The Continuum of Client Readiness

Part 1: The Analysis
“How can I convince clients to try something other than the same old thing they’re used to?”

I wish I had a dime for every consultant who asked a version of that question. How can I convince them? How can I get them to try?

Unfortunately, the questions often show up as frustration and blame.

Organizations won’t change.

They won’t try anything new.

They won’t do the work, even after I’ve worked with them.

Because our work at the Community-Driven Institute is about creating dramatic, visionary social change, the issue of “client readiness” has become an important one for us. If organizations are not ready to adopt new approaches, they are well guaranteed to continue to see the same old results.

We spend a lot of time talking about this in our consultant immersion classes. The questions we ask there have led to a great deal of our own thinking on the subject.

  • What might we, as consultants, do to encourage clients, rather than try to “convince” them?
  • What questions might inspire our clients to want to do the work?
  • What stories might we share to engage them in thinking differently?
  • Where do we, as consultants, need to be in our own thinking, to help clients want to try something new?

The more we ask those questions of ourselves, the more we see the obvious – that “client readiness” is not a black-or-white issue. It’s not that clients are either ready or not. Instead there is a continuum of readiness that clients move along, as they consider being differently in their work.

Before diving into our thinking around this issue, I will share that that is just what it is – thinking. We hope you will share your own thinking to what we have begun here, so we can all help our clients reach for their highest potential to create change in their communities.

One last thing: The following continuum is built upon a foundation of thinking pioneered by Suze Casey, as she researched and developed systems for Belief Repatterning. We are humbly grateful for the immense body of knowledge Suze has produced and shares so generously.

Stage 1: Resistance
“I Won’t” (or) “I Don’t”
The first rung of the ladder is the stage at which a person is completely not ready to consider a new approach. We consultants typically meet these people only when someone else says, “Please talk with Mary. She has a great concept, but the organization is floundering and she refuses to listen to anyone…”

Mary is at the stage of won’t / can’t / don’t need to. Her immediate response to any suggestion that she try something different is to get defensive. That defensiveness may sound like this: “That might be well and good for others, but it doesn’t apply to me.”

If Mary were in the supermarket, and your consulting work was a free sample of pizza, Mary would walk right past, thinking, “I don’t eat pizza. That’s not for me.”

Stage 2: Unacknowledged Curiosity
“I Might…”
At Stage 2, Mary’s resolve has softened just a smidge. Something has happened, and she is almost unwittingly beginning to be open to learning about this new thing – to perhaps think about it, read about it.

Mary probably still won’t do so publicly, though. She may read an article in the privacy of her own home. She may do an internet search. She may click on a link by someone she knows on Facebook, whose links she had previously patently ignored.

Mary is getting curious.

Asked if she had been looking for these bits and pieces of information, Mary would most likely say she just happened to find them. She happened to click a link. She happened to follow up with a Google search on something that was mentioned by a colleague. She is taking action, but sees herself as simply responding to what life has presented, rather than seeing herself as seeking it out.

In our supermarket pizza example, Mary might take advantage of the fact that the Pizza Lady is available to answer questions at the free sample table. Is it fattening? Is it tasty? Is it all natural? And because the Pizza Lady has it sitting right there on napkin with a toothpick, Mary might even taste the pizza!

Stage 3: Open Curiosity
“I’ll Try It…”
In Stage 3, Mary’s defenses are no longer over-riding her curiosity. Having done some reading – or perhaps taken an online quiz, or maybe read an easy piece of wisdom she could incorporate into a board meeting – Mary is finally open to taking a first public step into a new way of thinking.

Mary might attend a workshop. She might buy a book. Or two books. She might start conversations with others who are in the same boat.

Continuing our pizza example, if you were out to dinner with Mary, and someone suggested pizza, Mary might say, “Oh what the heck – I’ll order a slice!” (And she’ll like it, and will probably order a second one!)

Stage 4: Taking Action with Clear Intent
“I’ll Do it!”
In Stage 4, Mary is moving forward with intent. In Mary’s mind up till now, she likely believes she has been exposed to these new concepts and approaches without such intent – that these new ideas have been put in her path, and she has simply responded.

In Stage 4, Mary is taking control, making the decision with resolve. And she is excited!

Perhaps she met you (the consultant) at a workshop you gave on governance or fundraising. Mary calls you to ask if you will come speak to her board. “I’d love you to give our whole board the workshop I attended. They need to know this stuff!”

Mary has just picked up the phone and ordered her very first whole pizza.

