Consulting Services & Skills

Like ‘Analysis’, ‘Consulting’ is a term used with widely different connotations in modern business conversations. Like analysis, consulting is also a term that gets you thinking once you start trying to define it. I found it invaluable to spend some time unraveling “Consulting” and figuring out how to be a successful, respected consultant.

Fig. 1. Consulting Services

See also: what-is-consulting-definition

“The purpose of consulting is to help people solve problems and move from their current state to their desired state, which they may not be able to do by themselves as effectively, or as efficiently” – Krishna Deva

This paper discusses introductory answers to four questions:

    1. What does providing Consulting Services mean?
    2. When are Consulting Services required?
    3. What does it take to provide Consulting Services?
    4. Which are the Distinctive Skills for Consultants?

1. What does providing Consulting Services mean?

There are many views on what consultants do and what services they provide. I thought it would be important to begin from the demand side, to understand what providing consulting services means to the customer. After all, that is the raison d’etre for consultants, and it should be the context in which everything else about consulting services gets defined.

In trying to understand what consulting services could mean for the customer, we need to consider the results – the deliverables and the outcomes – that the customer gets. The ‘how’ of consulting is also a component of what consulting services mean, but not from the customer’s point of view. That is more important for the consulting provider to know and be good at. More of the ‘how’ in later sections.

Let’s begin our exploration of consulting services by understanding the expected deliverables and outcomes of providing consulting services.

  1. Deliverables of Consulting

The core of the deliverables from a consultant is usually a Report. The report typically begins with an “Executive Summary”, and contains the “Objectives of the Assignment” for which the consulting was undertaken, the “Facts and Data” that were considered, the established and credible “Bodies of Knowledge” that the consultant used, and the “Recommendations” of the ‘solution’ or ‘answer’ to the customer’s problem, or question.

Report

      1. Executive Summary
      2. Objectives of the Assignment
      3. Facts, Data & Studies
      4. Analysis (with ref to established bodies of knowledge)
      5. Recommendations

The thinking and analyses done by the consultant is inherent in the recommendations, and we can say that the report is a result of the consultant’s thinking. Typically, the detailed analyses and logic applied is not elaborated in the report unless the solution is heavily research oriented, or if it is complex and difficult to comprehend.

I have also seen many reports of consulting assignments where the Consultant was expected to validate and coherently re-present the analysis and solutioning done by the customer. In such cases the Consultant is ‘used’ as a credible third-party offering recommendations on which the insiders want a stamp of external, neutral approval.

In every case, it is an expectation that the recommendations, if followed, will lead to the outcomes desired, and will not create any new or bigger problems than might already be there. If anything, the recommendations are expected to reduce current problems by leveraging on as many synergistic opportunities as possible.

Typically, the Report is not only submitted but also presented by the consultant so that all implications of the contents are grasped completely, and any follow-up questions are addressed responsively and coherently.

The deliverables can be summarized in one line as follows:

“A Report including the Investigation, Learning, Research, Analysis and Experience-based Advice that Solves the Customer’s target problem/opportunity.”

2. Outcomes of Consulting

The primary outcome for the customer has to be their success, once they implement the recommendations. Without this expectation of success being met, the customer would never value the consulting exercise.

Another important outcome of consulting is the reputation it creates for the consultant. For a consultant, their reputation is critical to build up, because their credibility is important for the recommendations to be accepted, as well as for growth in their engagements. For a consultant, the two important elements in their reputation are respect for their caliber, and appreciation for what they are able to bring as outcomes.

The two outcomes from any successful consulting engagement are:

      1. Success for the Customer
      2. Respect and Appreciation for the Consultant

2. When are Consulting Services required?

These are the four situations in which consulting services are sought by customers:

    • When the Customer doesn’t know what the solution is
    • When the Customer doesn’t know what the problem is
    • When the Customer doesn’t know how to implement the solution
    • A combination of the above conditions, in any proportion

It may be natural to jump to the conclusion that consultants provide solutions, but the truth of the matter is that consultants often need to be called upon when the problem itself is not known or identifiable. For instance, a client organization might be suffering dropping productivity for the last two years, and a few initiatives may have been tried out by the management but did not help.

This would be a good point to bring in a consultant with more/diverse experience in resolving productivity issues. The consultant would be able to assess and analyze the realities within and around the organization to put together and propose solution options to the management.

Consultants with implementation experience are also sought out when the solution may have been identified and even detailed out to some extent to give the client confidence that it will work, but they may lack the capacity and capability to manage the execution/implementation. A consultant in this case would be a good temporary addition to their workforce to see through the solution to its effective implementation.

