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Interculturally Agile Consulting

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

a block of change management being fitted into its place

Organizational and strategic consulting are powerful approaches that can move organizations from failure to success. It is said that: “Prescription without diagnosis is considered malpractice.” This is certainly true in the practice of organizational consulting.

Larger consulting firms typically have ‘centers of excellence,’ and the role of these centers is to develop the best approaches for a variety of consulting solutions. Unfortunately, these centers of excellence are not always known for their cultural diversity and elevated levels of cultural agility.

Diagnostic methodologies have often been developed in one part of the world and utilized around the world under the assumption that they are universally applicable, relevant, and accurate.

As the world becomes more globalized, and as you grow as an intercultural learner, a new question could be forming in your mind: Are the methodologies and best practices used in the consulting world truly global, or can something be done to make organizational interventions even more refined to meet the unique cultural demands of each context and organization?

“One of our clients had developed a new career advancement approach. This method required all employees in over 100 countries to create their own path of career advancement. They had to suggest to their manager how they wanted to keep learning, engage in challenging assignments, and discuss ways they could tweak their role-description to fit better with their strengths. The approach started to fail in many countries and leaders/managers and employees ended up not following the newly designed approach. Using our Inter-Cultural Intelligence framework to analyze the dilemma, we understand that the framework was designed for people who are comfortable with individual accountability, directive destiny, and their cultural worldview driver was predominantly ‘Innocence/Guilt’.”

In this article, we will begin to explore what is possible when cultural agility and intelligence are combined with consulting methods and approaches, which we have relied on for years in our practice. We will investigate avenues with which we can add value to the service we provide to our clients, and bring pertinent strategies that lead to lasting change.

So, what does interculturally relevant consulting look like? How is it different from traditional consulting?

A culturally agile consultant has several skills that ‘traditional’ consultants might not have. A Culturally Agile Consultant:

  • Understands how culture impacts the implementation of different approaches.

  • Intentionally looks for the cultural interplay between transactional (process, system, approach) and relational (team, leadership, customer interface) challenges.

  • Uses a neutral, non-judgmental cultural analysis framework to understand ‘the what, how, and why’ of current realities.

  • Knows which cultural questions to ask to understand the ‘cultural why’ of things working or not working.

  • Is humble enough to throw their methods and approaches in the bin and creative enough to design approaches that work in the local/global context with the local/global industry, process, and people dynamics.

A Culturally Agile Consultant can take the wide variety of tools and approaches and combine them with their intercultural agility to devise solutions that resonate with clients and bring true and lasting change. It is true that there are established solutions and best practices that could be replicated in different contexts, but we must combine our knowledge of methodology and best practice with our client’s unique local/global dynamics, challenges, and opportunities.

Providing consulting services can be seen as giving the client an ice cream cone. We provide a refreshing new perspective while suggesting strategies and changes that will be sweet solutions to our client’s problems. Intercultural consulting could then be seen as a chocolate-covered sugar cone on which the ice cream is served.

Traditionally, consultants follow a process when executing their duties. They begin by performing a pre-analysis to determine the company's needs. This is followed by benchmarking which allows the consultant to create a gap analysis. Following the analysis, solutions are developed and proposed to the client, and finally, they are implemented.

The difference that intercultural consulting brings is taking a step back during each phase of the process, and applying a different lens that considers the individuals involved in the process. So, as you do the pre-analysis, ask yourself what you need to understand about the organization and the culture and worldview of the people within the organization to provide the best solution for them. Finding out who your client is culturally will help you communicate in a way that will be received at a heart level. Though working at such a relational level seems counterintuitive, it resonates deeply, and results in implementing changes in your client’s organization that last and lead to business success. Yes, the methodologies used in consulting have been tried and tested for years, but we cannot ignore the value of building relationships that demonstrate a deep understanding of the client’s cultural identity. A tool such as the Balanced Scorecard, for example, could have far more impact when presented with an understanding of the unique cultural worldviews that exist within an organization.

On an even deeper level, such a tool could carry much more weight for an employee when it resonates with their unique cultural identity.

