A consultant would never tell a client “the baby is ugly.” It isn’t politically correct or even very nice. However, even if you want to say this, no words will do any good unless you also accompany your criticism with a workable solution.
As a business process and technology consultant, my job is to look out for my clients’ best interests. I work closely with their team to come up with the best processes and technology to improve efficiency. Just recently, five months after my team completed a project for a manufacturing client, I was called back to the client’s office. But this time, it wasn’t for additional work. It seemed as if not one day had passed since I left the company months earlier, ready to implement a new solution. What went wrong? The issue wasn’t what we had come up with; rather it was the team responsible for making it work.
Establishing Your Role Within the Client’s Team
I don’t work in a vacuum. I know from experience that the more buy-in I get from the team, the more successful the project will be. At the beginning of any project, my goal is to get a complete understanding of the issue, gain trust from the players involved and reassure the main contact that we can solve their problems. I start by asking all players what is going on, even when I’ve already heard about the issues. This way, I get a full picture of the issues we’re facing. This discovery also levels the playing field because all team members give their perspective to the entire group.
When we’ve come up with a solution, we then vet it with the client’s team members so they can poke holes in it. After all, they are more familiar with the company and can spot any pitfalls. This approach works in 99 percent of the engagements I do – making the one percent extremely frustrating and a bit perplexing.
Identifying the Problem
As soon as I learned that our original solution wasn’t working, I wanted to know what happened. Typically, when consulting engagements fail, we find that there are three culprits:
- Incomplete requirements. When we don’t have a complete picture of the issue, we can’t design the right solution.
- Insufficient training. Much of our job is helping our clients take full advantage of the power of their accounting software. This means training them as to what is possible with the new processes that allow them to get what they need. We try our best to make sure everyone understands the new process and even record training videos for them. However, if they are confused, the team can revert to old habits.
- Dysfunctional team. Teams that don’t work well together can sabotage each other and the proposed solution.
This list may be overly simplified, but these are what we most typically face. In the case of this client, the issue was really a combination of the last two. Knowing what I did about the team, my next step was to determine how I wanted to come across when I met with them again. I wanted to get my point across, but I also didn’t want to seem like a prison warden or a witch. I wanted them to know that I was on their side, but also to make them also understand that I had the power to make recommendations that they may cost them their jobs. Most importantly, I wanted the company owner to know that I was trying to make things work.
Finding a Solution
I didn’t really tell the owner his “baby” was ugly — or that his employees were saboteurs. That would be have been entirely counterproductive and would have led to zero improvement. The goal instead was to find a way to show the owner and the team how they were creating more work for the entire company rather than helping make the process better. Here’s what I did:
- First, regain their trust. I explained that I was there to check in and troubleshoot issues they were facing with implementing the new solution. I wanted to take the time to hear what they thought was going on, and then let them show me how they were functioning.
- Explain the issues with traditional thinking. I showed them how they were creating more work for themselves and other departments doing it their way.
- Listen again. Here’s where it got interesting. The finger pointing and the blame games were incredible.
- Re-teach. The final step, once the situation was put on the table in a more practical way, was to walk through the new process as it was originally designed, explaining how it saved time and improved accuracy. I answered a lot of questions and reiterated why we decided to do it that way.
My goal in any consulting engagement is to leave the company better off than when I was hired. In this case, it took some time to get there. The process also uncovered some dysfunction going on within the department and, as a result, management decided to reorganize. Time will tell whether the new department will work out better than the old. Me? I learned a few things about introducing new procedures and lived another day as a consultant.