The Palouse Insight

Drive north toward Spokane from Walla Walla and you’ll find yourself passing through unique terrain. Some of it, conventionally beautiful. Some of it, the scrub lands, takes a squint and an understanding of geologic history to really appreciate. This drive will take you through The Palouse country.

For centuries, tribes who’s territories bordered this region of endless rolling, silty loess hills, considered The Palouse to be neutral territory, common grazing land, a place where horses would not be stolen and war would not be waged. War had not been waged until US Army Colonel Edward Steptoe blundered into armed conflict near the present day Steptoe Butte, a jutting rock the natives called “power mountain.” Steptoe got his butt kicked and retreated back to Fort Walla Walla.

But that’s history. Today, the drive pulls you through capricious speed zones and expansive wheat and lentil fields. The place feels remote enough to allow for unregulated speeding, a false sense Whitman County depends upon to write a steady stream of speeding tickets. Best to pay attention and use the speed control to help you go slow enough to avoid the contribution to the county.

The drive up through The Palouse is a great place to talk, and Amy and I chatted last week as we chugged through. The topic? Consulting. The context? Why is it that so many of our colleagues are starving consultants? Why are we starving, too? Is it market or marketing?

The insight that came to me in that conversation was that the very term consultant serves as a context marker, one that poorly frames what consultants actually do.

Look at the questions clients ask: How much will it cost? What, specifically, do you recommend? What are the steps to achieve the goal? How long will it take?

These are questions best aimed at change. Aim them at transformation and invite endless confusion.

I used to define as contractor anyone who is hired to do defined work. They do the client’s bidding. Consultants I defined as those who do what needs doing, whether or not the client asked for that to be done. It’s common in consulting that the initiating purpose, target, goal, path, and cost shift. This is failure for a contractor, but success for a consultant.

Taking these rather limited definitions of contractor and consultant, I claim that contractors produce first-order change while consultants produce second-order transformation, but I might be the only one in the world making this distinction. What I didn’t fully appreciate until that drive through The Palouse, was that the label consultant introduces a change context rather than a transformation one. So of course the prospective client comes loaded with the usual change questions: How much? When? How long? How many? What process?

They come expecting to receive directions or methods, recipes or formulas. They expect the consultant to be an expert in the sort of problem they face and able to slay that dragon with experienced precision. That is contractor work.

Transformation requires different questions and follows an apparently meandering road, rather like the one twisting north from Central Ferry on the Snake River. Can’t see around the turns. Uncertain where the top is. Confident of the general direction, though the driver turns constantly.

The current Financial Panic is a decent example of a situation needing transformation. Listening to the floor speeches of our Representatives this morning. I was not surprised to hear many of them claim that the proposed bill would not solve the problem. These comments told me that some were approaching this difficulty as if it were a problem. The problem with that presumption is two-fold. If it is a problem, it must have a solution. If it has a solution, we really should find it. This encourages a lot of posturing and posing, since, clearly, the proposed bill wouldn’t solve anything. It wasn’t intended to.

The only way to solve the Financial Panic is to travel back in time and co-opt it before it gets to the present state. Since that’s not possible, we have to settle for something different than a solution. It’s helpful if, somewhere along the way, those seeking resolution realize that they are not going to solve anything. They might transform the situation, but never solve it.

No one ever seeks transformation at first. As I noted in my last post , we chase the old status quo first, trying to restore cows that have already escaped from the barn.

The Palouse Insight claims that the words we use to describe what we do confuse us all- client as well as consultant. Those in the transformation business struggle to find clients not because we are poor at producing results, but because our language is inadequate to describe what we do. We throw chaff in our client’s face and confuse the both of us. Transformation comes later, not at first.

We work by personal referral, not by clever marketing. No one, not even the most satisfied client, can ever describe what it is that we did. They can only say that they are satisfied, delighted usually. That their difficulty was resolved in some surprising way, never to be repeated, perfect for the conditions at hand then.

The contractor serves an installed base of problems, systems, situations. For the consultant, no two situations are similar enough to serve as template, though there are principles, meta-perspectives, which won’t make any sense to anyone except, perhaps, the practitioner.

So, consultant is a lousy label. It implies what it doesn’t intend. Like this explanation of the insight, perhaps meaningless except in the moment. I think, like transformation, you had to be there to really understand.

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