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.
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/
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
- 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.
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.
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 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?
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.
A Value Chain like the one
When and where do you realise value?
The takeaway is this: