6 reasons why consultants are revision crazy

Consultants are constantly revising their work.  Yes, the end product tends to be high-quality because a lot of smart people have spent A LOT of time on it.  Looking at recent files saved on my laptop, I see some with pretty absurd file titles like:

  • ABC_phase 1_02082013 10pm EST.ppt (with a date, time and time zone)
  • ABC client final version 3.doc (uh, if it was final, why is there a 3rd revision?)

A cynic might ask, “why are there so many revisions?”  After all, aren’t consultants supremely good at judging project scope and containing the ambiguity of projects?  Aren’t consultants data-driven, and confident in their answers?  Aren’t consultants excellent at PowerPoint and graphs and the like?   Why so many edits?

6 reasons why consultants are revision crazy:

1. Early prototyping.  It will be a strange day when you start calling consultants innovative, but one thing they do well is fast and early prototyping.  Management consulting is based on the idea of testing hypotheses and quickly narrowing down the answer.   It is not uncommon to start putting together the basic framework of a presentation a month before it is due.  At this point it is just a skeleton – mostly blank pages with placeholder titles – but it grows daily and starts to take a life of its own.

2. Learning on the job.   There are novices on every project, whether analysts (BS, BA) or senior consultants (MBA).  They may have some analytical skills and business polish, but most of the real consulting learning happens on the job.

Few people can put together a consulting presentation from scratch.  It’s a learned skill.  Good consultants can visually represent what you want to say on a PowerPoint slide and add structure (dare I say too much structure) to your arguments.

Analysts cannot learn this in a vacuum.  It requires experimentation and occasional failure.  On the job training is good news for the analyst learning skills.  It’s a necessary evil for the senior manager who is reviewing, editing and teaching the newbies how to work.  Many a manager has secretly wished she had more seasoned consultants.

3. Lots of internal review cycles.  It’s natural for a manager to want to review the work product.  You can call it quality assurance or simply checking up, and a consulting project is no different.  Consultant – Manager – Senior Manager – Partner.

At the bottom of the illustration, you can see how involved the different people are on the project.  It is a typical staffing leverage model.  Lots of consultant time, less partner time.  The consultant is staffed on the project full-time (M-TH).  The senior manager and partner are there some of the time.  As you would expect, the deliverable (whether an Excel model, PowerPoint, or workshop preparation) gets lots of review and scrutiny as the due date approaches.  Lots of revisions late at night.

Involvement in Project by Role

4. Diverse client audiences.  What you present to your day-to-day client counterpart will be different from what is presented to the executive sponsor or steering committee.  Each audience and venue require a slightly different presentation.  In one poorly scoped project, we gave the final presentation 4 times to different audiences.  Sometimes it was a 3 hour presentation, other times we were only given 45 minutes.  Different versions.

Different Audience Different Messages

Thankfully, you are usually able to re-purpose 80% of the material and simply change the titles and order of the slides.  Good presentations should be stand-alone.  If someone were to pick up your slides, would they be able to understand the content, context, and main points?

5. Pulling it all together.  Perhaps the biggest reason for document revisions is the need to harmonize ideas, work streams, writing styles, numbers and words.

Ideally, the consultant’s recommendation is compelling, credible and clear.  It has a strong and logical narrative, is backed by data and analysis, and leaves the client with a clear idea of what to do next.  It is internally consistent and looks like the same person authored it from start to finish.  It has the consistency of an audited 10-K, and the specificity of an investment banker’s valuation model.  It’s solid and authoritative.

In reality, it is a bit of sausage making.  There are multiple authors, multiple work streams, multiple sources of data, and sometimes multiple opinions.  Bruce Tuckman studied group dynamics in the 1960s and describes group development in four stages which I argue apply to developing deliverables and work product.

  • Forming: Individuals work largely independently and are cautiously respectful of other people’s space.  It’s all about getting your part done.
  • Storming: Different ideas and opinions vie for attention.  There is lots of discussion and even disagreement.  Individuals might feel a set-back and the slow grind of consensus building.  Teams that trust and compromise grow from this.
  • Norming: Things start settling down, and there is agreement on the path forward.  Individual and group performance start to increase.
  • Performing: Things are going well.  There is collaboration and synergy.

As a consultant, I want to draw everything out, so here is my rough approximation of relative individual vs. group progress across the 4 stages.  At first, individuals are making good progress (gray bar) on their work stream, but lose steam after there is an effort to rally all the work into a more standardized approach.  Towards the end of the project, the deliverable is really improving because the individual and group sections are all working together nicely.  My apologies to Tuckman for taking his research and making a woefully unscientific chart out of it.

4 Stages of Group DevelopmentOver beers, any consultant can tell you nightmare stories where projects essentially got stuck in the storming phase: people disagreeing or being petty, and someone eventually laying down the law, “I know you disagree with the approach, but I am managing this project and this is how we are going to do it.”  More dictator than leader.

6. Over-eagerness: Many consultants are type A, ambitious, opinionated, and a little bit heavy on the control-freak side.  We like to win.  We like our clients to win.  We are confident that our approach (on the structure of the presentation, or even on the wording on a specific page) is better.  If you would just listen to me, the presentation is going to be 100% better. . .

Sanity check: We should all probably be a bit more humble, listen more, and “major in the majors, minor in the minors”.  Is the order of the bullets on that slide really a deal-breaker?  Wouldn’t that time be better spent teaching the analyst something else?

In this week’s Fortune magazine, Ben and Jerry’s co-founders talked about their 30+ year working relationship and had some good advice.  Jerry Greenfield said:

“Our basic agreement was that the person who felt more strongly about the particular issue got their way,”

Consulting is all about communication.  Gathering broad sources of information, focusing your attention, listening deliberately, selling your ideas to up to senior managers / partners, structuring presentation for easy comprehension, and ultimately giving your client the confidence to take action based on your recommendation.

All those things make consulting challenging, fun, collaborative, and full of revisions.

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