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Consultant Tony Eliston rails at errors in consulting. ...
Consultant Tony Eliston rails at errors in consulting.

Whenever someone talks about consultation I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. The word conjures up images of interminable meetings with union officials, professional self-interest groups and other forms of municipal pond life, meetings that serve little purpose other than to provide a soap box for the disaffected.

Then there are the evenings spent in damp community halls drinking stewed tea from polystyrene cups, listening to the worthy outpourings of the bicycle and brown rice brigade, sad consultation junkies who represent nobody but themselves.

Consultation is an entirely reactive process. Those who are consulted bring nothing to the table other than their opposition to your proposals and their narrow vested interests.

It is a means of legitimising resistance and giving a voice to the guardians of the status quo. Of course it is important to convince people of the merits of your proposals and to promote ownership. But this is achieved by selling, persuading and proselytising, while consultation is about dumbing down.

There is the expectation you will modify your proposals to suit the interests of the lowest common denominator. If you stick to your guns you are accused of inflexibility. If you make concessions you end up with the inevitable grubby compromise.

And no matter how many meetings you sit through the one certainty is you will be accused of failing to consult properly.

But this should not come as a surprise. Consultation is no more than a shabby ritual, a game with pre-ordained moves both players are bound to lose. It is not about reaching agreement but negotiating an accommodation with those who oppose you.

The frustration is understandable. Most people do not want to be consulted on a fait accompli. If they cannot influence the decision they would rather you were straight with them and simply told them what you are going to do.

The government is rather keen on consultation. It has been given the official seal of approval by being canonised as one of the four Cs of best value. But it is very much the poor relation in the alliterative quartet.

If challenge is about thinking the unthinkable, consultation is about recognising even the mundane is probably unachievable. It is the antidote to innovation. One might well ask what point there is in reinventing the world if you then have to consult people whose main objective is to keep the world exactly as it is.

Throughout history, the great advances have not come about through consultation.

When Columbus came back from America with proof the world was round he did not take six months out to consult the flat earthers.

Leadership is about making decisions. They may not always be right and they certainly will not always be popular, but that goes with the territory. Consultation qualifies leadership.

It creates a false aura of democracy and builds delay and doubt into the change process. It is a substitute for action. Once an organisation gets the consultative gene into its system there is a tendency to sit back and admire problems rather than deal with them, a case of perpetually aiming and adjusting the sights but never firing as the target recedes. Usually it's best to follow your instincts and just do it.

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