Overdelivery

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.

Teamwork

June 28th, 2010

One of the keystones of consulting is teamwork. The industry would be nowhere without it and it’s one of the major scoring areas in graduate recruitment and induction.

Now, teamwork sounds like quite a good thing; the best person for the job, delegation, learning, knowledge transfer…by and by I’m a fan of teamwork because I can joyfully glean everyone else’s knowledge for my own and ask more learned people for workarounds with my own incompetence.  Oh, and support my colleagues, offer my expertise and so forth.  Teamwork can be a real enabler to get things done however the consulting industry takes teamwork to a whole new level.

Part of the focus on team playing is not that you will get on with people and work professionally with your colleagues – it’s so that you won’t say no to them. It starts with the team dinner and social; a bit of alcohol and a night on the dance-floor soon starts to destroys the professional boundaries we try so hard to cultivate the rest of the time. Throw in a few lunchtime confessionals, shared flights and hotels and suddenly the project “team” becomes the project “friends” and therein lies the secret to the industry’s success. You can’t really say no to your friends, can you? Think about it. If someone you hardly know but work with asks you to work overtime you can easily refuse, suggest that you have family commitment and get out of there. However, if that nice girl you drank cocktails with last week – you know, the one who told you about her boyfriend cheating and borrowed a shirt when she spilt coffee down herself-asks for a bit of help to get something finished it’s a lot more difficult to refuse.

The nature of the work forces people together and demands that they become intensely involved in each other’s lives. You’re expected to travel together, work in the same office all day, eat dinner together, sleep in the same hotel and go to the same hotel gyms (which invariably means being naked in front of your same sexed co-workers and doing your hair and makeup together). You can end up spending more time with you team than you ever would with anyone else in your life. Even when you go on holiday with your other half you can at least go on separate bus tours.  On that note, office affairs are notorious and the big joke about “consultants only end up marrying other consultants” stems from leading this lifestyle. You may only see your partner at weekends but you may spend up to sixteen hours a day with the “team”, which is usually rife with attractive, intelligent young professionals.

Working in a team is also a great way to mitigate risk and pass blame. When you’ve worked with three other people to get something done and then got two managers and partner to sign something off, it can’t *really* be your fault when it all bellies up, can it? I’ll be honest with you – I’m of the firm opinion that whilst you’re a junior member of the team and can get away with making mistakes you should make the best of it. It really isn’t your fault because you can’t be expected to know better – it’s as safe an environment as you’ll get and whilst you’re in the position to pass the blame to another team member, do it. They obviously want the responsibility and worry or they would have left by now.

Teamwork is also a breeding ground for a whole plethora of management phrases which are developed and passed round the office as the team splits out and moves on. To give you a taster, here are three team-orientated phrases which I’ve heard in the past five hours alone: “We should touch base later” –I’ll phone you in an hour or so “I’ll take this offline” – “Let’s not discuss that with everyone else here “Are we strong on that?” – Can we do that nay impossible task? There’s only so much of “team calls” and “hello team” and “team updates” you can take before you start to resent that fact that no one calls you by your name (unless they want something done) or the fact that you don’t seem to have a life outside the “team” or the fact that the same set of pasted on smiling faces are going to see you falling off the treadmill at 6am as have shared your taxi home at midnight the night before.

Lastly, there’s the guilt. The point I alluded to at the start of this diatribe highlighting the fuzzy line between co-worker and friend which seems to permit others to ask anything of you and you comply. I was speaking to a fellow consultant recently who said that he felt bad about leaving his project team working to 3am and going home because they will “resent him”. He only feels like that because he fell for the tricks which let him become close to the guys he works with. His relationships within the team means that he thinks that he owes them solidarity when all he really owes them is a cup of coffee when it’s his round.

It’s not the army, it’s not an operating table, it’s not a rescue mission. Your teamwork may be crucial to the project success but it’s not life or death. Do yourself a favour and go home. They’ll get over it.

Expenses

June 17th, 2010

I was in discussions with a good friend and worker in the public sector regarding the issue of justified expenses (I don’t mean MP type expenses, just general work expenses.  Before anyone leaps onto a high horse).
“You have it easy,” she said, “You just claim it all on expenses.”

