Performance Consulting with Nigel Harrison

David James
David James
September 30, 2020
Performance Consulting with Nigel Harrison

Towards the end of 2019, David James spoke with Nigel Harrison, published author and renowned expert in Performance Consulting, on The Learning & Development Podcast.

Their conversation defines Performance Consulting, explores the practice, and its applications in organisations – often in the face of stakeholders who may already have an idea of what they expect in a solution.

Read on for some of the insights Nigel shared in that conversation, or tune in to episode 25 of The L&D Podcast for the whole conversation.

Performance Consulting is How you Ask Your Client Questions to Uncover the Real Need, Rather Than the Apparent Need That They Presented you With

It’s all to do with the way their client’s looked at the problem to start off with. A client will approach you often with a solution — and learning and training are both solutions. It’s exactly the same for IT. A client might come in and say “we needed you to order a management system”, or they might go to HR and say “we need to recruit more Engineers” or they may come to L&D and say “we need a project-based course”. All of those are actually solutions.

Fundamentally, it goes back to fast-thinking the way we all as human beings tend to jump to conclusions much too quickly, and we like elegant solutions to tie things together. The work of Daniel Kahneman on fast-thinking is all about clients jumping too quickly to conclusions on complex problems. They simplify them to a solution and then they approach a supplier, like L&D, and say “We need project management training.”

That’s the fundamental start from the stakeholder’s point of view. The danger is the L&D person has had years and decades of delivering easy solutions for people and taking ownership of that and saying, “Okay, we’ll run Project Management for you.” There’s a big payoff for both sides. If you think about it, everybody benefits. The senior manager gets something done, they can tick a box and say, “Are we doing something about that? Yes, we’re doing an L&D solution, we’re getting everybody trained.”

Then the L&D person quite often is thinking, “This is great. We’ve got a senior manager asking us to do a big programme.” When people go on the programme, often they get some benefit. Training is a beneficial thing. If they come back and say, “I enjoyed that course. It was great to meet my friends and learn about Project Management but actually, when I got back to work, I couldn’t apply it because… there are other issues.”

Performance Consulting Doesn’t Make the Assumption That Learning or Training is the Solution

It helps you ask the questions to uncover the other causes and other reasons behind the problem. That sounds very easy. The biggest issue we have is that the client is invested already in the simplistic view of the solution. That’s what they expect. They may have power over you to say, “No, don’t ask me questions. I’ve committed to a Project Management course, just get it delivered.”

Overcoming this is what’s been called the Conspiracy Of Convenience. There’s energy behind a quick fix. This is what we have to deal with when we’re Performance Consulting because we’re taking the client away from an easy learning solution or training solution back towards looking at the real problem. That’s what Nigel spent years coaching internal L&D consultants on, how to change their status from being supplier or order-taker towards being a partner that has the skill and the confidence to ask these questions. 

It’s in the Clients’ Heads Where the Distortions Happened 

They’re very, very busy people, even if they’re not deliberately manipulative, they’re so busy. They think, “I’ve got 12 complex things on my desk, we need to get a Sales solution for that. We need to get a new Project Management solution for that. I need to bring in IT to sort out that.” It’s their first stab at a quick simplification of a problem and then they bring in a supplier. That’s where it all goes wrong because if that supplier isn’t a clever supplier and doesn’t ask the right questions, they just take the order. We’re working on this assumption of simplification, and the busy line manager hasn’t really thought it through.

Often L&D and HR set themselves up and say, “We have solutions. That’s what we’re about.” It’s in their interest to have these interesting solutions. It’s a virtuous circle that no one really challenges because it’s having some benefit. Where you miss out is sometimes called the Training Bubble. You haven’t made the link back to any KPIs or any impact on the business because you haven’t asked the questions at the right time. You’re now working on a smaller subset of a solution.

Learning and Development is Never a Solution on its Own

It’s the wrong focus to think that you have training or L&D needs. If we go back to performance problems – what people do – there will usually be an element of motivation and of obstacles in the environment that need to be tackled at the same time. The great thing about it for Nigel’s clients, who he coaches and trains, is that there usually is a knowledge and skills element. But if we just assume that’s the only element that’s going to affect performance, we’re usually wrong. L&D solutions on their own, Nigel’s convinced, don’t work. When they’re combined with a focus on how to improve performance, what support we give them, how we tackle the other issues (usually, around motivation and environment) then they do work. If you can do this link to the real business performance properly in the conversations you have with your client, it really works. It’s not usually L&D’s fault, they are there honestly responding to a request.

