This post is based on a question that was posed to me on Quora.
Here are a few things to consider for this type of situation:
See if you can get a resource assigned within the company to take the lead on program managing changes into the organization. Also to help increase the probability of success, see if the incentives of the assigned resources and sponsor can be aligned with the initiative outcomes.
If you have the skillset and desire, propose extending your contract to potentially help with piloting and incubating the new changes. You could structure your contract to include performance outcomes if you haven’t already done that for the prior phase.
Potentially partner with another consultant that has experience with implementing changes within an organization. This could become part of a longer-run business model for you.
In helping companies develop, tune-up, or reboot their professional services organizations, here are some example of complaints I’ve heard that reflect the need for change:
Customer: “Instead of providing consulting services, your organization is marketing its products to me and asking me to pay the bill.”
General manager of services organization: “I am not sure we know what services we sell versus what services are provided as part of the product pre-sales cycle.”
Manager of services organization: “We have project in XYZ area, we’re doing another thing with company ABC, and we also have a lot of internal work on DOG. It’s really hard to report on where our time is spent.”
Customer: “The consultants you’ve assigned seem to have good technical and analytical skills. I am not sure what they are doing to help me though.”
Field manager: “Customer A is pretty much dead and will need a restart. We got to step 10 in the process before we realized our services team forgot to perform step 2 for quality control.”
Manager of services: “How do we price jobs? How do we cost jobs? No particular method.”
General manager of services: “Our folks have traditionally provided services for free, and now we are trying to charge money for them because the services have value. But our quality is not there, and we don’t have the discipline built into our DNA.”
One way to think about fixing these organizations is from the ground-up (roughly from delivery to project management to sales to strategy):
Inventory the delivery team – What skills do these folks have on the technical side? What soft skills do they have in terms of dealing with clients? How can we develop the team’s leadership skills?
Inspect either the project management or engagement management areas – To what extent is a cadence and communication structure established between the organization and the customer? Have there been frameworks or tools developed to support the customer-facing processes? Are there knowledge management processes in place to help with delivering greater value to the customer? What role does mentorship play in the organization?
Analyze the sales process and key contacts with customer organization – What is the strategy for services? Do we have a crisp story on getting from needs to solutions and services? Do we proactively manage the sales pipeline? Who owns and follows-through on key customer contact points? Is there a customer satisfaction process that involves both direct parties delivering and independent parties objectively evaluating the quality of services delivered?
Assess what’s next for customers and how your company’s boundaries fit into a larger, whole solution for the customer – What role should thought leadership play? How can the services organization figure out how greater value can be added to the customer experience? Should we expand the offerings? Should we partner with other companies? Or maybe we should change the total mix of products and services so that the customer can derive additional value on their own?
Professional services organizations are complex, and the above framework enables one to start to think about how one can make improvements that affect services delivered today, while keeping other areas in perspective for handling somewhat further down the road.
Please feel free to let me know about your thoughts and experiences. Thanks!
Got an idea from Dan Wallace (Twitter handle: @Ideafood) to write a manifesto (link to some other examples here). As many regular readers may know, I am pretty passionate about the practice of business and management consulting. Without further ado, here is a working draft of my management consulting manifesto:
Do what’s best for the client before the consulting firm.
Lead and practice ethically.
Love the client and commit fully or leave at the earliest, ethical moment.
Like the arts, mastery of leadership and business excellence are worthy pursuits.
Practice consulting and avoid dispensing shallow advice.
Apply analytics, process, and problem-solving rigor as your strengths to enlight and lead versus obfuscate.
Strive to introduce and apply principles of sustainability and social good wherever possible.
Recognize limitations of consultative methods wherever they may be; seek noble, clever, and pragmatic solutions.
Mentor colleagues & clients as appropriate and seek mentors to improve oneself.
Pursue mastery of interpersonal and organizational communications ; get clients as far as you can along the strategy curve in terms of understanding, commitment, and resolve.
Seek a balance between personal and business life that complements and strengthens one another.
Eventually projects with consultants come to an end. Similar to completion of a good run as an employee of a firm, feelings at the end of a consulting project can be bittersweet. For me, the sweetness of successfully completing a project feels great, while the end of the day-to-day, close working relationship with the client can make one reflect for a moment longer.
