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Between 2005 and 2011, IMC published Daily Tips every weekday on consulting ethics, marketing, service delivery and practice management. You may search more than 800 tips on this website using keywords in "Search all posts" or clicking on a tag in the Top Tags list to return all tips with that specific tag. Comment on individual tips (members and registered guests) or use the Contact Us form above to contact Mark Haas CMC, FIMC, Daily Tips author/editor. Daily Tips are being compiled into several volumes and will be available through IMC USA and Mark Haas.

 

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#730: Prove That Your Consulting Practices Are Effective

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, December 30, 2011
Updated: Friday, December 30, 2011
How would you recommend management consulting as a whole improve its effectiveness?

The traditional definition says, "A management consultant is a professional who, for a fee, provides independent and objective advice to management of client organizations to define and achieve their goals through improved utilization of resources." Buried in this widely held definition lies the challenge for consultants. "Independent and objective" often ends up interpreted as thinking in novel ways about business and management, adapting a presumed "best practice" to a new situation or developing entire new management concepts to promote a portfolio of services with which we are familiar and practiced. Nowhere is the primacy of evaluation and proof that what we are proposing actually works. Many of commonly used and highly promoted consulting practices lack validation. To be sure, our approaches are logical, they align with other management theories and our client seem to have done OK after we applied them. Where is our proof of value? Evidence-based intervention is increasingly required in medicine, but not for consulting.

We as professionals need to develop a deeper capability to recommend and deliver to our clients only those practices and strategies that are provably effective. Proving effectiveness is hard, which is why it is rarely pursued. So we develop consulting approaches that are:
  • Too old - we propose approaches that were (maybe) effective a decade ago when the economy, culture and management practices were entirely different but are no longer applicable.
  • Too new - we propose something we just read about in a management journal (most of which these days are written by consultants) but that has only been tried a few times, much less proven effective widely or over the long term.
  • Too abstract - we propose convoluted and theoretical processes that we understand well but for which the client and staff have no realistic capability to adopt or sustain.
A healthy skepticism to consulting techniques is our best defense against obsolescence as a profession and as individual consultants. Look at most "standard" management concepts from the past thirty years and you can find legitimate and well researched evidence why they are inappropriate for consultants to apply in many circumstances and potentially hazardous in others. We are now fully into a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) where the pace and scope of business exceeds the ability of any individual to think through improvement approaches by him or herself. The standard of proof for consulting effectiveness will continue to increase.

Tip: Seek out disconfirming evidence for every concept, process, approach or technique you have in your consulting portfolio. There are good resources available. For an overview of how to think critically about your consulting approach at a high level, read carefully Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not. For a more specific critique of individual techniques, look at Calling a Halt to Mindless Change: A Plea for Commonsense Management. Being a true professional means that, before we promote approaches we assume to be effective, we make sure we can defend our current practices in the face of logic and evidence that they neither make sense nor really work all that well.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  agility  assessment  client service  consulting process  consulting skills  consulting terminology  consulting tools  diagnosis  education  innovation  learning  management theory  methodology  performance improvement  practice management  professional development  professionalism  quality  roles and responsibilities  sustainability  technology  trust  values  your consulting practice 

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#714: Balance Your Intuition and Thoughtfulness

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Thursday, December 8, 2011
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2011
When I began my consulting career, I was amazed by the ability of my mentor to just "know" the scope of a problem and come up with solutions. It was more than just having seen the problem before; it was intuitive creation that didn't require long analysis and contemplation. Is this something that can be taught (or learned)? It would be a really useful skill for a consultant to have.

Much of what we see in people who can seemingly instantly come up with a problem solution is pattern recognition. They have seen either the problem before or enough components to assemble them into an understanding of the problem. In many cases, this ability to recognize patterns is combined with a pattern creation capability in which they can then devise a solution. Oh, that we could all have this capability.

Yet there is a difference between what we consider intuition and what most successful problems require for their solution: thoughtfulness. As fascinated as we are by quick thinking, it carries with it a range of flaws and dangers, including recency and other biases. Thoughtfulness, on the other hand, is less revered and people who insist on deliberate, logical thought are often considered pedantic. Yet, deliberative thinking also carries risks, including bias, information overload, and overconfidence.

Each style has its proponents but it has become apparent that neither is very effective by itself. If we want to be a productive and effective consultant who recognizes patterns and creates robust solutions, we need to learn how to use both capabilities together. We spend so much time learning consulting processes, analytical techniques and interpersonal skills that we neglect learning how best to effectively use our thinking engines.

Tip: A terrific journey through this issue is Dan Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Like much of Kahneman's work on judgment, intuition and decision making under uncertainty. it should be considered a user's guide to the consulting mindset. This is one of the best books on the subject and one that bears reading twice.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  consulting process  consulting skills  contact information  creativity  decision making  knowledge assets  knowledge management  learning  process 

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#713: Don't Take Your Client's Assessments at Face Value

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Almost every engagement starts with the assumptions of the client about the problem, its causes and at least some suggestion of its solution. I don't want to be disrespectful but to what extent do we consider the client's assertions valid as a basis to start our work?

