Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Consulting Project Lifecycle

One key reason to enter consulting is the rapid pace of learning. Stated differently, on every project you typically start knowing nothing about the client, the industry, or the problem.



Key Event Milestones

Project Start: This is where you typically know nothing. People are throwing around acronyms, different team names, key opinion leaders, and related work references. You will flip through decks from previous engagements with no idea about what it means. The less confident consultant will feel abject paralyzing terror; the more confident will feel the latent possibility of humiliation if their total incompetence is drawn into the light before they have a chance to actually learn something.

Mid-Term Review: You've turned the corner from humiliation to triumph. You finally understand the client, the problem, and are able to throw out a few nuggets of insight that somebody at the client knew already, but the person listening to your brief didn't. If you hit this milestone when your knowledge is above your client's, they are likely to believe your final recommendation. If you don't tell them anything they didn't know already at the mid-term review, the skepticism around your assumptions, analysis, and expectations will be much higher in the final review.

Project Finish: At this point, you know your client's problem much better than they do. You should be able to "out-fact" them on all areas of discussion; if you can't, you have in all likelihood fundamentally screwed up the engagement. Finish the briefing, let the partner send the invoice, go out to a nice dinner, and toast the client for paying you to learn about their business.

The Client Learning Slope:

The client has learned more about themselves and their problem than you ever will. However, they have also forgotten more than you will ever know. With the accumulation of all their knowledge and responsibilities, it is practically difficult for them to ramp up (ie increase the slope of) their learnings. Hence they continue to plod along at a slow, steady pace of improved knowledge.

The Consultant Learning Slope:

On the other hand you, as a consultant, are unencumbered by such things as "industry knowledge", P&L responsibility, staff birthday parties, Friday Hawaiin t-shirt day planning, diversity meetings, needy spouses, housework, etc. Your job is to just learn about one thing, and pull all the hours necessary until you do. The steeper you can make this slope, the better off you'll be.

Implications:

1) Accept that you know nothing when you start. Embrace the potential for humiliation.
2) Learn as fast as you can.
3) Know more than the client by the mid-term review, or be prepared for a death march in the last part of the project.

1 comment:

Florian Hollender said...

Ninja, spot on.
I found that some consultants that come straight from university have a hard time accepting and working this total lack of specific knowledge at the beginning of a project. It is not academics we do... so you need to be able to work hypothesis-based, and validate the heck out of your best guesses in the beginning, so you can immediately start to get stuff done. Waiting until you understand everything you think you should is not going to help, because it is often not going to happen until, as you said, far into the project.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008