Over the years through consulting mentors, peers, and personal experience, I’ve learned of some tricks to making transitions smoother for both clients and consultants. Here are some:
Clients and consultants should develop a mutual understanding of how the relationship will eventually end in terms of time of transition. While we don’t need pre-nuptials, recognize that relationship communication is a two-way street. Some consulting partners explicitly discuss with client executives the notion of gradually winding down longer-term relationships over periods of months (versus days or weeks) so that business and operational needs are met.
The mutual understanding of project duration with clients and consultants may be specified in terms of project phases. Using product development lifecycle terms, the two parties may define a relationship scope to be around early phases such as ideation, planning, design, development, & incubation versus ongoing management. A twist on this may be identifying the strategic roadmap, blue sky, whiteboard areas, etc. that the client will work on regardless of consultant involvement (and then picking where the consultant will work). Once the areas are complete, the client-consultant relationship will end.
Support the transition process with documentation, project closeout meetings, and the like. These are basic project management fundamentals, and in the cases where project boundaries may be less clear (e.g., due to a long-term relationship with a client), having tangible outputs and meeting points can help parties to transition.
In cases of certain strategic initiative, interim management, and special-situation consulting arrangements, transition success can be measured by how effective permanent hires are onboarded. The tactical transitions can include the consultant helping with securing new financial budgets for an organization, providing knowledge transfer of strategy and planning efforts, shadowing new hire efforts, and helping to build out the initial ongoing processes.
Finally, celebrate both the relationships built and advances made together. This is where marriage and the client-consultant relationship analogy works better – hard work makes the bond stronger. And your “ex” may actually refer you in this case.
When people think about consultants, they often think about those that work for companies like McKinsey, Accenture, Deloitte, etc. These are companies that are essentially independent from product vendors. However, there are a number of companies that provide consulting or professional services as part of product companies (e.g., companies like Cisco, Avaya, Nortel, Ericsson, IBM) that may sell things like hardware or software. I’ve had the opportunity to incubate and/or reboot the management, sales, marketing, and delivery for a number of these types of consulting practices, and they definitely face a number of issues that are unique from independent consulting firms.
As an example of a jumpstart “Consulting Services for Product Company” engagement, I have often found four common failure points to look out for when examining the organization from an end-to-end view from strategy through sales and delivery (see figure below which hints at the sales learning curve an organization must work through). The failure points are:
Unclear, strategy for providing consulting services – An example of unclear strategy includes not being able to articulate to what extent consulting services should be designed to protect product lines versus providing a new revenue stream. Also, what are the types of consulting services to be provided (the services portfolio)?
Unclear method for getting leads into the pipeline – Depending on strategy, consulting services organizations within product companies are often implemented as overlay organizations, and as such, the process of getting in front of customers and managing prospects can lack proper definition, discipline, and support tools. Often the buyer in the organization is different too.
Improper tone for sales meetings – Product companies are often used to marketing-push type sales strategies (e.g., “here’s the benefit and features of our product – its the best”). On the other hand, consulting services sales are often more diagnosis, empathy, and solution-driven. Getting the right mix between product and services messaging takes some work.
Irregular quality of consulting services project delivery – In some cases, consulting services may be may be provided as an afterthought or on a “free” basis to customers (e.g., subsidized by product sales). Unfortunately, a customer’s time is money, so even if the service cost is covered elsewhere, the consulting organization still needs to provide quality work to the customer.
Implementing consulting organizations within product companies can be a great opportunity. That said, I’ve provided a peek at some of the hazards involved. What has your experience been with consulting and professional services organizations within product companies?
People should view this post as a “food for thought” post. The idea for this post was triggered by things I have been increasingly seeing in companies as the recession bottoms out. The managerial situations are similar pre-recession, but anecdotally the occurrence seems more numerous as managers raise their heads-up to reassess their vantage point.
