Going on vacation tomorrow, but 2-3 things left to do. 130am. Had a glass of red wine and now a beer. It is the second wind. Ugly but true.
Photo from NYC hotel – last month.
Going on vacation tomorrow, but 2-3 things left to do. 130am. Had a glass of red wine and now a beer. It is the second wind. Ugly but true.
Photo from NYC hotel – last month.
It’s one person’s opinion, but here are 130 blog posts which I wrote over the last 3 years to describe my world-view of consulting. Hope you find it useful.
Consultants are a strange breed. We span all industries, but ultimately we are in the business of helping executives make difficult decisions and implement change. It is a combination of strategy (head), culture (heart), and operations (hand). Oddly, the most important ingredient is leadership, which consultants cannot provide. Only clients can provide the WHY that motivates people into action.
Consultants love data. First, clients struggle with it. They are like data hoarders who just watch it pile up and yet are afraid to confront it. For me, the idea of big data is a bit comical at times, since most clients cannot deal with their small data. Sometimes, you can just put the data into excel and quickly make sense of it. As a beginning consultant, you better be good with excel and powerpoint.
We obsess about data because is is apolitical, and provides credibility for our recommendations. In MBA, we all learned that averages are often the wrong answer, so we often use excel models to run “what if” scenarios and understand how (in)accurate a set of assumptions will be. We are revision crazy and have a serious fear of failure.
Consultants have great tools and methodologies – maturity models, evaluation frameworks, best practices, interviews, DMAIC, SIPOC, Poka-Yoke, Six Sigma, the list goes on and on. Frameworks help you think through problems. However, the crux of consulting is asking good questions: who, what, why, when, where. Some of the basic tenants of supply chain like LEAN apply to all industries.
Consultants are in the influence business. We borrow authority from our clients, to help them make change happen. We make presentations, but don’t have the power; clients do. The projects can be short, and yet, we need build rapport quickly. . .with IT for the data, with executive assistants to schedule meetings, and with stakeholders. A lot of times, our job is to nudge people to make decisions they know are right. We think, write, communicate, then repeat the process.
(Good) consultants think like executives. Read what they read, find relevant surveys. Read Peter Drucker. Understand management trends. Think globally. Listen to relevant podcasts, TED talks or Stanford entrepreneur videos. Now a days, there are ivy-league level courses online for free. You can take accounting classes from Wharton; no dergee, but you will learn a lot. Quora is a great tool if you want a safe place to find out about 1st-hand management experiences.
Consultants (over)use PowerPoint to communicate. We use it daily. It starts with a strong understanding of the audience and purpose. First, does the structure support the narrative? Second, do the slides themselves make sense by themselves? Third, have your edited and put the finishing touches on the pages? Is the “deliverable” something you are proud of?
As with writing, brevity is the best. Make sure your slides have a clear point; it should not be ambiguous what you are saying. Some of this has to do with logical structure of what you are saying, while other times it is how the facts are laid out on the page.
Consultants are intellectually curious. McKinsey’s chairman once said that the best candidates were “insecure overachievers“. The best consultants are obviously smart, but also aware, fund and eager. They are fast learners, who are good at breaking problems down into mental lego pieces. You can apply consulting thinking to elections, college football, gift cards, Olympics, or the value of a a life.
The fun part of consulting is tackling difficult problems. That is probably why we use case interviews to test structured thinking. It’s rooted in hypotheses and the counter-intuitive method of guessing your way to a solution. There is always a trade-off, an opportunity cost that the client is not seeing; it’s our job to shed light on this.
Consultants make clients successful. Sometimes the project scope is clear and sometimes it is not. We often have to find smart ways to say no to clients, for their own good. It’s not always the way you planned it in the proposal; you have to adapt.
Clients also get caught up in bad corporate habits and inertia and lose effectiveness. Sometimes, they even hire us to be the bad guys. We never embarrass our clients; we allow them to “save face“. We will find a win-win solution for them. Even when we are building rapport, being likable, we also need to be ourselves, and be authentic.
