5 common mistakes made by consultants

Consultancy is a profession executed by many of us. Not only by consultants, but also by managers, project managers, architects and other professionals. Namely anyone who supports others in solving complex issues. If you do this, you are actually ‘consulting’ others. This means you basically have two challenges, solving the problem and telling others what the proposed solution is and convincing them to accept your solution. This article illustrates 5 common faults in consulting.

  1. Too much focus on the solution.
    The issue itself attracts our attention and as a subject matter expert we tend to focus on it completely to solve this complex issue and develop the perfect solution. Since you are the expert you have to live up to the expectation and you will show people you know your stuff. Finding the perfect solution will not automatically make people accept it though. The effectivity of a consult is the product of the quality of the solution and how much it is accepted by others. (E=QxA) Both factors are evenly important. A very common mistake is to focus on the solution and forget about the acceptation. If this is zero, the end-result will be zero. In many cases an easy solution with a high acceptation level seems to be more effective than the perfect solution. A subject matter expert however will have difficulty in this and try to find a perfect, but maybe too complex solution for other to accept.
  2. Answer the question
    The (internal) customer or client poses a question, to overcome a problem. This is the basis of a consulting engagement. It seems obvious to answer this question, but strangely it isn’t. I assume you will know the concept of the question behind the question. Meaning you will ask questions to explore the problem asking further question like what, where, how and of course, why, why, why and why again. Well, please do but this is not what I mean.
    My hint is to go one step further. If you explore the original question you assume this is the right question. Mostly however it isn’t and you should challenge this question. You can be pretty sure the customer or customers’ organization tried many things to solve the issue before the called you. And if you take your customer seriously, because they know their business and have an education too. Than why couldn’t they solve the problem themselves?
    So unless you really are the expert for this particular topic, they probably made some wrong assumptions concerning the issue. The probably already framed the issue excluding other approaches towards the problem or the solution. You have to be prepared for this.

    The client probably looked for the answer from his own paradigm. Many issues are solved within this paradigm, but this one probably not. Else they wouldn’t have called you in. You being an external with another paradigm can help them not only with your specific expertise, but also because you can see things outside their paradigm unless you let them frame the issue in a way you can’t do this anymore.
    This seems obvious but is not very easy actually. It requires some training to do this, but I will give you an easy hint to deal with it. First try to clarify the higher level goals the customer wants to achieve related to this issue. Then explore why they can’t achieve these goals. This is where you can add most value.

  3. Boil the ocean.
    To solve a complex issue we usually use data. Compare to 30 year ago we nowadays have many possibilities to gather information. We can connect to many people very easily to ask them questions, we have access to lot of open source information (the internet) and Information systems and data warehouses offer us a lot of data points. This is both a blessing and a curse. You can loose a lot of time processing this data and as a human being even end up with information stress. In consultancy this is what is called “boil the ocean”. Illustrating it will take a lot of time to do this. The question is, what data do you exactly need to solve the issue. This can only be managed by applying the right consulting methods and tools to structure, filter and analyze data,  like Issue Based Consulting. Complex business issues cannot be solved without a professional approach towards data processing.
  4. Burry the lead.
    After we have found the solution the problem we have to present it to the client and all stakeholders. As a consultant you are hindered by your knowledge here. You will probably illustrate the content of the problem and the solution, trying to explain it. Maybe with too many details, with jargon, too long, to complicated or even worse unstructured. Others not being an expert will drop out. The probably fell asleep or were distracted by the messages at their smartphone at the moment you was presenting the final conclusion at the end of your story.
    So why not start with the conclusion. Spend some time to formulate the conclusion in a way people can understand it. Try to be as short as possible and concrete as possible. Less is more. What is the essence of you message? Suppose you only have 30 seconds or 1 minute to explain your solution, how would you do that?
    Start with this. Then of course there will probably a lot of questions, like why, is this really true, based on what data, how are we going to execute, etcetera. You can explain these questions step by step causing your audience to be interested all the time, because you are answering their question. What we aim for is a question-answer dialogue instead of a presentation being a long story.
  5. An unequal position.
    Being the customer and thus paying you, the client can pose himself in a position above you. To help the customer you probably have to make them accept things outside their paradigm. From their position towards you, they might not accept this or they might not support you enough in case you will need trustworthy data or need time from certain VIP’s, etcetera. Because they pay you a lot of money they might act like they have done enough already. To reach the best result you need not to be limited in any way.
    The fact the customer has a position above you, because they pay you , can already be seen as framing. It is just how you look at it. You can also see it they other way. They have a problem, you don’t. They need help, you don’t. So let just assume we are in equal positions. So you can ask anything you want if it brings you closer to solving the issue. Since it is a complex issue, we need no limits. Feel free to ask anything you need to ask. Feel free to ask access to all resources, all data without hesitation. And specially, feel free ask for the time you will need from people. Consider your position to be equal to them. You are helping them.
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Consultancy is considered to be a profession. Not only do you need your business knowledge and your specific expertise, you also need skills, methods and tools. ConsultingMethodology offers these skills, methods and tools as a worldwide platform for consulting methods.
For a period of more than 20 years we have provided training and coaching for many consultants and professional worldwide, offering them the knowledge and the tools consultants at firms like McKinsey are trained in. The knowledge from Harvard and consulting guru’s like Peter Block form the basis for the consulting profession.

These 5 hints are just some examples derived from our consulting training curriculum. Practicing my work as a consultant for more than 25 years they have helped me a lot. I hope these hints will also help you to deal with the challenges of this great profession.