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Consulting 101

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The best ideas in the world are no use if the client won’t accept them. Graeme Simsion explains why it’s worth doing some hard work on your consulting skills.

Gerald Weinberg’s book Secrets of Consulting begins with his “Number One Secret”: consulting ain’t as easy as it looks. Every day that I managed a consultancy, I was reminded of the truth of that observation. Staff who were undaunted by the most challenging technical problems would find themselves blocked by what seemed to be irrational behaviour on the part of clients. And none of their training had equipped them to understand or deal with it.


Today, when I run consulting skills workshops, participants confirm that the biggest challenges they face in their work relate to people, politics, and the nature of the consulting process. We should not be surprised. Most IT consultants have dedicated thousands of hours of formal study to honing their technical skills, yet may not have spent a single hour learning about consulting.

A colleague used to say “solved but not sold is not solved”, and elaborate with a litany of bitter experiences. I suggested he attend a sales course – a suggestion that he firmly rejected. Neither his slogan nor the experiences that confirmed it were enough to persuade him to actually do something about the problem.

And here lies a common theme. Consultants may acknowledge that the biggest obstacles to success are non-technical, but then make little effort to improve their ability to deal with them. Many consultants are “accidental consultants”; they see the consultancy role as no more than a vehicle for using their technical skills, and not something that they are interested in studying. “If I’d wanted to be a psychologist or a salesperson or a politician I’d have studied psychology or sales or politics” says the software engineer who studied software engineering.

Few computer science and information systems courses teach consulting skills. Yet when a local university surveyed employers to determine what they wanted included in an information systems master’s programme, consulting skills headed the list. Graduates were going straight into consulting jobs, and being found wanting in “people skills”. The problem was finding someone to teach the subject, when the faculty’s interests lay in more technical areas. “If I’d wanted to teach psychology or sales…”

The result of this lack of instruction in the basics of consulting is that even experienced consultants continue to make novice errors. Most of the problems raised at my consulting skills workshops fall into a few predictable categories.

Top of the list is mismatched expectations. Like the man who fell thirty stories calling out “doing all right so far” as he passed the windows, consultants often don’t realise the consequences of failing to set expectations until the end of the engagement.

Consulting managers understand this. It is a cliché amongst them (but no less true for that) that “consulting is about managing expectations”. This should not mean trying to persuade the client to accept less than they signed up for.

A good consulting assignment begins with a clear understanding of expectations, and then focuses on meeting those expectations, with an eye out for changes. Sounds simple? It should be, but in my experience few consulting assignments fail because of lack of effort – they fail because the effort is misapplied. A checklist of questions and regular reviews against the answers can do much to keep client and consultant on the same page.

Next is client resistance. “I came up with a totally innovative way of solving the client’s problem. They were on the completely wrong track – tied up in the way they’d always done it. That’s the value of an outside view…”

Many consultants will describe their finest moments in these terms, believing their work is the essence of consulting. They may omit to mention that their wonderful idea was never implemented. The fault, of course, was the client’s. Resistance to change, politics, or just plain stupidity stood in the way of the consultant’s proposed solution and its implementation.

What the consultant in this scenario failed to realise was that they were brought in to help with the client’s idea – not to replace it with one of their own. There is enormous satisfaction in seeing one’s own idea come to fruition, and the consultant tried to hijack that satisfaction, probably without fully understanding the original solution. What should you do then when you see a better way? Try doing your best – your genuine professional best – to make the client’s idea workable, working closely with them and putting aside your own alternative. Only when the two parties throw up their hands in actual frustration at their failure to pull it off do you have licence to suggest an alternative.

More broadly, there are problems with giving advice. Our stereotype of a consultant is of an advice-giver. Yet most IT consulting is not primarily about giving advice. IT consultants plan, design, build, manage, coordinate – in fact all the things regular employees do.

The difference lies more in their being outsiders providing a service rather than insiders working under direction. But as consultants, they feel compelled to offer advice, when in fact the client wants help. In the social world, offering unsolicited advice is a sure way of losing friends. The same applies in the business world.

A problem intrinsic to consulting is divided loyalties. A consultant must serve two masters – client and consultancy. Should the consultant recommend their own consultancy for further work when they believe a competitor is more capable?

Should they attend the consultancy meeting or work back to bring the client’s project in on time? There are few simple answers, but it is possible to lay down guidelines which enable a consultant to approach these situations with consistency and integrity.

I’m simplifying of course. These problems have many variants and the solutions are often complex. A “client” in reality is likely to be several people with conflicting agendas. They may be absolutely, unequivocally, objectively, plain wrong. Sometimes failure to give advice would be criminal.

But recognising that consulting problems can get complex does not entitle us to write them off as too hard. Investing in building our consulting skills may be the single best move we can make in improving the impact we make with our technical expertise. It may well be the difference between complaining about the idea that got away and celebrating a successful implementation.

Graeme Simsion will be presenting the IRM UK Seminar “Working with the business: Consulting skills for data and IT professionals” in London, 26 – 27 April. Visit irmuk.co.uk for further information.


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