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A journey of development as a consultant: when it rains it pours

Like the lovely weather down in the deep south, the life of a consultant is sometimes like the lazy sunny days of summer and sometimes a downpour of activity.

I have decided to undertake a bit of a social experiment over the next few months. I am keen to continue to develop as a consultant. The dilemma I face is that when it is sunny and I have time to reflect and write about consulting, I cannot remember the details of my experiences. When I am being buffeted by the rain of work, I don't have time to reflect. What I have decided to try is a daily reflection on the dayly life of an Intergen consultant. If I can jot down some thoughts (rain or shine), I am hoping that will provide me with more information for ideas and analysis down the road.

So why is this a social experiment? Because I am going to share my thoughts (through these posts). I do not know if anyone will be interested or benefit from this exercise, but we shall see...

Welcome aboard my consulting journey - don't forget your umbrella!

The importance of being (earnest-ly) heard

Back in my Microsoft Product Support days, I remember my team lead reminding us to "Answer the phone and let the customer talk. They may be frustrated, angry, or under pressure, and will not be able to hear you until you've heard them."

This still rings true for me in consulting. We may not be interacting with clients in the same kind of pressure situation, but I think there is merit in listening to our clients before we start talking.

We need to establish trust in our relationship. Part of building trust is being able to predict behaviours and believe that those behaviours will not cause harm. One of the easiest ways to demonstrate our trustworthiness is to establish a pattern of (1) listening and (2) providing reflective feedback (i.e., holding a mirror to them), showing that we have heard and understood them. This allows our clients to move past "being heard" and engage in tougher conversations that are not possible if trust is not established.

We need to understand what they are trying to achieve. It is so easy in an organisation which provides solutions, to want to move to those conversations as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it can lead to solving a problem that you (and possibly the client as well) does not fully understand and that has not been articulated. Listening (i.e., not talking or thinking about what we are going to say next), affords us the opportunity to think and reflect on what the client is saying. We'll be able to ask more pertinent and insightful questions if we allow ourselves to go on the clients' journey. It is important to remember that they may be working through their own understanding by explaining it to us.

Finally, listening helps confirm a shared understanding. It is easy enough to think everyone has taken away the same goal, message, understanding, but it is not until you listen to someone else that you can recognise how close (or far) their understanding is from our own.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Multiple sources of truth

My colleague/desk-mate, Bryce, and I were talking today (before Thai-Friday lunch) about the single source of truth. He mentioned that the truth of this truth is that there are often multiple sources of truth. Note that most of Bryce's insights happen before, during, or after we eat :-)

We often think of "the truth" as an absolute. There is only one truth and anything else is merely a reflection/distortion of that one truth... but is that really true?

I have spent the past few days interviewing project stakeholders. Now you may be thinking, "but Fa, you are asking people's opinions". Yes, they are their opinions, in the sense that they are telling me the truth from their POV. And perhaps you could argue one side or the other that these opinions are/are not the truth. Either way, consider what we do as consultants after the interviews when we analyse and present back our findings/recommendations to the client...

We present the truth based on these multiple sources of truth. Person A might say that the sky is blue and B might say it is grey. In our analysis we reflect on these truths and find themes of truth. There are discrepancies in how users view the sky which must be resolved if sky colour is used an indicator of blah blah blah... Or sky colour is in the blue spectrum, ranging from bright to grey tones... Or users all see the importance of the sky having a colour property... As consultants, it is our job to ensure that we are analysing and communicating the best truth (or set of truths) for our clients, that help them make better decisions and achieve their goals. Sorry, there is no right (true) answer - there may be many (or none) that are valid.

So in consulting, truth ends up being relative and dependent on context...and from multiple sources of "the truth".

Reading between the lines

I have spent a fair amount of time over the past few weeks, reviewing and responding to feedback.

Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper and read between the lines to understand the real meaning of what clients are saying (or feeling, or doing, or not doing, etc.)

Sometimes you get feedback that you can take at face value. "On page 27, the diagram is missing a sub- process on sending contact updates to blah blah blah". Easy to understand. Easy to react to. Sometimes, however, the words are not the full story, but instead they are clues to a hidden sub-text. "No! This is wrong, I don't understand this, Why is this included?, etc." are all signals to something underneath the surface.

I have reviewed comments like "Where did you get this process from?", "Who does that?", "I have not heard of that system, who uses it?". On first glance, it may seem that they are looking for information about your consulting approach - who did you interview? who gave you that information? But really, they may be admitting (or at least realising) that their organisational/institutional knowledge is incomplete or out-of-date. They may not be the person with all the answers, that they once were. They may not have a good understanding of the changes that are coming. Or they may not fully understand the compelling reasons for the change.

I suspected that stakeholders in the organisation were talking to me, but not talking to each other, so individually they had an incomplete picture of the report. Although just my suspicions, it prompted me to follow up on my concerns (e.g., schedule a meeting with the project sponsor) and provide a better response to their feedback (e.g., I offered to facilitate a group session for follow- up).

I have honed many skills as a consultant, but perhaps one of the most useful has been to read social cues (face-to-face or computer-mediated) in order to understand and provide better services to our clients.

Well, that’s all for now folks, see you soon with more on my journey to develop as a consultant!

Posted by: Fa Niemi, Senior Consultant, Modern Applications | 26 July 2016

Tags: Consulting, Personal Development

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