Pros and cons of consulting for large organizations

consulting for large organizationsI’ve consulted for more than a thousand organizations. My clients include branches of the U.S. Government, large international agencies, and for-profit and non-profit companies. Over the last four decades, I’ve found the size of a client’s organization affects many aspects of my work. Here are some of the pros and cons of consulting for large organizations.

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Who has more power, a consultant or a janitor?

consultant powerPicture the renowned senior consultant breezing into the gleaming corporate HQ of Fortune 500 MegaCorp, for a well-paid gig advising C-suite executives. Now, picture the newly-hired janitor who spends their evenings mopping & vacuuming floors, cleaning restrooms, and emptying trash and recycling cans in a small MegaCorp branch office. Who has more power, the consultant or the janitor?

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Don’t be a hero — solve small problems!

When’s the right time to solve small problems? The right answer is almost always “as soon as practically possible!

Why? Because small problems often become large problems if we don’t work on them in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately, people don’t appreciate the value of promptly solving small problems, because (see cartoon below) we love to acknowledge and reward heroes — people who solve big problems, aka emergencies — rather than the folks who proactively solve small problems and prevent emergencies in the first place.
solve small problems

“Prevention is better than Cure. But which one makes a better story?” by @workchronicles

Two societal examples

Here are two examples of the value of solving small problems early, and the consequences when you don’t. The first is one where solving small problems in advance averted major world disruption. During the second, world leaders delayed solving small problems, resulting in millions of avoidable deaths.

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The job you’ll be doing in the future hasn’t been invented yet

The job you'll be doing in x years hasn't been invented yet

“The job you’ll be doing in the future hasn’t been invented yet.

This is old news.

The story of my professional life

1977: I earn a Ph.D. in applied elementary high-energy particle physics. Get a post-doc position and move to the United States. Work at major U.S. particle accelerators for a year. Leave academic research forever.
Since 1978 — that’s 44 years! — every job I’ve had didn’t exist a few years earlier.

1978: I join the management of Solar Alternative, a solar energy manufacturing business founded the previous year. Five years earlier, there were no such businesses in the United States.

1983: I start teaching computer science using personal computers in the classroom. IBM introduced the PC in 1981.

1984: I begin IT consulting for clients using personal computers. Businesses didn’t start using personal computers until the early 80’s.

1992: I organize a conference where there are no expert speakers available (it’s a new field, there are no experts). Invent a way to make the conference successful based on the collective needs, wants, and experience of the attendees. (The conference has run annually for the last 30 years.) This is something new. Organizations hear about this and ask me to design and facilitate their conferences.

2005: I realize that the conference process I invented and since improved is incredibly popular with participants. I decide to write a book about it, and in…

2009: I self-publish Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. (Five years earlier, self-publishing was a minor industry for vanity projects. Now it’s the most common way authors publish.) I quickly discover the size and interest of the meetings industry. In demand, I become a meeting designer and facilitator of participant-driven, participation-rich meetings. Yet another career that had not existed before.

A conventional career

My parents once suggested I become an accountant. I politely declined and continued studying physics. I have nothing against conventional careers, but my life hasn’t turned out that way.

Yet.

If I had to guess, it probably won’t.

And it probably won’t for you either.

Has the job you’re doing now just been invented? Share your experience in the comments below!

Aim to serve rather than please

Although I’m simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the thousands of books and videos about “leadership” pumped out every year, a recent quote struck a chord:

“You’ll do more good if you aim to serve more than you aim to please.”
S. Chris Edmonds

For context, watch this two-minute video:

While Chris focuses on the context of team leadership, I think that aiming to serve rather than please is also a useful rubric to keep in mind as a consultant. So here are three reasons why you should aim to serve, not please:

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Reasons to leave a job

reasons to leave a jobMy mentor Jerry Weinberg, consultant extraordinaire, wrote an excellent list of reasons to leave a job.

In my career, I have left jobs when:

  • The job I was hired to do was finished.
  • The job I was hired to do could not be finished.
  • The job I was hired to do would be finished just fine without me.
  • I was not able to do the job I was hired to do.
  • The job I was hired to do wasn’t worth doing.
  • I was no longer learning new things (that’s my most frequent reason for leaving).
  • They told me that my pay was going to be “temporarily” delayed.
  • They asked me to do something illegal or unethical.

—Jerry Weinberg, What is the right reason to leave a job?

I’d like to add one more reason for leaving a job:

The pain of the job isn’t worth the gain.

Though this is related to Jerry’s 5th reason, I think it’s worth being explicit about the effect of a job on your mental, physical, or spiritual being. Many years ago I took on a client where every interaction was unpleasant. The owner argued with me about my recommendations, groused about my bills, and repeatedly implemented something different from what I had proposed and complained about the results. It took me a while, but one day I sat down and wrote him a letter that said I was unable to work for him anymore. It was the right decision, it felt good, and since then I’ve been better able to disengage in a timely fashion from work that isn’t working for me.

Sometimes you have no choice but to continue with a job you’d leave if circumstances were different. Sometimes you run up against one of the above reasons to leave a job, and you have no choice. But when you have a choice, don’t overlook your own needs because of a commendable but perhaps now misguided loyalty to the commitment you made when you began.

The rise of the generalist

specialist or generalist
Are you a specialist or generalist?

“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 was 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.
  • They thought their problems were technical issues, but there was invariably 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 they needed to solve their actual problems;
  • Diplomatically explore, explain, and convince clients of they needed to do;
  • 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.

The advantages of being a generalist

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 generalist

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 generalist? How’s that working out for you?

Photo attribution: Flickr user environmental_illness_network

Ask, tell, ask

ask tell askIn 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

“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.

  • 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.
  • Asking the listener’s understanding of what he heard allows him to process his understanding immediately. This not only improves the likelihood that it will be retained and remembered longer but also allows 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

Measurable work—it’s a trap!

measurable work
If you are a “professional”, doing measurable work can be harmful to your future.

For over a hundred years, management has been obsessed with measuring what workers do. The rationale was to improve efficiency, and cut out the dead wood. Until quite recently, this affected mainly factory workers. White-collar workers were relatively safe.

Not any more.

Computers can apply scientific management principles to an ever-increasing number of professions. The result?

“What’s the close rate, the change in user satisfaction, the clickthroughs, the likes?

You can see where this is heading, and it’s heading there fast:

You will either be seen as a cog, or as a linchpin. You will either be measured in a relentless race to the bottom of the cost barrel, or encouraged in a supportive race to doing work that matters, that only you can do in your unique way.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?”
—Seth Godin, Scientific Management 2.0

I’ve written elsewhere about why measurable outcomes aren’t always a good thing, and my skepticism that ROI can be measured in social media.

Nevertheless, Seth’s last sentence is worth repeating.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?