Jump-Start Books for Consulting Project Classes

I teach a couple of consulting projects-type courses at Cornell. One is a Grand Challenges capstone-class for Dyson undergraduates in helping companies and organizations address one or more of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. The other is a flagship-project class that is part the Masters in International Management program as part of the global CEMS Alliance, and it involves student collaborations and exchanges with 33 other top business schools and universities.

Each of these cohorts has different team compositions, problem statements, and situations to address for their client. Projects can involve diverse topics like addressing sustainability of the food supply chain and manufacturing capacity, promoting economic development and greater social equality in another continent, customer and market fit of a new product, workforce evolution given Gen Z, or marketing, branding, and product strategy for an international company.

Although projects are diverse and hard to find common bases of foundational knowledge, I have found it helpful to have bite-sized jump start material to help students get grounded. As part of the core, I have provided excerpts from my own book on bread and butter consulting concepts (for free), references to The So What Strategy for consultative communications, and a breathtaking short pocket reference to Scrum. These are all quite short books as evidenced by the spine thickness. People don’t have a lot of time to read given the heft and time pressures of projects.

Given that quite a few projects involve customer discovery, market fit, and/or diverse constituent interviews, I have decided to also add “Talking to Humans” as part of the reference books that I’ll draw from for these courses. It is a quick read book that can be completed in 1-2 hours. And it can be a great book to go back to for quick reference before doing any qualitative customer / product research.

Should Consultants Charge an Upfront Fee or Charge at the End of a Project?

This is an answer to a question I was posed on Quora.

I’d avoid collecting money entirely (i.e., 100%) on the backend except for the shortest and smallest engagements.

Here’s one anecdotal story: I once managed a business advisory practice as part of a large, international and diversified products and services firm. To get this practice off the ground we subcontracted to a number of consulting firms to fill in for delivery gaps we had. And some of these firms didn’t collect their fees that regularly since we were a massive firm with worldwide recognition and history. We always paid our bills, no problem. However as additional context below the surface, the company I worked for apparently had a variety of issues, in particular high levels of debt caused by years of merger and acquisition activity. The CEO had hired one of the big MBB firms are part of efforts to turn our company around.

One day the CEO announces that the company would proactively declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy even though we had cash and lots of assets. What did that mean? The consulting companies that I used as subcontractors could not be paid. The telephone calls I had to make hurt to make. At the time that damaged my reputation even though the whole situation was something that occurred at a much higher level. I do wonder what happened to the fees that were owed to the MBB firm that was helping at the strategic level. Were these paid off before the bankruptcy? Or did they get in line like I had to waiting for my severance pay to make it through the the courts? I have a bad taste in my mouth after that whole experience, especially since the CEO got a parachute whereas suppliers and trench workers comparatively did not.

There are many other examples that I could come up with. However, consulting firms have cash flow considerations to make. And they take some risks, so it is quite fair to pay consultants up-front or along the way in a timely manner. Things can happen that slow things up. For example, if you are doing business internationally, the client may need to do tedious checks on corruption and money laundering that can take time for larger deals but they may be able to release some money up-front to cover the consulting firm services being floated. Or other (probably rare) things can cause complete train wrecks such as working with a distressed firm that might declare bankruptcy out of the blue.

So as a consultant perhaps I have some baggage, but I’d avoid opting for the “complete payment after you’re done” option unless you acknowledge, however remote, the risks, uncertainty, and potential unknown unknowns that there are.

If You Don’t Like Case Competitions, Does This Mean You Won’t Like or Be Good at Consulting?

I was posed on Quora a question similar to the above question, and below was my response. I highlight in bold, a key insight drawn from behavioral science.

One the one hand, case competitions leverage a lot of skills that career consultants end up using, such as problem solving skills under pressure, teamwork, communications, creativity, and persuasiveness. But there are also many other skills to master in consulting which are not part of case competitions such as street smarts, empathy, functional excellence, engagement management, leadership, industry knowledge, and advisory orientation. In consulting, you serve your client, not case competition evaluation boards.

Recognize that at the core of consuting is mentorship, apprenticeship, teamwork, and learning from experience. Namely, people learn how to become better and better consultants by starting the profession with enough core skills and appetities to get started. After being involved with a number of projects, one learns from others in the firm how to develop more and more skills and one’s professional identity. You may start in one place and find yourself in a very different place at a later point. Of course, the flavor of the firm and how you experience this may vary a lot from firm to firm.

I wouldn’t overindex and project too far into your future how much you would like consulting based on a single indicator. People are not that great at forecasting in complex situations where they have little prior experience and little feedback. On the other hand, if you are getting multiple warning signs, such as you dislike teamwork, dislike 99% of the people in consulting, have gotten feedback from other consultants that you are the wrong for the profession, have gotten feedback from people that know you well and know the profession that you are not a fit, dislike business, dislike companies, dislike people, then I might reflect a bit more. Remember, you might just start consulting with a strong skills and proclivities in a few areas and flourish over time. My keys to success in consulting (as evidenced solely by my ability to stay in the profession for decades) were probably my appetite for variety and my ability to adapt. I also had supportive managers at key pivot points in my career.

Things to Think About If a Client Prospect Asks, “What is the Longest Time You’ve Worked with Any Client?”

This post is based on a question I was posed on Quora.

Based on this question, my gut reaction is that they are looking for a sense of a) how deep do you go with similar clients in similar situations, and b) what’s the outside norm in terms of project length for a similar clients in similar situations.

Key things to be aware of though are what is the client thinking and what you are thinking. With respect to client thinking, are they really talking about any client? Or are they more likely to be talking about a similar client in a similar situation? Where on the spectrum? In terms of what you are thinking, do you think the client has the right perception about any client versus similar client?

How you should respond depends on where you think the client is anchored and where you think they should be.

If they are anchored on similar clients in similar situations, then you could qualify to what extent you see them as similar and then give a range of how long you’ve worked with such clients depending on whether X was involved or X, Y, and Z were involved. You can use this opportunity to answer their questions while also giving them a sense of your depth of involvement.

If they are anchored on any client, then you probably have more work to close any deal. They may be just kicking the tires. If you want to close a deal, you’ll probably need to figure out how to shift perceptions so that they see themselves as similar to clients you’ve worked with, work you’ve done, and/or processes you’ve used in the past. The client prospect could very well be a fit for what you do, but there is a psychological gap that should be addressed.

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.