Consultants sometimes gets a bad rap. We spend a lot of time talking, formulating plans, and presenting projects that, lets be honest, often don’t get implemented. We find ourselves pulled between telling the client what they want to hear and getting stuck with the broken status quo or telling them what we actually think– and getting fired.
Worse, still, is the parts of the process where it is important that we don’t say anything at all. We know that clients hire us for our expertise, and they can get frustrated when we don’t pony up the secrets to success early in the process. But these are the times when we find it is most effective to keep our ideas to ourselves, and listen instead.
This is most apparent when we conduct discovery — the interviews where we learn about the problems and processes that we have been called in to solve. Usually, we begin a conversation with a working hypothesis about what we might recommend… but we never, ever share it.
Why not? Couldn’t it cut down the time in the process? No. It can’t. For three reasons:
1) We don’t have enough data.
We might be wrong. (Full disclosure: We are wrong a lot.) We need to test our hypothesis by talking to a lot of people and getting a clear picture of what is currently going on. We might need to adjust our hypothesis. We find clients can identify with proposals when presented in the context of actual examples from their environment– if we introduce our thoughts too early, we won’t get a clean set of examples to structure our ideas around.
2) It doesn’t really matter what we think.
If we took one look at a client and decided what the issue was and recommended a solution, we might be right, but it wouldn’t matter. Individuals, couples, groups and organizations can only make changes if they buy in, and the best way for them to buy in is to come to a conclusion on their own. We can guide the conversation and point out trends and patterns that we see, but our recommendation will not take root if the client doesn’t agree with what we are solving for. It is important to let people talk through problems so that they develop their own awareness of them.
3) Symptoms are sexy, but solutions are sexier.
Our job is to help identify the root of the issue, where real change can start. Early on, we can only see the symptoms and can’t identify what ties them together. You might think the issue is how you are training team members on a process, but we need to learn about the process and find out how that is interacting with the training or description. We don’t know where the root of the issue is. We can put band-aid solutions on symptoms, but we need to understand how to create real and lasting change.
Our clients often remark that we are able to understand them & their business quickly.
Obsessing over getting a complete picture of who they are at the beginning, asking a lot of questions of many people, reviewing material, and picking up on what is unsaid in meetings (starting late, not contradicting each other, focusing on specific attributes) creates a strong foundation that allows us to get into our clients’ mindset and build solutions that they can have ownership over, sustain and grow.