The Dream Consultant

Following on from our reflections about The Dream Client, it seemed only fair to consider what the dream consultant looks like. When we first set up 99 Consulting in 2006 we thought hard about what we liked and didn’t like in consultants we had hired in previous jobs. We were pretty clear that we didn’t want to be a consulting operation that sent senior people to tout for the work then task juniors to do it, that failed to listen to what our clients wanted or that handed in shoddy half-formed stuff as if it was the finished product. We also didn’t want to be all glitz and no substance.

We know we’re not perfect, but here are some things we aspire to, and that we suggest our clients look for whether they’re hiring us or someone else:

  • Eyes on the prize! The consultant should share the client’s focus on a valuable and useful end result – avoid those jaded types that seem more interested in the finish line and sending that final invoice.
  • Transparent: The consultant’s people doing the hands on work should be those who were named in the proposal – the client should be confident that the right skills and experience are deployed appropriately.
  • On-side: The client should be confident that the consultant is working for their benefit. A good one should pretty quickly be able to adapt so that the work is a good fit with your language, your culture, your context, while retaining independence and able to offer objective findings.
  • Frank, fearless, fair and well-founded: While a good consultant may not always have good news to report, they should be able to back up any claims with evidence and a rationale. No need to ‘trust the expert’. The good news must be backed with evidence too – or you may find yourself unable to use the results more widely.
  • Communicative: The client needs to be able to contact the consultant easily, know what stage of the work they are up to, and feel respected by the consultant’s communication with them. The client should feel it is easy to prompt more, or less, communication if necessary.
  • On time: Consultants should meet their deadlines, so long as the client hasn’t changed scope of work or delayed timelines with slow approvals etc.
  • Top notch: The client should receive high quality work. We’ve seen clients accept poor work (not from us of course), mainly because the person signing off didn’t have the relevant expertise, so they didn’t know what was flawed in work they were presented with. Sometimes it’s because they’ve given up – they don’t think the consultant can do any better.
  • Ready to say no to work that’s outside their experience – consultants should know their limitations and be prepared to refer clients to someone else for work that’s beyond their expertise.
  • Appropriately challenging – the consultant shouldn’t just put your ideas and words into a report with their name on it – they should make your ideas better or prove that they are true, or alternatively show you why they may not work. Responsive: if you don’t want the consultant’s standard off-the-shelf way of doing something then you shouldn’t accept it. We’ve seen consultants impose their pet methodology, tool or process on clients even when it’s not actually relevant.Dream consultant pic (2)

Even dream clients and consultants sometimes drop the ball. Unintended communication failings, lack of time to progress the consultant’s project, organisational change that swamps the work – all these things and more can derail even the best planned work. The best ways to pick up the pieces are ….the topic of a future blog!

 

 

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Community assets pop quiz

Queensland community halls and venues – from corro sugar cane storage sheds to extravagant architectural marvels. We’ve seen them all. Perversely, either end of the spectrum can be a white elephant, or a lively hub of the community. We’ve put the sheds and palaces through the 99 Consulting electron particle accelerator and worked out why!

If you are in the community venue business, here’s a little quiz for you:

Is the purpose of having an asset portfolio clearly stated? 

  1. We’ve always had them
  2. Not really but our hirers mainly run dance classes and yoga so I guess that’s what the assets are for
  3. Yes, the objectives are spelt out and we evaluate how well these are achieved

Do you know how much it costs to own/manage these assets?

  1. No
  2. It’s pretty hard to work this out as various sections across our organisation all play a part
  3. Yes, we budget for and monitor each expense and income area for each asset and also calculate the social return on investment

Is each asset fit for purpose?

  1. Hard to say
  2. Yes, except for disability access, energy efficiency, acoustics, internet access, and the old furniture
  3. Yes. We progressively get occupant, user and hire enquiry feedback to get a picture of issue and expectations

Is the use of each asset still a good fit with the surrounding community?

  1. We don’t know
  2. Possibly not – there are a lot of new school facilities now that can be hired by community OR the community has grown/ changed/ aged/ gentrified etc
  3. No – but we are working with most of the other community asset owners in the district so that between us, we can respond to the changing needs

Do you have a simple way to evaluate that you are getting a good social return from your assets?

  1. No
  2. Not really, we only know how many groups book the assets
  3. Yes – it could be more sophisticated but that would entail more time and energy than we want to expend at the moment.

