Anyone who’s serious about the practice of consulting should be familiar with the work of Peter Block. For five decades he’s been a leading thinker in the areas of organizational development, community building, and civic engagement.
Block is the author of numerous bestsellng books, the most famous of which is likely Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, first published in 1981 and now out as a third edition.
Peter’s work facilitates ways to create workplaces and communities that serve the best interests of all participants. He offers insightful (and workable) ideas for bringing about change through consent and connectivity rather than through mandate and force.
My conversation with Peter was lively and enlightening.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Aside from the obvious advances in technology in recent decades, what do you see as the most significant changes in the world of consulting?
Peter Block: So little has changed. It’s stunning to me how people’s questions continue to be pretty much the same. I thought people would get over being afraid of the boss. I thought they would get over thinking that if top management is not on your side you don’t have a chance.
Technology is symbolic of cultures of impatience, the idea that speed is the god and time is the devil. So everybody is in a hurry, and many of our clients want to do things in less time. This means they choose speed over depth. To me that is an enormous loss.
Duncan: Many of my clients have been in industries where safety is of paramount importance. All of the good people in those industries talk a lot about safety, and they mean it. But they’re also interested in speed and efficiency. And sometimes speed and efficiency are not compatible with safety. So hard choices must be made.
Block: You might say that some people long for incompatibilities. It seems that the question of purpose is becoming more relevant. Some people are in the stage of early lip service and they need to understand that some things are more important than quarterly returns.
It’s true that the current generation seems especially tuned to the notion of “purpose.” But that focus is not the exclusive purview of one generation. I believe previous generations (some still in the workplace) are also purpose-driven. To say otherwise is to absolve them of accountability.
The idea of “what’s your number” [measurable performance] can miss the point. This is even being formalized in CEO roundtables where people are entering the stage of early lip service around social responsibility. In the 1980s I thought there would be a shift toward employee involvement, but since the 1990s it’s be all about the money. Maybe that’s swinging back just a little bit.
Duncan: Many people do “consulting” even if they don’t carry the title. What are some of the key skills of a good consultant that can be adopted productively by someone in a discipline like finance, strategic planning, organizational effectiveness, or safety?
Block: Most of the readers of the Flawless Consulting book and most of the people participating in our workshops are from finance and IT, although some are from HR and market research. They’re all stuck with the questions “How can you have impact?” and “How can you make a difference when you have no control over what people do with what you produce?”
The hardest thing for people to understand is that the relationship is the delivery system of anything you try to accomplish.
The hardest thing for people to understand is that the relationship is the delivery system of anything you try to accomplish. So we’ve tried to help people make relationships accessible. I originally wrote the book for engineers, so I put in boxes and lines and lists. I studied engineering myself. When you’ve invested your life in developing expertise in things like finance and marketing and IT and nuclear science, it’s hard to accept that what you know will never have the desired impact if you don’t pay attention to the quality of relationships. Not just between you and the client, but between and among the client’s people. Once you decide to pay attention to relationships, then there are multiple ways to learn to do it.
Good consulting is about action and interaction, relationships and results.
Duncan: That seems so self-evident. But we both know that a lot of people didn’t get the memo on relationships.
Block: Or if they did receive it they didn’t read it. In your work you use the word “friendly.” (See CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP.) And it’s really not that complicated. We just need to say to people “What do you want from me? Here’s what I want from you.” When working with a team we need to understand what they want from us and what they want from each other.
It’s really not that complicated. We just need to say to people “What do you want from me? Here’s what I want from you.”
Duncan: I’ve used that approach successfully in 52 years of marriage. My wife and I occasionally ask each other the Stop, Start, and Continue questions—“What am I doing that you’d like me to stop? What am I not doing that you’d like me to start? And what am doing that you want me to continue?” These are deceptively simple questions that can help spawn some very candid and mutually helpful conversation.
Block: For 30 years I made a living from those same three questions. We would flip chart a wall for each person on a team. Then on each flip chart we would capture their answers to those three questions. They you don’t argue about anything, you simply explore what you can agree to.
It’s simple only if you decide that relationship parity really matters. If you decide that you’re in charge and the other person’s view is irrelevant, this methodology is useless. That’s why a leadership model based on anything other than mutual respect is a fairy tale.
Originally posted in Forbes, January 31, 2020. Reposted by permission. Two additional interviews with Duncan are On Learning Outside Your Area of Expertise and The Key to “Contracting” with Your Client. Home page image Martin Strattner.