Monday, May 11, 2009

Same old story

There are two things on a consulting project that will always happen.

First, a client will start a conversation aimed at finding out how much consultants earn. Answer: probably less than you suspect, but enough to compensate for the hard work and time away from families.

Second, someone will tell you the watch joke, which is the consulting equivalent of the kind of jokes that pop into my head when I'm talking to a gynecologist. Definition: a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, then keeps the watch. There's some truth in this, but it's more like finding your watch for you, fixing it with your toolkit, then charging you. The answers are usually there if you know where and how to look.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

We don't talk anymore

It all adds up: communication is cumulative, and each different type counts for extra credit. This counts in a business context as much as it does in personal relationships, and I promise not to use the expression "over communicate".

An example: email has not replaced conversation any more than IM has. Formal, hard copy, letters are rarer now, but we communicate much more than we did even a few years ago. Emails tend to fall into two categories: there are long letter substitutes, and the short snappy exchanges. The letter substitutes can either be rambling business ones that would have benefited from editing, punctuation, and paragraphs, or personal ones a bit like the family annual repors that some people put into Christmas cards. With the long ones, you can often hear the writer's voice in the style.

The shorter ones are closer to an IM chat, where the exchanges, usually limited to two or three people, tend to be short and sharp. The nature of email is that you get as much time as you need to come up with something original to type, so the correspondence has a witty, unreal quality, rather like dialogue from 'Friends'. The problem with these things is that they can go on for ever. I just had to set up a meeting to avoid being locked into an eternal email loop - at least with a deadline we can reach a final conclusion.

Two things to remember with email:
  • If you're steaming, sleep on it - before sending it, re-read it and edit for vitriol.
  • Electronic lives for ever - unless you have known the recipient for 20 years, then assume it's going to be seen by the wrong person eventually - ask yourself "could this come back to haunt me?".

Friday, May 1, 2009

Call me any time

Why do companies hire management consultants? There are four main reasons that I have come across, although often it's a combination of factors that brings consultants in the door. Here they are:
  • Speeding things up: getting focused resources who can get on with what needs to be done without getting involved in unnecessary workshops, away days and committees. The business probably has the skills to do the work, but just doesn't have enough of them, and thanks to the heavy baggage of daily working life, they can't move fast enough.
  • Borrowing brains: employing experts and experience is expensive. When you want to get rid of them it's even more expensive, so the thing to do is hire those skills when you have a need. The trick here is making sure that you get the right skills, which means understanding your problem and your organisation properly. Like self awareness in people, self knowledge in organisations is rare and often highly concentrated.
  • Trying something new: accessing fresh ideas & approaches. This is related to borrowing brains, but it's more about the external perspective that consultants can bring. Some companies recognise that they get stale and introspective, and hiring consultants is one way of seeing the wood for the trees.
  • Because they can. Curiously true - consultants are sometimes status symbols for executives, although it's getting rarer these days.
Once they are in, though, how do you make sure you get the most out of your consultants? That's a question for another time.