Stage 5: Self-Identifying
“This is what I do”
At Stage 5, Mary and her organization see the “new” approach as simply how they do their work. It is not new or different. It is no big deal. It just is.

The board has an annual plan and is working that plan. Or the board has incorporated a new model of governance into the way it operates. Or the organization has a proactive resource development plan, and the plan is working.

Of course we plan. Of course we work this way as a board. Of course this is how we generate resources.

At Stage 5, Mary eats pizza for lunch several times a week. When she goes out with friends, she orders pizza. She doesn’t think of it as new or special; she just does it.

Stage 6: We’ve Always Done It Like This
At Stage 6, we are not “doing” our work in a particular way; that way of being has seeped into the organization’s DNA. It is simply what the organization is. No one can remember ever being anything but that. “We’ve always done it like this!”

Mary doesn’t have to focus on doing her work in this way. The approach is her natural rhythm. It feels right, logical, whole. It is simply who she is.

At dinner, a friend will comment that Mary is ordering pizza. “I’ve always eaten pizza,” Mary replies. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t!”

Summary and What’s Next
As I have considered these stages of readiness, we see our prospective clients moving through these stages from “Won’t” to “Being it.” We see them moving from “I don’t” through “I do” to arrive at “I am.”

In Part 2 of this article, I will tackle approaches that work for helping to move clients through the stages. Someone might move through some stages very quickly – seemingly jumping over them. But regardless of where we enter the continuum (some people may be at Stage 2, for example, without ever having been at Stage 1), I believe that from there, we then go through each of those stages, however briefly, rather than skipping over some on the way to what’s possible.

But we will see. As I said, I am exploring this thinking here with you. And I’m looking forward to seeing how that evolves.

So what has been your experience? Am I close? And is this thinking helpful as you consider your own clients and their potential for working with you?

9 thoughts on “The Continuum of Client Readiness”

  1. I’ve been waiting anxiously for this since you mentioned you were working on a readiness continuum. I anticipated you would articulate, in ways I am not yet able, the surprising sources of struggle that I have encountered early in my efforts to launch our local initiative. What has knocked the breath out of me was the level of the dominance of stage 1 *within the team convened to launch it with me.*

    It’s also a helpful reality check that there is a gap between my vision of the highest potential for this effort and where most of the likely participants are at this moment.

    No, none of this is a surprise. Where it will be personally valuable is providing perspective when immersed in work that feels stuck.

  2. Since you asked for feedback…

    1) I love the thoughtfulness at each stage of the continuum. It feels like you are articulating the words and phrases we might hear that can clue us into where they are on the continuum. It is concrete that way. It’s a kind of cheat-sheet for quick assessment, since we often have to make opportunity cost decisions based on very little information. Valuable.

    Debra’s post let me notice that assessing client readiness means different things in different contexts. It sounds like she’s talking about being in the middle of a project and assessing what the client is really ready and willing to do. I had read the piece working with the assumption that we were talking about assessing a *potential* client’s readiness to work with a consultant, so the rest of my post comes from that perspective.

    2) I’m concerned about the concept of the *client’s* readiness without a companion piece about assessing our own readiness. If we want aim to approach clients as partners and co-learners, then I’m not sure that *readiness* is the right term. It implied either we are or we are not, as opposed to something more fluid as your continuum. If we want to operate from the assumption that we as consultants meet clients where they are, then doesn’t client readiness have more to do with what *we* are ready and willing to do with them? If we are promoting ourselves as change agents, then we can’t just cherry-pick and work only with those who are “ready.” It seems to me that the responsibility rests with us, but the idea of client readiness implies that it rests with them.

    That said, the idea of assessing client readiness appeals to me as a consultant because what I’m really trying to do when I talk to a client is “If we work together, what can we accomplish?” because that’s what’s going to jazz me up and give it everything I’ve got (vision, again). And with that, I need to be clear about: 1) what I want to accomplish, and 2) what is possible to accomplish with this client. Your post is more about #2, but #1 is just as important.

    3) When consultants want to know “Is this client ready?”, we really want to know “Do I want to work with this client?”. It’s about how much do I want to invest in this relationship. Establishing criteria a la Magic Matrix has been sooooo useful for me. It doesn’t tell me a clear yes or no, but it does help place the client on the continuum of how much I want to work with them. My criteria are stuff like:

    Do they explicitly share my vision?
    Do I enjoy working with them?
    Does the work provide enough challenge?
    Do they need and want help with things in addition to grant writing?
    Will I work with key decision makers?

