July 2010 Archive


July 21st, 2010

There are three types of honesty. No honesty, good honesty and bad honesty. Now, consulting gets a bad press on the honesty stakes which is unfortunate really as most consultants I know are very honest people. Clever and cunning; yes but dishonest ? No. Well, most of the time they aren’t dishonest but some of them need to practise their art a little more with working the good honesty and bad honesty split. In business as in real life, the truth is often destructive and one of the consultant’s jobs is to feed the truth to the client in a non destructive way.

I’ve been witness to all three types of honesty and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s much easier to do it wrong than to do it right. My favourite “no honesty“ example comes from a meeting I attended with a client and my manager. The client asked me if I had conducted an analysis of their data. Having just been drafted onto the project, I said no. My manager jumped in and “suggested” that “what I meant” was that I didn’t realise that a basic analysis had been started and they could have it by first thing tomorrow. What this actually translated to was “no one has done any analysis and now you’re going to spent all night doing it. Ha-ha.”  I was so affronted that I sat up all night writing this poem about my situation.

Same manager different project; we were sitting round the table over business lunch, discussing the development of the clients’ new portal. They had already questioned our ability to deliver the work and my manager was getting edgy at the thoughts of the precious moneys slipping away. “Look,” he spoke up “ XXX (ie: me) is a Subject Matter Expert. XXX led the development of this area on the last project and has had plenty of exposure to the tool.” Yes, by exposure you mean the consulting equivalent of trudging lost and weary through the windswept Arctic wastelands of the user-guides and IT help forums trying to find out how to do a simple one line derivation.

So, we sold the work on one big whopping lie around the fact that none of us even knew what the software was, never mind how to use it. I’ll be honest. You have to blag sometimes. The nature of the work means that any member of the client team could, at any time, ask you anything. We have to instill confidence in our clients as the worst reply to a question is that we don’t know (or worse, say nothing). We HAVE to answer the question and we have to craft our words in a careful enough way to provide a comprehensive answer without promising the world or sounding stupid.
There is a fine line, however, between being professionally vague and lying through your teeth. Blagging is fine when it’s some sort of high level management decision; “yes, we can help align your technical strategic objectives” as oppose to “yes, we have all the experience required to build your intranet portal.”

Honesty of any kind does foster respect. Upon starting my new project, my manager was very upfront with the client. He told them I was a junior consultant, I was still skilling up and not to expect the world. He illustrated impeccable management from there on; when he couldn’t do something he was open and truthful yet never disruptive. I picked up three little tricks to be honest yet careful.
The first is to make the spectator feel special no matter how bad the situation. We won’t meet the deadline? He told them, albeit in a softly-softly way. Instead of saying that he was clueless and holding off until another team member came back from annual leave, he explained the problem to the client and suggested that the delay came from finding someone who was skilled in this very specific problem whereas he spent time honing his SME knowledge in another area. The client was happy to accept the delay because they felt they were holding out to get the best service possible.
The second trick to good honesty is to never say no. “No” is a dirty word in consulting although it makes it harder to manage expectations. The same manager was under pressure from the client to make fundamental changes to the design. It would reap little reward for a huge overhead so he instead focused on the benefits to not changing the system. He didn’t ever mention a comparison between the two solutions or refuse to undertake the redesign – he just said that in his experience it was best practice to keep the original.
Lastly, make the client think of the idea themselves. If you have a hard message to deliver try and make it look as if the client realised this of their own deduction rather than having to deliver bad news. This takes more practice than the other two. Start by listing the obvious advantages or requirements of a solution. Tell the client they need a solution according to the requirements. Hopefully they’ll put two and two together and come up the solution you want them to (with a bit of coaxing). I’ve only seen this done once successfully and when it fails it makes a real mockery of everyone involved.

Managing client expectations is paramount to success. Lying isn’t managing expectations – it’s setting everyone up for a fall. With a bit of careful insight into human nature and a creative way with words you can actually have an honest career as a consultant. If you believe that, you believe anything.


July 13th, 2010

Ah, this is what consultants are famous for. The ability to turn a simple, one page document into fifty page rendition of tactical overheads, the extrapolation of a simple spreadsheet into a macros-rendered self populating instrument of financial terror and the fifty slides long presentation with a full graphical analysis of the the a three item dataset.

