I’ve hired and partnered with a lot of consultants in my career. Some have been amazing. Others not so much. Now that I’m wearing that badge, I’m reflecting on what makes for the difference – and what I can do to make sure I’m on the amazing side.
With the global management consulting market reaching over US$977 billion last year and growing at a compound growth rate of 8.6% over the previous four years, it seems that a lot of organizations see value in what mega-consultancies offer. The same holds true with the smaller shops – the independent freelance consultants, the boutique consultancies, the larger agencies. I’ve worked with all of them. They bring focused expertise with specialized knowledge that most organizations can’t afford to have on their payrolls. They’re dedicated to what is most current. Their thinking is shaped by research. They generally live and breathe their subject matters. They give you the services you need, when you need them, without you having to pay for them when you don’t.
But I’ve found that, too often, they fall short. And their output – those good-looking reports and strategies and frameworks filled with hyper-designed charts and graphs – end up on shelves gathering dust.
So, here’s what I’ve learned – and the commandments I’m dedicated to following in order to ensure my clients get full value when they engage me.
1. Thou shalt think about the long term.
By nature, consultants tend to think in terms of time because time is the basis of profitability. Whether they’re billing time-and-materials or by the project, there’s a natural tendency to think in terms of starts and ends. And with that comes a predilection for focusing on how value is perceived at the present moment. Solutions that won’t show tangible benefits until well into the future are often resisted because consultants know the client will look for the value s/he received at the moment when the engagement ends. But often, it’s what the client is left with long after the consultant goes home that matters most.
So, for instance, if the project is to design and launch a website, I will always remember to think beyond launch day and ensure that the site is scalable and that the client has everything needed to manage the site well and evolve it in the future. I will care about what happens not only while I'm there, but long after I leave.
2. Thou shalt resist the temptation to finish before you're done.
I used to work in construction, doing small renovations. The clients loved those big days, when they’d come home and see a major change. New walls built, bathtub installed, floors layed. But often it’s the less visible things that are the most important. Especially at the end of a project. It’s the tidying up – making sure that nothing is unfinished, that the small details are addressed, that the final product is perfect, no matter the time it takes – that can make the difference between good and excellent.
I will not build and run. I will think about what I’m leaving behind. I will not do a half-job on any element of the project just so I can check a box. I will not finish until everything is done.
3. Thou shalt learn the client’s world while recognizing the limits of what you can know.
Consultants generally know that to offer value, they need to understand the client’s world. So they speak with leaders, review internal data, analyze internal surveys and reports, audit processes, standards, and guidelines. But having been an employee at a number of large, complex organizations, usually having access to the C-suite and confidential information, I know that it takes a long time, a lot of conversations, and a lot of quiet observing just to start to get a feeling for what an organization is truly about – how it works and gets things done, how it manages change, what it really cares about. A consultant needs to recognize that there are some important features of a business that can only be known from the inside, over time. Like, for instance, the ebbs and flows of morale and engagement.
I will ask a lot of questions. I will get to know people. And I will be modest and humble when I suggest what I think is ultimately best for any client.
4. Thou shalt speak meaningful language.
Consultant-speak - the use of jargon to, let's be honest, give the impression of specialized knowledge - is common. Most of the time it serves to obfuscate and mislead, usually so as to make the client believe that his/her inability to understand what’s being said is somehow evidence of the consultant’s expertise. I remember coming out of many meetings with consultants wondering what in the world they had just said. It’s not only about jargon. It’s also about hyperbole and distortion and embellishment, the language of smoke and mirrors that announces the absence of substance or actual knowledge. (“We’ve left that open” and “we’re peeling the onion” are two of my favorites, both euphemisms for “We don’t know.”) And it’s about the use of elaborate visuals that are meant to convey complex ideas but end up being a way of making simples idea look interesting.
I choose to follow Einstein’s assertion that if he can’t explain it to a child, he doesn’t really understand it. And I’ll never shy away from saying: “I don’t know.”
5. Thou shalt not take shortcuts.
Consultants recycle old work. That can actually be good for the client. The work has been tried, tested, tweaked – so what they’re getting is nicely polished and informed by experience. And of course, it’s good for the consultant. But it’s one thing to make use of tested methodologies or even solutions and another to force a bespoke piece of work from one client to fit another. When off-the-rack doesn’t fit right, the client will know, if not when they're first trying it on, then later, perhaps when they most need to look their best.
I will refine approaches and solutions, but never force-fit it to a client. I will approach every project as bespoke, and respect the individuality and uniqueness of each client’s world.
6. Thou shalt be flexible.
Scope creep is a common and real danger for consultants. It can have a dramatic impact on earnings and timelines. And yes, it can be tempting to agree to small requests that are outside an initial agreement, as a form of goodwill and to keep the client happy. When requests for small add-ons or minor changes are made, it’s important to be able to say no. That said, one can be overly rigid.
I will be fair to myself but also willing (and able) to adjust as circumstances evolve. I will go into projects expecting there to be modest revisions to tasks along the way and I will anticipate them in my project estimates. And I will be forthright, explaining at the outset where I think creep is likely to occur, how it might impact timelines, and what the additional costs will be.
7. Thou shalt be useful.
There appears to be a common view among consultants that bulk equals value. I recently worked in conjunction with a global management consulting firm that was tasked with building a “framework.” This was supposed to be a tool that the client could apply to particular situations that were expected to arise repeatedly in the future. The consultant’s output was a 130-page booklet. Somewhere within it was a framework. But there was also a research report, a theoretical discussion, long introductions and conclusions, and a lot of diagrams and arrows. Yes, it’s important to substantiate claims with data. But...
When the client wants a fishing rod, I will not get bogged down in the bucket of fish. In every engagement, I will focus relentlessly on what the purpose, the intended use of the output is. I will make it easy to use, concise, and functional. I will share in what Nietzsche said was his ambition: to “say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”