Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Kind of Edge Consultants Have?

Most people think we don't know a lot, so the answer probably isn't to do with content. The top experts in banking will tend to work at banks, a large chunk of the leading thinkers in tech are out in Silicon Valley, and the gurus of marketing tend to work at the advertising agencies.

But consultants do know a few things.

1. The world becomes much simpler once you break it down

Consultants are obsessive about defining problems and breaking them down. At the start of a project they’ll spend a lot of time figuring out what the problem really is, and how it can be split up into its subcomponents. If it’s profitability, you could look at revenues and costs; if it’s revenues, you could look at sales in Europe or the US; if it’s the US, you could look at product quantity or price; if it’s quantity, you could look at existing customers and new customers; and so on ad nauseum. This is just how they think.

This immediately makes a problem much more more tangible and therefore quicker to solve. As soon as you define a problem’s subcomponents, you can work out where the truth is most likely to lie – and what you’ll need to know to figure it out for sure.

Speak to a consultant who’s been around long enough, and there’s a fair chance they’ll even thinklike the above diagram from time to time. Yes, our brains work like flow charts. But that can be a good thing when you're trying to solve a problem in a short space of time.

2. Data doesn't mean anything until it tells a story

The staff at consulting firms spend a lot of time making charts, and often behind those charts lies hours of research and hours of anlysis.

That means they can't waste their time making charts for the sake of it, or throwing in data just because it's vaguely interesting. They need to show how the data can lead to an insight that can lead to someone changing the way they look at things.

So consultants have an instinct for finding the story behind the data. They know that the data isn't just a bundle of numbers, but that it's a representation of real life. And as with real life, sometimes the stories will be clear and straightforward, and other times they'll be complex and nuanced.

3. Feedback is important

Consultants are probably some of the most evaluated people in the world. They'll have a formal evaluation every six months, be rated and scored on a set of metrics after every project, have weekly feedback sessions with their managers, and can be given on-the-fly corrections if they do something even moderately dumb.

This is unusual, and unsettling at first. There aren't many industries where you'll sit down for thirty minutes or an hour every week with a manager and talk through what you can or can't do differently.

But it's incredibly valuable. As with anything, if you want to get better you need to figure out what you're doing well and what you're doing less well, which is hard without straightforward feedback and coaching. Outside of consulting, you often don't know what you're doing well and what you're doing badly. And in reverse, there aren't many industries where you can give feedback to your manager, and see them do things differently as a result. It's a powerful mechanism.

4. Team dynamics count for a lot (and there are plenty of ways to optimize them)

Teams change frequently at consulting firms. When every team gets together, they'll typically go through a kick-off process more extensive and eccentric than you'll see outside.

Among other things, you might talk about:
  • working styles (whether you're a morning or an evening person, prefer working from home or client site, etc etc)
  • personality types - who's more structured, detail-oriented, extraverted, etc
  • skills you're working on, and what that means in terms of structuring the project

Every week or so, there might be check-in meetings to see how the team's doing, what concerns people have, and how you might work better together.

What you learn is that this stuff matters. Nailing the project has a lot to do with the team gelling and working well with one another. Consultants spend hours optimizing this - they have to form entirely new people every month or two, after all, and work well with them - so they pick up a lot of tricks to make teams work effectively.

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