The Cynics, the Idealists, and the Pragmatists: What type of consulting partner do you have?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on February 28, 2011 · 1 comment

In my work as co-founder of the Lean Learning Center, we focus primarily on our clients and their challenges. I’m generally not that aware of what our competition is doing. As a result, I am sometimes very surprised by some of the stories I hear from our clients about other consulting efforts, whether tied to lean or not. Or, a client will ask us to do something that is so far from what I think should be happening, I don’t even know how to respond.

Consulting is not just one thing. There are many different versions of what can be called consulting. Even many shared services outsourcing efforts are binned as consulting. Having the right relationship with your consulting partners is important. In today’s ever increasingly complex world, it would be arrogant that an organization can think it has all the knowledge it needs. There are many categories that I would gladly pay someone else who knows more about it. But finding the right fit, and the right relationship, is important. While certainly not the only way to slice the pie, I categorize these relationships in 3 groups: The Cynics, the Idealists, and the Pragmatists.

The Cynics


The Cynics operate, whether espoused or not, under the premise that the client is not capable. They cannot do this for themselves. There is no question that this is sometimes a true premise. The application of this relationship is that you, the client, hands over the responsibility to the client. They do the work, and deliver a result. It’s expedient, and because they own the work, it doesn’t distract from the other things going on in the organization.

The challenges with this approach is that you have turned over the ownership, which means that you, the client, does not own the results or the work to achieve them. This hurts both the sustainability of those gains and certainly the ability to replicate them in further opportunities. We see plenty of lean engagements that look like this. There is a great plan for 90 days, but no plan at all for the 91st day.

Like all styles, there is a time and a place for this relationship.

The Idealists


The Idealists are those that paint a picture of perfection. They stretch our minds and our visions of what we should pursue. They establish the goal worth chasing. Tom Johnson, author of Relevance Lost and Profit Beyond Measure, is a great example of this. He paints a picture about management accounting by saying “remove all accounting from management.” That’s a bold statement. It establishes a vision for how we should be running our companies that stretches us beyond just the next step. Tom doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room in those statements, and if you want to take small steps in that direction, he won’t be as interested.

That is the challenge with Idealists. Because of their ideal state views, they are generally uncompromising and won’t help you in the steps you need to take based on where you are today.

The Pragmatists


The Pragmatists try to balance the two. They begin with vision, but understand that you have constraints, challenges, and need to pursue the journey step by step. They aren’t willing to work around you, the need to work with you. They want you to learn the journey, and they believe that if you don’t have some ownership in the process it will not be sustainable. The pragmatists, when working effectively, focus on understanding the situation that the client is in and help the client manage through those challenges and constraints.

The challenge with the Pragmatists is that they often won’t take things over for the client even if that’s what the client is wanting. If the patient would rather get liposuction rather than learn a healthy living style, then you can’t force them to do so. When this results in the wrong fit, very little is accomplished.

Find the Right Fit

While I am clearly biased towards being a Pragmatist (I assume that came through although I tried to be balanced), there is a right fit for each client and even each situation. At the right place, and the right time, and the right client, each one of these styles will meet your needs. What’s important is that the client must clearly think through what they need first.

What gap are you trying to close? What level of skill do you have to work with? What’s your company’s culture in working with outsiders? What’s your current resource capacity?

These are questions you must ask yourself before engaging with a consulting resource. And find the best way to test for the fit before you proceed. A good consulting company will turn down the wrong fit, because they know the wrong fit will lead to a bad experience for both.

How have you thought about your consulting partners, and establishing the right fit?

1 Brian Buck March 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm

I would add to the cynics section that it is not always just the consultant that thinks the client is not capable. Sometimes the client does not think they can do it. I am pragmatic consultant too and often have to spend the first bit of time helping clients see how it is that they are capable.

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