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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Driving discipline

Which of the following driving disciplines do you follow, or see being followed?  Add 1 point for every check. (Points are for traffic that drives on the left of the road, else switch right with left)

  1. Traffic on your right always has Right-of-way – in lanes, at a round-about, or at an intersection
  2. At an intersection the one who reaches it first, gets right-of-way to cross it
  3. Always overtake from the right
  4. Don’t overtake a vehicle which is overtaking another vehicle itself, or if there is oncoming traffic
  5. Distance from the vehicle in front of you should be enough to let you see its rear wheels touching the road
  6. When going down an incline, shift down to the same gear you would use when climbing it
  7. Instead of applying the brakes, try shifting to a lower gear and letting the engine do the braking (release the clutch)
  8. Don’t ever switch off the engine to free-roll down an incline
  9. Don’t drive with the clutch pressed halfway while cruising
  10. Maintain your position in you lane and switch lanes carefully watching other traffic
  11. You must not move to your right if a vehicle is overtaking you
  12. Thumb rule for shifting gears – shift gears according to speed should be 16Xgear kms/hr, i.e. upto 16 kms/hr move up from the 1st gear, upto 32 kms/hr imove up from 2nd gear, upto 48 kms/hr move up from 4rd gear, upto 64 kms/hr move up from 4th gear, and upto 80 kms/hr move up from 5th gear (if there is one)
  13. When facing oncoming traffic at night, never look at their headlights, instead keep your eyes to the left verge of the road you are on
  14. Try driving with foresight of what others are going to do/doing on the road, and take proactive measures so they don’t need to change their path

These are lessons gathered over years and generations… If you’d like to add some points, please leave a comment.

If you got a score of:

More than 10Bravo! Way to be…
6-10Great, you must already be a driver blessed by others on the road
3-5Hmm, you must definitely try more of these to get a better drive
Below 3You probably never knew these, but now you do

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Ethics at Work

Whose responsibility is work?  The worker, or the supervisor who gives the instruction to the worker?  Whose responsibility therefore, is work ethic?

Ethical work definition is a pre-requisite to work ethics, though in some situations you find the work ethical even without ethical work being demanded.  Lets take a closer look at what work ethics are, and what ethical work is

.

Work ethics is honesty in working, ensuring integrity of outcome, labor, and time.  Often the only thing associated with work ethics is whether the worker puts in the contracted amount of time to her/his station at work.  But I think it goes much further than that.  I believe work ethics is about ensuring that I do not leave any stone unturned in meeting the intent of my assignment for meeting the requirements of the outcome.  This means to me the selection of the right methods, tools, technique, and then to execute my assignment responsibly in ensuring that my work integrates with the work of others in the team.  It means sincerity and diligence on the worker’s part in understanding the big picture and how they can contribute the most to the team through their individual assignment, and even other contributions they can make.  It means the exhibition of requisite skills by the worker to ensure the most integral outcome in the least time and effort as a whole.

Lets look at the ethical work definition and its outcomes now.  Ethical work definition means the definition of work and work breakdown structures such that they align with the competence and capacity of the team, and which when completed meets the intent of the customer, who can be an internal customer too.  Ethical work is the result of work definition by managers typically, while work ethic is the individual endeavor of each team member.

W.O.R.K. = When Outcomes Result from Knowledge!  This means a great deal.  First, work that does not have any result or outcome is a waste of time.  Second, work is based on knowledge, the knowledge of the doer.  If it is not based on the knowledge of the doer, it is actually someone else’s knowledge, while the job is just being executed be the worker.

What do these thoughts mean to you as a worker?  What do these thoughts tell you as a supervisor or manager?

Which do you now think is more important – work ethics or ethical work?  Or are they both equally important for an ethically operating enterprise? 

This sets the stage for what today’s students are struggling with.  Students who are eagerly gathering degrees, diplomas, and certificates to present to employers who have no clue of what the work involves, except knowing that the kinds of people who have succeeded in growing their enterprise in the past had far fewer qualifications (and much more ethics).  Work ethics for ethical work!

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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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Discernment-Demands-Growth!

Meeting requirements does not grow an organization, meeting discerning demands does.  As customers, we must have discerning demands.  This is what causes our supplier organizations to grow.  So many of us will be able to relate with the growth that our own organizations had, because we had some discerning, demanding customers.  These are Premium customers to have, and every supplier is blessed when they have one.

“It’s not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It’s the customer who pays the wages.” – Henry Ford

Customers who have discerning standards, and demand their standards be met are the reason for learning and growth for their suppliers who (go through the ‘good’) struggle if they are committed to deliver quality.  Unless there is something more and better being delivered, it isn’t growth for anyone – neither the individual, nor the supplier, nor the customer.  As long as there is something good and better, the ‘more’ makes sense.  If the quality isn’t what it could have been, more just means more of the same.  This isn’t growth.  So what is Quality then?

We’ve heard promotional claims from sales pitches about the quality of products and services that will be offered by a particular supplier – “the world’s best”, “most economical”, “in the shortest possible time”, “easy to work with”, “better than the competition”, “most comfortable”, etc.  Of course there’s an asterisk(*) in every case, pointing to the fine print of the T&C (terms & conditions) that apply.  In most cases however, we, the consumers (or the customers) convince ourselves to decide to buy those products and services despite some loopholes or risks we may observe in the promises.  We take a chance.  The suppliers depend on our gullibility to swallow that impossible promise along with the compromises and discounts we may make with our own values or standards.  In a sellers’ market, goods are scarce and sellers can keep prices high.  And there are enough of us customers in this world.

“Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.” – Ayn Rand

What do we do as consumers when we go through and experience the purchase?  We cloak our disappointments in the rationalization we do to let the supplier go scot free, without even them knowing that they fell short.  Suppliers couldn’t be happier.  We’re lapping up whatever is meted out, maybe happy in the retail therapy it provides us.  We compromise our demands for quality.

“I don’t pay good wages because I have a lot of money; I have a lot of money because I pay good wages.” – Robert Bosch

There’s always the balance between quality and price to think about.  What people may be able to afford, may not be good enough in their opinion.  In a buyers’ market, goods are plentiful and buyers can keep prices down.  Both, the suppliers or the customers could make compromises in quality, and in their demands.  Their wisdom and discernment defines the quality of their compromise at any given point in time.

“Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shuts down for ten years.” – Warren Buffett

This compromise is the beginning of the end, as far as economic growth goes, if it isn’t made with discernment.  Quality Professionals will jump up to say, “But Quality is meeting the Customers’ Requirements!”.  They will not take responsibility for the requirements being laissez-faire or their implied promise not being kept (they are covered by the T&C, you see, even if they started with the best intentions).

“Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

So we seem to be faced with the question – Does the replication and scaling up of laissez-faire goods in larger volumes have a positive impact on the economic growth?  Or does the discerning refinement of product features and value propositions, and then each scaling up (albeit to a lower scale) have a bigger positive impact on economic growth.

“If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.” – Henry Ford

My own take is that as we go up the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our discernment must increase, we must demand of ourselves to be more discerning, whether we are the customer or the supplier.  The higher up we are in Maslow’s Hierarchy, the more discerning we must be.  We must develop our own discernment to match the responsibility that we take at our position in life.

A mentor once told me that our wealth is defined not by how much money we have, but by how we spend it!!

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