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A journey of development as a consultant: mirror, mirror on the wall

Earlier this year I decided to undertake a bit of a social experiment over a few months. I was keen to continue to develop as a consultant. The dilemma I faced was 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 decided to try is daily reflection on a day in the life of an Intergen consultant, I am hoping that will provide me with more information for reflection and analysis down the road.

Welcome aboard the second instalment of my consulting journey - don't forget your umbrella! 

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Have you ever had to explain what your job is to your kids, parents, friends (or even clients)? What do we do as consultants?

What is a consultant? The first answer most of us give is "a trusted advisor". But what do we advise? How do we advise? Why do we advise? I have also considered "problem-solver". Again, I am not sure if that is accurate. Do we really solve problems? How do we solve them? Which problems do we solve and why? My favourite response now is "I am a mirror".

Back in my uni days, my supervisor's favourite explanation of what she did when she read my thesis was, "I am mirroring what you have written back to you." So why is that important? I think of it as the first step in analysis. As consultants we may read documents, conduct interviews and workshops, or observe people at work in order to problem solve or give good (trusted) advice. But this cannot be done in isolation or it will lose the context. So in the early phases of problem solving, it is important to mirror back to our clients what they are presenting to us. Their reaction to our mirror will speak volumes. Do they recognise their people, organisation, processes in your mirror? Good...keep going. Do they correct you? Good...investigate. Do they tune out? Hmm...you need to sort out what is going on.

After you are their mirror, it will be so much clearer what problems need to be solved and what advice to give.

Let them eat cake

Our clients say they are hungry. We give them cake. Is that what we should be doing?

Although this could be a metaphor for providing a solution before understanding the business problem (cart before the horse), the cake in this scenario is actually a solution to their articulated problem (horse and cart in correct order). So what is wrong with that?!

We are a technology solution provider. We work with clients to understand their needs and then implement an appropriate solution. The problem is that we are not always successful. Moreover, the reason for our lack of success has little to do with technology and everything to do with the underlying organisation.

In some organisations, management wants cake, but the rest of the business is unsure about cake or perhaps wants something entirely different (and perhaps more nourishing like a salad). Letting them eat cake, doesn't work without organisational change. Once this is understood by both the client and us, then it is straightforward enough to talk about change management for the business.

In other organisations, management does not fully understand the implications of eating cake. This is a much more difficult problem. Again, just letting them eat cake will not work. But how do you ensure success? I think it requires our commitment to really understand our clients. This understanding is not just about their needs (e.g., they need cake), but also their abilities, culture, politics, etc. (e.g., a politically influential person wants pizza instead).

Change management can also play a part in this scenario. However, it is more focussed on journeying the changes with the management team. On the journey, we need to help our clients understand what cake is, why cake was recommended for them, what it takes to eat cake (e.g, you'll need other food since cake is dessert, plus a place to eat, plus staff will need to be told about a new dessert option, etc.).

Even if our clients say they are hungry and want to eat cake, the organisational environment (cultural and political) may present many challenges to cake-eating. Our job is to journey with them, so they are prepared for cake when it comes out of the oven.

When creativity escapes you, try structure

I do not consider myself to be a creative type, but creativity (aka novelty, innovation, thinking-outside-the-square, etc.) are all parts of being a consultant. So what do you do when your creative side does a runner?

I get nervous every time I am assigned to a project recovery engagement. My first thought is, "I need to think of something amazingly creative and different to help turn this project around." And then my mind goes blank.

One trick is to start with good practice and structure. Essentially this means, rely on the creativity of others. Not unlike LEGO, when you can't think of what to build. Try following the instructions. By practicing, organising, thinking deeply about the activity in a structured way, you'll have a good foundation to explore and innovate.

So if a project wasn't able to deliver, I do not sit at my desk and try to think up novel ways that projects can succeed. Instead I start with a trusty TODO list.

  1. What was the definition of success? Schedule meeting with project sponsor
  2. What happened during the project and when did it start to fail? Schedule meeting with PM and review project documentation
  3. What was expected and what are the benefits that were not achieved? Schedule meeting with key stakeholders
  4. Keep talking to people until the project's story emerges...

My own creativity depends on a good understanding of the situation. By scheduling interviews, reviewing documentation, even organising my notes and files; I find that these structured activities help order my thoughts. When the story of picture of the struggling project emerges, I start to see themes, patterns and gaps. Those are gold, because then I can see ways to address the issues. To the client it may look as though I have great insight or a huge toolkit of strategies, but really I have just built a structured base on which to grow my creativity.