In general, consulting services are called upon in a wide variety of situations. Consultants may be sought out for any of the following types of solutions, and more:

Designing solutions to problems
Identifying the problem(s)
Competition analysis

Formulating strategy
Implementing new technology
Managing functions

And others…

3. What does it take to provide Consulting Services?

Consulting services typically follow the lifecycle outlined below. The sequence of stages/steps may be somewhat iterative depending on the situation and the ease/difficulty in accomplishing each stage, but the stages are all necessary to go through for the consultant.

The lifecycle of consulting can be visualized like the Greek symbol for ‘sigma’ (see Fig. 2 below). Starting at the point where the arrow points, follow the shape clockwise through the stages a, b, c, d, and e. The description of each stage is in the paragraphs that follow the figure.

Fig.2: Sigma of Consulting

a. Understanding the Problem from the Customer’s point of view

Consulting begins by building a good understanding of the ‘problem’ which the customer has articulated. It is important to identify all the opportunities that are being missed, as well as their effect on the ‘pain’ that is being created by those. Typically, the ‘pain’ is voiced by the customer and evident from data points of the outcome(s) not meeting desired goals.

P.R.O.B.L.E.M.: Perceived Risk of an Opportunity not Being Leveraged to Enhance the Meeting of goals. 

Understanding this ‘problem’ wisely is key to consulting.

b. Understanding the ground Realities 

Diving deeper into the causes and data, the next stage after identifying the problem(s) is to understand the realities of the situations in the customer’s organization and environment that have a bearing on the Customer’s pain points. Getting rid of biases and building a rich fabric of evidence and data is critical to correctly understand the reality, and therefore all the possible causes that lead to the effects.

This stage involves investigating all potential factors and functions, meeting various executives to understand their perspectives and experience, as well as to gather and analyze data for all relevant measures.

c. Applying Design Thinking & Problem Solving  

With a factual and unambiguous understanding of the problem and all the factors leading to it, this stage focuses on developing strategies and designing feasible solution options that have optimal impact and cost.

The steps typically follow this structure:

      • Define problem/focus/opportunity
        • Be Creative
        • Be Objective

Here is where lies the first opportunity for innovation. The creativity applied in finding new possibilities and definitions of the problem/focus/opportunity should lead to identifying obvious as well as not so obvious problems.

      • Conduct Causal AnalysisExplore all possible Cause-Effect relationships
      • Research for new/more causes/opportunitiesCritical Thinking

The findings of all research feed back into the earlier two steps above – Defining the problem, or Causal analysis.

      • Map and Correlate alternatives with impact areasDevelop Solution Sets

Going through the above steps helps in logical yet innovative solution sets, which can be compared for their respective benefits as well as costs and complexity.

d. Present Pros and Cons of Feasible Solution Options

The solution sets are presented to the customer stakeholders along with their pros and cons, and a Cost-Benefit Analysis for each solution set. Questions lead to refinement of the most suitable solutions.

e. Finalize the agreed upon Solution(s)

Build the Plan and complete the Consulting Report documentation for submission to the customer as the final deliverable.

4. Which are the Distinctive Skills for Consultants?

Distinctive Consulting Skills

This section calls out the skills and competencies that are critical for the consultant to demonstrate, for any consulting engagement to be effectively executed.

a. Customer orientation
i. Listening – to understand, appreciate the customer’s inputs and context
ii. Emotional Intelligence – to sense and prioritize pain points and opportunities
iii. Communication – specific, clear, relevant and up-front
iv. Retaining the focus on problem/benefit

b. Domain expertise – deep, broad, diverse – know/find out everything that could be relevant to the problem context, spanning all necessary facts, concepts, processes, procedures and principles of the domain and related domains.

c. Teleology – Inferences and conclusions based on teleology, discerning the purpose (effect) of every piece of information (cause) in the knowledge-map.
i. Critical Thinking
ii. Creativity
iii. Decision making

d. Communication skills
i. Language – must be the same as that of the client
ii. Written
iii. Drawn – [ref books by Dan Roam (The Back of the Napkin, Draw to Win, Show and Tell)]
iv. Spoken – [ref Richard Chung (Compelling Communication-Oral Presentations)]
v. Presentation – https://summaries.com/blog/the-pop-up-pitch

e. ICT – Mastery of the Tools of Expression
Creativity has value only once it is expressed. Every creative person tends to be so because they master expression in the medium of their customer. When we are creating value for the customer, we need to master the medium(s) of creation that we (and the customer) choose to communicate in.

  1. Mastery over communication mediums.
    1. Written, Drawn, Spoken, Presented – Word, PowerPoint, diction
    2. Email – Microsoft Outlook (or any other email app of choice)
    3. Video conferencing – Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, etc.
    4. Contemporary with, and ahead of others

f. Soft skills
There are a host of soft skills that are important for a consultant’s success – focus, planning, patience, open-mindedness, etc. which are critical at various times, and a consultant picks the ones they need with experience.

