Outside In

There’s something mildly dysfunctional about being a consultant engaged to work as part of a team on the inside.   

In most cases, as a change agent, your role within the client’s corporate environment is fairly clear.  You’ve been called in to devise solutions to long-standing problems – normally within a short period of time.  You’re a catalyst for initiatives that have to be embraced by insiders.  Occasionally there are those calls when the client thinks he knows what he needs to change but feels he has to engage an outsider to move forward (these are rarely great gigs).   But as an external change agent, you know your parameters.   You hit the ground running.  There’s the client – the company, with its unique political environment and value systems.  And there’s you – the outsider, with your own baggage, looking in.  You just get on with it.

In much of the work that we do, the insider / outsider roles get purposely blurred.  As an example:  over the past 12 months I have been engaged as an outsourced CIO in a business that is going rapidly multinational.  I have set up a new department, hired new staff, and manage them on a day to day basis.  I do all the things that CIOs do, including constantly aligning ICT and the new B2C channel with the company’s successful operating model that to date has relied virtually exculsively on B2B channels.  But I am also the chief evangelist for e-business and knowledge management.     When it comes to ICT, my job is essentially operational.  With e-business and knowledge management, I am a change agent working on the inside – driving innovation and cultural change.  And I also form part of the company’s Executive Team.  It makes for an interesting existence.

For a start, there are issues relating to staff management and motivation to absorb.  You have to lead from the inside.  You move seamlessly from devising strategy to securing buy-in to full implementation mode – sometimes within a day.  And you also have to thread more carefully than usual.  You cannot come across as an outsider who is not committed to last the course, or serve the cause.  Most important of all, there are corporate cultures to absorb, manage – and even embrace – before you can start becoming effective.  

There is a clear linkage between corporate cultures and value systems  – you cannot be effective as an Insider Outsider if you ignore that.  The challenge is when you find yourself in situations where the client thinks that corporate culture means ‘homogeneity’.  In other words, that to fit into the corporate culture, you have to be a certain ‘type of person’. 

One of the most effective effective managers I ever come across was a pin-striped suited, ex RAF engineer, at a Vice President level.   Rumour had it that Alan was not ‘hot on management techniques’.  He readily boasted that he did not like all the people who worked for him – but they were ‘all brilliant at what they did, and kept him in an incredibly well-paid job’.  I am not sure that this won Alan many friends with his peers.  But there was always something tongue in cheek in the bravado.  For a start, Alan’s direct reports (and I admit, I was one of those) would always go the extra mile for him.  He let us get on with our jobs, and never interfered in our management styles.  He was a master in the art of delegation and arms length management.  He was also highly-skilled  in hiring the right people, even if at face value, there appeared to be little in common between them.  Alan intuitively realised that teams need to have edge.  The result was creative energy and debate – loads of it.  But the guy would always, at the end of a session, rein people in, unruffle feathers and, having listened to the various points of view, map out the next move, clearly, succinctly.  And we would move on, together, as a team.

Too often, we come across situations where a difference of opinion is interpreted as conflict; where different reactions to a common challenge risks putting someone in a bad light.  We continue to live in an age where the old Pirandello notion that ‘You are not who you are, but who other people think you are’ continues to prevail.  We have seen many CEOs make bad decisions by judging their teams at face value; by interpreting difference of opinion as dissent that needs to be stifled; by subconsciously only listening to people who agree with them and blinkering themselves from getting the whole picture. 

The best managers, the best strategists, have always intutively known that diversity is what makes the Belbin theories so compelling.   It is possible for people with very different backgrounds and modes of behaviour to gel together in a team.  In many cases, sitting on the fence, and absorbing different points of view before making up one’s mind, will lead to a better decision. 

It all sounds very simple.  In real life, we continue to allow our own ‘baggage’, our own filters, our own need for affirmation, to get in the way of seeing the wood from the trees.

So when I find myself in that kind of situation, when I am starting to shut out something I should be listening to, I think of Alan and his multi-cultural, mildly dysfunctional management team.  And of Groucho Marx, reminding me that he never wanted to belong to any club that would accept him as a member.

There is freedom in diversity.  Always.

This entry was posted in Business Strategy, Change Management, Leadership, Management, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Outside In

  1. Pingback: Letting go « Strategy Works

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