Reflection Power Poing Chapter 10 From Diagnosis to Discovery WHEN THE CONTRACT is clear, the work of understanding the problem and the current reality

Reflection Power Poing Chapter 10

From Diagnosis to Discovery

WHEN THE CONTRACT is clear, the work of understanding the problem and the current reality
begins. Our focus here, as throughout the book, is on the relationship aspect of consulting. Your
particular area of consulting expertise will determine what kind of specific data you will collect.
Systems people will look at information requirements, engineers and scientists will look at the
technical questions, financial experts look at money and economics, and so it goes.

As each of us developed our expertise, we were trained in handling data and information. The
intent here is to identify some particular skills in this phase that have not received much attention
but are also important. This chapter does not begin to cover all the methods that can be applied
to understanding what is happening. It does look at the way the consultant works with the client
in what was traditionally called the diagnosis phase but is more accurately called discovery.

There is in this phase a tension between what the client may want and expect and what is most
likely to be helpful. The fundamental service we offer clients is to help them see how they can
make changes in the future without having to stay dependent on our expertise. While clients
may agree with this concept in theory, it is not what they want in practice. In practice clients
want a turnkey solution.

It is similar to when we are not feeling well. We want to go to a doctor, get a prescription, swallow
a pill, and get on with our work. Better living through chemistry. When line managers decide
their organization is not functioning well, they want someone to come in, take a good look with
fresh eyes, and suggest a solution that will be quick, cheap, and painless. That is why the first
questions from the client are, “How long will it take?,” “How much will it cost?,” and “Give us
a solution that will cause the least disruption.” If we give the clients precisely what they ask for,
we run the risk of not having served them well.

If, however, we tell the client that the solution will take awhile, will cost more than they imagined,
and more time and involvement will be required of them than they want to give, we run the risk
of alienating them. Some of this will have been dealt with in the contracting phase, but this tension

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exists at every step of the way. What is hard to realize as a client is that the long-term solution
to the problem will require some rethinking on their part and some rearranging of the way they
work together. This relearning is what takes the time and effort. You can outsource or contract
to an outsider the research and technical problem solving, but implementing and sustaining a
solution you always have to do yourself.

We serve the client best by breaking out of the medical model we have come to expect. We are
not an organization doctor who describes their symptoms, who looks them over, prescribes a
solution, and sends them on their way. Better to define our task as a process of discovery and
dialogue more than as an act of diagnosis and prescription. The term diagnosis implies that a
third party, the consultant, can analyze the situation, come up with an accurate picture of what
is wrong, and deliver a recommendation for corrective action. And that this will be useful. This
frame of diagnosis and action is a comforting problem-solving model, but it is based on the belief
that organizational improvement can be engineered. Most of the time this is not realistic.

For strictly technical problems, such as a furnace that doesn’t work or software that has crashed,
this might seem reasonable. Especially if we were dealing with exclusively technical problems.
It is rare, however, that problems originally defined as technical are amenable to strictly technical
solutions. We cannot ignore that we are dealing with human systems, and human systems are
not amenable to technical solutions. Human systems are complex and require more than
mechanical, cause-and-effect solutions. Furnaces and software most often break down because
people run them, people maintain them, and people ask them to do things they were not designed
to do. The resolution of the problem most often requires a change in thinking and action on the
part of the client, and this is the challenge.

When we accept the term “diagnosis” as a description of this phase, we reinforce the belief that
a prescriptive, engineering strategy can improve a living system. This rational stance undervalues
the emotional and affective requirements of real improvements.

The stance we want to take is that we can be a guide through a process of discovery, engagement, and
dialogue, in which our clients will find an answer to their question and launch an implementation
that will be enduring and productive. It may seem like playing with words, but it makes a
difference in what we do and what we leave behind.

This chapter details the kind of discovery, engagement, and dialogue that gives us our best shot
at building client capacity and solving problems so they stay solved.

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The Call to Action

The concern of the consultant is how to help the client to be open to the discovery process. This
is much more important than for us to be right in our analysis. This means giving more attention
to dealing with resistance. It also demands work on building the client’s internal commitment to
the process at each step of the way. To wait until the feedback meeting to worry about client
acceptance of recommendations is too late. The consultant is also concerned about how to handle
the politics and personalities surrounding data collection. Even the most technical problem is
managed by human beings, working in politically minded organizations. Navigating through
our clients’ management styles and organizational politics and helping them to look objectively
at the data are vital tasks. The skill for the consultant is to address the organizational element of
each problem as rationally as we address the technical part of each problem.

