Tips for being a positive communicator and an effective consultant

In this book excerpt by William McKnight, learn how consultants can become positive communicators, how to use guiding principles and about Occam’s Razor Principle of Consulting.

Table of Contents:

Understanding the role of consultants and building client relationships
Tips for being a positive communicator and an effective consultant


Be a Positive Communicator
Playing the blame game happens all around us at all times. Sometimes it’s subtle; other times it’s quite overt. What seems to happen once an employee leaves? Often, his or her peers suddenly find out that he hasn’t been doing a good job after all, and the company is better off without the former employee. This is a form of the blame game. The reality usually is a form of the fact that everybody does things different and has different opinions. Coders use different coding standards. Project leaders take different approaches. Sometimes methodologies don’t translate to different technologies. And timing is everything—we don’t know the tradeoffs that were in effect in situations in the past, especially under different management regimes.

When you enter a client situation, to make yourself look better, you may be tempted to cast all manner of dispersion on the situation you find—and, by extension, the people (some gone and some still there) who helped to create the situation. The client may even be expecting you to do so. As a consultant, you have to identify the problems as you see them, and the client is owed your opinion. However, be judicious with blame. Your focus should be on the future and how to get there.

If you suggest any kind of change, some will get their feathers ruffled. It is inevitable. Once I did an assessment of a client environment. It turned out to be an evaluation of a project that had been done by another consultancy. Interestingly, the executives who received my report decided to share it with everyone currently on the team. That’s their prerogative, and unless I know ahead of time that there will be a very limited readership of my deliverables, I don’t write anything I wouldn’t want anybody in the company reading, should the sponsor of the work choose to share it.

Each recipient was invited to formally reply to the report anonymously. Here’s the point: Despite my objectiveness, the responses ranged. At one end of the spectrum, people thought I was treating the consultancy with kid gloves because, after all, we consultants “protect each other.” At the other end of the spectrum, some people thought I was overly critical of the project. Everybody has their opinions.

Be Very Conscious of Naming Conventions
Industries that spawn consulting organizations to support them have a very difficult time reining in the nomenclature of that industry. With every vendor and consultant trying to leave their mark on the industry, acronyms are created left and right, and once-sacred definitions are continually nuanced, if not outright replaced. Eventually the phrasings become meaningless. It all depends on who you talk to.

Figure 8.1 The lifecycle of a term in a thriving industry.

The point is that you can look for your opportunity to inject your definition into the industry if you wish to join that fray. An effective alternative—and one that your clients might appreciate—is to speak (and write) to clients as if they are being bombarded by overlapping definitions in the industry you represent, full of hard-to-follow homonyms and synonyms (because they are). Example consultative talk might include, “You may hear OLAP referred to as any kind of data access, or you may hear it referred to as specific forms of data access that include the ability to see your business metrics by any business dimension.”

If the client happens to want to go with some definitions that seem to be working in their environment, go with it. You should be flexible enough to accommodate them. However, the efficiency and convenience of everyone being on the same page with their references is unmistakable. If there is opportunity, you can then feel free to forge your chosen definitions into the client situation. But do so with the caveat that they may hear or read different definitions of the term and/or different terms used to describe whatever it is you’re describing. And do so with the explanation of why labeling is important.

When it comes to naming conventions and labeling, the consultant must also guard against his or her own prejudices, or it will soon become evident that the consultant and client are clearly on different pages. Confusion does not a good relationship make. When you see a problem at a client that you’ve seen before, sure, it’s great that you have the experience fixing it. Just remain vigilant throughout the process in case flexibility is required.

The Occam’s Razor Principle of Consulting
Occam’s Razor (paraphrased) states that the simplest explanation is usually the best one. At some level, there is a finite set of problems that clients may be having that you are addressing. Think about your client (past and future) situations that you may be called on to address. On one page, list them out. At a high level, something should be done about each situation that you want to influence in the client relationship.

For example, you may find software that is so old that its vendor refuses to support the client anymore. Not only is this causing all manner of support costs and delays, but the client is likely missing interesting new features that the client is building workarounds for. Quite often, these client cultures lack an understanding of the importance of staying relatively current with their chosen technology. Instead of perpetuating complex workarounds, it may be the upgrade is the simple lever to turn to produce the best results for the client.

You are looking for leverage at a client. You are looking to make a small change that will result in the biggest impact for the client. It is only reasonable to assume that, in most cases, despite your best efforts, you are only going to be able to make one small change at a time. Make immediate impacts by effecting small changes with as large of results as possible. If the results are not large but at least progressive, look to make continued immediate impacts that add up. Coming into an organization—especially a large one—looking to make big changes without the intermediate steps is tantamount to failure.

What Could Go Wrong?
Once scope is set for an engagement, the best question for a consultant to ask (themselves and others) is, “What could go wrong?” Once you know the answers to this question—and keep asking this question until there are no more answers—you can then set about taking care of all of those factors and increasing the chances of success with the client engagement. By the way, even if you think you know all the answers, ask people at the client for their answers to the question. They will tell you.

Recalling that consulting is about tradeoffs, if you do not have the resources to reasonably take care of all possible negative outcomes, these belong in your communications with the client.

This is also a way of tapping into your inner thoughts and bringing them out into practice. Consulting is a mental game, and one difference you must bring is the ability to see what others don’t. The best way to draw that out is to continually ask questions, and the best one is, “What could go wrong?”

The Use of Guiding Principles
Finally, every organization should work from a methodological approach. However, the approach needs to be tempered with accommodation for urgent needs. A plan for getting back to the desired methodology and architecture should accompany these approach details. Let’s call it all guiding principles.

Guiding principles include the exception conditions for their use. However, what if an urgent need arises for data in a “quick and dirty” manner, and your latency factor for building the solution in an elegant structure is too slow to meet the need? You can correct this systemically—as you probably should—but there’s no one to step up with the budget for this now. The proponents of the urgent need can argue that is not their burden to bear, and they would be right.

Yet don’t give up on your guiding principles too easily. They are worth fighting for. Usually, after adding a few basic processes to the environment, architected solutions are quicker to come by than unarchitected ones.

This is the essence of a hybrid, best-of-breed approach. It accommodates the urgent needs of the business while adhering to a flexible, scalable approach that will ultimately provide the most effective balance of both efficiency and effectiveness. I’m sure most of you can appreciate these mixed messages that are commonplace when advising on areas of judgment. Consulting is a judgment issue—both initially and on an ongoing basis.

The chances of successful efforts significantly correlate to having people with the right characteristics for success on the project—or at least enough of them to compensate for those who do not have the right characteristics. Also, success goes far beyond technical skills, and good technical skills need to be balanced with communication and direction-setting.

An overriding characteristic needed is sound judgment or the ability to arrive at and act on a consensus of opinion, including:

  • The ability to arrive at a rational consensus within a group
  •  Respect for and understanding of the validity of other viewpoints
  • Putting the good of the group ahead of the individual

Putting together the what, when, and who has created the most successful consultant-client relationships in the world.

Action Plan

  •  Make a list today of whom you can help get credit from their superiors at work.
  •  Identify the buzzwords you use and identify how the industry and your clients may be using the terms.
  •   List the problems you will typically find at clients and their most simplistic solutions.
  •  Develop approaches to uniquely provide those solutions.
  •  Decide to be a positive communicator.
  •  Ask yourself “What could go wrong?”…and take care of the answers!

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This was first published in May 2010

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