Posts Tagged ‘consulting’

The rise of the generalist

Monday, December 14th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

Specialist 15673582661_f489087931_z

“We used to be defined by what we knew. But today, knowing too much can be a liability.”
Peter Evans-Greenwood, How much do we need to know?

Once upon a time, I enjoyed a lucrative career as an independent IT consultant. For 20+ years, I turned down more work than I accepted. And I never advertised; all business came via word-of-mouth, from CEO to CEO.

There was plenty of competition, and yet most of my competitors struggled for work.

Want to know one of my secrets?

I’m a generalist.

My clients wanted their problems solved. There were three key reasons why they needed help:

  • My clients did not know what their problems were. (Yes, this sounds strange, stay with me.)
  • Their problems were complex, crossing traditional expertise boundaries.
  • Their problems were presented as technical issues, but invariably involved a critical people component.

When I started IT consulting, I thought companies would hire me because I had specialized technical skills they did not possess. Over time, I slowly realized that what made me valuable and useful to my clients were my abilities to:

  • Uncover their real problems;
  • Understand the entirety of what would be need to be done to solve their actual problems;
  • Diplomatically explore, explain, and convince clients of what needed to be done;
  • Successfully work with them to devise and implement effective solutions; and
  • Help them take ownership of the ongoing management of relevant issues so the problems didn’t reoccur.

Today’s hard problems straddle traditional specialities. Being a generalist in the realm of consulting means being willing and able to see and act on a bigger picture than clients typically initially present. For example, no one ever hired me to solve “people problems”, but I can’t recall a consulting assignment where human issues weren’t an important factor. Some examples:

  • A ten-year-old silent war between two department heads that had never been addressed;
  • The internal IT staffer who was crippling company growth because he knew far less than he claimed;
  • A CEO who hired a golf buddy to recommend that an appropriate and functional information system be replaced;
  • The operations manager who routinely made decisions without the authority to do so.

My successful IT consulting career combined adequate technical knowledge, business managerial experience (from five years managing a solar manufacturing company), good problem solving abilities, continuous acquisition of people skills, creativity, and a win-win mindset that focused on serving my clients rather than maximizing my income at their expense. During two decades of work, I saw many independent IT specialists who were, despite possessing technical knowledge superior to mine, unable to maintain a viable business.

I’m still a consultant today, but in a different field—meeting design. And I’m still a generalist, because good meeting design requires knowledge and skills in many different areas: production, andragogy (how adults learn), facilitation, and people skills, to name a few.

We are living in a world where the commodification of products and skills leads more and more quickly to a race to the bottom—“who can make/do this for the least amount of money/time?” (For example, accountancy, once seen as a secure well-paying profession, is increasingly outsourced and automated.) As a result, the advantages of the generalist mount because relatively few people have the required skill-set to solve problems that cross traditional specialties, and it’s easier to thrive in a field with, say, ten competitors as opposed to ten thousand.

To summarize, here’s an apt quote from Peter Evans-Greenwood’s excellent article:

We’re moving from working in the system that is a business, to working on the system. The consequence of this is that its becoming more important to have the general capabilities and breadth of experience that enable us to develop and improve the system in novel directions, than it is to have deep, highly entailed experience in working within the current system. There will always be a need for narrowly focused expertise in highly technical areas, but in the majority of cases the generalist now has an advantage over the specialist.

Are you a specialist or a generalist? How’s that working out for you?

Photo attribution: Flickr user environmental_illness_network

Ask, tell, ask

Monday, November 30th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

12533080763_d037976bea_bIn his beautiful and insightful book “Being Mortal“, surgeon Atul Gawande  describes a mistake clinicians frequently make. They “see their task as just supplying cognitive information—hard, cold facts and descriptions. They want to be Dr. Informative.”

Atul contrasts this with an approach offered by palliative care physician Bob Arnold:

“Arnold … recommended a strategy palliative care physicians use when they have to talk about bad news with people—they ‘ask, tell, ask.’ They ask what you want to hear, then they tell you, and then they ask what you understood.”
—Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, pages 206-7

Reading this, I realize that “ask, tell, ask” is great advice for anyone who wants to connect fruitfully in a learning environment. Personally, over the years, I’ve become better at asking people what they want to learn (ask) before responding (tell), but I still often omit the second ask: “what did you understand?”

The follow-up ask is important for two reasons.

The obvious reason is that without it we do not know if anything we told has been heard/absorbed, and whether the listener’s understanding is complete and/or accurate.

