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Why rescuing is wrong, yet profitable and why we do it

It’s time to stop the rescue act.
What is the role of a consultant and where do the boundaries lie? What does the drama triangle have to teach us about better client relationships and better outcomes?

Introducing the drama triangle

The drama triangle is a psychological and social model of human interaction about three roles – Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor. It suggests that we often play one of these three roles in situations with others.
The Rescuer is not someone helping out in an emergency – rather they have a mixed or covert motive and benefit egoically in some way from being the one who rescues. They have a surface motive for resolving the problem but also a hidden motive often focused on their own self-esteem or on enjoying others’ dependency and at a deeper level play on the Victim in order to continue getting their payoff.

As Claude Steiner put it, “The Victim is not really as helpless as he feels, the Rescuer is not really helping and the Persecutor does not really have a valid complaint.”

These situations can play out when one person takes on a role as Victim or Persecutor and the two (or more) players than move around the three roles of the triangle. So the Victim might turn on the Rescuer who switches to persecuting.

The covert purpose for each ‘player’ is the meeting of unspoken/unconscious psychological needs without having to acknowledge the broader harm done. Each player acts on their own selfish needs rather than in a genuinely responsible or altruistic manner. Relationships between the Victim and the Rescuer can grow into co-dependency.  

But what does this have to do with consultancy and the where is the ethical dimension?

The need to challenge not just fix the stated problem

I pride myself on being challenging - note challenging rather than difficult. I do like to get to the end of an assignment, leave on good terms, get paid and I count it as a mark of success that I do get follow up work and referrals from clients. 

Like any good consultant I dig underneath the veneer of the assignment to find out what the real issue is. It requires a thick skin, particularly in technology related projects when the client can demand you focus on the technology element when it is often leadership and change issues which are behind the problem. Sometimes this can result in overstepping the boundaries but why do we allow these boundaries to be created in the first place – whose interests do they really serve? Do we allow the client to fulfil either Persecutor or Victim roles? Are they ‘rescuing’ us as consultants by giving us work?

I have always believed in following the spirit, rather than simply the letter of the assignment. I believe it is my responsibility to support the ‘end goal’ rather than look the other way (something of an issue with Enron’s auditors if I remember rightly). 

Consultancy can become formulaic, about using toolkit X with a standard sized team of Y to achieve outcome Z. It can be about covering people’s backs rather than deriving real value and beneficial outcomes for the client. It can be about not rocking the boat in case you lose the work. Hell, it’s only work!

Permission is an issue. If you are commissioned to do ABC, is it ethical to question that and deviate from it once the assignment is underway? In my experience, consultancy is too often used to prove a specific point, in someone’s specific interest and it’s only once you have dug under the bonnet that you start to see the real implications. You can’t know all the questions at the start of the assignment. When you are a ‘trusted advisor’ it’s easier to have the more difficult discussions but shouldn’t we question everything regardless? Or are we just highly paid lapdogs doing the client’s bidding in the interests of a good financial return? Is there a co-dependency here where if we do exactly what the client wants we will get more work? 

The need to ask very difficult questions

No one enters the consultancy profession to be popular. I believe it’s our duty to dig deep, to take risks, to benefit the organisation as a whole (or its stated mission in the case of a non-profit). Anything else puts us into the ‘Rescuer’ role. The Victim (client) shouts ‘help me’ and we, as Rescuer, do their bidding to feel good.

There is a parallel here with Education. Increasingly teachers are under pressure to get their students through assignments and exams. Increasingly students are finding the challenge difficult and rather than sit with that difficulty, there is a growing tendency for the teacher to step in and ‘rescue’ the student. The end result is simple – the challenge and growth are denied. There is no sustainable improvement. There is only a good result in the immediate term. Students like it – they get to keep winning at the game for as long as possible without pain. Teachers like it – they also win at the game and feel good (sometimes addictively so) by solving the students problems for them. However, in the long game, no one wins. At some point the student’s weaknesses and flaws are revealed. Your parents were right – it’s not good for you in the long run if someone else does your homework.

And so it is with consultancy. Sometimes there are problems which are urgent and need a fix. The situation is critical and the role of the consultant is to provide emergency expertise and experience. Yet, these assignments are arguably still relatively rare.

