Consulting Code Blue
by George Smart
Companies in the new millenium must respond quickly to the economy's rapidly changing conditions. The days of complacency are over, and firms now search for ways to meet the challenges of the marketplace without increasing employees. Many firms use the talents of outside management consultants.
In fact, using management consultants can be the most cost-effective way for a company to receive specialized help on a temporary basis. Yet most companies (and unfortunately some consultants) overlook the fact that management consulting itself is a skill. A consultant's ability to set expectations clearly, for example, is critical to assuring mutually satisfying results. A consultant's ability to fully understand the issues before acting assures the integrity of recommendations. And the consultant's development of trust with his or her client can mean the difference between a 2 or 3 percent improvement and one of 200 or 300 percent.
Management consulting skills (or the lack of them) make the difference between the success and failure of a consultant. Poor skills usually result in the consultant not being asked back, or worse, being dismissed. Such dismissal is the consulting equivalent of heart failure. In many hospitals, they would call such a failure a "code blue". I use the term "code blue" to describe the situation of consultants who are quite talented but find themselves out the door and on the outs.
Peter Block, in his remarkable book Flawless Consulting, details the dangerous corners a consultant can get themselves into, often with little awareness of the danger signs until too late. Whether you are a management consultant wanting to expand your skills or a company looking to improve the quality of the consultants you use, read Block's Flawless Consulting. It is one of the best in the field.
In my experience as a consultant in teambuilding and strategic planning over the last ten years, I have seen these dangerous corners from both consultant and client roles. There are four areas, which occur frequently:
Forcing the problem into a solution. The adage "if all you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail" applies directly to management consultants who declare diverse skills but are in fact one-trick ponies. As grand as a particular solution or technology might be, no single program can solve all the world's organizational ills.
The consultant overlooks his or her own needs. Take, for example, a consultant who undercharges just to get the work. While this looks like a sound competitive practice to increase volume, not making his or her regular compensation is a de-motivator over time. It would be like an employee having to low bid a salary just to stay employed. Another critical need management consultants tend to overlook is scheduling enough personal time to maintain one's energy over the length of a project. Overwork and over commitment can kill a consultant's health.
Absence of mission. Every consultant/client project should have a clear understanding up front of what it is the consultant is there to do. If there is not a clear mission, all parties are essentially conspiring to avoid focus. Management consultants can collect fees forever based on vague project mandates that are never tied to a big picture. You don't want your company to pay for services, which are not focused towards results.
The consultant rushes to advise. When faced with problems or situations that seem familiar, it is easy for a consultant to draw quick parallels between the project at hand and prior projects. Think of going to the doctor with chest pain and having him or her say "Oh, it's another heart condition. We see those all the time. Just come in Monday and I'll operate." You would be quite upset if that chest pain was due to indigestion, wouldn't you? Good management consultants spend an appropriate amount of time diagnosing the situation before making recommendations and taking action.
Even if you find yourself in one of these situations, all is not lost. Honest communication (laying all the cards on the table) between consultant and client frequently repairs terminal cases with little or no loss of face on either side. Both client and consultant contribute to project breakdowns, and while it may seem the job of the management consultant to fix them, it is also the responsibility of the client to get his or her project back on track. This is hard to do sometimes without getting angry or otherwise damaging the relationship. By getting past any anger or frustration, however, both client and consultant have a significant chance to regroup and both walk away winners.