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To Change Your Organization, Look to the Outside for Advice

There’s a reason most companies and non-profits look for outside help when it comes to making major changes.  It’s simply very difficult and often impossible to spawn new thinking in-house.  As a result, leaders often bring in outside ideas and advice to spur change inside.  That’s not to demean the value of your in-house ideas or creativity.  The issue is perspective.  In fact, here’s a few key reasons that making real change happen usually takes an outsider:

1)  It’s difficult for in-house employees (especially long term employees) to get an objective view of the organization.  I remember when I was fired from a full-time job back in the nineties.  Once I got outside I was amazed at how differently I viewed the organization.  While I was employed, the organization seemed much bigger and more important.  But once I left and saw it in a wider context, it’s influence and impact shrunk to reality.

2)  Schedules.  Inside employees have to get their work done, and rarely have much time to spend on change initiatives.  As a result, they often view it as an imposition.  So rather than approaching it with excitement, they look at it as a burden.

3)  Fear.  Mention change inside most organizations and many employees get insecure.  Does this mean I’ll get fired?  Demoted?  Have less power or influence?  When that fear takes over, the last thing in the world they’re interested in is making any kind of change happen.

4)  Politics.  There are so many turf wars, silos, and un-discussable subjects at most organizations, that it’s impossible for an insider to push through the obstacles.  It’s especially true when the employee doesn’t have the authority over all the people in the process.

5)  A Bigger View:  Finally, outside consultants and change agents bring more to the table.  They’ve been through the process at other organizations and understand what works and what doesn’t.  As a result, they’ll bring a far more valuable perspective and can make the change happen quicker, and with fewer challenges.

Of course, when an outsider is brought in, some employees will complain that the outsider isn’t needed, and they can do it themselves.  But if that was the case, then why are we in this mess?  Why haven’t they done it already?

Obviously there are bad consultants and advisors out there.  I’ve personally spent a lot of time cleaning up the damage a few have caused.  But just because there are bad drivers doesn’t mean I’m hanging up my car keys.

Use common sense.  Get recommendations, ask for examples of past success, and get the facts.  A little effort upfront will result in a long-lasting and productive relationship on your journey toward change. 

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  1. Well said, Phil. The combination of fear and politics and insider-perspective can be crippling to an organization. There are some great firms out there that really help!

  2. There’s no question that we need outside influence to get off high center sometimes. But I think it is equally important to create an atmosphere for honest feedback, innovation and collaboration. This is why it’s so important to expose my staff to other ideas via books, magazines, blogs, conferences, etc.

    I’ve done consulting and I am amazed at many ideas are rejected because they’re unwilling to tackle their internal turf wars and preferences. We usually prefer the consultant to bring us the “bad news.” But I believe it’s possible to do that in house. This is not management, but leadership. It’s not just doing things right, but doing the right things.

  3. I have literally heard this sort of logic, “I’m right because I’m in a position of higher authority than you.”  No, that just means you earn more, and get to make the final decision – it doesnt mean that 2+2=5. Mmm, always a sign of weakness to play the authority card rather than testing ones logic.

  4. As a consultant I work with organizations every day who are needing to change, wnating to change, or being forced to change.  In all three scenarios, it is difficult to guide the process form the inside. 

    Every change has a cost… It may be as little as a new procedure or as significant as new leadership.  At it’s very core, change creates fear.  Fear of the unknown; fear of the cost; fear of making a mistake.

    Outside consultants can help reduce this fear…

    By bringing years of experience and expertise to the table, a good consultant can guide an organization through change with less stress, lower cost, and fewer errors.

    In my experience, people resist change for three reasons:

    1. Personal Cost.  Many people feel the price of change is too high.  It will be too inconvenient; it will be too hard; it won’t work;  or it violates their personal agenda.  It is important that leaders during a change process keeps these issues in mind as they present the plan to staff, volunteers, and even donors.

    2.Lack of Planning.  Many people resist change because they do not feel the process has been properly researched – or that all the alternatives have been explored. A few years ago, I worked with a church that went through a huge shift in ministry focus – one that could have sent the congregation scattering. However, they took about 18 months to survey the congregation and leaders, research opportunities, explore alternatives, and communicate process and progress.  In the end, the change was successful – the leadership and congregation stayed intact – and the church entered a new season of growth and effectiveness.

    3.Lack of Confidence. Some people want to see chage take place in the organization, but the are no confident that the leadership has the resources to make it happen.  These concerns may be related to time management, leadership skills, infrastructure, or funding. When developing an action plan donor confidence and staff confidence need to be assessed to be assurred of a successful transition.

    In each of these three areas, outside counsel provides the objectivity, experience and know-how to facilitate change and help the entire team enthusiastically embrace the process.

  5. Really EXCELLENT Phil – you’re getting to me where I live.

    What is really difficult within companies – especially churches and non profits – is what I call the vortex of inertia.  As you said – “Inside employees have to get their work done, and rarely have much time to spend on change initiatives.”  SO TRUE!  It becomes the tyranny of “normal” where organizations bend – seem willing to change – and genuinely want to – but never break.  In this scenario – we (consultants/coaches) become (in Seth Godin’s “Tribes” metaphor) a unicorn in a balloon factory – constantly challenging status quo – blowing up what’s colorful, soft and comfortable.

    My ever present mantra and I know yours too is “the culture has changed.”  What worked 30 years ago is falling flat now and we’re running the serious risk of loosing huge chunks of demographic and generational real estate while we continue to talk to ourselves.  Never has it been more important to burn the silos and destroy the sacred cows!!


  6. So true, Phil. Some of the best ideas I’ve ever had have come from reading a book or a blog like this one, an outside perspective. I would submit that anyone who resists outside help is resisting the art of learning in general.

  7. I’ll add that even in the most enlightened organizations, when an in-house team is given the responsibility of assessing what isn’t working and what might work, they can still become nervous about the way their findings will be received; they worry whether or not they’ll be branded in some way (troublemaker-whiner-driver-etc.); and they’re often so close to the people and the situation they can’t possibly see the full dynamic. After an enormously stressful year of a building project, I had an employee who was full of her myopic view of what went on and I had to lay the full picture out for her. She was shocked, and humbly admitted she’d had no idea “all of that was going on.” Good consultants provide a wheelbarrow full of value.

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