Insourced problem-solving is a powerful way to handle some of the hardest issues facing your organization. Moreover, it is easy to do and do well, if you follow just a few simple steps.
Executives who need to understand and resolve organizational challenges often overlook one of the best tools at their disposal – insourced consultancy. Often, when faced with a wicked problem, firms default to external consultants for expert solutions, whether tailored or off-the-shelf. While external consultants can bring broader industry experience and fresh eyes to a problem, nobody knows the nuances of your business better than your employees. And while external consultants are considered objective, choosing the right group of employees to work an issue can ensure a comparable amount of objectivity, open-mindedness, and innovative solutioning.
Years ago, I served as manager in a federal agency that annually evaluated its performance against Gallup’s Q12 engagement survey. Year on year, an office in which I served as Deputy Director consistently scored lowest among all components on Question No. 2, “I have the tools to effectively do my job.” Each year, our leadership team implemented often costly yet ineffective initiatives to address the issue. After several failed attempts to “move the needle,” someone suggested we ask the workforce.
Although highly skeptical, I assigned the question to a small, diverse group of junior employees who came through with flying colors. They returned 60 days later with a solution to a problem we in the senior ranks never recognized – namely, that our software versions were so out of date that employees were working from home after hours, relying on their more current and utilitarian personal computers than the desktops we provided. With a small investment, our IT department corrected the problem and the following year’s survey showed marked improvement in employee satisfaction and engagement.
Since then, I have insourced dozens of questions, challenges, and projects – both large and small – that previously would have been relegated to external consultants. Now, as a consultant myself, I encourage and help clients start with insourcing, and nearly always, they obtain striking results. Following are some tips gleaned over the past 20 years to insourcing smartly.
Tip #1 - Pick the Right Team
The most critical element in effective insourcing is having the right person or group of people work the issue. Counter-intuitively, your best teams likely do not comprise the employees who may seem best-suited for the job. The “usual suspects” – subject matter experts, technical directors, and seasoned managers – often miss the mark because they are locked into what Shunryu Suzuki calls “expert’s mind.” The right team frequently requires “beginner’s mind” to achieve open-minded problem-identification and innovative solutioning – the key benefit of outsourcing. The best internal candidates are frequently up-and-comers, people eager and excited by the opportunity to work on a challenging issue that matters. In choosing your team, err on the side of attitude, not aptitude.
Tip #2 - Set Clear Expectations Upfront
Being clear on the effort’s goal from the outset is harder than it sounds. For clients new to insourcing, I walk them through writing a short one- to one-and-a-half page terms of reference (TOR), which is useful for both the insourced team and leadership. While a good TOR needs to address the Five Ws (Who, What, When, Where, Why), it should not be overly complex or arcane. The best TORs normally feature a simple, open-ended question – e.g., What is behind the low survey numbers and what could we do to improve them? Along with this, the TOR needs to explain why the question is important to the organization. State the expected outcome in concrete terms (a report, briefing, written recommendations, and so on), and set an ambitious yet reasonable deadline, one to which the team agrees.
Tip #3 - Give the Team Autonomy
I point clients to the four elements of autonomy Daniel Pink outlines in Drive – freedom in Task, Time, Technique, and Team. Self-organizing and self-directed teams work best. In terms of “Team,” you often can simply select the team lead and allow them to form a team of their choosing within certain parameters. The most important parameters are that the team should be small enough to manage, and large enough to include interested and committed individuals who favor different ways of looking at the issue technically, culturally, and from across different domains (i.e., a diverse team that cares).
Tip #4 - Be Agnostic and Supportive
The best insourcing results come from teams given full leeway in determining how to answer the question. I have seen excellent outcomes from teams employing a host of solutioning techniques, including surveys, focus groups, interviews, brainstorming, decision trees, storyboarding, journey mapping, and other forms of ideation and user-centered design principles. Admittedly, the When affects the How and vice versa, which means that you and other stakeholders are committed to provide the resources the team requires. If resources are an issue, outline the limits and constraints in the TOR.
Tip #5 - Stay Apprised, Engage When Needed
As a leader, your time and attention comprise your most valuable investment in your organization and its people. While you should avoid micromanaging the insourced effort at all costs, you have every right to be apprised of progress. Schedule periodic status checks, usually at the midpoint of a short effort (30 days or less), or every 2-3 weeks for longer efforts. The check-ins don’t have to be long or involved, but rather touchstones to determine how the team is doing. The status checks also give you the opportunity to provide additional insight into uncertainty or ambiguity that crops up once work gets under way. Also, make yourself available for ad hoc questions, concerns, or issues. Recently, I witnessed a case in which a team had become vexed because it had expanded beyond the scope of the original goal. A quick 20-minute meeting with the principal stakeholder reestablished the guardrails, and the team went on to deliver a series of recommendations that exceeded expectations.
Tip #6 - Keep Your Ego in Check
My final advice is to listen to the team – and trust them – especially if they go down a path you might not have. During one impressive insourcing effort I saw several years ago, the team came back to the stakeholders after a couple of weeks and said, “We think you’ve asked us to answer the wrong question. Here’s the right question.” While humbled, Board leadership agreed, and the internal team delivered a tiered solution that resolved a series of related issues invisible at the C-Suite level. Leadership demonstrated its gratitude not only through awards, but by consistently shining the spotlight on the team as it sold, marketed, and implemented the team’s recommendations.
It Doesn't Have To Be Hard
In the end, insourced problem-solving is a powerful way to handle some of the hardest issues facing your organization. Moreover, it is easy to do well, if you follow just a few simple steps. If this applies to your business and/or you are interested in learning more, please reach out to us at email@example.com.