Injecting empathy into your consulting practice: The Flash Gordon principle

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Date published
September 2, 2020
Flash Gordon comic book image

The road to a digital-first world is a highway. In the last decade, some industries have been overtaken by revolutionary new companies, while leaders in those markets struggled to hit the accelerator, and were slow to adapt and modernize their processes and products or services.

For example, in the last decade, multiple retail companies saw a significant slice of their market share vanish as they failed to digitize, or move from a transaction-centric model to a user-centric one. This might still happen in many markets—It’s hard to predict where the next Amazon, Airbnb or Uber is going to come from.

However, not all markets are that dynamic, and large enterprises continue to have strong positions, especially highly regulated sectors like health and finance. Many organizations in these industries are responsible for critical streams of benefits for large groups of people.

In the two and a half years I’ve worked with Rangle, I’ve spent most of my time consulting for clients in the healthcare and financial space. I’ve learned that as a consultant, you need to look beyond the business landscape when you embed with a company to do their critical transformation work. There are many reasons why large enterprises exist, and they have key strengths and benefits. Being a fast-moving disruptor isn’t the only way to achieve success in this market.

To be successful as a consultant in an enterprise setting, you have to exercise empathy—the capacity to put yourself in another’s shoes.

If you come from a startup background, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of these traditional companies as helpless, slow-moving animals. This metaphor restricts your empathy as you work with these companies. As a consultant, I prefer to think of enterprises as Dreadnaughts—a massive battleship. They are the big guns, but that much raw power costs them a lot of their maneuverability. However, when your battles are big (like researching a cure to serious diseases or shipping oil from the other side of the world), raw power might be the answer.

These enterprises are also not monoliths. It’s important to understand them as individuals, because they’re not homogenous—they’re complex and diverse. This is why consulting activities like modernizing technology, moving to the cloud, adopting a cohesive design system, or quickly launching a new product can become serious challenges for large organizations. The dreadnought metaphor helps us understand this tradeoff: the challenges large organizations face come from their strengths. The level of organization required to run a world-class enterprise business generates a distinct way of doing things; one that can't be dismissed. As a consultant, the challenge is significant compared to smaller companies, but it’s hard to miss the magnitude of the impact they can have.

Enter Flash Gordon!

To better understand your role as a consultant, you can get inspiration from an unlikely source: Flash Gordon, created by Alex Raymond for a 1934 comic strip and the hero of a 1980 cult movie. In the movie, Gordon is the quarterback of the New York Jets, and is faced with great dangers when Ming the Merciless (the movie’s main villain) threatens to destroy Earth with his planet-sized war machine.

Our hero is transported to the planet Mongo. While traversing the planet to escape Ming’s armies, he meets members of each of the world’s diverse groups, learning their problems and aiming to understand them. He finds that Mongo is not a homogenous and cohesive entity, but a complex mesh of different groups, with different needs. (Sound familiar?) These groups are prevented from working together by ancient feuds and distrust, and their current fearful living situation.

Flash Gordon ("nothing but a man", as the theme song of the movie calls him), is able to rally these opposing groups into one allied force, and lead them to defeat the tyrant Ming. In the same way, a good consultant can begin their work with an enterprise by understanding the culture and ecosystem of the company, the groups who work within it, and each of their needs. Achieving the goals of a digital transformation, or other enterprise-wide change, starts with this empathetic stance. Understanding the problems is the first step to be able to help them address their needs.

Position yourself to make a difference

This first step is vital, but it's only the beginning. An understanding of the underlying business and the ability to gather insights into the organization's culture are critical factors as well. The path to transformation is not short or easy, but the mechanisms are not particularly complex.

To put the lesson from Flash Gordon into action as a consultant, there are five key areas to apply your attention and empathy. Let’s get started.

  1. Map the current incentives

What’s essential to the people you meet is connected to what’s vital to the organization. Understanding incentives is your best bet when trying to bridge the gaps. First, start with understanding the company’s budgeting process. Money talks: From team size to salary increases, the way a company approves the flow of resources can tell you what type of behaviour it is currently rewarding, and how that can play into people’s demeanour and decisions. For example, budgeting decisions made yearly by high-level stakeholders are usually connected to the performance of particular projects. Even when new opportunities arise, the goals and expectations for those projects will be slow to change, as the executives will have a strong incentive to sustain the promises they made originally.

