Effective Consulting Step #3: Approach & Process

If you’re following along on my proposed “path to successful consulting & coaching”, we’re now on step 3 – process (eyes). If you’re just jumping in I suggest starting at the beginning of the series for context…(1st post)

Now that you have clarity on where you are, have established credibility and focused on the mindset & destination, it’s time to lay out a path to get there. How do you know if you’re ready? The clearest sign is that people are asking for it…”how do we make it happen?…what do we do?…let’s move!” (Incidentally the clearest sign you’re not ready is if people are stuck in the previous steps – “why are we here?…I don’t see the need?…”)

Image result for processAs you move into this step, try to make the progression feel organic. It sounds like: “since we know where we’re headed, let’s talk about the way we’re going to get there.”

Here are principles to keep in mind:

  1. Stay as high as possible as long as possible (no, we’re not talking about drugs). Communicate in terms of roadmap and macro-phases, not steps. People understand there’s a “beginning, middle and an end,” so connect with them at this level. Although there may very well be sub-phases and steps, do they need to know? Probably not. You’re in the drivers seat.
  2. Shine the headlights only on the next 100 feet. Continuing on the previous point, if we need to work in lockstep at a detailed level, then only explain what comes next. Don’t overwhelm them with future steps that are to come (…and often likely to change as a function of previous steps).
  3. Always communicate in terms of outcomes. While the activity itself might get messy, always go back to “what we’re trying to achieve in this phase” and how it fits to the overall big picture (back to destination mindset). This is amazingly clarifying, unifies people around outcomes, and helps untangle from “the technique.”

Clearly, the step of “process” crosses the border into “how” territory. As mentioned above, aim do it organically in a way that provides a way to move forward, not a labyrinth to be overcome.

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Effective Consulting Step #2: Focus on the Fundamentals

In the post before last I made the case for the four sequential steps required to engage in effective consulting (as well as the risk of getting it backwards!). Since then I covered step 1 – establishing a personal connection – “the heart.” In this post we’ll cover step 2 – focus on the fundamentals/mindset – “the head.”

Assuming you’ve done a good job of gaining trust and establishing a common view of “where we are” (step 1), you’re ideally positioned to propose “where to go.” Keep in mind that you’re not yet diving into “how to get there” (a common trap that short circuits the outcome) – but rather gaining consensus on the direction and destination.

Instead of getting tangled up in the mechanics of taking the next turn in the road, it allows people to fully engage in forward movement towards a destination (don’t worry, we’ll come to the need for taking the next turn in the road, but clarifying the destination comes first).

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So how do you do that in practice? Let me propose the following principles:

  1. Clarify the mindset. Are we thinking short term or long term?…Tactical or strategic?… …Hands-on or take distance? Experimental/iterative or deliberate? Whatever you choose, define & communicate it very explicitly.
  2. Illustrate it. It’s easy for # 1 to sound really theoretical, so make it come to life. Do an icebreaker, tell a story, ask a question…For example, if you want people to take a big picture view of major threats facing the organization, you could ask: “what could put us out of business in the next 2-3 years if we don’t do anything about it?” That’ll get people to think at the right level.
  3. Let others enrich it. Be sure to have participants contribute to making the destination and mindset their own. Have them test some of their ideas to see if they fit. Let them tell a story that brings it to life for them. Write one of their quotes on the board that expresses it in their words. In a recent strategy session with an executive team the COO said: “I want us to focus on what we can do as leaders that our employees can’t do.” His powerful challenge became one of the driving forces for the entire workshop.
  4. Reinforce it. Don’t walk away from the bedrock you’ve just laid together. When you get stuck in detail, let the destination & mindset lift you back out. Make it visual so you can point to it and hold each other accountable. For example, if we agreed to have an experimental mindset but we’re falling into a perfectionist trap, say: “since we agreed to be quick an dirty, what would it take to get this idea in front of a customer in the next 30 days?”

In summary “the fundamentals” (i.e. mindset & destination) are like a compass that point you in the right direction. Actively use it, unite around it, let it be the rallying cry that continually drives the team forward.

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Effective Consulting Step #1: Personal Connection

In my last post I made the case for what I believe are clear hallmarks distinguishing “good consulting” from “bad consulting”. Before going deeper let me clarify that this subject applies far more broadly than just consulting. It could just as well apply to teaching, counseling, coaching…really any role in which you’re using your insight or expertise to help someone else.

With that in mind remember that at the end of the last post I outlined a step-by-step thought-process to onboard a person on the journey of change. The first was “building a personal connection or relationship.” I also call it “the heart.” Why is it so important? Clearly relationships are where the magic happens…let’s go deeper to see why…

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First, they allow people to become vulnerable and feel safe in expressing their frustrations, needs, hopes and often lead to the discovery of the true problem or opportunity. In many cases it allows them to vent what may seem like mundane details or frustrations and expose how some of these non-obvious factors are interwoven, or at least linked in their minds (note this is often where you find out that the true problem is often not what was initially expressed!).

Second, relationships build trust to accept the recommended course of action and embark on the road to change. It’s simple but profound…the fact that you take time to actively listen & engage shows you care, that you’re willing to really immerse yourself in their situation, set aside preconceived ideas, give of yourself and humbly learn. Therefore you’re building a platform of credibility and EARNING the right to be heard and (hopefully) heeded.

So how do you do it? Here are a 3 essential practices:

  1. Stop talking – listen: resist the urge to jump in. Ask open ended questions and let them talk. Periodically summarize so they know you’re actively taking it in.
  2. Develop empathy: this means not only “listening” but immersing yourself emotionally into their world to see, hear and feel what they’re sensing (“walking a mile in their shoes”). What might this look like?…meet their clients, talk to their colleagues, spend time with them in the field, go with them to a meeting, have a picnic with their family. Get as many inputs as you possibly can.
  3. Test your insights: as you do the above, you’ll begin to develop tons of insights and conclusions that you need to summarize and test with the person (note: regularly summarizing & journaling is so important – otherwise you’ll get overwhelmed by quantity or only remember the last impression you had). Remember, insights are not recommendations but things you’re learning, developing a point of view upon that could potentially link to root causes or related factors. Talk them over with the person, get feedback (ask: “how does that sound to you?”). Keep learning.

I’ll be the first to admit, for a problem-solving-oriented-mind the above can be extremely challenging and require a significant amount of patience & discipline. Especially this phase can often feel like time is being wasted – personal networking, lots of chit-chat, rabbit trails, waiting for something to happen, working together on “trivial” side-items to build credibility, etc.

However there are NO shortcuts, it’s the necessary grunt work of relationship-building that pays for itself in spades – building a platform of trust & acceptance through which you will get a clear grasp of what’s at stake…plus gain “access” in order to influence & build buy-in for the significant actions that will be needed to change.

So, if you’re getting ready to start working with someone, put the above to the test. I’d love to hear examples of how it works for you!

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