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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were (maybe) effective a decade ago when the economy, culture and management practices were entirely different but are no longer applicable.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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#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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#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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#682: Make Assumptions Carefully

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Part of being a good consultant is being able to get through the diagnosis and to a solution as quickly as possible (but getting it right). To do that we must make assumptions, but where are assumptions potentially erroneous short cuts and where are they appropriate?

You know what they say about assumptions. We can't realistically base our diagnostic conclusions entirely on our empirical research done at the beginning of an engagement. We make what we consider to be reasonable assumptions based on discussions with the client and staff, market or technical research, our own analysis and any other information we collect - including years of our own experience with analogous or similar cases. It is a judicious combination of facts, intuition and experience that is the hallmark of a consultant's detective like skills.

However, professionalism compels us to be on watch for assuming too much, too fast. It is all too easy, after years of experience, to be impressed with our knowledge and comfortable with believing we "have seen this case a thousand times before." To keep this in check, a professional has processes in place, maybe even formal ones, to challenge and verify all assumptions made on the way to a diagnosis. What are the ways you make sure you are not assuming too much without knowing it?

Tip: Write out the steps you take in your normal process (or more than one) of scoping a project, collecting data, completing a diagnosis, and presenting findings and recommendations. Note the type and criticality of your assumptions at each stage. Finally, describe the implications on this diagnostic chain of each of your assumptions and what you could do to mitigate the risks of wrong assumptions. Now, when people talk about your assumptions, they will have only good things to say.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  analysis  assessment  assumptions  methodology  recommendations 

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#553: How to Tell if a Client's Operation is Under Control

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, April 27, 2011
We are often brought into a client's organization to address a "crisis" that may or may not be hiding a set of other problems. To limit being tagged with being "unable to fix" a problem we didn't see was tied to the one we promised to solve, how can a consultant know - before being let in to conduct a diagnosis - whether the problem set is more serious than presented by the client?

Interesting question and one of which consultant should take note. Most of the time, clients specify their needs, the consultant lays out an approach, and the terms of an engagement are agreed to and activity started. Missing from this process is the due diligence to determine the scope of the problem, whether it hides other problems and whether the entire system is really under control or not. Presuming that general organizational health is unknowable without a (fee paid) diagnostic task is wrong.

Peter Drucker said that you can tell how well an organization is managed by simply looking at its daily flow of operations. A well-managed organization flows quietly, smoothly and predictably. An organization out of control is characterized by recurring crises, stop and start flows, and inconclusive decisions. A sharp eye on a walk though of the office or factory with your prospective client should tell you a lot about the symptoms of effective systems and processes. Most of us are not even looking for these symptoms on our walk through - or don't even ask for a full tour before we start to negotiate what wonderful things we can do.

Tip: Put on your detective hat before you go for that first or second visit. Make sure you get the full tour so you have all the information you need to make a cogent evaluation and recommendation of your engagement process and expected outcomes. Finally, start building a "pre-negotiation investigation" process based on a comprehensive model of organizations (e.g., the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence is a good place to start).

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  assessment  consulting process  customer understanding  meeting preparation  performance improvement  prospect 

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