A few weeks ago, I was reviewing 2020 measurement evaluation plans with a client—something we had done together at the start of 2019 too. I was happy to see how their knowledge and confidence in this process had changed since we began working together.
At NPC, we think of our consulting work as a journey, not a product. It’s about a process we go on alongside our clients. And, like all of our work, this process is bespoke and different for each organisation we work with.
Increasingly, some of our most impactful support for charities and funders has included what we call a ‘critical friend’ approach. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on what makes this work impactful, and when it is most effective.
So, what is a critical friend approach?
Taking a critical friend approach to our consulting work means that the process itself is led by the client—rather than being driven by us. NPC then supports and adds value to this process by:
- bringing expertise;
- facilitating a decision-making process or insight gathering exercise;
- coaching our client to solve problems;
- challenging the organisation and offering constructive feedback; and
- offering an independent, external point of view when navigating contentious decisions.
We apply this approach to all areas of our consulting work—from helping organisations develop a new strategy to implementing a measurement framework. This guidance is usually delivered through a mix of planned activities (like workshops, and interviews with staff and stakeholders) plus ad hoc activities like attending meetings and providing feedback. However, all the activities and support are rarely planned out from the beginning—it is more often an agreed amount of time with an outline of how this time might be used. This allow us maximum flexibility, enabling us to pivot our response and actions given new insights and different outcomes.
This style of project tends to happen over a longer time period, with ongoing, light touch support interjected with clusters of activity around specific milestones. This contrasts with a steady period of delivery we often see in other projects.
One of the challenges in this way of working is the tension between NPC bringing expertise and facilitating others to bring out their expertise. As an expert in sector issues, we are used to sharing our opinions and offering solutions. A critical friend approach requires us to rotate our ‘expert’ hat and our ‘facilitator’ hat—which can be a challenge to communicate! When we are clear in which capacity we are acting, the combination can be really valuable.
When is a critical friend approach the right one?
From our experience, this approach adds the most value to an organisation when either:
- There is capacity and a desire from the organisation to lead a project, but specific expertise is missing. A critical friend approach allows the organisation to lead, but with added expertise from NPC. It can have longer term benefits too—including helping upskill team members who are gaining different expertise and working in new ways.
- An organisation is embarking on a complicated process, which could mean frequently changing needs and being unable to define support needs from the beginning (e.g. a new strategy or a merger). A critical friend approach is adaptable, and tied to providing what the particular individual and culture of the organisation needs at that time.
- An organisation is going through a period of turbulence or significant change. During this time, an external and independent eye can be a sounding board and a neutral facilitator through difficult decisions. Coaching individuals through these difficult processes can also really add value.
One of our clients is developing a new strategy after recently merging with another organisation. This is a complicated—and, at times, sensitive—process. Our client believes that NPC’s neutral opinion and coaching through some difficult decisions has played an important role in supporting the individual leading this process.
Ultimately, this approach allows the client organisation to access NPC expertise, facilitation, challenge and independence, whilst also allowing them to build capacity and ownership over the process on their own.
Key to this work is that the client organisation has the capacity to drive the work forward—rather than NPC. It is also important that the person we are working with has the support of senior leadership. These projects work best when the organisation is open to constructive conversations and is willing to be challenged.
Get in touch
Would you like to work with NPC in this way? If so, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to start a conversation.
Or, are you doing similar work in this area? If you have any thoughts on this to share, we’d love to hear from you.