A less obvious reason is that asking the listener’s understanding of what he heard allows him to process his understanding immediately, not only improving the likelihood that it will be retained and remembered longer but also allowing him to respond to what he has heard and deepen the conversation.

Ask, tell, ask” assists transforming a putative one-way information dump from a teacher to a student into a learning conversation. I will work to better incorporate the second ask into my consulting interactions. Perhaps you will too?

Photo attribution: Flickr user mikecogh

If you can’t sell it, you can’t build it. But.

Monday, July 28th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Lego city 7373799876_60fc952ad6_k

Architecture students bristle when Joshua Prince-Ramus tells them that they are entering a rhetorical profession.
A great architect isn’t one who draws good plans. A great architect gets great buildings built.
Now, of course, the same thing is true for just about any professional. A doctor has to persuade the patient to live well and take the right actions. A scientist must not only get funded but she also has to persuade her public that her work is well structured and useful.
It’s not enough that you’re right. It matters if it gets built.
—Seth Godin, If you can’t sell it, you can’t build it

A great reminder from Seth, as usual.

But.

As a consultant you have no authority, only influence. And sometimes you will fail.

Even if you’re right and do an amazing selling job, sometimes you will fail.

Because sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about them.

If you can’t handle failure—having your great advice ignored—you won’t be consulting for long.

Photo attribution: Flickr user norio-nakayama

Make better decisions with The Rule Of Three

Thursday, May 10th, 2012 by Adrian Segar

According to a widely ballyhooed recent study, event planning is the 6th most stressful job. I have no idea if that’s true, but, looking back on the two-day event I ran last week, I estimate that I had to solve well over a hundred on-the-spot problems that cropped up during the twenty-four hours I was on duty.

If you’re looking for a solution to a problem, there’s a natural temptation to pick the first solution you come up with.

In my experience, this is usually a mistake. An understandable mistake, for sure, but still a mistake. Most of the time, the first solution I come up with is not the best choice, so it’s worth taking a little more time to think before springing into action.

You can reduce the possibility of a poor decision caused by a hasty response by employing The Rule Of Three.

The Rule Of Three
Before deciding on a course of action, come up with three alternatives.

Here are three ways of thinking about The Rule Of Three.

1) Family therapist Virginia Satir encouraged people to have at least three choices. She said:

…to have one choice is no choice;
to have two choices is a dilemma;
and to have three choices offers new possibilities.
The Satir Model, Virginia Satir et al

2) Jerry Weinberg (who came up with this rule’s name) puts it another way that should get your attention:

If you can’t think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there’s something wrong with your thinking.

3) One more formulation: If you don’t have three options for a solution to a problem, you don’t understand it well enough yet, and you might need to explore it more.

Applying The Rule Of Three
It can be hard to apply The Rule Of Three, especially in stressful situations. Sometimes I have a hard time resisting acting on the first idea that pops into my head.

Here are two ways that help me apply The Rule of Three:

1) Get help to come up with more options. When I’m under pressure, asking trusted colleagues to help brainstorm alternatives is a great way for me to widen my problem-solving horizons and avoid missing a great solution. Two (or more) heads are better than one.

2) As with making most changes in your life, practice helps. Commit to apply The Rule Of Three to problems you encounter for three days. Then evaluate the results. How and under what circumstances did The Rule Of Three work for you? Decide whether you want to continue the commitment to maintaining this new approach to problem solving.

Uh oh, only two options here. I’m looking for at least one more. Suggestions?

Photo attribution: Flickr user migueleveryday

19 secrets of consulting that changed my life

Friday, April 29th, 2011 by Adrian Segar

fortune teller 1233035451_8214d41282_oYou may not think of yourself as a consultant, but you probably are. Peter Block, in his classic book Flawless Consulting, defines a consultant as someone who has influence but not the authority to make changes. While some, like myself, are full-time independent consultants, a much larger number of people are internal consultants: people who are employed by an organization that, at times, puts them in a role of giving advice without the power to implement it.

So, how do we learn how to consult well? I’ve written before about Jerry Weinberg’s ten laws of trust and his ten laws of pricing, taken from his brilliant book, published in 1985 and still in print: The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving & Getting Advice Successfully. If these laws didn’t inspire you to rush out and buy the book, perhaps this selection of some of his (100+) other laws, rules, and principles will. I consider this book and the sequel, More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant’s Tool Kit, essential reading (and rereading) for anyone who consults.

