HYCS #39 – Helping Our Clients Decide

HYCS #39 – Helping Our Clients Decide

Sometimes clients act as if there was only one possible answer to their dilemma, and data collection is what they endure to prove it.  What if there are better options?

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Steven, the guitar tech, is telling me what a potentiometer does.  Often called “pots,” you and I know them as the knobs that adjust the volume of our car radio or stereo. “It’s not an on-off switch,” he says, “although many people treat them that way.  Pots are capable of an infinite number of settings which can create an infinite number of sounds.”

I’m struck by how helpful this can be in helping client’s make good decisions.  Clients often treat decisions as though they were an on-off switch rather than a potentiometer.

That’s how many of us approach decisions, especially when we are under pressure:  Yes or no, black or white, right or wrong.  We might think of a third option, or even a forth.  But who looks as every decision as an infinitely variable one, with every choice being equally valuable?

That’s where consultants come in.

Our clients get to the point where they must make a decision about whether to proceed, or how much or how far to go.  It may be right in the entering meeting, or it may be after weeks or of gathering data that will inform the decision.  One of the dangers of decision-making is to believe that there is a right answer, a best answer, an only answer, and to shape the data to fit the decision rather than let the data expand the possible options.  Data suggests; it does not decide. People do.

Our role as consultants is to remind our clients that there are many, many options for proceeding and many more for not proceeding, and that every one of them is valid.  Helping my client see and value the best fit option is the work of the decision-making phase of consulting.   It’s some of my favorite work.

While not an infinite number of options, here are the ones I most commonly encounter:

1. Proceed full-steam ahead, knowing that there is a high risk of failure.  Most large organizational change projects fail to achieve their objectives.  If the potential benefit outweighs the risks, this is an excellent choice.

2. Proceed, but not as quickly or on a smaller scale, then decide whether to go big.  This may be a pilot, or a test case.  This is another excellent decision that is infinitely variable.

3. Proceed only if you can get the specific help you need.  This may be participation of a key group, adequate funding, sponsorship, or some other indication of the organization’s commitment

4. Hold off until something propitious happens.   This might be a new executive who is more open to your recommended approach, or another project with better visibility, or a grant or partner from outside your company.  If you wait, you increase your chances of success.  When the requirements for success are way outside your control, this can be an excellent option.

5. Stop and rectify something within your control before proceeding.  This is a decision I recommend most often with teams.  It is a myth that team-building will solve performance problems.  It’s a myth that a reorganizing or a shiny new initiative will solve more problems than it creates.  If the solution is an action a manager needs to take, they need to take that action before proceeding.

6.  Do not do this, ever.  When the action your client wants to take will do harm beyond any benefit, consultants need to speak up and suggest inaction.  Pretending to involve a group in a decision already made is an increasingly common “no” for me; as is training people who are feeling hard done by and have not been given time to say so.

Don’t let your clients rush to a decision.  Don’t let their assumptions push them around.  Help them stop and consider thier options  – all their option – first.  The best decision is the one closest to reality.


  1. List all possible options.  Are there more?
  2. Reframe every one as an excellent option, that is, every one is as good as the another.
  3. Put the options away and generate criteria for the decision.
  4. Using the criteria and typical meeting methods (multi-voting, rank ordering, structured discussion) to narrow options until a decision emerges.


Generate more options with your clients before narrowing to a decision.