Too many times we are commissioned to ‘fix’ something. To put a sticking plaster solution on a problem which suits key individuals but may not be of long term benefit to either the organisation or its objectives. We (or our companies) earn well. But where is the sustainable solution? Where is the client growth? Where is the real benefit?

I believe the first role of a consultant is to put themselves out of future work with a client. That is my ethical starting point. I want to offer expertise and experience of value, to make a significant difference, to resolve what needs resolving. It’s not my goal to derive a long term, ongoing paycheque. I think that’s called a job rather than an assignment. 

It’s easy to be a rescuer. It feels good. You can earn well from it. But is it right? Is it ethical? Does it deliver a sustainable benefit for the client? 

Surely making victims of our client base isn’t a good thing in the long run… At least not for them.

Just because you can - does that mean you should?

It’s 30 years since my first experience of a ‘digital’ revolution – a home computer to program, write up reports and do interesting things (rubber keyboard and all). About ten years later came email and the internet followed eight years after that by the first instances of ‘social media’ (Friendster, 2002) and the pace of change keeps increasing. So what does this mean to management consultancy, our clients and us as management consultants?

I see seven key issues:

·         Accessibility of knowledge

·         Transparency and lack of privacy and security

·         Volume of data and its meaning

·         Volume of communication

·         Distractions – managing choice

·         Understanding challenges and opportunities – beyond tech

·         What people do better (and worse) than machines

Firstly, anyone can ‘know’. Knowledge has never been so accessible. It is no longer protected by a few people or organisations. It is widely published and shared, both formally (within organisations or sector knowledgebases or through training – often free) and informally via social networks (both structured ones like LinkedIn or informally between friends and colleagues, online and offline). A great deal of so called proprietary information is no longer locked away – so what does that mean for IPR and the value of knowledge based consultancy? Likely that your knowledge and expertise is worth less than you think.

This leads us to transparency and the lack of privacy and security. Notwithstanding continued breaches to systems and data (whether Wikileaks or big companies losing customer data or individuals not understanding what they are backing up to iCloud and when), the more open a system, the harder it is to secure. The more people involved with data, the more likely it is to be leaked and breached. Generation Y (anyone younger than 35) is much more likely to share – for good and bad. Opening up data to mobile apps means we lose absolute control but not doing so means we may lose substantial benefits. Terms and conditions mean nothing if you can’t enforce them.

The volume of 'knowledge' and data in the world grows exponentially year on year. Websites (and their associated businesses) collect huge amounts of information and by implication (and their use of algorithms) know more about individuals than the individual’s partners and employers. Target’s use of customer data is so well refined it can identify a customer is pregnant before they even know for sure themselves – this backfired spectacularly on Target who sent pregnancy specific money-off coupons to groups of women who didn’t know they were pregnant (and didn’t appreciate Target knowing something so personal when they didn’t - http://tinyurl.com/7jbntx3 ). Education consultancies are now mining publicly available data to ‘predict’ the results of Ofsted inspections with a surprising degree of accuracy – perhaps an extension of this is to do away with the actual inspection? Are we reducing people and organisations to mere datasets and computer profiles? How do we keep on top of what we actually ‘need to know’? 

The volume of communication can be intimidating. I long for the days of a single email inbox (with a handful of emails) and one phone and the time to talk.There are technological solutions to managing the number of devices and sources we need to check but the sheer numbers of contact methods (desk phone, mobile, multiple voicemails, emails, social media accounts, project workspaces on top of face to face contact) can make managing communication a full time job. That’s great if managing communication is your full time job but less so if you have to think and do other things like write reports.

This leads us neatly to distractions and managing choice. Ultimately it’s up to us as individuals to decide what we do at any specific time. Just because you can be ‘always on’ doesn’t mean you should be. Researchers at Stanford University have long explained the myth of multitasking and the misuse we make of our brainpower in trying to do too many things at once and not focusing on what’s important in the moment. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Choice (which is inherently linked to decision making and focus) is likely to become an ever more significant skill and one we can help develop. Here’s an area we can support clients with – cutting through and helping see the wood for the trees.

Understanding challenges and opportunities in a fast moving world is always difficult and this is where management consultants (and their networks of subject specific experts) come in. We can develop and share our up to date experience in specific areas of interest to clients – areas clients can’t hope to keep up with. Technology diversifies so quickly we need to use our core skills to scenario plan what we want to offer and make sure we are best placed to do that, ahead of the client needs. It’s about supporting the decision makers to understand things well enough to take advantage or leave well enough alone.

