It was an interesting question in that during some 30+ years of management consulting, I had never really sat down and decided what these should be. At a subconscious level, I did indeed have a whole bunch, but had never really formalized them, or put pen to paper about them. Going through the mental process of coming up with my top 3 was an interesting exercise, so I thought I would share them here – as much to get readers thinking about their own “working principles,” whether they are in consulting or some other discipline. But some readers may, perhaps, also find my own principles instructive. So, here goes!
Creating Client Capability is the Only Sustainable Approach to Management Consulting!
Many years ago I was with a large professional services firm. They went through a massive strategic planning exercise (one that, I have to say, was rather effective in terms of impact on growth and profitability!) One of the concepts that came out of the plan was to focus on the top 100 clients, and establish what was referred to as “annuity relationships.” I was always somewhat troubled by this, in spite of the business results it led to. (By the way, no surprise that this is a dominant strategy for most professional services firms.) I remember a very uncomfortable meeting with a bunch of Partners to whom I was explaining a new service that was coming out of a 3-year multi-company research program on IT Effectiveness. The new service effectively packaged a tremendous amount of intellectual capital about IT Effectiveness and Transformation and transferred that to our clients.
During my presentation, I had a feeling that my message was not being well received. At the end of the presentation, as we moved into Q&A, one of the Partners angrily asked, “Vaughan, what on earth are you thinking of – you are going to kill our children!” I was totally bemused by this comment and asked him to clarify his question. “Vaughan, we make our livings on the back of incompetent IT organizations. Why would we want to help them get better?”
I left the firm shortly thereafter to start a new consulting firm with a different value set. Of course, we all want repeat clients and long term relationships. But somehow doing that on the back of client dependency did not feel like the way I wanted to make my living!
Client Capability is Best Nurtured Collaboratively!
My most successful and enjoyable engagements have been with client teams – often with cascading networks of teams as IT transformation efforts take hold. My least successful and enjoyable engagements have been when the CIO has wanted to work directly with me and not involve others (or involve them minimally). Sometimes, there are good reasons to work this way – for example, when the CIO is about to replace his leadership team. And sometimes the nature of the engagement is one-on-one coaching or counsel to the CIO. But anything with broader implications – IT strategy, IT operating model, governance, transformation, etc. is, from my experience, far more successful conducted with and through client teams. Which takes us to my third consulting principle…
Never Collude with Dysfunctional Client Behavior!
This one’s sometimes a hard one to live by, but every time I have ignored my instincts and gone along with some sort of dysfunctional behavior, I have regretted it! Examples are clients who are sloppy about meetings – start late, end late, miss calendar appointments, and so on. This is not at all uncommon. And, of course, we all find ourselves dealing with exceptional circumstances sometimes – the freeway accident, the call from the CEO to come up to an urgent meeting.
But, in some companies, a pattern often emerges quickly, and it’s clear that this is indeed a pattern of behavior. It’s tough to take this on, but when I have done so – either a direct confrontation (which, frankly, rarely solves the problem for long) or by “firing the client” (which either does work in that it leads to changed behavior, or works because I no longer have to put up with it!) I have always been happy to have stood my ground.
Psychologists talk about “enabling behavior” and that while this can be positive, it is often negative and ultimately destructive. I believe it is also a trap that consultants can easily fall into and have to be quite deliberate about recognizing and avoiding it!
More insidious examples of dysfunctional behavior include poor decision making, or constant second guessing of decisions already made, or not being clear about accountabilities and expectations. The pity of this is, these are issues you are sometimes hired to help fix, but you find that the person that hired you (e.g., the CIO) is actually the worst offender, and when confronted, is not prepared (or equipped) to change that behavior, but wants you instead to try all sorts of interventions with “his people.”
Do you have any favorite “working principles” you’d like to share? Or reflections on my top 3?