They Might Not Want a Hammer: How to Understand an Organization

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most as a consultant is having the opportunity to learn about organizations from a wide variety of sectors. These have ranged from schools, NGOs and the private offices of high net-worth individuals to Fortune Five oil and gas companies and governments. On the one hand, I’ve discovered that there are considerable similarities in all organizations, no matter their sector or size. However, I’ve also become acutely aware that the things that make the most significant difference – good or bad – are often very subtle.

However, having to learn about an organization in a short time, and having to identify these subtleties is also one of the most challenging parts of being a consultant.

This is the critical ability of a good consultant: being a quick study and having the ability to develop a deep understanding of an organization in a short period of time. This understanding will help you pinpoint these subtle differences which are the keys to unlocking a solution.

There’s an old joke that a consultant will take your watch, tell you the time and then charge you for it. That’s meant to illustrate how cavalier consultants are, but it points to the fact that sometimes the owner of a watch struggles to tell the time accurately.

However, merely telling the time isn’t enough. That’s useful knowledge. But we also need to understand the context to achieve understanding. After all, knowing that it’s 2:00 pm doesn’t tell us if we are early or late unless we also know where we are supposed to be and when.

It’s all about context.

This ability to take a contextual view and to achieve real understanding is the difference between an effective and ineffective consultant.

A good consultant comes in with no preconceived ideas about what the problems or solutions are. They have a comprehensive toolbox of potential solutions but need to spend time figuring out which one is most appropriate. An inexperienced or ineffective consultant – or salesman masquerading as a consultant – will come in with a single solution that they try to force into place. Rather than a toolkit, they turn up with just a hammer meaning every problem looks like a nail. They don’t care about context.

But how can you develop an understanding of an organization quickly and effectively? A simple but effective approach is to focus on three elements: where, what and how.

First, you need to know where the organization came from and where it wants to go. Knowing the origin story of the firm, a little of its history and background, will often explain a considerable amount, especially when you get to the ‘how’ question a little later. At the same time, you also need to know where it wants to go as this will tie directly into its objectives, which is critical from a risk management perspective.

Second, you need to know what the organization does. But I mean what it really does rather than what it says it does because these can differ significantly. For example, I worked with an oil field services company that was acquiring smaller operators exceptionally quickly. That meant that at the corporate level, their activities were all focussed on acquisitions, not the delivery of engineering services. At the very top, this was an M&A firm, not an engineering firm.

Third, you need to understand how they do things. What are their processes like? What’s the culture of the organization? What’s their management philosophy? The answers will often reflect what you learned about their history and background. Things that may seem illogical in the abstract make perfect sense once you understand the organization’s past.

Gathering this information is tricky when time is short so you need a process. The first thing you need to do is determine the time available and divide it appropriately. In the case of a risk assessment, this might look like:

  • 60% – Understanding
  • 25% – Developing the assessment
  • 15% – Delivering and reviewing the results

Just don’t be seduced when the project is months long. Within that time are vacations, sick days, and not every day is a project workday. You might only have 12 dedicated work days in a two-month project. Using the breakdown above, that gives you just a week to get to know the organization insides and out.

Once you’ve allocated your time, start by developing a 30,000-foot view of the organization: read annual reports, the ‘About Us’ page of their site, news reports. From there, drill down into the annual strategy, and the processes, procedures, and other operational documents.

This 30,000-foot view and document review are going to give you a lot of the where – where they came from and where they want to go – and the theoretical version of what they do and how they do it.

However, I say ‘theoretical’ because when you start to conduct interviews, you will discover what that ‘how’ looks like in practice. Interviews are also going to tell you a lot about the culture of the organization and the internal dynamics. These are key to understanding the current state of the organization, but culture and dynamics will also influence the options available when it comes to designing a solution.

This is why you need more than one tool in your toolbox, and you need to be able to select the appropriate tool for the job. Remember, it is the subtleties that will make a big difference, so you need to ensure that the solution you are proposing is appropriate for that specific organization.

Adding context to background knowledge – the where, what and how – is going to give you the understanding of the organization you need. The understanding that’s going to allow you to develop an effective and appropriate solution for the organization.

So the next time you need to really need to understand an organization, start with the where, what and how. Be sure to contextualize the knowledge you gather to let you achieve a deep understading of the organization. That’s going to allow you to become a thoughtful, innovative problem solver, and one that’s able to select the right tool for the job.

Whatever you do, don’t turn up with just a hammer.

Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash

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