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Influencing Change: The Butter Rule

Deep Fried Butter standOne of the unique things that consultants get is a view of the dysfunctions of lots of organizations. We know which dysfunctions are normal, and which are, well, special. It’s easy to pick out the challenges, because not only are you a fresh set of eyes on the problem, but you are also not integrated into the organization the same way as the employees are.

Amidst all of these wonderous dysfunctions, challenges and problems we uncover, we try to be helpful, and even productive. After all, not only have we seen many of it before, but we’ve helped them all get better (or at least, we hope we did). And, they are paying us lots of money to help them, right?

One of the most powerful statements I’ve read from a book was in Secrets of Consulting by the wonderful Jerry Weinberg. Paraphrasing, he says that, from the outside, you can’t tell the difference between an awful consultant and a great consultant. Both look like they aren’t doing anything, but in one of the cases, the organization is doing great things.

It’s the paradox of consulting – organizations hire you to help solve problems they think they should solve themselves. Weinberg’s Fourth Law of Consulting reminds us that consulting is the art of influencing people at their request. He further goes on to remind us that, if you propose a solution as a consultant, then the client has to admit they have a problem, and that’s a hard thing to do sometimes.

A much easier thing is to create an environment for the client to come to the solution themselves. The challenge is that you can’t just tell the client what problems they have, and then expect them to fix them. After all, they probably knew what many of their problems were ahead of time, and hadn’t fixed them by the time you came in.

Butter in a frying panInstead, use the Butter Rule. Have you ever made a grilled cheese sandwich, pancakes or eggs in a frying pan? I was taught growing up that the first thing you put into the pan is butter (as well as sugar in your tea, and gravy on everything). The butter serves two purposes – first, it tastes good. It adds flavoring to the food itself. But it serves another purpose – it helps the food not stick to where it is at. When the butter is just right, the food glides around the pan with ease. But if you use too much butter, things end up greasy, soggy, and just not good.

Similarly, when we want to get change happening, we have to find a way to prevent the people we want to change from staying stuck where they are. To do that, we look for positives about what they are doing, and use that to draw them towards the change we want.

So, tomorrow, as you walk around your teams, your organization, or your client’s teams, spend some time finding positives. These little nuggets can be footholds into adopting change by showing the team what they are doing well, and helping them build from that to address the issues you have also found. You might find that they don’t stay stuck as long – and that it’s even a bit tastier, too.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • clarke February 5, 2014, 2:53 pm


  • Allison February 6, 2014, 10:23 pm

    Great rule! I’ve noticed people take my ownership of their learning and are more excited to grow/change when they feel like they’re on the right path, and pointing out the high points and successes helps keep them motivated.