The Coaching-Consulting Continuum

Written by on January 24, 2014

Understanding the different types of consultants – experts, coaches and facilitators – and what type of adviser is most appropriate for your unique situation can be challenging – especially when they play such different roles.

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Think of a continuum: On one end is the consultant as expert. The consultant harbours the content knowledge relevant to the issue while the client has the process knowledge. In this case, the content expertise governs the outcome, assuming the client accepts the consultant’s recommendation.

At the other end of the continuum is a consultant acting as a facilitator. At the facilitating end of the continuum, the roles are reversed: The consultant has the process knowledge, but the client has the content knowledge. The consultant as facilitator’s role is to make sense of content that comes from the client. As such, the process expertise governs the outcome.

Facilitators typically present a framework with questions, applying a process to, and giving logical ordering to, client knowledge. They use what the client knows to lead the client to a practical solution that can be acted upon. Instead of bringing knowledge, facilitators bring process: personal skills to enable a group of people to build on what it knows collectively in order to arrive at a suitable solution.

Facilitation is about helping the client understand:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • Why are you trying to do it?

After establishing finite objectives, facilitation becomes about building a customized game plan to allow the clients to achieve what they want to accomplish. At its most basic level, facilitation is about jointly owning the work with the client – jointly managing the project, the budget, the resources and the work plan.

Expert consultants often offer theoretical solutions that are, in many cases, not customized to the unique client requirements and therefore not able to be implemented. While experts often have a brand-name authority and submit massive reports that beg attention, the recommendations handed down aren’t always the best solutions for the client. It’s the exact opposite of facilitation.

So where does coaching fall on the continuum? It has both facilitation and expert qualities. Consultants as coach often move in and out of those roles to meet their clients’ needs. There is a collaboration-zone middle ground along the continuum that sees consultants and clients forming a partnership of knowledge and process. A facilitator is there to reflect back the client’s knowledge, but if, in the moment, the team has a problem and the consultant has an “expert” solution, it would be counterproductive to be tethered by roles and titles and not provide experiential insight.

There are times when they add the most value by offering a solution.. But mostly, consultants operate in the middle on the continuum, in the collaborative zone where the teamwork really happens.