What if your intent as a leader within a company is to (any of the following):
invest in a new effort (hard to run company while changing direction or building a new capability)
get a new perspective
get perspectives on other companies and/or industry trends
work with (versus against in the short-run) biases that indicate greater reception to consultants versus internal ideas (e.g., see “consultation paradox” on slide 12)
change the DNA and culture of an organization
leverage resources from within the company but from another area to plug a gap
mediate or facilitate a program or business initiative requiring new cross-functional activities
signal substantive actions and investment to outside world or other areas of company
get functional expertise not in-house or that was lost
audit current project or process (see a customer point of view here)
outsource ultimate responsibility for core area (warning flag)
analyze common trends across multiple industries (see here for some consulting industry history)
address low, organizational morale (with recession I sense a larger percentage of situations with organizations exploring business improvisation & experiential learning solutions – disclosure: client of mine here)
Should you seek input from a third party? A third-party could be another person within the firm (organizationally close or distant), an advisor, outside management consultant, services or product vendor, etc.
Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts. If you have a specific situation you’d like to talk through, please feel free to contact me directly, and I’d be happy to share perspectives. Thanks!
Recently I found myself in the doctor’s office seeking advice on a health issue I had been having with finger & joint pain. The way these conversations played out (with me in a reverse role as a client) triggered some thoughts about client-consultant communications that I thought I’d share here.
Now as context, many services relationships with medical professionals can be viewed as similar to consultant-client relationships. For example, David Maister (professional services guru, now retired) has characterized analogous medical professional types (to consultant types) as pharmacists, nurses, brain surgeons, and psychotherapists. Key distinctions between these services delivery types are on the customer contact and customization dimensions. So by way of example, nurses and psychotherapists deliver their value to customers with heavy client contact (whereas others provide work behind the scenes). On the customization dimension, psychotherapists and brain surgeons tend to be more involved in diagnosis and customized problem solving versus the other practitioners types which use more standardized procedures to serve their customers.
So using the nomenclature above, the doctor I had seen could be categorized in the psychotherapist category (high-level of customer interaction with custom problem-solving orientation, very similar to what I do when on the other side). When we talked about the issues with my hand pain, the doctor used the “we” term extensively. “We can solve this.” “Try this drug, and let’s work over the next two weeks to see what we can learn about its effectiveness.” “What do we know?” As a client, the approach put me into a collaborative frame for solving my problem. I found myself offering corners of my personal medical history, work habits, histories of my parents, etc. to try to get better (even if imperfect) information on the table.
The concept of using the term “we” in consulting engagements can also be very helpful for setting the tone for a collaborative consulting engagement. As an example, in some recent client meetings related to exploring business model and branding strategies, I used phrases like “we will use that information to figure out the best way to position against our competitor” or “what is our competitive advantage over competitor XYZ”. The framing of these types of statements put me in a position as if I was directly part of the client’s organization. I was fighting for my client as if I were the client. In turn, I felt that my posturing helped to energize the client, and we ultimately got more creative perspectives on the table. For me, a collaborative-type of positioning (while not appropriate for all engagements) goes beyond traditional empathy methods often advocated for consultants.
If you are a client, how do you like your consultants to communicate with you? If you are a consultant, what communication distances do you try to establish with clients?
One technique that I tend to use a lot in management meetings and consulting engagements involves the use of two slide types. The purpose of these slides is often to help the management team get aligned and make a critical decision about some set of issues.
The first slide I call the "Seeding" slide. The second slide I call the "Facilitating" slide.
The objectives of the "Seeding" slide are to articulate the general problem statement area and enable the management team to voice issues on specific areas within that vicinity. Note that in these situations, the exact problem statement may not be known or agreed upon. As such, it is often useful to research and include some frameworks or metaphors on the seeding slide that enable the management team to "warm up" and express issues from multiple perspectives.
The objectives of the "Facilitating" slide are to help the management team move forward and begin the dialogue of exploring potential solutions to the problem at hand. Is is often helpful to do some research on answers that can help seed the solution-exploration process. Research can take the form of best practices, case studies, academic solutions, etc. The meeting lead must work hard to apply their best facilitation skills on this slide – when to use open-ended questioning, when to analyze, and when to steer to closure require good judgment calls.
The pictures below are examples what "Seeding" and "Facilitating" slides might look like. The case below involves understanding and facilitating analysis of how two product development practices (within a merged software company) might be better integrated.
What challenges do have in facilitating management meetings and decision-making? How do you address such situations?
In the past year I ran into a situation (mid-project in the capacity as an independent consultant) where the client was incorporating materials from my deliverables plus information from one of the major, worldwide strategy consulting firms that was also working in the same area as I was. In this case, I think it was beneficial because it is a high-stakes strategy area which requires mutiple perspectives, innovation, and cross-checking.
