Collaborative Empiricism

Many of the most rewarding consulting engagements result from a condition of mutuality, co-equality, and collaboration existing between consultant and client.  About midway on the range of consulting roles  proposed by Lippitt and Lippitt (1978) lies joint-problem-solving, where client and consultant can reach their goals, and even attain the elusive 50:50 work share (detailed in Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting) through collaboration.

Neither fully directive nor hands-off, the collaborative mode is egalitarian and participatory, expertise are shared, and both parties put in the hard yards to achieve success.

For engagements that lend themselves to this sort of working arrangement, this is the place where the skills, insight, knowledge and resources that both parties bring to the consulting relationship are put to combined effect in accomplishing a common goal.

The benefits of collaborative consulting are numerous.  Imagine for example that your expertise are brought in to accelerate time to market by rolling out a continuous process improvement program, targeting waste and inefficiency, and cultivating a Kaizen culture horizontally and vertically throughout the enterprise. In this scenario, working collaboratively with your client:

  • Encourages deep and purposeful engagement and the development of trust and a shared sense of ownership; all of which are vital conditions for the execution of successful consulting work.
  • Helps insight to and assessment of the consulting objective, key performance indicators, the processes and their condition, and the existing culture.  The client is able to help guide, orient, inform and validate findings, provide critical data and information in real-time, and make available lessons learned and a map of the rabbit holes (and even more sinister creatures).
  • Permits more accurate and reliable identification of the problem structure, root cause(s), and other salient contributory variables including those that do not necessarily show up on balance scorecards, reporting dashboards, or financial spreadsheets.
  • Enables the development of analyses, solutions, improvements, products, and recommendations in a more agile fashion, with quicker iterations, and adjustments; producing an incremental and successive approximation to the desired end-result.
  • Creates final work products and deliverables that will more genuinely address and remedy the client’s concerns and objectives, be implementable, favor client self-sustainability and real long-term cultural impact.

In a word, collaboration is good, particularly when the task at hand is challenging, nuanced, idiosyncratic, or requires a certain amount of inside baseball. A methodologically rigorous form of collaborative consultation is called collaborative empiricism.  This is an approach-type borrowed from cognitive behavioral psychotherapy whereby patient and therapist both embark on a systematic process underpinned by the basic, hypothetical-deductive scientific method to support or reject the patient’s cognitions (thoughts).

This sort of collaborative problem solving approach is as useful in the consulting environment as it is within psychotherapy, although one hopes to see less clinically significant  psychopathology in our clients than in patients.

So, for a consultant, what is meant by empiricism?  Empiricism is actually a core feature of the scientific method.  Empiricism proposes that our knowledge, theories and understanding is gained through our observations and experience of the world, and is capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment.  In the consulting context, empiricism is similarly deployed in order to base our findings, solutions and products on observable and quantifiable phenomena.  de Groot (1961) proposed an Empirical Cycle that has endured the tests of time, and captures the steps one moves through in accomplishing the aims of (collaborative) empiricism.  The degree to which one progresses through this cycle will clearly vary from client-to-client and from consultant-to-consultant and I do not believe for our purposes is meant slavishly to be followed.

  • Observation: The collecting and organisation of empirical facts; forming hypothesis.
  • Induction: Formulating hypothesis on the basis of observed phenomena.
  • Deduction: Deducting consequences of hypothesis as testable predictions.
  • Testing: Testing the hypothesis with new empirical material.
  • Evaluation: Evaluating the outcome of testing, and generating new hypotheses and research focuses.

By collaborative empiricism for the consultant, then, it is meant that consultant and client opt to become co-investigators, working together to gather and assess empirical evidence, and test various hypotheses in order to deliver results not only in line with the objectives of the engagement but in line with the facts of what is actually observed and examined.

Furthermore, and quite critically, collaborative empiricism helps to test and weed out inaccurate or flawed conclusions, and demands an unblinking appraisal of actuality as revealed under the intense light of the empirical method.

Collaborative empiricism is improved by unambiguous role-clarity, trust and confidence, on both sides of the equation.  With that established, the increased dedication and ownership, clarity and accuracy of insight, and the methodologically rigorous process increases the likelihood of success in whatever the objectives of the engagement are.

As consultants, collaborative empiricism offers yet another tool or approach vector in the consulting armamentarium and can add tremendous value when used correctly.  And, as no problem exists in a vacuum, certainly no solution should be developed in isolation from the client.  We can work with our clients to progress through this rigorous and empirical process, and not only develop solutions, but we can also form valuable and meaningful relationships along the way, which sustain and enrich our professional lives and  future success.


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