“Organ rejection” and other reactions to consultants

From the Change Whisperer on ProjectManagement.com Blog
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Categories: Change Management

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”—Aristotle

A couple of years ago I was working with a great team of consultants (externals) on a major strategic change for a national bank.

It wasn’t going well. Two change management practitioners had tried and failed before me to help the project get traction.

In a team meeting, one of the consultants bleated, “It’s like organ rejection: they need us, we can help them, but they keep rejecting us.”

What does “organ rejection” look like?

The symptoms included: tolerance of briefings and assessments; polite acknowledgment of principles, best practices, and theory; lip service to the consultants’ recommendations; requests for more justifications, explanations, reports, and plans (which were summarily filed), and…no action whatsoever. It seemed like plans went into black holes.

I think there were several reasons for this:

  • Some of the project work had been falling short for a while and the credibility of the team was decreasing, exacerbating an already poor relationship.
  • The senior partner on the consultant side was unwilling to keep confronting the client on core issues and hold them accountable. It also seemed likely that the client was not accepting the partner’s assessment of the risks. (To do so would have required uncomfortable changes.)
  • The relationships between most of the internal resources (internals) and the consultants (subject matter experts in various fields) were inconsistent and often perfunctory.


We got a very lucky break: the person assigned to lead the “Transformation” workstream changed. The new leader was inexperienced and the lead consultant immediately invested in and built a strong relationship.

The workstream consulting team agreed to make another change: we would make the change management work eminently pragmatic. This meant changing our language (talking “turkey,” not theory) and generating very tangible chunks of work (i.e., meeting the client where they were). 

It worked: we got some small wins and the relationship between the consultants and the internals in the Transformation workstream began to improve.

Optimizing internal and external resources

The global conference for the Association of Change Management Professionals is April 14 – 17 and I will be moderating a panel entitled “Perks and Perils: Optimizing Internal and External Change Management.”On the panel: Supriya Desai, President, ASC Advisory; Richard Batchelor, Change Management & HR Strategy; Garrett Gitchell, President, Vision to Work, Inc.; and Ania Szpakowski, Change Director, Zurich Insurance.

Combined, we have 52 years of internal experience (AIG, Air Canada, Bank of America, Cisco, Chevron, Coke/Odwalla, CIBC Insurance, CN Rail, Danish Post, Ericsson Communications, JP Morgan Chase, Lowe’s, Pepsico, and Pratt & Whitney) and 55 years of external experience (Conner Partners, IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers and independent practices).

As we have been preparing for the panel we’ve shared stories like the one above. We have all served as both internals and externals (i.e., we have been on both sides of the fence).

We have condensed our shared observations into a brief presentation which I will share here after the event. The learning objectives we identified are:

  1. Understand the trend toward building in-house change management capabilities
  2. Gain perspective on the nature of typical internal change management entities
  3. Explore the success factors of working as an internal or an external change practitioner
  4. Explore scenarios for optimizing internal and external change management practitioners for success

Different roles, different advantages?the importance of synergy

While both internals and externals can, and should, bring deep understanding and experience in change management methodology, tools, and skills, it quickly became clear to the panelists that either role creates important systemic dynamics.

Internals tend to have advantages like:

  • Deep knowledge of the organization and its culture,
  • Established reputations, and
  • Existing relationships of influence and trust.

Externals tend to have the following advantages:

  • More access to senior leadership within the organization and fewer political barriers for difficult conversations (in fact, there is often explicit contracting to have these difficult conversations)
  • Objectivity and equanimity
  • A wide variety of experiences with other organizations on which to draw
  • Access to thought leadership that can be brought to bear

What became very obvious is that we are less effective independently. Together we are formidable.

Raising up internals

On a side note, I have also observed that we externals can raise the status of internals when we consciously invest in making the organization stronger.  In fact, we are often referred into organizations by internals who know that the organization needs to put more priority on their role. 

The positioning to their leaders is often “This strategy is different than the change we normally implement and, frankly, our organization’s track record for this kind of change is not great?just think about projects x, y and z.  I know a firm that specializes in high-risk strategy execution. Can I set up a ½ hour call?”.   After the appropriate tire-kicking and mutual qualification, this usually leads into sponsor and agent training (certification if the organization faces long term disruption), shoulder-to-shoulder execution and re-framing of the contract between sponsor and agent.  Inevitably the internal agent, and the organization, is in a stronger position at the end of the day.  

Sounds kind of funny to deliberately work yourself out of a job but really that’s what every external should be doing.

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Posted on: April 11, 2013 10:14 PM | Permalink

Comments (1)

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I must admit to having not much sympathy with the consultant complaint you describe. The very fact that consultants have been called in, are being paid what we all know is a large sum of money, shows that the organisation has gotten through the first hurdle which is admitting they have a problem and need help. If the consultants, with all their experience, cannot build a convincing case for WHY a certain change is needed, then frankly they aren't worth the money.

This may sound tough, but far too often I've seen consultants who think that once they've been engaged that is it - the company should just accept every suggestion without question, should defer to the consultants in everything, and that just isn't reality.

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