A Simple Question…

In my years as a consultant and working with leaders to develop training I’ve asked a lot of questions: “what is the audience’s previous knowledge level? When and where are you looking to hold the event? Who are the stakeholders?”, etc. But I am always surprised that one simple question stumps most leaders I talk with. And it is this one question that, if left unanswered (or worse, unasked), can hobble an organizations performance improvement efforts. And if you have never asked it, chances are you feel like a hamster running on a big wheel. The Question?

What will people be doing or saying differently as a result of this intervention?

Seems simple enough but each time I ask it, the person across the table sits back and cocks their head to the side and lets out a nice, “hmph.” Usually followed by “that’s a good question” and then a long pause. Some people have even asked if they could get back to me. What surprises me is not so much that they cannot come right back with an answer but that the question itself seems novel. As if a change in behavior was never really even a consideration when picking an intervention.

Now, I won’t lie. Each time I ask this question, I feel particularly brilliant. Not because it is an especially brilliant question but because it reminds me how often people do not begin with the end in mind when it comes to change intervention.  They just want something to change without really considering “into what”. Often times it comes out as – “make the pain go away.” Which is really vague and hard to measure. So I considered how to change the dynamic of the conversation.

As a consultant, I have a money-back guarantee in my contracts. That’s right. If I fail to meet your outcome, I will repay you all of my professional fees. And I have had that in my contracts since I started. After all, if you buy a product and it does not work, you expect your money back – why should a professional service be any different. When I first created this clause, my wife was aghast, “What! Are you crazy?! Don’t put that in there!” I believe was her verbatim response. And I have received similar feedback from other consultants. But it is still there.

Why, you might ask, would I provide such a guarantee in the challenging world of organizational development? Because it allows me to have a more realistic conversation about outcomes, accountability, expectations, and responsibility. The clause stipulates that we (the client and I) must both establish the desired outcomes and measurements ahead of time and agree on them as expected outcomes. It allows me to set realistic expectations based on the level of intervention they are choosing. I have had some people ask for the moon and plan for the budgetary and work equivalent of a slingshot to get there. This evens the conversation because now they are accountable for something if they desire real change.

Most importantly it makes organizational leaders really consider what changes they actually want and forces them to realize that changing behavior is not the same as educating someone. Changing behaviors may require incentives, milestones, performance management, managerial practice changes, organizational structure changes, personnel decisions, etc. Behavior change happens over time, and I am not talking about a 45-minute lunch and learn.

Asking the simple question of “what behaviors do you want to be different?” leads you to the beginning of your gap analysis. It also helps you determine how you will judge success or failure. If you do not know what you want to be different or if you are not willing to be accountable to help make that happen, then save your money and figure out how to tolerate things being the same. If you want change, start with the end in mind so at least you know in which direction to go.

BTW: To date, I have not had to pay any client back for my services. Something my wife is incredibly grateful for. 🙂


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