What Best Practices Can Consultants Use to Develop Their Own Toolkit?

This post is based on a question I answered previously on Quora.

Here are some of the techniques I have used over the years in different consulting roles, such as working for a traditional consulting firm, boutique firm, or as an independent:

  • Research and keep a scrapboook of ideas – This can be a folder where you drop killer slides you’ve run into, killer figures, well done models, articles, etc. Your scrapbook may consist of a few islands in the electronic world, such as using programs like Pocket, OneNote, etc. and also the physical world, such as bookmarked pages in key books you have.
  • Share the ideas with others on a small scale – Consulting is based on an apprenticeship model, and part of the value you add as a consultant also applies to how you interact with colleagues. If you can filter out the best information and share nuggets of knowledge with your peers, this can help both parties to learn.
  • Use what you’ve learned to synthesize and create new ideas – Innovation can come from many directions. Sometimes you can apply a method used in one space into a totally new space. Sometimes streams of knowledge are separate and disjoint, and you may find a simpler more holistic way of combining the approaches. Or sometimes you can create models by creating a new relationship between the beholder and the model (e.g., such as creating a stakeholder value view instead of a shareholder value view).
  • Share the ideas on a larger scale – Writing about your ideas can help to flesh out your thinking. I have often created short presentations and then presented them in a setting like a business school class. I may then create an article about a key idea. In some cases, I have written blog posts or written a newsletter type memo to share with newer consultants or clients. I have also expanded presentations into thought leadership pieces (e.g., I’ve published three books).

In summary, I find that having a method to research, collect ideas, interact with the ideas, synthesize new creations, and share those creations is a meta process that works for me.

Should An Independent Consultant Focus on Their Expertise or Diversify and Branch Out?

This post is based on a question that I answered previously on Quora.

As an independent consultant it is generally better to focus on services aligned with your expertise. Otherwise, it will be harder to distinguish yourself in the marketplace.

However, as food for thought if you are going to add a new service, consider offering that service to an existing or past client. You may have a better foot in the door in terms of selling to them as they may at least trust you a bit more than the average consultant coming in cold. While you may have some issues with existing and past customers only seeing you as your “old self”, they may be more willing to take some risk with your new services. Then you can leverage this as a reference case when you approach new clients.

How Do Management Consultants Quickly Come Up To Speed On Projects?

This answer is based on the response to a question I was posed on Quora.

Here are some of the main ways I’ve seen consultants get briefed on projects.

  1. Engagement manager – The engagement manager has responsibility for the client problem statement and the problem-solving structure (i.e., project tactics). As the on-the-ground, field leader, the engagement manager can help to get new people on the project oriented both from a high-level and with their role on the project.
  2. Engagement workplans and blueprints – Some projects have clear engagement workplans laid out at the outset. Sometimes the high-level workplan is set out before the project even starts. If not before, then most certainly the workplan is addressed in the first week +/-. These often breakdown the workstreams, key activities, deliverables, project roles, and governance structure. Blueprints which potentially specify the templates that should be completed may even be available in some cases. These structures help keep consultants focused on what matters and may help them avoid re-inventing the wheel.
  3. Management reports – Consultants often get reports normally directly accessible by the management teams. This helps to accelerate knowledge transfer and provides a lay of the land within any limitations of the reports (which may also need to improved based on mutual agreement between the consultant and client).
  4. Peers – Consulting is really based on apprenticeship and teamwork. Consultants often ask peers on the consulting team for information they’ve learned, feedback on approaches, etc.
  5. Industry reports – Consultants often dive into industry reports very close to when they arrive onsite for a new client. This can help the consultant come up to speed about industry-specific terminology, product offerings, competitors, new entrants, regulatory issues, geographical considerations, etc.
  6. Client interviews – Consultants also get very key info through interviews with client management and personnel. These sessions are usually motivated by the engagement workplan and are used to assess the current state of a particular area, identify issues, collect ideas, and get color regarding business operations. It is often preferred that items #1 through #5 are explored to some extent as preparation for client interviews.

One of the Best Ways to Market Yourself as a New Consultant

One of the best ways to market yourself as a consultant is by having someone refer you to a client prospect. This type of marketing can be viewed through the lens of “networking by helping someone” (in contrast to networking and just meeting lots of people). These are investments you make to both build your reputation and professional networks.

As an example, for one of my first clients as an independent consultant, I got in the door through the referral of an IT systems consultant (met at a local lunch talk) who needed to help their client do an operational analysis. I first helped the consultant and then the client to understand how operational analyses were done and provided them with some tools they could use (e.g., gave them some management one-pagers I wrote on their topic). They then invited me to propose to them.

Marketing as “networking by helping someone” is a key tool to have in your kit. It is the idea of helping before selling. Once you have successful clients, you can then refer to the general experiences as case studies (often anonymized, but not always). These case studies accumulate, and they serve as resources that can help your marketing efforts as a consultant.

Steve Shu specializes in incubating new initiatives with a primary focus on strategy, technology, and behavioral science. He is author of Inside Nudging: Implementing Behavioral Science Initiatives and The Consulting Apprenticeship: 40 Jump-Start Ideas for You and Your Business.

