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Some Quick Notes on Approaching a Single Day Consultancy:

If I find myself in the boardroom of a company that I am only vaguely familiar with, and I am asked to consult on a problem that I am only just learning about, I find it is useful to keep some basic approaches in mind:

Approach 1:: Ramming Your Square Peg Into Their Circular Hole

Although this is the silliest form of consulting it is often exactly what is expected of you. It comes from the notion that an idea is more valuable than the process by which the idea was generated. In this case you have been brought in because someone in the company has heard about your IDEA and thinks that your IDEA might be valuable in solving a problem that the company is facing. The success of these consultations depends more on the judgment of the person that invited you than it does on the quality of your idea. You are expected to explain your idea and then repeatedly frame their problem from the perspective of your idea. Sometimes it is a perfect fit, while other times you will struggle to spark a glimmer of synergy that you hope will burn just long enough so that you can get back to the airport.

Approach 2 :: Repeating Only What You Understand

This approach is painfully simple but is often more effective than (1). Here you might explain the IDEA that got you in the door only to the extent that it makes people in the room respect you as someone who is intelligent and open minded. Then you say that your IDEA might apply, but that you would first like each person in the room to explain exactly what they think the problem is. You will find that certain aspects of the problem cause people’s voices to trail off at the end of long rambling sentences. When everyone is finished, repeat the problem back eliminating anything you didn’t understand. Rinse and repeat. This helps isolate the confusing parts of the problem and allows you to tackle those confusing parts from the perspective of what is understood, rather than letting confusion co-mingle with clarity.

On a side note, psychologists use a different sort of repetition to negotiate communication problems between individuals. One person begins by stating what they perceive to be the problem. The second individual is asked to repeat back what they heard. Often the first attempt is not a repetition, but rather an interpretation. For example: “I think you don’t respect my ideas” is repeated back as “You think that I should stop whatever I’m doing whenever you want something done”, instead of “You think I don’t respect your ideas”. Individuals are asked to go back and forth until they focus only on what is being said and nothing else. I have never mediated this sort of approach, but have heard it works quite well.

Approach 3 :: Riding The Elephant In The Room

Sometimes you might get the feeling that the problem that is being articulated isn’t the real problem. This often happens when there is something distasteful that people are uncomfortable bringing up – for example a negative attribute of a product being marketed, or a tough relationship with an outside person or team. It can be tempting to try and bring these issues directly into the open by yourself, but this can be jarring and counterproductive. It’s better to find a way to get the rest of the room to do the talking for you. One thing I have tried (and wish I could try more often) is joke writing. First I talk about the process of finding humor in a thing – for example using exaggeration, inverting relationships, finding metaphors and puns, increasing stakes, or switching contexts. Then everyone is asked to brainstorm and extend jokes about the project using these guidelines. The room is “safe” in that none of the information leaves, but it is also agreed that no personal information is to be used. In the search for funny, taboo subjects become excellent fodder – those subjects are the areas where the most tension is ready to be released. After the room has loosened a bit, and some themes have emerged, you can point them out and try and tackle them directly.


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Comments (2)


I think all these approaches are good to some extent, but I see them only as bandaids or in some situations little inspirations that can pump the imagination or break up the monotony; gets you into a seminar and out of work for the day.

I think it boils down to cultural and behavioral patterns; the style of communication that’s established within any scenario, corporate or personal relationships. This is where good leadership and commitment make their grand entrance. “Are we all on the same page yet?”

The first example was quite funny, though sounds painfully frustrating for the speaker. After a few of those I’d be weighing my bottom line.

The second is the standard mode of operation, pretty boring, but progressive, probably very thoughtful. I think this approach works best when people all around are committed and care lots.

The third is very dangerous, sounds fun, but mostly depending on the situation or group. Blowback’s a bitch. Good place for trail blazers.

Nice compilation.

Good post. It raises a meta question of whether it's possible to be of use in a single day on a problem you have just learned about.

I've found on occasion I'm hired for these consultation for reasons other than I'm told - my context comes from the person hiring me, and I get only their view on the real context being played out in the room, which they may or may not see well. To be extreme, the dude bringing me might be darth vadar, but I think he's yoda until I'm an hour in the meeting and realize I don't agree with him, or his reasons for bringing me in at all.

In fact, it's entirely possible to come in, fail spectacularly from my own point of view to add value, but then be told I was great and be asked back again. Which makes for nice cash but also makes integrity impossible, as their perception of value and mine are often impossible to reconcile.

The difference between two days and one is enormous. A second day gives a night for notions to grow into questions, and suspicions into hypotheses. There's often a chance to get a drink or dinner off the record, and get the background you need that wasn't provided officially or even by the person who hired you.

On the whole, I find writing, speaking and teaching better deals emotionally than consulting. The transactions and expectations are clearer to everyone.

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