Some other ways to explore and identify the source of incentives:

  • Look into the existing management structure and performance evaluations;
  • Analyze critical external connections to other organizations or governments;
  • Look for pressing security and compliance concerns;
  • Identify specific constraints of the particular industry;
  • Analyze the frequency of changes in executive leadership.

2. Identify and bridge silos

Silos appear when the vertical divisions of an organization hinder the horizontal communication necessary to carry out the cross-cutting processes and concerns. In other words, the silo creates a mismatch between team goals and organizational goals. The problem is not seperate teams, however, it’s the detachment that creates friction between the teams.

This is particularly dangerous in a moment when organizations need to be able to adapt to the new dynamics of their markets. In his book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, Patrick Lencioni warns that silos devastate organizations — not just by jeopardizing their ability to achieve goals, but by taking a heavy toll on the people.

As a consultant, your role is to reinforce the focus on the broader organizational goals. Looking for the disconnection between the flow of value in the organization and the flow of value within a team is key to identifying how and where silos happen, in order to remove them.

To hold up a mirror to a team’s silo, ask them this question: By achieving the team’s most important goals, are you contributing to other teams, and to the organization’s most important goals?

Are my team’s goals aligned with our role in the organization?

3. Network

Any change has to include both strategic and emergent components, and that can only happen if multiple people from different teams participate in the process. Even the best consultant can’t make change happen alone.

To tap into the emergent components, you have to be on the lookout for informal networks within the organization. Find opportunities to connect with others not just by navigating the formal hierarchical structures of the organization, but those interpersonal connections that act as cultural glue within any group.

The power of informal networks will allow you to create teams to solve problems that affect others. They can open the doors to create more understanding across multiple teams, bring better visibility for the challenges and strengths of the company, and generate alignment from the bottom.

As an outsider to the organization, however, don’t ignore your role in the ecosystem. Others will respond to you based on your role as an agent of transformation, at least at first. Like Flash Gordon, you have to understand that you’re not a part of the company’s “planet”, and your role is to understand and help, letting others guide you as much as you guide them.

4. Respect the culture

While you break down silos and tap into networks, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the culture you’re trying to change is still a living thing. You wouldn’t criticize the culture of another person’s country or ethnic group—the same goes to for the culture of a company. Good or bad, it’s still theirs. And sometimes it doesn’t actually need much changing at all.

Companies are governed by processes and systems, but are made of people. People react to incentives and constraints, affinities, personal desires and fears— a matrix sometimes so complex that it is impossible to predict how a change will impact company culture. Change, however critical, will meet some level of challenge or friction. That is especially true in highly-regulated, risk-averse organizations. Change takes time, no matter what size the organization is. Therefore, it is important to keep measuring results, reinforcing what is creating value and building legitimate relationships as a way to have visibility into the culture.

Fighting an organization’s culture is a very dangerous game, with fearful odds. Remember, you can never solve other people’s problems without them. Compromise is key, and keep in mind that the best solutions for a specific culture and set of constraints is not always what the business books recommend. If a solution satisfies all the important constraints and cultural preferences of the organization, then it’s a good solution.

5. Broadcast goodwill

Perhaps the most important step in this process, change should be seen as positive—which means you must be seen as positive, as the agent of change.

Having rich relationships with others is one key to breaking the barriers of mistrust and isolation that create some of the problems you experience in a large organization. Demonstrating your care and hard work will help establish you as a trusted agent. This will empower you to add even more value to teams and to the entire organization.

When relationships are richer and communication is fluid, it’s harder to hide your true motivations.

Data gathered by the Great Place to Work Institute and other research groups in the past decade clearly show that high-trust environments outperform others by a factor of two. As Stephen M.R. Covey says in his book The Speed of Trust: “While high trust won’t necessarily rescue a poor strategy, low trust will almost always derail a good one.”

It is rarely enough to act like you have other people’s best interests in mind. If you actually care about others, you will bring with you the kind of consistency that helps people understand your meaning, even when you are not being completely clear. This is particularly true in organizations with a low trust. Being consistent in your fairness and genuine in your desire to help can turn you into the perfect bridge between silos—the perfect position to bring about the transformation they need.

In conclusion

As a consultant, you can’t make change through dictates. To become a trusted member of the team, and lead them to success, Flash Gordon-style, seek to form bonds, and then work together to make improvements. Empathy keeps you working with others, not telling them what to do. Learning to become the bridge between different parts of the organization puts you in the perfect position to make a difference, and goes a long way to creating the type of organization that succeeds in today’s challenging business environment.

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