because organizations today need an agile mindset if they want to thrive in the business landscape, which is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). You’ve heard us reference the recent data from Deloitte a few times: 94% of responding organizations report that “agility and collaboration” are critical to their organization’s success, yet only 6% say that they are “highly agile today”; 19% describe themselves as “not agile.”
And yet, we’ve heard from a number of consultants in our network that clients are often resistant to doing the work required to create an agile mindset and culture, with learning playing a critical role. The friction seems to come from the fact that client organizations want something to be done to them, and for them, but not by them.
How does this play out in your client relationships? Let’s say a regular client reaches out to you because they have a communication problem on their team. They want you to come in and do a half-day session focused on increasing their communication skills. Which is great! Maybe you have a few pre-made decks and talks that you’ve given in the past. You’re coming in to address their problem. Fantastic.
However, in the course of your half-day session, no one on the team is actually talking to each other—they are listening to you. At best they are passive participants. At worst? They are checked out, view the session as a break from their work, and feel justified playing on their phones while you deliver your great content.
Imagine that same challenge when your client wants to develop a learning culture and an agile mindset. You can deliver content all day everyday, but until the individual team members within your client organizations start to do the work themselves—learning, adopting iterative approaches, and responding to changes with agility—that great content won’t actually impact their bottom line.
“… taking in information is only distantly related to real learning. It would be nonsensical to say, ‘I just read a great book about bicycle riding—I’ve now learned that.’”
– Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization
At Actionable, we view conversations as a cornerstone of great cultures. Conversations are the foundation for relationships, which are the biggest factor influencing employee engagement, and engagement impacts just about any business metric you care to measure. And yet, the most common objection that we hear is that organizations are “too busy” to have the kind of conversations that actually improve relationships.
They can maybe squeeze in their one on one project updates, and the team meetings to review KPIs, but regular conversations about long term professional development, or to coach team members are viewed as “nice to have.” The irony is that better conversations will help them develop the agile learning culture that they have identified as an urgent need.
So what can you do about it? On the one hand, clients want to hire you for work that you’re good at. You can meet their expectations and deliver a great session. But that keeps you on the road, in a position where you’re trading time for dollars, and your best hope for growing your business is also to grow the number of hours you work each week. It also means that you’re spending a lot of time delivering content without any measurable impact. We recently published an article about the challenges (and opportunities) of establishing ROI for training initiatives in organizations. Simply put, most training initiatives are viewed as separate from work activities. They are not seen as an investment, and so many organizations keep their training budget as lean as possible, and never establish the benefits to their bottom line from their spend. As you evolve your business to meet the shifting demands of the market, demonstrating your value as a consultant or coach will be a key differentiator between you and your competition.
Part of your work will be managing expectations, and digging deeper into the needs of your client organizations. In the example of a client with a “communication issue,” it’s worthwhile to drill down a little further into what that means. It is a problem with collaboration? Did a recent misstep in their process end up impacting their clients? Was there an incident that broke down trust in the team? In each of these scenarios, a blanket presentation about communication skills won’t actually solve the problems they are facing. A conversation about the barriers to collaboration, a debrief on what went wrong, or a tough conversation with the individuals responsible for the incident, will be a lot more effective in solving their challenges.
This means that you have to help your clients shift their mindset, away from wanting something done to them, toward embracing your guidance and expertise in helping them do it themselves. The key to this shift will be the quality of the conversations you have with your clients.
There’s a very good reason that the consulting landscape has evolved to become primarily focused on delivering content—it’s easier to bring in an outside expert than it is to clean up your own mess. Clients look to you to solve their problems, and you’ve likely evolved your business to meet those needs. However, in the VUCA business landscape, these kinds of solutions are a crutch used to avoid the real challenge. When you have an honest conversation, you are vulnerable, and that’s an uncomfortable position for leaders to be in. Their teams look to them to have the answers, not to raise the questions. This dynamic is passed on to their relationship with you as their consultant or coach—they want you to give them the answers, not to do the work themselves.
Creating a culture where people talk to each other freely—with respect, candor, transparency, and care—is an urgent need for organizations who want to survive and thrive in the VUCA landscape.
It allows organizations to embrace a learning culture, and respond to market shifts with an agile mindset. These conversations can’t be considered “nice to have,” or they will be viewed as something to do in that utopian future of “when we have time.” Which will be never.
In order to help your clients embrace an agile mindset, you will also have to shift—away from a “business as usual” model of content delivery, and toward having more open conversations about the needs they are truly facing. It means embracing new offerings that allow you to demonstrate the ROI of your work, and becoming a trusted advisor to your clients, able to support them as they have the conversations required to shift their culture. It also presents an incredible opportunity for you to scale your business and increase your impact, without increasing the number of hours you work each day.
Are you up to the challenge?