The Consulting Process as Drama: Learning from King Lear

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Drawing comparisons between consultancy and the classical tragedy King Lear, the author explores the core theme of responsibility. Arguing that King Lear is vital in gaining an understanding of consulting, leadership and management, the author explores in detail the positive lessons to be learnt from this tragedy for the manager and the management consultant. An intriguing premise that uncovers key strategies for managers.'This book gives a summary of key issue in management consulting, in a step-by-step chronological way. However, it is directed mainly at those consultants who know from experience that consulting does not work as smoothly as the manuals suggest, and who have learned through trials and tribulations to take a tragic outlook on the art of consulting.'- From the Prologue

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CHAPTER ONE: Exposition

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a. Key issues in making an entry

In the first phase of consulting, which mainly deals with contacting and contracting, the establishment of a consulting relationship can be viewed as an underlying aim. The question is whether it is at all possible to reach the kind of collaborative relationship that is needed for consulting to begin.

Experience shows that usually the entry “starts before it starts”: both the client and the consultant have images and expectations of the other, even before they meet. Both the client’s organization and the consultant’s profession usually bring with them strong preconceptions and associations. There is no such thing as a “neutral beginning”. Let us think of the example of going to the theatre to watch a play. We have usually heard about the play beforehand, perhaps discussed it with people who have been before us, or read a review. When the actual first contact takes place, first impressions prove to be quite strong and persistent. For the consultant, the business of finding out what belongs to the client or to the client organization and what belongs to the consultant’s own preconceptions and biases, which is an important part of exploration, starts from the very first contact.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Development

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a. Key issues in stating the problem

In the second phase of the consulting assignment, the consultant has moved on from the initial contact. He has established some kind of a relationship with the main client and has ideally put a contract into place. The consultant’s attention will shift slightly and his task will become more focused, as the exploration which began during the first meeting with the client will now become the exclusive aim of his efforts.

Similar to the entry phase, the exploration phase tends to “start before it starts”. During the initial contact there have been first impressions and there have been first statements of the problem; now these impressions will diversify, as consultant meets and interviews other stakeholders, and he hears other, perhaps contrary, statements of the problem. There is a gradual development from entry to exploration.

If the first phase was working towards consulting, the second phase is primarily a kind of “hovering” over consulting. There may be some pressure on the consultant to consult, but at the same time this is felt to be rather premature. One of the difficulties is how to get out of the “assessing” stance that was unavoidable when a consulting contract still had to be established. Some consultants tend to continue assessing and displaying their expert knowledge, by which they jump past this phase and run the risk of offering more straightforward consulting than tends to be helpful at this stage.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Crisis and peripeteia

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a. Consulting: key issues in making a difference

It is in the third phase of the consulting assignment that the consultant will become most conscious of his own contribution. The aim of consulting seems now to be to make the consultant’s impact visible. One reason for this is that he will have to take a more central stance, as this is generally the phase where the consultant intervenes most. Another reason is that a lot of exploration has been undertaken; the client and the client organization will naturally turn their attention to the consultant to see what he thinks or does.

The client’s expectation, or rather fantasy, is often that the consultant will now really make a difference, that the consultant will intervene and offer advice which will then solve the problem at hand. In the case of real and persisting problems, however, which have been created slowly and consistently and which have become part of the organization’s structure and culture, solving the problem is not straightforward and easy. Any intervention by the consultant can easily be distorted or displaced, so that, instead of removing or alleviating the existing problems, they will exacerbate them. The consultant, who is conscious of an organization’s capacity to render harmless outside interventions, will think differently about “making a difference”. This consultant knows that in order to make a difference within a consulting relationship one often needs to make an unexpected move. In this relationship, making a difference changes the relationship itself. For this reason, this is generally the phase in which the client-consultant relationship is tested most, either as a result of conventional interventions that have not worked, or as a result of more daring, relationship-changing interventions that have.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Denouement

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a. Consulting: key issues in making it last

In the fourth phase of consulting, the phase of the denouement or resolution, the consultant’s aim is mainly to facilitate what is now working. In a successful assignment, the consultant can now lean back a little, do more self-monitoring without too much self-directing, and try to stay with whatever the client’s development is. The consultant becomes gradually more like a member of the audience in a theatre: observing, perhaps identifying with, and pondering on what takes place on the central stage. For the client and the client organization, there may still be a lot of uncertainty, threat, unexpected turns of events, and ambiguity towards the consultant’s interventions. If the interventions are working well, however, these anxieties may diminish and even dissolve with time. If the assignment has progressed well enough to develop into this phase in the first place, the consultant now has the opportunity to witness change from close quarters. Whether or not he has had a share in producing the change, somewhere a difference has been created in the client’s fortunes. This difference may initially be very small, fragile, or fluctuating, thus not fully and continuously present. Such is the case in many of the characters experiencing change in the tragedy King Lear. Or it may be full and total, such as we have seen in the change from Edgar to Poor Tom, or such as we will see presently in the new position of the Duke of Albany. However the onset of the change occurs, many consultants feel privileged to witness it and to nourish it with further consulting interventions. The essence of these nourishing interventions is to support the change, to remain mindful and aware of its nature and progression, and to facilitate its growth regardless of regular occurrences of insecurity, relapse, and weakening.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Catastrophe and exodus

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a. Consulting: key issues in letting go

In the fifth and final phase of consulting, the consultant’s aim is mainly to end the consulting relationship in such a way that it can be rekindled whenever required. The consultant is focused on letting go and stepping out of the client organization, albeit in such a way that does not preclude stepping back in, nor prevent further strengthening of the ongoing manifestation of the assignment’s consequences.

In the theatre the boundaries are clear. We know when the play is over, if only from the change in light or the clapping of the audience. We have not allowed the protagonists to really become part of our life; we can walk out of the theatre and leave the whole plot behind us. Not so in consulting. In consulting, there is a strong investment by both client and consultant in the consulting relationship, and there are good reasons for continuing this relationship at every moment: the client keeps the luxury of an outsider who is knowledgeable and involved, and the consultant has the benefit of rewards and a feeling that he is of service. So the consultant and the client can easily become mutually dependent on one another for their success and their survival.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Conclusion

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The tragedy is over. The events were gripping, bloody and intensely sad. We are left with a sense of emptiness, anxiety and compassion, but also with the realization that we have been observing something true, a story from which we can learn. In this conclusion, I will briefly summarize once again what we have learned from King Lear in the preceding pages.

First, we need to distinguish between two different levels of the drama, the level of “what King Lear is” and the level of “what King Lear is about”:

On the one hand, King Lear “is” a tragedy, an ill-fated process of cleansing. It is also a process which permits us to learn from a problematic situation. In this respect King Lear can be seen as a consulting process. This is also illustrated by the similarity between the phases of a classical tragedy and those of a consulting process, the five “acts”. However, the presence of the three main characters bearing the role of adviser and the development of the protagonist are the main indicators of a consulting process. As we have seen, the consulting process in King Lear is eminently successful: in the last Act, the old king is able to understand, accept and improve his situation. In this regard, the tragedy King Lear shows us how it should be done.

 

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