If the client problem were purely technical, then client commitment would not be a concern. But
there are no purely technical problems. As consultants, we always have a perspective on how
the technology is being utilized or managed. Even if we hire a contractor to install an electricity
generator to power our house in event of a power outage, there are still questions of what size
generator, where it should be placed, which technology is best for our lifestyle and budget, and
who will run and maintain it. A good contractor will ask questions about client expectations,
who in the household will be operating the generator, how much protection the household needs,
how important having instant power is to the family, and most difficult of all, is there agreement
in the family about the answers to these questions.

These are questions about how the “problem” is being managed, what it means to the “client,”
what attitudes surround the seemingly simple step of purchasing some technology. A good
contractor will treat these questions as being as important as the knowledge of how to purchase
and install an alternative power source. If you talk to architects and contractors, the hardest part
of their job is dealing with client doubts and family dynamics. Designing and building a house
they know how to do. Navigating their way through the politics of the family is where the
challenge lies.

If this is true for a family, it is magnified when dealing with an organization. The politics of an
organization is reality, always present and powerful, and this is the challenge of discovery and

The purpose, then, of discovery is to mobilize action on a problem. Action that will improve the
organization’s functioning. The purpose is not research. Research is aimed at simply understanding
something and treats the understanding itself as enough. In most cases, internal consultants are
evaluated on how well their expertise is utilized by the line organization. External consultants,
as well as seeing clients, evaluate them this way more and more.

This emphasis on action and utilization has strong implications for how you approach discovery.

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Action ApproachResearch Approach
Interested in factors that are under the control of
the client and affect the problem

Interested in all factors that impact the
problem at hand

Completeness and comprehensiveness are not
necessary. They can be overwhelming at the point
of deciding what to do

Being comprehensive and complete in the
discovery phase is essential

The client’s involvement in the study is important
at each stage

You can do research on your own. The
organization doesn’t have to be involved
as part of the research team

Consultants are getting paid for their own bias and
intuition—it is called judgment. You use all the
feelings and perceptions you have in addition to
hard data

You try to eliminate bias and intuition of
the researcher. Heavy emphasis on
objectivity and hard data

Deeply concerned about the attitude of the client
toward the outcome of the study

Essentially neutral toward whether the
organization approves of the outcomes of
the study

These distinctions in approach may be overly polarized, but you must know that your objective
is action, not understanding. When your objective is action, you need to concentrate on four
things beyond the technical considerations.

1. Keep simplifying and narrowing and reducing your study so it focuses more and more
on the next steps the client can take.

2. Use everyday language. The words you use should help the transfer of information,
not hinder it.

3. Give a great deal of attention to your relationship with the client. Include the client at
every opportunity in deciding how to proceed. Deal with resistance as it arises, even
if it doesn’t have impact on your results.

4. Treat data on how the client organization is functioning as valid and relevant
information. Also assess how the problem you are studying is being managed.

These four competencies affect how your expertise gets utilized. They take your technical skill
and problem-analyzing, problem-solving abilities as givens. This action orientation makes the
assumption that client readiness to accept your input is as important to discovery as the technical
analysis of the problem to be solved.

Figure 8 shows the basic sequence for the discovery phase.

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Figure 8 The Discovery Model

Presenting problemThe client gives you a . . . .
Redefine the problem or the cause of the

You begin to . . . .

A clear and simple picture of what is causing
and maintaining the problem

Your goal is to develop . . . .

The technical or business problem the client
has asked for help on

Included in this clear and simple picture is a
description of . . . .

How that problem is being managed—the
attitudes of people, the manager’s style, and
the politics of the situation that affect the
technical/business problem

And also a description of . . . .

Recommendations on the technical solution
and on the managerial solution.

Both of these descriptions lead to . . . .

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Juggling the Presenting Problem

Often the consultant’s most important contribution to a client is a redefinition of the problem.
The line manager begins by experiencing some pain. People are restless. Equipment isn’t working.
Output is down. Bills are being paid twice.

Consulting projects get started because managers feel pain. It would be nice if projects got started
because of a desire for further success or for preventive measures, but most often there is some
pain in the picture. When the organization feels the pain, managers start to describe for themselves
why the pain exists. When their explanation of what is causing the pain is accurate, their attempts
to solve the problem are usually successful. When consultants are called in, it is because the line
manager’s attempts at solving the problem have not been that successful. Or maybe the manager
has no idea at all how to solve the problem. When a manager’s attempts to solve the problem
have not succeeded, it is probably because the manager’s attempts to describe the cause of the
pain have been inaccurate.

