Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Consulting assignment life cycle 11: symptoms and underlying problems

Posted in consulting, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on May 11, 2012

This is my eleventh installment on consulting and the consulting assignment life cycle (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 225-234 for parts 1-10.) And I turn in it to consider an empirical observation coming from my own experience and from the experience of colleagues as shared with me in conversations, that I have come to see as a basic part of the consultant experience.

• More often than not, consultants are brought in to fix symptoms of more underlying problems and inefficiencies, and not the underlying problems themselves.

This situation arises for a wide variety of reasons and often more than one of them apply when facing any given assignment.

• Businesses that hire consultants to address problems often do so because they see the immediate consequences of those problems as needing immediate response and remediation. They are often responding reactively in this, where proactive planning and action would be needed to address the underlying problems that led to those symptoms, and perhaps even to see those underlying causes.
• Underlying problems can extend in source and in needed areas of response across the table of organization, and in ways that would call for types of collaboration between silos that the business cannot manage. And when a business is partitioned into thick walled silos, no one there may actually see the underlying problem in its entirety – only the symptoms it causes in their area of the business.
• I have also seen situations where a part of a problem has made itself overtly known to a business but its true scale and depth have remained hidden and a part of the consultant’s assignment becomes one of clarifying scale. For this one I will cite as a working example, the experience of a colleague and friend who was hired to bring together a set of client information databases that were separately built out by a large business’ local offices. There were some 60 offices so he initially expected to find some 60 local databases that he would have to bring together into a single corporate-wide data warehouse using a single user-friendly database user interface. He in fact saw that number grow and grow and way beyond the initial imagining of anyone working at that client business, its CIO included. And the total turned out to be more than 1000. I was working with this business too at the time so I saw this all first hand. And I add their CIO was perhaps the most effective senior information technology executive I have ever worked with. So a failure to know true scale or anything like it does not necessarily indicate failure of effort or ability on the part of the people in charge. All of those branch offices were fairly independently run and database count for them was not on their radar and for the flow of work they had to perform it had no reason to be – until this consulting project came along.

Just considering that third bullet pointed example for the moment, I have cited case study examples like it before in this blog and for a simple reason – scale problems and a need to find solutions that are more comprehensive and complex than initially anticipated are all too common in consulting. I have briefly sketched out three scenarios here that can lead to a consultant being hired for one assignment just to find that their consulting agreement can best be looked at as a symptoms-addressing Band-Aid application assignment – and contrary to both their expectations and to those of the people who hired them.

I wrote in Part 3: consulting clients and consulting assignments about consulting agreements and about scope creep and related problems. I wrote there about how a consultant can and often will make at least minor adjustments as to the deliverables expected and their schedule for completion without having to significantly renegotiate the terms of the client-consultant agreement, but that larger and more significant changes can and generally do call for a new agreement. This is one of the areas where that advice comes out of the abstract and enters into very real and specific consulting assignments. And I discuss this here rather than as an immediate follow-up to Part 3 because the types of complexity and assignment rethinking and reframing that I write of here generally arise after the assignment is started. Consultants come in with fresh eyes and with a perspective not clouded by the sometimes blinders of demanding workflow as it dominates the client’s perspective. Consultants, and even when coming from a background in the same industry and business type as their client business generally arrive with less built-in assumptions. They know they are going into a new business environment and are primed to look at the details with fresh eyes because they know they will find things done in familiar ways mixed in with approaches and perspectives that are new to them.

Shifting to the second person here, you work out a consulting agreement with a client and arrive to find the actual scope and scale of the problem they face is very different than you or they expected – and you and your client both come to see that this assignment as initially planned out is more a symptoms relief exercise than an effort to directly address some underlying problem. What do you do?

Talk with your client and that means with your manager there and with the key stakeholders you work with too – and preferably in the same room or at least together via teleconference. A best solution for the moment might be to simply focus on that immediate needs symptom resolution for now, and with that taken as opportunity to more fully examine the underlying problem. Then a goal would be added to provide data and information to the client that would help them better understand what they face as an underlying problem so they (and you) can come up with a cost-effective, minimally disruptive way to solve it. Then you would seek to either come back to address the underlying problem as a separate assignment, or to simply continue on with this one, shifting from addressing symptom to a focus on addressing underlying problem.

• If your work conditions and compensation terms are mutually agreeable, that can primarily mean clarifying the deliverables and opening up the assignment completion deadlines and timetable.
• The key here is to negotiate with your client as if sitting on the same side of the table as they are on – seeking out a solution and contract terms that will work for you, but at least as importantly that will work for them too. Couch your presentation in terms of finding the best approaches and solutions for meeting their needs.
• And it is the client that gets to decide whether to focus for now on the symptoms and immediate needs, or the underlying problems and longer-term needs and considerations. As a consultant your job in that is to help them identify their options so they can decide what would be a best approach for them. And of course as the consultant who does this, you put yourself in a strong position for being selected to help them hands-on in carrying through to the next step, and whatever next step they decide upon.

At times that might simply mean living with some underlying problem and recurringly addressing the symptoms as they arise – and certainly if long-term costs from that approach look to be less than the costs of making more fundamental change. Then you may very well be looking at a recurring assignment opportunity, applying recurringly needed Band-Aids. At times that may mean shifting immediately from addressing symptoms to working on the underlying problem. There are a lot of possibilities here and as a consultant your job is to be flexible and to look for approaches that would better meet your client’s needs, that would work for them in the context of their business and work flow and budget, and their due diligence processes.

I am going to turn to the topics of problems and problem resolution in my next series installment. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development.

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