The Tundra and Consulting

Updated: May 27, 2020

I walk on the tundra three or four times a week. This week, I realized how walking on the tundra is a lot like my approach to consulting…an exploration and mini-adventure.

Walking on the tundra is not always easy. Now, there are trails that have been made by people driving across it on their ATVs. If you follow one of these trails, you’ll travel farther faster, but someone else has determined your direction. Striking off on your own means you’ll be walking over the lichens and mosses, through the bogs and puddles.

Lichens, mosses and other low growing plants of great variety, shape and color are the principle ground cover of the tundra. This ground cover is often about six inches deep and very spongy. The effect is a bit like walking on the soft sand of beach. It can be a lot of work.

The lower lying parts of any given stretch can be very soggy from the melting permafrost. Having waterproof soles and uppers on your boots is important.

Often, when I start, I pick some place I can see that I want to get to – that stand of willows away off over there to the southwest, for example – and head off cross-country in that direction.

While I know where I want to go, I seldom have any idea about what lies between me and that goal except the couple of hills I can see from where I’m standing. Undoubtedly, there will be some ponds I’ll have to walk. And there are places where the lichens have grown up into clusters of mounds that are about two feet high. I’ve learned that it’s best to walk around these areas as well. They will not support my weight if I try to step from one to another and the areas between them can be really wet.

Tundra walking requires that you are always watching where you’re putting your feet next. I will am always stopping to check where to put my feet next, adjusting how I am taking the next steps and occasionally my overall strategy to get around the obstacles and get to my goal. This all feels pretty improvisational. I will always reach my goal eventually. Along the way, I will see and learn things I would not have experienced walking on the ATV track.

Why is this like consulting?

Some years ago, I gave up the diagnostic approach to OD in which I had been trained for something much more like the dialogic methods described by Gervase Bushe and Bob Marshak. (There are several illustrations of how I do this in my book on Organizational Culture.)

The approach is really just a series of conversations (dialogues) with as many people in the group as is feasible or necessary. We talk about what they see as possibilities for the organization, how they might get there and what might be in the way. They talk, I listen and do very little facilitating. We are exploring the stories they tell themselves and each other so that they can begin to shift those narratives: "If you change the way you talk about something, you'll change the way you think about it. If you change the way you think about it, you're likely to change the way you do it."

This is very much like picking a point on the tundra towards which you want to walk and setting off through the lichens to get there. Sometimes a bit of a slog but well worth the effort

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