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No, not here – we are different!

As a consultant I have worked in a lot of organizations. Those organizations have varied in terms of culture, location, scale and sector. During my time in all these organizations there is one phrase which I hear most often. I suspect it is one that every other consultant, business advisor or contractor hears. And that phrase is “we are different”.

What I have come to understand is that when people say “we are different” what they really mean is that “we are special – don’t try any of your old consulting tricks here. Whatever you have tried elsewhere won’t work here, because we are unique. We have unique problems than need unique solutions.” Beyond this they often mean as well: “fixing or changing anything here will be much harder than anywhere else you have ever worked.”  This is the we-are-different conversation.

The introduction to the we-are -different conversation often starts with a sentence of the form “let me give you a little history....”. This is the our-history conversation. Normally, the our-history conversation is about justification for why things are the way they are. Occasionally, this is interesting and important to my work. Usually it is quite dull and not relevant to my work at all, but I always try to listen politely.

Now at one level the phrase “we are different” is a truism that is so basic that it should not require repeating. Of course, every single organization is different. It contains a unique set of people, has a unique context and a unique history. All of these factors contribute towards the organization being different. What this means is that consulting products and services, or any other professional service, needs to be tailored to that organization. 

I think the most important aspect of tailoring develops from the fact that the organization will have its own jargon and terminology. Consultants learn to be sensitive to language, adopting a clients own terminology. Additionally, every organization has its own priorities, and again the consultant needs to be aware of and pay attention to these priorities. I know of some consultants who seem incapable of tweaking their advice, terminology or presentation style of the client. They are usually bad consultants! Most successful consultants, who have been around for some time, have learnt the tricks of picking up client terminology and client priorities.

But, and this is a big but, when people say “we are different”, they don’t just mean “we are unique” they know everyone is, what they mean is “we are uniquely unique. Nothing you have done elsewhere can be applied to us”. 

90%+ of the time, this is nonsense. 

Organizations really do vary. I am not denying this. But the thought that they vary so much that tried and tested techniques, strong ideas, and great concepts have no relevance to them because they differ is usually wrong. We need to differentiate between the requirement to tailor thinking to make it contextually relevant, and the idea we should throw all our knowledge away and start again. 

Tailoring is essential. Starting completely from scratch rarely is. 

(And a bit of advice to clients who say this – you are inviting your professional service suppliers to find a very good reason to charge you a lot of money to develop something specific for you, which usually will be the same old service line with a few tweaks).

I used to think people said “we are different” as a defence mechanism or because they did not want to have to face up to the reality of the need to change. In time I have learnt that whilst there is a little bit of truth to this, most people say it for a much more fundamental reason: because they really believe they are unique.

I cannot deny uniqueness. The world would be a very dull place without it. But in the end all organizations are made up of people from the same societies as you and I, with the same social norms – and most organizations face fairly similar challenges: how to motivate their people, how to continuously innovate and stay relevant, how to deal with competitive threats and technology advancements, how to be effective and efficient and so on. 

Yes these organizations vary. You enter the reception of some businesses and you know money is no object, others you immediately sense are run on a tighter budget. Some organizations are full of friendly people- others less so. Some are external facing – some insular. Some are sleepy – others full of aggressive energy. Some get things done easily – other seem to struggle with completing any tasks. Some are global – others local. I could list hundreds or probably thousands of dimensions of variation. 

Yet there is a strange truth, which perhaps is just a reflection of the underlying order of the universe in spite of its apparent chaos: once you start working with people you will find their problems and challenges are largely similar, and give or take some sensitivities and a level of tailoring, the solutions to those issues are also similar. We are all human beings and we only have a certain range of variation.  And thank heavens for that! For if we did not, even relatively common activities like talking to each other would be very difficult or even impossible.

The belief that “we are different” may be very deeply held. It can even be something that people proud of. After all we all like to be a little bit special, and how can you be special if you are just the same as everyone else. Because of this, and whilst there are exceptions, I usually find it is counter-productive to challenge people head on about their specialness. (It can be even more counter-productive to point out that some of the ways people think their organization is special are not strengths, but actually weaknesses. However, this is often true!) 

(There is another irony. The people who most firmly believe “we are different” are usually the people who have never worked anywhere else. If you want to be especially difficult you can say “how do you know given that you’ve never worked anywhere else?” This can be fun to ask, but usually does not lead to a lasting and deep professional relationship).

What should you do? Next time someone says “we are different” acknowledge you have heard them say and don’t challenge it. They probably believe it and may cherish this belief.  Try to understand, and ask sympathetically “in what ways?” You will learn some useful facts and perceptions of their organization. Adopt their terminology and style, tweak your approaches appropriately to the situation. But you should feel confident that if something has worked well elsewhere, something very similar will probably work there too. (But note, I really do mean similar and not exactly the same).

Yes they are different, they are special, they are unique, but so is everyone else. Ironically, uniqueness is the common feature to all of us. Being uniquely unique? Now that really is something rare.

Want more? Try my book The Management Consultant, Mastering the Art of Consultancy

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