The Role of an Embedded Consultant

I’ve previously mentioned that I am working as an embedded consultant. What the heck is that? While sufficiently generic to allow flexibility and sufficiently business-speaky to sound plausible, it still leaves a lot to the imagination as to what the role might actually entail. I’m still coming to terms with what it means exactly, but have started cobbling together a definition from various sources over the past few months.

Having worked as an engineering consultant, I know that this basically comes down to offering an informed opinion for money. Depending on your reputation, level of experience and the number of other qualified people who can offer the same advice, you can charge more or less money. Below the surface, however, there is the very important, but intangible element of trust.

I’d say at this point, almost all of my work with BDS thus far has involved building trust or working to maintain it in some way. As Maister & Green state in the “The Trusted Advisor”, “trust is not intuitive or learned at the first impression it accumulates over time…” It is also at least half emotional: technical competence in a field goes a long way, but technical skill without trust is not enough. Interestingly, we also do not tend to trust institutions or policies, because there is no personal relationship there on which trust can be built.

Even though I am here, ostensibly, to offer “technical assistance” with building business, process, and organizational systems, most of my role is not even remotely technical. My work is generally about clearing the paths and addressing hurdles and roadblocks so that businesses can move forward to wherever it is they’d like to go. The only way to do this effectively is to really and truly understand the people behind the business and to take the time to build these relationships.

This advisor/consultant role bears a lot of resemblance to the Enterprise Facilitation approach pioneered by Ernesto Siriolli and echoes the coaching aspect discussed in this article. The main tenants, (in my view, we are still clarifying these as a team) are

1)      Don’t motivate anyone (the business is these people’s lives, they already have enough motivation)

2)      Don’t bring in your own ideas, unless specifically asked to do so,

3)      Look at what is holding the business back in the first place and address these issues at the root,

4)      Work on the business, but not in it (i.e. be a coach and a trainer, not a permanent team member).

To these I’d also like to add the following “Honey Bee” attributes proposed by Anil Gupta in his great TED Talk about everyday innovators in India:

5)      Be sure you are being asked and invited to assist.

6)      Both parties need to benefit from the exchange of ideas.

7)      Don’t co-opt learning only for your own use; share it back with those who developed it.

Okay, this is all well and good you say, but surely there is a role for “hard technical skills”? Besides, Jon, what qualifies you to offer advice or an opinion in the first place? I definitely don’t have all the answers and there are huge swaths of historical, cultural, and technical information and context that I am missing. I won’t attempt to justify it here, as there is a never-ending debate about the value of “technical assistance” as means of delivering aid and development that I’d like to address in a future post.

From what I’ve seen, however, having all the answers is not as important as knowing where to look to connect the dots. For example, I don’t know much about finance and accounting, but I know enough to understand the issues and there are people in Ghana who ready and able to do this work. I am not an expert in mango farming, but connecting with students and faculty at the university up the road we are able to tap into this knowledge. I am also not a forester, but I can connect with a huge number of people through EWB’s vast network and find a specialist when needed. I am also able to draw on my varied experience growing up on a fruit farm, recently building (from scratch) a processing facility, engineering project management, and many other bits and pieces of information that helps fit into the bigger picture. Drawing the parallel to the engineering consulting world, quite often it is nigh impossible to know all the details of every system or component, the most important thing is being able “to know enough to know who to ask” and being able to fit everything together. Business development isn’t engineering or rocket science, but in some ways it is even more challenging as the systems involved are the slow, messy, complex human variety where ambiguity is guaranteed and there’s almost never a perfect answer.

I hope to keep collecting and refining this approach as time goes on, but I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the meantime.

8 Replies to “The Role of an Embedded Consultant”

  1. open-minded kindness and practical stuff that works will go pretty far…be humbled by the legacy of past poor history that still informs all our global interactions yet keep reaching for understanding

    1. True Dat! One of the biggest issues I am seeing from both an African and a foreigner perspective is that people think that, or at least approach things like, Africa is a blank slate without a history. If we all took a little more time, thinking about where things came from, we’d have a much better chance at changing them in the future.

  2. Sounds like you’re doing great stuff Jon and learning a lot. Wonderful work! Keep it up! With great challenges, come great great rewards. Even if the things you’re achieving seem small in you’re eyes, they’re huge for the people you’re working with. Demonstrating how to connect in today’s global world is a great tool.

    1. It’s getting there, but there’s just so much BS (colonialism, sexism, hubris, etc., etc.) to cut through it feels like running underwater at times. Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. All points 1 through 7 sound working principles. Add to these a Machiavellian approach to encouraging others to accept/follow your advice, then you are on to something. Might seem odd to suggest Machiavelli’s writings as a source of inspiration, but I have just read Jonathan Powell’s book, The New Machiavelli, on his years as Tony Blair’s chief of staff in 10 Ten. He found that having walked through the door of number 10, the only power the PM had was the power of persuasion. I was minded that is all the power a consultant has, and that being the case, bring on Machiavelli!!!!

    1. Interesting point, Dave. I recently read a theory that Machiavelli’s stuff was all a big exercise in reverse-psychology…who knows? Persuasion is definitely an interesting one, but I think it’s predicated on a difference of opinions or debate. In my experience, it’s not so much that there is disagreement about what needs to be done, but more just how and when. This seems a little like persuasion, but mostly like encouragement. Either way, I see your general point: the best ideas in the world are useless if you can’t “sell” them to other people.

  4. Water carried to nursery plants at the rate of 1 L./hour in what kind of soil? Are the little trees in plastic pots or in the ground. One liter twice a week will not be enough for plants in African ground in summer. Why has no one provided the nursery with agronomists that you can interface with? The Israelis mastered drip irrigation long ago; can you enlist an advisor from their EWB? Jon, if you are gonna be a jack of all trades on this order , then you may need more backup. This does not seem like what you had in Mongolia.

    1. Hey Paul, I believe this is in reference to the previous post, but point taken. The watering rate was just an example gleaned from a very short conversation with one of the farmers. While more efficient, regular watering such as through drip irrigation would go along way, it is simple not feasible at this point. (Many plantations, do even less watering depending on the soils and rootstocks used.) An agronomist from the export development fund and from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) visit every few months, I am told. While nifty technologies such as sub-surface drip irrigation, deficit irrigation and liquid fertilizer delivery are well-known, it doesn’t seem like many have been able to make it financially viable–so far. To give you another idea of the conditions, upwards of 5% of the trees are destroyed each year due to brush fires, so priorities are understandably shifted.

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