This is a great question, since it lies at the heart of the consultant's value or lack thereof. Presumably we are retained to provide independent and objective advice. This includes testing the assumptions of the client. As Will Rogers said," It ain't what we know that's the problem. It's what we know that just ain't so." If the client's assertions about the cause, problem and solution are right, then why are our experience and judgment needed at all? You are not insulting your client by validating his or her assertions - it is why you are there.

Another issue is whether a client's staff, or vendors or customers, should be considered the same way. Many organizations have a culture that represents that management doesn't know what is going on but staff really does. Or that the customer is always right - regardless of what an organization thinks of the services or products they provide.

Here is a good example of how perceptions vary widely within a company. According to a study of how companies work, managers see their companies as self-governing and egalitarian. Employees see nothing of the sort. How would you advise organizational change if you faced a client with perceptions internally differing as much as in this survey? DO you believe the management or the employees, or neither?

Tip: Consultants would be wise to treat information or emotions or conclusions provided to them at the start of an engagement as just that - firmly held beliefs of the source. All information needs to be verified and we, as independent and objective professionals, do well by not taking anything at face value.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  assessment  client staff  communication  consulting process  customer understanding  engagement management  learning  market research 

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#712: Mind Mapping is a Powerful Consultant's Tool

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Laying out a plan of action for a new client engagement can be pretty complicated, especially if I then have to relate my thought processes to colleagues or client staff. What are some good ways to streamline the process?

If by streamlining the process you mean thinking through the elements of your engagement strategy more fully and articulating your approach more clearly, then you might try mind mapping. The process of mind mapping has been used for many years by educators, psychologists and story tellers to convey visually a series of thoughts, ideas, processes, and concepts. Rather than trying to represent these highly interconnected ideas through linear prose, a mind map visually represents ideas in a loosely radial, tree like structure (or other visual constructs).

With recent technological advances, mind maps can be much more than just graphics. White boards have replaced chalk boards as a major technological advance in drawing mind maps (that was a joke). The real advance is in software that can categorize concepts and redraw the overall mind map for more clarity, spatial organization and analysis.

The simplest mind map software tools are simply sophisticated drawing tools (sort of like Visio on steroids). These are most helpful if you are already very well organized and have the map in your head. Other tools will let you insert concepts hierarchically and reorganize, selectively display and even visualize in 3 dimensions. The most powerful tools have a strong operations and cognitive research base.

Tip: The best way to get started in mind mapping is to try out some the free (or at least free trial) mapping tools. Click here for a list of candidate mind map tools. (prepare for information overload on mind mapping books, comments and software). Start with a simple version (most companies have basic, corporate and enterprise versions) until you get the hang of the concept and a tool. Although not an explicit endorsement, I have found iMindMap a pretty robust solution for consultants and the company site's tutorials helpful to understand mapping concepts. Forward this Tip to colleagues who might find it valuable.
Let them know you want to help them in their business.


© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  consulting process  consulting skills  consulting tools  presentations 

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#703: Consultants Can Take a Few Tips From Sherlock Holmes

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Isn't consulting the same as detective work? Don't we both look at the facts and try to "solve" the client's problems?

Consultants might want to learn how to play detective, using the techniques of the famous literary character Sherlock Holmes. We are often asked to solve a problem, figure out what caused a failure (or success), etc. Think of yourself as that famous London-based fictional sleuth of the late 19th/early 20th centuries created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The next time you face a quandary, think "What would Sherlock Holmes do?" He would:
  1. Keep an open mind, not being swayed by the preponderance of opinions as to the "obvious" solution.
  2. Employ deductive reasoning, based facts you have confirmed.
  3. Investigate all possibilities thoroughly, especially ones that at first seem implausible.
  4. Look carefully at the details, again especially at those details that may seem irrelevant.
  5. Look for connections, relationships, consistencies and inconsistencies.
  6. Ask lots of questions, and don't automatically accept the first answers you are given.
  7. Wear a disguise (OK-you might want to scratch that one!).
  8. Be relentless in pursuit of the solution.
The next time you are given a challenging question, remember to ask yourself the question, "What would Sherlock do? What processes would he use? How would he outsmart the problem at hand and not just follow well worn solution paths?"

Tip: Did you know that Holmes never actually uttered that famous line "Elementary, my dear Watson" in any of Conan Doyle's four novels or 56 short stories featuring the character? Holmes does say "Elementary" in the book The Adventure of the Crooked Man, but the famous line does not appear in its entirety in any of Conan Doyle's stories. The full phrase seems to have originated in either a subsequent film or theater play (the actual source has been long debated) based on Conan Doyle's original work.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  consulting process  customer understanding  engagement management  learning 

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