Consultants get lazy. We have bad habits. Oh yes. We use jargon constantly. Sometimes, we rely too much of previous examples of the work, and recycle materials. Be careful, clients will fire you if you get too lax, then it will be resume time. We eagerly seek feedback to improve. As some say, you are only as good as your last project.
Consulting is a lifestyle. There are so many great things about the consulting lifestyle. It sounds glamorous – good pay, smart and amiable people, solving tough problems, good meals, and travel – but it’s not all rainbows and ponies. Lots of late nights. No really, weekend work. But great consultants convert that stress into positive energy. Live to fight another day. Find good people to work – people who pass the airport test; spending 8+ hours stranded in an airport with. Find people you like working with.
Consulting is a leverage model. Younger, newer, cheaper consultants do work which can be billed out at higher rates. There are finders (partners who find work), minders (who farm the projects), and grinders (who grind out the analyses). The projects with the highest leverage tend to be IT projects.
Consulting is an apprenticeship. It’s a tough business with a high level of attrition. Learn as much as your can from managers. Don’t want until the year-end review to see how you are doing. Who wants to travel 80% of the time? We get paid well, and our clients want a good return on their money.
Consulting teams excel. Ultimately, consulting is about people. Partners and principals have the responsibility of building the team environment and culture. It’s a can-do culture; consultants don’t whine, we come up with solutions. It’s not all fun and games; there are times when it is a flat democracy and everyone’s voice should be heard, and other times, it can be a dictatorship to get things done.
(Good) consultants innovate and have fun. Personally, some of the business problems that I find the most interesting are how smaller companies can scale quickly without losing their founder’s mentality. Even if you are not a technology consultants, you have to stay up on technology trends from 2014 and 2015. Unfortunately, data does not always give you the answer. Sometimes, it is a S-curve where the past does not predict the future. Find ways to be disruptive and innovate. I always tell clients it is easy to attack complexity with complexity; it’s difficult to attack complexity with simplicity.
Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better. – John Updike, author
Thanks for reading. In my first month, I had 1 view. . . don’t be afraid to put your thoughts out there. If you like your work, someone else will too. Tap into that passion and get the chemicals flowing in your brain to do your best work.
Today was a rough day. Client disengaged. Technology not working. Long trips with weather delays. Lots of effort to be in a meeting. Not the glamour I expect when consulting. In blackjack terms, today was a 16 on a dealer 10.
Want to client to be successful. Don’t get me wrong. I am 70% heart, 15% head, and 15% hand. The heart goes a long way. I am a big believer in the WHY. That said, we cannot “fix adults”. People are people, and we can only do good work.
Not hard on myself or my team because we did good work on the project. The fact that the world (i.e., the client) does not fully appreciate it now, is not my fault. As Seth Godin says, “ship art”. Yes, we shipped art. If they can’t appreciate it, or work with it, on some level they don’t deserve it. So be it.
Forgive yourself and your team. If you do good work and are proud of what you do, give yourself some grace. Have a good meal. Take a walk. Smile, have a beer. Live to fight another day. People remember how you work when you are under pressure.
FYI, I always hit on 16 on a dealer 10. Pull the 5.
This is a tool consultants use on any project which requires clear definition of roles and more communication on a new process. When you have more than a handful of people involved, it’s very easy to get confused and make incorrect assumptions on who is doing what. Confusion = frustration = lack of adoption = failure.
RACI (or RASCI) is an abbreviation for:
It’s a simple tool: 1) Put all the stakeholders on one side of the table 2) List the activities you need ownership for on the other side 3) Fill in the grid with the letters R, A, C, I. In the end, the grid will be full of letters. Blanks are okay.
Here is a simple example. If you have a rental property, there are 5 major steps: Find a property, find a tenant, get them to pay rent, keep them as long as possible, and when they leave, find a new tenant. Simple. . . 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Even if you are the landlord, you are not doing all the work. Yes, you are “accountable” because you have the final say on the tenant qualifications and rent amount, but you are not doing all the work. See all the people you have who are responsible?
The “A” is the most important. Sometimes consultants go too far. I have seen some RACI charts that are 15 x 10. . .or 150 boxes. That is crazy. No one can keep up with that. Sometimes it is better to simplify. Just put the “A” and let that person determine the rest of the grid. Let’s them be the quarterback and set their own team.
