Consulting

Connecting the Dots Faster

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Picture of bridge with many lights representing dots.

When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind.  After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and then connect the dots faster.” This is a great skill for anyone to have regardless of the industry or business.

It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined they add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be far more effective and potentially much more valuable because it leads to having the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.

Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process.  Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value by “thinking outside the box.” Additional knowledge and skills almost always help us become more effective, regardless of what we may be doing.

Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge and immediate impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but simply cannot articulate in a clear manner. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.

So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn? People learn in different ways so there really is no one single best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best will help you learn faster.

I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, may introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read (or what I refer to as “The book of the month club manager.“)

I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”

What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it could possibly help you get a different or better job in the future. I will never criticize anyone for learning, going to school, or getting another certification or degree.

My personal belief is that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win.

This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was expanding my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This bit of serendipity both enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions that had real implications to my business. The funny thing was that I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own children, so for me this was just a bonus.

There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of your time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you are interested in learning or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or low cost training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and may help you learn to connect those dots faster.

Below are links to a few good free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others.  Enjoy!

edX

Khan Academy

OpenCulture (directory with content from multiple sources)

Open Education Database (directory with content from multiple sources

Alison

To Measure is to Know

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Lord William Thomson Kelvin was a pretty smart guy who lived in the 1800s. He didn’t get everything right (e.g., he supposedly stated, “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”), but his success ratio was far better than most so he possessed useful insight. I’m personally a fan of his quote, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.”

Business Intelligence (BI) systems can be very powerful, but only when they are embraced as a catalyst for change. What you often find in practice is that the systems are not actively used, or do not track the “right” metrics (i.e., those that provide insight into something important that you have the ability to adjust and impact the results), or provide the right information – only too late to make a difference.

Picture of an old fashioned scale used to measure the weight of an object.

The goal of any business is developing a profitable business model and then executing extremely well. So, you need to have something that people want, then need to be able to deliver high-quality goods and/or services, and finally need to make sure that you can do that profitably (it’s amazing how many businesses fail to understand this last part).  Developing a systematic approach that allows for repeatable success is extremely important. Pricing at a level that is competitive and provides a healthy profit margin provides the means for growth and sustainability.

Every business is systemic in nature. Outputs from one area (such as a steady flow of qualified leads from Marketing) become inputs to another (Sales). Closed deals feed project teams, development teams, support teams, etc. Great jobs by those teams will generate referrals, expansion, and other growth – and the cycle continues. This is an important concept to understand because problems or deficiencies in one area can manifest themselves in other areas.

Next, the understanding of cause and effect is important. For example, if your website is not getting traffic is it because of poor search engine optimization or is it bad messaging and/or presentation? If people come to your website but don’t stay long do you know what they are doing? Some formatting is better for printing than reading on a screen (such as multi-column pages), so people tend to print and go. And, external links that do not open in a new window can hurt the “stickiness” of a website.  Cause and effect are not always as simple as they would seem, but having data on as many areas as possible will help you understand which ones are really important.

When I had my company we gathered metrics on everything. We even had “efficiency factors” for every Consultant. That helped with estimating, pricing, and scheduling. We would break work down into repeatable components for estimating purposes. Over time we found that our estimates ranged between 4% under and 5% over the actual time required for nearly every work package within a project. This allowed us to fix bid projects to create confidence, and price them at a level that was lean (we usually came-in about the middle of the pack from a price perspective, but the difference was that we could guarantee delivery for that price). More importantly, it allowed us to maintain a healthy profit margin that let us hire the best people, treat them well, invest in our business, and create sustainable profitability as well.

There are many standard metrics for all aspects of a business. Getting started can be as simple as creating some sample data based on estimates, “working the model” with that data, and seeing if this provides additional insight into business processes. Then ask, “When and where could I have made a change to positively impact the results?” Keep working and when you have something that seems to work gather some real data and re-work the model. You don’t need fancy dashboards (yet).

Within a few days, it is often possible to identify the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are most relevant for your business. Then, start consistently gathering data, systematically analyzing it, and present it in a way that is easy to understand and drill-into in a timely manner.  To measure the right things really is to know.

Acting like an Owner – Does it matter?

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One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the time that I was running my own consulting business. Prior to that, I had worked as an employee for midsize to large companies for ten years, and as one of the first hires at a start-up technology company. I felt that the combination of doing hands-on work, managing, selling, and helping establish a start-up (where I did not have an equity stake) provided everything needed to start my own business.

