Clients are often more experienced in dealing with standard management consultants – who tend to have answers, predictable results (and processes) and models that fit current thinking. By the very nature of complexity approaches, those answers and results are unpredictable. But saying so does little to build confidence in clients’ eyes – for them they like the reassurance of certainty, even when they suspect it’s misplaced.

So what to do as a practitioner of complexity techniques? Lie – pretend predictability and certainty where there is none? Doesn’t sit right with me. Try to convince the client that uncertainty is OK? Nice idea, but it takes a pretty unusual client to go along with that if they’re not already there.

It strikes me that the greater the degree of uncertainty in a project, the greater the trust the client needs to have in the consultant. (In an ambitious client, I’d argue, the greater the number of probes or experiments you need to be running into the complex space, but that’s just being silly now.) Anyone about to undertake a step out into unknown territory needs to feel confident in their guide.

Building trust, therefore, becomes crucial in pitching complexity work. And trust doesn’t come from reading the right books or being able to talk the theory. In a practical situation, trust comes from being able to talk about experience. (Not necessarily from experience.)

When the question comes in “what are the recommendations likely to be”, the response can then be “here are a couple that have come from previous projects”. They don’t even need to be directly comparable (indeed, better to be analogous to the situation than direct). In the past year, I’ve managed to point to a variety of projects and emergent recommendations, particularly focusing on the small-scale, low-resource nature of them in comparison to the usual systemic approaches to addressing the problems being considered. The clients then recognise both that there will be a result or recommendation (“uncertainty” can seem to imply that there won’t be one, not just that what it will be is uncertain) and that the person they’re talking to knows enough to recognise one when it arises!

I’ve been lucky – the first big projects Narrate took on using SenseMaker were sufficiently complex and big that we worked very much in partnership with Cognitive Edge to pitch and deliver them. I learned from that that when trust and previous experience are important it’s best to take a more experienced network member in with me (in those cases Dave).

These days, with notable exceptions, most of the projects Narrate works towards are ones where my own experience is enough to satisfy the potential client.

At the risk of a) “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs” (a quaint way of saying “trying to teach people who are already greater experts than I”) and b) falling into old-fashioned management recipe books, I’d recommend David Maister’s work in developing a “trusted” approach to clients. He’s retired now, but his podcasts were still available last I looked and well worth listening to. His focus is on developing professional services firms and, while he’s got recipes, he’s usually pretty good at throwing in some context and knowing that there is no single right answer. The book where I started is “The Trusted Adviser”

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