Sometimes, it takes a lot of thinking to determine who the “A” is. . .part of the beauty of this tool is it forces you to find that 1 person who is really accountable. Only 1 person.
Make sure you have the right “R”. Think about who is really doing the work. Sometimes you might list more people. . . because the work has to get done. Sometimes, you put the “title” because it is a generic role, but sometimes you put in the specific names. Don’t be shy. This is tool is to drive ownership and action.
There is a blurry line between “C” and “I”. Don’t spend too much time debating who is a C and who is an I. It is enough to know that you have to speak to that person. Sometimes they have good advice for you, sometimes, they don’t.
This stuff works. It drives conversation, and consensus on how the work will be done. It can be laborious at times, but a few good hours making this clear among the executives prevents a lot of confusion in the field. This can really LEAN out inefficiencies and reduce miscommunication.
Design is popular. It’s not surprising that McKinsey & Company bought a design company. Many consulting firms are branching out with acquisitions in areas which were once considered non-core. Deloitte has picked up a few digital agencies. Accenture bought Fjord, a design firm. Hell, even Capital One bought a design agency called Adaptive Path. Strategic design takes on many different forms and faces – many of which are extensions of the work that management consultants have always done:
These things are not new to consulting, yetI am also confident that design firms bring a fresh new approach to re-invigorate our excessively PowerPoint and Excel worlds.
Moving towards BIG DESIGN. Wired magazine does a great job tracking the rise and fall of design here. They have gone through waves of influence, disruptions, merger, and synthesis. The new term we will hear in the coming months: Big Design.
McKinsey & Company has some smart folks; they have their own reasons for the acquisition, but here are a few that I came up with:
To give you a hint at the potential fit, the President of Lunar is a lecturer at Stanford on the topic of Design Methods. He describes his course on his Linkedin profile here:
Developed a curriculum and taught this project-based course to give students hands-on education in the design process, from research, observation, and definition through to ideation, prototyping and refinement. Projects helped students understand the designer’s role in creating for others while bringing their own point of view and aesthetic voice to the process.
Honestly, sounds a lot like management consulting, huh?
Okay, I said it. I have seen too many organizations put together committees to drive “alignment”, when in actuality, they are trying to mollify a miscreant or hedge away the risk by legislating an answer. Too often, it fails to achieve either of these goals. The disgruntled just get more attention, and the middle-of-the-road answer is often the least safe choice anyways. Bain talks about this a lot in the Founder’s Mentality video here.
Stop having so many lame executive meetings. Not sure why people believe that holding so many executive meetings are useful. A few are, most aren’t.
Make the decision. Stop frittering around. Quit legislating an answer. Quit pretending you are a member of the US congress. Think about the problem. Get some good advice. Stress test your conviction, make the decision.
Harvard Business Review talks a lot about decision architecture. . .setting up the framework, organizational, rules, culture, and incentives so the right people make the right decisions. Don’t be an administrative mailman and bureaucrat.
Putting people in the same room is not collaboration. It is just simply putting people in the same room. Don’t pay consultants to structure problems, instead, think about the problem. Fundamentally, you need to ask:
Here are 7 things that you can do about it.
1. Meeting minutes: I am a big believer of meeting minutes. It summarizes everything that was discussed so far. It keeps track of past progress so you don’t waste time re-hashing the past.
2. Start meetings on time. Don’t wait around for late people. If they are late, they should be made aware of that fact. Don’t coddle the bad children. Follow Drucker.
3. Send out the agenda. Don’t go to meetings without agendas. Inevitably, you spend the first 1/3 of the meeting, “storming” and “norming” before you start “performing.”
4. Do the pre-work. Give people enough of the pros and cons prior to the meeting. Give them the data, so they can form their opinions and be insightful. Get the boring “information communication” part out of the way early. Honor people’s time.
5. Let people argue it out (constructively). In an interview with the head of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim said that he spends a lot of his time in meetings. . trying not to speak and prematurely tilt the conversation and debate in one direction. Wow, restraint from the executive office. Excellent. Idea fight club at its best.