So what value is a management consultant or management consultancy? This boils down to what people can now do better or worse than machines (somewhat, but not entirely, different to 30 years ago). We know that technology can replace our interpretation of data (whether through simple apps which record data and produce reports or complex algorithms which predict behaviour and automate responses) and we know that technology is getting better at processes and sharing knowledge (saving money and providing a personalised experience). But we’re not redundant just yet.

In a world of overwhelm, we can cut through the complexity and offer our clients the time and space to think and reflect. We can offer reassurance of what we have seen work elsewhere (very recently bearing in mind the pace of change – nothing can be rolled out indefinitely anymore) and how it might change tomorrow. And we can offer support through personal service (mentoring, advisory, critical friend) and expert, flexible implementation as circumstances change, enabling them to get on with the day job. Ultimately we can help them choose and feel comfortable with the choice.

But in order to do this we must remember ourselves. We need to create our own time and space to think, to find our own critical friends, to cut through the volume and distractions, to recognise the need for focus and realise we can no longer know everything. Change through wisdom perhaps?

(First published at http://wcomc.org/2014Oct31-1 for the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants)


Snowplough parents - why what you think is best for your child isn't best for your child or anyone else's 

Snowplough parents - Clearing everything out of the way of your child in order to support them and ensure their self esteem. "There are parents who have such high aspirations that they are frightened of an occasion when their child may come second", Clarissa Farr, headmistress of St Paul’s girls’ school in London is said to have told a workshop at the Girls’ Schools Association conference last week. (Thank you Guardian.)

But does it help? If you've never experienced failure or loss how do you cope with it? Our first big crisis, our first loss - death of a pet or grandparent, break up with a boy/girlfriend, - our first crushing failure all shape us.
What do you do when you've made a big mistake? Or when something really hurts you? It's not theoretical. It's visceral, emotional. It's a soft skill (as well as a set of strategies) we learn through application and experience. What happens when you are no longer first and best? What does being superior mean? Without the experience and the practice we end up with a lack of empathy, lack of community, lack of social interest. Narrow minded individuals who are fine when all goes well but hopeless when it goes badly. There are behaviours and responses we would tolerate in toddlers, ten year olds and perhaps even adolescents that are unacceptable and even dangerous in twenty and thirty something's.

So why don't we put away the snowploughs and teach the young people around us to join together with a shovel and our bare hands and work together. Even let ourselves fall on our backsides once in a while. Build character through experience. It will do us, individually and collectively, more good in the long run.

Run with those better than you

Seek out those who are better than you at things you want to improve.
It will inspire you and make you work harder and do better. You will be pulled willingly out of your comfort zone. You will succeed as part of a group (even if it's not really a formal team).
I did this for my latest half marathon - the Royal Parks Half Marathon. Set a stretching target. Ran with a much faster group. Surprised myself how fast I could actually run. 1 hour 47 minutes 40 seconds and about 3081st of 16000. (I'm happy with that.)
Simply running comfortably with people as good as me didn't make me any better. Running with people faster than me made me much better.
Run with the right herd if you want to succeed.

Overcoming fear of failure and procrastination

There are times when I just can't face something. A report, an email, a phone call, a project. I think it will go badly. I question my ability to do it. So I avoid it. Delay it. Anything to avoid the inevitable evidence I'm a fraud and not worth it. Anything to avoid failing.

But here's a surprise. Once I get started, it usually goes quite well. Sometimes very well. Because no matter what I challenge myself with I usually have the capability to do it. Sometimes it means asking for help. Sometimes it means being honest and saying I've done my best and know it's not perfect. Sometimes it means doing it a few times and practicing inbetween to get better.

It's the fear you see.

I'm not stupid. I have the evidence to show I'm not stupid. Other people know I'm not stupid but I still get the fear.

And I know there is only one way to overcome it. To face it. To start whatever I think I can't do. To achieve that very first step whether it's the first three paragraphs of the report or drafting the key points of an email or phone call on pen and paper. To reinforce I can at least start it. To remember the times I thought I couldn't do something but did it and got great positive feedback.

And each time I do this I end up with another success to put in the bank for next time. To remind me I can.

The fear will never go away. I won't always feel like challenging it but I know how to fight it and I know that I'll win.

Which reminds me, I've got something to start.