The client’s initial attempt to describe to us the cause of the difficulties is called the presenting
problem. As a consultant, I never accept the presenting problem as the real problem without
doing my own data collection and analysis. The presenting problem and the real (or underlying)
problem are usually different. Because the line manager started from an incomplete definition
of the problem, his attempts at solution have not entirely worked out. An important contribution
for the consultant is to redefine that initial problem statement for the client.

Here’s an example of how presenting problems get redefined.

A large technical organization was having difficulty retaining new employees more than
two to three years. The people would come to work, get training, work on the job for awhile,
and then leave just when they were becoming valuable employees. The managers asked
the first-line supervisors why the younger people were leaving. The supervisors said there
were two reasons.

1. Salaries weren’t high enough to match the cost of living in the area.

2. Housing was very hard to find. Apartments were scarce and those houses for sale were
so expensive that an employee had to save for ten years to have enough for the down

Top management accepted these two reasons as valid. They conducted a salary survey and
made some adjustments in the compensation practices for short-service employees. They
also created a housing section in the personnel department to help people find apartments
and to work with realtors to identify moderately priced housing in the area. Both of these
solutions responded well to the presenting problem of poor housing and unjust
compensation. Unfortunately, a year and a half later, the turnover rate for the organization
was not reduced, and in some sections it was higher.

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Top management brought in the training group in the company as internal consultants and
asked them for help on the problem. The training people first interviewed first-line
supervisors and short-service employees. From these interviews came a different explanation
of why people were leaving.

The employees said:

1. When they arrived they were handed a stack of company manuals and were told to
read them during the next few weeks.

2. They didn’t get a real assignment until they had been there for almost a year.

3. They never got any accurate feedback from their supervisors about how they were
doing. This made it hard for them to know what to work on for their own development.
It also left them in limbo about their prospects with this company.

4. The first-line supervisors were under so much pressure to get the work done and to
do it perfectly, they just didn’t have the time to spend with new hires.

The interviews revealed a very different cause of the pain the company was experiencing
in losing so many people. The original, presenting problem was that people were leaving,
and they were supposed to be leaving because of low salaries and a tight housing market.
This initial problem statement led to solutions in the form of compensation and housing
aid. The consultants developed a different explanation for the pain and essentially redefined
the cause of the problem—new hires were not given enough support, attention, meaningful
tasks, and feedback.

Once management had this redefinition of the problem, they could start to solve it, which
they did. They began a series of programs to have supervisors and new hires contract with
each other for how much time they would spend together, the tasks they would be assigned,
and when they would get feedback from the supervisor. Management also supported the
supervisors in devoting more time to new employees. Over the next year, the turnover rate
leveled off and in the second year began to go down. The contribution of the consultants
was to redefine the presenting problem and to present to the client a clear picture of what
was causing the difficulty.

How the Problem Is Being Managed

This is a critical area of inquiry in action-oriented data collection—how the technical or business
problem is being managed.

Consultants are usually aware of the client’s management style and the politics of the situation,
but we tend to shy away from dealing with them as part of our consultations. We feel that we
have been asked to solve a business problem, not to comment on the organization. As a result,
we tend to exclude organizational problems from our field of inquiry. We don’t ignore the

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“human” problems entirely, though, for these are the things we talk about most with our
colleagues and friends. The way the problem is being managed usually gets discussed in the rest
room, between meetings, after work when we are eating or drinking, or during breaks during
the day.

Sometimes the management issues are even more interesting than the technical issues. But there
is a part of us (with support from the client) that does not want to get into the “personalities” or
“politics” or “relationships.” It is a mistake to avoid these areas. The way the problem is managed
has a powerful effect on the way our expertise will be used. We can’t really avoid it entirely, even
when the client agrees that we are only technical consultants. Technical/business problems almost
always have accompanying management problems that affect how the technical/business problem
gets resolved.

Figure 9 shows examples of typical “management problems” that could occur along with
technical/business problems in selected disciplines and functions.

