Consulting is a team sport

By | July 24, 2013

Consulting is a team sport. One of the best things about consulting – and project work more generally – is that it’s a team sport. There is a goal. People have different roles. You don’t have to be good at everything, but you do need the right people on your team. There is an art to staffing and knowing how to put the right mix of resources together to get the project scope done.

We is smarter than I. Like James Surowiecki’s famous book Wisdom of the Crowds argues, a diverse group of informed people will generally make better decisions than any one individual will make. I am a huge believer in this. No matter how good your work is, it is often a little bit better after review. A few personal examples include:

  • Gaps in logic. Did we skip a step? Do all the analyses and assumption synch-up?
  • Better narrative. What parts to show first? How to build to the recommendation?
  • Cutting out fat. What slides are redundant and can be taken out?
  • Tidying up. Any errors in syntax, font, alignment, typos, attribution?

Trust is critical. You have to trust the people you work with. If not, all the constructive criticism comes across as hostile, malicious, or just nit-picking.  If you can listen with the heart of a student, you’ll be a better consultant in the long-run.  Also, you have final say in the quality and delivery of the product, so don’t take feedback so personally – just take in what you find useful, and disregard the rest.

If there is not the culture of trust, you will too busy double checking everything, second-guessing, or playing head-games to actually do the work. As with any professional service, consulting involves a team of people working together – often on the same document or deliverable. Setting clear expectations, establishing trust, and keeping revision control are consulting prerequisites.

Teams give you breadth. The team helps you go broad by helping to brainstorm, bring in lateral ideas, and generally force you to take a more cross-functional view. Too often, we get overly focused on the “current state” or trapped into the client’s way of thinking. We need to stay relevant to clients, but also divorced enough to see the adjacencies and linkages with other parts of the business or process.  (uh, think outside-the-box)

During a few points in the project life-cycle, strategic thinking is needed. Assumptions need to be tested.  New data needs to be uncovered or created. Best practices need to be applied. Often times, partners and senior managers provide some of that breadth. They have seen this situation before, and have a sense of where else to look for answers.

Teams give you depth. Typically, consulting teams are lean; there is not a lot of fluff. Everyone has to pull their weight. Even the analyst who is 6 months out of undergraduate should will have complete control over their work – however limited. Subject-matter experts are called in because they have “domain expertise” which is a fancy jargon way to say they specialize in the industry and/or function.  They are not generalists. Think of them like special teams in sports (field goal kicker in football, or the closer in baseball).

A safe place to learn. Like any professional service, a good part of the learning is through apprenticeship and on-the-job training. Sure, you might have the education degrees, work experience, and knowledge – but without applying it to the client context, with a structured consulting process – you are just a smart person without a clue.

Photo: Flickr: Lions in Serengeti, cweng50

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