“We are currently working with a client where agile change management is required to continue to leverage growth opportunities. The client's charge: “Advise and equip us on the change management methodology we need to use.” Because of the intercultural nature of the talent involved in the business and the wide geographic region served by the organization, we had to think beyond the box. We designed a smart and agile change approach that uses a situational blend of the original three change management approaches by Chin and Benne infused with the KnowledgeWorkx Three Colors of Worldview framework. This resulted in a practical, and at the same time, culturally agile approach for managers and leaders to manage change in their organization.”

Learning to relate to people in ways that show respect for their culture and build trust will go a long way to reaching the objectives you have as a consultant. Considering context, modes of communication, word choice, or body language are only a few ways that could add to the effectiveness of the changes you suggest as a culturally agile consultant. Speaking with the neutral language found in the 3 Colors of Worldview and the 12 Dimensions of Culture will prove useful in creating an environment where people feel respected, and trust can flourish. Consultants who gain the trust of their clients are more likely to have their suggestions internalized and applied in the long term.

Intercultural consulting is 100% relational and 100% transactional. You do your client a grave disservice if you neglect pursuing an honest relationship to deliver a generic strategy, no matter how excellent that strategy is. The relational and transactional sides of a project are inextricably linked and equally vital to your client’s success.

Being a culturally agile consultant is being able to apply universal best practices to a variety of settings and cultural contexts. Though this is not an easy thing to do, it will be invaluable to your success in consulting practice. This does not require you to know all things about all cultures, but to remain willing to learn from your client about themselves. Continually seeking ways to break down personal paradigms to build a true understanding of your client will stand you in good stead as a consultant who brings real, lasting change.

Here are three aspects to aim towards as you pursue becoming a culturally agile, global consultant:

Heart set:

It all begins with your heart and your motivation. Ask yourself why you are a consultant and what you want to achieve. We as consultants should aim to bring positive, lasting change to our clients. This goal will drive our actions. A Culturally Agile Consultant is a passionate Cultural Learner and knows that the intercultural complexities of the situation might mean designing

innovative approaches. In other words: A Culturally Agile Consultant is not ‘married to their methodologies.’

Mind set:

This second step is being able to put yourself in the client’s shoes. It is being able to identify and interpret client needs and then adapt solutions for the client. Asking culturally agile questions (the questions behind the questions) allows you to uncover where intercultural dynamics might play a role in success or failure. This is where intercultural intelligence plays such a key role in your function as a consultant.

Hand set:

This aspect refers to the application of methodologies. Going into consulting with the best intentions but without methodology will cause you to lose your credibility and cheapen the profession. Culturally Agile Consultants are constantly learning and know they need a ‘bigger toolbox’ to be better equipped to navigate culturally complex situations.

It is vital that the heart, mind, and hands work together for the success of the clients we serve.

Is there space for a more culturally agile method? Can we put the academic strategies and the practice of building authentic relationships together?

Many academics are trying to close the gap between the theory they teach and what happens in real life business contexts. It is not easy. Part of the problem is that the theories are being created in academia and not in the real-life context where they will be used.

Similarly, if you are a consultant in change management, you may have experienced the difficulties that come with engaging with people so that they support a planned change in the organization. Following the traditional change management process may not be enough or suit every cultural setting. The statistics support these challenges. According to research conducted by The Journal of Change Management, two out of three change management interventions fail dismally, with a substantial portion of the investment lost before the implementation. We need to find the issues underpinning this poor success rate and determine the effect that culturally agile consulting could have on these statistics.

The future of change management consulting must certainly create room for cultural agility in relating to clients, or the statistics will never improve.

Best practices in the consulting and change management arena work, but not consistently. Our world is in flux and the amount of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) is growing. Whether you are a corporate entity, a philanthropic organization, a government organization, an educational institution, or a not-for-profit organization: we need to learn to manage change better. Now is an opportune time to consider intercultural consulting and begin conducting your business with cultural agility.

For more perspective on intercultural consulting, listen to our podcast episode with Iain Wilson, who specializes in connecting international producers and distributors.

If you’d like to bring this kind of cultural agility into your consulting or organization start a conversation here.

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