Oh really?  I asked for some justification on what “it all” was.
“Well…your travel, your food and drink…top hotels, entertainment, gym membership, telephone calls, drinks with clients, clothes, dry-cleaning…”
I mulled it over.  Entertainment written onto expenses?  Taking clients wining and dining?  Where was she getting this from?  Then I realised that she was getting consultants confused with investment bankers.  The subtle difference between investment bankers and consultants is that the two industries are dissimilar in every way.  I don’t know where in the annals of tertiary sector work this mix up originated but it seems to once again perpetuated by the media who presents overfed coke head party boys (and girls) who spend their spare time in strip clubs as the only type of professional services worker out there and indeed given the rest of us a damning reputation…either way you can read more about it here.

It’s time to set the record straight on expenses.
Firstly, on a rather whimsical note, most consultants are honest and conscientious people which is why they ended up in consulting and not investment banking.  Sorry, bankers.  On one level, we know that expenses money ultimately comes from the client and most of us feel pretty bad about stuffing it down the knickers of a third rate bleached blonde tangoed lap dancer.   On another level, it’s nay impossible to claim anything over and above the approved rates for things as our computer system simply won’t let you enter it in.  That’s jumping ahead though.  Let me backtrack and I’ll start by clarifying what is and what isn’t classed as an expense.

“Travel – planes, trains, taxis, busses and boats” – Which is fair enough.  We work away from home, someone has to pay the airline to take us there.  What ISN’T true is that we’re living it up in business class with 7am classes of champagne and toasted cashew canapés.  Anyone above manager grade can choose to travel business class, but only trans-Atlantic and within reason.  Lower grades can occasionally travel business class with manager approval but you can bet how often that happens.

“Top Hotels” – Ok, I’ll be honest.  We get to stay in some really nice hotels.  I don’t mean top of the range gold plated and brocade hotels but we do get nice four star business getups in central areas and a good helping of mod cons.  But then again, if you’re being made to work away from home you want to be able to live as normally as possible.  Nice hotels get boring when you can’t leave them because you don’t know anyone or are working so late you literally fall into bed at half one then roll out again at half six.  You’d better be sure I’ll be after a clean bathroom and nicely folded towels waiting at her majesty’s pleasure under those circumstances.

“Food and Drinks” –We can charge for one meal a day and one alcoholic drink with the meal.  To put this into universal purchasing power parity, this is the equivalent of a large pizza, a side and a drink in a chain takeaway.  No sign of the world famous eateries and Michelin stars here – unless the manager takes you out on a “team dinner” which happens usually once during a project during which you’re stuck with your work colleagues talking about work.  We cannot charge for coffee, tea, lunch, snacks or breakfast.  We can attend some industry events which are usually well covered by expenses but who wants to go to work after work and talk about work (see the theme here…) for a free glass of Pinot Grigio?

“Gym Membership” – you can get half subsidised gym membership for one gym which the company chooses but that’s useless as we tend to work away from home a lot.

“Telephone calls” – We can claim calls from the work mobile within a reasonable limit which I bet isn’t as much as your monthly contract.

“Drinks with clients” – If you are of senior enough grade – as in if you’ve spent years slaving over a hot laptop and working 60 hour weeks you can – sometimes -  take clients out for a drink.  The average length of time it takes to get to a grade which allows you to charge for expenses with clients is twelve years.  However, I have heard about client entertainment events such as taking client to box theatre seats at top productions, but it’s only done by the partners and it’s usually with a business agenda.

“Clothes and drycleaning” – Are you serious?  Even if I had the time to go shopping no one is going to pay for my clothes.  There was one circumstance where I had been away from home for four days and my manager asked me to work Friday in a different office then work the weekend doing something else.  His entire suggested reimbursement was that I could buy some clean shirts to wear.  No mention of overtime (which we don’t get paid) or relocation reimbursement.  No, I’m female so obviously the offer of new clothes is going to rope me in.  I said no.

When it comes to entering claims, there is a defined list which much be checked and entered into our systems, along with the provisions of receipts and covering letters where necessary.  Any value which comes as unusual is pulled through an audit process and scrutinised.  Which is fine in my books– there’s no such thing as a free lunch and if such procedures catch out anyone trying to overclaim when the honest ones are doing the best to enter everything in to the penny then it gets my support.
I’ve realised that what I’ve written can almost be construed as negative.  It’s not supposed to be.  It’s simply trying to explain the truth behind our work expenses.  I wouldn’t feel right writing of large sums of client money into filling my belly and even if I had the freedom do so I doubt I would.