Not just blue sky thinking

Consulting is probably misunderstood by nearly everyone. I could never manage to convince relatives that I did not fix computers. While I understand how to make use of technology to achieve results for clients, that is far removed from working on computers. The reality is that I spend most of my time working with people. Discussing. Workshopping. Designing. Thinking aloud. Finding agreement. Innovating.

For over 25 years of my life I have done consultancy work. This has been full of opportunity and unforgettable experiences. I have been able to work in some of the most amazing places in the world and worked with outstanding people. I expect to continue to do so.

A few articles that I have written related to my work can be found below.

Consulting Now!

Consulting used to be a simple industry to understand and smart people could be successful…
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This is a starting point on my new approach to working. Last month I resigned…

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Consulting Now!

You must see the big picture so that the small things go in the right direction.

From Alvin Tofler – Future Shock

Where is Consulting now?

Consulting used to be a fairly straightforward thing. A client had a problem and a consultant provided them with a solution that has worked before. Most of these simple problems are still around and there is still some consulting in that space. The challenges we are dealing with today are huge and “wicked” problems that require more than cookie cutter approaches to deliver results. Some of these challenges are:

  • Existential crises – Climate Change, water security, food etc
  • Population health – Diabetes, ageing diseases etc
  • Inequality – First World poverty, Indigenous people, Equal Opportunity

The common theme for all of these challenges is that they are complex and anything you do changes what you are observing. They are Complex Adaptive Systems.

Meeting the challenge

Complex adaptive systems challenge simplistic cause and effect analyses, instead being interactions between dynamic processes. Interactions between individual parts both affect and shape the system as a whole. A change to one part of the system can have disproportionate impacts on the system as a whole. Positive interventions produce a Virtuous Cycle and negative interventions produce a Vicious Cycle. Finding the right levers to move, and why they are the best ones, is the primary challenge.

Focusing on just the most complex and challenging end of consulting, where we are dealing with Complex Adaptive Systems ie diabetes or entrenched poverty. Here are the key principles:

  • What we know is usually dwarfed by what we do not know
  • Cause and effect analysis will not usually give reliable results
  • Generalised approaches (aka one size fits all) often fail when transported to a different community and/or context
  • Most of the time the slowest way to make lasting progress is to take shortcuts
  • Declaring success without objective evidence to support any subjective evidence perpetuates the problem
  • Providing a technical solution to a human problem does not solve the problem – but can help solve it

Remembering that we are talking about large scale and complex problems, the most effective way to deliver results (outcomes if you like) is to take a structured approach that allows for a high degree of flexibility and builds in a comprehensive capability for learning and adapting. Because the way to learn is by intervening in some way and assessing the impact of that intervention, the shorter the cycle for such interventions the quicker the learning process.

The Toolbox

If the only tool you have is a hammer then all problems will look like a nail

Big initiatives require a toolbox rather than a single tool. Agile, Project Management and the vast majority of methodologies are focused on a single tool. Here are some of the tools we will need in the box.

Project management practice is embedded in the world of mechanistic cause and effect. You are aiming to plan to deliver something predictable and tightly focused (scope, timeline and budget). This is not the world of Complex Adaptive Systems.

Program Management sits in the world where we know what we want to achieve and need to get started while we work out how to best to get where we want. It is better suited to working within complex adaptive systems.

Portfolio Management is an overlooked but key part of any large scale initiative. It looks at where the value lies and makes the call as to which parts of the initiative (projects and programs) should be scales back, kept as is or enhanced, according to the results they have delivered and what new knowledge has been discovered.

Business Agility is a concept that Evan Leybourn has been promoting. Its focus is on building an organisational capability that enables quick changes in direction to address external challenges and emergent strategic problems. Even temporary (most Government programs exist longer than 80% of small to medium businesses) initiatives need to organise themselves to be able to adapt to change and new knowledge. See


Let’s start with what I mean by Agile. I mean using proven methods for getting a task done quickly while not skipping much that could be important. This is an embodiment of the 80-20 rule that suggests that 20% of the result comes from 20% of the work, following many similar effects observed in business (ie 80% of business comes from 20% or fewer customers).

Key agile approaches that have been useful:

  • Daily Standup meetings to clarify and progress
  • Kanban
  • Theory of Constraints
  • Future orientation for executives responsible for strategy
  • Dynamically updated business processes in response to stakeholder needs
  • Business and information architecture
  • Continually improved services

Some of the above would not be recognised as Agile by self declared Agile Practitioners. Those are taking a narrow view of what Agile means and may miss the opportunity to help an organisation to be agile (or nimble). The important thing here is that the Purpose of the organisation needs to respond to changes from within and outside. The Operations of the organisation need to respond to changing customer/client needs as well as the organisation’s needs. Emergent strategy is probably more important than any 5 year plan, given the rapid changes in business conditions.

A word on architecture. For a business, architecture is important and especially information and business architectures. Information drives almost every aspect of an organisation’s performance so it makes sense to have a very clear picture of what your information is, in terms of master data, custodianship and access (right to know as against need to know). Similarly, knowing how your business is structured, beyond just an organisation chart, makes it easier to make better decisions and build robust services.