How Do Consultants Stay Organized Before Creating Client Deliverables?

This post is based on a question posed to me on Quora.

Individual consultants and engagement managers usually develop their own ways of organizing information. Here are a few concepts I have used (but situations vary widely based on the situation and team composition):

  1. Document the problem statement, the problem solving structure, the set of workstreams and activities to execute the project, governance process, and structure of each deliverable. In some cases the engagement team may create (up front) an entire blueprint to execute the project.
  2. Develop interview guides according to the problem solving structure and conduct interviews with the interview guides in mind. Take raw notes roughly in line with the interview guides. Create managerial meeting summaries along the way and file the raw notes.
  3. Organize notes, specimens, analyses, deliverables, potentially by workstream folders and subfolders. For example, there may be four major workstreams at the top level like assessment, financial modeling, technology options, and business strategy. Here is a chart from my book, The Consulting Apprenticeship, and it illustrates the conceptual concept of workstreams and activities (I could have also included deliverables on the chart, but the sizing for print would have been an issue).
  4. Have clear consultant assignments and owners for workstreams and major activity areas. Have individual consultants organize and present progress (for their realm) to engagement managers and principals at least 1–2 times per week. This helps to both keep project cadence up and put pressure on the individual consultants to be organized and deliver the pieces that they have responsibility for. Make course adjustments or staff adjustments as needed.

Note that some consulting firms also set up “war rooms” where there may be many wallboards, whiteboards, and the like for maintaining an Agile-like environment. Elements of that can eventually get converted into more formal deliverables. You may also run into some tech-savvy clients that also encourage the use of things like Slack or InVision for collaboration and communication with the client.

In summary, careful planning, note taking, analysis, project organization, storyboarding, and regular project leader reviews are needed to keep information organized and a consulting engagement on the rails.

Edit 2/13/2019: Special mention to Kevin Johannes Wörner who has a nice video covering advice for new strategy consultants (9 lifehacks) based on his experiences, including at Roland Berger. I really resonate with Kevin’s comments about how to deal with massive amounts of data and information coming at you in the client environment and focusing on the few items that really drive results. 

Thoughts About Finder’s Fees to Other Professional Services Providers as a Consultant

This answer is based on a question posed to me on Quora.

I’ve only used finder’s fees sparingly over the course of my professional services career. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Some of the best referrals for me have come from other people that currently work either for the client or as a consultant to the client. Providing a referral fee can sometimes create a conflict for those parties providing a referral. The same applies to me providing referrals.
  2. Other referrals come through people that know me or know of me. In these cases, I may provide a referral fee (or something else) more as a unwritten gesture than as a contractual, business regularity, mainly since business through these channels is very much appreciated but more irregular.
  3. Unless designed properly, the referral fee can be stranded between a space where not enough incentive is provided (or even insulting to the referrer), too much incentive is provided and margins are decreased too much, and/or an unwritten obligation is created where the referrer feels overly responsible as to whether the referred is successful or not (as opposed to being arms length from both the referred and the client).

Others may have different experiences, so make sure to get some other perspectives.

How Do Consultants Handle Situations With Clients Who May “Laugh” at Them Relative to Projections and Opportunity Outcomes?

Here are some thoughts on how consultants prepare for and handle these types of situations:

  1. Projections may be initially tested in safer settings. If projections end up being perceived as too wild or aggressive, it is better for this to happen in a working meeting or separate session before a “final” presentation is made. Following an iterative process and managing client expectations reduces risk for the consulting team.
  2. Projections are usually based on models with assumptions being made transparent. By making assumptions and modeling transparent, some focus can be taken off of the actual projections. The focus is more on the process and the assumptions, which of course lead to the projections. If the client disagrees with the assumptions or the process and modeling, problems can be resolved to minimize the possibility of clients “laughing” at the consulting team for the projections.
  3. Models and projections are often built by keeping the client team involved during the build process. This further minimizes risk of the client being surprised at the end. It also helps to increase ownership of the projections by the client. All projections have limitations of some sort. So let’s all own both the insights and limitations of the analysis.
  4. If the consulting team was not able to follow any of the processes above or if the consulting team could only feasibly do some of the elements above, then senior people on the team may need to handle a client that disbelieves the numbers and “laughs”. As example of how this could work, the partner could simply assert confidently that they believe the numbers and that a separate session could be set up to go through them. Another alternative might be for the partner to say that the consulting team will take a second look and perhaps one or more of the client members could be involved. Yet another option might be for the partner to suggest that some other scenarios and sensitivity analyses be performed. I will say though that consultants use their analytical training try to avoid being orders of magnitude off when putting forth projections. Or if they are going to provide projections that may be wildly off, they caveat that up-front.

All said, consultants try hard not to let situation #4 come up by actively working on items #1-#3 to reduce risk. It is important to remember that in consulting, the process is an essential part of the deliverable.

The post above was reproduced from a question that I originally answered on Quora.

