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Developing consultants for the future

It would appear that single minded pursuit of continuous and fast growth, with ever increasing shareholder value is not sustainable, if the demise of once highly reputable companies and of our habitat are anything to go by. The financial and ecological crisis we find ourselves in, present an urgent invitation to examine the very assumptions upon which we have built our business models: natural resources are plentiful and limitless, the human race is the master of the universe not a mere interdependent partand economic growth is the only legacy we are leaving our children. Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation, points out the physical and environmental constraints to orthodox unlimited global economic growth and advocates that we have no option but to change our economy to live within its environmental budget.

Einstein famously said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In other words, doing more of the same is not an option if we want to avoid being trapped in what appeared to be the ‘economic cycle’ but is proving to be, in effect, a downward spiral.If we accept that we need to think and behave radically differently in the way we ‘go about our business’, what does that mean in terms of how we consult to organisations? Andrew Day and Kevin Power (2009) of Ashridge Consulting, interviewed 50 executives to explore how they were experiencing the impact of the economic crisis on their business. Their research suggests that the future will be characterised by rapid change, discontinuities, and ambiguity. They call the new thinking required to thrive in such an environment ‘ecological thinking’ in contrast to ‘analytical thinking’. Rather than to focus on problem solving and taking a reductionist approach, relying on tools, techniques and models, change agents and leaders in organizations will have to look for patterns and interdependencies in complex, non-linear relationships and work creatively with paradox and contradiction. They will have to:

• Take an ecological perspective on the role of the organization within an interconnected web of interdependencies that stretches beyond the usual scope of ‘economic interest’
• Help people to make sense together of events and the rapid changes that they are experiencing
• Understand and work constructively with acute anxiety states, provoked by periods of turbulence and disruption”.

How (and where) do leaders and consultants develop the necessary skills to address the challenges outlined above? MBAs have been the traditional training ground for successful executive,change agents and consultants. However, grounded as those programmes tend to be in a rationalist, analytical paradigm, they are not likely to address current challenges in a systematic or radical way. Ashridge Consulting has been successfully running the Ashridge Masters in Organisational Change (AMOC), for leaders and organisation development (OD) practitioners, whichaspires to ‘ecological thinking’. It seeks to develop reflective practitioners who are able to meet the demanding requirements outlined above. The programme is grounded in a complexity and social constructionistperspectiveon organisations. More specifically it advocates that our habitual organisations are nothing more or less than people relating to one another, and that patterns emerge naturally in those relationships through collaboration and competition, order and disorder at the same time, rather than through any one person being in control. This perspective profoundly challenges the positivist, rational-analytical view generally prevalent on MBA,management development or OD programmes.

The entire learning process on the programme can be thought of as an ongoing action inquiry (Torbert, 2004) process. Faculty and participants engage in a shared exploration of their consulting practice. This includes developing self-awareness and presence of mind in the pursuit of effectiveness and personal integrity, as well as testing theories and perspectives against their own understanding of and experience in organisations. Action inquiry skills support practitioners as they join their peers and/or clients in making sense of their business environment and their personal experiences, emotional as well as rational.

Finally there is considerable attention and emphasis on the group as a community of learning and practice that provides a safe space for experimentation. Participants learn to recognize and work with their own anxiety that is an integral part of group membership. Experienced faculty model the process of holding and containment and support participants to develop their own skills in this area.

It is a challenging experience and many graduates assert that it has had a profound effect on their practice and on their life. We believe it is the kind of programme that prepares organisational practitioners for the challenging future we have ahead of us.

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