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Here is an article on a surprisingly amateurish approach to consulting.

If you are considering consulting as a profession, please remember that running a solo practice is like running any other business. This shouldn’t be seen as an avocation.

I was interviewed for an article on CIOZone:

Ever since Peter Drucker’s excellent writing, management has been often called upon to spend more time on strategic planning, regularly reviewing and “tweaking” the strategy of the organization, division or department which they lead.

One of the reasons why it does not happen as often as it should: not knowing how to go about running a strategy session, soliciting high quality input and asking the right questions. I have witnessed first hand less than successful efforts to “get strategic”, which put off the instigator from trying again any time soon. “Good intentions…” he grumbles and promptly sinks into the habitual day-to-day routine.

I thought it would be useful to offer a dozen pointers to enable you to develop a viable strategy and keep on top of it. This is merely scratching the surface, but a good start nonetheless.

1. Strategy is the answer to “What?”; tactics – to “How?”
Discussing the distinction with the participants before the strategy session greatly improves the quality of input and helps to move the discussion in the right direction. Strategy should be seen as the framework within which tactical decisions (such as project selection, hiring, vendor management, etc) are made. Take a look at this strategy primer article .

2. Set the priorities straight. I have been to more than one strategic session where participants arrived having not done their homework, read distributed documents or prepared themselves mentally.  In all instances, the “crazy day/week/month” at the office was to blame. This won’t do. The onus is on the leader to instill the understanding that nothing is as important as this work and all daily chores must be put aside or delegated. State your expectations explicitly.

3. Despite their wide use, “brainstorming sessions” tend to produce shallow ideas. One of the most inefficient uses of people’s time are those meetings where a bunch of people are brought together and asked to contribute opinions on a subject, with no preparation whatsoever. Research has shown that, while commonly employed, such approach produces weak ideas. 

A much better approach is to pose the key questions and allow participants to explore them on their own prior to bringing the group together. For example, you can ask each participant to suggest three prospective product lines, propose a new market niche or recommend a change to corporate vision.

4. Use visual aids, charts, whiteboards

Visual aids are useful in getting the attention of the participants, explaining high-level concepts and framing. I like double-axis charts, you can use whatever works well for you.  Capturing the conversation on paper or whiteboard is critical. Everyone has his or her own technique and I like to always identify action items clearly and keep a “parking lot” space for everything that needs to be dealt with but is not immediately relevant.

5. Select participants carefully. It is popular to be inclusive but you don’t need any deadweight in the room. A few years ago, I facilitated a strategy session for a large medical laboratory. Despite the highly animated discussion, the production manager fell asleep in the boardroom. She was brought in at the insistence of an executive and did not say as much as a word in the three hours that she spent there.

I also suggest avoiding groups that consist of people too removed vertically on the corporate ladder. It is common for subordinates to withhold their opinions, while those higher up in the hierarchy tend to monopolize the airwaves.  If the input at all levels is necessary, conduct several sessions so that participants of any given group are from no more than two levels of the org chart.

6. External facilitators are very useful but not absolutely necessary.  Here is why an external strategist is worth his or her fees:
    a. Has done it many times and will be able to arrive to a better result faster
    b. Will be able to contribute his or her ideas
    c. Brings in best practices from the outside
    d. Can ask provocative questions without the fear of fallout
    e. Can offer frank opinions without the fear of retribution
    f. Frees up time of the internal champion

7. Creating from scratch is difficult – seed discussion with ideas. Creating a corporate vision or a department strategy from scratch is often intimidating and can lead to deafening silence in the room. Offer starting points that can be critiqued and built on instead of starting with a blank sheet of paper.

8. The most common problem is the fixation on tactical issues. I can pretty safely guarantee with 100 per cent certainty that you will see purely tactical and often trivial issues brought up. If one of the strategic imperatives discussed is customer retention, you are bound to hear opinions on point cards, special promotions and system requirements to handle them, all reasonable points that have no place in a strategy session.

Here is how to deal with it: promptly capture valid points on a separate sheet of paper or a section of the whiteboard (if you don’t do that, people will stop talking) and move the discussion along, calling to concentrate on the “what?”, not the “how?”

9. Most difficult settings: interest groups comprised of volunteers, joint ventures, committees in highly political environments (public sector, healthcare, education).

Interest groups and joint ventures seldom have the same level of accountability that can be easily established in a corporate setting. Joint ventures are often tentative with the participants unwilling to invest more time and effort than their counterparts. In highly political environments, participants are careful not to expose their true point of view so not to endanger their long-term position.

I have done strategy work in these settings and it can be done; however this content is beyond the scope of this little article.

10. Dispel self-censorship. Groups of individuals often exhibit deficient thinking and decision making known as groupthink. There are several attributes to it, which I will write on soon, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s talk about one – self-censorship. You may have observed in the past how often you are likely to see an idea shot down in a meeting. Forget it, it won’t work here! They won’t allow us! We’ll never get this funded! And, piece de resistance… We’ve never done it this way!

Watch out for such behavior as it kills all innovation and new thinking dead. Disabuse the team from the notion that today’s constraints should be used to censor ideas for the future.

11. Demonstrate traction and usefulness of strategy work. Nothing kills the impetus to think strategically faster than a strategy setting that leads nowhere. Commit to and implement the strategy you developed, hence exemplifying accountability.

12. Re-examine regularly. The world is not standing still and every strategy needs to be tested and assessed regularly to ensure that it is still valid. It is not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of an undertaking and I recommend building a habit for you and your people to work on strategic content a couple of hours every week.