Consulting is an immensely fulfilling engagement if it is done with integrity, sincerity, diligence, and also with curiosity, creativity, and passion. Consultants can be very influential in the trajectory of organizations and individuals. Consulting is one of the most respected professions, and gives you opportunities to study new and challenging situations, traveling and meeting people across the world. It is an engagement of responsibility and potential.

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Talk the walk!

That’s right!  We’ve been used to hearing and reading about it the other way around.  ‘Walk the talk!’ is the constant refrain for leadership.  You should ‘do as you say, practice what you preach’.

I’ve found that while the (almost cliched) saying “Walk the Talk” works fine for those situations where we may benefit from it, there’s the flip saying also which is very effective in growing and spreading a greater understanding.  Most people don’t give a second thought to whether what they are saying is true about themselves.  This may be fine as long as you ascribe the authorship of what you say to someone else, someone greater than yourself, but why do we treat what we say as separate from our own behavior?

You may be very sincerely giving advice to another from the storehouse of quotations you carry in your mind.  In such a scenario you are the medium through which someone (the author’s) else’s learning is finding new ears.  It doesn’t make any difference to how you may be.  Or at least it gives you the liberty of some time before people may expect you to follow what you have said, to demonstrate in action the same wise words.  So let’s consider another approach.  An approach to changing yourself for the better forever.

Let’s say you hold yourself very responsible for saying something that you do not practice.  In such a case, out of a sense of integrity, you would diligently also mention that these words have been said by so and so.  Lets also assume that you don’t want to have to keep remembering what other people have said simply to share them with others, but you use them more to make a difference to who you are.  In such a scenario, one very simple thing to do is to only share what you do, and how you yourself are. 

Choose to only share those aspects or facts that you have already worked upon, and the changes you have already caused with them. Make sure you always have something  new to talk about.  With this approach, it follows that you will first practice differently, analyze the results for yourself, and then talk about the successes, the lessons.  If you are trying out new ways of doing things, of being yourself, you will always have many lessons to talk about.

When you talk from personal experience, and from the rewards that you yourself have reaped, it becomes something far more engaging and valuable.  Such conversations have far reaching depths, and impact that may just be the change that was needed. It’s our integrity with ourselves. It’s living personal integrity as alignment between what we think, believe, say, and do.

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How exhausting is consumption?

Much of our time is being spent these days in consuming from screens, the small or the bigger ones. First it was the news that we were all consumed with, watching numbers dance up for every part of the world. Then, as we became weary of that and the numbers increasingly numbed us, showed us that they would grow regardless of anything the world did, we started looking for more other content we could consume. We continued being more exhausted with doing nothing but consume.

The other day it occurred to me that it is consumption that we are all engaged in. We’re consuming our environment, which is not changing.  We’re consuming content, entertainment, whatever.  We are consuming, and that too passively.  It is our inability to create that may actually be exhausting us.

We’re feeling exhausted because we’re not creating, not expressing ourselves. We have to create. We have to create whether we write, whether we paint, whether we compose, whether we draw, weather we speak, whether we walk. We have to create our journey, not just consume and be consumed.

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What does meaning mean to us?

We humans are a social animal. The structure of our needs has been shown by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs… from Biological up to Security, to Belonging, to Recognition, and finally of Self-Actualization.

Each one of these needs beyond the first two, from Belonging upwards, depends a lot on the meaning we build as our own from our community(ies), the recognition (appreciation) we gather, and the new (personal/original) meaning we are able to convey (add) to our community (the world we understand). What does meaning mean to us?

The book, “The Three Laws of Performance” makes the point so emphatically – “How things occur to us depends on the language we use”. What does this mean? Does language lead to meaning, or is it the other way around? Is its meaning important for us? And therefore to us?

Of course, language is a natural form of communication, and as such there will be varying degrees of ‘language’ used by different people, all of which we need to be accommodated in our understanding. That notwithstanding, does the widespread adoption of a wide vocabulary, clear, consistent, correct, and precise language have a direct correspondence with the growth and evolution of a community?

This is an invitation to a conversation on the meaning of language, and what it means to us, building from what it means to each one of us. You’re invited to be a part of this conversation right hereClick and post your thoughts and read what others are saying as well.

What does meaning mean to us?

What role does the (correctness of) language mean for all of us?

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Trainers Don’t Need To Be Trained!

Do Trainers need training?  Yes of course they need training, but they do not need to be trained.  This is what makes them Trainers at the cutting edge. 

