An external consultant can hold up a mirror to your organization. They highlight patterns—the skillful and the unskillful—and develop tools and insights to help you improve. They often can see you for who you truly are and help you get better. They have perspective.
Being on the “inside” has its strengths, too. You gain deep knowledge of how your company works, develop positive relationships, learn the jargon, etc. You learn how things work and don’t work in your company culture. And you’re part of the tribe, so you have insider credibility.
However, you also lose some perspective as you become “acculturated.” This comes with the territory, but it often creates blind spots that make you less effective than you can be.
There may always be a need for the outside consultant. But if we can maintain some of the perspective of an outsider, we can broaden and improve our impact as internal Training and Organizational Development professionals.
Listen to the Rookies
As part of the Training team and/or HR, you may have contact with employees as they first acclimatize to your organization. Help them learn your culture, but also create a safe environment for them to question “why?” If you assure them that this helps your organization get better, new employees often will share observations that veteran employees, even those who’ve been at your company for a few years, no longer even notice.
At my company, I do the onboarding and I also do 30-day follow-ups. This gives me the opportunity to ask new employees what they are surprised by, what they have concerns or questions about, and what they have seen at other organizations that we should consider. This is valuable data.
Listen to the People Who Leave
They may have an axe to grind, or they may be leaving for a better job or city. No matter what the emotion of their responses, the content can be really valuable. What will they miss about your company? What was a constant frustration? Was there a change they saw as negative? How and why? Often, if we assure employees that they can help improve things for the colleagues they are leaving behind, exiting employees will offer helpful insights.
Listen to the Veterans
Long-time employees often have great insights into the evolution and history of the company. Ask them about changes they’ve seen, what keeps them at your organization, etc. Why does that one department report to that other? Why does the sales team have its own holiday party? What got your company through the last downturn? If you happen to be fairly new—and especially if you’re charged with facilitating change—it’s valuable to learn what’s been tried, what’s at stake for some employees, how things evolved before you joined the company, etc.
Engage the Customers
It’s not rare that organizations get so busy internally that they forget to slow down and ask their customers, “What do you think we should be working on?” The customer often has experience with multiple companies in your field, and you may only know your own. The customer can tell you where you can get better and can offer perspectives on what your competitors are doing well.
Get on the Balcony
If you want to maintain some of the outsider’s ability to see, you have to continually seek perspective. Asking yourself questions such as, “If we started X department right now from scratch, who would we want in it? What would their roles be? What would we prioritize?” can help you to see that much of what we do in organizations is the accumulation of inertia. What started accidently or intentionally many years ago may not be the most relevant or effective approach for present circumstances.
The other key to perspective taking is to have a professional peer group. Periodic check-ins with others in your field will give you a practical menu of possibilities that might not be on your horizon. And, you can learn from your colleagues’ processes. For example, let’s say two of your colleagues are changing the annual review process at their companies. By continuing to talk/vent/problem solve throughout the process, you gain a lot of second-hand experience that can help you think broadly about changes in your home organization.
Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
No matter how progressive your culture is, there is someone out there doing something interesting and/or working on a problem in a creative way. You can benefit from other organizations’ R&D.
- Read Google’s excellent blog at: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/
- Watch Ricardo Semler’s talk, “How to Run a Company with (Almost) No Rules”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4vzhweOefs
- Do a deep dive on a topic such as culture change: http://blog.readytomanage.com/top-20-best-books-on-managing-change/
This continual cross-pollination of ideas will keep you fresh. It often will provide tools for you to utilize, but even more immediately, it will help you to see your own organization with the eyes of an outsider.
The Stories We Tell
When I consult with other organizations, I pay close attention to their stories. What leadership stories are told and retold as I do interviews? What do departments say about each other in the hallways? What are people most proud of/frustrated by? These can give you a pulse of the organization and offer ideas for further exploration (I need to interview X leader, her name comes up a lot in positive leadership stories; Y department seems to be causing everyone headaches, I need to investigate why, etc.)
A Simple Activity
- For a week, at staff meetings, in the hallways, even after work at social gatherings, jot down stories people tell.
- For every story, ask yourself, what values are being expressed? What assumptions and blind spots are built in?
- At the end of the week, aggregate the stories and look for key words and themes. These stories are an important ingredient in your company culture.
If we straddle the boundary between insider and outsider in our organizations, we can combine the informal authority, relationships, and professional credibility of the insider with the perspective and fresh thinking of the outsider, thus making us much more effective.
Craig Fischer is the director of Faculty Enhancement at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, an Ethics and Organizational Development instructor at Whitworth University, and an organizational consultant.