I like panel discussions because they are usually more dynamic than individual performances and allow for informal interaction with the audience, potentially a highly relevant, engaging and enriching experience.

Earlier today, I attended a conference that featured a panel discussion which turned out to be a complete fiasco, boring and uninformative.  It really did not have to be this way, and on my way home, I  decided to put together a few points on creating and running a great panel discussion.

So, here we go…

If you are the organizer/ moderator

  • Invite panelists who understand the subject and can carry on an intelligent conversation
  • It is best to have a panel with diverse opinions because it makes the conversation so much more interesting
  • Have a topic.
  • Don’t make it any shorter than 30 minutes
  • Very briefly introduce the participants at the beginning. Don’t read their bios, just a couple of sentences will do. 
  • Pose the first question
  • Do not take sides, offer your opinion or go into lengthy monologues.  You are not on the panel
  • Prior to the event, advise the panel participants on the rules (see below), the topic (obviously) and the schedule
  • People in the audience often offer opinions, which is perfectly ok. However,  lengthy monologues should be cut short with an invitation ask the question. Don’t be shy
  • Ditto for panelists – if they go on, tell them to get to the point
  • Watch the time and finish as scheduled.

If you are a panelist

  • Give pithy, memorable responses to questions. Do not get into monologues, this is not the point of it
  • This is about the audience, not you. Do not brag or sell – it stinks
  • Avoid sounding smug
  • Don’t feel constrained to answer every question posed to the panel
  • Don’t repeat what has already been said by other panelists. If you cannot add a fresh perspective, pass
  • Speak the language appropriate for the audience
  • It is ok to disagree with other panelists
  • Engage the audience into a dialogue
  • Be genuinely interested.

The idea of “going on your own” is attractive to many for the obvious reasons of independence and control over one’s destiny. As businesses shed people today like larch needles after the first frost, many turn to considering consulting seriously.

I went on my own after a successful career of 15 years in corporate IT in 3 countries and walking the classic career path from operator and programmer to executive. For a long time before making the leap, I yearned for the times when I would be running my own business, being my own boss. It finally happened 3 years ago and I’ve never looked back.

Being an independent consultant offers unsurpassed learning opportunities and a variety of assignments (if you can sell your services, that is). While travel is almost always a given, today’s technology has reduced it greatly as collaboration tools and communications become more and more powerful and efficient. Improving the client’s condition is venerable, satisfying and, frankly, well compensated.

Can you make it as an independent consultant?

A few traits are requisite, such as the ability to communicate effectively, the presence and, obviously, the knowledge of the subject matter. Pick up “Getting started in consulting” by Dr Alan Weiss if you are pondering this career path for a great discussion on this and other topics. In this article, I want to point out three important considerations that I believe to be critical; yet they are subtle enough to escape most people’s decision making process.

For the purpose of this discussion, I distinguish between consulting and contracting, the latter being a temporary placement with a client for the duration of a project or a set term. Here, I am talking of the former.

Structure, commitments and priorities

If you are a part of organization, you show up at work in the morning knowing what you are going to do. You have meetings lined up, voicemail light flashing, people popping their heads in your office. Your boss gives you assignments, you, in turn, task your reports. There is a structure created by schedule, commitments and priorities, which tell you how to use your time. This structure “happens” and is far from being of your own doing.

Running your own business means that unless you are besieged with client calls from the onset (a nice problem to have!), you will have time on your hands and no one but you will have to decide how to use it with the best return possible.  There will be no structure to speak of, nothing that resembles the one I described above.

It’s a big deal. More than once people told me they wouldn’t be able to succeed in such uncertain setting. Would you?

Coffee, water cooler…

As a corporate woman or man, you may dislike a lot of things that come as a part of the package. Commute, office gossip, your boss who drives you nuts, high-maintenance employees… Wouldn’t it be nice to escape it all?

Sure it will, but if you have been a part of a large outfit for a few years, it is likely that you are used to being a part of something bigger, with its culture, challenges, dynamics and little idiosyncrasies, with the coffee machine and the water cooler and the cafeteria. We are communal animals, after all…

Do not underestimate the significance of these things to your happy self. I have seen many people becoming miserable and even falling into depression because of the lack of belonging. Solo consulting can be lonely and you will have to build these accoutrements yourself: network with fellow consultants, read newspapers, watch news, join associations and, if you have to, buy that coffee machine.

I have done it and so have my colleagues, it is not that hard, yet it does not happen by itself.

Getting things done

Whatever you do today in the corporate world has its boundaries. You may be the head of marketing, which means that you are probably not involved in Operations. You may be a network administrator, building and maintaining networks and completely removed from the sales process. Rarely do you have a staff member who is involved in all aspects of the enterprise, and not just merely involved but actually being a key decision maker in every area.

Guess what, once you are a consultant, you will be running your own business from A to Z, from IT to accounting, from product development to marketing. You don’t have to do your own books or set up your network, in fact, most often you shouldn’t, but you will make all the key decisions across the full spectrum of your little company’s functions.

The most successful consultants I know have an incredible knack of making things happen. For instance, you have decided to create a series of podcasts on your consulting specialties. It is not enough to just think up the concept but you actually have to line up the technology, record it, make it accessible to your audience and market it.  The likelihood is that in your corporate life several people would be involved, but now it is all up to you.  It can be difficult and you have to have the discipline to stick to it and diligently execute, from the beginning to the end.

As you have read my three points, you may have started questioning your thoughts about going on your own. This is fine and I wrote this short article not to discourage you but to inform. Independent consulting offers incredible experiences and as with every vocation, you have to love what you do to be happy.

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