Like the cut in designer jeans, the world of management consulting is also influenced by fashion trends.  While Right versus Wrong trumps New versus Old – clients still expect consultants to keep up to date. We ignore the latest trends at our peril.  It’s like playing  ‘Yesterday’ at a gig; people can normally relate to it. But play Let her Go by Passenger  and you look like an up-to-the-minute hero. However, there are some organization issues which have a sort of universal truth and remain applicable all the time.  Great diagnosis is one issue that never goes out of fashion.  To tell this tale, let’s take a half-step backwards in time.

Labour Turnover:
In the good old (Celtic Tiger) days, the hottest topic in consulting  was reducing labour turnover. At that time, I was heavily involved in a range of talent identification and retention projects, eventually writing a book on the topic (Keeping Your Best Staff). The problem was so acute that many organizations were running hard to stay in the same place. One morning, the phone rang and I was brought up to speed about a large travel business experiencing high turnover.  Like an Irish version of Red Adair, I loaded up the car (laptop, yellow notepad, fold-up toothbrush) and headed to the real capital, Cork.

Diagnostic Assessment:
A professional HR team was in situ and we developed a data collection plan.  We set up a range of Focus Groups and met with the recruitment, IR and line management teams.  Goal: Find the answers to a number of key questions (current headcount, % turnover, € cost of turnover, why people stayed with the organization and why they were leaving, what previous efforts were made to correct this, what was the outcome and so on). Here’s what we found:

The Good News: 
People loved ‘learning to sell’ and the foundation training was excellent.They enjoyed the cross-cultural mix, the eclectic food, range of languages and even the foreign newspapers scattered around the operation. The employer brand was solid and it was great to have this stamped on the CV. Pay and conditions were good for this type of work (it’s hard to get people to jump up and down about compensation, regardless of where salary levels are pegged).

The Bad News: 
There were limited mobility between the Cork office and the rest of the company – despite all the ‘international’ talk they’d heard prior to joining. After the first month, staff were not learning anything new. Yet, while the work was boring, the job was stressful (a combination of exacting targets and cranky customers). Team supervisors were not supportive of career issues (zero interest shown) and telemarketing  was viewed as a low level job which did not command respect in the company (“Yes, let’s take our lowest level staff and put them facing the customers. That sounds like a plan”). For some  reason staff from Southern Europe felt that the weather in Ireland is awful (a reality that began to sink in quite quickly during a particularly grim winter period). You need the aul wellies in Cork, boy!

And, the answer was… some ‘quick’ fixes and some medium-term stuff.  

Strand # 1: Underpromise:
Allow pre-visits for potential employees to help them make an informed ‘joining’ decision. Avoid staff being ‘oversold’ prior to joining. Particular myths had to be broken e.g. parties every night, all Irishmen are 6’ 2”, extremely fashion conscious and wonderful listeners, it rains a little bit but it’s ‘soft’ rain and so on

Strand # 2: Upskill:
Design/install an engagement mechanism using ‘natural’ teams to make the core job more interesting (a technique discovered by the Tavistock Institute in English coal mines  60 years ago which  still works great). Teach staff about all aspects of the travel business and not just ‘their section’. Ensure their responsibility in relation to managing careers was clearly understood by the supervisors (and skill them up to deliver this).

Strand # 3: Set Targets: 
Develop a labour retention scorecard and assign responsibility to make it happen. Put retention bonus/benefits (e.g. share options) in place to acknowledge employees’ service. Begin to measure Managers in a more ‘balanced’ way (using qualitative and quantitative data).

Task Forces:
We set up a range of task forces, scoped the individual projects and managed the outcomes.  Bottom Line: Labour turnover declined from circa 45% to <10% (which seems high today, but was a real achievement at that time).

The Lesson:
Managing labour retention is rocket science and you need to work with a really clever consultant to fix this!  If that’s your conclusion, stop reading immediately and phone me. However, the real lesson is much simpler. The central skill in consulting is diagnosis. You can go to the doctor and come away with 2 Panadol or an amputation – you just pray that the diagnosis is correct. Within organisations, the same point applies. The starting point is to find out exactly what’s going on (Occam’s Razor principle from science states that if there are several possible ways that something might have happened, the way that uses the fewest guesses is probably the right one). When you take the time to really understand what’s happening, the ‘fixes’ are often self-evident. In the labour-retention case cited, ‘over-promising’ at the front end, a lack of understanding of the motivational impact of careers and some missing measurements had driven an enormous wedge of cost (several million euro annually) into this business. Once we understood the problem, it was actually quite easy to resolve this. No massive cultural shift, no major organisation change programme, no investment in big-bang technology. Just a couple of simple (but sustainable) tweaks.

This story isn't real. Nasa did use a pencil, the same as the Russians, but the lead went flaky in space & broke off in near zero gravity. Not a good idea after all. But it reads like a good story.Magician’s Circle:
If I was a card-carrying member of the Magician’s Circle, I would  be ex-communicated for showing how the ‘trick’ works. The same rules don’t apply in consulting. We work openly with clients to figure out what’s happening and the best way forward.  So, Lesson 1 in organisation development is to understand the power of diagnosis.  Why? Because you can’t fix a problem that you don’t understand.

Be wary of consultant’s who offer pet solutions and look for a ‘problem’ which fits this. It actually works the other way around i.e. the solution is determined after the problem is diagnosed. Otherwise you are just buying a generic model or something which was developed for someone else. Don’t be fooled by the appearance of your logo on the cover page. That’s not consulting. It’s called selling. Caveat emptor.