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The Difference Between the Technical/Business Problem and How the
Problem Is Being Managed

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business Problems

•• Defensive, cover-your-tracks

Inadequate control procedures
and practices

• Withhold information and figures• Too many reports

• Too few reports • Little verbal communication between

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business ProblemsEngineering
• Operators have negative attitude

toward company and supervisors. New
procedures are resisted

• Cost-reduction project

• Develop new process or

• Supervisors too inexperienced. Passing
through the job, don’t deal with
longer-run issues

• Construction of new facility

• Equipment failure

• Management pressure for product so
great that operations will not give
engineering any time on the floor to
test new equipment or process

• Engineers so busy with crisis after crisis
that new developments get low priority

• Vice president is so involved in each
detail decision of the new building that
project is lagging behind schedule

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business ProblemsScientists

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• It is easy to hire a new chemist, but
there are tight budget controls on
adding lab technicians, equipment, or
adequate space

• Research, under pressure for results,
overpromises, builds expectations, and
then disappoints

• Scientists are under such tight influence
from business, no long-range viewpoint
is possible

• Such strong pride of authorship that it
creates resistance in other groups in

• Cultural gap between science and
operations people. Have different
values, speak different language

• Understand the basic nature
of some material or reaction

• Identify products for

• Transfer their technology to
the marketing or business

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business ProblemsCorporate

• Managers view five-year plan as just
an exercise

• No personal commitment from top

• Strained relationship and distrust
between corporate and field

• Do longer-range planning for
the organization

• Obtain figures and projections
from line managers

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business ProblemsPersonnel

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• Every manager is an expert on

• Personnel function is a low-status
group and is treated accordingly

• Personnel specialists used as a

• Managers fear personnel will be
involved in their performance
evaluation, so they are reluctant to trust
and include personnel

• Improve policies and practices
in areas of compensation,
benefits, recruiting, training

• Improve general organization
and management

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business ProblemsMarketing

• Distrust and distance between
marketing and the sales force

• Struggle for control

• Market research operates as a black
box. Rest of organization operates on
their private opinions, doesn’t believe
the black box

• Policies on pricing, promotion,
and packaging

• Information on customer
preferences and market

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business ProblemsManagement

• Certain individuals and groups have a
lot of power under the current system.
Changing the structure will change the
power balance among groups

• A new structure signals who is on the
way up and whose star is fading

• A very authoritarian manager may not
care about how people feel

• How to improve attitudes and
productivity of an

• New organization structure

• New roles and responsibilities

How the Problem Is Being ManagedTechnical/Business ProblemsPurchasing

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• Material requirements are always
changing. Purchasing is the last to

• Management allows line organization
to contact vendors directly without
including purchasing

• Maintain good relationship
with vendor, get best price
and quality, assure at least
two vendors for each raw

Each discipline or function is faced with both technical and organizational problems. The
presenting problem is almost always about the technical/business problem. Organizational
problems include how the technical/business problem is being managed. The choice is whether
you want to address how the problem is being managed directly or indirectly. To address the
organizational side is riskier for the internal consultant. You might hear clients say that they
didn’t invite you in to comment on their own personal style or the politics of the situation. To
not address the organizational side is to see your technical recommendations distorted and only
partially implemented because of the difficulty the organization has in communicating, trusting,
and managing itself.

A Reminder

To consult flawlessly you need to begin to address the organizational side of the problem as a
regular part of your consultation. At a minimum, each assessment you do should have one section
devoted to how the problem is being managed. This section needs only to present a clear and
simple picture; it doesn’t need to include specific recommendations.

The fear of confronting the client on how the client is managing the problem is a feat that resides
within the consultant. Line managers usually want feedback on how they are doing, and they
have a hard time getting it. Their own subordinates are reluctant to give them feedback. You,
the consultant, are in a special position to provide it. The only caution is to do it in a supportive
and nonpunishing manner. (There is guidance on appropriate feedback language in Chapter 13.)

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Withholding data on the interpersonal or process dimensions of a problem is to collude with the
organization in not dealing with them. Part of the reason they can’t manage their business as
well as they would like to is because they can’t articulate how to handle conflict and authority
and communication. If you are also unwilling to put those dimensions into words, you’re colluding
with them in a way that’s going to keep them from solving their underlying problems.

To summarize, remember to do these things in discovery.

Ask questions about the client’s own personal role in causing or maintaining the presenting
or target problem.

Ask questions about what others in the organization are doing to cause or maintain the
presenting or target problem.

Plan the data collection jointly with the client.

Involve your client in interpreting the data collected.

Recognize the similarity between how the client managed you and how they manage their
own organization.

Condense the data into a limited number of issues.

Use language that is understandable to people outside your area of expertise.

Distinguish between the presenting problem and the underlying problem.

Elicit and describe both the technical problem and how it is being managed.

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