The Real Key to Performing a Competitive Assessment

Assuming that one has capable resources to get the job done, the most important thing needed for a competitive analysis is an articulation of the true problem statement. The need to perform a competitive analysis is not a problem statement in of itself. Is the problem statement a broad one to simply formulate strategy? Unlikely. Not focused enough. Perhaps it is about assessing the atrractiveness of services A, B, and C in a particular market? Or perhaps it is about a financial assessment of competitiveness from a risk management perspective? Or maybe the purpose is to determine the robustness of an organizational model relative to competitors? All of these? Some of these? Other?

The point is that competitive analysis is just a tool, and there are many tools. Which tool and approach one picks actually depends on refining the problem statement properly. Why do we want a competitive analysis? What problems are we actually trying to solve? Who in the organization is the analysis for? Get to the core needs. Then determine what competitive analysis approaches are the right ones given the problem, audience, time, effort, precision, and resources required.

Steve Shu specializes in incubating new initiatives with a primary focus on strategy, technology, and behavioral science. He is author of Inside Nudging: Implementing Behavioral Science Initiatives and The Consulting Apprenticeship: 40 Jump-Start Ideas for You and Your Business.

One Tip to Prepare Yourself Before Starting a Job with McKinsey, Bain, or BCG

Prepare yourself for the situation that every Powerpoint slide that you create will get tossed out of the window. The slides you initially create will unlikely look like the ones from the firm. It may be discouraging at first, especially since many are used to being high achievers. However, it is a process that most people go through when they join a consulting firm because consulting is based apprenticeship and learning from others in the firm.

One of the early lessons will be opening your eyes to synthesizing data into killer pictures. Another lesson will be about making sure that slide titles drive to the “So What” message and bottom line versus being topically titled. And another lesson will include storyboarding the presentation deck, perhaps even creating the deck with just the titles of each slide as sentences and containing no content other than that. That construction allows one to read only the titles in the deck and glean the executive-level messages and deductions / inductions.

Of course there will be many more lessons both tacit and explicit. Look out for them carefully because not all lessons will be marked explicitly as such. But the slides you create…your mini Mona Lisas…will inevitably be trashed. Remember that the process is not about hazing. It really is about getting to the right end product with more senior people managing the quality of the product and training you according to cultural norms of the firm.

Edit 2/13/2019: Special mention to Kevin Johannes Wörner who has a nice video covering advice for new strategy consultants (9 lifehacks) based on his experiences, including at Roland Berger. I really resonate with Kevin’s comments about how to deal with massive amounts of data and information coming at you in the client environment and focusing on the few items that really drive results.

Steve Shu specializes in incubating new initiatives with a primary focus on strategy, technology, and behavioral science. He is author of Inside Nudging: Implementing Behavioral Science Initiatives and The Consulting Apprenticeship: 40 Jump-Start Ideas for You and Your Business.

The So What Strategy – A Highly Recommended Book for Business Communications

By way of background, I have long history in the consulting space and believe that effective communications separates leaders from the pack. And it’s something that one can continually work on to improve. Over the years I’ve read a number of books on communications such as books on writing, storyboards, logic, presentation construction, visual design, and verbal delivery. I’ve recently read “The So What Strategy,” a book on business communications, and wanted to share my thoughts on the book.

So what do I think about “The So What Strategy” by Davina Stanley and Gerard Castles (formerly communications specialists at McKinsey & Company)? “The So What Strategy” is an excellent book and provides readers with essential tools for more effective business communications related to writing, storyboards, logic, and presentation construction. Here are three reasons why it will be one of the top books for me to recommend to other consultants and business professionals:

  • First, the book establishes a solid foundation from a structural point of view. The authors cover fundamentals from understanding one’s audience, the drivers for particular communications (e.g., context, triggers, and key question), bottom line messaging, and logical storyboards for key patterns that come up in business situations. The book also goes further to suggest concrete steps as to how one might incorporate storyboarding and other elements into both one’s own work and the internal processes of an organization.
  • Second, the book is differentiated from other books, especially as it relates to addressing classic patterns one encounters in business. One classic book in consulting relative to communications is “The Pyramid Principle” by Barbara Minto (also ex-McKinsey). While Minto does a great job at explaining logical concepts that are pervasive in management consulting approaches such as mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive (MECE) frameworks and tying these concepts to writing, Stanley and Castles dovetail with the same concepts and also cover seven classical storyline patterns that are suitable for business. These storyline patterns includes things such as communicating actions plans, suggesting recommendations, pitching ideas, providing updates, and several others.
  • Finally, “The So What Strategy” comes in a modern package. While I feel the other two points I mention above are strengths, the book’s package is one of the biggest selling points for me. First, for the time-pressed professional, the book is a very rich but quick read. I got through the book in about two hours, which is surprising given how rich the book is in terms of content and substance. And yet the book can easily fit into the messenger bag of a road warrior consultant. Second, the book has concrete examples of emails, storyboards, and presentations; this helps readers actually see where communications can be improved and how following the authors’ frameworks can help. Third, the book provides concrete tools (such as checklists) and is well-structured for being a quick handbook.

I highly recommend “The So What Strategy”. Davina Stanley and Gerard Castles have done a remarkable job putting this book together. You can get a sample chapter on their website at http://www.sowhatstrategy.com. You can also take advantage of their online courses here.