Consulting with a severely overcommitted organization

In my last post, I documented organizational pathology stemming from commitments to clients which are hallucinatory . Reading this post will make no sense unless you read the previous post.

Like a shyster, a severely overcommitted organization has “several sets of books”, the “books” being various contradictory commitments which are “entertained” simultaneously. E.g.,

  1. The CEO has promised the client delivery of a quality product within one year.
  2. The Head of R&D believes the same product will be ready in 18 months.
  3. The Head of R&D demands from his team that work be complete in 10 months.
  4. The programmers estimate 2 years time is needed, after proof of design, which has not ever started.

Often companies in the situation will commission OD work. Lucky me, because this type of organization has been giving me work for many, many years. (I am 64 yo).

However, the initial reason that an OD consultant is approached to do such grisly  work is  to “improve the attitude” of the programmers, because “people in the trenches are not assuming ownership”. It never ceases to amaze me how in the initial stages, managers misinterpret the symptoms!

As we all know, the OD market is flooded with lots of semi skilled and hungry trainer-consultants, and generally these  trainer-consultants, commissioned by HR, take a first stab at the work and fail. As the situation gets worse, generally the trainer-consultant gets replaced by an OD consultant who understands this specific organizational pathology.

The key to understand how to do successful consulting in such a situation is to understand how your client will eventually de commit. (Goffman calls this process  “cooling the mark”.) De-commitment of the initial commitment may look like this:-

  1. Wow wow wow-we can do it.
  2. We are doing our best.
  3. There are some difficulties but we are confident
  4. There are some features we want to improve and this will take time,
  5. We will do “phased delivery”,
  6. We have a crisis!
  7. Renegotiation.

My experience is that the OD consultant needs to initially try two or three tricks that the consultant knows a priori will not be fully effective, yet will allow the gradual breaking of very bad news to the CEO. This interventions may include “coaching” for the head of R&D or one of his teams, various team building sessions or whatever. Within a month of two of being commissioned, “things are in process and while there is some improvement”, this change is not fast enough; then the CEO can stop perfuming the pig internally and with his the client.

My experience also has taught me never to lose the trust of the programmers. I once consulted on a project which management thought was “almost all done” while proof of design was severely flawed. I resisted all attempts to consult  people to “manage their priorities better-aka work even harder”. The moment a programmer feels that a consultant is there to apply pressure, the programmer starts lying to you as well.

My experience has also taught me in situations of severe over commitment, people who “step up to the plate” and try to “make the impossible happen” may be very opportunistic and looking for a short term PR win. There are no fast fixes when the gap between the commitment and reality are too large. The OD consultant must be wary of factoring in commitment from these heroes-in-waiting.

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