Yet it made me recall some other situations where other consulting firms had been used in closely-related or overlapping areas. Highlight memories include:
Bringing in a partner consulting firm to round out industry-specific knowledge to complement our functional knowledge expertise
Having an internal consulting group monitoring the progress of a larger, external consulting firm
Having an adjacent room on the client site to a "competing" consulting firm
Getting the consulting firms to work out and remove overlapping work areas by request of the CEO
Having the consulting groups to exchange, provide feedback, and critique the other firm's deliverables and engagement progress
Setting up the upstream consulting firm (e.g., strategy) to complement that downstream consulting firm (e.g., IT implementation)
Although there are many trends by companies to try reduce the number of suppliers (even in the professional services area), there are benefits of using multiple consultants. Some tradeoffs and considerations:
Getting the consultants to cooperate
Inefficiency created by overlapping work
Benefits by factoring in best perspectives from each firm (similar to the way some of the most innovative firms use a larger network design architects to feed ideas)
Keeping each of the consulting teams on their toes
What are your experiences and thoughts about using multiple, management consultants and/or consulting firms?
When thrust into a situation where either resources are constrained, there are competing management choices, and paths forward are unclear, I often find a consulting method of "finding and relieving the bottleneck" useful.
For example, suppose a startup is trying to figure out how to ramp up sales from its first (non-repeatable) deals. Or suppose a company cannot determine whether sales or operations processes are the primary lever for stabilizing revenues. Yet another case might be that there is an incubator unit within a larger company that is underperforming – how might you approach the problem of fixing the situation?
At its core, "finding and relieving the bottleneck" is an analytical method used in production and operations. There are a couple of predominant ways that I look at operations by default, the former being a more quantitative method involving system & process flows and things like Little's Law, and the latter (which I strongly recommend) method using visual inspection and interviews with client management. Here I'll address the latter.
So back to the case of ramping up sales for a startup, where its first deals are largely non-repeatable because they were unique and early in the learning curve. Suppose you have 1-hour with client management. How might you help to tease out how where to start looking for improvements?
In a nutshell, the bottleneck method approach might simply be organized around finding where one gets the biggest bang for the buck in terms of making a change. I might ask the client if they had another resource or an additional day in the workweek, which of the following would ultimately result in more sales:
Refining Strategy – this might involve breaking the customer base into segments based on type and prospect awareness profile. Where's the lowest hanging fruit? What kind of marketing and sales material is each segment getting? If you had a choice to improve the marketing collateral or sales processes for the higher priority segment, which would you choose? Are there backlogs in the system (e.g., uncalled sales lead prospects), which would indicate bottlenecks? If you made the change, would it really address the end goal, e.g., getting more sales?
Changing Management Approach - in many situations, entrepreneurs may make the first sales, but they often have problems transferring knowledge on how those sales are made. Alternatively, they may have problems letting go of other areas that could be delegated or outsourced (e.g., finance and accounting, inside sales, meeting scheduling, and/or field sales). Would it be helpful to have someone shadow key executives to distill the sales processes and real value propositions that various customers are buying? If we could clone key people to offload some of the burden, would there be enough prospects and deal flow to make things worthwhile?
Adjusting Technology or Product - if the product were made less complex or if we simplified choices, would we get better yield and flow from the awareness to interest phase of the customer purchase process? Is there a way that we could get people to sample or experience the product before purchase to skip people past bottlenecks of overanalyzing things too much up-front?
Obtaining Financing for Expansion– if you focus time on more sales versus financing for expansion (presuming company has sufficient sales), what would you do and why? What if choosing one path doomed the other? Would the chosen path still be worthwhile? What kind of results could we expect by financing a new online versus a physical market for services delivery?
Optimal diagnosis clearly involves a mixture of tools and approaches, but the bottleneck method is an important method to learn in consulting because it can be increasingly used in facilitative situations where a client has substantial implicit knowledge (and such knowledge must be better formulated explicitly and transferred for company operations to scale).
I've also used this method in management situations (as opposed to in consulting situations only). The method can be particularly good when troubleshooting a problem that cuts across functional areas.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever used this type of approach? If so, how effective was it for you?