Obviously, if they need to be trained, then they are the learner.  If a trainer believes they have outgrown the learning stage, they are actually doomed as a trainer.  All trainers worth their salt accept that they need to keep learning constantly, just to keep pace with the rapidly learning youngsters who will ask them questions during their training sessions.  The better trainers learn faster than anyone else.  It’s just that simple.

So how do Trainers learn so quickly?  What do Trainers do to learn without being trained?

Trainers are experts at focusing on learning objectives and asking questions, assimilating answers, and practicing without inertia.  This expertise of asking questions is the expertise knowing which questions to ask, how to ask which question, who or what to tap for the answers, and what questions need to be answered first.  This expertise naturally gets them the answers before anyone else, and that is what creates the opportunity for them to be Trainers.

Trainers develop the ability to assess the purpose for every piece of information.  While good learners need to know how to answer all the questions they are presented with, good teachers need to be able to reverse-engineer the questions from looking at all the information (‘answers’) that they perceive.  Trainers have to be able to determine the objective from the response.  And, the best trainers are able to ask new questions, questions they have never been faced with.

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Read, as if your life depends on it…

… for most likely, it does!

One of the most significant changes that people are dealing with is the fact that in the lockdown stages they don’t have people in front of them telling them what they have to do, but rather they need to read instructions (most likely in a chat message or an email) telling them what they what they need to do.

Don’t underestimate the magnitude of this change. This is a sea change for most people. Where people didn’t need to read words spelt out, they didn’t need to understand the written language because they could always depend on the person in front of them explaining to them, could depend on them to infer the particular confusion that they chose to have at that point. From that point they need to actually change to make sense of a few words written in front of them. Many people don’t even realize the handicap they give to themselves by refusing to read.

Over the last few years. I realized that most people who are so-called literates are effectively illiterates. They’re only people who can write somehow. And I say this because most people don’t read. They may have the ability to read. But that doesn’t make them literate. Because they choose not to read, and behave like illiterates. What do you say?

Why do I say this?  Lets take the example of sign-posts.  Or that of emails people receive.  Even signages that point out dangers are glossed over as if they never existed.  They probably don’t exist for the masses.  This phenomenon is even more striking for me because I work in a profession that lays the highest importance on Safety, which in turn means that paying attention to signages is the foremost responsibility of every worker and officer.  Even so, the literacy of people is evinced to the same extent as in the rest of the region of South Asia. Most people depend on being told by someone, rather than having to read anything.

This aversion to reading, even the one or two words of a sign-post, has always remained a mystery to me, when I know the person can read.  It is the ultimate disrespect to the person who wrote it, and also to one’s own intellect and ability, to not use it.  Our life certainly doesn’t seem to depend on it.

Notice that Kerala has had the best response to the pandemic in recent times, and is it a coincidence that it is the state in India with the highest literacy rate?  Thank God at least some of those people (if not many) actually must have read the advisories, the analyses, the way forward, and communicated with many others as civilized thinkers.  Reading and writing polishes thinking.

Ultimately, reading and writing help us develop the discernment that comes from being well-read, and being sorted in our thinking. Our life depends on it…

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What’s In a Name?

Why is a Name important… and why is it’s spelling equally so!

Because you need to find it again…

…And you will later look for (or refer to) it by the name you remember.  You will find the item only if it is tagged and stored in the system with the same name, spelt exactly the way you remember. The ‘system’ will not be able to help you find what you are looking for, if even one character is different.  The system could be another person or a computer file storage system.  And remember, even a blank space is a character for a computer system.

Unclear or uncertain names are the single most common cause for miscommunication between people – resulting in waste of time, conflicts, costly mistakes, and loss of brand value.

Which aspects of a Name make its use elegant and effective?

Brevity Not a mouthful, easy to pinpoint in a jiffy
Ease in spell Phonetic, commonly known spelling, distinct and easy even to tell someone else on the phone
Relevance Relevance to entity and its contents, indicative of meaning, associative, intuitive to search, easy to recall
Uniqueness Makes it possible to identify accurately and precisely, usually forced if used on a computer system
Sort-ability Gives the natural sequence in a list we might hold conceptually, easier to find and analyze
Structure Indicates ontology, hierarchy (and therefore context), sets and subsets

Which name-aspects can be most significant for various kinds of ‘things’?

  • For an email id – Brevity, Ease in spelling, Relevance
  • For a person’s name – Ease in spelling, Uniqueness
  • For a Brand – Relevance,  Uniqueness
  • For a computer file/folder name – Brevity, Relevance, Uniqueness, Sortability, Structure
  • For a Concept – Relevance, Uniqueness
  • … and the list could go on.

 

Names have a purpose.  Use them effectively as you engineer knowledge.

Happy Naming! 🙂