Order clarification – first things first

Guest contribution by | 13.08.2020

“For what problem in your company is agility the solution?” – Why customer inquiries should not be taken as a guideline for consultants.

“Our service team should work more agile. We seek external support.” Whether you are an experienced Agile Coach or consultant: your expertise matches the customer request, quickly you will be assigned. In the first workshop you will learn that a matrix organisation was introduced last year. Since then, colleagues in the service department have had to involve three additional stakeholders for activities that they used to handle on their own responsibility, which has made the overall process more complex and slower. The fact that people do not work in a team at all, but have always worked as lone fighters in projects and that agile procedures have never really worked here. You need the money, and you manage to set up a Scrum Board and introduce Daily Standups in this situation – ineffectively of course. After five weeks the customer terminates the job, you were already frustrated before. Now you could lament in the usual forums about the fact that the customer does not have an agile mindset. Or you could consider how you want to arrange initial talks with customers differently in the future and clarify the order better.

Why solutions are often wrong

External consultants are rarely confronted with concrete goals during the initial interview. Rather, they are asked to adopt a solution preferred by the customer (“introduce agility!”). If the solution fits in with their own expertise, they are tempted to accept the assignment. But so is the probability of failure. Because the idea of how to achieve a goal is only effective if the goal fits the solution. This article is intended to help to structure acquisition talks and order clarifications in such a way that consulting projects can be successful right from the start.

For this purpose it is helpful to understand the role of consulting: Companies are autonomous social systems controlled by their own rules.They cannot be directly controlled by external consultants, and certainly not by linear cause-and-effect logics (“if we work agile, we will act faster”). Consultants can, however, help customers to recognise the problem to be solved and thus also to determine a suitable target for the consultation.

Clarifying the order means finding the problem for the solution

Assuming you are the expert for the above example. Even if you have done similar things dozens of times before with flying colours: You don’t have to defend your expert status, you were invited. Instead, assume that you hardly know anything about the customer system. And since you can’t read minds, you don’t know the reasons for choosing this particular approach. Make sure you are surprised during the conversation.

1. Clarify the context

It is not at all uncommon for your counterpart to jump right into the topic with the first sentence. If this happens, insist on a short introduction, because you want to identify the roles of the participants in the customer system and present yourself and your expertise. Also ask if there are any people who for some reason are not in the room, but who are important stakeholders for the project. How did the idea for the consultation come about? What experiences have you already had with other consultants? What fears exist? Finally, ask your counterpart what could be a good result of today’s discussion.

2. Ask about the function of the solution

You don’t even have to talk about the advantages of agility. Much more interesting is that your counterpart did not mention why it was chosen. Find out for which problem the desired approach is the solution! Ask the question about the function both problem-oriented: “For which problem of the team is agility the solution?” and goal-oriented: “What will be different in concrete terms through agility?”.

3. Collect and decipher explanations and evaluations

Often one receives cause-and-effect explanations or evaluations on this question. Pay attention to which explanations and evaluations your counterpart now expresses. “If the team is agile, it can deliver results faster.” is an explanation other than “The team is very unmotivated right now, this will change.”.

Act like a scientist who’s discovering life on another planet. In response to an if-then statement, you can ask, for example, “What exactly do you think of agile procedures will lead to faster results?” or “How does the team work if it delivers results faster?What has changed then?”. Even with the statement that the team is unmotivated, you still cannot work. Therefore you ask “How do people behave when they are unmotivated? Do you have examples?” or solution-oriented: “How would you recognise that the team is motivated again?” etc.

By asking about observable behaviour, you bring explanations and evaluations to the level of descriptions. You will find that you now receive more concrete information and the range of topics becomes wider.

4. Gather even more information

Order clarification is communication, in which three dimensions of meaning are always negotiated:

  • Content on the factual dimension,
  • Relations between actors on the social dimension,
  • and time sequences on the time dimension.

Questions in the social dimension help to gain information about the perspective of others. “How would your colleague from the team / the team leader / your boss etc. describe the cooperation in the team” or “Would someone from the team describe it the same way as you do?“.

If several people are involved in the conversation, there may be different opinions on the way to solve the problem: One person thinks that agility solves many problems and another person emphasizes the opposite. As a consultant, it is helpful in this case to maintain impartiality: Show interest in one side, give the same interest to the other. Ask everyone present questions, even if it is only “Do you agree with your colleague?”.

You have already used the factual dimension when you asked about the function of the solution. Pick up topics you heard in the conversation and put them into suitable questions. If you are brave, ask further questions about what would happen if nothing changed. Effective is also “And what else?”.

Ask in the time dimension: “Can you describe how people worked together before the reorganisation?” or “Have you ever tried to introduce agile procedures in the past?”. If possible, phrase past questions in positive terms so that your counterpart does not remain in the description of negatively perceived situations. Also ask into the future: “How would you recognise that the team is agile after our project?” etc.

5. Take a break

You have already provided a large amount of consulting services. Ideally, you have succeeded in establishing a relationship based on trust, which enables the customer to deal constructively with your questions, but also with your ideas, which you have interspersed in between. You may have initiated a change in your counterpart’s perspective on the problem and/or solution, but in any case you have broadened his perspective by many aspects. You do not need to discuss the solution now. Instead, suggest a ten minute break. Leave the room. Your client now has time to gather. And you have time to reflect on the conversation.

6. Turn the end of the conversation into a restart

Back in the room, you summarise the previous conversation and describe the customer problem from your perspective. If you think that a completely different approach can be helpful, then say so now. Explain that you need a little time to outline how you would approach the problem with the information you have gained today, and that you will respond quickly with a proposal. It is possible, however, that the information gained will lead to the conclusion that you are the wrong person for the job. Please address this in a friendly and open manner. You will have lost an assignment, but you will have gained the appreciation of your counterpart.

If order clarification is not possible

Often it is not possible to clarify the situation before the project begins. If, for example, you are asked to submit a bid in a public invitation to tender, then stick to the formalities and win the tender. Then make the clarification of the contract an ongoing part of your consultation during the project. If you adopt the attitude of a researcher as described above, you will quickly get to the heart of the customer problem. And you can work on this in retrospectives, for example.


  • Consider the solution chosen by the customer as one of many, and not always the most effective.
  • Expect customers to have difficulty in identifying the problem the solution is intended to solve or the goal it is intended to achieve.
  • Ask about the function of the desired solution.
  • A shared understanding of the customer’s problem is already effective advice. Therefore, do not immediately look for a better solution.
  • Reject an inquiry if you are unable to reach agreement on the problem or the goal during the conversation.


Notes (in German):

Wie Systemiker Auftragsklärung betreiben, lernen Beratende vertiefend im Grundkurs “Systemische Organisationsberatung” bei Simon, Weber & Friends.

Literature reference:

Simon, Fritz B.: Introduction to the (systems) theory of consulting, Heidelberg, Carl-Auer, 2014.

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Eva Schielein

Eva Schielein

Eva Schielein, founder of aestimat, is a systemic organisational consultant and coach with expertise in software development. Her brand “Positive Transformation” combines theories and concepts from systems theory, positive psychology and agility. For her, consulting is cooperation among adults on equal terms. Her clients include tech companies, digital labs and software service providers. Since 2019 she is a network partner at Simon, Weber & Friends