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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were (maybe) effective a decade ago when the economy, culture and management practices were entirely different but are no longer applicable.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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#723: Does Anyone Understand What You Are Saying?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, December 21, 2011
One of the first diagnostic tasks on an engagement is to review work of prior consultants for the client. Although I probably use more jargon than I should, some of these consultant reports are vague, unclear and some entirely almost unintelligible. Is this a problem for all consultants or just those my new clients have previously used?

Every profession has its jargon, concepts and approaches for which its practitioners are obligated to make clear to colleagues as well as users of their services. Do management consultants always do this? No, and there is one good reason for this. Our clients, in part, hire us for our experience in areas with which they are unfamiliar, for our perspective in seeing things in ways they may not, and for our insights into possibilities that they could not imagine. That sets an expectation that we interpret can only be satisfied by the new, the innovative and the complex. Adding to the mystery of this priestly concoction are terms and constructs unfamiliar to the reader. My own experience looking at reports done by some of the most highly regarded strategy firms in the world bear out that even heavily edited and professionally prepared slide decks contain stretches of imagination and presentation that clients assert don't make sense to them.

There are a few areas in which we need to improve. First is jargon, which doesn't sound like jargon anymore because we hear it all the time (e.g., "manage expectations," "boots on the ground," "results oriented"). Second is our use of concepts that sound good but make no sense in our work. These apply to both our application of the concepts we think we are using as part of our methodology and our communication of it to our clients. One good example is, "thinking outside the box." This implies both that you know specifically what the "box" is, and that you intend to frame the diagnosis or design in terms restricted to that "box," thereby precluding possible agility, innovation or disruptive concepts into your work.

Tip: A Forbes article on business jargon fairly well describes this phenomenon. Consultants, who are most susceptible to using it and are often in a unique position to influence it in a client's business conversations, are advised to closely monitor their use of jargon or tired business clichés.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  business culture  communication  consulting terminology  customer understanding  presentations  speaking  writing 

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#708: Consultants Must Understand "Big Data"

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Clients are asking us to help them analyze large datasets of what traditionally would be considered peripheral data - the kind of data collected but never intended to be used. Is this something that other consultants are being asked to do and in which we should develop a capability?

The past few decades have seen an exponential increase in both intensive and extensive data collection. The sources of these data range from discrete business processes to consumer behavior to geographical information to global finance. The resulting aggregate datasets provide an unprecedented ability to analyze trends and patterns of complex behaviors in business, politics and consumer behavior. We have also developed prodigious new technologies to collect, store, search, visualize, analyze and share these data. With deference to privacy concerns, the ability to link these datasets to each other provides the analytical foundation to model and understand and predict future behavior of complex systems.

The term "big data" refers to datasets that exceed the capability of traditional commercially available analytical software. What could Walmart do with the data from 1 million transactions per hour? How about a marketer and millions of LinkedIn person to person connections? Consider the implications fro healthcare, finance, manufacturing, services, government and R&D, with estimates of savings from use of big data ranging into the hundreds of billions annually in the US alone. As companies are more able to collect and use larger data sets, consultants must be aware of the potential applications and the techniques available to them. A growing number of companies are specializing in big data service, whose activities ar a good idea to follow and whose services you could use to best serve your clients.

Tip: The McKinsey Global Institute issued a report Big Data; The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition and Productivity That discusses these concepts and provides a good insight into where consultants are most needed.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  consulting terminology  data visualization  information management  innovation  knowledge assets  knowledge management  trends 

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#685: Consultants Need to Understand Type I and Type II Errors

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, October 28, 2011
Updated: Friday, October 28, 2011
I always hear about Type I and Type II errors in business and how important it is that consultants understand these concepts. Why should I care about this?

People are referring to a statistical concept where a Type I error is a false positive and Type II error is a false negative. For the statistician, a Type I error is rejecting the null hypothesis when it should have been accepted. For a businessperson or consultant, a Type I error is seeing something that is not really there. Type II errors are missing something that is really there (and potentially company making or breaking).

A Type II error (false negative) can be serious when looking at competitive markets or human resource issues such as culture or employee opinions. Inadequate surveys or incomplete analysis may lead a consultant to conclude that there are not serious competitors or impending revolts among employees when, in fact, there are. Depending on the situation, a Type II error may result in serious losses for a company or put it out of business.

False positives are of most interest to consultants engaging in diagnostic or investigative activities, in two ways. As a consultant whose job it is to find problems to solve or opportunities to capture, we are looking for something on which to act. Maybe a process is "broken" or a market is "large and available" to your client. In either case, you may identify something that is not really significant enough to expend resources on. Alternatively, as a result of your activities, you conclude that your impact is significant when it really is not. In both cases, you have overstated the significance, or even existence, of your role to the client. Understanding Type I and Type II errors gives you good perspective on your role and significance to a client.

Tip: Think in terms of medical testing when you consider how you are going to control for Type I and Type II errors. The worst outcome when looking for a serious disease is to conclude it is not present when it is (Type II). To accommodate that, we use screening procedures that are relatively fast, cheap and for which we can tolerate a Type I (false positive) error. As a consultant, you may want to develop protocols that let you quickly tease out potential problem areas and for which you recognize there may be Type I errors. Those items that show up may be real or, more likely, false positives. Then you can proceed with more focused and rigorous protocols to look more closely at an issue, recognizing that what you want to avoid is a Type II error (false negative). You don't have to be a statistician to understand the concept and how your ability to mitigate risk on behalf of your client is a significant value added.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  analysis  assessment  assumptions  consulting terminology  consulting tools  diagnosis  information management  recommendations  risk analysis  statistics 

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#610: Simplifying Your Writing to Better Communicate

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, July 15, 2011
Updated: Friday, July 15, 2011
It is sometimes a little tricky deciding how complex to make my client briefings and analysis reports. Clients generally want precise and explicit language but reports that may be made public or for various audiences are best simpler. Are there any rules or advice about what level of reading difficulty is best?

First, take Albert Einstein's advice to "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." It is hard to go wrong writing as simply as possible, as if you were trying to explain your findings and recommendations to a 10th grader. Some consultants will bristle at this suggestion, claiming that their sophisticated analysis must mirror the complexity of the client's situation or market or strategy and all their communication demands complex language. This defies both logic and experience. Any consultant leaning on complex language probably lacks sufficient understanding of the basic principles and processes about which he or she is speaking.

Second, drifting into consultant-speak is a sure way to lose touch with your audience. You may have a vigorous discussion with your technical counterpart or the CEO using technical language, but it is the customers, staff, and other stakeholders who must eventually accept and act on your recommendations, If you want your findings and recommendations to live past the first reading of you report, put them in plain English.

You can use any of several automated tools to train you to streamline your words. These tools analyze your text for length and complexity of sentences and number of syllables per word. One document readability tool I like lets you enter text and gives Flesh Kincaid and other readability indices. This tool is really useful by telling you which sentences most violate simple language rules. Readability is stated as a grade level (i.e., number of years of education needed to understand the text). For example, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is at grade 13.4 (one year of college) while Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" is at grade 2.9.

Tip: Analyze your website, client reports, engagement letters, press releases and client communication. You will likely be shocked at how many of these communications are at college level. Use these analyses to simplify your writing. I suspect you will lose nothing of the meaning by streamlining the language.

P.S. This tip has a readability score of 11.2. A rewrite could simplify and clarify sentences without reduucing quality.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  communication  consulting terminology  information management  interpretation  presentations  publishing  recommendations  speaking  website 

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