Clients hate it but they know they have to go through it. They get the PowerPoint eyes; glazed over, bored and presenting to arduously take notes whilst doodling guillotines in the corner of their own brand slide print outs. “How much longer?” they cry silently, knowing full well that the enticing pie charts and flow diagrams will bemuse and baffle, leaving them not only exhausted but feeling stupid and confused.

This, my friends, is the ploy. This is why we do it. Create enough supporting documents to leave the client in a state of bewilderment about the project and roll it round in six weeks to make it look like we saved the entire business, not simply revamped their servers. Spreadsheets are the best for this. You will go far in consulting if your spreadsheeting skills are good and indeed an elaborate spreadsheet model is a powerful vehicle to deliver confusion.

If you think the client is the only one suffering, think again. Some poor junior recruit sat up all night aligning all of the 508 bullet points and centring graphs and making UML diagrams just for it to be ignored forever. I’ve been on the receiving end of this. Asked to help a colleague choose a pub for our office Christmas drinks, I rattled up a spreadsheet with the name of the pub, the price and availability. I highlighted the best venue by using red text. Five minutes after sending it off, I received a frantic phonecall. Apparently this wasn’t “her vision’. Apparently she “saw” a slide deck for each pub, the pros and cons, the price, pictures and contact details and clear indication of my choice. Apparently she’s on the wrong project. I, for one, hardly had time to eat never mind recreate the corporate equivalent of War and Peace about Christmas drinks.

Never the less, as young and willing to please as I am I put five slides together with a one liner about the pub, a photo from each site and then faded out each undesirable option so that the chosen venue was clear. I was baffled as to why this was necessary considering the only variable was price and only one place met our criteria. I sent it back to her.

Upon checking my work the next day I found an email sent at 0217 with her “few changes’ included. The deck as now 15 slides long, had an intro page, contents and a 2×2 detailing the best option in the upper right hand quadrant. Oh, and a Christmas tree on the cover page. Please bear in mind that no one bar us was ever going to see this document. I don’t think that the pub was ever booked.

A more recent conversation with a manager comes to mind. We were setting up a fileplan for a clients shared document management system. Upon reading my brief of the project he suggested I should refer to the fileplan as a “document knowledge management system” because “It sounds more expensive” He seemed proud that he had to ask for a word count extension when tendering for the project. Twenty thousand words was ten thousand short of his bid-novella.

Overdelivery really is an amazing talent and skill.   As highlighted by a fellow consultant, the black arts of document-to-tome transmogrification and verbosity and circumlocution expertise will get you far indeed.  The problem is that it seems to go all out against everything else we’ve been taught in education with struct word limits and warnings against overcomplication.  My own academic background drilled into me the importance of being exact, specific and concise. I remember having a draft paper ripped up because I dared use adjectives in my abstract. I’m continually amazed by what my colleagues churn out, how impressive it looks and how little it says and I struggle in their footsteps. The problem of overdelivery has innocent enough its roots. For one, the employees are driven and ambitious people with the tender ego of the teachers pet and need to outdo their colleagues-cum-classmates at every turn. The industry itself feeds on their employes attitudes and not only awards promotions and bonuses on clint work but on ‘extra’ work for the firm, to be completed in whatever’s left of your weekends and evenings. Most people who work in consulting find themselves there because they are willing to go the extra mile – do another proofread, recheck the calculations, make something elegant as well as practical. Such attitudes shine through in school and university when you’re the only person with them in a hall of 100 other students but in the consulting office, all the employes are the class star. To get noticed, you have to even further. Its a vicious self propagating positive feedback cycle which management milk to their hearts content.

I, for one, refuse to be unproductive. Making a twelve page document when two sides is all that’s required is a waste of my time, the clients time and the client’s money. Furthermore I don’t come cheap – I’m not going to have taxpayers contributions wasted on me making a pretty slide deck when I could be doing something more useful and relevant. Having voiced my opinion to a few members of senior staff I received all five stages of grief (and ruined promotion opportunities for life)but now, thankfully, people are no longer asking me to review their macros or getting angry when I refuse. The law of diminishing returns says no. If it’s not worth it, don’t do it.