I have always thought of the role of the organizational consultant as analogous to that of a detective. I’m sure that my early love for fictional detectives like Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes put me on the path to becoming first an internal and then an external consultant. Both detectives and consultants need to listen more than they speak. They need to observe and gather as much information as possible before coming to a conclusion. Internal consultants, in particular, often have a great deal of background information about individuals, teams, and business units that can help them make sense of events that might otherwise seem strange and mysterious. Taking the role of “internal organizational detective” means that you

The process of initiating a client engagement; the Contact Phase, is similar to beginning the investigation of a mystery. Early in this phase, you will gather as much information as you can about the current situation and what your client is hoping to achieve through the intervention you are being asked to conduct. In the Agreement Phase, you will negotiate with your client as to what roles each of you will take and what resources will be required. Before deciding on the nature of the intervention, you will want to gather a great deal of background information. You really wear your detective hat in the Information and Assessment Phase. You’ll use the receptive skills of Inquiring and Listening in order to learn important information. You’ll stay objective and search for clues within the information you gather. You’ll ask yourself, “What does it mean? What does it point to in the way of an intervention?”

Below are some useful questions and some clues that you should pay attention to. Any of them should cause you to rethink your involvement or the timing of your involvement. If you receive information that suggests a problem, use listening behaviors to confirm that you have understood correctly (and also to help the client rethink certain issues).

To gather information that will be relevant to a consulting intervention, begin with some of the suggested open-ended questions or statements below. Draw out the client to learn more. If the client seems hesitant, take a step back and do what you need to do to establish greater trust and rapport.

Questions about goals:

  • What would success look like? What’s your vision?
  • What results do you want to see? What outcomes are you looking for? What do you hope to achieve?

If the client cannot tell you clearly what he or she hopes to achieve, even after you draw him or her out, that could be a clue that:

  • this person is not the true client for the intervention
  • the client is in a “don’t just stand there, do something!” mode and has not thought about this very much
  • there is a major “hidden agenda” for this intervention
  • there are internal disagreements that need to be resolved before you proceed.
  • Questions about background:
  • What has led up to this (event, meeting, change, etc.)? What have you done in the past to deal with this issue/problem/need?
  • What has been your role in the past regarding this issue? What are your current responsibilities regarding this issue?
  • Who has decision authority regarding this intervention?
  • Who are the stakeholders in the outcomes of this intervention?
  • Who else needs to be involved in the planning? Who should I be talking to?

If the client cannot give you good information on the background, authority, and stakeholders regarding this issue, it could be a clue that:

  • key information is being withheld for political reasons
  • there is a major “hidden agenda” for this intervention
  • the person you are talking to is not the client, you will need to talk with someone who has greater authority and more knowledge.

Questions about the organization:

  • Help me to understand the mission of your organization.
  • What are the current strengths of this organization? What are the
  • needs?
  • What are your strategic goals and objectives?
  • What are the “hot issues” right now?

If the client cannot provide you with this information, you have a clue that:

  • he or she may be a “go-between” and not the real client
  • the “hot issues” are so politically charged they are not to be talked about to anyone outside of the organization (you will probably need to gain the client’s trust about this before you can go much farther)
  • the organization may not be clear about its mission, goals and objectives
  • the organization or the client has had an external focus and has not done much analysis of itself; you may want this to be a part of your intervention.

Questions about the participants or stakeholders:

  • What is the background of the participants (in the meeting, event, intervention)?
  • What is the nature of their relationship with one another? (Ask both about the practical nature and the quality of the relationships). Have they worked together before, and if so, for how long and how well?
  • How much background do they have in…? What is their skill/experience level? Have they done anything like this before?
  • What expressed needs of theirs will this meet? How much do they know about this event/intervention? What are their expectations about this event/intervention? What concerns have they expressed about this event/intervention?
  • Who has a stake in the outcome of the intervention? Who else should I be talking to?

If your client cannot answer these questions it’s a clue that:

  • the participants have not been selected yet and doing so will become part of the intervention (this can be an advantage)
  • the participants have been selected but there is a perceived political problem related to participating in this intervention; either it is “privileged” and others will be upset that they were not selected or it is seen as “remedial” and something others should not know about
  • the participants/stakeholders have not been told about this intervention and the client doesn’t want to let them know until the last minute because of anticipated resistance
  • the relationships among the participants and/or stakeholders are difficult and the client hopes that a miracle will be performed by having you work with them without being aware of this.

Becoming a great internal organizational detective requires you to maintain an attitude that is:

  • curious
  • objective
  • observant
  • skeptical, but not cynical

The ability to walk the fine line between being IN the organization and being OF the organization can create great value for your clients and a fascinating career for you.