Don’t buy the medicine before you’ve spoken to the doctor

Let’s imagine you go to the doctor with a pain all across your lower back and down your left leg. When you go into the doctor, you sit down and say, ‘I know exactly what I need, Doc. I’ve got this pain; if you’ll just do me a prescription for these specific named painkillers, I’ll be on my way. No, don’t bother asking me any questions about the problem – I know what I want. Can you supply it or not?’

Or you call out the TV repair man and say, ‘both my TVs have lost their picture – it keeps breaking up. Can you change the aerial sockets and sell me a couple of new leads? That should do the trick.’

You wouldn’t do that, would you? I hope that at least in these two cases, it’s obvious that you might be wrong and that you are not giving the expert the chance to diagnose the problem for him- or herself.

But this kind of thing happens to us all the time. I was even called in once to ‘run a time management course, please.’ The participants had been booked and the course was definitely called Time Management. I asked if it would be OK to ask a few questions about why the client felt he needed his staff, an IT support team, to go on this course. These are the issues he presented to me:

  • A huge and never-reducing backlog of open support issues and service complaints
  • Tension and finger-pointing between the team and its customers, in both directions
  • Stress and bad feeling
  • Monday and Friday absenteeism

These were his objectives:

  • Improve team spirit and have people cheerful and smiling again
  • Improve relationships between the team and its customers
  • Reduce the backlog
  • Reduce absenteeism

Since the course was already booked and a number of people including my client would be inconvenienced or embarrassed by cancelling it, I decided to go ahead, but address the issues directly, allowing the team to air their frustrations and spontaneously reach a point where they were ready to come up with a plan of action. We set goals, made action lists, aligned on proposals and requests for senior management and assigned accountability to individuals for carrying each item forward. We agreed to meet again in six weeks or so to report on progress.

I dropped in to the manager on my way to my second meeting with the team. ‘Wow’, he said, ‘that time management course you led was amazing! People are smiling again – they’ve come to the executive team with their requests, which we were happy to grant. It’s early days, but even the backlog and the absenteeism rates seem to be down. I never realised time management could be so powerful.’

It wasn’t of course. If I’d led the typical Time Management course, it wouldn’t have impacted any of the presenting issues, nor achieved results in such a short time. I had taken a risk, and done what the situation demanded, rather than what the client thought he wanted – and it could have gone very wrong.

The point is not that my gamble paid off, but the lesson I learned. I never again accepted a contract where I allowed my client to tell me his or her already-decided solution to a problem I hadn’t fully explored for myself. It’s astonishing how often people call in experts like ourselves and instead of allowing us to hear the full range of symptoms and diagnose the problem for ourselves before recommending the ideal solution, they tell us the medicine they want. It sometimes takes assertiveness and tact to persuade a client who is dead-set on the latest solution he or she has just read about on the business pages that another approach might be not just cheaper and less disruptive, but actually more effective.

Next time you call in the experts, from organisation development consultants like ourselves to your IT support person or financial adviser, try just explaining the symptoms you are experiencing and the outcomes you’d like to achieve. Let them tell you the best way to go about it – you might be surprised and delighted at the outcome.

Call us on 01865 881056.