Revealing the ‘hidden’ organisation

Working as an organisational development consultant involves getting to grips with how client organisations function – often in a very short time. It can feel like an almost vertical learning curve sometimes building a detailed understanding of an organisation – piecing together evidence from documents, interviews, discussions and observation. Painting a comprehensive picture of an organisation often feels like an overwhelming task – especially when working with large, complex organisations. We often use metaphors like ‘painting a picture’ or ‘constructing a model’ to explain the consultancy process but these metaphors leave out a vital part of the consultancy process – in fact it is the part that clients often value most from an external consultant. This became clearer to me a few days ago.

Last week I was on a retreat with my colleagues in Framework (the collective of consultants of which I am a member) in the beautiful English Lake District. We gather twice a year at Rydal Hall – a historic building with breathtaking views of hills, lakes and serene formal gardens. Next to a rushing beck (the local word for a stream) the staff of Rydal Hall have created a small sculpture park. During an early morning walk I was entranced by a sculpture about 2 metres tall of an angel carved from a block of sandstone. The sculpture was surrounded by chips of the sandstone that had been painstakingly carved from the block. It was easy to see how the magical transition from simple block of stone to beautiful representation had happened and I was reminded of the words of the sculptor who explained that “A sculpture already exists in the stone before you start working on it. All I do as an artist is to remove the unwanted material to reveal the sculpture hidden within”.

It occurred to me that perhaps this helps to describe the nature of organisational consultancy: first of all becoming overwhelmed in the process of building a complex understanding of the organisation then trying to reveal the soul of the organisation that lies within its surrounding complexity. The search for meaningful simplicity may seem less demanding than the constuction of complex models but that’s not how it feels to me. It is easy as a consultant to be caught up in an almost obsessive search for more and more data to add to the picture. Clients are only too willing to povide consultants with yet more documents describing ever greater levels of detail about their organisation. By assimilating these documents it is all too easy for the consultant to internalise the chaotic complexity that characterises a client organisation. But what is most needed by many organisations is the consultant’s ability to get to the heart of the matter – to reveal the “sculpture hidden within”.

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