Q: What are the best ways to select and use consultants?

A: Organizations large and small use consultants for many different reasons. Different people/firms approach their consulting in different ways. Some approaches include: (1) being a thinking and problem-solving partner to either collaborate with or get answers from; (2) adding different talents, skills and perspectives to work with in proceeding with understanding real needs and action-taking; (3) dealing with types of issues, such as technical in nature or adaptive, involving people, relationships and behaviors; and (4) desiring help with “what” to do or “how” to do it.

These types of differences are significant in getting the results you want, as some involve people inside more than others, some rely more on outside expertise, some build stronger internal ownership, and some are faster than others. While these differences are important, the outcome that counts is: did the approach match the real need, is it sustainable or will it need do-overs?

There are issues/changes that just need fixing, some that need something new and different, some that need major buy-in from the workforce and some that need transformation of the mind-set and nature of how the organization operates. Each of these require different approaches, expertise, participation and requirements for commitment vs. compliance.

In general, the scope and scale of the need, as well as whether it is more technical or adaptive, will drive different needs for expert answers or high involvement solutions. It can also drive how important it will be to build commitment, ownership and sustainability. The latter will affect more people and change more roles and interaction patterns, and eliminate steps or people.

Consultation comes in three key styles: “Doing With,” “Doing For” and “Doing To.” All can be useful in specific situations.

Key variables are always how any change affects the whole system; how important the motivation, commitment and energy of the people will be in making it successful; how important the expertise inside is alongside of any external expertise; and how much learning and new skills will be required.


David W. Jamieson is a professor of organization development at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.