Zen and the art of good consulting
As consultants, what we do is to help law firms, in-house legal teams and other professional services organisations to find the best ways of improving the way they do things, often in the context of technology.
Doing this effectively requires a deep understanding of what our clients’ businesses are about and what their clients expect of them, as well as the financial and competitive constraints. However, we know that each firm is different. As well as a different combination of practices – with the attendant financial drivers - and geographical locations, each firm has a different culture, a different combination of existing technologies and constraints, and different opportunities. It’s genuinely not “one size fits all”.
The consultant’s role is often about knowing what’s possible and working out, from the variety of options available, what would fit each particular firm at that moment in time. It is not just a question of creating a list of questions and doing a statistical analysis of the answers, although asking the right questions and analysing the responses are both important. The ability to dig deeper into the views presented, ask the right follow-up questions and put the conversation into the context of potential practical solutions is crucial.
We usually get brought in to help with a specific issue or project. Our approach is:
1. Doing our homework. This means:
Making sure we understand the business context – the firm’s practice and business strategy, its existing systems and structures and what else is going on in the firm. Being clear about who the stakeholders are and understanding their viewpoints. Understanding the terminology used in the firm – for example, some people might not understand what is meant by ‘the intranet’, but they’ll recognise the name the firm has given to its internal site.
Not reinventing the wheel – understanding the thinking that has been done already. Maybe even disagreeing with it.
Where the work involves looking at the detail of the way in which the professional service is delivered, we may read a selection of typical files. This helps us to pick up some of the issues and needs, and also sometimes enables us to push back in discussions with the professionals, because we’ve seen and understood how things are working in reality.
2. Consulting the business. This involves:
Talking to people in the business, and, more importantly, listening to them. Ideally we do this in small groups covering a cross section of the people likely to be affected by the project, but sometimes one to one. It’s important to speak their language and demonstrate an understanding of what they do and the pressures involved in order to have credibility - busy professionals don’t have time to explain what they do and quickly lose patience with people who don’t appreciate the subtleties. However, they will often take the time to explain internal issues which bother them to an outsider, where they might assume that an insider would know about their frustrations.
Making these sessions effective depends on having the right techniques for:
Being clear about the context, so the delegates understand what’s in it for them, whilst managing expectations.
Getting the delegates’ thought processes going by breaking the ice – but in a way that doesn’t come across as gimmicky or time-wasting.
Quickly assessing where the delegates in the particular session are coming from and which areas need to be probed. This will vary from session to session.
Ensuring that people feel able to speak up about what really happens in the organisation, rather than what they think is meant to happen.
Staying outside any internal politics.
Not expecting ‘blue sky thinking’ - asking targeted but open questions, whilst ensuring that the discussion does not go off into areas that are not relevant. Sometimes the questions need to be adapted for different audiences, particularly where there are language or culture differences.
Understanding the messages that are coming through – clarifying where appropriate but without irritating.
Keeping the meeting moving and the delegates engaged throughout.
Capturing the output in a way that can later be used to shape the project. Picking up links and common themes. Ensuring we have captured the pointed omissions as well as what has actually been said.
Sometimes, managing an outpouring of complaint or emotion in a way which allows for the delegates to get things off their chest but by the end of the session has reached a mutual understanding of what is possible and what it is reasonable to expect.
Often, issuing a carefully constructed online survey within the business alongside the face to face consulting – ensuring that questions are asked in such a way as to encourage people to think about the issues and give them an opportunity to comment, whilst also collecting some quantitative data to back up a business case.
Giving people the opportunity to have their say is important. Having the statistics to back up the decisions taken is crucial too. When people later say they don’t’ like the solution it’s helpful to be able to state that, say, 85% of the people who responded to our consultation thought that this was the right approach.
Sometimes, speaking to clients of the firm, in order to get their perspective on requirements and possible changes, but without raising expectations unduly. This can be particularly powerful as change which is backed by clients’ requirements is more readily adopted by the professionals than change which appears to be imposed by ‘management’.
3. Analysing the results and presenting possible solutions is where the results of the consultation process are combined with our knowledge and judgement. In this context, our approach involves:
Analysing the requirements that have emerged. Arriving at the best solution is unlikely to be simply a question of totting up ‘votes’ for different approaches. Some of the suggestions made during the consultation process may be wholly impractical, but the underlying need may be capable of being met in a different way. This involves understanding the practicalities, in the context of the organisation’s existing culture and infrastructure and the reality of what users will adapt to.
Presenting one or more possible ways forward to a reference group. We call this a ‘straw man’ presentation. The proposal needs to be sufficiently credible that the reference group are able to critique it, whilst seeing that it meets the identified requirements appropriately.
Laying the foundations for change management in the organisation – recognising how any changes in working practices will need to be communicated, encouraged and reinforced if the change is to be successful.
This may lead on to work on the specification of a new system or process, and possibly the selection and implementation, with, in every case, an active approach to change management.
We are proud of the skills that we as 3Kites Consulting bring to the consultation process, with our many years of experience and our combination of professional, management and IT experience.
Melanie Farquharson, 3Kites Consulting, October 2014.
3Kites Consulting is a limited company registered in England and Wales. Registered number: 5644909. Registered office: Chancery House, 30 St John’s Road, Woking, Surrey, GU21 7SA. www.3kites.com
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