The problem is in the head of the client or stakeholder who has made a simplification. They don’t realise it. Kahneman said:

“When we look at a complex problem, we often simplify it, and we don’t realise we’ve done it. When you’re working with clients, they come in and say, ‘We need to train these people.'”

When you chat to them for a few minutes they realise, in fact there’s three sales processes and the incentives are all wrong, and so there’s no point in training them.

It doesn’t take long because if you have this conversation with the right person, you can often confront the right issues, you can often uncover the other issues around it quite quickly. 

Find out more in episode 25 of The L&D Podcast. 

“When I Was a Training Manager I Stopped all the Training Courses”

Nigel said:

“I’ve stopped them all. It’s a waste of time. I just want to come and talk to you about what your priorities are at the moment.”

They said, “What? You stopped those courses? You can’t do that.” The first thing they said, “You can’t stop it because our Engineers need to go on-site so they need to be compliant.”

Nigel said:

“Okay, where are all the compliance issues?”

There are certain no-brainers that you do need training for. But you need to do it effectively, efficiently and measure the results.

If it’s a large broad-brush approach, that’s when you need to take a Performance Consulting approach because you’re in danger of wasting the company’s money on a solution that won’t deliver. If you take 80 people out of the business for two days, it’s an enormous cost and that’s where we have responsibility. As L&D people we should be saying:

“We could take 80 people out and we could train them in Project Management, but I want to talk to you to make sure we’re aligning it to what you want to achieve and that we’ve looked at the other solutions needed at the same time.”

One of the Killer Questions in Performance Consulting is ‘What Will be the Cost of Doing Nothing?’ 

We could train them all, but what would be the cost – or the effect – if we didn’t do it? That helps your client focus on more of the performance downside than doing these nice, easy solutions. 

You can take a Performance Consulting approach to re-examine induction. When you ask:

“Who is involved in this? What are they doing at that moment? What measures are we seeing?”

It’s often about:

“How fast can people get up to productivity in the workplace and how many people are leaving?”

If you set some targets around those you can set a measure of how valuable not having induction is and then you can measure those. Then you can look at the induction and ask:

“Well does it deliver these things?”

It’s usually quantified very easily. Having said that, things like induction and safe working practice are no-brainers, you still need to look at them and ask ‘why are we doing them?’ and design them in a way that’s going to be effective. 

This approach is easier to quantify because it’s all about asking the client the difference between what they’re doing now and what they need to be able to do – the cost of the gap

You come out with a value figure or cost of the gap before you commit to any solutions. The fundamentals of the Performance Consulting approach is to think:

“Well, who are we talking about here? What are they doing now? What do we want them to do and what’s the cost if we don’t do it? What’s the value if we do it?”

In Sweden They Have a Much Easier Acceptance of This Performance Consulting

Some UK companies have got entrenched senior people. The consultants I’m working with were saying:

“Well, we can’t change them. They’re too powerful. This is what we want.”

If you have quite a traditional organisation where L&D has to be positioned as a supplier and organiser of courses, and the people in that are relatively junior, they haven’t got the status. One of the worst cases Nigel has come across recently is when the line managers, their stakeholders, have the budgets and they say:

“If you won’t do this for me, I will just go outside anyway.”

Nigel’s doing a lot of work on power and manipulation and how to deal with powerful characters. Funnily enough around the world he finds it’s mainly the UK and USA that have the biggest issues with powerful characters and powerful ways of doing things in organisations that are quite difficult for the L&D people to stand up against. Nigel does a lot of work on resilience and skills of dealing with difficult clients.

To Give the Secret Away, Most Difficult Clients are Not Difficult Clients

They just jump to conclusions too quickly and once you get alongside them and show you can be their partner, they love you. They’re just great and the status of the L&D team changes but it takes a little bravery to ask the questions and not say, ‘We’ll do that for you.’

A Performance-First Approach Can Help you in Cost Reduction and in Work Efficiency

Discover how you can Align L&D with the business to drive performance, productivity and capability. Download our free ebook or speak to our L&D experts.

About Nigel Harrison

Nigel Harrison is recognised as an authority in Performance Consulting and has worked globally with clients to develop the skills for sustained business impact. He’s a Chartered Business Psychologist, Author of “How to be a True Business Partner by Performance Consulting” and founder of Performance Consulting UK Ltd.

You can find out more from Nigel via his website.

Connect with David James on LinkedIn and Twitter

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