An updated version of this post appears in The Consulting Apprenticeship.
This past week I was involved with a fairly typical discussion that occurs during the preparation phase for a management consulting project that includes a diagnostic or assessment phase. A goal of an assessment may be for a consultant to help a client quickly zero in on where major problems are and to quickly determine where to focus business improvement efforts. For an operations project that may span many business units and the work of thousands to tens of thousands of people, data collection and interviews play a critical role in the analysis. As one can imagine in analysis projects, if one gets garbage in, one likely gets garbage out.
In comes the role of the “hunting license”. As one can imagine, consultants may need to get very sensitive information (e.g., financial, sales, operational) in order to help a client analyze what is going on. When working in the trenches of a client organization, the individuals on the line may be reluctant to give the consultant information. If a consultant has be given an adequate hunting license, essentially an authorization by a manager or executive (e.g., CEO, COO, CFO) to obtain any operational data needed, a consultant can better navigate through the client organization and obtain information needed.
That said, consultants need to recognize that their hunting licenses do not generally mean that they have a right to “fish” (for information). When consultants seek information and/or question workers in the trenches, they should have a clear goal in mind. They should not randomly seek information just for the purpose of seeking information and in hopes that client problems will reveal themselves down the road. Seeking information can take up a client’s precious time and resources, so the effects of asking for substantial amounts of information should be recognized.
Sometimes avoiding fishing is not as easy as it seems, especially in cases where the problem may not be readily visible. That said, to avoid the pitfalls of fishing, a consultant should use a structured methodology for attacking a problem, and the methodology should be connected to end results (and/or prove, disprove hypotheses along the way) as much as possible. For example, in analyzing a backoffice operation, one may want to look at people, processes, and systems as the structured methodology. One may look at the roles people are playing, document the workflows people are using, and examine the computer support for various paper handling steps. To show how the connection of data to end results must be clearly understood, if during the backoffice analysis case I mentioned it is determined that salary information of the workers analyzed will be off-limits to the consultant, then the consultant may want to state that any potential problems about whether a client’s workers are paid competitively (thus potentially affecting worker quality and effectiveness) would be beyond the analysis.
Another way to avoid the pitfall of fishing is for the consultant to ask for information in a layered way. That is, before diving deep in every area of investigation, a consultant can ask for broad information first. Once a problem has surfaced, a consultant can then ask for more detailed information regarding the particular area.
So all in all, I would say the hunter instincts are good traits for consultants, but fisher tendencies need to be watched with caution or avoided entirely.