The hierarchy of Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom has a critically important role. Data must be collected on all meaningful activity. That data must be organised so that the underlying meaning becomes clear. Knowledge gained through analysis and engagement is then used to make wise choices as to where resources will deliver best value and what no longer should be done in order to free resources up for the higher value work.

Wisdom and, to some extent, knowledge are scarce. Sharing them produces flow on benefits for any organisation. Good practices, lived by staff, produce better outcomes than policies and procedures, which tend towards centralised control and limiting of sharing.

Design Thinking

When there is a clear articulation of what the problem might be, Some of the most useful tools for Design Thinking are:

  • Deep consultation with the people that matter
  • Client Journeys and scenarios
  • Deep Thinking
  • Management of cognitive biases

Design Thinking is a concept that came into being because of Wicked Problems. It crosses into other areas discussed here but the valuable part of Design Thinking is to “progress iteratively” from framing the problem too identifying needs and then taking both wide and narrow views of potential solutions so that leading candidates can be trialled for feasibility.

An example Client Journey

This is where the tools of Design Thinking come into play. There will always be some group or individuals who are more invested in achievement of an outcome than others. These are the ones who need to be heard and heard the most, because they will often know what should be done and how to make it work. They may not have the full picture but they will provide critical clues at a minimum. Consult deeply with them.

At the point where there appears to be one (or a small number) of opportunities to achieve your desired outcome you then have to decide which to chose and how to go about it. There are usually a large number of options available and it can be hard to choose between them. As with much of this article, the fastest and best way to do this is deliberately and to take enough time to plan properly. In the later section Show me the Value! the reason for this will be clear. Getting the Design right is extremely important.

Transformational Change

Transformational Change is another banner that crosses into the space of wicked problems that cannot be addressed by incremental change ie by improving what exists. Transformation happens when it is a matter of survival, in response to disruption or as a strategic initiative. I describe it as a journey to business as unusual. You do not want to be where you are or are heading towards. You want to be somewhere else and probably quickly rather than slowly.

The Consultants Toolbox

Consultants do a lot of things that can be applied to solving wicked problems and delivering high value in short timeframes. This collection of knowledge, skills and experience provides ready access to scarce capabilities that speed things up. Often considerably.

  • Facilitation of workshops, Agile activities etc
  • Analysis, especially multidimensional analyses
  • Presentation/persuasion skills
  • Written and verbal communication skills
  • Extensive knowledge of similar organisations and issues
  • Organisational change
  • and much more

Consulting Now! A journey more than a methodology

Show me the Value!

OK, so there is a process diagram that looks like methodology. Seen one – seen them all.

Still, a methodology is definitely a way of consistently delivering outcomes and provides a way to illustrate what needs to be done up front at a high level. So what is the value?

Methods guide what you do when. How you do it drives value

This and many other methodologies articulate a pattern that works in certain circumstances and require that there is an underlying capability to deliver to the methods described. Essentially, this means that the methodology has minimal value without the understanding, knowledge, experience and skills required to deliver.

In the end, value is what gets delivered so how do you know before hand whether you will get value from an initiative? Part of the answer is knowing that the approach to delivery has worked in similar circumstances and with similar clients is the best indicator that there will be value delivered. The next factor is to make sure you start out the right way; being rigorous in your early stage work and avoiding biases in any assessment. Finally, keep a team together with key people involved from beginning.

Once again, we should keep in mind that we are talking about complex, wicked problems. Value in these cases is less simple to define than with your traditional project with a defined scope, timing and budget. To get to grips with how value accrues for a transformation initiative you need a correspondingly complex approach to identifying value. A Value Chain/Stream.

Example Value Chain

A Value Chain like the one to the right works backwards from the end objective towards the objectives, initiatives and tasks that are required to deliver the outcome. This is done by asking what is necessary to do so that the outcome, objective or initiative can be completed. You then validate that the inputs are sufficient to deliver what is desired.

None of this is easy. The work may take weeks or more to develop such a Value Chain (sometimes called a roadmap) and it does take extensive consultation and analysis to get right.

When do you realise value?

Not as easy as you might think.

The takeaway is fairly straightforward. The 5% of your budget spent on working out what you MUST do, who needs to be part of the journey and laying out the roadmap for others influences 65% or more of the outcome. You need to plan things to work in your favour.

Dividing an initiative into three parts: Shaping, Design and Delivery, we can see that the early stage work has a disproportionate impact on results as measured principally by budget. Essential projects and programs will end up costing more than the original budget because the outcome is still required. This results in a high proportion of multi million dollar Government initiatives costing 2 or more times the original budget. Not only are there cost blow-outs but there are even worse things that happen. Scope gets cut to deliver on a deadline and/or budget. Quality is compromised for the same reasons. The Standish Group has documented this well in its Chaos Report and other work. The following is data from a 1986 report to the Australian Parliament and this aligns well with current observations.