Well, guess what? I was only partially correct. I was prepared for the activities of running the business but really was not prepared for the responsibility of running a business. While this seems like it should be obvious, what I’ve seen many times is those business owners usually focus the majority of their efforts on growth/upside. That type of optimism is important for entrepreneurs – without it, they would not bother putting so much at risk.

Picture of a man next to a sign that says "grand opening"

People tend to adopt a different perspective when making decisions once they realize that every action and decision can impact the money moving into and out of their own wallet.

Even in a large business, you can typically spot the people who have taken these risks and run their own business. I was responsible for a Global Business Unit with $50+ million in annual sales and ran it like a “business within a business” because I had P&L responsibilities and the decisions I made mattered to the success of my business unit

It’s more than just striking out on your own as a contractor or sole proprietor. I’m talking about the people who have had employees, invested in capital equipment, and went all-in. These are the people thinking about the big picture.

What do these people do differently than people who have not had this type of experience?

One of the biggest things is they view business in terms of “good business” and “bad business.” Not all business is good business, and not all customers are good customers. There needs to be a fair commercial exchange where both sides receive value, mutual respect, and open communication. You know this is working when your customers treat you like a true partner (a real trusted advisor) instead of just a vendor, or at least do not try to take advantage of you (and vice-versa). 

A business is in business to make money, so if your work is not profitable it is very likely that you should not be doing it. And, if you are not delivering value to an organization it is very likely that you would be better off spending your time elsewhere – building your reputation and reference base within an organization that was a better fit. That is true for employees at all levels.

“Bad” salespeople (who may very well regularly exceed their quota) only care about the sale and their commission – not the fit, the customer’s satisfaction, or the effort required to support that customer. Selling products and services that people don’t need, charging too little or too much, and making promises that you know will not be met are typical signs of a person who is not thinking like an owner. Their focus is on the short-term as they are not focused on growing accounts and their compensation plans generally only reward net new business and first-time sales.

How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. I believe that employees are either viewed as Assets (to be managed for growth and long-term value) or Commodities (to be used up and replaced as needed – usually viewed as fungible and treated as if they are easily replaceable). Your business is usually only as good as your employees, so treating them well and with respect creates loyalty and results in higher customer satisfaction.

Successful business owners usually look for the best person out there, and not just the most affordable person who is “good enough” to do the job. The flipside is that you need to weed out the people who are not a good fit quickly. Making good decisions quickly and decisively is often a hallmark of a successful business owner.

Successful business owners are generally more innovative. They are willing to experiment and take risks. They reward that behavior. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide goods and/or services that are tailored to those specific needs.

Sometimes this means specialization and customization, and sometimes this means more attention and better support. Regardless of what is different, these people are observant of the small details, understand their target market, and are good at defining a message that articulates that difference. These are the people that seem to be able to see around corners and anticipate both problems and opportunities. They do this out of necessity.

Former business owners are usually more conscientious about money, taking a “my money” perspective on sales and expenses. Every dollar in the business provides safety and opportunity for growth. These usually are not the people who routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on business meals, or who take unnecessary or questionable trips to nice places. Money saved on things like unnecessary travel or unnecessary training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.

While these are common traits found in successful business owners, it is possible to develop them even if you have never owned a business. Do you understand the big picture vision and mission of the company that you work at? What do you value and what is your culture? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? Does your management style reflect this aspirational vision?

When selling, are you focused on delivering value, developing a positive reputation within that organization, and profiting on the long-term relationship? When delivering services, is your focus on delivering what has been contracted – and doing so on time and within budget? Are your projects used as examples of how things should be done within other organizations?  Are you spending money on the right things – not wasteful or extravagant?

These are all things that employees at all levels can do. They will make a difference and will help you stand out. That opens the door to career growth and change. And, it may get you thinking about starting that business you have always dreamed of. Awareness and understanding are the first steps towards change and improvement.

There’s a story in there – I just know it…

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I was reading an article from Nancy Duarte about Strengthening Culture with Storytelling, and it made me think about how important a skill story telling can be in business, and how it can be far more effective than just presenting facts / data. These are just a few examples – I’m sure that you have many of your own.Storytelling

One of the best sales people that I’ve ever known wasn’t a sales person at all. It is Jon Vice, former CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Jon is very personable and has the ability to make each person feel like they are the most important person in the room (quite a skill in itself). Jon would talk to a room of people and tell a story. Mid-story you were hooked. You completely bought what he was selling, often without knowing what the “ask” was. It was amazing to experience.

