Connecting the Dots Faster
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!
OpenCulture (directory with content from multiple sources)
Open Education Database (directory with content from multiple sources
Acting like an Owner – Does it matter?
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.
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.
What’s the prize if I win?
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.
The Power of Simplicity
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
I actually didn’t care much for consultants in the first part of my career. My experience was that people would come in, tell you what to do, and then leave victoriously while we were stuck trying to implement something that just wouldn’t work. It seemed that they made everything seem so complex – often as a way to justify their cost.
Then, I met a really amazing consultant who shared something valuable with me. He explained what he believed differentiated a true consultant from a contractor (something I wrote about a decade later in a Tech Republic article). He then made me aware of the Einstein quote above. This was one of those pivotal moments in my career.
Over the course of many years I have met many interesting people. Some seemed to try to intentionally obfuscate even the easiest things to try making themselves seem brilliant. Others took such a circuitous route that you sometimes forgot about what you were trying to understand and fix. And sometimes explanations were just so tangential that the main point was completely lost. There are likely many reasons for these experiences – some intentional and many not. The real lesson learned is that it wasn’t just consultants who have the ability to be incomprehensible, and that clear and comprehensible communication is key to effectiveness.
Just think about the power of a well crafted “elevator pitch” when you meet someone new, or the ability to quickly explain how your company differentiates itself from the competition (making you the better or safer choice in your prospect’s mind). Or, being able to articulate your business strategy in a way that people not only understand, but also so interests them enough where they want to learn more and be part of making that happen. This goes well beyond just having good communication skills.
The best consultants have this ability to explain something simply, as do the best employees, the best managers, the best executives, and the best business owners. While this is only one attribute of success (likability, powers of persuasion, integrity, luck, etc. are others), it is something that can be taught, developed, and consistently applied.
The power to “explain it simply” is the power to make a difference.
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