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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were (maybe) effective a decade ago when the economy, culture and management practices were entirely different but are no longer applicable.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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#655: Is Your Client in Charge?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, September 16, 2011
Updated: Monday, September 19, 2011
One of my consulting colleagues and I have an ongoing argument about the respective roles of the consultant and the client to be responsible for the outcome of the engagement. She says the client is responsible for making sure the engagement provides the desired performance improvement, but I think the consultant is responsible.

Better this disagreement should be between your colleague and you than between client and consultant. This boils down to two things: clear definition of responsibilities and communication. When two parties to an agreement are unclear as to who is responsible for what, trouble can't be far behind. The longer this ambiguity exists, the greater the project can get off track.

Even with a contract, project plan or operating model, there may still be elements of an engagement that are unclear. At a minimum, specify, for each major resource, function, and task area, who is responsible for doing the work or securing the resources, who is accountable for the acceptability of the final product, and who is a necessary contributor. Have this discussion in a group where all parties are present so you can reconcile differences of opinion.

We are not done yet.. Perhaps more problematic than the initial responsibility/accountability consensus is the mid to late project affirmation of those responsibilities. As the project proceeds, tasks are likely to be added, deleted or altered. One of the worst things that can happen to a consultant is to assume that the project will work out even if the client is not keeping up their part of the agreement. They may get distracted (remember, your engagement is not the only thing on their mind), other company issues divert resources from your project, and staff enthusiasm for your work may dissipate. If your eye is not on the total picture, you may reach the end of the project having done "your" part but the outcomes of the engagement as a whole are unsatisfactory.

Tip: Here is where communication with your client is critical. At major milestones, review with your client project roles, your respective understanding and evaluation of how well each of you are keeping up your responsibilities, and what risks are emerging should those responsibilities not be met. Consider appropriate options if either you or your client are not meeting (or are at risk of not meeting) their obligations, including withdrawing from the engagement.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  consultant role  consulting process  customer understanding  engagement management  professionalism  roles and responsibilities 

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#617: If the Conclusion Is Obvious, Think Again

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, July 26, 2011
I consult to boards of mid-sized companies. Several of my clients have most board decisions either on the consent agenda or that result in a unanimous vote up or down. Is this normal for governance of this size organization and, if not, how should I, as a consultant, raise this with my client?

This raises a lot of behavioral, decision-making, and group dynamics issues, beyond the organization and governance point I infer you are making. A key function of governance is to set direction and limits and of management is to make decisions. Well -structured governance and management provide for diverse points of view. Therefore, a well constituted board and good management team will necessarily have vigorous discussion - and likely disagreement. If there is not, opinion is either missing or is being suppressed for some reason. Think about some legislatures when votes are taken on strict party lines rather than representing constituent interests.

Just like your value as a consultant depends on your independence and objectivity, too much conformance and not enough independent thinking can compromise the potential value of governance and management functions with our clients. Reaching a conclusion on what is presumably an important strategic, operational or cultural issues should be a warning sign that more discussion is needed. It is part of your responsibility to raise this with your client and suggest ways to increase the diversity of discussion. this could be through different individuals, structure, process or expectations.

Tip: Lack of vigorous discussion between you and your client should also be a warning sign that you may be losing a part of the value of the interaction. Do you really want your client to agree with everything you say? If he or she does, how can you be sure they are critically evaluating your recommendations and are fully engaged? Likewise, if you are agreeing with everything your client says, it is likely you are not sufficiently critical or engaged in your project. Don't be disagreeable but do think critically, and expect others to do the same.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client relations  client service  communication  consultant role  decision making  facilitation  roles and responsibilities 

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#525: Understand How to Apply Ethics Principles, Not Just Know Them

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Friday, March 18, 2011
Updated: Friday, March 18, 2011
I just learned that one of my client's key employees is planning on leaving to go work for a key competitor in a few months. I like and respect this person and feel that he is a real asset to my client's firm. What do I do?

The IMC Code of Ethics provides us some pretty clear guidance, based on sections 5.0 of the Code, "I will treat appropriately all confidential client information that is not public knowledge, take reasonable steps to prevent it from access by unauthorized people, and will not take advantage of proprietary or privileged information, either for use by myself, the client's firm, or another client, without the client's permission." and section 8.0 of the Code: "I will refrain from inviting an employee of an active or inactive client to consider alternative employment without prior discussion with the client."

Where key performers indicate that they are unhappy and are considering leaving your client, help your client to recognize and better utilize their potential. For instance, if you can see that an employee could be of greater value in another assignment, suggest reassignment.If you believe that they are likely to take key information with them, you have an obligation to not be a party to that action that may damage your client's interests.

For whom do you really work? Where is your obligation? Did you receive this information second-hand? Was there any confidentiality involved in the receipt of the information? Here are two strong guidelines you should always apply to situations like this:
  1. Remember that your primary obligation is to your client's organization.
  2. Do not receive information in confidence unless you can first ascertain that it will not prevent you from serving the best interests of your client.
Tip: Let's say one of your client's employees approaches you and says "I would like to discuss something with you confidentially." Stop them before going any further and simply say "I'm very sorry, but I cannot receive any information from you in confidence that would be potentially detrimental to my client (in this case, your firm is my client)." This might not be obvious to you but discretion, and a nuanced understanding of how best to apply the Code in various situations, is more useful than just "knowing" what the Code says. This conversation is probably best held between the employee and their supervisor - if the employee doesn't want to have this discussion, it is likely that you don't want to be involved either.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client staff  ethics  intellectual property  reputation  roles and responsibilities 

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#493: Be Sure You and the Client Are Solving the Same Problem?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Frequently clients will come to us and ask us to address a "problem" that is unspecific, such as poor performance, or they have a desire to improve overall performance, effectiveness in a certain division or bottom-line. Clearly defining the specific problem they need to solve cmes before identifying the "drivers” and crafting solutions. How do you approach this for clients who don't know what they don't know but expect you to just solve it?

Clients may expect a lot from consultants but being a mind reader is not part of the job description, nor is making priority decisions addressing the scope or sequence of performance improvement strategies. These are management decisions and your role is to help get them to the point where they can set the priorities. Then you can get on with your "second" job of helping diagnose the causes and recommend solution options. Arguably the biggest value a consultant brings at the outset of an engagement is the clear definition of the problem(s) to be addressed. The client may want an immediate solution but their inability to articulate the problem provides a clue as to why it has not been solved.

So as to not leave you hanging, here are a few approaches to make sure you and your client are really on the same page at the engagement start:
  • Ask the folks who work there, and I mean before the obligatory staff diagnostic interviews. Although they may not identify the actual "root cause” or won't know how to accurately assess the impact, this is the best place to start your search. Make sure you understand the nomenclature and culture of the problem before you start in on the solution.
  • Look hard at the financials, current and historical. Compare the information to baseline data from the industry. Ask "why?” several times to see how far the client staff really understands the organizational system. This will tell you who, if anyone, will be able to confirm your suspicions about symptoms or root causes.
  • If possible, look at the client’s competition and see if you can (with help from others) determine what they do differently. Does your client think their problems are unique or more or less like everyone else's?
Tip: These steps may seem obvious to most consultants as part of the solution diagnostic, but you may need to conduct a separate, formal diagnostic process (closely with the client sponsor) to agree on what problems you are really being hired to address.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client relations  diagnosis  engagement management  roles and responsibilities 

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