Years ago when my company was funding medical research projects, my oldest daughter (then only four years old) and I watched a presentation on the mid-term findings of one of the projects. The MD/Ph.D. giving the presentation was impressive, but what he showed was slide after slide of data. After 10-15 minutes my daughter held her Curious George stuffed animal up in front of her (where the shadow would be seen on the screen) and proclaimed, “Boring!”

Six months later that same person gave his wrap-up presentation. It was short, told an interesting story that explained why these findings were important, laying the groundwork for a follow-on project. A few years later he commented that this was a very valuable lesson because the story with data was far more compelling than just the data itself.

A few years ago the company I work for introduced a high-performance analytics database. We touted that our product was 100 times faster than other products, which happened to be a similar message used by a handful of competitors. In my region we created a “Why Fast Matters” webinar series and told the stories of our early Proof of Value efforts. This helped my team make the first few sales of this new product. People understood our value proposition because these success stories made it tangible.

What I tell my team is to weave the thread of our value proposition into the fabric of a prospect’s story. This both makes us part of the story, and also makes this new story their own (as opposed to being our story). This simple approach has been effective, and also helps you qualify out sooner if you can’t improve the story.

What if you not selling anything? Your data has a story to tell – even more so with big data. Whether you are analyzing data from a single source (such as audit or log data), or correlating data from multiple sources, the data is telling you a story. Whether patterns, trends, or correlated events – the story is there. And once you find it there is so much you can do to build it out.

Whether you are selling, managing, teaching, coaching, analyzing, or just hanging out with friends or colleagues, being able to entertain with a story is a valuable skill. This is a great way to make a lot of things in business even more interesting and memorable. So, give it a try.

What’s the prize if I win?

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In consulting and in business there is a tendency to believe that if you show someone how to find that proverbial “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” that they will be motivated to do so.  Seasoned professionals will tend to ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” to understand if there is a real opportunity or not. If you are unable to quickly, clearly and concisely articulate both the problem and why this helps solve that problem it is often game over then and there (N.B.  It pays to be prepared). But, having the right answer is not a guarantee of moving forward.

Unfortunately, sometimes a mere pot of gold just isn’t enough to motivate. Sometimes it takes something different, and usually something personal. It’s more, “What’s in this for me?” No, I am not talking about bribes, kickbacks or anything illegal or unethical. This is about finding out what is really important to the decision maker and in what priority, and then demonstrating that the proposed solution will bring them closer to achieving their personal goals. What’s in it for them?

Case in point. Several years ago I was trying to sell a packaged Business Intelligence (BI) system developed on our database platform to customers most likely to have a need. Qualification performed – check. Interested – check. Proof of value – check. Quick ROI check. Close the deal – not so fast…

This application was a set of dashboards with 150-200 predefined KPIs (key performance indicators). The premise was that you could quickly tailor and deploy the new BI system with little risk (finding and validating the data needed was available to support the KPI was the biggest risk, but one that could be identified up-front) and about half the cost of what a similar typical implementation would cost. Who wouldn’t want one?

I spent several days onsite with the prospect, identified areas of concern and opportunity, and used their own data to quantify the potential benefit. Before the end of the week I was able to show the potential to get an 8x ROI in the first year. Remember, this was estimated using their data – not figures that I just created. Being somewhat conservative I suggested that even half that amount would be a big success.  Look – we found the pot of gold!

Despite this the deal never closed. This company had a lot of money, and this CIO had a huge budget. Saving $500K+ would be nice but was not essential. What I learned later was that this person was pushing forward an initiative of his own that was highly visible. This new system had the potential to become a distraction and he did not need that. Had I been able to make this determination sooner I could have easily repositioned it to be in alignment with his agenda.

For example, the focus of the system could have shifted from financial savings to project and risk management for his higher priority initiative. The KPIs could be on earned value, scheduling, and deliverables.  This probably would have sold as it would have been far more appealing to this CIO and supported what was important to him (i.e., his prize if he wins).  The additional financial savings initially identified would just be the icing on the cake, to be applied at a later time.

There were several lessons learned on this effort. In this instance I was focused on my own personal pot of gold (based on logic and common sense), rather than on my customer’s priorities and prize for winning. That mistake cost me this deal, but is one I have not made since helping me win many other deals.