    I also have criteria that help me with pricing, such as:
    How much is already written that I can use?
    How complex is the proposal?
    Who is available to help me and how available are they?

    Those things help me determine if the project is “easy” to do, or challenging — in both good and bad ways. It is flexible enough that I might take on a client one month that, had they come to me in another three, I wouldn’t do. It sometimes has to do with what else I’m juggling at work and in life, because when there’s a family health issue (for example) the last thing I want to do is a federal government proposal under a tight timeline. Like I’ve been saying, the Magic Matrix format allows me to be flexible in responding to my needs and client needs, and allows me to re-evaluate multiple times.

    Now, how to fit all of that into 140 characters? This twitter thing is definitely a challenge for me.

  3. Mary’s pizza story helps make the concept of readiness very practical in thinking about clients. What I’m struggling with right now is the complexity of dealing with a group at varying levels of readiness. Looking forward to the next article on ways to encourage that readiness.

  4. I could see a ‘client’ version of this emerging, Hildy. Maybe not shared routinely, with every member of a client group, but used to engage the leadership working with the consultant to assess needs and outline approaches to addressing those needs, where they are at the time we begin the engagement.

    I can envision having fairly frank conversations with my last two clients using this continuation as a focal point. We more or less addressed the readiness issue, but not necessarily as directly as we might have if this had been available. I’ve definitely experienced the complex mix that Nancy describes, in those two settings and in others. Anything that helps the client – and me as the consultant – understand the range of readiness in the room would be valuable.

    In the case I mentioned above, this framework validated what I was encountering in a situation I did not expect to be problematic. You provided a reality check for that specific case, as it continues to unfold. Your timing was spot on. Its utility in that specific role will undoubtedly be called upon down the road, in other settings.

  5. Debra, a client version would be a great idea. Whether someone is at “I won’t”, “I can’t” or “I’ll try” it instantly gives a visualization where they could be. Without saying anything, they can see that the situation is not necessarily static. Sort of like someone at the base of a mountain saying they can’t climb, yet you show a picture of other climbers getting up the hill going through various stages. Some at a base camp a quarter of the way up, some half way up, and some triumphantly waving flags at the top. It would seem to stir up a desire to not stay behind. 🙂

  6. Kim makes a good point about assessing readiness before accepting a client versus assessing readiness throughout a project. Are we talking about both consultant/client fit based on readiness well encouraging development of readiness, and then working with the various levels of readiness within a client group in moving forward?

    It does appear that what is evolving are ideas on practical consultant and client readiness “roadmaps”. Starting from a client’s highest potential for change and reverse engineering through the steps to readiness for that change sounds familiar somehow 🙂

    It is fascinating watching everyone’s minds work through this!

  7. This is helpful, but in the meantime I’m finding that Mary hires someone else who makes her comfortable and doesn’t challenge her assumptions. She doesn’t have time to go through those stages; the grant is available now, or the new plan is due, or the funds will be taken away at year-end.

    And it’s a group decision, and often I can’t get a meeting with the group. The person or persons I’m dealing with say “we loved your approached and tried hard to sell it but the committee members were nervous. Having a greater community impact would be wonderful – maybe next time.”

    Yes, Hildy, this is after using the pad, focussing on highest potential and using your proposal approach.

  8. Three things I think about:

    1. State of Change Model developed by James Prochaska et al. This looks at the steps to changing behaviors along a continuum of 5 steps that are similar to the model Hildy is discussing.The steps are Precontemplation (haven’t thought about it) Contemplation (thinking about it but weighing pros and cons), Preparation (acquiring the skills that enable me to move to next step), Action (making the change) and Maintenance (putting together all the supports that enable change to continue) See:

    2. I’m absolutely in love with Peter Block’s framing in The Answer to How is Yes, about the difference between resisting under the screen of not knowing how to the real question which is Does this Matter enough to me to overcome my discomforts/sacrifices and take it on.

    3. The Neuroscience of Leadership by Rock and Schwartz talks about the way our brains are wired and how difficult and physically painful change can be.

    4. Finally, one of the things that is a constant stumbling block for clients is whether the people who need to executive have the competencies to execute. I often find that an organization that has consistently stalled out might need to consider a change in the people. Sometimes they can be ready to learn and adopt new behaviors. Too often you just don’t have the right person in the right seat on the bus, to use Jim Collins phrasing. Unfortunately, you might not find that out till you get into the project. That’s when real consulting skills come into play to help have those conversations.


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