Design10% 25%20%
Source: Federal Parliamentary Review of Project Performance 1986

What is behind this very asymmetric pattern that flies in the face of conventional wisdom that efficient project delivery is what matters most?

Efficient delivery of a project is great. Providing that the project is delivering what is genuinely needed. A project delivers to its agreed scope and hands over its deliverables to someone else. That is how it is supposed to work. It is someone else’s problem to make sure that the scope and purpose are correct. That usually means a program that sets an overall vision and commissions work via a project. Program management is more about shaping a vision and making sure that the vision is achieved than it is delivering detail work. So how does it go wrong?

The best analogy is to think of a highly efficient project to get a bus load of people to Melbourne. Everything is well organised with no wasted time or effort and the bus is about to arrive when the message comes through “we just discovered that you all need to be in Sydney. Please hurry there.” This is where the costs build up, by having to change direction and rework to backtrack and start again.

The critical Design stage is often compromised by shortening it and even dropping it. The rationale? No time. We know what we need to do so get on with it. Design people are hard to manage so lets sideline them. Yet, Design stage settles critical matters that affect the outcome. Co-design brings those who know what probably should be done together to agree and refine their ideas so that there is ownership and better likelihood of successful later implementation. Design stage allows for broader consultation and communication that again draws out important information that would otherwise be discovered late (remember the bus to Melbourne).

Ready, Aim, Fire. That is a much more effective way than other orders of action. An ounce of prevention … etc. You will usually get to an outcome faster and more efficiently by making sure that you do your Shaping stage thoroughly (noting that proportionately, the time should be longer for Shaping and Design than the proportion of budget suggests. In the table, I suggest a metric for timing – once again looking at complex initiatives. A three year program therefore might take a year to properly plan out before delivering the resulting work.

However that misrepresents what Consulting Now! can achieve. The Shaping and Design stages can and should be undertaking small scale trials and proofs of concept to help decide which directions to take. My former colleague Evan Leybourn would even say that you have probably failed if you are running a project. Shifting form a project methodology to the agile approaches described here allows you to deliver value early, to learn quickly so that you head off wasted effort and make sure that those who are informed and interested get to contribute early.

Last comment. Think of how many Government Programs have been shut down after not achieving their outcomes after several years. They started with such promise and a huge launch outlining what great things would be achieved, yet ended unhappily. Not long after a new Program is started with refined objectives and purpose and this one achieves a degree of success, learning form past experience. Often this too is rebooted and third time’s a charm. The reason that it worked third time is that everyone learned from the previous work. Hard lessons that could have been learned in a less expensive way. And real outcomes that could have been delivered faster.

Really the last comment. A fringe benefit of doing all this hard work is that you get a free Agile Organisation. One that is able to respond to change quickly and decisively, consistently doing the right things the right way – because it becomes culture rather than the exception.

Issues in Communication

Communication is undoubtedly one of the keys to success in almost anything you do. Good communication is valued and poor communication is considered a career breaker. Why is it then that we see so many problems that are attributed to communication breakdowns?

This article discusses three of the systemic and personal issues that make communication difficult in larger organisations. While understanding the issues does not solve the problem it at least helps to know what to look out for.

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Issues in Communication Part 3

Why don’t people listen?

The marketing ideal is to get “The right message to the right people at the right time” and while it works, it is not that easy to do. This is the third in a series looking at communication and some of the issues we face in consulting.

Part 1 covered issues around Hierarchies.

Part 2 covered issues around how you communicate, the message you think you deliver is not what is received

Here are five potential answers to the question. I discuss this communication issue in the context of change initiatives.

Continue Reading →


This is a starting point on my new approach to working.

Last month I resigned form Oakton to essentially do nothing. I did that for entirely personal reasons that I will not go into for the moment. What is important is that I have a renewed desire for doing high value consulting work where I can help others make a significant difference.

Here are the things I will focus on:

  • Strategy design and implementation. Working with people to understand organisational purpose, values and what matters most.  Establishing what needs to be done to achieve what is wanted. Then gaining agreement as to how to achieve it all.
  • Business Transformation. Working with organisations who see the need to change what they do and how they do it.
  • Program design and delivery. Designing larger scale initiatives intended to achieve agreed outcomes and objectives. Navigating the uncertainties when you have to take the first steps before you know what the third and subsequent step will look like.
  • Service improvement. Working with people to rethink how business services should best be delivered.
  • Business change. Usually embedded in Business Transformation and Program design, providing a focus on the organisation-level people, process and systems changes that need to be undertaken.
  • Operational performance. Working out what needs to be measured and monitored in order to keep operations aligned with changing business priorities and purpose.

Because this is a change from what I have been doing in the past few years I will also be doing a few things to build relationships with other organisations:

  • Offer services through other companies where I know and trust those companies
  • Offer independent consultancy advice to clients directly where this makes sense
  • Build (once again) a solid personal reputation for delivering value
  • Make a difference to people’s lives

More on this soon …