Here are nineteen of my favorite pieces of wisdom from Jerry, followed by the names he gives them and brief commentary from me.

You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit. (The Credit Rule.) Check your ego at the door.

In spite of what your client may tell you, there’s always a problem. (The First Law of Consulting.) Yes, most people have a hard time admitting they have a problem.

No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem. (The Second Law of Consulting.) I learned this after about five years of being engaged as a technical consultant and repeatedly having CEOs confiding to me their non-technical woes…

If they didn’t hire you, don’t solve their problem. (The Fourth Law of Consulting.) A common occupational disease of consultants: we rush to help people who haven’t asked for help.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (The First Law of Engineering.) Must. Not. Unscrew the tiny screws just to check what’s inside.

Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell you the solution in the first five minutes. (The Five-Minute Rule.) Unbelievably, this is true—the hard part is listening well enough to notice.

If you can’t accept failure, you’ll never succeed as a consultant. (The Hard Law.) Everyone makes mistakes, and that can be a good thing.

Helping myself is even harder than helping others. (The Hardest Law.) The hardest things to notice are things about myself.

The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets. (The Law of Raspberry Jam.) Or, as Jerry rephrases it: Influence or affluence; take your choice.

When the clients don’t show their appreciation, pretend that they’re stunned by your performance—but never forget that it’s your fantasy, not theirs. (The Lone Ranger Fantasy.) “Who was that masked man, anyway?”

The most important act in consulting is setting the right fee. (Marvin’s Fifth Great Secret.) Setting the right fee takes a huge burden off your shoulders.

“We can do it—and this is how much it will cost.” (The Orange Juice Test.) Jerry uses an example straight from the meetings world for this one—event professionals will recognize the situation, and appreciate the insight.

Cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered. (Prescott’s Pickle Principle.) Sadly, the longer you work with a client, the less effective you get.

It may look like a crisis, but it’s only the ending of an illusion. (Rhonda’s First Revelation.) A positive way to think about unpleasant change.

When you create an illusion, to prevent or soften change, the change becomes more likely—and harder to take. (Rhonda’s Third Revelation.) Notice and challenge your illusions before they turn into crises.

If you can’t think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there’s something wrong with your thinking. (The Rule of Three.) The perfect antidote to complacency about your plans.

The best marketing tool is a satisfied client. (The Sixth Law of Marketing.) Word of mouth is the best channel for new work; being able to satisfy my clients led me to a successful, twenty-two year IT consulting career without using advertising or agents.

Give away your best ideas. (The Seventh Law of Marketing.) When you teach your clients to handle future similar problems themselves, they’ll appreciate your generosity and are more likely to give you further work or good word of mouth to others.

Spend at least one-fourth of your time doing nothing. (The Ninth Law of Marketing.) There are many good reasons for doing this—for some, read Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco.

Well, there they are, some of my favorite consulting gems of wisdom, as penned by Jerry. What do you think of my choices? Are there others that speak to you?

Photo attribution: Flickr user sanspareille

Jerry Weinberg’s Ten Laws of Pricing

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 by Adrian Segar

soc100dpiIn March I posted a summary of Jerry Weinberg’s ten laws of trust, taken from his brilliant book, published twenty-five years ago and still in print: The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving & Getting Advice Successfully. It was clear from the response that many people hadn’t heard about Jerry’s work.

Today I was thinking about adjusting my consulting rates, and remembered that Jerry has a lot to say on this subject too. Understanding his Ten Laws of Pricing made it easy for me to set fees for my work, and, more importantly, helped me feel comfortable with the role of money in my professional life. #2 alone gave me the confidence to bill an additional six digit income during my IT consulting career, and #9 makes setting your rate for billing or being charged anything a snap.

So here are Jerry’s Ten Laws of Pricing. If you like them and want to know more, do yourself a big favor and buy his book!

  1. Pricing has many functions, only one of which is the exchange of money.
  2. The more they pay you, the more they love you. The less they pay you, the less they respect you.
  3. The money is usually the smallest part of the price.
  4. Pricing is not a zero-sum game.
  5. If you need the money, don’t take the job.
  6. If they don’t like your work, don’t take their money.
  7. Money is more than price.
  8. Price is not a thing, it’s a negotiated relationship.
  9. Set the price so you won’t regret it either way. (Also known as the Principle of Least Regret.)
  10. All prices are ultimately based on feelings, both yours and theirs.

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