A Perspective On Client Facilitation Skills

10 Jan

When I first started as a management consultant back at Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath, one of the hardest things for me to grasp was the concept of "client facilitation". Many of the consultants I knew where eager to apply standard MBA frameworks like Five Forces (for competitive and profitability analysis), NPV and financial analysis tool, statistical regression, and the marketing 3Cs/STP/4Ps, but few talked about client facilitation in explicit terms.

In my mind, client facilitation refers to the processes (and skills) that a consultant uses to get a client organization to critical decision points, deep understanding, and committment to move forward or redirect.

A master of client facilitation is a person that can:

  • Master analysis skills of the trade: use top-down logical reasoning, use many analytical frameworks, work analyses from multiple directions
  • Communicate well: whether it be via face-to-face conversation, writing, phone, or instant messaging (yikes)
  • Teach and frame things properly: because interactions with parties may be varied, quick and because parties may have varying levels of knowledge, one must be able to ramp-up conversation levels quickly and put them in the proper context
  • Recognize where the organization is at and how decisions are made: is the marketing department behind in their understanding? who does the CEO look to as his/her right hand? if so, what are the steps to getting the right hand on-board or up-to-speed? how do we get things to tip? can we get there in one step or will it take two steps?
  • Lead people *without formal authority*: can you educate people, empathize with the organization, get the organization to trust you, and pave a vision and/or outline a set of tradeoffs with such clarity that motion must happen?

In my opinion, the last skill is probably the most important aspect to master regarding client facilitation. I daresay it is the essence of client facilitation, but I am pretty damn close to it. Client facilitation skills are specialized leadership skills which are all about leading people without formally being in charge.

Update 2/20/08: Gautam Ghosh points me to one of his posts that does an excellent job of discriminating between other types of "consulting" and "facilitative consulting". Again, this topic is not one that I’ve seen many people write about outside of more terse, academically-oriented publications. That said, the subject of facilitation is a very, very important aspect of management consuting and in my mind applies to more than 90% (just to pull a number out of the air) of the engagements I have ever been on or run.

15 thoughts on “A Perspective On Client Facilitation Skills

  1. This is very interesting, Steve.
    Most consultants talk about presentation skills, but my problem with presentations is that they’re one-way streets. I, the expert on the podium, preach to the crowd in trouble. I think that’s silly.
    But the power of solving problems lies in collaboration.
    Presentations create a “what can you do FOR us” environment. Facilitation is about what we can do together. So, as a facilitator I mesh my resources and expertise into the client’s framework and organisational infrastructure, and together we create something bigger than what either of us could create.
    So, I think consultants should put more emphasis on facilitation skills as opposed to presentation skills which are hardly ever needed. Why would I want to present to collaborators? And what? Since we work together anyway, they know what’s going on.
    And hand-in-hand with facilitation comes the skill of synthesise. Analyse is breaking things down. Synthesise is putting the pieces together but in different ways.

  2. Tom,
    Excellent points in here.
    I think overemphasizing presentation skills and diminishing the importance of client facilitation skills can be a bad thing for certain consulting situations. I have seen some cases where all of the analysis, presentations, etc. were all right on, but the consulting team still couldn’t get the client aligned. In my assessment, the shortcomings came down to not recognizing where the organization structure was, how things worked between people, and using the right tools and communication for facilitation. Best practices for this (for lack of better words) indicated that the approach was way below norm on that dimension.
    As for synthesis skills, I think you are also onto something very important for consultants (near the top of the list), but not an area talked about very explicitly as far as I can tell. And this shortcoming is a bit surprising to me because it is something that many consulting firms look for during case interviews, and it is something that can be a regular pitfall for consultants (especially newer ones).

  3. One additional thought on presentations and use by consultants … I find that in order to manage multiple projects across multiple clients, it is helpful to get presentations from the engagement managers so that one can better control how the various engagements are being run. Some in some sense, the use of presentation material can be a control mechanism of sorts to help managers of consulting practices keep tabs on the line consultants.

  4. I just read a great new book on Ford – Ford and the American Dream – Founded on Right Decisions by Clifton Lambreth. Mr. Lambreth discusses Ford’s Decision Making and leadership style.
    He does the best job ever of giving the average person an inside look at Corporate America and Ford. This is a must read for every business person around the world!Check it http://www.thefordbook.com
    Steve and Clifton Lambreth are on the same page!

  5. I just read a great new book on Ford – Ford and the American Dream – Founded on Right Decisions by Clifton Lambreth. Mr. Lambreth discusses Ford’s Decision Making and leadership style.
    He does the best job ever of giving the average person an inside look at Corporate America and Ford. This is a must read for every business person around the world!Check it http://www.thefordbook.com
    Steve and Clifton Lambreth are on the same page!

  6. Hey Steve,
    I agree that with your last point. That is, leading without formal authority and getting the organisation to trust you is probably the most important thing. A good book along these lines is ‘The Speed of Trust’ by Stephen M.R. Covey.
    Tom

  7. Hey Steve,
    I agree that with your last point. That is, leading without formal authority and getting the organisation to trust you is probably the most important thing. A good book along these lines is ‘The Speed of Trust’ by Stephen M.R. Covey.
    Tom

  8. I agree with you. It is not an easy task. I think consistent good suggestions and persuasion to implement such tasks also play important role.
    Thanks,
    Nitin

  9. The goal of any good management consultant is to use the skills that she or he has developed over the years to help a company’s current management staff be the best that they can be. A truly successful advisor will always tailor the advice given to fit within the framework of the specific company. An unwary company can become caught up in the hype of a new management trend, and hire a consultant simply because that person is a practitioner of, or has certification in, the hot new management fad. This strategy is almost guaranteed to fail, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there is not and cannot be a single management style or technique that will work for every company. Secondly, “hot new trends”, often by their very nature, have had a very short history, meaning that the consultant who is a specialist only in this new fad does not have a lot of experience from which to draw.

  10. Excellent post. Also with your vast experience, can you address communication skills in consulting? We all think we have pretty good skills, but walking a line between “non give aways” delivering a consistent message from each member of the the project team to the client, and not delivering wrong advise in stressful situations can be very hard. Can you please throw some light?

  11. Here are a few things that you may want to consider (off the top of my head):
    a) When communicating in teams, establish some domains of responsibility beforehand. For example, in a sales meeting, you may only want the head person on the consulting side to cover things like framing pricing and commercial terms.
    b) Try role playing in preparation for meetings. Think of all the possible questions and issues that a client might be able to raise. Think about how you are going to respond.
    c) When in the heat of meetings, sometimes try not to communicate your position in the first step of a response, but try to delineate the two positions and the tradeoffs (e.g., “one the one hand, one can Y which does X but there is also the A approach which requires B”). Then feel out the ground a little (where the client is at, where the consulting leader is at) and work in where your position is (step two). I sometimes think of this as an Akido-like approach where you first try to breakdown the situation immediately at hand before you take a second step of force to throw the person or take action.
    d)Try the technique of agreeing with someone (presuming you do), but adding on a slightly different perspective. You may preface this angling by saying “John, please correct me if you think differently, but here’s my view”. This technique shows alignment, but it also shows that you have a separate mind and that disagreement or different perspective are possible.
    The latter two methods are clearly an art and require practice. You also need to determine whether these latter two methods are culturally acceptable, whether at a team-, company-, or country-level.

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