“It depends” is a phrase you hear a lot in both business school and management consulting.  To some, it might seem like a boring half-answer, timid, or worse – mentally lazy.  As weird as it might seem, it is often the best short-answer to give a client.

1) Most problems are complex. This might seem obvious, but clients typically pay for us to solve the difficult and persistent problems. If it were easy, it would already have been solved. Seth Godin calls them perfect problems.

If you can answer the parts of the problem “off the cuff”, it either means you are a genius (possible), or you are not really answering the entirety of the problem (more likely).  Brainstorm through the potential issues before you jump the gun.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of consulting works sits in the yellow area (complex problem, complex solution). It can be a bit of a grind, but those are the type of problems that Fortune 1000 typically have, and the type of problems we know how to solve. We can talk about the innovation and leadership quadrant in a different post.

Simple Complex Problem Solution

2) Context matters. No question is asked in a vacuum. If someone asks you if they should invest in Linkedin (ticker symbol: LNKD), the answer is probably “it depends”:

  • Time horizon: How long will you be holding the stock?
  • Risk tolerance: What is your comfort buying stocks with very high PE multiples?
  • Diversification: How diversified are you?  Is this the only investment you have?

Another recent example of the IT DEPENDS phenomenon was the hub-bub with Marissa Mayer banning remote work. Personally, I believe she had some good reasons (need to get Yahoo! innovating, people were slacking etc), but at the end of the day, the answer for tel-commuting is IT DEPENDS.

Why would someone in accounts payable (clearly defined work, little interaction with others needed) be held to the same commuting standards as someone in product marketing (fluid work product, need for collaboration, interaction with customers)?

3) Beware of false choices. People tend to over-simplify the situation and paint the pictures as if it were black / white. This is also called the false dilemma. US politicians are notorious at this. Watch any political TV ad, and it will make you sick how they set up issues as false choices (good sensible me vs. bad crazy them).

Last week when I was on a conference call with a few people, someone argued for his point by creating a false choice (A or B).  I had to bust him on the false choice, by saying, “That’s a little reductionist, isn’t it?  What about choice C?”

4) Too often, clients want to take short-cuts. Like anyone, clients are impatient. They like the rigor and process-focus that consultants take, but they want it done in 1/2 the time with 1/2 the fees. While it’s good to give updates, make sure you follow the process you outlined in the proposal. Don’t forget that you are the coach.

Problem with shortcuts

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