6. Remove people from the meeting. How many people can you remove from the meeting and still get the work done. “Keeping people in the loop” does not count. That is something you can do by email. Every day I try to “un-invite” someone from a meeting. . and usually, they are grateful. Get rid of the waste and muda.
7. Charge people for the meeting time. I heard from a client that their previous employer would charge each department for the opportunity cost of the meeting. Put another way, every time you held a 2 hour meeting of 10 people who have a $200/hr imputed salary. . . it was 2 x 10 x $200 = $4,000 which hit your expense account. . .
Put a $ on the opportunity cost. Nice.
I coined this phrase on my last project. This is the simple admission that consultants should be confident in their ideas – backed up by data, research, and thinking – and be willing to allow their ideas to stand the testing of their peers, managers and clients.
Ideas get stronger the more the are tested. It knocks of the weak dross of thinking. Smart consultants know that getting trusting, but critically thinking people to look at your material is a free gift. Testing your ideas in a safe environment. Beating up your ideas a little bit, for the good of the client. Think of it like training for a young Spartan. Think of it as a strands of braided wire which gets twisted and turned, reinforced and stronger.
Consultants should be confident in their ideas. Do the hard work. The client is expecting $10,000 of value from your day. Are you pushing yourself, your thinking, your persuasion, and your ideas far enough? Have you simply interviewed a few people, and regurgitated the facts back to them? Are you guilty of the old consulting criticism, “stole my watch and told me what time it was”.
Did you really think about the problem logically, drive hypotheses? Where did you find your data? Did you just analyze the data that you were given? Did you think about the data that is hard to find, or not in your data request? Are you guilty of only looking for answers in the easy places, proverbially looking for lost keys under the lamp “because that is where the light is the brightest.”
Willing to allow their ideas to be tested. How well-thought and robust is the analysis? Are you proud of your work? If you were to leave the presentation on someone’s desk, would they understand the logic, and be convinced on its own merits? This takes a certain amount of confidence + a touch of arrogance to argue for something that the client was unaware or unwilling to change.
You have to be open to feedback. If you are sensitive to criticism, you are in the wrong business. In professional services, we get nearly daily feedback on our thoughts, behaviors, and intentions. Consulting is an apprenticeship; healthy, but brutal. Start with the easiest people – your peers and friends.
Peers and friends. Don’t be afraid to share initial ideas and WIP (work in progress) with those closest to you. It’s all built on trust. Chances are they are working on a parallel work-stream (same client), and can clarify some of your thoughts. Friends are often encouraging; they will help you think of novel ways to get your point across. They can do the mindless proof-reading, format checking and things often overlooked.
Manager. This can be tricky. If you have a good working relationship, you know “how baked the cake needs to be” before sharing it with your manager. Some chiefs are happy to see very early prototypes and course-correct with you. Others would give you a bad review for sharing “rubbish” with them and wasting their time. Know your boss.
Tip: Either way, be flexible enough to share progress reports by email, verbally in the rental car, or with simple 1 pagers that give status updates. Don’t get so far down the analysis, that you are building something useless.
Client. Socialize your recommendations. The more clients who see the deliverable before the presentation day the better. Nemawashi (pre-selling the recommendation) is critical in consulting. Don’t have meetings where you don’t know what the client will think. That is death. Simply, that is death.
This week, we had a presentation. In blackjack terms, it was a 20 on the dealer 5. It went well. Was proud of my team, the client was engaged, and people were happy. The project lasted 10 weeks, and we spent the last 3 weeks in idea fight club.
Idea fight club with each other, and with the client. Every time there was a change (there more than 100), the deliverable got better. It made more sense and was stronger. The presentation actually had scar tissue. Unlike the movie though, it is okay to talk about fight club. Actually, the more you use it and talk about it, the better.
Increasingly, I have been using this simple, but stark, analogy to talk about team management. Increasingly, seems like there are two ways to get outcomes.