If you scored mainly a) or b) to the quiz then it’s 99 o’clock! Time to call us in for a fine tune and get those assets working for you! small watch

The Dream Client

We like our clients however they come – the more variety, shapes and sizes the better. We have noticed over the years though that clients with certain characteristics tend to get the best results. Some of the secret ingredients are these:

  • They really know what they need. They can spell out why the work’s needed, a very clear objective, what they need delivered by us and by when. This is really whP1040678at gets the cake to rise – worth spending some time to get it right. (See our handy briefing tips)
  • They give us a ball park idea of a realistic budget which means we can work out how to tackle the job in a way that fits the bill. They ask for a quote or proposal and negotiate any reasonable changes which makes sure we are headed in the right direction from the word go.
  • They choose the right person/people to be the project manager and advisor/s. This means things stay on the rails at the client’s end, and the client gives congruent feedback, rather than conflicting advice.
  • They hold the consultant accountable for what they’ve signed up for – although we crack the whip on ourselves so the client doesn’t need to.
  • They have enough time to give prompt feedback on drafts and the layers of approval in the organisation are manageable.
  • They stick to their own brief so the job doesn’t change part way through, which tends to waste the hours available due to re-work, re-drafting etc.
  • They pay promptly for completed work. For small businesses who tend to have low overheads but are watching the cash flow, paying within a couple of weeks is a fair deal.

For busy clients who have rarely used consultants, we often help them wrangle the consultancy if they want us to. For example, we can write the brief with them, help them to sharpen their objective if it is still fuzzy, provide a simple example of a contract to modify if they don’t have their own and so on.

Stay tuned for a new post on The Dream Consultant! We’ve learnt a bit about the dream consultant over the years – we’re not perfect, but we have been dismayed to see some clients very poorly served by consultants who overcharged and under-delivered.

Yes. No. Maybe.

We recently ran a social enterprise business planning training session with Foresters Community Finance and Moreton Regional Council. Foresters mentioned that one of the biggest barriers to receiving community finance loans was poor decision making by governing bodies. That’s an issue that pops up pretty regularly so Judith, Jon and I sat down to analyse just what can go wrong in decision-making. Here’s what we think some of the oft-repeated scenarios are:
1. Good decisions are made, but staff or volunteers don’t follow through, so before too long, the same issues have to be addressed again. The fixes: Check whether the decisions are realistic and can be achieved. Set an action plan so that the implementation is in doable chunks and can be monitored.
2. There is lack of clarity about the problem, so the scope of discussion expands, people weary and the loudest voice prevails regardless of the merits of the decision. The fixes: Use a simple decision template as a structured way to untangle the issues. Use hard data when it sheds a bit of light on what options are viable. Be clear about when the decision has to be made and do the spade work in advance so everyone is prepared.
3. Emotions skew the view. Common ones are fear of upsetting someone (such as a faithful volunteer/donor, a long-term chairperson); fear of change; and fear of conflict or confrontation, perhaps grounded in a lack of skill in dealing with conflict. The fixes: Name the fears and work out how to mitigate threats or support each other to confront them.
4. A sense of diffused responsibility kills off action because no one in a committee or on staff is willing to take leadership – the buck stops nowhere in particular. The fixes: Get real – don’t waste time on ideas that no one will drive forward. Recruit new board or staff members who are passionate about the work or the vision. Change the vision and goal posts to ones that people really do get excited about.
5. People are unsure about the level of risk involved, or over-state the risks. The fix: Use simple risk assessment tools to agree exactly what the risks are, how likely they are to occur and how disastrous the impact would be if they did occur. Work out if you can dedicate some effort to minimising any risks that are unacceptable. Don’t forget to look at financial risks so your cash flow or bottom line stay healthy. Remember, nothing is risk-free!
Do these scenarios ring a bell? Any others you’ve seen recurring?

Strategic Planning Day – births, deaths and marriages?

Some practitioners are announcing the death of strategic planning while many organisations remain wedded to it and hire consultants like us to perform the role of midwife, turn up at the birth with flip chart and survey monkey data and deliver a healthy, well-worded plan. So, should the strategic plan be buried or nurtured?  My observations are that behind any useful strategic plan in the social policy/social services sector are ongoing conversations by board, staff and others that deal with:

  • clarity about the problem the organisation wants to solve or the aspirations it wants to achieve (the what)
  • clarity about the methods for service delivery or the theory of change that dictate how to act (the how)
  • clarity about finance and other resources that reveal the capacity for action (the who, when and where).

Without that clarity, strategic planning day discussions can attempt to gain some of those insights or decisions, but the plan is likely to be part fiction. If the clarity is there already it’s probably a sign that research, future-focused discussions and decision-making is alive and well in the organisation, so the strategic plan is a like mirror that reflects the image of a healthy entity.

I’m inclined to think it is better to schedule these vital discussions as a regular part of governance rather than put too many eggs into the special planning day spectacular.  The organisation’s statements about its vision, values, purpose and so on can be published progressively in web sites, annual reports and all the key communications to stakeholders.  There are not too many people who go searching for stand alone strategic plans. They are not necessarily the best ways to reach those who want to know about the organisation.  What matters are the strategy discussions that foster shared board-staff-member understanding and agreement about the core purposes and directions.  Would facilitation of such discussions be a better way for consultants to contribute? Or are they best done in-house so that capacity for strategy is home-grown?