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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were (maybe) effective a decade ago when the economy, culture and management practices were entirely different but are no longer applicable.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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#711: Bounce Back From Mistakes

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Monday, December 5, 2011
Updated: Monday, December 5, 2011
I really screwed up at a client. It was an honest mistake, or at least it was unintended. My concern is that it may have caused problems in related areas of the company of which I am unaware. Consultants are supposed to be the experts so the gut instinct is to fix the problem quickly, tell those who are affected, and figure out how to not let again. Anything else?

We all make a mistake now and then. Most of us admit it to ourselves. Some even admit it to others. There are two concerns in a situation like yours for a consultant's mistakes.

First, you cannot possibly know the extent of the impact your mistake will have and the extent to which it ripples through the company and its stakeholders. A consultant cannot have deep insight into how a company's informational, social and power networks really work until they have been there for years. Therefore, you need to fully disclose to management and encourage them to disclose across the enterprise what happened. If done quickly enough, you might be able to stop the propagation of the mistake throughout the organization. Delay (e.g., seeing if you can minimize the damage yourself) can be deadly to your client.

Second, it is a cliché but research bears supports the conclusion that one of the most powerful sources of personal and organizational growth come from making, and fixing, mistakes. Air crews and hospitals both have technical environments with fast paced operations and hierarchical power structures. When mistakes in those settings are suppressed, they tend to amplify the likelihood of future hits to performance. As hard as it is, get the mistake out in the open, take your licks and own the process to make sure it won't happen again.

Tip: Take a quick look at an article on recovering from mistakes in business for some examples to give you heart and some references. As hard as it might be to keep pushing your mistake out in the open, you have a rare opportunity to turn your mistake into a problem solving initiative that benefits the client beyond the scope of your initial engagement.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client relations  learning  professionalism  reputation  trust 

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#705: Know How and When to Apologize to a Client

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, November 25, 2011
Updated: Friday, November 25, 2011
Sometimes I make mistakes in selling or delivering services to my clients. When I apologize, I don't want to make it worse and have clients lose confidence in me. What's the best way to apologize for a mistake and keep your reputation intact?

First, be on the lookout for a comment, action or outcome that is a mistake in your clients' eyes. If you think something is appropriate that your client thinks is not, then you have your first problem. Be sure you understand your client's criteria for success and high performance, even if it means talking to him or her specifically about those criteria.

Second, if you do recognize a mistake, don't wait to acknowledge your responsibility, even if it is indirect (e.g., when you are part of a team accountable for a mistake). Talk to your client immediately about the intended outcome and your role and responsibility for the mistake.

Finally, make sure your owning up to the mistake has a positive outcome. Both you and your client should be better off as a result. Some people offer what seems like an apology but really take no ownership (e.g., "If you were hurt by what I did, then I am sorry"). Others apologize but make no attempt to avoid the situation in the future or make sure they make things right.

Tip: When you realize you have made a mistake, create a strategy to make sure it doesn't happen again, even if it was not entirely your fault. Go to your client and suggest how, together, you can make the organization stronger and better able to avoid such mistakes in the future. And make sure you include your own behaviors and practices in that strategy.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  apologize  client relations  communication  trust 

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#701: Communicate Powerfully - Nonverbally

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Monday, November 21, 2011
Updated: Monday, November 21, 2011
I am always amazed by the disconnect in some people between body language and the words coming from their mouths. It got me to thinking that consultants, given that we are supposed to be experts/authority figures, should probably pay more attention to our nonverbal cues.

You raise a good point. It is hard to be authentic as a trusted advisor interested in client issues when you are sitting across from them, leaning back in your chair, with your legs and arms crossed and your hand on your face - all gestures suggesting you are closed off from the other person. However, leaning forward, arms in front of you with palms open, eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, and other indicators of interest will engender more trust.

Unless we take the time to recognize how these gestures might be interpreted and pay attention to our own nonverbal communication, we are possibly cutting off trust by our clients and that may hinder our ability to deliver good value. Alternatively, you may want to become a student of body language and other subtle (or not so subtle) cues so you can better judge where your client is coming from. Nothing says be careful like a words of confidence spoken by a person whose body language says they are not so sure.

Tip: Diversity in all its forms, whether ethnicity, age, nationality, lifestyle, gender or other types, brings with it complication of what body language really means. A friendly gesture on one culture may be seen as disrespectful in another. What is common in one generation may be confusing in another. A great book to sensitize you to how various cultures see the world and how to act and think appropriately, is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands (The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries). This book opened my eyes to how to better understand verbal and nonverbal communication as well as appreciate different ethnographic and cultural perspectives (not only among countries but within your own). It is a fun read and valuable reference book.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  business culture  travel  trust 

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#673: Who Will Respect Consultants if We Don't Respect Ourselves?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The seemingly increasing publicity of ethical and/or criminal activities by consulting firms (e.g., false payments, kickbacks, insider trading, conflict of interest, plagiarism) is unsettling for a profession I have been proud to represent. Is this just more publicity or have the standards of the profession declined?

As with many newly discovered "trends,” it is always hard to tease out what part is actual change, an increase in reporting, or increased sensitivity to the news itself. Take the recently reported increase in domestic violence in a particular ethnic group that was commonly to be rare behavior. It turns out the increase, rising to the same levels as for other ethnic groups, was only due to newly available language-capable case workers. The "crisis" in the community was just a correction in reporting.

It is true that a lot of books have been published about unseemly behavior in management consulting firms. These authors pick on the larger firms because the stories are more spectacular. However, with greater scrutiny of corporate management, stiffer penalties and greater mobility among executives at consulting firms, it is logical to have greater visibility of such activities. As with any professional services firm, the pressures are high to sell more work to current clients, prove the value of that work, and to create opportunities to provide your services in new markets.

What has changed are the business models of consulting. What once was a relationship business in reality has become less of one today. Clients increasingly look for specialized expertise, lower cost and shorter term engagements and, because of greater migration of client executives, have less loyalty toward a particular consulting firm. This creates incredible pressure to step closer to the ethical line than ever before. As Ethics Officer of IMC USA, I hear more allegations of impropriety than in the past. In reality, however, it is a testament to the ethics and professionalism of many consultants that there are as few of these transgressions as there are.

I don't have empirical proof that consultant behavior is worse than it has been in the past, but the conversation about consultants has definitely coarsened over the past few years - both among clients and consultants. It is uncomfortable to hear executives say that they spent millions of dollars for a prestigious firm's services that left them with nothing of value. However, what is really troubling are conversations among consultants that disrespect colleagues, other firms or the profession. Take a series of consulting cartoons by James Sanchez called Big Consulting. While clever and painfully true, they make light of consulting firm compensation, disrespect for associates, questionable client relationships, and of highly unethical practices. Laughing at yourself is healthy, but crosses the line when it poses unethical behavior as funny.

Tip: Management consulting is a respectable profession but only deserves the respect we are willing to give ourselves. Let's use our intelligence and self-respect to promote excellence and ethics in our chosen field and treat our colleagues, our competitors, and particularly, our clients and communities, with the respect they deserve.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client relations  consulting colleagues  ethics  goodwill  professionalism  publicity  reputation  trends  trust  values 

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