Giggling and other consulting tips

Sometimes the best way to developing a shared understanding of a complex topic is to just have a giggle together.

Providing consulting services is a serious job. We dress professionally. We treat our clients respectfully. Is there room for silliness in the professional relationship? Yes!

I recently attended a training session with colleagues about situational leadership. One of the topics was about leading people (both internal staff and clients) who performed at different stages of the development continuum. One end of the spectrum, D1, is known as "unconsciously incompetent" <giggle>. And there were a couple of giggles when that term was used. As we continued, in discussions people started using "D1" to describe themselves and others. We would smile or laugh, not because we were not taking the exercise seriously, but because we were starting to develop a shared language. This language was based on our shared experience of attending the training session together. "D1" meant "unconsciously incompetent" <giggle> to us now and evoked stories we had shared and an understanding of how it related to our developing leadership skills.

Knowledge Management literature refers to shared language and shared rituals as being precursors to developing a shared understanding. Shared language provides a shorthand for individuals so they can quickly understand the context of the knowledge being developed. Language does not always need to be serious and formal. It can be informal conversations and storytelling. It can be the use of a term like "unconsciously incompetent" <giggle> which evokes memories of past shared experiences while connecting people to new topics and new knowledge.

So, do not discount having a giggle with a client or colleague, you could in fact be developing a shared understanding critical for the success of your next project. 

Leveraging the set play in workshops

I was told by my soccer-playing kids that most goals are scored during a set play. My ears perked up, I could use some goals in my trickier workshops. So, how could I add the set play concept to my workshops? Let's think about how difficult workshops unfold...

You are running a workshop with ambitious goals. A few participants may be on task. But there are some individuals who keep dragging the discussions off task. They may bring up off topic ideas. They may monopolise the conversions with long stories or explanations. You watch the clock tick, but do not feel like you are making progress. So what can you do as the facilitator?

Try a set play.

In soccer, when things get chaotic and players are reacting to events instead of running planned plays, a set play such as a throw-in or goal-kick can change the tempo of the game. The set play enables you to do several things:

  • You can slow down and plan/prepare for your next move
  • You can perform a practiced and repeatable action (e.g., basketball players practicing foul shots)
  • You gain control of the situation (it is your move and you decide what happens next)

So if your workshop is spiralling out of control and you are in danger of not accomplishing your goals, try calling the "set play" of a 10-minute break. Calling a break enables you to address several things:

  • You can diffuse any tension that has built up during discussions
  • You can stop the current direction of the discussion
  • You can remind people what the purpose or remaining actions for the workshop are
  • You can privately pull participants aside to discuss what you need from them (e.g., I need to park your detailed explanations for another session so we can get through our requirements elicitation)
  • You gain control of the situation

So even if you are not sporty (and I am certainly in that camp), think about including a set play to your workshop facilitator toolkit.

Awkwardness...the gift that keeps on giving

Sometimes I make a horrible first impression. My natural awkwardness shines through and I'll forget a client's name, prepare for the wrong meeting, and even occasionally shut the door on one client while foolishly trying to impress another.

The awesome thing about consulting (and all client-facing jobs) is that although the first, second, and third impressions might be sub-par (and perhaps even downright embarrassing), if you have enough contact and interaction with a client, chances are you can turn it around and even make it a positive.

So how do you use a faux pas to your advantage? Make it one of your shared stories.

In organisational knowledge management, shared rituals, language and stories are important components of developing a social network in which to share knowledge. A shared story indicates that you have a history together. A shared story can help make you more known to others (and more trustworthy) by exposing your personal characteristics and behaviours. A shared story can change emotions and reduce tension through humour.

We all have had clients who start as detractors. They are unhappy with the project and unwilling to participate. When we talk to them, they may be reluctant to engage or sceptical that the project will be successful. We may spend more time listening to complaints rather than understanding their needs.

In these instances, my awkwardness becomes our shared story. Recently I confused two clients. During and after our initial meeting, I apologised. The next day I sent a short note which included a bit of self-deprecating humour. I initially spent a bit more time onsite with the client over the next week and used every encounter to give a knowing smile. I started to notice a change in behaviour and have started to see some positive engagement.

I think my gaff made me seem more human and to some extent let me be more vulnerable. It certainly has given us something to smile about and I think we have a better client-consultant relationship than we would have without my re-occurring gift of social awkwardness. 

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 | 25 August 2016

Tags: Consulting, Personal Development

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