As a manager, I want to get the most our of my people. Get them focused on the goal, trust them to do the heavy lifting, and really own the results. The problem occurs when that general openness, affability, and penchant for humor is misinterpreted as low standards or a slack work environment. It is not.
It is not a difference in communication style. Either you have earned and kept my trust, or I will have to really manage you. . which is painful for me and painful for you. If I am prescribing all the actions, the end-product will be worse.
How can 1 person’s brain > the creative energy, passion, and hard work of an entire team? It cannot. That said, there are two ways to get results, both needed. . .
Democracy mode. One thing I love about consulting is it is full of smart, intellectually curious, driven, and creative people. Basically, I want my teams to understand the mission, understand the context, develop rapport with me and the client, then basically go out and do their thing. Leaders make leaders. You want to surround yourself with people who are smarter and work harder than you.
This graphic is simple, but the idea is that the consulting team (red line) gains more certainty over time. In the early days, it is a lot of data gathering, research and thinking. Over time, the team becomes more confident and their hypotheses pan out. For large parts of the project, a manager’s job is to let their people do the work. Let them go.
I love democracy mode. You get to know your team; learn their work ethic, logical structuring, and how beautiful their mind is. Basically, why box someone in who has the capacity and willingness to rise to the occasion. Love the energy of a new project – willing to do the work, hungry for client face-time, eager to win. Democracy done right.
Ideally, each consultant writes up their own work stream plans and charter. They give the manager the confidence that they know what they are doing and deserve trust. They check-in from time to time, but they think ahead of me AND the client. Like boy scouts, they are prepared. We are proud of consultants like this. Hire as many as you can find.
The less I am involved and the better the results, it is a win-win for everyone. Consultants get exposure, experience, and a sense of accomplishment. I get results with less of my time spent. I can focus on coaching them on ways to get the extra 20% out of their performance and keep them humming. Let the consultants do the work.
So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work. – Pete Drucker
Dictator mode. This is where senior managers sadly, earn their paycheck. This is when the project needs a strong hand. It needs structure and scope. The client does not need to see the confusion within the ranks of the consulting team. The team does not need to “spin” because they are following wild leads or have not done the homework. In parenting talk, this is the tough love part. “You need to listen to me because I am your parent. End of discussion.”
Projects have life-cycles. There are ups and downs and each of these management “settings” have their time and place. Generally, I operate in democracy mode because for three reasons: 1) I am an optimist and will err on the side of trust 2) I am lazy and would much prefer work-stream leads to worry about the details 3) I love coaching, and would rather spend my time on the person, not the content.
Does this always work. Hell no. As I tell people, I love 100% consulting about 60% of the time, and 100% hate consulting 40% of the time. It definitely attracts people who like the buzz of work, natural dopamine from achieving stuff.
1. Start of the project: At the beginning of a project, there is a fair amount of unilateral decisions that need to be made. What to put in the proposal? Who to staff on the workstreams? How to restrict / entertain different personalities, requests,and variances.
For big 4 or big 3 consulting firms, these norms are already hard-coded. People know what professional expectations are. People know what not to wear to the client site. People know what an acceptable status report looks like. Less dictator mode needed.
2. When people get stuck. Somewhere in the middle of the project, junior consultants start to spin, get lazy, or loose focus. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, if you ask them, why are you doing that [activity], they explain that it is a part of the work plan, or someone told them to do it. Wrong answer. If you don’t know WHY and WHAT, your HOW will suck.
3. The final push. For me, every project has an “oh sheesh” moment, when the team gets spooked by a vocal client, or a stumble in the data. Negativity can be contagious. The most confident (almost arrogant) consultant can quickly become a naysayer and timid sheep. This is where experienced managers – who have developed rapport with the client – need to step in and start ordering people around. Got to keep people producing.
Here is the point:
What are your thoughts on this simple idea of democracy mode and dictator mode of consulting team management?
I have flown Delta for 15 years, but just recently discovered Delta Studio. For those who don’t know, you can watch free movies and TV shows using GoGo Inflight Wi-fi.
If you are not tired, or don’t have to work on PowerPoint, it’s awesome. Some of the movies showing in April. My wife watched Les Miserable on her flight yesterday.