Consulting Now! (draft)

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. However, the challenges we are dealing with today are huge and “wicked” problems that require more than cookie cutter approaches to deliver results.

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

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 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 Leybourne 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 https://businessagility.institute/

Agile

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

DIKW

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

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.

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

Show me the Value!

OK, so there is a process like methodology. Seen one seen them all.

Still, the 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.

An example Value chain for a complex transformation over several years

A Value Chain like the one

When and where do you realise value?

The takeaway is this:

Well, hello there …

May you be condemned to live in interesting times.

It may be more than a year since I posted here. A long time and yet, it went by so fast. It has been an interesting year. I think I will celebrate the ending of 2018 with three articles. Plus maybe a dozen book reviews. Possibly an update or two in cricket umpiring, brewing and other personal things. Definitely a bit on work.

A quick catch up


“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to to , We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. ”

Steve Jobs

The following is a little bit catharsis and a little bit still feeling bruised. I will not go into the messy details – for multiple reasons …

I was working as the Managing Partner with a longstanding management consultancy firm with responsibility for the Public Sector. 2017 was a very good year for us and a major project received an award for best change project of the year from a project management body. We had a small team in Canberra and a decent pipeline of work. However, at the end of February the owner of the business (based in the UK) called and told me that staff would not be paid the following day. I will not go into all the details but the key thing to note is that the liquidator sought funding from creditors to pursue the company directors for a significant amount of money.

For most of the staff, the Australian Fair Entitlement Guarantee helped out by paying most, if not all entitlements apart from redundancy. There were three employees that were not so lucky while still getting some of the lost pay and leave entitlements. Superannuation that was not paid was also lost. Overall a nasty business.

It would most likely have been possible to save the business and continue on with a restructure, had the UK directors approached it the right way. Work I was asked to do to find alternative investors was successful in finding them but the UK directors were not able to negotiate an arrangement due to time constraints and associated issues. Fair to say that March was a busy time for with nothing but additional travel bills to show for it.

One staff member in Canberra was able to start a piece of work we had just won after we were able to negotiate with the client to “novate” the contract. Half the other staff were able to find alternative work fairly quickly, however two had some difficulty. The way the company was just shutdown overnight  caused a lot of stress and anxiety to staff – that is an understatement.

Personally, I was in the fortunate position to choose between offers. I chose to join a company with which we had been doing work on a partnership basis for the past two years. It was the path of least resistance and the right one at a time when much was still uncertain. I worked with them from early April until the end of December. We had a number of goals in mind when I started and, while the revenue ones were exceeded, we were not able to win the larger pieces of work which would have allowed the achievement of growth and margin targets. As a consequence, I notified the board that I would be finishing up. I am now looking forward to a “new set of challenges”, I think the current orthodoxy demands.

Three articles

So what do I need to write about?

Working with Smart People. This is after seeing the remarkable reactions from several employers over the years.

What is Consulting Today? A general question that should be asked. The title is Consulting Now!

Startups, Business Agility, Design Thinking and Customers in the real world. This is a little of the trend(s) I have seen in the past decade.

… here goes

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 cannot expect that the message you send is the message received.

I put forward five answers to the question. I discuss this communication issue in the context of change initiatives.

Continue Reading →

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.

This article discusses three fundamental issues with communication and provides some real life examples to illustrate these:

  • Organisational structure
  • “My e-mail said precisely what I meant. Why are you reacting this way?”
  • Why don’t people listen?

The first part of this article focuses on how organisational structure affects communication. From what I have seen, this is one of the biggest factors in poor corporate communication. Restructure of an organisation more often precedes implementation of a new strategic direction rather than being in response to the new strategy. Discussion on how communication Context matters and the role of the Participants in communication will follow.

Continue Reading →

Consulting

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 …